Thursday, December 06, 2007

Best Music 2007

About a month ago, my friend Paul wrote about 2007 being a down year for music. I have to agree. I’ve been buying fewer CDs, and enjoying the ones I do buy less, than at any point I can remember. Part of this, I am sure, is my fault; I’m getting older, more set in my ways, and less willing to give new things a chance. But how to explain that I got plenty excited about a lot of songs, but not about very many albums? This is completely out of character for me. It makes me think that maybe, in an iPod world, musicians have stopped trying to make those other ten tracks on an album count. For people like me, who live for those ten tracks no one else ever hears, this is a major blow.

Still, there were a few albums this year that managed to rattle my cage. So, in no particular order, here are my top five of 2007. (Visit 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds for Paul's top ten.)

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
If I listened to this album every day I think I would have driven off a cliff by now, but there’s no denying the power of Arcade Fire’s second full album. The lyrics and music capture the paranoia and fear of living in Bushworld ’07, a land of bogeymen propped up by liars competing with actual threats that pop up seemingly around every turn. The killer track is “Windowsill,” in which lead singer Win Butler concludes a long list of things he doesn’t want with the tear-inducing (for me, at least) words, “I don’t want to be an American no more.” For a man who considers the Constitution a holy document, them’s fightin’ words—but who can blame Butler?

The Shins: Wincing the Night Away
Even this gem wasn’t perfect enough for me—Chutes Too Narrow really had me expecting divinity—but “Australia” and “Phantom Limb” are so darn good and the connective tissue of the rest of the album is very strong. Also, give this enough spins and I think you’ll begin to suss out a theme!

Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Not the deepest title, is it? But for half an hour this is just one big happy rocker, and, like a large penis, that is always welcome. (That joke will make sense only to those who have watched Rome. But isn’t it true regardless?) Yet there are moments of depth, and this was one of two albums on the list to feature a song with minimal lyrics that absolutely mesmerized me: “It’s just my Japanese cigarette case / Bring a mirror to my face / Let all my memories be gone.” I’m no drug user, but who hasn’t had a day that made you feel like that?

Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog
Sam Beam continues to astonish me at every turn. To go from the whipering bard of his first album to this bold experimental work and not drop a single clunker along the way is no mean feat! Here he pulls out steel guitar and jazz piano and yet his whisper is still the star of the show. Tremendous.

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
I bought this on a whim because I remembered playing the last LCD Soundsystem album during a dinner party two years ago and finding that everyone seemed to dig it. Little did I know that James Murphy had concocted a meditation on growing up set to danceable beats. One song has only the following lyrics: “Sound of silver, talk to me/ Makes you want to feel like a teenager/ Until you remember the feelings of/ A real live emotional teenager/ Then you think again.” Madness—but so true!

A list of only five albums doesn’t mean I didn’t like anything else in 2007! Amy Winehouse made a fine album with a few transcendent cuts; I can only hope people who are waiting for her next album are giving Dusty Springfield a chance while they wait.

“Four Winds” by Bright Eyes just about puts tears in my eyes every time I hear it; this is what people were talking about when they called him the next Dylan back at the turn of the millennium.

Parts of the Modest Mouse album thrilled me, and I can’t help singing along to “Effect and Cause” at the end of the new White Stripes album. “Radio Nowhere” kicks off the new Springsteen album with a shot, and even after hearing it during the World Series about a thousand times I still like it.

Kelly Clarkson’s album flopped, but “Never Again” was filled with a gleaming rage that I just get. And another Idol alum, Elliott Yamin, made a pretty good album, too, that actually seemed to get the radio airplay it deserved. Take that, Taylor and Katherine! (And Jordin, and Blake, and...why am I still watching that show?)

Ryan Adams returned after more than a year without an album and delivered a strong one, though it did more to make me re-listen to all his old stuff than to get me to play it.

Oh, and Rufus Wainwright made an album that held my interest, at least for a while. I still can’t get enough of “Release the Stars,” in which I swear he slurs the lyric “So why not just release the gates and let them all come out?” so that you hear “release the gays.” What a joke on Hollywood in a year when letting the gays out was a big topic of conversation! Oh, and “Between my Legs” is so deliciously naughty and derivative of Phantom of the Opera to boot that I can’t help but recommend it.

What did I miss? Feel free to give me grief in the comments…

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Best of the Rest, 2007

Traditionally this would be where I'd give you a list of my favorite music in a variety of categories. (Paul has the whole deal up on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.) But, as you'll see when you read the Best of 2007 post, this was no ordinary year. And so, I have but one recommendation to offer in this space this year. It's about my best concert experience--but you can share it with me, even though it took place way back in May.

It was my first time hearing Bernard Haitink conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the program was a doozy: Bruckner's 7th Symphony. I arrived excited to see Haitink, enthused about our seats (we'd finally made the switch from the upper balcony to the lower and expected a better view and better listening experience), and delighted with the piece about to be performed.

Wouldn't you know it? For once, I went into something with high hopes and was still completely blown away. Haitink had me at hello, and for almost 70 minutes I was enraptured. I've been going to more and more classical concerts every year since I moved back to Chicago in 2003, and over time I've had plenty of great experiences; I chronicled one transcendent night at Ravinia in 2006 and I can remember plenty of others (Marin Alsop's rendition of Tchaikovsky 4, Pierre Boulez's Mahler 7, Paavo Jarvi's night of two Concertos for Orchestra, one Bartok, the other Lutoslawski...). But on May 12 of this year, for the first time, something incredible happened.

I cried.

Those who know me know that I cry easily; the wrong song on the radio, or a sad ending to a movie or TV show, is all it takes. But at a concert? Of music that ostensibly has no set meaning?

And yet, when the piece drew to a close, there the tears were, in my eyes, welling up even through thunderous applause.

And why, you ask, do you care? Because for once, I can share my concert experience with you. The CSO has released a recording of that very performance. It's the second release on its new CSO Resound label, and the first to be released as a Super Audio CD. You can buy it here. I cannot promise that it will bring tears to your eyes, but if it does, you've been warned.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Juices Flowing

If you're not using an RSS reader yet and you've been checking around here occasionally expecting an update, my apologies. A man can only attend to so many things at once, and lately I've been busy at work, busy with school, and busy with my new obsession (see below).

Now, many of my old friends may be shocked and appalled to find me devoting so much time and energy to caring about a soap opera couple, taking up a role as an administrator on the Luke and Noah Wiki and posting thoughts on a fan site, Who am I, and what have I done with Richard?

Well, I've gotten him to write again, for one thing. The last time I wrote anything fictional I lived in a different state. But yesterday when I got out of the shower, I had a story fully formed in my mind. And today I wrote a second part to it.

The catch? These "stories" are actually screenplays for the Luke/Noah scenes for two episodes of As the World Turns. Inspired by a single line of spoiler for next week's shows that annoyed me, I built two days' worth of scenes that I think should happen next. Is this as creative as creating a tale out of whole cloth? No. I didn't have to invent characters or backstory or make people care--the people reading these scenes already care quite a bit.

But still, the rush! The feeling! It's as if parts of me that were dead or withered are being rejuvenated. I wrote an article about tai chi and how it can improve immunity for grad school the other week. It was fine; I wouldn't have been ashamed to see it in the local paper. But right in the middle of it there was this lyrical passage describing a tai chi class I attended. For five minutes, typing it, I felt like a different person. I remembered the joy putting words together can bring. I've been so slammed at work of late that I had quite forgotten.

Does this mean more blogging? Hard to say. I have a couple of Amazon products coming for review through Vine, though I don't post those reviews here if they're not interesting. (Do you really care that I think the Homedics quad-roller massage cushion with heat is nothing special?) But in the meantime, here are links to the two stories:
The Day After Thanksgiving
The Day After, Part Two
Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dream Job

A Look Back at Jon Stewart's Greatest Gay Moments |

The link above leads to a long article filled with clips from, as the headline says, the "greatest gay moments" on the Jon Stewart show. The banana episode is so funny even Stewart and then-correspondent Stephen Colbert can't control their laughter; I spent most of my time watching the collection in similar stitches.

The link also points to a larger theme of late. I've been realizing, while reading liveblogs of each new Nuke episode of As the World Turns, that AfterElton's team of writers and editors have one of my dream jobs.

I was contacted recently by the editor of a left-leaning publication, who said, "Saw your blog. I like the way you write. If you ever want to do anything for insert magazine here, give me a shout." Ever since, I've been pondering what I could write for this publication. But every topic I conceive is a better fit for AfterElton. Sure, I care about a lot of liberal causes--but I don't bring anything special to the table in writing about them.

But gays on television and in movies? Now that is something I know, something I care about. I've seen every Will & Grace, every Queer as Folk, every Six Feet Under, every Desperate Housewives, every Brothers & Sisters, every How I Met Your Mother (even before Neil Patrick Harris came out). I read The Advocate and Out. I have oodles of thoughts on what it means that Dumbledore is gay and the propriety of mentioning it after the books have all been published.

So, Michael Jensen, if you're reading, and you like what you see, give me a shout. Because you and your publication are living my dream.

UPDATE, 4:53: After I posted this, Michael went and posted something that sums up why I think the mission of his site is important (and thus why I would want to be a part of it):
BTW, Dennis Miller totally cracked me up when he commented, "I'm bored with people's sexuality. I don't care if Dumbledore is gay." Spoken like a straight man who can go to a movie any day and see straight people, can turn on the TV any night and see straight people, and can kiss his wife anywhere in the world without a second thought. Idiot.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nuke Won't Be Gone Long...We Hope

ATWT email blast oct issue copy.jpg

The suddenly large legion of Nuke fans (that's Luke and Noah of As the World Turns, for the uninitiated) seems to be white-knuckled with terror this morning that our favorite duo is headed for a long disappearance as Luke tries to overcome his temporarylisis. After yesterday's insane levels of cuteness, this would be a most unwelcome development! But with CBS suddenly offering nothing in the way of episode descriptions, and no more confirmed appearances this week, there's no way to know when we'll see our heroes again.

But the following image, from the October ATWT newsletter linked above, gives me hope:

As far as I can tell, we've never seen Luke and Noah in this pose (or these shirts) before. The image appears to be set at the Snyder farm...a logical spot for Luke to make his recovery, though the problems Lily and Holden are having will certainly complicate matters. Could Noah be comforting Luke about that? We'll find out. Hopefully soon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Drifting Homedics QRM-400H Therapist Select Quad-Roller Massaging Cushion with Heat: Health & Personal Care

When I got invited to the Amazon Vine program a few months ago, I imagined I would get a jump on all the exciting new books publishers wanted to get into the national consciousness ahead of their release dates. And the first month, that's what happened; the three books I reviewed are all coming out this month and it's been amusing to see interviews with the authors about a book that I, unlike almost anyone else, have already read.

But the second month in I didn't get any books, instead grabbing a British miniseries, an Australian band's third album, and clinical strength deodorant. (I've spared faithful blog readers my review of this last one; I doubt reading about me sweating does anything for anyone.)

And now things are completely off the rails. Amazon has limited Vine reviewers to a single item this month after being bombarded with complaints from people who were invited into the program but didn't get to review anything the first two months because most items ran out. (Obviously, I was part of the problem!) So, while I might have taken a book or two if I had multiple selections, given a single pick I chose the item linked above, a $150 massage cushion. (And grabbed it just in time; the supply ran out about four minutes after the new items became available for the month.) Perhaps this is for the best; I'm still plugging away at Doris Kearns Goodwin's doorstop about the Roosevelts during World War II and I start an intense seven-week course in less than two weeks.

In any case, I expected this program to expand my reading horizons. So far I've read three books I would have gotten around to anyway. But I don't think I'd ever have watched The Amazing Mrs Pritchard or listened to Augie March without Amazon Vine. And I'd probably never have bought myself the massager. Now I'm getting one for free! The quest for Amazon's top 1000 may be a bust (that link leads to the day I hit 2,990, and two years later I'm at 3,256), but something good has come of my obsession.

Friday, October 12, 2007

One Crowded Hour, Indeed

Augie March: Moo, You Bloody Choir

The first song on Augie March's third album, "One Crowded Hour," is pulling triple duty. It's the album opener, the best song, and its title is a pretty good description of the album as a whole. This is a very crowded album! In many places the producers seem to have given up on getting everything to fit in, surrendering instead to the muddy vibe that results from too many things going on and too few decisions made about what to bring forward and what to push back.

It's also crowded stylistically; one moment Moo, You Bloody Choir sounds like it wants to be a Crowded House album or a Neil Finn solo record, but moments later it's doing a Dylan impression (though not, it must be said, an especially good one). Some might call this range! But to make an album so ambitious, to give it cover art so pretentious, is to promise that it's actually about something. This album isn't sure what it is or what it wants to be, and at more than an hour it can't sustain its momentum.

That's not to say there aren't highlights; while the lyrics for "Just Passing Through" are a bit silly, the song has an actual structure, and the way it builds and recedes gives me little chills every time I listen. "There is No Such Place" is a very pretty ballad. And nothing here is downright bad. It just isn't amazing.

This review has been posted on Moo, You Bloody Choir was provided for review as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Craig, Continued

I'm not usually given to posting YouTube videos, but this one from SNL, mocking Larry Craig's decision to stay in the Senate after promising to resign, is a bit too funny to ignore.

You can visit my YouTube account (I know, I feel like I'm twelve saying that) to find this video along with several related to the continuing Luke/Noah drama on As the World Turns in my favorites.

Friday, October 05, 2007

British Political Fantasy

The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

This six-hour BBC miniseries tells the story of a grocery store manager who decides, after watching two candidates for Parliament engage in fisticuffs outside her store, that she could do a better job. As luck would have it, a TV camera catches her saying so, and soon she finds herself in the middle of a whirlwind political movement. She inspires other women to run for office, and many defect from their political parties to join her. Come election day, her party wins—and she becomes prime minister. (Forgive me—I’ve just told you how the first hour ends.)

But all is not so simple for Ros Pritchard, the titular star of the show (played with aplomb by Jane Horrocks). Her husband does not support her choice and urges her to refuse the job, fearful that his own secrets will come to light if she takes office. And within hours of her election, she faces the first of several crises that demonstrate to her that being a world leader is tougher than it looked on TV.

Ros rises to the challenge, though, and for four of its six hours this miniseries is a delightful fantasy about how the world would be if “the great British people” got behind a leader with common-sense ideas and a desire to effect real change. Supporting players generate much of the interest, with no one’s story more compelling and intriguing than that of Catherine Walker, a former Tory and now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Catherine is the voice of wisdom and experience that Ros desperately needs, but as portrayed by the stellar Janet McTeer she is a woman with regrets that need working out, as well. Watching her work through her own issues while keeping the country running is a gripping experience.

I limit myself to four of five stars because the final hour of the series goes a bit off the rails. Without giving anything away, all I dare say is that the two days depicted in the last hour proceed as if the responsibilities of government have been temporarily suspended. And Americans, used to our tidy endings, probably won’t love the way the series concludes; the text at the end, which British audiences evidently did not see when the program aired on the BBC, seems to wrap things up in a bow but actually makes the conclusion less believable.

Despite that, this is a fine series that anyone with an interest in politics will heartily enjoy. Bonus points if you’re an Anglophile!

This review has been posted on The Amazing Mrs Pritchard will be released October 30 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sonics Expand, Charm Remains

Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog

What a remarkable album. Sam Beam takes new steps with each song, pulling in new instruments and new styles without losing his soul or his signature whisper. From steel guitar to jazz piano, each new addition is incorporated with aplomb, and nothing feels forced.

For fans coming to this straight from the last “album,” Our Endless Numbered Days, the changes may come as a surprise, but those who’ve heard Woman King or In the Reins, an EP collaboration with Calexico, will recognize this album as a logical follow-up to those efforts. Indeed, two members of Calexico appear here, contributing to the filling-out of a sound that is bigger and better than ever. Iron and Wine can still do introspective, soul-searing songs (like album-closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth) better than almost anyone. Now the band can make you dance, too, on songs like “The Devil Never Sleeps.”

If that seems unlikely, consider this: So far, every time I listen to the album, I end up playing it twice. Sam Beam has discovered new worlds of sound. Won’t you explore them with him?

This review has been posted on

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

We spent last week in Door County. It was our first vacation in years--and our first trip that didn't have people we knew on the other end of it ever! We had a great time in spite of bad weather and a bad head cold, and before I forget I wanted to get down a few recommendations for others.

Our resort, Little Sweden, was unbelievable. Pictures cannot do the place justice, but here's one of the living room:

Living room

We had a king-size bed, two massive whirlpool tubs, and access to free tennis, golf, bikes, shuffleboard, ping-pong, and indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs. The place is a bit pricey--we wouldn't have gone if not for the incredible deal we got through a friend--but it was also, without a doubt, the nicest place I've ever stayed.

We also had some superb meals. Breakfast is Door County's best meal, in my opinion. The White Gull Inn and The Cookery in Fish Creek, Al Johnson's in Sister Bay, and the Village Cafe in Egg Harbor all had phenomenal eggs. And each place excelled at something else as well. White Gull Inn had charming ambiance and great raspberry jam. The Cookery served their homemade strawberry rhubarb jam with their eggs and toast--and it was so good I bought a jar to bring home. Al Johnson's made great potatoes, and of course we had to go twice so we could each also order a stack of the Swedish pancakes. They taste just like they did when I was a kid--but this time I even used the lingonberries! Village Cafe had the best potatoes I've ever tasted. If the owner, who we met three different times during our trip--including the time she delivered pizza to us--is reading this, I'd love the recipe!

The owner of Village Cafe also owned our favorite dinner spot. We ate at Trio in Egg Harbor because I had read good reviews, but while it was good, the place felt a little pretentious and the bill was bigger than the portions. On our way there, though, we had passed Villaggios in Juddville, and two nights later we decided to have our Italian there instead. What a difference! The portions were perfect, the service was friendly, and the place was charming. And while Trio's tiramisu was an interesting, mousse-like creation, the Villaggio tiramisu, served in a large glass mug, nearly brought tears to my eyes. We told the owner on our way out--our first encounter with her, at that point--that we had enjoyed a fantastic meal. We had many good dining experiences, but Villaggio was an unexpected and wonderful surprise.

And don't forget Not Licked Yet in Fish Creek for custard! We didn't--we went four times.

We did more than eat, of course. We also drank! We only found time for one winery, but I'd have a hard time believing we didn't choose correctly. Simon Creek Vineyard and Winery, located a few miles east of Highway 42 on County Road I, served us 12 different wines. Usually, at these kinds of places, you're lucky to like one or two. We had a hard time limiting ourselves to the four bottles we brought home.

And, of course, we hiked. We did a tough trail in Peninsula State Park, and later in the week we walked along the beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park on the peninsula's Lake Michigan side, then climbed a tall sand dune before wandering back through the forest.

If you go to Door County, I hope you get better weather than we did. But the place will leave a smile on your face:

Me on a tower

Friday, September 07, 2007

There's No Such Thing as Bad Chabon, But...

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon could write almost anything and I’d want to read it because, to paraphrase one of his characters, his sentences sound like they’ve always existed in style heaven and he merely plucked them down and used them. This short novel is no exception; even when some of the words are unfamiliar, the language is unfailingly gorgeous.

In this work, which he originally wanted to call “Jews with Swords,” Chabon takes readers on an adventure through the Caucasus region 1,000 years ago. There are journeys and skirmishes and disguises, and even two well-drawn central characters. In short, there’s nothing in particular wrong with the book, and if you’re a Chabon fan you won’t regret reading it.

But in an afterword explaining why this new book is so different from his past work, Chabon says that he’s been chasing adventure in his writing, and he makes it sound like he won’t be penning another book like Wonder Boys or Kavalier and Clay for a while. That’s a shame. It’s one thing not to regret reading a book. But it would be a far better thing to love it.

This review has been posted on Gentlemen of the Road will be released October 30 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Spiritual Journey for the Secular

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs

The title of this book is a meaningful mouthful. Jacobs, a secular Jew who recently read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica for his last memoir, decides to tackle America's other foundational tome--arguably the one in ascendance of late--by attempting to follow every rule in the Bible.

Those expecting hilarity to ensue will not be disappointed; there are many humorous scenes and throughout the book Jacobs's tone is so friendly and welcoming that the urge to read just a few more pages is almost irresistible. But, while Jacobs begins his quest to make a point about fundamentalism--and, without a doubt, succeeds in making it--he also discovers, over the course of the year, the wisdom behind a great many religious teachings. In a year that has seen several books extolling the virtues of atheism, it is heartening to see someone from the secularist side examine the virtues that even we who do not follow a particular creed can find in the Bible.

Jacobs also ventures out to meet people who follow the Bible according to their own interpretation, from the Amish to a snake handler whose small church focuses on following passages literally that most consider metaphor. He goes to Jerry Falwell's church to hear the now-deceased bigot give a surprisingly tame sermon and talks with red letter Christians whose emphasis on the words of Jesus gives them a bent 180 degrees from the current Republican platform.

In short, Jacobs, while following as much of the Bible as literally as he can, learns how others pick and choose--and his book, besides being a humorous and enlightening read, is a good manual for those who would follow his lead in learning to be more grateful for life's everyday blessings. This is a wonderful work that I won't soon forget!

This review has been posted on The Year of Living Biblically will be released October 9 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Another Triumph for Ann Patchett

Run, Ann Patchett

Run tackles so many different issues so effortlessly—interracial families, adoption, the untimely death of a parent or spouse, a crisis of faith, and the question of what to do with one’s life—that one wonders whether Ann Patchett started out to write an “issue novel” and came up with this pretty meditation on an unconventional family instead.

But it is clear on reflection that her story flows from her characters rather than causes—and what intriguing characters they are! The former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle, who adopted two black sons, lost his wife Bernadette to cancer, left office under a cloud, and lost his relationship with his biological son. That son, Sullivan, who fled to Africa for reasons that only become clear late in the book. The two adopted sons, Tip and Teddy, both fortunate in their adopted circumstances but chafing under the pressure of their widowed father’s expectations. And their uncle, Father Sullivan, whose dotage as an aging priest is interrupted by those who believe he is a miraculous healer.

Their lives are changed in one night when they meet Tennessee and her daughter, Kenya. With a random accident in a snowstorm as her jumping-off point, Patchett slowly reveals one character’s secret after another, and as the characters come to terms with who they are and what they have done, the drama of decades of family life settles into a new and improved status quo.

To reveal more would spoil the numerous surprises Patchett plants throughout the novel, though even a thorough foreknowledge of the plot would not diminish the enjoyment of reading the prose. The dialogue rings true, while Patchett’s descriptions—be they of a setting, a facial expression, a memory—are lyrical and lovely.

Readers who come to this via Bel Canto will be pleased; if anything Patchett is in even better form. If she keeps up at this rate, she may well write the great American novel next—if she hasn’t already. Highly recommended.

This review has been posted on Run will be released October 1 and was provided for review early as part of Amazon's Vine program.

Big Gay Deal

YouTube - LukeVanFan

YouTube is good for many things. It taught me that Ricky Gervais is the funniest man alive, allows me to rewatch the last minutes of Six Feet Under (and cry, again) whenever I want, and made at least one of the 47 Democratic debates this year interesting.

But this week I have discovered its ultimate use. The link above leads to the video collection created by LukeVanFan, who has been painstakingly cataloging the evolving Luke/Noah storyline that's been unfolding on As the World Turns. Last Friday, that storyline took a brave leap forward, as out Luke was kissed by ostensibly straight Noah. The first gay kiss on daytime TV!

In bygone days, I'd either have to settle for reading about all of this or add another CBS soap to our DVR's task list--and I don't know if the poor thing can handle another frothy hour. But now, in the time it would have taken me to fast-forward through all the commercials and other plotlines on ATWT, I can keep up with Luke and Noah by watching their every word, their every awkward silence. Thank you, LukeVanFan!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Early Review

First Person Plural by Andrew W.M. Beierle

First Person Plural has a premise that sounds almost ridiculous. It tells the story of conjoined twins who have two heads, two hearts, two sexual orientations—and one set of sex organs. From the perspective of the narrator—Owen, the gay twin—the reader travels on a very strange, but surprisingly believable, journey as each twin comes to terms with their shared condition and they negotiate the numerous difficulties that they face.

For the first 75 pages or so of the book, I found myself flipping to the author photo in the back, wondering if he was hiding a second head somewhere in the shadows. The story felt that real! The book does require a certain suspension of disbelief, though; the straight twin, Porter, plays quarterback for the high school football team and dates a cheerleader. The pair become semicelebrities, forming a rock band and touring the country. They encounter people fascinated by their condition and surprisingly few who find them out-and-out revolting. They each explore their sexuality—the one who’s trying to check out of the action mentally often wears headphones.

All of that is compelling, and indeed when I turned the last page I found myself wondering how things would work out for Porter and Owen. But toward the end of the novel one of the characters goes from heart warmer to harridan in a quick turn of events that threatens the pair’s carefully organized life. Obviously a plot needs some sort of conflict to carry on, but this particular upset, and the consequences it has for all of the characters, seemed to come a bit late in the game.

Nevertheless, First Person Plural is easily one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time; the oddity of having two heads creates a sort of hyper-reality through which Owen views life’s ups and downs more clearly and philosophically than the typical one-headed person. A quick and engrossing read, and definitely worth checking out.

This review will be posted on when this book is released on August 28. The publisher provided an early review copy.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Seeing Double

Los Angeles Times: Top of the Ticket: Politics, coast to coast, with the L.A. Times

I know I just said I didn't need to comment on politics anymore, but I do have my niche, and this falls into it:
It is a perennial complaint, heard election after election: Too many Americans don't vote. But based on a massive new survey, one segment of the population surely must be excluded from this rebuke --- gays.

The study this spring by San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. found that an eye-popping 92.5% of gay men reported that they voted in the 2004 presidential race, and almost 84% said they cast ballots in the 2006 midterm election. Among lesbians, the results were almost as impressive; nearly 91% said they voted in 2004; for the midterm, the figure was 78%.

By comparison, the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate put the turnout for all Americans eligible to vote at about 61% in 2004 and roughly 40% in 2006.

I can't imagine better news. But this must make the Republicans crazy. "No wonder we lost in 2006," they should be thinking. "We spent a decade demonizing people who vote at twice the rate of most people." Of course, they're not thinking that. But until they do, I'm sure I'm not the only gay man committed to maintaining our stratospheric rate of democratic (and Democratic) participation.

Let Freedom Reign!

TIMESSELECT CONTENT FREED | By HOLLY M. SANDERS | Business News | Financial | Business and Money

Putting all of the opinion columnists behind a for-pay firewall wasn't a mistake on the order of invading Iraq (the reference in my header above is to Bush's note on a napkin on hearing of the invasion's so-called success), but the New York Times certainly damaged its online presence by doing so. Let's face it, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman and Frank Rich are good, but worth paying $50 a year? The Times should be able to make enough from online ad revenue to avoid that kind of audience-limiting fee.

And it looks like they will. I'm sure Dowd and co. are thrilled to be on the verge of regaining their wider audience. The question is, will people come back? It's been a while since I laughed out loud at Dowd; will I and others like me get back in the habit? We'll know soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Four More Years

While I was flying home from New York on Sunday, this blog turned four. As the "Blogiversary" appointment on my calendar popped up that morning before I shut down my laptop for my trip home, I wondered: Do I still have something to say?

I do, of course, though I find myself less inclined to write about each upheaval in the political world. I didn't even write last week about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis--and I took that bridge to and from work every day for two years.

Two interesting things happened in the last two days. The first was my tryout for Jeopardy. I went downtown yesterday and joined 22 other people who had passed an online contestant test earlier this year in taking another test, playing a mock game, and being interviewed by the contestant-finding team. They didn't give any indication of who had done well or poorly, but I felt good walking out. At some point in the next 18-24 months, my phone may ring, and it may be Jeopardy calling to invite me to appear on the show. Anyone who knows how nervous I am by nature can imagine how I will be reacting to a ringing phone from now on...

The other interesting thing, which has more to do with the blog, is that I was invited this morning into Amazon's Vine program, which is starting soon. The program has a lengthy description, but it boils down to this sentence from my invitation: "As a member of this exclusive community, you will have free access to pre-release and new products, as well as the opportunity to be among the very first to review them."

I'm also allowed--encouraged, in fact--to post these early reviews on my blog. So, expect to see more reviews of new books, movies, and music in the future, and less political commentary. (I think you've figured it out by now, right? Gay marriage? Yes. Stay in Iraq forever? No. Democrats? Good, mostly. Republicans? Bad, mostly. Religious Right? Bane of my existence.) And, of course, you'll still see discussion of the plethora of TV shows I'll be watching again come fall. Though the jury is still out on watching the next season of Idol come January...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wanting More

Exclusive: What Potter author left out - Wild about Harry -

If, like me, you were happy with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but wanted to know more after turning the final page, the link above is for you. But don't read it if you haven't finished the book yet!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dig Doogie

Meet Mother Please | The New York Observer

In honor of Neil Patrick Harris being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy--well-deserved recognition for a guy whose hilarity is the glue holding the show together--I'm linking to the article above, which explains why you should be watching How I Met Your Mother. I hope it convinces you to rent the DVDs this summer and catch up with the only network sitcom I can be bothered to watch.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Early Review

For Harry Potter, Good Old-Fashioned Closure - New York Times

How I hate Michiko Kakutani right now.

No, she didn't pan the final volume of the Harry Potter series; she's seemingly liked them all along and while I sometimes disagree with her judgment, she gets what's great about the books as well as where Rowling occasionally errs.

But she reviewed it after reading it today. As in, she bought it at a bookstore in New York and read it. As in, someone--other than the Web sellers who have already shipped it to a few customers, and the amateur photographers who have already posted the book online--broke the heavy-handed embargo and sold the book early.

I wish we could do away with this midnight party stuff. Yes, it's all well and good to have a big debut for something, but this isn't a movie; it needn't be consumed en masse. It's a product, something we can each carry away from the store to enjoy in our own way and in our own time. And the copy you will read this weekend? It's probably already sitting in the back room of some store, from which you'll purchase it in a few days. Instead of reading it, you're reading this!


Why Bush Is A Loser -

Has there ever been a better headline?

In the piece above, David Corn goes after Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and head cheerleader for George W. Bush, for a piece in the Post suggesting that Bush's presidency will be viewed as a success. It's a quick summary of everything that has gone wrong these last six and a half years, followed by this slip of the knife:
The Bush-Cheney years have been marked by ineptitude, miscalculation, and scandal. A successful presidency? Bush will be lucky if he gets a public elementary school in his adopted hometown of Crawford, Tex., named after him. He has placed this country in a hole. Yet Kristol, with shovel in hand, points to that hole and says, Trust me -- we're about to strike oil!
The time of the crazies like Kristol is coming to an end. And even with all the harm they've done, isn't it fun to watch in their death spiral?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Out of Phase

CSO Bass Blog: Bad Dog!

For some reason, reviewers will barely touch Ravinia concerts these days. Last Friday night's Mozart/Mahler concert got no play in the Tribune and only a brief mention in the Sun-Times at the end of an article about other concerts. After covering the start of James Conlon's Mahler cycle with flair, Jon von Rhein at the Trib appears to have lost interest.

Had he been at Ravinia Friday night, he might have found his lack of enthusiasm warranted. The program opened with a Mozart violin concerto, and the Sun-Times noticed that it didn't ever really catch fire:
The small orchestra's tentative opening of the first movement, allegro aperto (cheerful and open), dragged along instead of celebrating some of Mozart's happiest moments. Veteran Ravinia performer Pinchas Zukerman drew out an attractive but uninspiring sound as soloist. A few unwelcome notes in the work's cadenzas -- as written by Daniel Barenboim -- even made Zukerman inspect his instrument with puzzlement.
This was the first time I've ever seen a Ravinia pavilion crowd not stand to applaud a soloist. Lang Lang, Itzhak Perlman, James Galway--all got standing ovations and calls for an encore. But the crowd this time around remained resolutely seated, refusing even to make the typical rush for the aisles to reach the bathroom before the intermission crowd lest it be misinterpreted as approval. Not a good showing.

After intermission, though, things seemed to be back on track. Mahler's Fifth Symphony opened with power and beauty, and through four movements things seemed to be humming along nicely. The trains even seemed to come by at just the right moments, and Conlon smartly waited them out before beginning each new movement. But then--perhaps to make up all the time lost to the trains?--he began whipping the baton around like a fishing pole with a violent pike on the other end of the line, dancing on the podium like a man possessed. On his blog, linked above, CSO bassist Michael Hovnanian says the orchestra was willfully refusing to play along with Conlon's chosen tempo:
It is my suspicion that there is a little bit of willful musical misbehavior coming from the orchestra and Conlon, trying to be the nice guy, is letting things get a little too loose. However, when a conductor needs to stop and explain what he is trying to do with his baton it is usually a bad sign.
The orchestra may have been misbehaving, but the results would have been bad whether it had obeyed or not. The playing of the orchestra was certainly off in the final movement--different sections were a bit ahead or behind--but the bigger demerit should go to Conlon, who was racing through the symphony's moment of triumph as if he had an urgent need to defecate. The result, not surprisingly, was a stream of shit. Multiple crescendos that most conductors allow to breathe suffocated one another, and instead of a well-defined feeling of exultation, audience members were left feeling harried and confused. A perfectly good performance was soiled. Still, half the crowd stood and cheered the orchestra. (The other half stood, too, but crowded the aisles faster than I've ever seen before, as if Conlon should have gone faster and gotten them to bed by 10.)

Conlon has anywhere from four to six opportunities to redeem himself between now and 2011, depending on whether he includes Das Lied von der Erde--a symphony in subtitle, but unnumbered to forestall Mahler's death from the Curse of the Ninth--and the unfinished 10th Symphony in his cycle. Up next is the Sixth on August 1. Here's hoping he uses the restroom before he takes the podium.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Still Lining Up

Want a Wii? Come early and get in line - Yahoo! News

Nearly a year in, people are still waiting to buy a Wii. Folks at Nintendo must be wondering if maybe $299 would have been a better price for the system.

I bought mine for $217 with tax, as I've discussed in the past, and didn't wait in line. But, contrary to what mothers everywhere tell their children, not having to work for it didn't make me appreciate my Wii any less. Just this week I've been honing my skills at boxing, the most difficult of the games within Wii Sports, while taking Jonii, a Mii of Jon's who recently arrived on my console, into the 2000+ stratosphere in tennis in three days of play. (My own Mii, simply named Richard, has topped 2100.) And working up quite a sweat, too!

So, if you're on the fence about the Wii, know this: It's been worth every penny I paid for it and then some!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"That's Why They're Called Business Socks"

I haven't started watching any of HBO's flurry of new, post-Sopranos era shows yet, but this video has me thinking I may need to check out Flight of the Conchords. It's understatedly hilarious.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Too Gay to Handle

Mingle2 - What's My Blog Rated? Find Out Your Film Rating

I guess this shouldn't surprise me:

Online Dating

But the reason for the rating did: "This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
  • gay (20x)
  • death (3x)
  • hell (2x)
  • dead (1x)"
Scary, huh?

Health Care, Gay Marriage--and War?

New Poll Finds That Young Americans Are Leaning Left - New York Times

I'm a bit confused by this poll on the attitudes of people my age. Apparently, Americans ages 17-29 are "more likely than the general public to favor a government-run universal health care insurance system, an open-door policy on immigration and the legalization of gay marriage, according to a New York Times/CBS News/MTV poll. The poll also found that they are more likely to say the war in Iraq is heading to a successful conclusion."

What? So young Americans can read the writing on the wall regarding the failure of private health insurance, are fair-minded enough to allow gay marriage, and feel more charitable than I do about letting people into the country (although the pollsters didn't ask about illegal immigrants, because the NYT apparently pretends, as a habit, that this distinction makes no difference). And yet young people think the war is going well? This revelation made me curious about the actual numbers behind the article assertions, so I dug a little deeper.

And the data buried beneath this supposedly meaningful story aren't as pretty as the headline. On gay issues, for instance, the left-leaning young are surprisingly illiberal. More youngsters believe being gay is a choice--43% to 34%--and 70% of them think that most people they know wouldn't vote for a gay or lesbian for president. (74% think the folks they know wouldn't vote for someone who has used cocaine--maybe they haven't heard of Barack Obama, not to mention our current president.)

Results like these make me glad to be aging out of the constraints of the survey soon. Sadly, the people whose opinions are reflected by this survey are the same people I'll be working with and living around for the rest of my life.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Think of the Children

Scholars urge Bush to ban use of torture - Politics -

This story makes me smile:
President Bush was presented with a letter Monday signed by 50 high school seniors in the Presidential Scholars program urging a halt to "violations of the human rights" of terror suspects held by the United States.
Imagine that. In their moment of triumph--being honored for their achievements by the man who holds the office that makes him the most powerful person in the world--these students had the wherewithal--and the chutzpah!--to present him with a letter that contained these words:
We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants.
America's adults appear not to care that Bush and Cheney have thrown our moral high ground out the window. Heartening to know at least a few of our children don't feel the same.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wonderful Meal

A lot can go right during one lunch. While I was eating a Lean Cuisine, a judge ruled that Scooter Libby has to go to jail during his appeal. If Bush doesn't pardon him now, Libby better start practicing his shiv-carving skills.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the fight over same-sex marriage is over. Four years after the big victory was first won, it is secure now that legislators have voted down, by a tally of more than 3-1 as required, a proposed amendment to ban equal marriage in the state. It would have gone before voters in 2008; now it goes poof! instead. Hard to imagine that, having lost this round, the bigots will be back again to try to get the amendment on the 2012 ballot, but either way--for now all is well!

Unique Combination

How Harry Potter really ends. - By Dan Kois - Slate Magazine

I've just searched my office in vain. In an office filled with both Sopranos fans and Harry Potter addicts, I appear to be the only person in the middle of the venn diagram--a devoted partisan of both. And so I share the above link with you, in hopes that someone else will understand just how insanely hilarious the proposed ending to the HP series--written to echo the abrupt conclusion of The Sopranos--is. I think it's the little details--the Yule Ball, the Pumpkin Pasties, the thin beard--that make this work. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wrong Issue

During last week's Republican debate, Wolf Blitzer asked any GOPer on the stage to speak up if he supported changing the military's don't ask, don't tell policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. His invitation was left unopened; nary a Republican, even Ron Paul, spoke up. Meanwhile, every Democrat, when offered the same invite, raised a hand to indicate that he or she favored a change.

It's nice to know who our "friends" are, I suppose, and who would prefer that we be shot down for holding hands in public in America rather than defending our country in uniform somewhere else. But I have to ask: Why is this the issue on which Democrats have decided to unite in our favor?

I know, I know--the ability to serve in the country's military is a cherished opportunity to serve. But shouldn't the nation deserve our defense before we rise to provide it? It's all well and good that Democrats have finally decided that a gay man or lesbian is fit to defend the country. But why should we decide to do so?

They've put things in the wrong order. The first step to first-class citizenship isn't being offered the chance to take a bullet for the team. It's being made an equal member of the team, one who can't be fired from a job, military or civilian, simply for being gay. It's being offered the same rights and privileges as other Americans, including the right to form a lasting relationship that the government will recognize. It's knowing that if you leave a partner behind when you serve, he or she will receive the same benefits as anyone else's left-behind spouse, both while you're overseas and in the unfortunate event of your death. Until these basic rights are guaranteed, I don't care whether we're asking or telling: I am telling you, I am not going. And neither should other gays and lesbians. When a Democrat brings forward serious legislation to end don't ask, don't tell, he or she should, at the very least, include:
  • a repeal of the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that forbids the federal government to recognize gay marriages, along with a requirement that it recognize any marriage or marriage-like institution into which states allow their citizens to enter, and apply that recognition to the tax system, Social Security, etc.;
  • the full provisions of the employment non-discrimination act, with protections for housing as well;
  • hate-crime language that makes gays and lesbians a protected class along with racial minorities;
  • and language that would create parity between the immigration law for same and opposite sex couples.
Is this so much to ask before we serve the country?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Moving On

Big Love - TV - Review - New York Times

Enough ink and bits have been spilled over the ending of The Sopranos in the last 20 hours to keep even the fastest reader busy until autumn. But if you'd rather recover from your Bobby Bacala-sized TV hangover with some hair of the dog, I've got good news: Big Love is back tonight, and it's a really good show. Virginia Heffernan has the scoop:
It’s ingenious, HBO’s latest dark joke, and it investigates the same theme of family separatism that “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” did. But let’s not kid ourselves. The quality of “Big Love” doesn’t even matter, does it?

The truth is, we have no choice but to watch, at least during this difficult time. “Big Love” is like Nicorette or Methadone. With the lights out on “The Sopranos,” and “Six Feet Under” a distant memory, we’re dope-sick, hard up for the bliss of great serialized fiction. A widespread tremor can already be detected among television viewers, and the street price of even midgrade drama has jumped.

So unless we rediscover novels or fresh air, we’re going to be watching some “Big Love” this summer.

If you're just jumping in now, DVR tonight's first episode and take a quick trip through the first season on DVD or, perhaps, On Demand (Comcast had the entire series available there when I checked last week). It's only an hour a week, after all--you'll still have plenty of time for novels and fresh air.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Out, Out

‘Grey’s’ says so long to Isaiah Washington - Television -

It's a bad day to be a homophobe! First Isaiah Washington loses his job on Grey's Anatomy, and while he may be "mad as hell," I'm pleasantly surprised. Combined with T.R. Knight's pay raise this week, Grey's has sent a very positive message.

And just now it's being announced that Peter Pace, who compared being gay to committing adultery, is losing his job as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The reason given was that after six years as chair or vice-chair, Pace's re-confirmation hearings would have been contentious and focused on the past, and I'm sure that's true. But still, to see him go so soon after his buffoonish comments is pleasing.

What gay-bashing prominent figure will be next?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Wanted: Trader Joe's in Schaumburg

A month or so ago, I filled out a little online suggestion form on the Trader Joe's Web site, asking the company to add a store in Schaumburg, Illinois. It occurs to me, though, that I may not be the only person who has had this thought. So I encourage anyone who has come across this site in his or her own quest to find out if Trader Joe's has plans to open a Schaumburg location to contact the company, as I did, and ask it to open one.

Where? I suggested two spots. One, with high visibility, is the site of the recently closed Tower Records on Golf Road. It has lots of windows, which appear to be a TJ priority. The other will be available soon; CompUSA, right down the road, is also on its way out in a strip that includes a World Market. Seems like a perfect match, doesn't it?

Why Schaumburg? Because it's the center of a little economic unit with tons of traffic. Almost 100,000 people work within a few miles of the two locations I've proposed, and tens of thousands more live just beyond the businesses that employ them. On weekends Woodfield is a shopping magnet; on weekdays the store would be filled with lunch-break shoppers picking up a sandwich or soup for now and a bottle of wine or bag of chips for later. It'd be hopping after work, too, as folks on their way home would have a convenient stop-off.

Why Trader Joe's? Cheap, good wine. Three-layer hummus worth the bad breath it causes. Pita chips. Spicy soy and flaxseed chips. Sourdough bread with millet and flaxseed. Roasted red pepper and tomato soup. Smooth and Mellow coffee. Mango sauce. Karat cake. Organic peanut butter granola bars. Fresh salsa. Frozen meals that heat in seven minutes on the stove. Red curry sauce. Double Rainbow coffee ice cream. If you have one nearby and haven't ventured in, know that I go far out of my way to make a stop every week or two. But--a note to the Trader Joe's exec who finds this post someday--I'd visit more, and buy more, if you were down the street!

Looking Ahead

Slate: Death of 'The Sopranos' -

While the link above is a discussion of The Sopranos, I've really posted it to ask an unrelated question inspired by it. Timothy Noah, whose writing I often enjoy, says something here that rings false for me, and I want to know if others feel the same. In trying to blow off a question asking him to predict the fate of certain characters, he writes:
I've tried to avoid predictions, and focus instead on responding to the series as it unfolds. When you're reading a novel you don't pause to predict out loud what you think is going to happen. You press on with fascination to see how the author is going to end it, and to assess how well he or she pulls it off.
I don't know about you--that's why I'm asking--but I do pause and "predict out loud" what I think will happen. "Oh no, she's going to die," or, "I bet the baby is his," or, "those two will end up together."

And why not? In fact, I would argue that it's a disservice to the author NOT to look ahead and try to guess what will happen. If you have no expectations, how can the author shock and surprise you by subverting them? How can a writer lead you down a path that fulfills your desires for the characters if you don't stop to think about what could, and should, happen to them? I know I'm reading a really good book when I can't help but react verbally to it, laughing out loud, predicting out loud, gasping when things go awry. I did it today while reading over lunch (with my office door shut, mind you) and knew I was engaged in my current reading material.

What do you think? Is Noah right, or is it natural--and desirable--to think ahead and predict how events in the book you're reading will unfold?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Oprah's On

Last night I did something I haven't done since college. I watched Oprah.

I had recorded the show to see Cormac McCarthy talk about The Road, but as luck would have it Michael Moore was also on the show, and I got to see several clips of Sicko. I'm paid not to like insurance companies very much, but Moore's argument that there is no place for a profit motive in health care should prove compelling to a lot of people.

Oprah's interview with McCarthy, however, wasn't very compelling. In fact, I was surprised to discover that for all her cultural primacy, Oprah isn't especially good at what she does. Her speech included several bizarre accents, as if she were reading from a teleprompter and didn't know the words she was reading. And the interview itself was quite odd. When McCarthy told Oprah that he hadn't minded being dirt poor for part of his life, and that he didn't care much how well his books sold, the billionaire striver in her seemed not to know what to do.

She also didn't really get into the book at all. I understand that she can't assume everyone watching has read it, but other than getting McCarthy to recollect a moment years ago that provided the impetus for his writing, Oprah pretty much left the book itself alone. She touched on a few themes, sure, but I would have liked to see McCarthy talk more about the levels on which it can be read. He also might have pushed her off the ledge of specificity; my reading of the book was that much of what went before and all of what comes after it are meant to be somewhat opaque. I am sure, though, that the movie version, already in the works, will insert all manner of detail and thus get the mood of the thing completely wrong.

In any case, despite her flaws as an interviewer I have to give Oprah credit. She may not be the best at discussing books, but she often makes bang-up choices. Her next pick, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, is one of my top ten books of the new millennium (along with The Corrections, another Oprah pick). If you haven't read it, now's the time!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Off the Hook

Some of you who have been reading the blog for a while may have deduced by now that going to Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts is one of the few pre-planned events in the life of this happy gay couple. Mostly we operate out of habit or on the spur of the moment, which is sometimes frustrating for a planner like me but also leads to unexpected bliss from time to time.

Now I understand how my other half feels about being pestered to make plans, though. For two months or more, the CSO has been calling me, trying to get me to commit to a subscription package for 2007-2008. While there is a series we both think looks reasonably good (Saturday C, for those of you who are interested), we're not ready to pull the trigger--and may never be.

But telling the CSO rep that is nigh-on impossible. Believe me--I tried. She'd ask if she should call back in a week. "No, I don't think we'll have time to make a decision by then," I'd say. "Two weeks?" she'd brightly respond, but that question mark at the end was strictly for grammar--she'd be calling whether I wanted her to or not.

Through it all, what has annoyed me the most is that she persistently refers to my other half as "your wife." From the first time I said "We need time to discuss it," that's been her line: "Have you and your wife had a chance to decide which concerts you'd like to attend?" Tonight, finally, enough was too much. When she asked that question to open our call, I said, "First, my 'wife' is a man. Second, we still haven't had a chance to decide what to do; he works long hours." She was clearly a bit flummoxed, but give the gal credit; within two seconds she was asking--without any pause to apologize for her ongoing mis-assumption, mind you--"Should I call you back in a week?"

I said no, by the way. We can order our tickets online. On our timetable.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great

In this exquisitely written and often hilarious book, Hitchens provides comfort to those of us who have parted ways with the comforting lie of religion. To lose one's faith is a difficult thing, as Hitchens, who recalls in the book his former faith in an ideology he no longer espouses and the occasional pangs he feels having left it, knows. But it is, on balance, far better to face the truth.

In this case, that truth is that the religions of the West are based on rantings of desert dwellers thousands of years ago, in what Hitchens convincingly labels and explains as the childhood of our species. The major religions have twisted and turned to fit new discoveries into their antiquated prisms for viewing the world, but over the course of 280 pages Hitchens argues that we know enough today to know that we can view the world without such prisms. We can see it for what it is. Indeed, our survival may depend on being willing and able to apply reason, rather than faith, to our interactions with one another and with our planet.

Hitchens has shown himself to be capable of churning out a book a year and to write on almost any topic with wit and precision. But I, for one, hope that he takes up the topic of this book as his cause from now on. The U.S., especially, needs to have a debate about the role of religion in our political system. Hitchens provides those of us who would speak against mingling church and state with a stockpile of weapons to use in making our argument. But so much the better if he carries on making it himself!

In sum: An excellent, entertaining read. It may not convert the faithful, but those on the fence will find much to think about and those already with Hitchens will enjoy the way he makes his case.

This review also appears on

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Two

It's all over but the crying. Oh, wait--Jordin has not only already won the crown, she's also already cried at the end of the Idol song! Does this mean we can skip her coronation tonight and pretend this whole season never happened?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sunday Weekend Wind Down

Seinfeld Lists - The Puerto Rican Day

Amid a very pleasant weekend, I had a revelation unrelated to the trip I took to Augustana, the book I'm reading (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), or the shows I watched last night: There are a great many ways to classify people, but Sunday evening says a lot about a person.

In the Seinfeld episode linked above, Elaine flips out at the prospect of missing her Sunday wind-down period because she's trapped at the Puerto Rican Day parade. Though the episode was dropped from the syndication schedule (due to a line from Kramer about Puerto Rico being a land of constant mayhem), Elaine's plight always stuck with me.

I feel the same way as Elaine about my Sunday evening, but I don't think people who don't share this need to be home on Sunday after about 6 or 7 can understand it. The notion of driving home at 10 or 11 on Sunday night and having to go to work in the morning strikes me as more distasteful than almost anything I can imagine. I can stomach the occasional weekday late evening outing, and while I am a homebody by nature I don't really bat an eye at a late night on Saturday. But Sunday, sacred to others in the morning, becomes inviolate to me around the time the sun sets, maybe sooner.

My apologies to those who this confuses or irritates. Other people have religious dictates to follow; I don't gamble or go out on Sunday nights. Does anyone else share the latter penchant for end-of-weekend rest?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Suit Up!


After weeks of wondering, this morning an answer arrives: CBS has renewed How I Met Your Mother for a third season. The press release announcing the eye's fall schedule refers to the show's "young and loyal audience," an indication that despite middling ratings, the network is glad to have a chance to pitch the rest of its lineup to folks who might otherwise steer clear of the senior circuit. Whatever works for you, CBS! As long as it means another year of Ted and Robin, Marshall and Lily, and the endlessly hilarious Barney, you can give any reason you want. This news makes my day!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Three

Tonight I have to tip my hand. I expect one finale next week and desire another. I think Randy will probably be proven right, and next week we'll see Melinda and Jordin face off. But that will be a boring show! Blake, who I'm predicting will go home tomorrow night, would be much more fun to watch next week--and if he reprised his Bon Jovi week performance of "You Give Love a Bad Name" he might even win the whole thing. That would be an injustice--Melinda earned the crown weeks ago--but at least he'd have done something Melinda couldn't do to steal her prize. A Melinda-Jordin battle is a competition of similar styles and strengths, and Melinda simply owns Jordin. Sadly, that's the finale I think America will choose.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Look Ma — No Hands!

Trying to Keep the Viewers When the Ads Come On - New York Times

Oh no! The ad-supported world of TV is crashing down around itself! DVRs are to blame!

You all know about this by now. Armed with an HD DVR, you are the master of your own cinema. It's a beautiful thing. But not for the networks, who depend on you watching the very commercials that the DVR makes it so easy to skip. The only way to defeat this is to make the ads part of the program, a strategy American Idol has mastered and other programs are beginning to use.

As interesting as this problem is, though, how can malarkey like this make the Times? "...more viewers are watching shows delayed rather than live, using TiVo and other DVRs," the article linked above says. "Research indicates those viewers are more likely to fast-forward through spots than those who watch live TV."

Really? And here I thought people who were watching live TV couldn't fast-forward through commercials at all. What's that? They can't? Then how on earth could anything but what the NYT wrote be true? Tautologies are hardly news. "Viewers who can fast-forward through commercials are more likely to do so than viewers who can't." That's what the article basically says. People who have hands are more likely to give handjobs than people who don't, too, you know. I look forward to reading about that illuminating fact in the Times tomorrow...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Burn Off

NBC :: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Well, that didn't take long! After mere months of waiting, NBC has announced that the next episode of Studio 60 will air on Thursday, May 24 at 10/9c. Can you guess what May 24 is?

OK, time's up. It's the first day after sweeps month ends! NBC, which considers 7 million viewers a victory at this point, is burning off a show it spent megabucks on a night when most folks will be in recovery from a season finale binge. (May 23, for instance, is the two-hour American Idol finale--also known as the TV event that will put Fox over the top for the month.)

Maybe NBC has come up with a brilliant strategy, though: With nothing else on, maybe people will give the show a look. Or maybe they'll start their Memorial Day weekend festivities early and completely ignore it again. If this episode is anything like the ones that preceded this long gap, they won't be missing much.

[UPDATE, 5/14: Studio 60 has been canceled. Apparently six more episodes remain and will be aired. Farewell, Harriet Hayes!]

Last Lileks

Daily Quirk: See you in the funny papers ...

Even if you've never lived in Minnesota, as I did for two years earlier this decade, it seems like a lot of people have heard of or read James Lileks. I've been reading his column pretty faithfully for more than six years now, since before I decided to move to the Twin Cities, and I can remember quite distinctly the feeling of skipping to the Star-Tribune's metro section to see if it was one of his days. I also loved to read Kim Ode and Al Sicherman while eating my breakfast. And now all three of them are gone, one voluntarily moving to new things, another retiring from the game altogether, and the third, Lileks, unceremoniously bounced from column duty to straight news in what Dave Barry called the equivalent of the Miami Heat pulling Dwyane off the basketball court so he can keep stats on the sideline.

Those in the know may realize the irony in me being sad for Lileks, whose happy-talk column in the Strib was the friendly face of a man whose online work and Newhouse columns often stood for things to which I am opposed. And I suppose if this demotion of his makes the happy warrior's outlook a bit bleaker, and thus he becomes less funny, and thus his message is less appealing, well, that's one for "our side." But I'm sorry to see him go out like this.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Four

Tonight's show simply confirmed the order anyone who has watched the show for the last few months has, by now, probably accepted. Melinda is on top and on track to win the whole thing; any other result would be an upset. Jordin isn't pitch-perfect, but she's on a collision course with the chance to prove that she's more Clay Aiken than Justin Guarini. Blake mixes it up, but for every time he succeeds he has a weak moment. And LaKisha is the least adventurous of the remaining four, doesn't take good advice from experts, and misses notes.

And at this point, how it is and how the votes come out will probably be the same. Blake will smell danger--but LaKisha will taste it. Good luck, Miss Jones.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Here They Come

May 22 sounds like the day for cicadas :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Metro & Tri-State

I live less than a mile from two very large forest preserves. The trees in both of them, one would assume, are precisely the sort of old-growth woods that harbor cicadas. And so, I am not exactly relishing this "exciting" rare event, which one researcher claims to have timed down to the day.

In an odd coincidence, the city will be repaving our street sometime this month. This will mean that we can't park on our street or access our driveway for some unknown, but allegedly short, period of time. How much do you want to bet that they get the blacktop up, have the street all ready to pave--and then the cicadas swarm and they're forced to either delay or pave a road filled with beady red eyes?

This is an exciting month for a lot of reasons: school's out tomorrow, we have concert tickets next weekend, and we're taking a weekend trip a few weeks from now. But I have a sinking suspicion the month will end with my car a few blocks from my house, my street torn up, and cicadas swarming everywhere. This thought does not make me happy!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quite an Honor

White House may veto hate crimes law - Politics -

Just this week George Bush got around to vetoing only the second bill of his entire presidency. The tally so far: Refused to allow funding for stem-cell research and wouldn't accept a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. I disagree with both of these stances, but at least they are based on something resembling a principle. (I know, the principle behind opposition to stem-cell research is a lie and the one behind Iraq is a dream, but let's be charitable.)

Now he's threatening his third veto. What's so important as to warrant this reaction? A bill that would add gender and sexual orientation to the hate crimes law already on the books in this country. Now, I get that Bush doesn't believe there should be a hate crimes law at all--in fact, strictly as a matter of law, it's hard to argue with him--but we have one. Why should it apply to hate crimes against some groups in the line of fire but not others?

Let me put it this way. If you're straight, you may not want to vacation in Alabama--but you could if you wanted to. But for a gay couple, the wide world of domestic travel is actually quite narrow. We're confined to all the blue islands amid the sea of red that is the United States. Sadly, much of the beauty of this country is hidden in the middle of all that red. And even if we get past the hotel clerk who's suspicious of two men checking in together, even if we get a room with two beds, and even if we remain as non-demonstrative as possible in public, the entire time we're in red America we have to be on guard. What kind of vacation is that? I can bite my tongue for a week, yes--but you never know when a word will pop out that you don't intend. When we moved in together, for example, the sliding rear door of the moving truck caught his finger and he shouted in pain. Having been in the same state for all of 24 hours, I already couldn't stop myself from exclaiming, "Honey, are you OK?"

"Honey." That one word could have gotten us killed if spoken at the wrong moment--even in the suburbs, but especially in the Deep South. And it popped out of my mouth one day into living together. What do you think would happen today?

Bush could sign this legislation and send a message to his own band of supporters, as they are exactly the people who need it: Even if you don't like the idea of homosexuality, violence against gays and lesbians simply for being who they are is absolutely unacceptable.

This legislation is symbolic, and not signing it is a symbol, too. A fist in the face of gays and lesbians, to be exact. You may not recognize it on your hands--Iraq may already have dyed them red, and the folks who will die because their conditions were not cured because you would not allow the research that could have saved them may have deepened the rouge--but the blood of the gays and lesbians who will suffer because of this veto is on your hands, too, Mr. President.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Arctic ice may melt 30 years sooner - World -

The link above, as you can read, is from an Australian Web site. In fairness to America, it isn't a main story there, either; the site's front page is riddled with the same kind of crap you find on every American "news" portal. Yet what the article tells us--that scientists now believe that by 2020 there will be NO ice in the Arctic Ocean during the summer--is on a par with the recent bad news about vanishing bees in terms of portending the end of the world., meanwhile, leads with a story about Britney Spears returning to the stage. Which, come to think of it, may also be a sign of the apocalypse.

Look, I know this seems hypocritical appearing just above a prediction about who will go home on American Idol. But shouldn't this kind of NEWS--and that's what it is--make big headlines? Bigger than Britney? Scientists are suggesting that the problem of global warming, which we already knew was bad, may in fact be so bad that the earth will unrecognizable within our lifetime. Haven't a lot of Americans seen An Inconvenient Truth by now? Don't we understand what this kind of news means?

Last week, or maybe the week before, one of MSNBC's top headlines was that the Medicare and Social Security funds were scheduled to last one year longer than previously predicted (2019 and 2041, respectively). That is important, obviously, to the health of our country. But this news could make all of that moot, could mean that when those of you planning to have kids are bouncing grandkids on your knees, you'll be doing so in a world where Bangladesh and the Netherlands and Florida and half of New York City are underwater. And you can hardly find it anywhere!

We're doomed, folks. I know that doesn't sell ads, but you'd think ONE journalistic enterprise in the entire United States would have had the gumption to lead with this on an otherwise slow day.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Six Again

Jordin Sparks should be thanking her lucky stars right now. Last week she was good--though not as good as the judges claimed--but this week she delivered an almost Sanjaya-bad performance of "Livin' on a Prayer." Were this week's votes the only determining factor, she'd be in serious danger.

But that's not the way it works. As it stands, I expect she'll be safe. Melinda's two weeks of solid performances should protect her as well. And if Blake's insanely creative rendition of "You Give Love a Bad Name" isn't enough to land him a spot in the final four, this competition has gone completely off the rails.

That leaves LaKisha, Phil, and Chris. After this week's powerhouse, I think LaKisha may have done enough to stave off elimination for one more week. That leaves Chris and Phil heading home. Seems about right, doesn't it?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Out of the Park

Bonds to A-Rod: 'Do your damn thing' - Barry Bonds -

I'm glad Barry Bonds has taken this approach. Not that it will humanize him in the public mind, but it's nice to see him rooting for a fellow superstar to do something that would be good for the game, even if it would remove his name from one page of the record book. (In fairness to Bonds, his name is currently at or near the top of quite a few pages of the record book--career total bases, career home runs, career walks, season OBP, season walks, season home runs, etc.--so perhaps losing this one doesn't loom as large for him.)

As for Alex Rodriguez, much as I dislike the Yankees it's hard not to be happy for him. He's on a tear, and because his team is doing poorly he's got the potential to be the big story out of New York all on his own this summer. I'm sure he'd rather be in first place, but if Yankee pitching won't support that goal, breaking the home-run record and cementing his status as the best in the game right now would probably be fun for A-Rod after a few years of being not-quite-loved in the Big Apple.

And besides, wouldn't another home-run record chase be fun?

Summer Sooner


The link above leads to a page that will allow you to watch the two-minute trailer for the next Harry Potter movie, which opens July 13. After watching it three times (once alone, twice to share with others) I have been successfully whipped into a frenzy and am ready to buy my ticket. Those who know me well know how infrequently I see a movie in the theater these days--the last one was Little Miss Sunshine, and that was only because I was on vacation--so this is a big deal.

But if you've got a theater craving, this seems like a good summer. I know the sequel trend is ruining Hollywood and all that, but honestly, what movies beyond Shrek the Third and Spider-Man 3 and Order of the Phoenix and The Bourne Ultimatum seem worth the trouble of paying all that money and spending all that time packed in with the great unwashed masses just to see them on a bigger screen? Summer blockbusters like this are the only remaining reason, at least for us, that movie theaters exist.

Did I mention the new Transformers movie? If Hollywood has ever had a chance of restoring my former moviegoing ways, this is it. Are you excited about the coming summer blockbusters?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Six

A surprisingly good week, wasn't it? But there were definitely different levels of good--and at least one pretty bad performance from a fellow who may finally take his whine home.

This week I predict a bottom three of LaKisha, whose "I Believe" was passable but didn't touch the original; Blake, whose "Imagine," for all of Simon's protests of sincerity, didn't seem believable, and
your loser, Chris, whose vocals will not change the world today, tomorrow, or anytime soon.

What did you think?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bush is a Boob

White House renews Gonzales backing - Yahoo! News

Forgive the headline, but what other conclusion can be drawn? Yesterday's testimony was, like much of the Gonzales tenure in public office, a disgrace. It, and Bush's response--full steam ahead!--reinforce every bad narrative about this White House that he desperately needs to refute if he's going to accomplish anything in his last 21 months in office. (But who's counting?)

Stubborn and intractable in the face of evidence? Check. Incompetent but loyal to a fault? Check. Eager to speak pretty words that bear no relationship to the truth and not only expect others to swallow them, but appear to believe them yourself? Check!

There is only one politically savvy explanation for all of this, and it would be a doozy--but it might appeal to Bush's Jesus complex. Could he be sacrificing himself to save his party?

Allow me to explain. Yesterday Tom Coburn, the senator from Oklahoma who thinks most of the girls in the state are lesbians, sounded sane for the first time when he suggested that Gonzales step down. Other Republicans have earned similar common-sense cred for making the same suggestion and for speaking out against other Bush bullshit. With most of the public against him, how better for Bush to serve his party than by looking completely batshit crazy and letting members of his own party fire away at him? By isolating the White House from Congress, Bush may not be able to save the GOP presidential candidate who will be stuck trying to explain a way out of his foolish war, but he can at least help Republicans staunch the bleeding in the House and prevent a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. By this logic, every day Gonzales stays is another good day for House and Senate Republicans who can point out vociferously how very much they disagree with the deeply unpopular president they once treated like the king of America.

Of course, all of this presumes a level of humility and smarts that many consider unlikely coming from Bush. More than likely this is simply another case of his stubbornness and loyalty and the White House echo chamber combining to prevent Bush from seeing reality. Stupid like a fox? It's possible, but my money's on just plain stupid.