Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Last Blog of 2010

When you think about it, 2010 went by like a blur. I guess time flies by when you're fruitlessly mailing and e-mailing resumes to prospective employers. In all seriousness though, with the exorbitant amount of free time I had during the Summer and Fall of 2010, it doesn't seem like the year is almost over. From a media perspective, it was a year of buzzwords: from Eyjafjallajökull to "refudiate," from vuvuzela to WikiLeaks, it was a solid 12-month span for gibberish and foreign proper names. It was a great year for pop culture --especially TV and music-- and a terrible year for almost everything else. (Forgive me if this blog seems a little slipshod; there's so much to reminisce about and too little time to express it.)

THE BEST TV SHOWS OF 2010

1. "Mad Men," AMC. Jon Hamm was runner-up for EW's Entertainer of the Year, and for good reason. Besides two strong outings on SNL and a dilligent performance in The Town, his portrayal of enigmatic '60s ad exec Don Draper has nearly made him a TV icon for our time. The show itself has also benefitted with Hamm at its center, turning out a somewhat polarizing season of bravura performances and clever writing. Notable Episodes: "The Rejected," "The Suitcase," "The Beautiful Girls."
2. "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Comedy Central. As inherently political as TDS might be, the show is first and foremost a parody and skewering of a mass media that can't bother to be objective anymore. People have caught on, too: on any given night, Jon and his "correspondents" are pummeling Leno and Letterman in the ratings. Notable Episodes: TDS doesn't really have episode titles --it's a talk show, mind you-- but there's plenty of clips on Hulu, YouTube et al. that prove my point.
3. "Parks & Recreation," NBC. With "The Office" slowly fading into the sunset, P&R has become Thursday night's best and most underappreciated comedy. Amy Poehler earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination as eager small-town bureaucrat Leslie Knope, but Nick Offerman and Aziz Ansari were snubbed outright. If only more people would catch on... Notable Episodes: "Sweetums," "Telethon," "The Master Plan."
4. "Modern Family," ABC. No show balances laughs with low-key charm quite like the blended Pritchett clan. It's a family sitcom at heart, though not always family-friendly, but honest and grounded enough to keep you tuned in. Few shows have ever captured the complicated dynamic of a strong, lasting marriage quite like Mod-Fam. Notable Episodes: "Airport 2010," "Strangers on a Treadmill," "Halloween."
5. "Community," NBC. Talk about patience and perseverance: I put this show on my best of 2009 list on the heels of two strong episodes following an uneven start. I'm relieved to know that my praise was a sign of things to come, as "Community" has really come into its own in the past calendar year. "Modern Family" notwithstanding, this show has quite possibly the best comedy ensemble on television. Notable Episodes: "Modern Warfare," "The Psychology of Letting Go," "Epidemiology."

Honorable Mentions: "Boardwalk Empire," HBO; "In Treatment," HBO.

Best Show That I Need to Start Watching on a Regular Basis: "Breaking Bad," AMC.

Best Random Guest Appearance: Norman Lloyd on "Modern Family." Forget about Betty White for a moment-- it's a marvel that the 96-year-old thespian still manages to nab steady work. Best known as the last surviving member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater players and as Dr. Auschlander on "St. Elsewhere," Lloyd is a living legend that 90% of the populace knows nothing about. I almost didn't notice him when I saw the "Manny Get Your Gun" episode, which either says something about Lloyd's advanced age or his workman-like ability to disappear into a role.

Worst Random Guest Appearance: Justin Bieber on "CSI." Do I really need to explain this?

Worst Show of 2010: "Bridalplasty," E! Aspiring brides-to-be compete for boob jobs and facelifts in a narcissistic, disturbing, and altogether sad mash-up of "The Swan" and "Say Yes to the Dress." Case evidence of reality television and their obsession with the lowest common denominator.
Runner-Up: "Outsourced," NBC. If this were halfway decent, I would've forgave NBC for handing Park & Rec's time slot to this culture-clash single-camera comedy. Instead, "Outsourced" is more or less the Indian "Amos n' Andy," playing to stereotypes about spicy food, funny accents, and polytheism like a New Dehli minstrel show. Saying this show is an accurate depiction of an Indian workplace is like saying Sbarro is the cutting edge of Italian cuisine.

THE YEAR IN NEWS
 
My Favorite Political Cartoon of 2010: This.

In Memoriam: Miep Gies, J.D. Salinger, Eric Rohmer, Doug Fieger, T-Bone Wolk, Merlin Olsen, Lynn Redgrave, Dennis Hopper, Sen. Robert Byrd, Lena Horne, Ronnie James Dio, Rue McClanahan, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, John Wooden, Gloria Stuart, Greg Giraldo, Robert Schimmel, Tony Curtis, Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Billingsley, Tom Bosley, Leslie Nielsen, Dino DeLaurentiis, Elizabeth Edwards, Ted Sorensen, Maurice Lucas, Pat Burns, George "Sparky" Anderson, Bob Feller, "Dandy Don" Meredith, Roy Neuberger, Richard Holbrooke, Steve Landesberg, Blake Edwards, Teena Marie, Gardner Kissick, and "Still Bill" Johnson.

Finally, because I haven't posted any in awhile, here's a couple of Top 5 lists to wrap up the year.

Five Obscure Monty Python References That Might Work as Names for Bands:
1. Hovercraft of Eels
2. Whicker's World
3. The Machine That Goes Bing
4. Kamikaze Highlander
5. Toad the Wet Sprocket*

Five Tips for Aspiring Grad School Students:
1. You have at least six bodily fluids you can donate to pay for tuition
2. If the school crest has a bottle of trucker pills on it, you're in good hands
3. Don't be afraid to consider moving far away to earn your masters or doctorate, as you will never see your friends and family anyway
4. As impressive as the publication of your epic research paper might be, it won't score you a free Whopper at Burger King
5. There is a growing perception in American culture that baccalaureate degrees are "the new high school diploma" since in the last 25 years, job growth has stagnated for Americans that stopped their education with a bachelor's, so imagine how far that masters will get you in the long run

SEE YOU IN 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2010


To be honest, I was blindsided by what a strong year this was for music. The number of new albums I listened to this year didn't vary much, but there was more to enjoy than I did in 2008 or 2009. I typically check out new sounds concurrently with whatever year I'm analyzing for my monthly music blog, and it got to a point about three or four months ago that I putting more energy in my year-end list than whatever else I listening to. There's a running theme to this year's list: established artists releasing career-defining albums, familiar faces with seemingly nothing left to prove but plenty of ways to prove that assumption wrong, newer acts challenging themselves in unexpected ways, a weird sense of fearlessness and a general lack of inhibition. Of course, you never would've heard any of this brilliance on CHR radio, but that's a discussion for another time.

On that note, I defeated myself somewhat and expanded this list to 20 albums. Like I said before, there was too much in 2010 that I enjoyed that had to merit some type of mention. I tried to make this list as complete as possible, though there are a few discs I still need to check out (sorry, Janelle Monae).

ALBUMS

1. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire. I'm probably one of the few people on the planet that thought the Fire's 2007 album Neon Bible was better than their 2004 debut Funeral. It wasn't a mere extension of ideas, I argued, but the next logical step. Their third effort, The Suburbs, raises the bar even higher. Inspired mostly by the Butler brothers' Houston upbringing, this is a concept album about a world of nostalgia that may not really exist. The Suburbs is whimsical without being too quirky, cynical but not too apathetic, and the right amount of sentimental.
2. Brothers, The Black Keys. What if the White Stripes had a more pure blues-rock sound, and was a real band rather than a vehicle for Jack White's guitar noodling? Enter The Black Keys, a visceral, Ohio-based guitar-drums duo with a yen for '60s soul and psychedlic-period Howlin' Wolf. Their third proper album is 15 tracks of scruffy, growling blues-punk whose appeal never wears out. This is by far the best music produced in Muscle Shoals, AL in decades.
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West. Kanye might very well be the most enigmatic superstar in the world. When he doesn't keep his ego in check, he's an annoying, attention-hungry jerk. When he shuts his mouth and gets to business, he's an indisputable genius. His fifth album is paid as advertised; no album in any genre has been so sonically sparwling yet so singular in its madness anywhere in recent memory. It's as if Kanye set a Thomas Pynchon novel to music...
4. Congratulations, MGMT
5. This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem

6. Contra, Vampire Weekend
7. Treats, Sleigh Bells
8. King of the Beach, Wavves
9. High Violet, The National
10. Together, The New Pornographers. After four albums of fascinating power-pop/indie-rock workshopping by a confederacy of similar-minded musicians, Neko Case, AC Newman, et al. finally begin to sound like a real band on the fittingly named Together. A supergroup in concept only, the Pornographers' sound is now less of a buffet and more of a potluck dinner, a scrappy feast of catchy songs and whimsical songcraft.

11. Broken Bells, Broken Bells
12. Odd Blood, Yeasayer
13. Beat the Devil's Tattoo, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
14. Teen Dream, Beach House
15. The Monitor, Titus Andronicus. The unofficial award for most improved band goes to this New Jersey-based quartet, whose nondescript garage-rock debut in 2008 bears precious little resemblance to their stunning second effort. An entire album of songs about the Civil War, played by what sounds like the best Pogues cover band on the planet, should've been too weird to work yet it demolishes what low expectations such a far-fetched idea might garner. I guess all you need is a little ambition.

16. Plastic Beach, Gorillaz
17. One Life Stand, Hot Chip
18. Infinite Arms, Band of Horses
19. The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot
20. /\/\/\Y/\ (a/k/a Maya), M.I.A. One of the most undeservedly maligned albums of the past year, the Sri Lankan alt-dance star reinforces her knack for lyrical tongue-twisters, and that motherhood and marriage hasn't quashed her desire for a challenge. The percussion work on this disc is raw and often relentless, perhaps too sonically brutal for certain tastes. Beneath all the chaos, however are some instantly satisfying yet intentionally imperfect tracks.

Coolest Gimmick: The compact disc of The Black Keys' "Brothers" changes colors while the disc is playing.

Worst Album of 2010: Rebirth, Lil' Wayne. There is little denying Weezy's gifts as a rapper, but when it comes to dabbles in other genres --especially this somewhat anticipated, mostly embarassing foray into rap-rock-- even a genius should stick to what he knows best. Worse yet, amidst piles of insipid guitar solos and gaudy overproduction, the wit and wacky wordplay of his previous work is nowhere to be found on Rebirth. Young Tune declares himself a "funky monkey" on the track "Da Da Da," and had that track found a greater audience, that alone probably would've set rock, hip-hop, and race relations back 50 years.

SINGLES

"Symphonies," Dan Black feat. Kid Cudi
"Fuck You," Cee-Lo
"One Way Road," The John Butler Trio
"When My Time Comes," Dawes
"You And Your Heart," Jack Johnson
"In The Sun," She & Him
"Swim Until You Can't See Land," Frightened Rabbit
"Bushwick Blues," Delta Spirit
"Early Morning Wake-Up Call," The Hives
"National Ransom," Elvis Costello


Worst Song of 2010: "Hey Soul Sister," Train. If I have to hear this song one more time, so help me God...

VIDEOS

After a weak 2009, music videos enjoyed a minor renaissance in 2010. Though second-hand VHS downloads of old MTV videos have been a staple on YouTube et al. since the site's inception, it wasn't until the last year or so that video directors really took advantage of the medium. Better late than never, I guess.

1. "This Too Shall Pass," OK Go. When I was in eighth grade, I was assigned a Rube Goldberg-type project in science class. My final assignment was a complete mess, and I earned one of the few F's of my academic career. It was not until after I saw this video that I finally got over that humiliation.

2. "Tightrope," Janelle Monae feat. Big Boi. '60s soul meets 21st-century hip-hop in this well-choreographed clip.

3. "Love The Way You Lie," Eminem feat. Rihanna. A big part of Marshall Mathers' renaissance in 2010 was this VH1/Fuse staple, starring Megan Fox and the guy who played Charlie on "Lost" as lovers that shouldn't be together yet can't stay apart.

4. "Drunk Girls," LCD Soundsystem. Word to the wise: this is what happens when you piss off a bunch of guys in panda costumes.

5. "Madder Red," Yeasayer. A shot-for-shot remake of "Old Yeller," except its four minutes long, shot in modern-day Los Angeles, and stars Kristen Bell and a one-eyed alien blob.

6. "Dog Days Are Over" (Version 2), Florence + The Machine. The British singer-songwriter jumps around in Kabuki garb in this strange yet alluring clip.

7. "Tighten Up" (Version 1), The Black Keys. Rawr! Funky puppet dinosaurs!

8. "Giving Up The Gun," Vampire Weekend. Tennis, anyone?

9. "White Knuckles," OK Go. It's not uncommon for an artist to have multiple clips in one year, but two outright great clips in less than 12 months is quite a feat.

10. "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood," St. Vincent. An early preview of the upcoming IFC comedy series "Portlandia" finds Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Carrie Brownstein as prickly lesbian bookstore owners and the singer-songwriter as their unwitting foil.

Next Week: the year in TV, and my final thoughts on 2010.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Random Notes, December 2010


+ It's hard for me to fathom that I graduated from college three years ago this week. I say that wistfully because not much has gone according to plan. When I left Illinois State in 2007, my intent was to go home for a few months, then head back down when a potential radio job opened. Though I spent two years doing traffic and billing at a two-station cluster up in Chicago, I have yet to put my training in radio production to use in the professional world. Worse yet, the majority of my connections at Great Plains Media (where I did an internship in the Fall of '07) left the cluster within a year of my departure, and the one person I used as a resume reference was forced out by corporate around that same time. Though I'm happy with my temp gig, I still don't know if it'll lead to something permanant. Simply put, I still have time on my side and I want to resume my career in the radio industry. Sadly, I don't feel like I'm getting a fair shake from anyone. However, I'm not ready to put my dream on the backburner.


+ I thought this was going to be a slow lame duck session, but it's proven otherwise and not for the better. Extending tax cuts for the richest 1% --represented by the selfless, modest, hard-working likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian-- could be a death blow for the American economy. I don't like using hyperbole, but this is a terrible mistake and I'm appalled that President Obama conceded to the GOP like that. I cannot and will not understand why the very wealthiest Americans should be exempt from chipping in their worth, regardless of whether or not they're politically active and throw around campaign money like green confetti. I have no problem with the extension of jobless benefits, but it doesn't sound like a fair exchange.


+ How's improv? This week I finished Level 4 at IO, and I start Level 4B on January 2nd. I've also completed Writing 2 with Nate Herman, and I begin W3 the day after. On alternating Saturday nights, I've been performing in the opening act for a Midnight show at IO. Lyndsay Hailey --the teacher I was describing at length a few weeks back-- is headlining her own show, and she launched an impromptu improv team to start off each "program." She dubbed our group The Hangover Clinic because we practice and workshop on early Saturday mornings, when most of our classmates and contemporaries are still working off the previous night's buzz. For those of you in or around Chicago, we're up every Saturday night just after 12AM through the end of January, and admission is only $5.

Next week: the year in music, 2010.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An Imperfect Ten


I woke up early Friday morning to some very startling news. My radio alarm is set on a classic rock station, and the DJ and the news-reader were discussing the passing of Ron Santo at length. I knew that Santo had a history of health problems, including two boughts with cancer and a lifelong struggle with diabetes, but I was still shocked.

As a Chicagoan, it's very difficult to say anything bad about Ron Santo and get away with it, and his passing has only reinforced the defense shields. The Cubs have an almost nationalized fan base, and not surprisingly my home city is their apparent Mecca. On the north side of the city, the Cubs are a religion --a cult in the most literal sense-- and Wrigley Field is their Hagia Sophia. Good luck finding a White Sox cap within a one-block radius of the stadium, which is almost nothing but sports bars and fan boutiques. In spite of that even Sox fans are sitting shiva, and the most cynical Cubbie-haters are keeping their mouths shut or carefully choosing their words... myself included.

For the longest time, I waffled on Ronnie's Cooperstown credentials. Without being too blunt, a career line of 342/1,331/.277 over 15 seasons is pretty good but not good enough. The fact of the matter is, what exactly puts Santo on the same level as Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, or Eddie Mathews? If all-around nice guys with decent power stats made the Hall of Fame, Dale Murphy would be in by now. If players that dominated their position for one decade but didn't do much else afterward were inducted, so would Dwight Evans. A remarkable start followed by a string of injuries? Don Mattingly. At least five Gold Gloves? Jim Kaat and Dave Concepcion. Harold Baines has nearly 300 more career ribbies, but he'll be lucky if the Veterans' Committee votes him in. Yes, you could argue that if you put all of those factors together Santo should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, but that's not what it's all about. Being above-average at a wide variety of things and excelling at nothing does not merit enshrinement. That'd be like if a career B+ student were chosen for National Honor Society.

The iO Theater is one half-block south of Wrigley on Clark Street, so I typically walk past the stadium about two or three times a week. I was in city late Saturday night for a show, and two separate but equal tributes had mushroomed on the stadium premises. The first and most visible was along the home plate entrance under the red "Friendly Confines" sign, inside and along the locks and barricades. The second was on the Walk of Fame along the first base side, where each team HOFer has their name engraved into Addison Ave. sidewalk. There were photos, flowers, letters-- pretty much everything you can think of except baseball cards. The outpouring of support to Santo's family and the Cubs' organization was remarkable. This tribute could curb the most tactless soul from saying anything disrespectful about the deceased, it was that resonating. However, I'm still not convinced that he should be enshrined --a sizable albeit quiet minority-- though right now stating such a strong opinion makes me feel a tad squeamish.

Other notes:

+ I finally found a job... for now. I interviewed with a temp agency in early August, and just before Thanksgiving they recommended me for an interview with a local catering company. I aced the sitdown and now I work 35+ hours a week in a calling center. I'm only officially employed with them through New Year's, but hopefully this parlays into something more substantial.

+ My TV.com fantasy football team is 5-8, and even though I've won four of my last five matchups, I'm nowhere near playoff contention and the window has all but shut. My other team is 3-10 and couldn't even beat our resident last-place roster in Week 13. As most of you know, I'm still doing decent in NFL Pick 'Um, though.

+ Late last week, I noticed that several of my Facebook friends had changed their profile photos to beloved childhood cartoon characters for the purpose of raising child abuse awareness. In solidarity, I changed mine to "Mathman" from Square One TV. On Sunday afternoon, I heard through the gravepine that the organization that promoted the stunt had ties to NAMBLA and was conspiring to hack the accounts of preteen Facebookers. Oops.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tis' the Season

As you're all well aware, for the last two years I've been posting monthly music lists, each spotlighting a particular year in music. That will resume next month with my year-end look at 2010, but for the holidays I'm doing something special:

As much as I love this time of year, it's hard for me to enjoy Christmas music. My family immerses themselves into the holiday spirit, so much that they find my distaste bewildering. I'll help put ornaments on the tree and set up lights outside the house without hesitation, but they can't understand why I make a beeline out of the room whenever I hear Der Bingle belt out "White Christmas" for the 5,000th time.

One local radio station here in Chicago, 93.9 "Lite FM," plays Christmas music around the clock this time of year with an absurd amount of gusto. They've been known to switch out their usual playlist of soft rock and power ballads for "Jingle Bells" as early as November 2nd; this year, however "Lite FM" showed some restraint and held off until the Thursday before Thanksgiving. For a lot of Chicagoans this is their soundtrack to the season, including the Allard household. What makes this so aggravating for me is that it's the same 15-20 songs played in a continuous loop; it's the same version of "O Tannenbaum" played every year, followed by a strangely toothless R&B rendition of "Sleigh Bells" --Natalie Cole, I think-- and so on, and so forth. They even throw in a live rendition of Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" every now and then so they don't alienate their non-Christian listeners.

Worse yet, a lot of these songs reek of contractual obligation. The majority of the pop stars that record Christmas songs cut these tunes because they have to, and the effort shows. There's this antiquated rule in the music industry that most (if not all) major label artists have to record an Xmas song or album at some point in their record deal. This is not to say I hate all Christmas music or that certain artists don't rise to the occasion; in fact, there are four essential CDs that help me break up the banality.

My favorite is arguably A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, the 1963 compilation by which most holiday records are compared to. These 13 tracks capture a zeitgeist of sorts; you have Spector at the peak of his powers, all the artists featured (Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals) brought their A-game, and it defies the novelty-song mentality that Christmas music harbored until that point. If the Brill Building is a little too quaint, might I recommend the late '80s compilation A Very Special Christmas? Granted, that CD spawned a legion of sequels, most of which are pretty hit-and-miss, but it's hard to beat the original.

If you're looking for something more ethereal and spiritual, look no further than George Winston's beautiful 1982 recording December. I discovered this disc during my public radio days, when I was scheduling a Sunday morning new age/ambient music show. AllMusic calls it "the mother of all solo instrumental albums"; that borders on hyperbole, though the recording itself is nothing short of wonderful. I cannot recommend a single track from December because they're all great. It was also around that time that I came to truly appreciate Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Considering how many times I've heard the song "Linus and Lucy" over the years, Guaraldi's best-known work (now 45 years old!) almost feels like a guilty pleasure. The instrumental version of "Christmas Time is Here" is an eloquent centerpiece; paired with the decidedly romantic "Skating" --the only other original composition on the album-- I have to let my guard down and absorb the warmth that Guaraldi, his trio, and collaborator Lee Mendelson have to offer.

Outside of the four albums I mentioned, the number of individual Christmas songs I like can be counted on one hand. The jazzophile in me smiles whenever I hear John Coltrane's 13-minute workout of "My Favorite Things," the rare hard bop tune that surpasses the original Broadway recording. Steve Allen's composition "Cool Yule" has been covered by every jazz singer and musician worth their salt; since Louis Armstrong popularized the song in the mid-1950s, however I'll give his version the thumbs up. As for pop songs, my discussion begins and ends with Phil Spector; the mad genius saved one last morsel of holiday magic for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as evidenced by 1973's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)." The slow wind-down of the Vietnam War takes a backseat to the song's inherent message: Christmas is a holiday of peace and goodwill, and in troubling times may we overcome fear and animosity.

To be honest, I prefer Christmas-related TV. One of the few things in pop culture that can make me dewy-eyed is when the Peanuts gang lights up Charlie Brown's sad little tree, than start humming "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." The burning of the toys in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" comes a close second. Plus, if it weren't for Christmas, I'd have never seen "The Simpsons." When that first episode aired in December 1989, my parents turned the TV on and sat me down on the couch thinking, "well, it's a cartoon. This should keep him quiet for a half-hour." Little did they know... ;)

I circle my calendar every year for David Letterman's Christmas show, which relies heavily on a series of so many tried-but-true traditions, you wonder why they do the same thing every year as opposed to just repeating an episode from 20-odd years ago. As familiar as they are, those traditions feel strangely fresh: Paul Shaffer's imitation of Cher singing "O Holy Night," Darlene Love's majestic live workout of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Jay Thomas' Lone Ranger story, and Dave and Jay's "quarterback challenge" to see who can remove the star from the studio tree with an accurately tossed football. Of all those rituals the Lone Ranger story has the most minimal connection to the holidays, yet its easily my favorite of the four. Every year since 1998 or so, the actor formerly known as Eddie LeBec describes a wacky encounter he had with Clayton Moore in mid-1970s North Carolina, and with each passing year his brush with celebrity adds a little bit of exposition building into an ingenious payoff. If you don't believe me, check out this clip from last year's holiday broadcast.

Christmas is not for another 3 1/2 weeks, but the world around me is so immersed in the holiday spirit that I may as well send my early glad tidings to all my friends on this site. May your cards be delivered on time, may the wait at checkout stay under 10 minutes, may the tree in the living room not shed too much, and most importantly, please stay warm.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Thanks... and No Thanks

Don't let the uptick in tinsel and decorated trees outside shopping malls fool you: this week is Thanksgiving. For the sixth year in a row (yes, sixth) I present by annual "thanks" and "no thanks" lists, acknowledging the positive and negative aspects that dictate my daily life with minimal context. There are so many things in life we often take for granted like food and shelter that may seem like a luxury to some, but there are also the little things that boost our morale and give us a reason to wake up in the morning. Without being too perfunctory, I want to take this opportunity --like I have every November since 2005-- to focus on the minutiae.

Thanks: long-form improv, the triumphant return of Conan O'Brien, my continued success in football pick'um, a Blackhawks Stanley Cup, the Chicago Bears' inexplicable 7-3 record, the necessity of living on a budget, and most importantly, the support of my classmates, friends and family during trying times.

No Thanks: underemployment, office politics, the slow death knell of non-biased reporting in cable news, the never-ending hubris of my state government, trading half of the aforementioned Stanley Cup roster, Brett Favre, and still not being able to afford grad school or an apartment.

Finally, in the wake of yesterday's invasion please keep the people of South Korea in your thoughts and prayers. Illinois State University is "sister schools" with the Dong Ah Broadcasting College outside Seoul, and I have several friends that study and teach ESL there. One must hope that North Korea's attack does not snowball into something far worse.

Next Week: my love-hate relationship with Christmas music.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Random Notes, November 2010

+ Any time I don't discuss my improv misadventures is too long. Right now I'm in level 4 at IO, which means I'm about three months away from my next class performance. My teacher is Lyndsey Hailey, one of the most highly sought-after actresses on the Chicago improv scene and a really awesome chick. You've probably never heard her name before, but may you have seen the back of her head on occasion. She was Sophie Bush's stand-in on the second and third seasons of "One Tree Hill." In class, we've been working on Del Close's famed Harold technique --a long-form improv style that is too complicated to explain here-- with a focus on scene openings and montages. Would it be redundant to say I'm having a lot of fun?

But that's not all, folks. On Sunday afternoons I have improv with Lynz, but Monday nights are for writing. As I've mentioned before, my teacher is Nate Herman, a writer for SNL during the Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo years and the guy playing the wine steward in this 1982 sketch. The majority of my classmates knew beforehand about Nate's credentials, and as such most of us were too nervous to make small talk until our second or third week. Being an SNL expert of sorts, I've been especially sheepish about asking questions, but he's shared a few stories from time to time. In Writing 1, we mostly covered the art of the late night monologue joke and everything that entails (desk pieces, Jon Stewart-style rants, etc.), and in Writing 2 we've working on penning SNL-type sketches. Last week's homework was a commercial parody, and now we've moved on to movie and TV show spoofs. Nate is a very grounded, jovial guy, and he's been a pleasure to have as a teacher.

+ Early last week, Broadway Video confirmed what most SNL die-hards had been expecting to hear but didn't want to: there will be no further complete season DVD sets. In their press release, Lorne Michaels' underlings admitted that licensing for the musical guests' performances had become too expensive and unwieldy. Season 5 (the last with the original cast) arrived in stores almost a year ago, which meant the dreaded Season 6 would've been next in line. The licensing excuse is not a complete lie, though it feels like an exaggeration; Aretha Franklin and James Brown's estate might've drawn a line, but I can't imagine the likes of Kid Creole and Ellen Shipley playing hardball. (Who are they? Exactly.)

First of all, how do you market the worst 13-episode schneid in the history of the most beloved late night variety series of all time? Secondly, Lorne has all but disowned the five-year period (1980-85) in which he wasn't associated with the show, and repeats from that era rarely air anywhere, except maybe on Canadian television. Thirdly, had this set made its way to Best Buy, bootleg tape-makers would lose their only means of income, and that guy who posts Year 6 clips on YouTube would be forced to interact with the rest of society. (Addendum: when I told Nate the news, he quipped "Oh shoot. I was really hoping to get some seven-cent royalty checks.")

+ How's fantasy football going? I'm glad you're not asking. Both teams are 3-7 after Week 10, and any prospect of a turnaround is slim to nil. I've never had any roto teams in any sport struggle like this before, though sometimes I wonder if I was overdue for a comeuppance. This week, however was a unique abnormality; both of my opponents had three Eagles starters, one guy owned Michael Vick, and in spite of his career-defining performance I beat both teams. As some of you know, I'm doing okay for myself in the TV.com picks contest --I've been hovering in the top five since Week 2, and now I have a tenuous share of first place-- but I'm ready to chalk up the 2010 fantasy season as a wash.

Next Week: my sixth annual "thanks/no thanks" list.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When Brady Got Bunched

This should probably be my last straight political blog for awhile:

In a highly-contested race pitting two candidates nobody liked against each other, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was elected to a full term on Thursday. The announcement couldn't make me feel any more lethargic. Some of you will recall that I had a glimmer of hope for Pat Quinn when he was first sworn in two years ago; with one former governor in the pokey and another awaiting trial at the time, Quinn symbolized a clean break. If Rod Blagojevich was our Nixon, than Quinn was our Gerald Ford. Sadly, that comparison turned out to be somewhat ironic during Quinn's two years in office thus far. A man who built his reputation as a pro-union, anti-corruption rabble-rouser, Quinn has been a doddering and indecisive leader. He's still not corrupt, thank goodness, but he has a tendency to declare platforms without ever acting upon them. Quinn spent his younger days irking and hectoring the establishment, and now that he is the establishment, he doesn't know what to do with himself. What Illinois needs is a Superman, a savior, a mensch. What we have now is somebody's meshuggah old uncle.

As much as I disliked Bill Brady, I will give him credit for one thing: he broke the "collar county" chokehold. A Bloomington native, Brady had no connection to the strong moderate-GOP base within the Chicago suburbs. Since the Chicagoland area is far and away the most densely populated part of the state, and the collar counties house nearly half of Illinois' registered Republicans, the majority of their candidates have been natives of the suburbs or had strong political ties there. Jim Ryan and Judy Baar Topinka, the two cherry-picked candidates that lost to Rod Blagojevich, hail from Elmhurst and Riverside respectively. This year, when the suburbanites couldn't agree upon Kirk Dillard or Andy McKenna in the state primary, the two candidates cancelled each other out and Brady squeaked by with a mere 193-vote lead. This is not necessarily the fault of the candidates, but it's evident that the Illinois GOP as a whole is still struggling to get on the same page; the wedge that divided the collar county Republicans with the rest of the state during George Ryan's scandal-plagued term as governor has not been bridged yet. Brady dutifully served the interests of central and southern Illinois --or at least tried to-- but for northern and Chicagoan Republicans, he was their only legitimate option against Quinn.

When I discuss current events on this blog, I usually come off sounding cynical and exasperated. However, I'd like to think that Illinois' darkest days are behind us. From the bottom of my heart, I hope in spite of his narrow victory that Pat Quinn gets his act together. He's taken his licks from the demanding Chicago media and rightfully so. When two major newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama two years ago give the thumbs-up to your Republican opponent in a heated race, you might want to tweak your game plan. Stop putting your words before your actions, stop whining about potential tax increases, and above all work for your constituents. Even if Quinn sounds like somebody you wouldn't like, the Land of Lincoln could do a lot worse... and trust us, we have.

On a semi-related note, I want to apologize for my "teabagger" remark from last week's blog. Even though I had used the phrase in past entries --with tongue firmly planted in cheek-- certain people took offense to what some might perceive as a crude slang term. My facecious attempt at wordplay completely contradicted and negated a moment of serious political discourse, and I will be more cautious in the future.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Decision 2010: A Midnight Requiem

As I write this, I'm watching the election results on TV and online. Now that I typically post my blog on late Tuesday evenings, I can analyze and comment on the vote as it happens, which I couldn't do in 2006 or 2008. In years past, I broke down what was at stake in each election and what issues mattered most to registered voters ahead of time. However, I've been rambling on and off about the midterms for months now, so what I could've said would've felt repetitive and redundant.

+ Let me start off by explaining my whereabouts this weekend. I obviously didn't have the air fare to fly to DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity, but I attend the Chicago satellite rally for about 90 minutes. About 1,200 people showed up, some wearing Halloween costumes, a handful wearing patriotic colors. The live coverage from Comedy Central appeared on a 6" by 8" screen, and most of the musical segments in DC were muted so that some local activists could speechify at the podium. They also had two folk singers onstage and some comedian that I'd never heard of, but I was paying more attention to the satellite feed.

+ I first tuned into the news coverage just as the Republicans' takeover of the house was confirmed. It wasn't too shocking; though U.S. Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Linda McMahon, and Christine O'Donnell grabbed national headlines, the vast majority of the Tea Party candidates were aiming for the lower chamber, stealthily drumming up support in mostly rural, economically downtrodden districts. Paul won his senate seat handily over Jack Conway --I was expecting a much closer race-- but the biggest surprise for me was the red state takeover in Wisconsin. Not only did teabagger Ron Johnson trump liberal stalwart Sen. Russ Feingold, but the GOP also took over the governor's mansion and five seats in the house (and counting).

+ As I post this, the Illinois races were too close to call. Incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn carried the densely populated Cook County in a landslide, but he's only won two other counties in the state so far. Republican challenger Bill Brady has carried 80 other counties, though half of them have been determined by less than 10%. In the U.S. Senate race, Alexi Giannoulias and Rep. Mark Kirk are going back and forth for the seat that Barack Obama vacated and Rod Blagojevich tried to sell. (I do not foresee any of the aforementioned candidates garnering 50% of the vote, though.) With all the Tea Party hoopla, it seems strange that the very state where Rick Santelli staged his rant 21 months ago has mostly shunned far-right candidates. Locally, my representative Judy Biggert won re-election for the umpteenth time, which goes to show you in a year of anti-incumbent fervor that in some pockets of the country, it's still business as usual.

+ The news coverage has been exactly what you'd expect. They're smirking on Fox News, the talking heads on MSNBC are despondent, and CNN is a dogpile of partisan bickering. All the local stations are darting between victory and concession speeches, an almost pointless task considering the high number of incumbents retaining their jobs in Illinois tonight (Debbie Halvorson notwithstanding). Politically polarized outlets like MSNBC and Fox News pretty much puppeteered the elections this year, lobbing volleyballs of heresy to encourage controversy and spiking campaigns to put more emphasis on attacking opponents than ever. If you wanted blood, you got it.

+ So what happens now? A Republican majority in the house and a narrow Democratic lead in the senate will only create more gridlock in the short-term. President Obama intends to focus on the national deficit in 2011, but what will get accomplished is highly debatable. In some ways, there's a parallel between this year's elections and the 1982 midterms. That particular vote was a response to President Reagan's unpopular supply-side economic agenda, resulting in some fresh Democratic faces in both houses. What is happening right now is the same, only different; President Obama's stimulus packages drew the Republicans' ire and they rode the anger and frustration of their constituents to victory.

After I left my polling place earlier today, I turned on my car radio and this was the first song that played. I don't think there could've been a more fitting selection for a day like today. Midterm elections are a mess of minor victories and similarly arbitrary defeats. People that vote for change are deluded to think that progress will happen overnight, and in a politically divided America the ability to accomplish anything signifigant will take years, if not decades. It is your god-given right to elect your leaders, but this year I didn't see many choices. Nearly everyone that went to the polls won and lost something today. In short, you can't always get what you want.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1985

The excesses of Reagan-era pop culture hit a high point in 1985. In general, it was a year of songs that were insanely catchly though not very trying on the ol' noggin. New Wave was over, and the more organic college-rock sound of the late '80s was slowly taking form. In the underground, the Bauhaus-inspired "goth" sound of The Cure, The Cult, and The Sisters of Mercy was fleshing out quite well. On the radio, synthesizers were so de rigueur it bordered on cliché; it was becoming harder to find actual instruments behind the domineering vocals and slick production values. Surprisingly, a lot of that pop piffle has aged pretty well, largely because they sound ready-made for karaoke and drunken sing-alongs. Without deviating from the point, 1985 was also a big year for movies (Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies) but that's a blog for another time.

BEST ALBUMS

1. Rain Dogs, Tom Waits. If there's an artist that doesn't fit into any of the above categories, that would be Tom Waits. His sudden dabbles into avant-garde --a metamorphosis that began with Swordfishtrombones two years earlier-- hits its highest creative plateau on Waits' ninth album. The selling point is the odd instrumentation; marimbas and accordions are just as cognative to this album as the familiar piano and upright bass. "Downtown Train" is the hit here, so to speak; a ramshackle ballad towards the end of side two, it later became a top 10 hit for Rod Stewart. A cacophonus delight.

2. Tim, The Replacements. Irked by distribution problems on the indie Twin/Tone label, Paul Westerberg et al. jumped to the big leagues --while keeping one foot planted in the woods of Minnesota-- on their best album, Tim. With an expanded budget and very limited meddling from their new label, Sire, and the guidance of Tommy Ramone as producer, The Replacements trade their raw DIY sound for something big and roomy. Westerberg the songwriter was never more confessional than on Tim, as evidenced by "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Swingin' Party."

3. Hounds of Love, Kate Bush. A highly literate singer-songwriter with a distinctive coloratura soprano voice, Bush spent most of the late '70s and early '80s as Britain's best-kept secret but a mere cult favorite in the states. Hounds was not only her American breakthrough but a career peak of sorts. The video for "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" garnered some MTV play, and rightfully so; it was both the obvious single and an excellent gateway to one of her most ambitious, complex efforts on disc.

4. Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits
5. The Head on the Door, The Cure
6. Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain
7. Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M.
8. Fegmania!, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians
9. Black Codes (From The Underground), Wynton Marsalis

10. Little Creatures, Talking Heads. Known mostly to fans as "the pop album," David Byrne and the other Heads aim for songcraft here and mostly succeed. Where earlier efforts emphasized improvised melodies and lyrics, the intent here is ear candy. This may sound like the Heads were selling out, catering to an expanding audience and such, but the general creativity of their previous work is still very much intact.

Honorable Mentions: Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp; King of Rock, RUN-DMC; Together, Emily Remler and Larry Coryell; No Jacket Required, Phil Collins; First and Last and Always, The Sisters of Mercy; This Is The Sea, The Waterboys.


BEST SINGLES

"Like A Virgin," Madonna
"Broken Wings," Mr. Mister
"Don't You (Forget About Me)," Simple Minds
"Life in a Northern Town," Dream Academy
"She Sells Sanctuary," The Cult
"Summer of '69," Bryan Adams
"Your Love," The Outfield
"Would I Lie To You?," Eurythmics
"Obsession," Animotion
"Everybody Wants To Rule the World," Tears For Fears

Outstanding Achievement in Awfulness: "We Built This City," Starship. A quarter-century on, it's a wonder why this song even exists, much less became an international #1 hit. It still merits radio play on oldies stations, though no song from '85 was an instant period piece quite like "We Built This City." Everything about the song is either half-hearted or synthetic; the city in particular is vaguely defined (there are equal allusions to LA and San Francisco), anti-commercialism is implied but never practiced, and 46-year-old Grace Slick tries way too hard to sing like a teenage girl. Inexplicably, the song was co-written by Bernie Taupin and Peter Wolf. WTF?

BEST VIDEOS

1. "Money For Nothing," Dire Straits. One year before Pixar made their first animated short --and ten years before "Toy Story"-- the bar for computerized animation was set with this groundbreaking video. No wonder it was the first song to ever air on MTV Europe.

2. "Don't Come Around Here No More," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Lewis Carroll meets Jean Arp in this surrealist-revisionist take on the Mad Hatter sequence from "Lewis in Wonderland."

3. "Take On Me," A-ha. Animation and live action mesh together seemlessly in this iconic, almost heartbreaking clip.

4. "Bastards of Young," The Replacements. And then, there was the anti-video. For all intents and purposes, this clip is nothing more than a static shot of some guy's stereo system. According to legend, the director was given $1000 to shot this video and only spent $75. Money well spent.

5. "Road To Nowhere," Talking Heads. The album-closer from Little Creatures is a thoughtful rumination on life and death and everything in between, with a kalideoscope of carefully chosen images prancing upon David Byrne's yearning lyrics.

Honorable Mention: "Lonely Ol' Night," John Cougar Mellencamp.
 
Before I ask for your thoughts, I just want to remind everyone to please vote next Tuesday. Regardless of your political affiliation, America's short-term and long-term future in your hands.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Would You Like Some Kool-Aid With Your Tea?

Okay, so I might've underestimated the appeal of the Tea Party. Their anti-incumbent, non-insider fervor seemed to invigorate the Republican Party during the primaries, though their odds of victory in the 2010 midterms are still up for debate. Of the 70-odd handchosen "Teabaggers" that represent the GOP on ballots across the country, a curious bell curve has developed. About one-quarter of candidates have sizable leads in the polls, an equally sized minority are trailing by at least 10%, but half of them are in close races. In most of the districts where far-right candidates are leading, the majority of registered voters define themselves as conservative anyway, and have been represented by Republicans for most of the past 50 years. So much for crossover appeal.

As a caustic observer with moderate-left leanings, I still feel deeply concerned about the near-future of American government. The greatest drawback to a GOP takeover of either house of congress is that whatever progress was made in the last four years will be erased immediately. If the Democrats do lose both houses, we could probably pin the blame on health care reform; though the sweaping changes were intended to be very gradual, the fact that the health care debate raged on for over a year without any bipartian support might've alienated some moderates and centrists. One would argue that health care reform overshadowed other major issues, like climate change and economic reform. Though I can't say I was ever a big fan of Nancy Pelosi --a career politico that will probably lose her Speaker of the House position, regardless of what happens in two weeks-- I admire her support of PAYGO. Democrats and Republicans have been financing various expenditures with money that doesn't exist for as long as anyone can remember, so to hear that Pelosi backs the concept of "pay as you go" is weirdly encouraging. Sadly, that one sliver of common sense doesn't go a long way.

I will attest that there is a reason to be angry and frustrated now, but the Tea Party doesn't represent all Americans. Not by a long shot. They can't be called populist because they're too polarized and exclusive; they don't fight for a common cause so much as they fight for themselves and a very particular agenda. The Teabaggers claim that they oppose the lackadaisical mainstream GOP, but these two factions do have one similar bond: they both seek a level of power and political sway that they don't fully understand and may ultimately squander. On one hand, the current GOP collectively said "no" and fought Obama's policies with stubborn inertia; on the other hand, Tea Party Republicans will still say "no" but attack with blunt force.

The so-called GOP "Class of '94" was intent on impeaching President Clinton on trumped-up allegations long before the Monica Lewinsky mess, and they lost a great amount of credibility in doing so. The Tea Party candidates want to handcuff President Obama in a similar fashion. They will not respect the opinions and platforms of their political opponents because they refuse to understand them. If the Teabaggers have their say, Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment programs across the country will eventually be drained; they will argue that it'll save money for the US in the long run, but in reality they have no idea how each program works or how they impact our nation's elderly, disabled, and jobless. Whatever regulations were passed to prevent Wall Street from enabling another global financial disaster akin to the Panic of 2008 will be defanged, too. Our government was established in the US Constitution --to a paraphrase Abe Lincoln-- for the people and by the people; sadly, this grass-roots movement run amok have proven themselves to be the wrong people.

Next week: the year in music, 1985.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bully For You

When I graduated from Downers Grove North High School in 2003, 15 of my former classmates came out. A few of my peers had been subject to gay rumors for years, others dropped hints but never specified their sexual orientation, but a few guys jumped out of the closet to virtually everyone's surprise. It was kind of unusual to see so many people come out en masse, but I was glad that they could finally be honest about themselves. I was friends with them before graduation and I'm still in contact with several of them via Facebook.

Coming from a predominately white, upper-middle-class, moderate-conservative high school, I understand why so many of my high school buddies kept the closet door shut until they left. Downers North at the time was not very gay-friendly --in fact, there was no organized LGBT student group until midway through my senior year-- and the few students that came out beforehand were treated like pariahs. I remember getting into an argument with a fellow classmate because it annoyed him that a boy we knew would regularly go to school wearing glittery makeup and women's blouses. My classmate knew nothing about the guy; his presence simply aggravated him.

I mention this because the human interest topic du jour has been anti-gay bullying. In the wake of that terrible suicide at Georgetown University, a spotlight has been thrown on utter disregard for students of alternative lifestyles in high schools and colleges all across the country. Even for those of you that are on the fence for LGBT rights, there's also the legal quagmire of harassment, freedom of speech, and invasion of privacy. What transpired in Tyler Clementi's dorm room last month and its tragic aftermath could be debated in court for years to come.

One would argue that bullying in our nation's schools is just as rampant as it was 50 years ago, but you could also argue that the ramifications of bullying have increased exponentially. It's not just about bigger kids beating you for milk money anymore; social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become new grounds for potential tormenters to run loose, in some cases anonymously. The daily beatdown in the schoolyard has been eclipsed by threatening texts, slanderous wall posts, and in this case, some asshole with a hidden webcam.

I'm only a straight ally, but I know what it's like to be bullied and this absolutely has to stop. The Clementi tragedy is only one of several gay suicides nationwide that have occured in the past few months. In most cases, the tormentor is compensating for their own unhappy life and takes it out on someone that can't or will not retaliate. This subconscious anger can lead to a wall of ignorance and prejudice that is hard to unravel, and in turn inflict psychological damage this is equally difficult to unwind. My classmates at DGN stayed in the closet until they were 18 out of fear of being hurt or humiliated. The religious right can call this opportunistic manipulation all they want, yet they're missing the forest for the trees. This is still bullying.

Other notes:

+ In light of my fantasy baseball success, my two roto football teams are struggling. My TV.com team is 1-4 entering Week 6, keeping a loose grip on 7th place in a league of eight teams. Not realizing that all my running backs have byes this weekend, I dumped Tim Hightower and picked up Giants standout Ahmad Bradshaw. My "other" team is 2-3, tied for 5th place out of 10, and holding steady after a weak start.

+ After going 2-2 in the divisional series, I'm picking the Rangers to beat New York in 7 and the Phillies to nail San Fran in 5. In the end, it truly depends on who has the more dominant pitching.

+ On the improv scene, I finished Improv Level 3 at IO last weekend and I start Level 4 on Sunday. My last Writing 1 session with Nate Herman ends next Monday, with Writing 2 beginning the week after. Still no word on my next show, though.

+ Last Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 11,000 for the first time since May 2010. "That's awesome," said a cancer patient with no health insurance. ;)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Falling Back Into Things

As some of you have noticed, I've been posting my weekly dispatch a bit later than usual. Now that I'm commuting to the city twice a week, I have much time to write during the week (save for homework) and until now I didn't have the foresight to work on the blog ahead of time. In the five-plus years that I've writing this blog, the posting time has alternated between Tuesday morning, afternoon, and evening, and for the time being my latest missive will probably be posted sometime after 9pm Central time. I do apologize for any inconvinience.

I think it's time for some random notes:

+ Two weeks ago, I commented on liberal and conservative anti-Semitism during my rant on the Park 51 controversy. That was some curious foresight on my part, as CNN talking head/professional Twitter creeper Rick Sanchez pretty much confirmed the unfortunate virility of that theory. Luckily, when Jon Stewart --the target of the rant-- addressed Sanchez's firing on "The Daily Show" earlier this week he took the high road rather than predictably vilify the blowhard. This particular controversy will die down, but the ignorance lingers.

+ How's mom? As it turns out, she's made a full recovery. Though the doctors wouldn't say for certain, my family is convinced that her hepatitis treatment caused the stroke. Her physician dropped the treatment in late August after she went cold turkey for three weeks, and she has not shown any stroke-type symptoms since then. Otherwise, she's back to her normal self.

+ Another year, another fantasy baseball title. Though my TV.com team foundered during the stretch, my other team steamrolled to a championship for the second year in a row. I picked up Bruce Chen for my "good" team on the third-to-last day of the season, a strange but justifiable move. Firstly, I wanted to erase Brett Myers' terrible outing on Thursday night. Secondly, I was losing in the ERA category and tied in strikeouts, and I needed a dark horse pitcher who'd been hot in the past month. Thirdly, I could brag that I won my title with three Kansas City Royals on my roster (the others being Butler and Greinke). As it turned out, Chen threw a complete game two-hitter against the typically feast-or-famine Tampa Bay Rays; I had more Ks than my opponent in the matchup but lost ERA by a quarter of a run.

+ Speaking of baseball, here are my divisional round picks: Twins in 5, Rangers in 5, Braves in 5, Phillies in 4. Sure, Yanks-Rays would get boffo ratings, but it'll be nice to see some fresh faces in the league championships. ;)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1990

If I could sum up the year 1990 in two words, it would be adrift and synthetic. I would justify the adrift description in that the music and cultural marks of that year don't really fit into the '90s aesthetic, but it doesn't feel a continuation of the '80s either. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day was acknowledged at a huge rally in New York City that April, but earth tones weren't exactly the rage. From my own memory --keep in mind that I turned six that year-- 1990 was a rush of saturated neon colors, of hot pinks and mercury blues and UFO greens. I remember being really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles around this time, so much so that I dressed up as Raphael for Halloween that year and the next. I was mildly fascinated by glow-in-the-dark stickers, fueled by sugary cereals, and exhausting my household's supply of construction and drawing paper.

I was only vaguely aware of the musical trends that year, though I was obviously too young to appreciate what a potpourri of sounds 1990 proved to be. It was the year the audiocassette was finally eclipsed by the compact disc, as brisk sales of the Sony Discman pushed tapes into a lo-fi purgatory of demo recordings and concert bootlegs. The "Mad-Chester" music scene was a fascinating distraction, a shortlived novelty best remembered as the missing link between British New Wave and mid-90s Brit-Pop. American pop music finally had its fill of hair metal, as electronica, rap, and slick power ballads dominated the radio and records charts. Alternative and early grunge was still a viable college-rock staple, less than two years before Nirvana broke the dams with Nevermind. So anyway...


BEST ALBUMS

1. Violator, Depeche Mode. In his review on AllMusic.com, Ned Raggett says it best: the Mode's seventh studio album is "goth without ever being stupidly hammy, synth without sounding like the clinical stereotype of synth music, (and) rock without ever sounding like a 'rock' band." An unexpected international bestseller, Violator is defined by its two hit singles, the bass-and-echo driven "Personal Jesus" and the dramatic ballad "Enjoy the Silence."
2. Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy. "Yeah, boy-ee!" Released after becoming the most notorious rhymers in the rap genre --and in the wake of Professor Griff's dismissal for making anti-Semetic comments-- Black Planet builds upon the anger and fire of their first two LPs and get a little more funky in the process. Even when he's utterly politically incorrect, Chuck D rhymes with an eloquence that is sadly devoid from most hip-hop nowadays, and the Bomb Squad achieve a career high with their seductive grooves, relentless beats, and clever sampling. It's urban decay you can dance to.
3. Ritual de la Habitual, Jane's Addiction. If 1988's Nothing's Shocking was a breathtaking introduction to a must-hear rock band, than Ritual is the prototypical follow-up: a similar blueprint, but more daring and unpredictable. Come for the tight, radio friendly tunes like "Stop!" and "Been Caught Stealing," stay for druggy epics like "Three Days" and "Then She Did." Maybe this is why Jane's disbanded after the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991-- they just couldn't top this album.
4. Goo, Sonic Youth
5. I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, Sinead O'Connor
6. Apple, Mother Love Bone
7. Pills n' Thrills And Bellyaches, Happy Mondays
8. Bossanova, The Pixies
9. Flood, They Might Be Giants
10. Goodbye Jumbo, World Party. Karl Wallinger had a pretty tight year in 1990. After leaving The Waterboys five years earlier, Wallinger subsisted as a go-to sideman (he appears on two tracks on the O'Connor album mentioned above) and as the brains behind the one-man band World Party. After a trial-and-error debut album, Wallinger honed his sound into a specific style that evokes mostly The Beatles, Motown, Merseybeat, and in one flukey instance The Grateful Dead (on "Put The Message in a Box").

Honorable Mentions: Facelift, Alice in Chains; Shake Your Money Maker, The Black Crowes; Pod, The Breeders; Heaven or Las Vegas, Cocteau Twins; Bloodletting, Concrete Blonde; Social Distortion, Social Distortion; Nowhere, Ride.

BEST SINGLES

"Thunderstruck," AC/DC
"Epic," Faith No More
"Mama Said Knock You Out," LL Cool J
"Just a Friend," Biz Markie
"Suicide Blonde," INXS
"The Obvious Child," Paul Simon
"There She Goes," The La's
"The Power," Snap
"Pump Up The Jam," Technotronic
"Wicked Game," Chris Isaak

BEST VIDEOS

1. "Velouria," The Pixies. Walking down a cliff in slow-motion never looked so intense.
2. "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinead O'Connor. In the early 90s, Prince was in a state of creative decline that some would argue hasn't let up. Letting Sinead cover this obscure album cut, however gave him enough street cred to coast for a few more years.
3. "Vogue," Madonna. When "Glee" had their Madge tribute last season, spoofing this clip was a no-brainer.
4. "Birdhouse In Your Soul," They Might Be Giants. Surreal in a witty kind of way. Watch out for cyclists!
5. "Enjoy the Silence," Depeche Mode. Do you ever feel like a king without a kingdom? Dave Gahan takes that addage literally in this introspective clip.
Your thoughts?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Have a Little Faith in Me

Is it too late to comment on last month's NYC mosque mess? If not...

Let me start off by saying how funny it is how the media creates controversies during a heated election year. As iffy as that mosque-cum-rec center may seem now, keep in mind that there's a Muslim religious center 15 minutes from where Flight 93 crashed. (The Pentagon mosque was an exaggeration, it seems.) There was even a clip on YouTube where Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham discussed the midtown mosque on Fox News in December 2009 and implied that they were okay with its location (said clip has since been pulled). It's one thing to triumph and support the anger and frustration of a browbeaten sector of the American populace, but another to play on their ignorance and fear. In all likelihood, the 20% of the US population that inexplicably believes President Obama is Muslim probably weren't aware that such a religion existed before that fateful day in September 2001.

Sadly, this controversy says a lot about how xenophobic our country can be, and an unwillingness by some to keep an open mind or look into the facts. To say the 19 terrorists represented all Muslims is like saying Fred Phelps and Terry Jones represent all Christians. Every faith has its bad eggs, interpreting religious texts in the most literal way possible and regurgitating said texts into convinient bite-sized "truths" that make 98% of the world sound like satanic messengers. The problem is that these hopelessly ignorant demogogues control more of the media's attention that they rightfully should. This is not by any means an anti-religious statement; in fact, I fear that good, god-fearing Christians and equally spirital Muslims are getting lost in a shuffle of hatred and animosity.

In the past, I've commented that racial and religious prejudices are often detached from a political bias. A recent cover story in Time magazine about Israel brought to mind how liberals and conservatives sometimes portray each other as anti-Semetic. For example, a far-left liberal conspiracy theorist will imply that the Jews control the world's money and were secretly responsible for the global economic downturn. A neo-conservative conspiracy theorist will suggest that the Jews control the media in order to transmit their latent yet rigid Zionist-Socialist agenda. Both theories are complete garbage, but it's something to think about. There are plenty of instances in world history where Christians and Muslims alike have persecuted the Jews, and even though anti-Semetism in American culture has fell on the wayside in recent decades, most Muslims and Christians in other countries are apathetic to the Israeli state. That's another debate for another time.

The conclusion I'm in arriving to is that in troubling times, everyone's looking for a scapegoat or a fall guy. When the southern United States struggled to gain their footing during the Reconstruction era, white locals pinned the blame on recently freed slaves. When the American economy teeter-tootered in the 1890s, financial experts pointed their finger at the sudden explosion of European immigrants. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens were sent to internment camps. Now we're in a double-dip recession nine years removed from the WTC attacks and people are wary of the "growing" influence of Muslims in American culture. Times are tense right now, but there are bigger fish to fry and far more important topics to debate before the midterm elections. National security should be a crucial issue, not setting limits on freedom of religion, yet people blur the two together for reasons I can't seem to comprehend.

Next Week: the year in music, 1990.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Land of Stinkin': The State of My State

Normally I'm not this unctuous, but I think I'm overdue for a political rant:

Even though it was a month ago, I'm still irked by the Blagojevich verdict. The only that could've been worse than this was if he was completely acquitted. It's one thing to have a serious mistrust in the powers that be here in Illinois, but now I'm especially discouraged by the people that vote for them as well (or sit on their juries, anyway). The one holdout juror claimed that she "voted from her heart" and wasn't convinced that Blago was entirely guilty of most of the charges --even though the other jurors thought this was an open and shut case-- which either says she's an incredibly patient women or just gullible to the ex-governor's charms. Regardless, because of this woman the jury spent two weeks in gridlock, and the state of Illinois is facing an expensive retrial that is A) wholly unnecessary and B) even less likely to bring Blagojevich to justice.

While Blago's retrial looms, our previous corrupt governor is making another attempt at early release. For the unitiated, George Ryan was Blago's immediate predecessor; he was probably just as corrupt but not even remotely as charismatic or media-friendly. Where the metropolitian Blago mugged for the cameras, Ryan was ornery, homespun, humorless, and as transparent as pea soup. Ryan is currently serving out a 6 1/2 year sentence in Indiana for selling driver's licenses to unqualified truck drivers in exchange for "contributions" during his stint as Secretary of State. Past attempts to delay jail time or shorten his sentence in the U.S. Court of Appeals have failed, citing "overwhelming guilt." His complex and far-reaching license-for-bribes scheme tattered and gutted the Illinois GOP to a degree that some still wonder if the party will ever recover. A third ex-governor of ours, James Thompson, has led a pro bono legal crusade to get his friend and onetime second-in-command paroled, which may lead to another date with Court of Appeals. Thompson has gone so far as to dangle Ryan's sickly wife around in a feeble stab at garnering sympathy for a feckless political insider. Suffice to say, I have been less sympathy for Ryan than I do Blagojevich, and anything short of finishing his full sentence would be a slap in the face to the state that he conned and betrayed.

On a semi-related note, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley dropped a bombshell last week when he announced that he would not run for a seventh term. This is a tragedy of sorts, as there was so much of the city that he never got around to selling. (But seriously...) Daley claimed that he'd been mulling retirement after 22 years in office, though one would argue that his plummeting approval rating --38% as of last week-- made it clear that his time had come and gone. In the eyes of his critics, Hizzoner Jr's downfall was the 2016 Olympics debacle, a big money flush for a city and state that obviously can't afford risky and/or frivolous expendatures. I won't deny that he's done some good for the city these past two decades, though he seldom stepped out of his father's long shadow.

Is the Land of Lincoln in a state of flux? Oh God, yes. The next year will be (more likely than not) an all-around changing of the guard within the most powerful houses in Illinois politics. That's not to say, however, that these new options bear much promise. In the governor's race, we have our doddering, indecisive Lt. Governor running against a dog-killing white trash millionaire, a wife-beating pawn shop owner, and a far left-leaning civil rights attorney that wants to raise taxes and legalize marijuana. That's not a roster of candidates so much as its a list of characters on a bad sitcom. If you go on Wikipedia, all four of their entries have mostly negative or unsavory character traits. To sum up: Election Day in Illinois will be like going to the candy store and discovering all they sell is Zagnuts, Nut Milks, Smarties, and Whoppers. The Chicago mayor's office is officially up for grabs, though U.S. Rep. Danny Davis has expressed interest in running and seems to be a local favorite (sorry, Rahm). There's a taste for change in Illinois, but the only aroma we smell is gas.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

32 Teams, 32 Questions: My 2010 NFL Preview


Looking towards the coming NFL season, I can't help but notice the lack of a singularly dominant team. There's no obvious frontrunner, but no woefully bad teams either. Upon glancing at these 32 squads, a 10-6 record might be enough to coast to a Lombardi Trophy. Sportswriters have cried that NFL parity is dead, though others will argue that its corpse is being propped up by narcissistic team owners trying to save face in the wake of a potential lockout, but that's a discussion for another time.

Like my scattershot baseball preview from five months ago, I will pose each team's forecast as a question. The fact that the NFL has more parity than the other three major sports makes predictions quite difficult, and every year there's always three or four teams that take virtually everyone by surprise. Rather than address what seems fairly obvious, I want to focus on the intangibles and X-factors that could make this one of the most compelling seasons in recent memory... or a 17-week snoozefest.

Here are my prognostications:

NFC North
1. Packers (10-6) Will the oldest team in the NFC show their age?
2. Vikings* (9-7) Speaking of age, is this the year that Brett Favre finally stops cheating Father Time?
3. Bears (7-9) If the preseason was any indicator, how badly will the O-line fail Jay Cutler?
4. Lions (5-11) Can you name a defensive player on this team not named Ndamukong Suh?

NFC East
1. Redskins (9-7) What is Albert Haynesworth more likely to memorize, his playbook or directions to Baskin Robbins?
2. Giants (8-8) Can Brandon Jacobs stay healthy?
3. Eagles (7-9) Who's more overmatched, Kevin Kolb or LeSean McCoy?
4. Cowboys (7-9) With that aging O-line (average age: 32), can Them Boys overcome the toughest schedule in the NFC?

NFC South
1. Saints (11-5) Can Drew Brees' high-flying O continue to compensate for a shaky D?
2. Falcons* (10-6) Is a leaner Michael Turner any meaner?
3. Panthers (6-10) Was last year's last-season surge a mirage?
4. Buccaneers (5-11) Will a young core mature enough to compete at a professional level?

NFC West
1. 49ers (9-7) Is Alex Smith the real deal, or a mediocre QB taking advantage of a weak division?
2. Cardinals (8-8) Does Coach Whiz have any confidence in Derek Anderson?
3. Rams (4-12) With Bradford still going through growing pains, can Steven Jackson carry the offense again?
4. Seahawks (3-13) Between the porous O-line, erratic secondary, and inexperienced D-line, does any other NFL team scream "potential train wreck?"

AFC North
1. Ravens (11-5) Can Baltimore avoid racking up so many penalty yards?
2. Bengals (8-8) Was last year's strides on defense a fluke?
3. Steelers (7-9) With unproven Dennis Dixon subbing for Ben Roethlisberger, can a Polamalu-led defense carry the Steel Curtain?
4. Browns (4-12) Mild improvements on defense notwithstanding, could Cleveland pin their hopes on a more beaten-down QB than Jake Delhomme?

AFC East
1. Jets (10-6) With Darrelle Revis signed (finally), can we already stamp their ticket to Dallas?
2. Patriots* (10-6) Can the offense compensate if Logan Mankins doesn't sign ASAP?
3. Dolphins (7-9) Will Brandon Marshall adapt to a run-first offense?
4. Bills (3-13) Is Ralph Wilson competing with Al Davis to be the orneriest owner in the NFL?

AFC South
1. Colts (12-4) Following that Super Bowl boner, is this the year Peyton Manning starts to look human?
2. Texans* (10-6) Is a healthy Matt Schaub the best-kept secret in the league?
3. Jaguars (6-10) Can Aaron Kampman boost a woeful sack record?
4. Titans (5-11) Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Vince Young: who can disappear faster?

AFC West
1. Chargers (11-5) With or without two crucial contract holdouts, are they the AFC version of the Saints?
2. Chiefs (9-7) Will an increasingly erratic Matt Cassel take advantage of the easiest sked in the conference?
3. Broncos (8-8) Is Tim Tebow the next Andre Ware?
4. Raiders (5-11) Is Jason Campbell really an upgrade over JaMarcus Russell?

*Wild Card

First Head Coach Fired: John Fox, Panthers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mike Williams, Bucs
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Lions
NFL MVP
: Drew Brees, New Orleans
Super Bowl XLV: New Orleans 24, Baltimore 20

In defending my predictions in the form of a question, I can lift some of the blame off myself if things don't go as expected. Trust me, that's coming from a guy that predicted a Red Sox-Phillies Fall Classic back in April. ;)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1975


In 1975 rock finally reached critical mass. After some lost years following the breakup of the Beatles, a whole genre that was once written off as the noisy noodlings of long-haired hippies by Middle America finally garnered some mainstream respect. Leading the charge was Bruce Springsteen, who followed two well-received but poor-selling albums with an almost flawless, commercially successful masterpiece (see below). Springsteen's third album generated enough buzz that in late October he became the first non-politician to appear on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week, no small feat for a guy who was barely holding onto his record contract just months earlier.

Bruce dominated the headlines, but he wasn't the only story in '75. It was the last big year for glam rock before it disintegrated and metamorphized into punk. Citing modal jazz and Kraut-rock as a mutual influence, artists like Brian Eno and Pink Floyd proved that rock can have a calming, ethereal effect, finding a spacey, melodic center without dabbling into passé psychedelia. This was the unofficial midway point of what radio programmers will call the "classic rock" era, with relative newcomers Queen and Aerosmith joining veterans like Led Zeppelin and The Who in packing arenas worldwide, stirring the masses with charging, power-chord driven sermons. Other subgenres that defined popular music in the 1970s were loud, clear, and present at mid-decade: metal, jazz fusion, funk, R&B, you name it.

BEST ALBUMS

1. Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen. Is this the apex of American rock? If not, it's hard to fuse the two major elements of The Boss' third album --a wistful look back at teenage street life, augmented with Spector-esque bombast-- into anything more luscious and perfect than this. "Thunder Road" sounds and feels like the first chapter of an epic novel, while the heavenly sax solo that bridges "Jungleland" brings everything full circle. The title track alone took six months to sculpt, and worth every second of tinkering. All in all, the defining album of a generation-defining artist.
2. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin. Dubbed by Rolling Stone critic Jim Miller as a bid for artistic respectability, this sprawling double-LP is potpourri of musical styles and the near-seemless fusion of five years' worth of sessions and outtakes. Where the first disc is topheavy on heavy rockers like "Custard Pie" and "The Rover," disc two displays Jimmy Page et al. at its quirkiest, as demonstrated by the psuedo-country "Down By The Seaside" and the acoustic noodlings of "Bron-Yr-Aur" and "Boogie With Stu." This may not be the first album that I'd suggest to a Zeppelin neophyte, but it does a better job of covering the band's various personalities than any of the single-disc albums could.
3. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan. In the early '70s, the unrequited king of the '60s counterculture was in a slump of sorts. Dylan had become self-indulgent, weird and oblique, and if he was releasing music for his own personal amusement. When his first marriage slowly crumbled, however Dylan refound his focus. Though he has repeatedly claimed that he doesn't write confessional music, the ten songs that comprise Blood on the Tracks revolve around the heartache, anger, and loneliness of a failed romance. Through it all Dylan still sounds like an iconoclast, defiantly indifferent to what others think of him and what they project him to be.
4. A Night At The Opera, Queen
5. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
6. Horses, Patti Smith
7. Toys In The Attic, Aerosmith
8. Tonight's The Night, Neil Young
9. Katy Lied, Steely Dan
10. The Koln Concert, Keith Jarrett. What are the ingredients of the best-selling solo jazz album in history? Apparently, all you need is one man, one piano, and 1,300 enraptured Germans. Unplanned and entirely improvised, every gesture and flourish in this 66-minute live set is spontaneous. This album is not so much about Jarrett's ability to improvise on the piano as it is a mediation on the instrument itself and the nature of sound. A marvelous composition, and the paramount live jazz recording of the decade.

Honorable Mentions: Another Green World, Brian Eno;
The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan & The Band; Captain Fantastic and the
Brown Dirt Cowboy
, Elton John; Still Crazy After All These Years,
Paul Simon; Gnu High, Kenny Wheeler; Nighthawks at the Diner,
Tom Waits.

BEST SINGLES

"Ballroom Blitz," Sweet
"Fly By Night," Rush
"TNT," AC/DC
"Welcome To My Nightmare," Alice Cooper
"Bungle in the Jungle," Jethro Tull
"Slip Kid," The Who
"Teenage Letter," Count Bishops
"Sound Track," Be-Bop Deluxe
"Motorhead," Hawkwind
"To The Last Whale (Medley)," David Crosby and Graham Nash

"Lady Marmalade," Labelle
"You're The First, My Last, My Everything," Barry White
"One of These Nights," The Eagles
"At Seventeen," Janis Ian
"Laughter in the Rain," Neil Sedaka
"Sky High," Jigsaw
"Why Can't We Be Friends," War
"Miracles," Jefferson Starship
"Letting Go," Paul McCartney & Wings
"Magic," Pilot

I wish I had more funk/disco/R&B on the singles list, but it's hard to ignore all the great bubblegum in the Top 40 that year. Regardless, I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

She Got Game?


Last weekend, I attended my very first WNBA game. (I can already tell that you're enthralled.) My dad won free Chicago Sky tickets, and we caught their last home game of the season against Connecticut. If this was an average professional women's basketball game, my initial presumptions blended well with other aspects that I didn't expect. For starters, while I expected a fundamentally sound, slightly slower-paced ballgame --which I assumed correctly-- it wasn't as low-scoring as the typical college game. On top of that, scoring tends to be quite streaky; after only dropping 14 in the second quarter, Connecticut scored 30 answered points in the third to beat the Sky 78-71.

My overall experience was adequate. It was a low-key, family-friendly event, not unlike going to a minor league baseball game. At worst, it was an amusing novelty. The Sky doesn't have a local TV contract, and the team usually merits one-paragraph mentions in the Tribune sports section, so the only media in attendence --as far as I could see, anyway-- flew in from Hartford. The question I pose to myself is, would I want to see another WNBA game? Granted, this was only the second professional basketball game I've ever attended (the other was Bulls-Hornets at the United Center, April 1995). To be honest, I'd like to attend another NBA game before seeing the ladies play again, mostly for compare/contrast. Plus, neither the Sky nor the Sun made the playoffs, so I wouldn't see another game until 2011 anyway.

To anyone else here who might've attended a pro women's hoops game, did you have a similar experience? I still feel oddly bemused.

Other notes:

+ My quasi-political link of the week is an article from the Wall Street Journal. With the GOP likely to gain seats in November's midterm elections, will they avoid the same mistakes that cost them both houses four years ago? With an influx of new faces on both sides of the aisle, regardless of what happens in 2 1/2 months, I'm not so sure myself.

+ Mom Update: As I alluded to in WU #269, physical and occupational therapy started last week. She was also put on a strict, low-sodium diet that she is mostly adhering to so far. Prior to the stroke, she was sleeping 12-13 hours a day, usually going to bed around 11p and not waking up until noonish. At the suggestion of one of her nurses, she is now hitting the hay around 9:30-10 at night and waking up around 9a. Thank you so much for the kind words and positive encouragement, and I'll post more news as it develops.

+ Improv Update: On Sunday I started Improv Level 3 (the first class to conclude with a performance) at IO. I was supposed to start my first comedy writing class at IO yesterday, but it was pushed back to the 30th. Though I had to pay extra money for a second course, I eagerly anticipate honing my craft; the "professor" of the writing class is Nate Herman, a semi-retired TV scribe who wrote for SNL during the Dick Ebersol era. Though I did not make the Second City conservatory on my second try, I will audition again on October 1st.

+ Fantasy Update: At last, some upward mobility. Both of my teams defeated their opponents in the same week for the first time in two months. My TV.com team went 6-3-1; though they're in still in last place out of eight teams, I'm slowly closing the gap with the fellow in seventh. I finally dropped James Shields --picking up Bronson Arroyo in his place-- though dumping Jaime Garcia for Chad Billingsley hasn't paid off yet. My "other" team spanked that league's celler dweller 11-2-2 to stand 9 1/2 games out of first. I dropped Jonathan Broxton for Michael Wuertz after J-Bro was demoted from closer to set-up, but Wuertzie hasn't picked up a save in over a week.

Next week: the year in music, 1975.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Smashing Stroke

Last week, what has been a trying summer for me hit rock bottom. I was at last Tuesday's White Sox-Twinkies game when I received a phone call from my sister. She had just driven my mother to the hospital after she complained of stroke-like symptoms. When we arrived, my mom was lying on a gurney, looking dazed and incapable of uttering more than one word at a time. My sister had done the right thing by taking my mother to the ER immediately after showing symptoms; however, our local hospital doesn't specialize in stroke treatments, so she was shipped off to Central DuPage Hospital. Upon driving 45 minutes to said hospital, I watched what seemed like regressing before my very eyes; she was now strapped to her hospital bed, gurgling from the side of her mouth and flailing her limbs as four nurses tried to pin her down. For as long as I can remember my mother has been the control center of our household, raising two children while my father worked long hours at O'Hare Airport, so observing her in a borderline vegetative state made me tremedously scared about the future of my family.

Before going further with my mom's condition, I should probably explain what she's gone through these past four months. Sometime in the late 1980s my mother contracted Hepatitis C. Though she was first diagnosed several years later, she believes she acquired the viral disease then because I don't have the infection, yet my younger sister also has Hepatitis and may have been born with HCV. Late last year, my mother's physician suggested that she participate in an experimental treatment to eradicate the disease from her system. Despite some trepidation regarding side effects, she began her treatment in April 2010. Unfortunately for her, the side effects were felt almost immediately; fatigue, dizziness, nausea, lack of appetite, and occasional bouts of short-term memory loss. She complained of aphasia and numbness about a month ago, but her doctor told her those were also reactions to her Hepatitis medication.

Though those first 24 hours were pretty scary, my mom has made leaps and bounds of progress since then. She had suffered what is referred to a delayed-reaction or "old stroke"; by the hospital's best estimate, the actual stroke occured four or five weeks ago but it didn't affect her nervous system until now. Luckily for us, it's also very treatable. By Thursday she was alert and talking, and on Friday she was walking again (albeit very slowly). She checked out of CDH late Sunday afternoon, and as I write this, she's meeting with her occupational therapist for the first time. We're also pushing my birthday celebration back one week while she recuperates. Looking back now, I'm relieved that her condition didn't worsen and that she's on the road to a full recovery. I've had my share of problems this summer, but in a way I feel selfish for dwelling on my personal crises as a potentially devestating family emergency was gradually uncoiling. As my mother regains her strength, I certainly hope that anyone reading keeps my family in their thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Random Notes, August 2010

+ Elena Kagan? I'm still not sure about her, but any conservative that opposed her nomination for the Supreme Court must've forgotten two crucial X-factors: the right still has a 5-4 advantage on the most partisan court in generations, and the next justice to retire will likely be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee and dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Regardless, the GOP's shutting down of several Appellate Court nominees seemed more spiteful than pragmatic.

+ Now that Prop 8 has been overturned, here's a great article from The Nation on how same-sex marriage might become the election issue of the 2010 midterms. Granted, I believe government spending is far meatier issue, but he makes a pretty convincing argument.

+ Remember what I said last week about the Royals? Seems like I spoke too soon. Even without the top four outfielders in our early season depth chart (Podsednik, Dejesus, Ankiel, Guillen) we're still playing .500 ball in the Ned Yost era. Then again, we spent the last week playing lightweights like Oakland and Seattle, so this could be more fad than trend. Let's see how KC fares against the Halos before I eat my words.

+ Speaking of baseball, my latest fantasy misadventures are on par with my 2008 and 2009 results. The floor finally caved in on my TV.com team, which is now in last place after going a collective 2-18 in the past two weeks. My roster has its hands tied following injuries to John Buck (who I was forced to drop), Ryan Howard, and Ian Kinsler. Meanwhile, my "other" team is rolling after a 11-0-4 week, putting me right back in third place. Similar rosters, wildly varying results.

+ Finally, I was tempted to end this blog with a "long series of tubes" reference, but upon hearing of the senator's passing a few minutes ago I determined that it would be in terrible taste. My deepest sympathies to the Stevens family.