Saturday, November 24, 2007

Shonen Knife at the Black Cat

The greatest girl band alive since the greatest girl band retired played in DC tonight. It was my second time seeing them live (the first being two years ago, also at the Cat) and this performance surpassed that one.

Shonen Knife are basically the musical equivalent of a visit to Camp Snoopy, and being in the audience of a Shonen Knife show is to see through two different sights.

The first scope is your basic human eyesight. Through this, I saw myself simply and dully: the tallest girl in attendance, very likely the heaviest. I clocked the presence of many men. Middle-aged. Almost all without female companions.

The second scope is comparable to peering through a Magnum Power 675X telescope into the late night sky. The images captured are much more precise, unconcerned with the peripheral, focused rather on what truly matters--your reality as one of many, ecstatically immersed.

A Shonen Knife show is like being ensnared in a web formed of strawberry jelly, with three slyly-smiling spiders approaching you, each arachnoid a sickly-sweet amalgamation of sushi, marshmallow and bananas. Far from being the fearful, sweat-stinking victim, you are just one big beautiful candy bar swimming in nougat.

The night didn't start out great. Prior to the drive down to DC, I had taken one-and-a-half Vicodin tablets for nagging back pain. (It had to be pretty damn Marge Simpson for me to acquiesce to such powerful medication.) Dinner was a turkey salad sandwich, chips, dips and two kinds of salad--macaroni and a particularly tangy bowtie pasta. Once Patrick and I began the journey, my usual motion sickness kicked in, but much more intense than normal. The slightest visual stimuli became unbearable, and I spent the majority of the trip slumped in the passengers seat, eyes forced shut, head and gut throbbing, the sounds of Easter by the Patti Smith Group wafting from the CD player. The conversation was thankfully sparse.

"She's saying 'space monkey', right?"

"Yeah. That's the name of the song."

"Thurston Moore probably sings 'Because the Night' in the shower."

I missed the virtually barren blocks of Georgia Avenue that chilly Saturday as I tried the defense of stillness and temporary blindness against the lurching roil in my stomach. Mere blocks from the club, I made Patrick pull over to an empty parking space on a side street so I could admit defeat. Naturally, the release made me feel instantly worlds better. Of course, with every positive comes a negative, namely...puke-breath.

Hanging in the Black Cat's red room is always a comforting experience. Nothing better than to lean back against the couch cushions, relax, read up on the free issue of The Onion you grabbed from the mini-newspaper rack by the entrance ("New Sexual Harassment Policy Masturbated To") and marvel at the arcade game table that simply reads "multi game" on the side. It's also the most immaculate environment imaginable if you want to suddenly stand and have your significant others digital camera fall from your coat pocket onto the wooden floor, causing a thud rather than a clatter as it lands. No damage, but I was mildly berated by Patrick ("I can't take you anywhere").

At 9, the doors opened, and we hopped on up to the mainstage. A sharp right to the merch table revealed the sundry 30 buck import albums one must expect at such a gig. Fun! Fun! Fun! (the very newest SK wreck-hard, of which I have only heard snippets) was among these items, but I only had 30 on me to begin with. Once I saw the sweet black-and-green seahorse shirts for 20 bucks and the mega-rare SK/Thurston Moore "All I Want For Christmas" CD single from 1999 for 10 dollars, I knew where Alex and Andy would go.

Making our way to the front of the stage, I regaled Patrick with the backstory of said holiday non-standard.

"Naoko Yamano wants to do another Shonen Knife Christmas song, but she doesn't wanna write the lyrics. So she e-mails Thurston Moore and asks him to write lyrics. He sends 'em back, she writes the music, there ya go. Must be nice." Only very recently had I even heard this song via download, but I never stopped wanting the physical disc; it also includes a Thurston remix of the Knife classic "Cannibal Papaya", the best song about man-eating fruit since "Rhinestone Cowboy".

Time was passed with "Captain Purple". He's an older man, silver-haired and mustachioed-out, a big fan of the power-pop Shonen Knife traffics in. He's a generally genial sort, and would probably take a bullet for Allison Wolfe, but he kinda confused me when he dismissed Patti Smith as "too mainstream" for his tastes.

There were two openers on this night: Verona Grove and the Juliet Dagger, in that order.

Verona Grove were OK for two songs, after which they ceased to be an entity. Decent power pop chug, but the vocals reeked of mad Fall Out Boy. The drummer wore a shirt emblazoned with the word HAPPY bookended by skull 'n crossbones and made the kind of "fuck dude, I'm so gellin'!" faces that are easily chalked up to youthful exuberance but become intolerable when the band around him is churning out the Diet Rock brand of crap rock that's ruining Modern Rock radio. I began thinking of things that could possibly sound more stilted and half-assed than Verona Grove: Naoko Yamano biting into half of a bean burrito and then, without swallowing, reciting Remembrance of Things Past from the original French manuscript? Yeah, maybe, but at least I like burritos.

Also, their intro music was the theme to "Kill Bill". Hmm. Not a great sign, using a selection from the soundtrack to a film released this century. Say what you will about Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins, they recognize the importance of age in lending gravitas.

I did like their between-song exhortations to "hang out" at the bar and talk post-performance. A proletariat Fall Out Boy, then.

The Juliet Dagger were much better, a quartet fronted by a female singer/guitarist. They had all of the energy that almost salvaged Verona Grove, but were aided and abetted by actual good songs (and quite a few that sounded great).

Awaiting the Knife that is Shonen, I appraised the audience and found, in addition to the expected middle-aged dudes with crazy Asian babe fetish, that there were a refreshing number of young ladies who looked ready to screech and squeal and dance the mess up and down. In all honesty, I will take balding 40-somethings who actually seem to enjoy the music they paid to listen to and express this by dancing and yelling in tongues over the typical Sonic Youth crowd of Buckingham Palace guards-in-training.

The udo of "Mango Juice" took over the PA and the girls appeared not long after, matching outfits and all. Guitarist/vocalist/overall grand poohbah Naoko Yamano and newbie drummer Etsuko Nakanishi even held up football scarves proclaiming SHONEN KNIFE OSAKA in case anyone forgot or didn't know from where these fine ladies hailed. Original Knife Atsuko Yamano is still touring as the bassist, despite actually quitting the recording life after Genki Shock, the album preceding Fun! Fun! Fun! (and the record proudly promoted by a banner behind the drumkit).

Predictably, things blasted off with "Konnichiwa", welcoming us all to the show. This firecracker of a hello was barely extinguished when the choppy Ramones-y "Twist Barbie" assaulted the hearts and souls of the audience. Seeing Shonen Knife play their older material reminds any fan of how far they've come since the fuzzy tenuous guitar playing and clattering percussion of Burning Farm. Naoko is an assured guitarist, fully committed to playing even as she stares age 50 head on, and Etsuko is a much looser, more accomplished drummer than Atsuko was at the same age. Also, every male in the room fell in love with her, Patrick speaking for all when he spake thus: "She's so fucking cute!"

As with the last Shonen show, the setlist was varied and pleasing. In several spots, orgasmic. I mean, "Concrete Animals"? When the fuck do they ever play that? I went insane off the first few seconds when I recognized the riff, but a delayed reaction was in order for a group of Knife-lifers behind me who started screaming and hooting in recognition only when Naoko started singing. As much as the gloss of Rock Animals made the songs hit and miss, "Concrete Animals" has always been a favorite of mine, and in concert it was doubly powerful for the brashness that a live setting--away from the squeaky-clean knob-twiddles of Page Porrazzo--can't help but bring. Nowhere was the band looser with material originally designed to sell them to alterna-America than in Etsuko's playfully tight drumming, which eschewed the uncharacteristic fills Atsuko played in the studio in favor of snare work that let the song breathe.

Atsuko got a turn at the mike for the bouncy "Whatever". Naoko delicately introduced "S.P.A.M." as a song inspired by endless spam emails deluging her inbox, which makes me think Knife fan Lee Ranaldo needs to give props where props is due, kid. 'Cause that track is from '05.

And since I've brought up yet another member of Sonic Youth...I've been to 38 of that legendary band's concerts. With the Internet posting reviews mere hours after the house lights come up and the band's stubborn refusal to make "surefire crowd-pleaser" setlists, it's almost impossible for me to be truly shocked at an SY concert. "Shaking Hell" for the Rather Ripped tour was incredible, but anyone who read the band's forum knew it was being brought back as a "new oldie" for the set, in the tradition of "Skip Tracer" or "White Kross". The expectation for a Sonic Youth show is the quality of the performance of a limited pool of generally outstanding songs. In between, there may be some grade-A banter.

The aforementioned "Concrete Animals" was a shock to the system. Honestly, I didn't think the girls could repeat that effect. But they did.

"In Japan, there are public baths."

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttttttt? THE CAPS LOCK IS ON IN MY SOUL!

"But they are...female and male baths."

Oh nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! They're gonna do it! They're going to dust off one of their greatest-ever songs, and indisputably the best song ever written about bathing!

Straight from Patrick's camera to your heart:

Unreal...if you had told me beforehand that I would go to see Shonen Knife at the Black Cat and end up with the "All I Want For Christmas" single and see "Concrete Animals" and "Public Bath", well...I may have possibly spat out soy milk on your shoes. How dare you.

Frequently, Naoko would preface songs with explanatory gab (as evidenced above). Hence, "Sushi Bar" encouraged fans to yell out their favorite types of sushi as the girls looked on in obvious delight.

"Beef!" someone yelled.

"We do have beef sushi in Japan", Naoko allowed.

Atsuko then chimed in, "Yes, but it is rare."

HA! Seriously, it took me two seconds longer to catch that quip than it should have. Guess that's the trade-off for recognizing "Concrete Animals" with the quickness. I just stood there wondering why people were laughing and going "aww!" until it finally struck me: "Oh yeah! Rare!"

"Flu" was another Fun! tune, one of those raucous, pseudo-metal tracks that the Black Sabbath lover in Naoko cannot help but attempt. The joke is, the band pulls it off. While "Flu" is not as Luciferically delicious as "Buddha's Face", it was still quite, um...contagious. *coughs* Oh shit, I got the flu!

The show was almost stolen away, however, by another song off the new release.

"This is a song about the Ramones. It is called...'Ramones Forever'."

Huge applause. There is no band more qualified than Shonen Knife, themselves given the blessing years ago by the boys, to write and play a fucking song titled "Ramones Forever". It was, as one would surmise, three chords played real fast in service of the keeping the heart of music pumping.

“One day I heard music from the radio
It was so fun! An amazing discovery
Next day I bought the album and listened again
Then I started my own punk rock band...

At last we got the chance to be their opening band
Like a dream on the same stage as my rock stars
It was their last tour of Japan.”

How guileless and sincere. How I adore them for this. Interesting that they decided to make a tribute song to the Barons of Brevity that's about four minutes long, but that's a minor point.

"Giant Kitty" is the final song on Genki Shock and it was the last song of the evening before the encore break. A number with the refrain of "Big big big big cat!" Yes, it is that incredible. I was a bobbing, popping, headbanging and hair-flopping puddle of delight all night. Throttle into overdrive moment of the eve came when, to conclude this ode to a big ol' feline, Naoko matter-of-factly ceased strumming, removed the mic from its stand, and held it out to the audience. I was almost directly in front of her, so it didn't take long for my eager vibes to attract the microphone to me like a magnet. Under Naoko's wide, expectant grin, I knew exactly what to do.

"Big big big big cat!"

Right into that motherfucker.

Patrick was next up and, despite having just popped his "Giant Kitty" cherry, he proved a great learner. That makes now three times I have had a performer proffer the mic before me to yell their own lyrics back at them (the previous two: Kim Gordon during "Kool Thing" and Mark Mothersbaugh during "Jocko Homo").

Their encore was "Wonder Wine" and, I shit you never, a dependably cheerful cover of "Satisfaction" (with the line "Trying to make some girl" replaced with "Trying to make some money"). I didn't think the second time seeing Osaka's happiest finest could be any more pore-cleansing, any more able to infuse me with the desire to write with an eye towards apotheosis, but I'll be a goddamned black bass if they didn't do it.

Shonen Knife have fun making music. If the idea of having fun listening to music isn't anathema to your mind--if, in other words, you haven't let the cynicism of rockism infest your brain and rot your soul--Shonen Knife should already be in your vocabulary.

Need further convincing? Yeesh, aren't you a tough nut to crack. Well...just stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

The last installment of the "classic" Peanuts holiday trilogy (and second to win an Emmy), A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dutifully follows several established patterns while still appealingly tweaking that same formula.

Against the preceding specials, Thanksgiving is a perpetual eternal 3rd place in the opinion of this writer. While enjoyable, several revisited plot twists (Linus the sage, Snoopy the fantastical goofball, Charlie Brown the hapless blunderkind) were done more memorably in their previous incarnations. The program is still magnificently done, but perhaps not as memorable as Great Pumpkin and the sublime A Charlie Brown Christmas. Its strongest trait is the introduction of Peppermint Patty and Marcie as fleshed-out characters, rendering poor Lucy irrelevant save for a football-yank in the introduction.

AIRDATE: November 20, 1973

STORY: Charlie Brown and Sally are all set for a delicious feast at their grandmothers house. There are only hours to kill while waiting for the adults to come out of the crawl space they hide in for most of the year. Peppermint Patty calls to invite herself over for a Thanksgiving meal at the Brown residence. Chuck is unable to get out a complete sentence, and the problem of Peppermint Patty showing up to an empty house is compounded when she rings back not once but twice, inviting her friends Marcie and Franklin.

After a brainstorm with Linus, Charlie Brown decides on a Thanksgiving lunch for his peers. Once assured that the crawl space is still locked, the kids act as sous chefs to Snoopy's Rocco DiSpirito. When the results of a meal planned and executed by a dog somehow fall short of Patty's expectations, her anger leads to hurt feelings for the zig-zagged lunch host. Marcie mediates a truce. The story takes an oddly un-Peanuts turn for the positive when Charlie Brown receives a call from his grandmother. After explaining what has transpired with lunch, she invites everyone who is not an animal to her house for a real Thanksgiving dinner, meat and all. Once the kids are on their jolly way, Snoopy and Woodstock unveil a magnificently dressed bird of gratitude and a sumptuous pumpkin pie that appears to weigh eight pounds. Despite not hitting all the marks as spectacularly as the other holiday programs, this is still a 10.

MUSIC: Standard wonderful Guaraldi fare, with one outstanding exception--"Little Birdie", a rare Peanuts vocal turn that plays over the rib-cracking-funny "Snoopy Sets Up" sequence. And who is that singing? None other than Dr. Funk himself, the Mustachioed Melody Master, Sir Twinklefingers, the one the only...Vince Guaraldi! He has the easy, aware vocal tilt of a born instrumentalist taking his turn at the microphone. 9.5

ANIMATION: The drawings of Thanksgiving match the music insofar as chameleonic quality, leading the viewers eyes and ears more toward the action and character expositions more than any fancy sleight of hand. Even Snoopy's one break with reality is (fairly) subdued.

Fall is the season of oranges, browns, and gentle greys, a time of year defined not by glaring brights or intense darks, but the comfort (stasis?) of mid-value. So it goes in this show, gentle means lending greater weight to the scripts ends, with a very thoughtful exception.

Peppermint Patty's introduction into the Peanuts strips jolted the Schulz universe. Her tomboyish appearance, mannerisms and speech were anathema to the subdued neighborhood inhabited by existential sadsacks Charlie Brown and Linus. She was a girl with a freckled face who wore sandals and (gasp) shorts, certainly a jarring contrast to the clear round visages and simple dresses worn by Lucy and Sally. Not only does she approach baseball with vigor, she excels at it. If all the other Peanuts kids are bringing old standbys to the picnic (chicken, potato salad), Patty shows up with truffles and Chilean sea bass.

The animation of Patty's home decor is all contrasting colors, saturated carpets and rugs. Her friends wear bright orange shirts, glasses that conceal their eyes, and clown pants. You wonder how much exposure into that world sensitive Charlie could ever stand. 9.5

VOICES: Time necessitated that Chris Shea and Peter Robbins, the two kids who gave exemplary voice readings as Linus and Charlie Brown for the first specials, are replaced. Todd Barbee and Stephen Shea (yes, that would be little brother) keep the fine tradition alive, with sweetly resigned recitations of the imitable Schulz dialogue. Later children would futz up their duties (kid who did Charlie Brown in Arbor Day, I am sooooo implicating you), but these youngsters stepped up nicely. 10's to both.

Hilary Momberger gets a 9 for her sparse role as Sally, who pauses her way through yet another timely indignation, that of writing an essay on "Stanley Miles". Robin Kohn gets a 7 for Lucy, through no fault of her own. Simply, Lucy drops off after the very start of the show, and whatever range Kohn could have brought is unrealized.
Likewise to Robin Reed as Franklin.

Peppermint Patty and Marcie are amusingly voiced by boys (Christoper DeFaria and James Aherns). Marcie delivers reason in a scratchy, thoughtful tone (8) while her brash best bud knows not of the "indoor voice" of which you implore her (10). She gets mad in a very genuine way, with all the innate ego and sense of entitlement nestled deep inside an average grade-schooler.


Snoopy drives purists mad with the scripts dependence on his wacky, far-from-canine ways. While he doesn't don his trusty pilot attire, World War II is still clear in his mind.

This is a dog ready for battle. If not with the Red Baron, then with the chaise lounge in the Brown family garage.

Nothing has endured, though, like the infamous Thanksgiving lunch. It is the reason that this special gets out of bed in the morning. It has inspired folk here in the real world to mimic the inspired menu, to see just how the hell a Thanksgiving dinner of toast, jelly beans, pretzel sticks, popcorn and sundaes would taste (pretty damn skippy, if you ask me). Whether this unorthodox food selection is a passive-aggressive reaction to Patty forcing herself and her friends on Chuck's Thanksgiving or simply what two kids and a dog think makes a passable "on-the-fly" meal is up to the viewer to decide.

What relationship doesn't have at least one moment like this?

In a show not exactly reeking with memorable quotes, two stick out.

--Charlie Brown, lamenting his lack of culinary wiz: "All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast." MAYBE toast? Holy crap. I mean, I know I once burned water on the stove, but toast isn't that hard, Chuck. Stick it in the toaster and put it on the proper setting. Jesus, where are the adults? This kid learns to make toast and maybe--just maybe!--he can get the confidence needed to approach that Little Red-Haired Girl and win her heart. Can it be that the deflated soul of this little boy could be leavened by just learning how a toaster works?

--Charlie Brown has left the ping pong dinner table after his dressing down at the hands of the girl who is better than him at sports (another dagger). Once Peppermint Patty realizes what she's done, her contrition still doesn't translate into courage; thus, she enlists Marcie to deliver the apology.

Linus: "This is not unlike another famous Thanksgiving episode. Do you remember the story of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins and Captain Miles Standish?"

Peppermint Patty: "This isn't like that at all."

(The determined dimwittedness of Patty's tone make it what it is.)


If I'm going to indulge my inner Snoopy Groupie by praising his silly behavior throughout the special, I have to call a shovel a hoe when I admit: the extended Snoopy frivolity is known in the TV industry as "padding", time-filling segments to distract the viewer from shortcomings in the story (latter-day eps of The Simpsons has made this an art). It's true to the character, no doubt, but you have to call out lazy writing when you see it--even if it does make you laugh out loud every time.

Seriously, what is the deal with these kids from across town bumrushing the Chuck Biz household and then complaining about the food?

Nice reaction time, P. Pat! I don't know how you could look at this meal and be anything but awed. Look at that friggin' toast! It practically covers the entire plate! And how colorful the plate is, so much livelier and festive than the gravy blah of standard turkey day servings! Just goes to show that even though Patty may live around blare and glare, and indeed make it her personal philosophy, she still has a stubborn old-fashioned streak embedded deep in her mental. For shame, Patricia.

"Snoopy--please pack your knives and go."

I leave you, dear reader, with these images to ponder.

You're a devious cracker, Charlie Brown.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Enter the Wii-Tang: 36 Chambers--Black Belt in Determination

The Toys R Us by the Valley Mall is, by and large, weaksauce. This is less the fault of the store as it is of the toy industry in general. Too many plastic guns, WWE belts and Bratz. Don't even get me started on the "updated" board games: Monopoly with plastic cards instead of paper bills; Trouble replacing the "Pop-o-matic" dice bubble with number cards. Unthinkable, this world.

It felt every bit of the 36 degrees that various bank clocks insisted when Patrick eased his Honda into a parking space mid-lot. Only an extraordinary siren call could pull us from first a warm bed, then a warm car.

We took our spots in line along the front of the building, fifteenth and sixteenth bodies respectively. Directly in front of us were two older men with firefighter moustaches, one with a Boston accent and the other wearing shorts. Meanwhile everyone else is bundled up in thick coats. The people in the very front came off as white trash with white collars, and they all seemed to have familiarity beyond the expected bonding of people who've shared extensive time in a waiting line. Thankfully, they never attempted to engage us, save for the guy who proclaimed to any and all, "Does anyone want any peanuts? 'Cause we're all nuts!" Hilarity, thy name is...whatever that guy's name is.

Also tickling: the people who arrived right after us. Just a mother and two young sons. It was unspectacular until the mom--who looked rather like an anorexic Billie Jean King--asked me some pointed questions: how long has the people up in front been here? How many units is the store stocking?

I gave honest answers. The woman who represented the head of our snake had been there since 7 PM last night. (She was in a cloth folding chair wearing a large hooded coat that practically swallowed her upper body, giving the impression from a distance of a pair of legs propped up on a seat.) Further, I had heard rumors of anywhere from 10 to 40 Wii's being available. I believed not one of those figures I'd heard, and even took care to tell the woman this in a disclaiming "purple monkey dishwasher" tone.

After brief conference with her boys, she led them back to the car, off into that decent morning.

The temperature and tedium teamed to birth typical "J and P Show" shenanigans as we stood there waiting to find out the extent of our luck. Peering through the store windows became a much more enjoyable distraction than, say, gazing at the line or surveying the Valley Mall to the left.

"Look up at the top shelf. It's a Vader head. I want a Darth Vader head. A Wii and a Vader head."

"I think it's a pinata!"

"Hold your wee for a Wii. Remember that
? Genius. Like a kid's worth that. 'I believe the children are the future/Teach them well and let them hold their own damn urine'."

I did in fact semi-croon that last part, but kept it soft enough so I didn't entertain/annoy beyond my intended audience. Some people though, they just can't help it.

It started at a quarter to eight. That classically peeving blare of a car alarm. Most of us in line--by that swollen to fifty bodies--were little more than bemused. After three minutes of constant scree, however, the poor car owner's problem took on "$100,000 grand prize on America's Funniest Videos" status. (I was totally ready for the small dog a couple in line brought with them to break off in a mad dash and knock over one of the kids waiting with mommy and/or daddy.) Silently, save for a few throaty chuckles, we watched as the driver fumbled first underneath the wheel, then finally under the hood. His ministrations resulted in aggravation rather than abeyance, however, as the alarm now bleated forth in a polka-esque rhythm. The end finally came when a Good Samaritan shed from the line and went over to assist. From beginning to end, the saga of Car Alarm Guy took ten minutes. Six hundred seconds closer to a Wii.

After 8, two red-shirted employees came out to exalted fanfare. They passed out tickets that would be handed in at the register for a Wii console. Once Patrick had it in his hands, my shoulders and back lost all tension, a palpable release that allowed me to breathe in the refreshing properties of the chilled air rather than guard against it.

Everyone in that line got a Wii. The store had 99 for sale, more than enough for every single person outside. Big fat Darwin Award to Billie Jean King and her sons.

They took customers in groups of five at a time. What a joy it was to step in a warm store and get what we came for. Well, almost. No Super Mario Galaxy or Twilight Princess or Wario Warez, but we did pick up the Wii Play (a bargain with the extra Wii-mote).

I'm pleased to say that based off of nothing more than two rudimentary sporting games, the Wii is a fantastic investment. I have a basic-ass Sony 23-inch TV to put the sensor bar atop, and the controls respond wonderfully.

Wii Sports comes with the console, and offers baseball, golf, tennis, bowling and boxing. Tennis is my runaway favorite, where you operate both players in a doubles match. The Wii-mote is sensitive enough to demand you treat it like a real racket, not just flail wildly. Boxing provides maybe the best overall workout, as it is the only game to require both the nunchuk and remote. Golf is, well, as infuriatingly addictive as its real-life counterpart.

Wii Play is nine short games designed to familiarize the player with the controls. The standouts are the shooting stage (Duck Hunt meets Hogan's Alley) and the billiards stage. For brain games, try Patrick's favorite, wherein you match a contorted "Mii" figure inside descending bubbles. Challenging!

To make the day even greater, later on that afternoon the family got together at my oldest sister's house to throw a surprise party for my mother on her 69th birthday. All the kids pitched in to buy her a round trip air ticket to her hometown of Louisville, where the majority of her sisters and brothers still live. This was her first birthday without her husband, so it meant the world to make her smile.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Enter the Wii-Tang: 36 Chambers--Approaching the Dojo

Oh mighty Wii...fifth console in Nintendo's world-altering history. So innovative, with the Wii-mote and "nunchuk" controllers demanding actual physical involvement, creating an nearly un-American situation for the average red-white-and-blue gamer, what with standing whilst playing being a frequent requirement for optimum play.

Oh mighty dare you be $250 bucks in a world where Sony is hemorrhaging money with a Playstation 3 asking price of $600?

A dearth of the system--in Hagerstown and virtually everywhere else--was to be expected, as consoles of any considerable appeal will be popular for the holidays. Add in the recent release of Super Mario Galaxy, the latest stunner in a legendary series, and the demand for these light white barbarians in Kali's realm was comparable to that which met its initial launch. It was, in fact, the enduring Plumber of Salvation that spurred Patrick and I to participate in something I had previously never taken part in: waiting in the early morning frigid cold for a goddamn video game console. (Patrick had experience in this area several years ago re: Star Wars prequel toys, even getting a quote in the Washington Post. I'd post a scan of the article, but Patrick is experiencing reconciliation difficulties with his young nerdy days of sour cream and onion and roses.)

It started in a kiosk at the EB Games in the Valley Mall. As we walked by the store, I chanced to glance a young man in front of a station holding the telltale nunchuk. Neither 'Trick or myself had ever laid hands on a Wii before, salivating from afar. After a few minutes more shopping, the barrier was breached--only to find that an even more youthful male had taken the place of the previous figure I'd witnessed in thrall to the game onscreen. Said game being the game--Super Mario Galaxy.

It was jointly exciting and exasperating to stand behind this boy--no more than 6 years old--and gaze on as he stumbled his way through a title that held little more for his young mind than bright colors, constant motion, jaunty audio and lots of jumping. I'm not saying he was just bashing buttons and wasting time, but the learning curve is certainly a tad steeper for the small steppers, and the big children (ahem) were chomping at the bit with teeth fine-honed from years of gameplay. After a few more minutes, the lad put down the controllers and picked up his heavy orange jacket from the carpeted EB floor. Almost instantly, then, Patrick swooped in and took over, not even allowing the slightest possibility for intrusion on our rightful space.

Each of us took turns approximately 5 minutes in length. This was more than sufficient to cement SMG as a must-have gaming experience, and thus, the Wii as a necessity. The combined factors of price, improved titles, and quick comfort with the unique controls left little choice. As I did Patrick one better and mastered the trampoline jump, he went up front to inquire on the Wii.

"He said they'll have them in Black Friday, and they open at 6."

This seemed dandy, if a ways off. I mean, six whole friggin' days. Mere moments after Patrick had returned to the kiosk (right after I had blasted Mario off into outer space for more gravity-defying adventures), a woman's voice piped gently behind us.

"Are you looking for the Wii?"

It was an older woman, in her early sixties perhaps, free of gray and stoop, but possessed nonetheless of that intangible quality of certain elderly citizens which suggests that they keep Polaroid pictures of their unsuspecting neighbors in Wal-Mart bags hidden in a locked treasure chest draped with a homemade Washington Redskins quilt. Not crazy, exactly, but rather intensely unorthodox in the face of death.

"Toys R Us will be selling them tomorrow at seven o'clock", she continued, keeping her voice low enough for just the three of us. She then continued on her way, checking out the games for sale on the nearby wall. There was no moment of epiphany between Patrick and I just then, however, as I was preoccupied with the wonder of Mario walking down and around the sides of celestial bodies.

Finally, I was killed off by incidental contact with caterpillar ass. How humiliating!

In the car ride home, Sonic Youth's Goo blasting, it was mutually decided that we should partake in this upcoming madness. We should damn well go to Toys R Us and stand out for at least a couple hours in the testes-freezing western Maryland weather with freaks we don't know from a paint can for the (possible) privilege of getting face-mushed and lung-punched by some mother of three who really should have shown the same vim, vigor and determination to using birth control.

"We have to try."

So we would.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Peanuts Is Timeless, Pt. Awkward Sports Simile

"Who's the guy from Charlie Brown who has the gray cloud following him around? Pig Pen? We're like Pig Pen." —Miami Dolphins tackle Vonnie Holliday.

Leave that fine upstanding young icon of filth out of your horrid winless season, Vonnie. Also, it was more of a dark brown cloud, borne of his magnetic properties re: dirt and not, as you seem to believe, a storm cloud portending all the doom and rain and gloom and pain that's inevitable when the front office deems Ted Ginn Jr. as the player to build the team's future around.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

So a mammoth figure in American literature has passed away. While I personally admired his obvious devotion to and passion for the written word, "The Executioner's Song" was the only of his works I could get through without feeling immense mental frustration. A case where the craftsman sold himself beyond his tools.

How strange that just yesterday I came across a review of "Schulz and Peanuts" that quoted the comic strip artist thusly: "I can think of few people whose opinions interest me less than Norman Mailer."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wait, What If We Called Him "Grimace"?

Fans of the Minnesota Vikings are easy to pick on. How could we be less than ripe for ridicule, rooting as we do for a team that's gone 0-for-4 in the Super Bowl and wears purple uniforms?

Loyalty to the 2007-08 version seems even more mystifying when one considers the teams quarterback situation (intolerable), the wide receiving corp ("experiment") and the secondary unit (sorely missing the full coverage of Fred Smoot).

Dig deeper, though, and the discerning fan will find a formidable offensive line, led by Steve Hutchinson.

(Oh, don't mind that noise. That's just Shawn Alexander sobbing uncontrollably.)

But the reason to feel Purple shouldn't have to even pull out the mental shovel. Any NFL fan knows why the Vikes are worth it with a 3-5 record.

Adrian Peterson, running back. #28. 1,036 rushing yards in eight games (a revolting average of 6.6 yards per carry), 8 touchdowns. Last week against the San Diego Chargers he set an NFL record with 296 yards gained on ground--his second 200+ yard game. In his rookie year. And the Vikings picked him up 7th in the draft. This is a man who is showing every sign of ending his career as at least a top 3 running back in league history and he fell to 7th because he was considered an injury risk.

His individual accomplishments are almost impressive enough to make a fan forget that they are even rooting for a team. Adrian Peterson has singlehandedly assured Brad Childress one full season as a coach in Minnesota, despite the increasingly apparent fact that Childress cannot coach a pro football team. A player of unworldly skill and instinct can do that. (Meanwhile, Norv Turner is hating LaDainian Tomlinson right now. Some cases are just hopeless, though.)

Whenever a player in any sport comes on the scene and makes the playing field his own personal video game, statements of awed wonder and subsequent predictions fly: How many yards will he end up with? Will he surpass the rookie total amassed by the man whose legacy he most closely evokes in those old enough to remember it, the one Eric Dickinson? All enjoyable queries to ponder as one waits for each Sunday, to see how the best running back in the league will take apart the opposing defense (he's the only player, so far as I can tell, that actually humiliates seven teams with each big game). But dealing with the sprawl of the Internet, stupid debates are due.

Some website forums have recently featured a topic that let you know, in one handy package, how Peterson has captured the imagination of the NFL and how bored people online can really be.

What is Adrian Peterson's nickname?

Now, this is not a bad topic in and of itself. The problem arises when (as you'll see with the second and third links) people try to assert a nickname. Those who insist on Peterson's name being "AD" are not only 10 pounds of douche in a 5 pound bag, but make me want to call him everything but.

If Adrian's nickname should be "All Day", then call him "All Day". Why does that need to be initialized? 'Cause it sounds nice? "A.D" is the same amount of syllables and keeps people from asking "what's the 'D' for?"

That said, if people want to call him "A.P"; well, maybe the Associated Press connotation is unfortunate, but it makes sense, as it's shortening a full name.

"Purple Jesus" is unacceptable not due to any concerns over blasphemy (save that for the lunkheads who thank their savior after every victory) but that it sells the great man short. Jesus is historically the son of God. Adrian Peterson is the son of no one on that field. Thus, he is "Purple God", if one must bring deities into the discussion.

Some might say the greater the player, the more nicknames required to fully encompass their king-shit-n-bottle-washer status. Look at the sobriquets attached to a man who would have never known how to say that word, George Herman Ruth: "Babe", "Sultan of Swat", "The Bambino". So perhaps the rush to assign handles to Peterson is just a byproduct of a nation in thrall to a future legend. The people insistent on tying one name to this one man are going to have to deal with disappointment. But given that those people seem to be the type who have several thousand posts on an Internet forum, I think they're well-equipped for that.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Peanuts Is Timeless, Pt. Turkey

This will be an odd, sad Thanksgiving--the first without my father. Count on the filling dual presence of family and food to rescue the holiday from potential "nadir of the year" status.

Also, depend on Peanuts. "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" will air on November 20th. As you may suspect, your humble blogger will be unveiling another patented TJMD review of this Emmy-winning classic (to appear the day before, mind you; no way I can even consider the Internet after a day spent at the mercy of turkey, stuffing, et. al).

In the meantime, let us bask in the warm glowing warming glow of what happens when someone decides to make Snoopy's unorthodox Thanksgiving meal a reality. Pure awesome. I recommended taking the burden off my mother by having Patrick and I recreate this meal, too, but was shockingly voted down.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Triple-Double Bacon Burger With Large Fries and a Diet Coke

It's been 'bout eight months since I swore off those nasty fast food megachains. The conflicting nature of the media about the industry itself always perks me up: here's an article about the increasing (thus increasingly unhealthy) portions meted out by places like McDonalds and Hardees aaaaaannnnnnnddddd...are you a Big Mac maniac or a Whopper lover? Vote here!

In other words, which burger makes artery-clogging so damn tasty? Which franchise do you love to revisit so much that you think "grease" is the fifth food group?

Thanks need to be given to the So Good blog for hipping me to these links, which led me to even more articles, ad infinitum. I've blogged on the mania surrounding trans fat before, my interest in it stemming from a life spent at the altar of the Arches. Viewing "Super Size Me" and reading Fast Food Nation did their part to convince me that I needed to make serious lifestyle changes. But I don't think anything is so effective a deterrent as actually perusing the nutritional menus of fast food chains.

Take the McDonalds info; the amount of sugar that goes into their items is just gross. And if you don't know about the legend of the Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese, well, 720 calories should let you know. Also, the salads are heavy on the carbs, sugars, and calories. So there goes the assurance of "oh well, it's a salad; gotta be healthier for me than a burger."

The recommended calorie intake for the average person is 2000 daily. For women seeking to lose weight, 1200-1500 is suggested, while for men it can go 1500-1700 (the logic being that men burn calories quicker). One can figure, then, that a non-dieter can handle three meals up to 650 calories each, while those trying to trim down should work out portions of no more than 400-500. Willpower is another thing entirely, completely outside the helpful advice and admonition of the medical community, but the numerical rationale is easily understood.

McDonalds has two milkshakes that surpass 1000 calories on their own. And I bet they are tasty, in their own inimitable "cup o' sludge" way. Look at the greatest offender, the 32 oz. chocolate Triple Thick shake. 1160 calories (almost covering your humble blogger's personal daily intake) and 168 grams of sugar. The last stat is the most shocking, if you'll pardon the mild pun. According to the doctors I've consulted with, a person with a regular metabolism who doesn't fit an exercise program into their daily routine should not exceed 40 grams of sugar in a day's worth of consumption. One shake from McDonalds gives you four times that. Check out the sugar stats for McDonalds, consider how many people make it a part of their diet, the convenient and "homey" vibe the restaurant emanates (well, except that one on Georgia Avenue in DC) one wants to hop on the fast track to heart disease and diabetes, but that patch of road is growing more and more congested every year.

(I'm not picking on the House That Ronald Built, either. Check the Hardees page for even more insane numbers, specifically those for the Monster Burger.)

But in the end, it's similar to a person's decision to use drugs. Or have casual sex without the benefit of protection. The information at our fingertips is multitudinous, as are the sources we can access it from. When the brain is done processing it, when the pros and cons are weighed, the benefits and detriments considered, it's up to the individual.

April Has Competition

T.S. Eliot underrated the month of October.

On the 5th, my invalid father was transported from his home to Washington County Hospital.

On the 21st, I opted for an early birthday celebration with my mother and boyfriend. The reason? The 21st was a Sunday and thus preferable to a party at the beginning of the week. Tuesday is no day to celebrate anything. Monday, either.

I received three books,. two being Peanuts-related (David Michaelis' Charles Schulz bio and the latest Complete Peanuts), and two framed photos of my trip to Camp Snoopy.

That night, my mom received a call. It was my father from his bed in the Progressive Care Unit, ringing to say "goodbye". When she reminded him that they would see one another tomorrow--my mother spent hours by his side every day--he wearily told her that, no, they would not. Eventually, the line clicked over to piped-in "hold" music.

Wracked with fear, my mother and I called up two of my sisters and drove to the hospital with two others. I've never been so grateful for the nightly inactivity of downtown Hagerstown, as red lights were blown past with a sense of familial immunity.

We arrived to find my father asleep, phone still in his hand. The doorless entrance and suspended TV set glowing forth the Broncos-Steelers game provided the sole light. It was my first time seeing him since admission, and in that time the lower part of his left lung had collapsed, necessitating an oxygen mask. He seemed thrilled to see me but expressed confusion over why mom should have been so concerned.

However, Mom's overreaction proved fortuitous. One of the sisters who joined us in the frantic rush to a feared deathbed was the same daughter he had disowned 20 years ago. Repeated suggestions at reunion were shot down by our father brusquely. But on October 21, 2007, he finally consented. Perhaps it was a sense of the inevitable prodding open that chamber of his heart he'd sealed tight so long ago.

On the 22nd, my father died. The end of his life also meant the end of a journey began seven years prior, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The tandem treatments of radiation and chemotherapy defeated the growth within him but devastated his 66-year-old body, eventually leaving the man who spent decades in gardens and fields, pushing machinery and pulling crops, an invalid. Surgery to remove a bone infected by decubitis ulcers was in retrospect a pathetic attempt at a pre-emptive measure.

On the 23rd, I turned 30.

On the 25th, my father was buried. Never have I endured an experience of comparable agony and disbelief. Gazing down at the man who helped make me possible--hillbilly resplendent in blue plaid shirt, tan Dickies, and oversized eyeglasses--every recriminating feeling I'd honed with equal parts relish and regret dived, gracelessly, into the estuary I'd depended upon for years, where they floated further and further away from me.  My father's most distinguishing feature--that loud, barley- and tar-stained voice--was now just an echo of a splash.  The shell that remained will wash away before long.  I either hate my father for leaving us, or I hate him for taking so long to depart in the first place.

I hate that I never learned how to swim while he was alive.

The standard spirituals that piped into the viewing room gave my uncertain despair an undesired soundtrack. (Honestly, when I go, play "Infinity Girl" by Stereolab and "Starpower" by Sonic Youth and be done with it.)

It was amazing to us all that his body looked healthier with the vitality snatched from it than it had in the past five years of struggle.

On the 28th, I finished the 600+ pages of the Schulz bio.

On the 29th, PBS aired the American Masters segment dedicated to Schulz. It was fittingly low-key, but grew morose near the end with the great artists death. The screen displayed an isolated drawing of Charlie Brown, from an original strip, placed on a bench in live action. Slowly, the figure evaporated into nothing. This trick was repeated with Lucy and Snoopy in respective apropos milieus.

Effective; but Schulz and his creations didn't disappear just because he shed the shell. Charles Schulz and his half-a-century masterpiece are immortal.

So, also, is Edgar Benningfield and his half-a-century marriage and all that it made possible for the world.

I was going to finish this with some crap about how I was beginning to feel "normal". But I've just grown tired of that word, and I wonder if it's so ineffective as to be by now obsolete, devoid of any practical usage in everyday life. I'm not as fucked up as I was a week ago--how 'bout that?