Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Last Blog Post of 2013

So what kind of TV did I watch in the year? Admittedly, my tastes didn't change much though it's getting harder and harder to clear my DVR. My lack of access to Netflix made it difficult to watch a number of shows that made most critics' top ten lists; I haven't seen "House of Cards," and I've only watched the first episodes of "Orange is the New Black" and the new "Arrested Development." I kept forgetting to record "Breaking Bad," but I'll take your word for it and assume "Ozymandias" was a mind-blowing episode. I know that doesn't make my list sound any more appealing, but I still managed to find all sorts of great TV in 2013.

1. "Bob's Burgers," Fox. I can't blame the fourth network for not knowing what do to with this quirky cartoon. It had a no-name producer (Loren Bouchard, late of "Home Movies"), a cast top-loaded with "alt" comedians (H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal), and a refusal to make cheap, near-constant pop culture references. Above all, it was more family-friendly than its "Animation Domination" counterparts. A truncated second season, with only nine episodes in lieu of the more common 13, made its few fans wonder if "Bob's" would be another one of Fox' brilliant-but-cancelled casualties. Bucking expectations Fox proved patient, and this weird little cartoon about a fledging family of restauranteurs has not only flourished creatively, it's also a modest hit. The id-ego-superego construct is expanded from three to five, and each principal character plays off each other like a jazz combo: weary Bob, optimist Linda, awkward Tina, impulsive dimwit Gene, angry sociopath Louise. The bar was initially set so low that anything could happen; that under-the-radar mentality has allowed "Bob's" to blossom without missing a beat. Notable Episodes: "Mother Daughter Laser Razor," "O.T. The Outside Toilet," "Fort Night"

2. "Mad Men," AMC. It took a long time for people to figure out what season six was all about. Quoting from Dante's Inferno was a clever, if not oddly on-the-nose way to usher the ad agency into the chaos of America circa 1968, but the allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Old Testament were bewildering at first. Ultimately, the turbulence of '68 was white noise for the self-destruction of Don Draper. The carefully crafted persona was ripped into shreds, his life collapsing under the weight of his many lies. The infidelity and drinking spiraled out of control, his career strained by indifference and egomania, and Draper's family and co-workers left exasperated. I can't wait to see how the final season (i.e. 1969) picks up the pieces. Notable Episodes: "The Flood," "The Crash," "In Care Of"

3. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," Fox. The year's most interesting new comedy probably has more in common with "Barney Miller" than any other recent workplace comedy. Unlike the top two picks, the concept is neither labyrinthe nor obtuse; it's just a really funny mismatched buddy-cop show. Andy Samberg is charming as an immature goofball who's also a fantastic NYPD detective, and Andre Braugher is Emmy-worthy as his by-the-book captain/straight man/yang. Give this show time; it's going to be something special. Notable Episodes: "Pilot," "Old School"

4. "Girls," HBO. Yes, season two had its share of problems. The storytelling wasn't as tight, the characters lost some dimension, and at times it seemed like Lena Dunham was caving into the ego trip that her critics expected her to fall into. And yet, it still made for ambitious, cinematic, delightfully serio-comic television. At the center-point was the almost isolated "One Man's Trash," a gorgeous fantasia that skews general roles in romantic comedy, then climaxes in astounding self-actualization. Notable Episodes: "It's a Shame About Ray," "One Man's Trash," "Boys"

5. "Parks & Recreation," NBC. After thirty-plus years, NBC's Thursday night comedy block basically collapsed this year. Unfortunately, that means fewer people are tuning into one of the most consistent comedies on network television. Half of the Pawnee gang is seemingly either married or pregnant, so I can't blame people for assuming P&R jumped the shark. At the center of the transition is Retta, whose sassy Donna has become the veteran comedy's secret weapon. Notable Episodes: "Two Parties," "Are You Better Off?" "Recall Vote"

Honorable Mentions: "Boardwalk Empire," HBO ("The Old Ship of Zion," "White Horse Pike") and "Childrens Hospital," Adult Swim ("Country Weekend," "Coming and Going").

Of course, this is a blog about great TV, so I'll save my comments on my least favorite shows of '13 for those who have already skewed the likes of "Dads" and "Low Winter Sun." I don't want to spend the last 24 hours of the year dwelling on why "Two and a Half Men" is still on the air, and neither do you. With that said, my most sincere thanks to anyone reading this for their continued friendship and support during such a trying year, and I'll see you all in 2014.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2013


 What lessons did we learn from the music scene in 2013? That was this a year for tantalization, courtesy of Miley Cyrus? Or controversy, by way of the always unpredictable Kanye West? Perhaps it was the element of surprise (thank you, Beyonce), or the need to expand your boundaries (tip of the hat, Arcade Fire), or the year of the comeback (Daft Punk, we missed you so). Whatever it was, you couldn't say 2013 was a boring year, or a complacent one.

Normally I listen to at least new 25 albums a year and whittle it down, usually based upon recommendations and reviews. This year, however I raised that number; there was always one noteworthy album that I completely overlooked or made aware of, and I wanted to avoid as many glaring omissions as possible. There was only one album of critical merit (Miley's Bangerz) that I just couldn't bring myself to listen to; the clash of positive and negative press was just too much to bear.

BEST ALBUMS
1. Yeezus, Kanye West. This album should have been a train wreck. The hype and secrecy behind Yeezy's sixth album, not to mention the insurmountable task of succeeding My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, should have proved once for all that West was fallible. Instead West produces Yeezus, his most challenging, non-commercial effort yet. This "new" Kanye is more political than extroverted; he is clearly not concerned with what constitutes good or bad taste. Someday, West will collapse on the weight of his massive ego, but it didn't happen this year.
2. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk. If Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" dominated radio in July and August 2013, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" owned May and June. Strangely, Daft Punk's return from a lengthy hiatus (unless you count the "Tron: Legacy" soundtrack, no new studio offerings since 2005) sounds hardly anything like the infectious leadoff single. It's a personal work, with the French EDM duo collaborating with the artists who inspired them (Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers) while composing songs for a wishlist of left-field guest stars (Paul Williams, Julian Casablancas). Memories, indeed.
3. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend. Downplaying the showiness and smartass rich-kid rhetoric of their first two albums, Modern Vampires is the final third of a trilogy (so says frontman Ezra Koenig) and a statement of maturity. The hit single "Diane Young" sounds like the been-there, done-that cousin of "Cousins," and "Obvious Bicycle" might remind one of The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies. The over-educated brat is still there, but his tastes are diversifying.
4. Reflektor, Arcade Fire
5. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen
6. Trouble Will Find Me, The National
7. Sunbather, Deafheaven
8. m b v, My Bloody Valentine
9. The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae
10. Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling. Speaking of maturity, it's amazing how much this singer-songwriter has grown and blossomed in six short years. "Precocious" does not apply anymore; Marling's Joni Mitchell-meets-Regina Spektor sound is fully honed, and her fourth solo album is her most virtuosic effort yet. Her 2010 effort I Speak Because I Can may have had stronger songwriting, but Eagle has the edge on songcraft.

11. Days Are Gone, HAIM
12. Amok, Atoms for Peace
13. ...Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age
14. Silence Yourself, Savages
15. The Next Day, David Bowie. I'm not sure what amazes me more: that Bowie could record such a strong album in the late stages of his legendary career, or that he never repeats himself. Sure, his first batch of original songs since 2003 alude to his '70s and early '80s output, but the Thin White Duke is not here to navelgaze or wax nostalgic. In fact, he refracts his portrait of Dorian Gray. Physically Bowie is a bit older, but his croon has barely aged.
16. Long.Live.A$AP, A$AP Rocky
17. Overgrown, James Blake
18. Doris, Earl Sweatshirt
19. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight..., Neko Case
20. The Chronicles of Marnia, Marnie Stern. One of the most distinctly dexterious guitarists working today, Stern presents herself like Colbie Caillat but plays like Robert Fripp. Where her earlier work comprised mostly of unpredictable, prog-rock shredding, Marnia is looser and more expansive. To dismiss this as pedestrian and easygoing is an injustice. Stern is giving herself time to breathe, putting the melody ahead of the technical prowess, and it still sounds as effortless as ever.


BEST SINGLES
"Royals," Lorde
"Super Soaker," Kings of Leon
"Default," Django Django
"Inhaler," Foals
"I'm In, I'm Out, and I'm Gone," Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
"A New Life," Jim James
"Harper Lee," Little Green Cars
"Right Action," Franz Ferdinand
"Sun Blows Up Today," The Flaming Lips
"Yellow Purple Red and Blue," Portugal, The Man
"Pompeii," Bastille
"Oh My God," Kate Nash


BEST VIDEOS
1. "Q.U.E.E.N." Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu. Everything you need to know about Monae, her music, and her cult of personality, summed up in six fabulously funky minutes. If getting your clip on MTV meant anything anymore, this might our generation's "Billie Jean."
2. "Wishes," Beach House. Character actor Ray Wise is incredible in everything he does, mostly because of his remarkably expressive face. This hypnotic video, playing some type of cult leader leading a pastel-colored pep rally, is sold on Wise's face and what it conveys amid the madness. And it sells marvelously. That Eric Wareheim of Adult Swim fame directed this is almost ancillary to this clip's beautiful madness.
3. "Bagboy," The Pixies. Another one of the pleasant surprises of 2013 was the first new Pixies single in over 20 years, and the accompanying video is a both an anarchist romp and a mesmorizing glance into juvenile delinquency. The ending will make your jaw drop.
4. "Sacrilege," The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If Paul Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier joined forces on an indie movie, than shot it backwards, the end result would probably be this.
5. "Reflektor" (version 2), Arcade Fire. Anton Corbijn takes a few cues from Fellini, than assembles a gloomy yet lighthearted clip for a notoriously gloomy yet lighthearted band. Taking note of the Butler brother's newfound playfulness, this surreal, papier-mâché happy video plays well with the funky leadoff single of Fire's fourth album. Just watch out for the mirrored suit guy.
6. "Shot at the Night," The Killers. If you're looking for a relatively wholesome, enchantingly romantic video, look no further than this Vegas-set Cinderella story. The glorious cheese of the Strip is further accented by Brandon Flowers' attempt at the best song not released in 1986.
7. "Open," Rhye. Another love story, but this one plays out like a short story in the New Yorker. It almost makes you want to run off with your lover to a faraway retreat. Almost.
8. "White Noise," Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge. At the complete opposite of the spectrum from "Shot at the Night" is this Detroit-set charmer, featuring perhaps the strongest love story of them all. Sometimes you'll find diamonds in the roughest conditions.
9. "Wild for the Night," A$AP Rocky feat. Skrillex. The cliche-heavy "rapper living the good life" video gets tweaked again. I don't know what's more impressive: that Rocky speaks fluent Spanish, or he's seen City of God.
10. "Hopeless Wanderer," Mumford & Sons. In the recent deluge of celebrity cameo videos, no one did it better than these angsty British folkies. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, and Will Forte goof around with banjos and pianos, and that's all you need to know.

Honorable Mention: Diane Martel's boob-arific clip for Thicke's "Blurred Lines."

Your thoughts?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Year of Drama

Last week, I was driving on I-290 when I received a phone call from my mother. My sister had been in a three-car accident; the fender bender wasn't her fault, but the back of her car would require repairs in the high three figures. I texted my sister after I parked in Lakeview, she said she felt woozy, so my mother drove her to the ER. It didn't seem serious, but after everything that's happened to my parents these past few years, I couldn't help but feel a little distracted.

For those keeping tally, I was the only member of my immediate family to not go to the emergency room in the last calendar year. First my mother's gallbladder removal, than my father's tumor and lengthy recovery, now this. Heck, even our older dog spent time at the emergency vet for a pulled neck muscle. Nearly all year, I've been feeling the walls closing in. Incidents and maladies like this, constant reminders of the precious quality of life, heighten my neuroses and drive me to distraction. At once, I feel stronger for surviving and more worn for wear.

As 2013 segues into 2014, I've come to the realization that for better or worse, these past 12 months have been way more eventful than I would have liked. It was a year of accomplishment and setbacks, of risk and challenge, of ambition and frustration. There was a lot that I would like to change, and an equal amount that was perfect as it is. For my sake, I hope '14 is a little more... well, boring.

Next Week: 2013, the year in music.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Ninth Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

With Turkey Day 2013 just around the corner, it's time to present my annual "Thanks/No Thanks" lists. This tradition has been passed from generation to generation ever since Stuart the Blog Writer jotted down his thoughts in the ancient year of 2005. (There's next to no context; it's just a quick read while I wolf down some sweet potatoes.)

Thanks: The Second City Conservatory program, the entire Chicago improv community, another Stanley Cup in Chicago, gay marriage in Illinois, my two school districts, and above all my friends and family during this trying year.

No Thanks: B-cell lymphoma, government shutdowns, the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, my gradually increasing monthly health care premium, unintentional sleep deprivation, and temp jobs with incompetent management.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fifty Years Later


My father was in the U.S. Army in the late '50s and early '60s, and he was actually assigned to the Pentagon for a couple of years. In fact, Corp. Allard (Spec 5) was on duty in the Department of Defense headquarters the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I asked him about this night, and though I can't give the story justice, he specifically remembered a number of generals panicking upon hearing the news of his death. Secretary McNamara's staff was either catatonic or in tears, and all the phone lines and switchboards were completely jammed. My father was also in military dress at Arlington National Cemetery when Kennedy was buried a few days later.

It seems almost cliche to pinpoint JFK's death as the day America lost its innocence. Indeed, this was the first tumultuous moment in a decade overflowing with violence and tragedy, but the world was changing even when Kennedy was still alive. His passing only accelerated that progress. I have no right to compare or contrast life before JFK, I wasn't alive yet. I can tell you what great music came out in '63 and that's about it. At the same time, this is a milestone in our history that we cannot take trivially. For my generation, it was September 11th. For my grandparents' generation, Pearl Harbor. For my parents and the whole Baby Boomer generation, it was President Kennedy.  With embarrassing scandals and other arbitrary crap dominating the media, I hope people look at this sorrowful 50th anniversary as an opportunity to remember when politics worked and this country had a sense of guarded optimism.

Other notes:

+ Jamie Brown Reed, the woman who first hired me at WZND (the college radio station at ISU) lost her childhood home to the tornado that blasted through central Illinois last weekend. Several other acquaintances of mine also lost everything they had when the twister hit outside Peoria. I highly recommend donating to the American Red Cross if you haven't done so already. They could really use the relief.

+ Dad Update: Our live-in caretaker has been with us for three weeks and change now; she's doing a fine job, though my father is still having his ups and downs. However, last week he spent four days in the hospital with two swollen feet. It doesn't seem like anything serious --a reaction to his medication, if not anything else-- but that doesn't make my family any less concerned. On the bright side, it doesn't look like he'll need chemotherapy, radiation, or dialysis again, at least not until 2014.

+ Finally, some words of wisdom: there is nothing like an impromptu, pay-what-you-can yoga session to remind you that you're not as limber as you think you are.

Next Week: my ninth annual "Thanks/No Thanks" list.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Illinois' Rainbow Connection

For once, I feel proud to be an Illinoisan.

When I heard that the state house would vote to legalize gay marriage again, I was anxious. Unlike other states, the bill had support and opposition within both parties.  When they first voted earlier this year, a coalition of Democrats and moderate "collar county" Republicans were narrowly defeated by both Christian conservatives and African-American Democrats (also on religious grounds). This time around, a handful of black representatives were persuaded to change their minds, and same-sex marriage was legalized by the same narrow margin. Governor Pat Quinn, a career Democrat who has waffled on the sanctity of marriage in the past, agreed to sign the bill when it lands on his desk. Effective next Spring, the Land of Lincoln will be the 15th state to pass such a law. Today in Illinois, logic and freedom trumped bigotry.

Besides the obvious, I'm feeling a new sense of state pride because for once, Springfield actually passed some legislation. Our state government can't approve a budget, but we passed this. Most other issues are just as divided along party lines as anything else in the country. With the GOP assuming control of the state senate last year --the Illinois Republicans' first semblance of moving forward since George Ryan left the governor's office nearly 11 years ago-- nothing is in lockstep. Ineffectual legislating and infighting among state Democrats resulted in losing seats in both houses last November, and Quinn is no sure shot to be reelected next November.

Since assuming the governor's seat after Rod Blagojevich's impeachment, Pat Quinn has been a stable but underwhelming leader.  On multiple occasions I've accused Quinn of being indecisive and doddering, as if Illinois was a dysfunctional family and Quinn is the hapless old uncle who has final say on everything. Despite the infighting, Quinn is the state Democrats' only hope in 2014; early contention from Attorney General Lisa Madigan (daughter of State Speaker/svengali Mike) and former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley (son and brother of former Chicago mayors) both flamed out early. Where Madigan was undone by her father's myriad controversies, Daley didn't feel equipped to run for office.

It's a shame of sorts, because there's a group of seven or eight Republican challengers ready to rip Quinn to shreds next year; whether this turns into Obama vs. Romney in miniature remains to be seen. The state of Illinois has taken a more liberal turn in recent years, something that Quinn can only take half credit for; after legalizing medicinal marijuana and allowing non-U.S. citizens to get driver's licenses, gay marriage was the next logical step. At the same time, Quinn's indecisiveness and unsteady hand of leadership are his undoing, and he is understandably vulnerable to lose his job one year from now. Quinn's best hope is that the wide stable of GOP candidates nearly cancel each other out, just like they did in 2010.

Drama aside, it's a great day to be an Illinoisan.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

30 Teams, 30 Haiku: My 2013-14 NBA Preview


Following the unexpected, runaway success of my 2013 NFL Preview, for the first time ever I'm extending my love of haiku to the NBA. With a top-heavy Eastern Conference and the West as wild as ever, I try to break down the upcoming season in 17 kiru. Enjoy!

(NOTE: asterisks note playoff teams)

Atlantic
1. Nets. Young, old united/big bucks might gel into a/dark horse contender.
2. Knicks*. Blue and orange crushed?/Hardly, but a deeper East/makes a tough battle.
3. Raptors. North of the border/sleeping dinos lurk; a hot/start is quite crucial.
4. Celtics. Rondo? Still injured/don't blame Stevens for struggles/as Shamrocks rebuild.
5. 76ers. Very soft offense/despite a decent backcourt/hello, top five pick!

Central
1. Bulls. A healthy Rose blooms/while the D divides and/conquers; be afraid!
2. Pacers*. So close, yet so far/a deeper bench is needed/to turn off the Heat.
3. Pistons*. Monroe and Penguin/hot-shot ballers on paper/must work together.
4. Cavaliers*. Anthony Bennett/left his heart in Bedford Heights/but can Bynum thrive?
5. Bucks. All hail "The Greek Freak"/there's something in the gyros/...if he ever plays.

Southeast
1. Heat. Targets on their backs/a three-peat won't come easy/...ah, I'm just kidding.
2. Wizards*. The number eight seed/is the final Wall to climb/you might be surprised.
3. Hawks. A middling bunch, true/with Carroll at small forward/same so-so results.
4. Bobcats. Battle for last place/credibility growing/but no playoffs yet.
5. Magic. Fascinating youth/but a lack of direction/produces few wins.

Northwest
1. Thunder. When Rusty's knee heals/Durant's long quest for a ring/may finally end.
2. Nuggets*. Play by committee/swaggy, but no superstar/clutch or confusion?
3. T-Wolves*. Rubio and Love/upfront? Great, but no depth and/injuries linger.
4. Blazers. Get Fred Armisen/to back up Lopez, and I/might want to watch this.
5. Jazz. Upside is the word/with so many question marks/Favors sings the blues.

Pacific
1. Clippers. No second fiddle/Staples' other occupant/is ready to win.
2. Warriors*. Spicy Curry for/my dinner with Andre; Bay/Area says "yum!"
3. Lakers. Kobe's got a beef/one last year in Laker gold/another ring? No.
4. Kings. So much potential/yet the pieces don't fit; more/soap opera crap.
5. Suns. Desert of talent/the Phoenix won't rise this year/70 losses?

Southwest
1. Spurs. Sound fundamentals/and a seamless youth movement/Popo's boys can't lose.
2. Rockets*. D12 aside, they're/weak on the charity stripe/they need a stretch 4.
3. Grizzlies*. Merciless defense/must make up for shaky O/and lack of upgrades.
4. Pelicans. Young birds hatching, but/like old Hornets, they won't sting/just hover around.
5. Mavericks. There's Dirk and... uh, um.../big step backwards in Big D/Shocker! Cuban's pissed.

Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, Magic
Most Improved Player: Andre Drummond, Pistons
NBA MVP: Lebron James, Heat
First Head Coach Fired: Rick Carlisle, Mavericks
2014 NBA Finals: Thunder over Heat in 6

Your thoughts?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Open for Business

Before I could even comment, the government shutdown was over. Seventeen days, billions of dollars lost, and in the end the United States received a three-month Band-Aid on a long-term gash wound. What happened earlier this month was obstructionist politics at its ugliest and misguided, a case example of what our highly partisan system has been reduced to. The Tea Party opposition was bullheaded and foolish --I still can't take them seriously-- yet at the same time I can't see them losing too much ground in 2014.  At the same time, the whole system has to take some blame for the shutdown.

With that said, has the Affordable Care Act --er, "Obamacare"-- been slow to roll out? Yes. Has it been marred by complications, technical errors, and other kinks in the system? Yes. Is it an abject failure? No, and give it time. The government has never nailed modern technology down, no matter what's being rolled out. This is an embarrassment to the Obama Administration, no questioning that, but nothing that can't be rectified.

Other notes:

+ Dad Update: After nearly six weeks out of the house, my father is expected to come home later this week. He can walk 100+ yards now, but the lack of peripheral vision gives him dizzy spells. A day or two ago, my grandmother's former live-in caretaker has been rehired to handle my father, as least for the next six months.

+ About a month ago, my Palm Pre died. I wasn't able to transfer any data (photos, contacts, etc.) before it conked out, so I bought a new phone basically from scratch.  Since the Palm brand ceased to be a year or two ago, I ended up buying a Nokia 822 that runs on Windows. I'm not the most proactive guy when it comes to new technology, but so far I'm really digging my new gadget. The interface is surprisingly easy to use and understand, and its reads wifi signals a lot faster than my old Pre.

+ My World Series pick: Cardinals in 7. Allen Craig's return from the DL was enough to sway me in what should be a very close series.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

My Father's New Reality

About three weeks ago, my mother and I were discussing worst-case scenarios. My father had been rushed to the hospital earlier that day with a bad case of bronchitis, the latest in a variety of setbacks. In discussing his hospital visit so far, my mother mentioned that he had rewritten his will earlier in the week, "just in case." We nursed our dinners as we recapped our family's summer in the most sober way possible. I learned that he had updated his will earlier that week; that made perfect sense, but I was still taken aback.

After the tumor was removed, we wondered how long treatment would take. Now it's a question of how long he'll live with the lymphoma.

My father is not dying per se, but a full recovery is looking very unlikely at this point. The tumor removal has made it very difficult for him to read or see a TV screen. His hearing is spotty, but my father relies on a transistor radio for his news and entertainment. The chemo and radiation weakened him, and he can only walk short distances. He fought it at first, but now he wears an adult diaper. The bronchitis somehow snowballed into blood clots in his knees, which landed my father into a senior physical therapy facility. There's still a possibility he'll regain some physical strength but not much else.

As longtime readers of my blog know, my mother has had her own share of medical issues. Between my father's issues and her own, she's running a little ragged. Nearly five years after she put her younger brother is hospice care, she's now watching her husband of 30+ years slowly lose his capacities. She's the runner for not only my incapacitated father, but my grandmother as well. If she suddenly falters, than everything falls on me and/or my sister.

My father is a pack rat, or whatever you would call one notch below a hoarder. My mother has never been afraid to admit her mortification for my father's slovenly ways, so with Dad in physical therapy she's jumped head-first into cleaning out his belongings. Years of old magazines, newspaper clippings, and unpaid bills ("Don't worry," my mother said, "we always sent a check on the second notice") made a stealthy trip to our trashcans and recycle bins. Random things that disappeared over the years have resurfaced at the bottom of his cluttered bedroom.

His car, however was a whole different animal. For financial and practical reasons, we had to sell his 2001 Grand Marquis. It's a big silver boat that steers funky, with a trunk almost filled to the top with his crap. About 70% of the trunk was filled with more newspapers, catalogs, magazines, and declassified INS memos and paperwork. The other 30% was garbage; broken pens, old plastic bags, leftover fast-food napkins from maybe a decade ago. Worse yet, we found expired food; inside this black hole we found two unopened bottles of honey mustard dressing, untampered but still emitting a ghastly odor. I salvaged a scant handful of items; my mother was ready to get rid of everything. When the Grand Marq was finally cleaned and aired out, we sold it to a friend of our cousins.

When my dad finishes PT later this month, the new reality will settle in. The radiation is completed, but a third round of chemo is up in the air. Because my father is still regaining the strength to walk, his hospital bed might occupy our living room; his bedroom is too far away from the rest of our house for his physical convenience (i.e. the bathroom). His daily wardrobe consists of a plaid flannel shirt, pajama bottoms, and non-skid socks. What we'll do with his old room remains to be seen, though his old bed has been taken apart.

I'm sure there's some inspirational thought that will bring this whole missive full circle, but right now I'm just absorbing everything that has transpired over the last four months. My father was an eccentric Garçon before the tumor; his condition now is winsome, almost cringe-inducing. It's been a challenge bringing this up to friends and co-workers, largely because I can't stand that feeling of pity, but also because I don't want to sound self-absorbed. With that said, and for a lack of a better way of ending this post, please keep him in your thoughts.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2008


As I stated in this blog a few weeks ago, 2008 was meant to be a new beginning. However, unlike that baseball-centric post '08 was a clean slate on a personal level as well. It was my first full year out of college, and after two decades in the American education system I was ready to find a job and make a name for myself. Alas, I was part of the last graduating class before the recession, and despite a spirited effort I ended up with a part-time job doing traffic and continuity in a radio station. It wasn't what I wanted but it was a foot in the door, or so I thought. It was a topsy-turvy year, one that I frequently commented on in this blog, but I also grew up a lot during those 12 eventful months.

To some extent, 2008 was the start of a new chapter in music. This was the year dubstep was "invented" for better or worse, and several of today's critics' darlings (Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, MGMT, Santigold... Lady Gaga?) released their first albums. The first wave of 21st century indie-rock had played itself out, while the second wave was just getting started. It was also a pretty good year for artists we hadn't heard from in awhile (Portishead, Brian Eno, Randy Newman). In short, '08 was a distinctively challenging and unique year, a 12-month span that planted a lot of seeds that are still being sown today.

(As a reference point, here is my original 2008 music blog. Parentheses below note the original ranking.)

BEST ALBUMS:

1. Oracular Spectacular, MGMT. In a year of alarmingly fresh and outstanding debuts, the hippie-dippy electro-sounds of MGMT stood out the most. All the singles ("Electric Feel," "Kids," "Time to Pretend") sounded like nothing else on college or AAA radio, and even the album tracks (the mournful, uncertain "Pieces of What") are catchy is their own non-conformist way. It's more than just a slick tribute, though; Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser let their sardonic wit run wild as their freak flags fly.
2. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend. (1) In 2008, I said their debut was "a fun, infectious record from four New York City college kids who treat Paul Simon's Graceland like a holy document." A band that was generating internet hype nearly the moment they first formed, VW met lofty expectations and than some. Their mash-up of indie-, baroque-, and Afro-Pop is as seamless and effortless and their lyrics are both knowledgeable ("Oxford Comma") and stylish ("Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa").
3. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes. Then came the harmonies. 2008's third-best first album doesn't just emulate early '70s folk-rock; it gives a strong sense of what it was and at the same time, what this band is about. "White Winter Hymnal" might be the best song of 2008; it's a beautiful tone poem, building from a five-part a cappella round into mellow jangle-pop, it's 2:27 of pure heaven.
4. Dear Science, TV on the Radio (2)
5. Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, Sigur Ros (6)
6. In The Future, Black Mountain (3)
7. Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay (9)
8. Third, Portishead (10)
9. The Rhumb Line, Ra Ra Riot (7)
10. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, David Byrne & Brian Eno. The reunion of Byrne and former Talking Heads producer Eno --a collaboration that culminated with 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts-- seems like a daunting scenario. Instead of taking the next logical step, they recorded an album that sounds nothing like their past work together. Byrne's recent fascination with gospel music blends well with Eno's ever-evolving electronic noodling. Leadoff track "Home" is the perfect example of that, while the white-funk deep cut "Poor Boy" will satisfy anyone anticipating a sequel to Remain in Light.

11. 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West
12. Saturdays = Youth, M83
13. Santogold, Santigold
14. The Seldom-Seen Kid, Elbow
15. Stop, Drop and Roll!, Foxboro Hot Tubs. (4) 2008's most "fun" album was delivered by a Green Day side project. Recorded between the protest concept album American Idiot and its overwrought 2009 sequel 21st Century Breakdown, the Hot Tubs' only album to date is just a big, rollicking garage-rock rave-up. The guitar riffs evoke The Who, Yardbirds, and Kinks; not to plagarize, but with tender loving care.
16. Attack & Release, The Black Keys
17. Re-Arrange Us, Mates of State (8)
18. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles
19. The Fame, Lady Gaga
20. This Gift, Sons & Daughters. (11) Never mind the lovelorn singer-songwriter that also debuted in '08, a Scottish rock singer with the same first name might have made the stronger first impression. Adele Bethel and her powerhouse voice is all over this breakthrough effort; the raw, shredded guitars and slick production just barely keep up with her. This all adds up to a diamond in the rough disc with nary a bad track.

BEST SINGLES:

"Sex on Fire," Kings of Leon
"The '59 Sound," The Gaslight Anthem
"Gamma Ray," Beck
"Re-education (Through Labor)," Rise Against
"Wild International," One Day as a Lion
"Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)," Gnarls Barkley
"You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie," The Submarines
"Chasing Pavements," Adele
"Morning is My Destination," Tift Merritt
"One Pure Thought," Hot Chip

BEST VIDEOS:

Perhaps most crucially, 2008 was a tremendous year for clips. The YouTube era was finally in full swing here:

1. "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," Beyonce. Kanye made a valid point about this video; too bad he addressed it in the most self-serving way possible.
2. "Thing For Me," Metronomy. Easily 2008's most charming video. Just follow the bouncing ball...
3. "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," She & Him. Even when she's channeling Edward Gorey, Zooey Deschanel is gosh-darn adorable.
4. "I Will Possess Your Heart," Death Cab for Cutie.
5. "See Fernando," Jenny Lewis.
6. "Dig, Lazarus, Dig," Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
7. "Toe Jam," The BPA feat. Dizzie Rascal and David Byrne. (NFSW)
8. "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?," Gnarls Barkley. (also NFSW)
9. "Ladies of the World," Flight of the Conchords.
10. "Cherry Tulips," Headlights.

Honorable Mentions: "Heartless," Kanye West.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I didn't have a chance to listen to The Hold Steady's Stay Positive (my #5 pick in 2008) before my self-imposed deadline, but in spite of a top-heavy year I'm sure that disc would've ranked again.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Trouble with Damascus

To some extent, someone or something must intervene in Syria. Such is the prickly situation that the United States, and obviously President Obama, have found themselves in. Do we play the world's policeman --on account of military strength, not so much nobility-- again, or avoid a potential Iraq-like quagmire? The president's final decision on Syria had the potential to be polarizing, to the extent that it could define his whole second term, but Obama's decision was surprisingly... wishy-washy. Delaying action and deferring to Russia was not necessarily cowardly, but certainly a passive action in the face of a reckless dictator. The president's declaration was underwhelming, no matter where you stand on the air strikes. He's just as confused about Syria as we are, and that is somewhat troubling.

Other notes:

+ Family Update: My father is now undergoing light radiation to prevent any further tumor growth, on top of his ongoing dialysis. Still no word on a third round of chemo.

+ Fantasy Update: About six weeks ago, both of my roto baseball teams were in dire straits; one was eighth out of ten, the other (which features some TV.com folk) ninth out of ten. Where the latter team was ultimately crippled by inning limits, I rectified my botched draft with some dark-horse pickups and surged back into the playoff race. When my head-to-head opponent failed to meet the minimum number of innings this past week, I hopscotched from eighth to sixth to fourth.

+ Improv Update: Two more shows to go before I graduate from the Second City Conservatory. It's been a long, challenging journey and I don't know how to feel now that it's almost over. With that said, I'm still staying busy; I'm producing a show at the Gorilla Tango theater in Bucktown (where I used to be on a house ensemble) in October, and I just booked some slots for my independent team.

Next week: the year in music, 2008.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

32 Teams, 32 Haiku: My 2013 NFL Preview


With the 2013 NFL season kicking off in mere hours, I felt inclined to make some predictions. Much like my baseball preview five months ago, my pigskin prognostications needed a unique twist. Something with brevity, something descriptive yet arch, something... with 17 soma.

(NOTE: asterisks note wild cards)

NFC NORTH
1. Packers (11-5). Lambeau Field is now/Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood/Defense? Still sketchy.
2. Bears (9-7). New era begins/Coach Trestman, O-line guru/but still rebuilding.
3. Vikings (8-8). No purple reign here/All Day will carry this team/the D might surprise.
4. Lions (6-10). '12 was a letdown/can all this talent win games/or just tread water?

NFC EAST
1. Giants (10-6). No flash, overlooked/drama-free Jints will prevail/with health on their side.
2. Redskins* (10-6). RG III, your knee/could make or break the season/ten high-scoring wins.
3. Cowboys (9-7). Romo, moneybags/the pressure to win, daunting/still no O-line, though.
4. Eagles (5-11). Kelly lacks the chips/to compete in a dense group/Vick or Foles? Oy vey!

NFC SOUTH
1. Falcons (11-5). Spry but dangerous/Jackson raises the run game/playoffs are a test.
2. Saints (8-8). Bountygate? Over/Rob Ryan must save the D/or "Ain'ts" will suffer.
3. Buccaneers (7-9). Pushy Schiano/can't let these guys fade again/or else it's curtains.
4. Panthers (5-11). Who protects Newton?/franchise QB, wasted on/poor coaching, weak O.

NFC WEST
1. 49ers (12-4). Primo all-around/only injuries can halt/their victory train.
2. Seahawks* (12-4). A bunch of oddballs/make unlikely chemistry/young talent prevails.
3. Rams (7-9). Third in two-horse race/anywhere else, they would be/a sure contender.
4. Cardinals (6-10). Upgrade at QB/will keep receivers happy/in fruitless battle.

AFC NORTH
1. Ravens (11-5). Birds circle the throne/Flacco needs protection, yet/their front seven stomps.
2. Bengals* (10-6). Dark horse wears orange/jejune Andy Dalton leads/an improved offense.
3. Steelers (7-9). The Steel Curtain rusts/aging, battered, fading out/youth infusion, stat!
4. Browns (5-11). It's a step forward/underrated defense, but/Weeden holds them back.

AFC EAST
1. Patriots (11-5). Victors by default/Brady and Belichick win/despite Hernandez.
2. Dolphins (9-7). With emptied wallets/makeover, glimmer of hope/defense? Quite improved.
3. Bills (6-10). Pray for young Jeff Tuel/undrafted Week 1 QB/such unique pressure.
4. Jets (4-12). Revis is elsewhere/and Mark Sanchez is still here/the losing riddle.

AFC SOUTH
1. Texans (11-5). Foster, Watt, Cushing/injuries mount, but they win/with other weapons.
2. Colts* (10-6). Rivals are singing/"Luck, be a lady tonight"/but these guys aren't dolls.
3. Titans (6-10). Upgraded O-line/step in the right direction/but the defense? Ugh.
4. Jaguars (3-13). No surprises here/morsels of talent, scattered/first pick in '14?

AFC WEST
1. Broncos (13-3). This weak division/gobbled up by great roster/Peyton's second ring?
2. Chargers (8-8). Same as Chicago/new coach, embattled QB/and so-so results.
3. Chiefs (6-10). KC fans: pretend/that last year never happened/hope in the long run.
4. Raiders (4-12). Unpredictable/sums up Oakland in one word/what's their direction?

NFL MVP: Tom Brady, Patriots
Offensive POY: Calvin Johnson, Lions
Defensive POY: Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Tavon Austin, Rams
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jon Bostic, Bears
First Head Coach Fired: Mike Munchak, Titans
Super Bowl XLVIII: Denver 27, San Francisco 22

Hike! Er, I mean, your thoughts?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Love Confessional

A little over four years ago, I had a nightmare. Maybe "nightmare" isn't the word I'm looking for, but rather a very intense dream. I'm standing on a wooden dock near a lake; there's a small seaside town in the distant background. I'm not doing anything besides watching the water. I see something glow behind me, and I turn around. A good friend of mine from high school --for the purpose of this blog, I'll call her Sandra-- is hovering six inches off the ground. Sandra is gleaming in a long, flowing white robe, and very pregnant. We make small talk, the details of which I don't remember. Suddenly, she says "goodbye forever," then flies away. I ask Sandra why she said that and where she's going, but she either doesn't hear me or refuses to answer. I wake up in a cold sweat, over an hour before my alarm goes off.

I'm not going to avoid the fact that for the longest time, I had a crush on Sandra. We had a lot in common; we were both nerdy, nearsighted, well-read, with aspirations of a career in writing. On the flip side of that, Sandra was (and still is) fiercely independent and a free spirit. She was openly bisexual and the co-founder of my high school's GLAAD club; she refused to own a TV and for the longest time, quoted Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and spoke conversational Russian. Sandra was an activist; I was an armchair liberal. Sandra was positive, I was pragmatic. Sandra loved to travel; I never had the time to do so, and I still don't. Sandra was simultaneously perfect and out of my reach; she was what I aspired for in a woman but could never have. Above all else, she confided in me like a good friend. I knew my place, but part of me always wondered if there was an opportunity for more.

When I dreamed about Sandra, I hadn't seen her in about six months. At that point, she had been dating a guy named Scott (another pseudonym) for maybe a year and a half. Scott was a great guy --we're still in touch-- and they were a relatively happy couple. However, that dream was so vivid and so haunting I felt absolutely compelled to admit my feelings. I e-mailed her the afternoon after my dream to ask what she had been up to, and if she wanted to meet for coffee. In her reply, Sandra said she was moving to Seattle in a few weeks, but sure, coffee would work. Suffice to say, I panicked.

Sandra and I met about a week later. We caught up and made small talk, but over the course of the hour-long chat I never worked the nerve to admit my feelings. I walked her back to her car and still couldn't find the courage. Two days later, I sent her a long e-mail; I poured my feelings out, cleverly phrasing my words so it didn't sound like our friendship was some sort of ruse. For fear of being perceived as insane, I neglected to mention the dream. Sandra responded two days later; as I had assumed, her feelings were not mutual. Her response had a tone that was both flattered and embarrassed. I sulked a little, knowing that my honesty had put a strain on our friendship.

A week or so after that, I noticed that Sandra had posted a Facebook event for a small, private party at her new apartment in Chicago; to my relief, the move to Seattle had been pushed back a few months. I messaged her for directions, but Sandra never answered. The party came and went. Annoyed, I shot her another e-mail. When she didn't respond to that, I left a terse post on her wall. About 10 days after the party, Sandra finally replied; she was still getting over my original e-mail, and that we needed a break. Between that and my college girlfriend, I spent much of the Summer of '09 in a defeated funk. It took four months for me to work the nerve to contact Sandra again.

If Sandra was elusive, her social circle was hostile. When Sandra and I were students at College of DuPage, and even after she transferred to University of Illinois-Chicago, she hung out mostly with artists, pseduo-intellectuals, and other assorted right-brainers. They were ambivalent to me when I first them, and steadily grew annoyed by my presence anytime I saw them. It wasn't totally me, though; they reeked of pretention, not always self-absorbed but usually humorless and restless. We read the same books and magazines, but didn't necessarily interpret what we read the same way. As far as they were concerned I was a bourgeois outsider, an oblivious old friend of their favorite hostess. Where Sandra was cordial and graceful, her friends merely tolerated me.

So four months after the "break," Sandra and I talked things out. Our friendship seemed to be on the mend, an aura of testiness in the air that we both assumed would gradually subside. After returning from Seattle, we ran into each other at mutual friends' parties and there didn't seem to be any discernible tension. We were supposed to meet at the Chicago gay pride parade that next summer, but I got lost on the El. I was mortified, but given the crowds a disconnect was bound to happen. Ironically, it would've been the last time I would see Sandra in person. Soon after, she moved to San Diego to start grad school.

The building blocks of reconciliation tumbled in December 2010. I caught wind that Sandra was back in Chicago for the holidays. Shortly after Thanksgiving, I asked if she wanted to meet or hang out, but she said she was busy that week. Seven days later, I asked again; Sandra still had other commitments. I assumed she was spending long-overdue time with family. I asked a third time after Christmas, but by that point she was already back in California.

I thought nothing of the schedule conflict until the Tuesday after New Year's. Almost out of the blue, Sandra posted over 100 photos of herself with her Chicago social circle. It was most, if not nearly all of the same haughty prudes that dismissed me on first sight. I was as upset as ever. Against my better judgment, I sent another terse private message on Facebook. She replied a day later, stating that after all this time she had incredibly unfair toward me and that we can never hang out again. In defeat, I accepted the new terms of our "friendship" and wished her well.

Social media, as it turned out, both connected and divided us. I've stayed Facebook friends with Sandra, but I'm still too mortified to say hi. Even a comment on a status update required a certain amount of courage. I left her a happy birthday wall post this past June in the wee hours of the night, assuming she wouldn't see it. I watched silently as she dumped Scott, hooked up with her former roommate from Chicago --I always assumed there was something going on between them-- than began her courtship with the guy that is now her fiancee.

Then late Tuesday night, I found out on Facebook that Sandra was pregnant. For real.

Seeing the pregnancy announcement, quirky and well-intended as it was, brought me back to that dream. I offered my congratulations but in reality I felt uneasy. I take solace in the fact that after years of flightiness and shirking stability, her days of hookah parties and epic, spur-of-the-moment road trips are basically over. Sandra seems content about the news, declaring adulthood "ebullient," but I don't think reality has set in yet. Judging from comments on Facebook, she's struggling to find the nobility of 24-hour "morning" sickness. Now I knew for sure that nothing was ever going to be same again. The angel had flown away.

Until now, I had never told anyone about this. Even the central figure in this only knew (knows?) half of the story. I'd never acted so selfishly in my life, and in the process I strained a relatively healthy, albeit increasingly distant friendship. My social awkwardness and insecurities consumed me in a way I never thought possible. Whether this was all my fault or other circumstances contributed, I'll never know. I've dated other women but never made the same connection.  Because of this experience, I have chronic doubts that I'm emotionally capable of being in a meaningful relationship, let alone married with children. A vivid dream became a real-life nightmare.

(417)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Random Notes, August 2013

+ I was going to use this time and space to brag about my Kansas City Royals. However, a recent sweep by one of the worst teams in the American League (cough) and a possible sweep by the middling Nationals has put a tremendous hamper on that. With that said, we're still over .500 and meeting my expectations for 2013. We're starting to fade out of the AL Wild Card race, but that only raises the stakes for '14.

+ This really is the greatest keyboard shortcut ever. Check it out.

+ Please enjoy this over-the-top op-ed by the former "Couch Critic" from TV Guide.

+ Dad Update:  As I write this, my father is in his second round of chemotherapy. The first one lasted a little over a week, but this round has been a little tougher. He's having bladder issues, so he's been temporarily put on kidney dialysis. No word yet on when he'll be released from the hospital, but at this rate it won't be until the middle of next week.

+ Fantasy Update: I've never been as strong at roto football than I am at roto baseball --or Yahoo Pick'Um, for that matter-- but I have enough fun every year to keep coming back. This year's bumper crop of quality running backs should make for an interesting draft.

+ After a few short weeks contributing to iO Watercooler, I have been given my own "spinoff" Facebook page. Just search "Stu News" and click like. (For those of you that aren't on Zuckerberg's site, you can follow me on Twitter here.)

+ Holy crap, I'm 29.

(416)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Needle and the Damage Done

2008 was supposed to be a new beginning.

As a baseball fan, I grew jaded and exhausted by the BALCO scandal, by the constant and nagging rumors of steroid and PED abuse. In August 2007, when Barry Bonds broke the career home run record with considerable scrutiny, I thought the wave had crested. The exodus of Bonds and Roger Clemens, the retirement of Sammy Sosa, and the establishment of harsher penalties all in one fell swoop, gave many the impression that baseball could get its act together. This was an embarrassing chapter in the history of the national pastime, and the healing process would slowly but surely begin. For a short while it seemed like progress was being made, that the strain between players, owners, and fans was gradually being alleviated. An era of freakish, suspicious power hitting would give way to a renaissance of fundamentals, of small ball and contact pitching. Suddenly, home runs grew scarce and "real" baseball was taking prominence. The game was detoxing itself, and to some degree cleansing its very soul.

In hindsight, 2008 was a red herring.

The Biogenesis scandal, while not as widespread as BALCO or the Mitchell Report, proved that the abuse of power-enhancing drugs was still active, it not necessarily rampant. The cheaters grew dumber and more clever at the same time. The scrutiny had a new face, trading the surly Bonds for the pretty-boy diva Alex Rodriguez. The cast of villains weren't aging American meatheads struggling to justify their bloated paychecks, but enigmatic young guns from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

To some degree, I can understand why Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz, Alberto Bastardo (what a fitting name) and everyone else caved into the temptation to cheat. Their homelands were one small notch above a third-world country, and for some of these boys an exceptional athletic prowess was their only way out. They could make the league minimum every year and have enough money saved to keep their families fed for the rest of their lives. Humble beginnings, however does not totally justify the fact that they still tainted the integrity of the game. They couldn't care less about the 1919 Black Sox or Pete Rose --and the ramifications of their wrongdoings-- because they've never heard of them.

As for Pretty Boy A-Rod, his ego and narcissism has reached dizzying new heights. He had the nerve to appeal a perfectly justified 210-game suspension (as I write this, he's still playing) and there is growing speculation and his "entourage" leaked names, including the already suspended Ryan Braun. Players like Skip Schumaker and Zack Greinke have made clear that they'd rather see Rodriguez banned for life, a daring moment of candor in the usually lockstep brotherhood of Major Leaguers. There's also nothing to indicate that the flames that A-Rod has fueled will be extinguished very soon.

I guess the cleansing of baseball's soul will have to wait a bit longer.

(415)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1993

Given  my hectic schedule and family issues of late, I've been neglecting a certain pet project of mine.  Of all the music blogs I wrote, 1993 was probably the one I felt least satisfied with; I wrote a measly top five of albums and the list of singles included songs released the year before. I intended to revise my look back at '93 in early-to-mid June, but real life happened.

If 1991 was the year Grunge broke out and 1992 was the year alternative rock divided and conquered, than 1993 was when it completely and unilaterally controlled the world. The Seattle rock scene had become their generation's equivalent of Liverpool, with new acts from the Pacific Northwest getting signed to record labels on a seemingly daily basis. Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the two bands that spearheaded the movement, released follow-up albums that met lofty expectations and than some. Even top 40 "pop" radio was a little more guitar-heavy than usual. That's not to say alt-rock was the only show in town, though; gangsta rap was in full swing, house and electronica were on the cusp of a breakthrough, and Brit-Pop (er, British alt-rock) was giving the Yanks a run for the money.

NOTE: numbers in parentheses note previous ranking

BEST ALBUMS
1. In Utero, Nirvana. (2) What I said in 2008: "Nirvana's third album bites the hand that feeds them, except their bile is aimed towards the music industry ("Serve the Servants"), the pitfalls of stardom ("Frances Fisher"), and Kurt Cobain's troubled marriage ("Heart-Shaped Box"). Bittersweet, though painfully autobiographical." I neglected to mention that Steve Albini's stark, uncompromising was a perfect match to Cobain's nihilistic, almost suicidal lyrics. All in all, a shattering epitaph.
2. Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins. (3) Nudging themselves from "promising young band" to "promise fulfilled," Dream was made by a band barely keeping it together: frontman Billy Corgan was in the throes of depression, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky had broken up, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had a serious drug problem. With all these demons in the air, they churned out essential tracks like "Cherub Rock," "Today," "Rocket," and "Disarm," mere ingredients in one of most influential albums of the decade.
3. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan. (7) The year's most staggering debut didn't introduce us to one MC but eight. This group of colorful characters --led by Prince Rakeem (aka RZA) and Ol' Dirty Bastard-- invented more than just a sound, they nearly created a full-fledged lifestyle and mindset. No '90s rap album is alternately witty, cocky, and sociopathic, or as eclectic. To paraphrase track 7, the Wu-Tang Clan was nothing to f*** with.
4. Vs., Pearl Jam (4)
5. Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Stereolab
6. Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair (1)
7. Debut, Björk
8. Modern Life is Rubbish, Blur
9. Midnight Maurauders, A Tribe Called Quest
10. Rid of Me, PJ Harvey. (6) If Liz Phair was America's angry young feminist, than Polly Jean Harvey was her British equal. Both have a lot to say and aren't much for subtlety. However, where Phair was gleefully profane and visceral, Harvey is a more tortured soul. Where Phair teeters on insanity, Harvey isn't afraid to show her wounds. In the end, Harvey is the least compromising of the two.

Honorable Mentions: New Wave, The Auteurs; Songs of Faith and Devotion, Depeche Mode; So Tonight That I Might See, Mazzy Star; Republic, New Order; In On the Kill Taker, Fugazi; Souvlaki, Slowdive; Saturation, Urge Overkill; Suede, The (London) Suede.

BEST SINGLES
"Mr. Jones," Counting Crows
"Cannonball," The Breeders
"Laid," James
"Feed the Tree," Belly
"Linger," The Cranberries
"Creep," Radiohead
"Soul to Squeeze," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Insane in the Brain," Cypress Hill
"Low," Cracker
"Backwater," Meat Puppets

BEST VIDEOS
1.  "Heart-Shaped Box," Nirvana. This is one of those clips that can be hard to describe without somehow ruining or trivializing the work. Too bad the collaboration of Anton Corbijn and Kurt Cobain never went beyond this haunting video.
2. "No Rain," Blind Melon. Let your freak flag fly, Bee Girl.
3. "Loser," Beck. "Soy... un perdedor..."
4. "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum. All those missing kids...
5. "Are You Gonna Go My Way?," Lenny Kravitz. No, he's not Jimi Hendrix, but it's a pretty solid imitation.

Honorable Mentions: "Man-Size," PJ Harvey; "Creep," Stone Temple Pilots.

Finally, some interesting news: effective last week, I am now writing original comedy material (i.e. jokes) for iO Watercooler, the web site for Improv Olympic fans and alumni. Be on the lookout for "Stu's News" about five days a week. :)

Your thoughts?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ruminations on a Verdict

Late Saturday night, I posted on Facebook that the George Zimmerman verdict was "Emmett Till all over again." Reaction from my friends was mixed, to put it mildly. Eight or nine of my friends liked the status, but those that disagreed were not afraid to comment. Eventually, I backpedaled; I admitted that the Till comparison was over the top, but I still believed the jury made the wrong call. Mea culpa or not, an awkward silence hovered over the rest of my weekend.

Treyvon Martin's murder 15 months ago was no cut-and-dry homicide, and the ensuing media circus constantly reminded us of that observation. For the prickly debate about gun control and race that Martin's death fueled there has been an undercurrent of idiocy, of poor decision-making, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Martin's death provoked a national discussion on race relations that wasn't wholly necessary, and only fanned the fire of the never-ending debate on gun control. At the same time, George Zimmerman will forever be perceived as a trigger-happy goon who got off scot-free, anointed by a jury that not only ignored his abuse of power a neighborhood watchdog, but also his wife's act of perjury. What a mess.

Other notes:

+ The bankruptcy of Detroit is as pitiful as it was inevitable. NBA great Dave Bing entered a very bad situation when we was elected mayor, and despite some minor gains he situation was just too insurmountable. The lack of economic growth was one thing, but the corruption was another (thanks, Kwame Kilpatrick). This once-great metropolis is now a black hole, sucking nearly the entire state of Michigan into its malaise. (For those of you that aren't familiar with this sorry situation, this article should bring you up to speed.) It'll only get worse before it ever gets better.

+ My congratulations go out to my friend Claire Mulaney on being hired to write for "Saturday Night Live" next season. Apparently, I've been on the Chicago improv scene long enough that I can (sort of) brag that people I've hung out with can --and have-- made their comedy dreams come true. Do your brother John proud.

Next week: the year in music, 1993.

(413)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monday, June 24th

So how did I spend my Game 6?

In my lifetime I've experienced ten* championships between Chicago's five major sports teams; six from the Bulls, one apiece from the Bears and White Sox, and now two from my beloved Blackhawks. (I gave up on the Cubs at age nine and I haven't looked back.) Unlike the previous nine I spent the Hawks' second title in four years in the city, as opposed to my native southwest suburbs. To elaborate:

I watched Game 6 of the 2010 Finals at a restaurant called Cabana Charlie's. My father and I wanted to see the game in a sports bar setting, and with Tilted Kilt and Buffalo Wild Wings packed shoulder to shoulder, we settled on Charlie's. The restaurant itself was a pale imitator of Jimmy Buffett's Cheeseburger in Paradise franchise, with a friendly, palm-tree exterior protecting its soulless, ersatz center. The only TVs were in the bar, and we snagged the last table with a view with 15 minutes before game time.

My family had dined at Cabana Charlie's once or twice before; the burgers were adequate but somewhat overpriced. It was never as loud or energetic, however as it was that magical night in June 2010. The bar erupted for every Hawks goal and fell silent for every Flyers lamp-lighter. I recall the confused jubilance as Patrick Kane slipped it past Michael Leighton in overtime; the buzzer went off, we cheered, but nobody could tell what happened. The replay confirmed our greatest hopes, and when the Stanley Cup was carried onto the ice about a third of the bar (including myself) cried.

Fast forward to June 2013. I had never been anywhere near the mayhem that accompanies a Chicago sports title. The Bulls riots in the early '90s made national news, but that would be the most extreme example. I stormed the north quad at Illinois State when the Bears won the 2006 NFC title, but it didn't compare to the full-fledged White Sox riot from 15 months earlier, before I transferred. Cabana Charlie's shuttered their doors earlier this year --I don't think they ever turned a profit-- so even if I had a fallback, the option wasn't there. Hook, line or sinker I would spend the clinching game somewhere in the city.

My improv commitments complicated matters. As mentioned in past blogs, I belong to a charity organization called Funny Bones, where we do game-oriented improv for sick children in nearby hospitals. We have a monthly meeting/rehearsal the last Monday of each month, and with the Hawks up three game to two and Game 6 set for that evening, I had no choice but to miss the first period. Luckily, said meeting at the Ronald McDonald House in River North, so I accomplished half of my goal right there.

Earlier that day, my dear friend Andy invited me over to his apartment to watch the game. I told him I'd meet up after Funny Bones. Driving from River North to Old Town wasn't much a challenge; finding parking was another story. Every bar and grill within walking distance was packed, and the lack of street parking indicated that. Eventually I bit the bullet and spent $13 to park in the garage adjacent to Piper's Alley (home of Second City), than ran down the street to Andy's place. At that point, the second period was almost over and the game was tied at one. Listening to the action on my car radio was not quenching my thirst.

I plopped down on Andy's couch just as the second intermission wrapped. I nearly choked on the last part of my Subway sandwich when Boston scored their second goal midway through the period. My heart sank as I feared another tidal shift in the series. I was withdrawn to the possibly of a Game 7 until the last 1:20 of the third period. Corey Crawford was pulled and an extra defenseman brought in, which usually screams desperation. I was hoping against hope for another overtime thriller, just like three years earlier. Out of the blue, Toews fed the puck to Bryan Bickell, who slipped it past Tuukka Rask, and the game was suddenly tied. I screamed with ecstasy.

The action halted for a minute or so while everyone --TD Garden, every bar in Chicago, yours truly-- could catch their breath. I had just sat down when Dave Bolland clinched it, a mere 17 seconds after the previous goal. I screamed again, loud enough to make the apartment rattle a little, than bear-hugged Andy. The last 59 seconds of the game, complete with Boston's feeble attempt at a backhander against Crawford, was just icing on the cake. In 2007 I feared the Hawks had been irreversibly run into the ground, much like the Cubs were in the '50s and '60s. Now they had won two Stanley Cups in my lifetime. Like 2010, I cried when the Cup was carried to the ice. It was just too much.

Of course, I can't forget the pandemonium in the streets. I walked down North Avenue to see if any of the bars were getting trashed, but the post-game celebration was surprisingly mannered and mostly well-behaved. Prior to leaving Andy's apartment, I watched news footage of a helicopter hovering above the corner and Clark and Addison, where the real chaos was happening. You would think half the city was celebrating in the streets, reveling shoulder-to-shoulder as the bars and clubs poured out. In a weird twist of fate, my independent improv team was supposed to play at Mullen's on Clark that night, but the show was cancelled for the Hawks game. I was reminded of that odd twist of fate as Mullen's bright green awning glowed in the noisy dark, a beacon in the joyous ataxia. I was tempted to drive up to Wrigleyville, but I was more content to stop by the United Center on my long drive home, where a smaller but equally boisterous crowd had formed a circle of cars around the stadium lot.

And that is how I spent my Game 6.

*11 if you include the 1998 Chicago Fire, but really, let's not.

(412)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Where Am I Going? Where Are You Going?

Last week before class, I was eating lunch with an improv classmate. He's 22 and on the verge of graduating from Northwestern, and we were discussing life in general. At one point he asked me why I'm in the conservatory program. "Why are you doing this," he asked repeatedly. He knew I was an intellectual of sorts, but at the same time he seemed to think I was wasting my natural abilities on just improv. I explained to him my job situation and my passion for improv and comedy, but he kept asking "why." Eventually he settled on my desire to write comedy professionally and possibly pursue a future in theater. He wasn't totally placated, but it was the best answer I could give him.

Less than fourteen months from now, I will be turning 30 years old. In a slightly less intimidating sense, I will be turning 29 in about seven weeks. I suppose I feel neurotic about my birthday because I thought I would be established at this point. That can be a loaded word, but that's how I feel. For all my accomplishments in improv, my burgeoning Twitter feed, not to mention a smattering of published articles, that pretty much sums up my first 5 1/2 years since graduating college. I feel like I've achieved a few things but accomplished so little at the same time. The career that I aspired for disintegrated a little over three years ago, and my current temp job is nowhere near a career. In the last year I've garnered two job interviews out of hundreds of job applications. I don't know if I'm doing something wrong or if I'm just another member of an increasingly lost generation of Americans.

Judging from my accomplishments in the previous paragraph, one might assume my primary issue is a lack of motivation or direction. That is not totally true. Since my career in radio came to an abrupt halt I've been trying to parlay my improv "hobby" into something greater. I've been marketing myself as a comedy writer first and a comedic actor and improviser second. What people don't realize about improv is that there's very little money there; that ability to think on your feet and create scenes and situations from thin air is meant to progress into bigger and better things. My monologue-style jokes aside, most of what I've written lately has been based on scenes I've performed in class with my conservatory ensemble at Second City. I had some part in the creation of four short films in 2012, and though my 2013 output so far pales in comparison I'm still banging away on the keyboard. I have a better idea of how to market myself than I did two years ago.
In a nutshell, Rome wasn't built in a day. Some of us are late bloomers. As long as you're in my corner, I think I'll be alright.

Other notes:

+ So it turns out my father has B-Cell Lymphona. In a nutshell, it could be Hodgkin's Disease or it might not; it's literally 50/50. With that said, it was caught early and there is an 85% survival rate, so some type of radiation or chemotherapy is imminent. This will not be an easy path to take, but there's room for optimism. I'll keep you posted.

+ The NSA is tapping our phones?! Wow, I'm so shocked... in 2006. Heck, even Stephen Colbert was joking about it when he famously grilled President Bush at the White House Correspondents' Dinner that year. It scares me too, don't get me wrong, but at the same time our collective memory...

+ That was probably one of the best finishes to a hockey game I've ever seen. Congratulations again to the Blackhawks.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Child is Father to the Blogger

After three months and multiple delays, my father finally had his brain surgery on Friday. We were informed two days earlier that the growth in his skull was spreading again, and that it would have to be removed sometime in the next 10 days or so. On Thursday the hospital scheduled the procedure for 9:30 AM the next day; I was forced to request a day off work on less than 24 hours' notice, a personal first. I spent most of Friday morning and afternoon with my mother sitting outside the ER; she nonchalantly skimmed through a magazine while I tried to get some writing done for class. For all intents and purposes, she was a complete trooper.

Judging from first impressions, the surgery was a success. The growth was removed, but it's still not clear if the tumor was cancerous or not. (Yes, it was a tumor.) At the same time, the aftereffects are yet to be determined. He doesn't seem to have any sensorimotor issues, and his speech is not slurred. However, my dad might have blurriness in his right eye --he's already very nearsighted-- and possibly some short term memory less. When I visited on Saturday, there didn't seem to be any noticeable permanent damage; he was watching TV and conversing without any issue. At the same time, he was a little tired and still feeling quite dizzy.

Thank you again for the thoughts and good vibes and may you all have a Happy Father's Day.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Through a Third Freshman's Eyes

Get ready to feel old again!

For the third year in a row, I present my assumptive Mindset List for graduating high school kids/incoming college freshmen. This year's high school grads were born in late 1994 or early-to-mid 1995, mere preschoolers at the turn of the millennium. I can't speak on behalf of Americans ten years my junior (!) and these observations may not be totally representative of all 18-year-olds, but it's certainly something to wrap your head around. Besides, why should we wait for Beloit College's annual list in three months?

(NOTE: if anything may appear to be missing, I was just trying to avoid overlap from last year's list. Click here for said blog entry.)

With that said, if you are an incoming college freshman...

...there has never been an Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
...with the exception of a four-year gap in the late 2000s, the GOP has always controlled the House of Representatives.
...women have always been able to captain a space shuttle.
...your British friends have never invested in Barings Bank.
...Michael Jordan has only retired twice.
...there has always been at least one NBA team in Canada.
...there has never been an NFL team in Los Angeles, but there's always been one in northern Florida.
...Kevin Garnett, Jerry Stackhouse, and Kurt Thomas have always played in the NBA.
...the Major League Baseball season has never been shortened by, nor subjected to, a strike or work stoppage.
...you have never seen a sporting event inside Chicago Stadium or Boston Garden.
...the San Francisco 49ers have never won a Super Bowl.
...Cal Ripken Jr. has always owned the record for all-time consecutive games played.
...Connie Chung has never co-anchored the CBS Nightly News.
...you never saw Chris Farley or Adam Sandler on Saturday Night Live.
...classic kids' shows like "Ghostwriter," "Legends of the Hidden Temple," and "Tiny Toon Adventures" have existed only in repeats.
...Jon Stewart has never been on any cable channel besides Comedy Central.
...Jay Leno has always beaten David Letterman in the ratings.
...you have never had a sip of Coke II, and you don't know what it used to be called.
...you have never seen a first-class postage stamp below 30 cents.
...Mickey Mantle, Jerry Garcia, Ginger Rogers, Selena, Ed Flanders, Michael O'Donoghue, Shannon Hoon, Easy E, Wolfman Jack, Orville Redenbacher, Peter Cook, Donald Pleasance, Elizabeth Montgomery, Dr. Jonas Salk, and Bob "Happy Trees" Ross have always been dead.
..."The Far Side" and "Calvin & Hobbes" have never run in your local newspaper.
...you've probably never read a newspaper.

If you have anything else to add, let me know. Writing these lists are both inspiring and depressing.

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Eighth Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot

For all intents and purposes, the 2012-13 television season is in the books. A little speculation is already brewing for this year's Emmys, and for the eighth year in a row I will throw my most educated guesses into the gauntlet. It was a weak year for first-year series so I don't expect too many fresh faces, but the rise of pay-on-demand original programming (thanks, Netflix!) might prove to be a curious X-factor. Than again, I predicted minimal turnover last year and look at how that turned out.

With that said, here is my 2013 Fantasy Emmy Ballot:

Writing in a Variety/Comedy/Music Series: (name listed is head writer) Barry Julien, The Colbert Report; Mike Sweeney, Conan; Steve Bodow, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; A.D. Miles, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher; Colin Jost and Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live.
Outstanding Variety/Comedy/Music Series: "The Colbert Report," Comedy Central; "Conan," TBS; "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Comedy Central; "Jimmy Kimmel Live," ABC; "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," NBC; "Saturday Night Live," NBC.

Outstanding Miniseries or Made-for-TV Movie: "American Horror Story: Asylum," FX; "Behind the Candelabra," HBO; "Political Animals," USA; "Phil Spector," HBO; "Top of the Lake," Sundance Channel.

Supporting Actress, Comedy: Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory; Julie Bowen, Modern Family; Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock; Sofia Vergara, Modern Family; Jessica Walter, Arrested Development; Allison Williams, Girls.
Supporting Actor, Comedy: Ty Burrell, Modern Family; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family; Max Greenfield, New Girl; Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother; Ed O'Neill, Modern Family; Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family.
Supporting Actress, Drama: Morena Baccarin, Homeland; Christine Baranski, The Good Wife; Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey; Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad; Christina Hendricks, Mad Men; Dame Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey.
Supporting Actor, Drama: Jim Carter, Downton Abbey; Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones; Gabriel Byrne, Vikings; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad; James Purefoy, The Following; John Slattery, Mad Men.

Lead Actress, Comedy: Lena Dunham, Girls; Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie; Tina Fey, 30 Rock; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep; Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly; Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation.
Lead Actor, Comedy: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock; Jason Bateman, Arrested Development; Louie C.K. Louie; Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory; Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory; Matthew Perry, Go On.
Lead Actress, Drama: Connie Britton, Nashville; Claire Danes, Homeland; Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey; Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife; Keri Russell, The Americans; Kerry Washington, Scandal.
Lead Actor, Drama: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire; Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad; Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom; Jon Hamm, Mad Men; Damian Lewis, Homeland; Kevin Spacey, House of Cards.

Best Comedy Series: "30 Rock," NBC; "The Big Bang Theory," CBS; "Girls," HBO; "Modern Family," ABC; "Parks & Recreation," NBC; "Veep," HBO.
Best Drama Series: "Boardwalk Empire," HBO; "Breaking Bad," AMC; "Game of Thrones," HBO; "Homeland," Showtime; "House of Cards," Netflix; "Mad Men," AMC.

I look forward to the debate that will ensue.

Next Week: my Class of '13 memory list.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Taxing Matters


Say what you will about President Obama, but one thing is now certain: the "second term curse" is in full swing.  Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky, Bush 43 had the triple-whammy of Scooter Libby, a failing war, and Hurricane Katrina. Our current president has a situation in three different fronts: alleged IRS penalties on organizations tied to the Tea Party, suspected invasions of privacy on White House reporters, and of course Benghazi.

After some initial waffling, the White House is taking some accountability for the IRS conspiracy.  The story of President Obama's chief of staff knowing three weeks before he did is troubling, to put it mildly. The layman's theory --one I'm still debating in my head-- is that these Tea Party organizations and their established opposition to any and all taxation made them easy targets. At the same time, maybe they really are tax cheats, it's all politics and they're simply crying foul to get the president right where they want him. Even then, the Watergate comparisons are tricky to ignore.

Other notes:

+ It's a shame of sorts that "Other Voices," The Doors' first album after Jim Morrison's death, has been largely forgotten. It was written immediately after "L.A. Woman" with the assumption that Jim would return from France and do his thing. Instead, the three surviving members (but mostly Ray Manzarek) would take turns on lead vocals; collectively they couldn't match Morrison's power and charisma, but the effort was noble. All in all, "Other Voices" is a forgotten gem of the early '70s. Break on through, Ray.

+ I am not doing that well in fantasy baseball this year. Both of my teams are second-division, a mild indignation for some but a rarity for me. My pre-season rankings were erased by a glitch on Yahoo Fantasy the day before my first draft, forcing me to piece something together. I did alright during the first week but I've been lagging over since.

Next week: my 8th Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot.

(407)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sanford's Sun


I was convinced Mark Sanford would lose in a nailbiter. I was not expecting a Colbert-Busch blowout, but a realistically narrow victory in an unapologetically red state. With his victory last week, Sanford found gainful employment in the government again, but he still paid a price for the sex scandal that resulted in his censure by the South Carolina government. In other words, this was a short-term victory for the Palmetto State but a long-term loss for the GOP.

I am not willing, however to call Sanford's win a redemption story. It's barely even a comeback. More than likely, he'll spend the rest of his political career in the more crowded chamber, with any potential run for senate or even the presidency tainted by his infidelities. In a way, this news blurb reminds me of George O'Leary, who briefly (emphasis on "briefly") served as head coach of the once-hallowed Notre Dame football program. O'Leary embarrassed himself in the public eye --he lied about his credentials-- than redeemed himself in a somewhat obscure scouting position. Both men found a pretty decent glass ceiling.

Other notes:

+ Good news! The treatment is apparently working, and the growth in my dad's skull seems to be shrinking. As a result, the surgery was postponed again; if and when it actually does happen, it'll probably be in early June. Keep sending the good vibes!

+ What happened in Benghazi in September 2012 was a gross act of incompetence; there is no cover-up, nor is there any reason to demonize former Secretary Clinton. Any speculation is just bluster and partisan posturing. That's why the mainstream media isn't paying more attention to the incident.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Random Notes, April 2013


Varying thoughts on current events:

+ The state of South Carolina has a memory as long as their political rhetoric leans right. With that said, the state GOP's nomination of disgraced ex-governor Mark Sanford for a vacated U.S. House seat is more confusing than amnemonic. A recent stunt where Sanford "debated" a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi evoked memories of Clint Eastwood at last year's RNC, and he is failing to gain ground on his opponent, moderate-left Democrat and celebrity sibling Elizabeth Colbert Busch. The anamoly of a liberal congressman in an unabashedly conservative state doesn't seem as much of a reach now. Busch doesn't come across as a rising star, so I would blame her imminent victory on the usual Republican hubris. And they say an elephant never forgets.

+ The unexpected rise in former President Bush's approval rating can be attributed to the passage of time and his relative silence since leaving office four-plus years ago, not a reconsideration of his presidency. Any positive vibes sent toward the opening of his presidential library this past week were based upon goodwill and little else. Just for fun, here's a quick refresher on Bush 43's flawed presidency.

+ Family Update: My father's brain surgery was postponed until May 11th; the surgeon came down with the flu, so it was pushed back three weeks. Here's hoping the growth hasn't spread in the interim. Meanwhile, three months after having her gallbladder removed, my mom seems to have a recurring stomach virus. She was already in the hospital about two weeks ago after having an allergic reaction to her antibiotics, so her medications were switched out. Hopefully, this remedies her situation. Again, please send good vibes.

+ Improv Update: This weekend I'll be finishing Level 4 of the esteemed Second City Conservatory program, with Level 5 beginning next week. For those of you who are in or near Chicago or will be between now and September, I'll keep you posted on future student shows.

(405)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

America and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week


I first heard about the Boston Marathon bombing at my temp job on Monday afternoon. I was nowhere near a TV and my internet connection was the phone in my desk drawer. I overheard someone in an adjacent cube discussing a bombing that only paid half-attention to the gruesome details. It wasn't until my afternoon break that I glanced at my Palm Pre and realized the seriousness of these explosions. The personal achievement of finishing a marathon was tainted by a senseless, cowardly act.

When a tragedy like this occurs, my great irrational fear is that the suspects and conspirators will never be found or captured, like D.B. Cooper or the anthrax guy from late 2001. Within five days one suspect had been gunned down by authorities, while the other was captured after a remarkably quick manhunt. The surviving suspect is breathing through a tube and responding sporadically, but he deserves no sympathy for his agony.

A few days ago, I felt compelled to dedicate my entire blog this week to the marathon bombing.  Unfortunately, the tragedy in Boston proved to be the indirect catalyst of a really terrible week. Two days later, a fertilizer factory combusted in McLennan County, Texas. A day after that, record levels of rain rocked the Midwest, drenching my hometown and turning major streets and parkways into rivers. The gunfight in Watertown, MA on Thursday night --where a campus police officer was slain by one of the Tsarnaev brothers-- brought everything full circle in the most appalling, disheartening way possible. A year's worth of tumultuous events occurred in the span of five days. Here's hoping next week is not so eventful.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Mind Over Matter


Next Friday, my father will be having brain surgery.

It feels surreal and discomforting to write those words, and it goes without saying that this is scary to think about. Granted, my father has never been the model of perfect health --he's been at least 40 pounds overweight for as long as I can remember, he's worn trifocals since his early 30s, and above all he's a pre-diabetic with gout-- but compared to my mother he's always been relatively stable. Where my maternal grandfather was already in a nursing home by age 75, my father will be 76 in October and still has nearly all of his capacities.

To get into specifics: about six weeks ago, my father battled some dizzy spells and complained about some bluriness in his left eye. After a series of tests, a neurologist found a growth about the size of a nickel between his brain and his skull. They caught the growth early, and so far it has not metastasized. There is an 80% chance my father will make a full recovery, though it won't happen overnight. He'll be in the hospital anywhere from five days to a week. I'm probably worrying more than I should, but at the same time there is nothing guaranteed with this procedure.

Friends and relatives are inclined to tell me that I resemble my mother but I think and act like my father. As my parents age their physical flaws become more transparent, and over the last few months I've grown concerned about what maladies will strike me in my old age. I'm already quite nearsighted --nearly all my relatives wear glasses-- and hypertension and bad knees also run in the family. When one of my cousins died of complications from obesity two years ago, I bought a gym membership. When a stage one subluxation was found in my lower back, I started going to a chiropractor on a regular basis. Part of me would like to grow old gracefully.

As with past family medical crises, please send your thoughts and goodwill.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thumbs on the Pulse


In the mid-to-late 1990s, if the Allard family was at home for dinner on a Saturday night, I made sure we watched "Siskel & Ebert." Under the half-hearted protest of my bored younger sister, I habitually watched these two Chicago-bred film critics debate the merits of new movies. I even remember hearing of Gene Siskel's passing less than 30 minutes before their show aired (the show was taped days earlier; Tom Shales filled in). The show soldiered on for another seven or eight years, first with a rotation of other critics --Michael Wilmington, Siskel's successor at the Chicago Tribune, appeared to be drunk in his sole TV appearance-- than with Ebert's Sun-Times cohort Richard Roeper.

Where Siskel and Ebert were rivals that did their best to be as professional as possible on-screen, Roeper and Ebert had more of a mentor/mentee relationship. When Ebert took a medical leave of absence in mid-2006, the same sick leave that resulted in the removal of his jaw, vocal cords, and ability to eat and drink, Roeper was joined by a second parade of guest movie critics. The show languished without Roger, I grew too busy to watch, and eventually Roeper and a still-rehabing Ebert were squeezed out by their own producers. Roeper continues to post clips of his reviews online, and Ebert (with a computerized voice) tried to relaunch his show on PBS, but it wasn't the same. In spite of his physical deformities, Ebert maintained a strong presence in social media, arguing about cinema and current events with fans around the world.

I never had the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert, but I considered him an influence in my writing. If we were ever in the same room I would have shrieked like a fanboy, but now that time has come and gone. My pipe dream of reviewing movies for a living didn't totally pan out, but Ebert made writing a compelling career.  Even if film criticism belongs in its own category, Ebert was a quinessentially Chicagoan writer in the mold of Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel. He was literate and verbose but never high-strung or patronizing; he was witty without being mean-spirited; he deconstructed art films and popcorn flicks with equal aplomb. Roger Ebert was the face and spirit of modern film criticism and there will never be another one like him.

Other notes:

+ The ten-year anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom went by without much fanfare. In all likelihood, the mere mention of the invasion of Iraq would have reopened old wounds. The debate as to whether invading was justified, long dormant, would rise again as shrill as it was in 2003. I can understand why some people minced words.

I remember the invasion vividly for two reasons. It was the first "cause" that I ever got myself caught up in. Second, it was the first American war to be captured by a 24-hour news cycle gone amok, the three-headed hydra of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News running phrases like "Breaking News" and "Alert" into the ground.

One decade on, the pros and cons of Operation Enduring Freedom nearly negate each other.  The expense of the war contributed to the financial situation that cripples our country right now, and even though we successfully removed Saddam Hussein from power, the "Arab Spring" of 2011 suggested that his downfall could've happened more organically. On the other hand, every war has its casualties, and I am convinced our troops did not die in vain; they fought with unparagoned honor and grace.