Monday, September 11, 2006

The Hole In The Ground

Ground Zero: incredibly, still there.
Following another day of the same sanctimonious and empty gestures from our Fearless Leader, Keith Olbermann did it again. He's been on fire lately this season as the anti-Democrat/pro-fear rhetoric has ratcheted up yet again, and this is quite possibly the best special commentary he has done since his classic post-Katrina piece excoriating the government's clueless response to that epic disaster.

The full transcript of his words follows this paragraph, but I highly reccommend watching the video of this seething commentary (posted
here) to get the full effect.

Half a lifetime ago, I worked in this now-empty space. And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what happened, and was yet to happen, as a reporter.

All the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends, two in the planes and -- as I discovered from those "missing posters" seared still into my soul -- two more in the Towers.

And I knew too, that this was the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen, of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more, as our ancestors.

I belabor this to emphasize that, for me this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.

And anyone who claims that I and others like me are "soft,"or have "forgotten" the lessons of what happened here is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante and at worst, an idiot whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President.

However, of all the things those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast -- of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds -- none of us could have predicted this.

Five years later this space is still empty.

Five years later there is no memorial to the dead.

Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us, by cowards and criminals.

Five years later this country's wound is still open.

Five years later this country's mass grave is still unmarked.

Five years later this is still just a background for a photo-op.

It is beyond shameful.

At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial -- barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field -- Mr. Lincoln said, "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Lincoln used those words to immortalize their sacrifice.

Today our leaders could use those same words to rationalize their reprehensible inaction. "We cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." So we won't.

Instead they bicker and buck pass. They thwart private efforts, and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere. They spend the money on irrelevant wars, and elaborate self-congratulations, and buying off columnists to write how good a job they're doing instead of doing any job at all.

Five years later, Mr. Bush, we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets. And look carefully, sir, on these 16 empty acres. The terrorists are clearly, still winning.

And, in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed but did not enact, you have done nothing about it.

And there is something worse still than this vast gaping hole in this city, and in the fabric of our nation. There is its symbolism of the promise unfulfilled, the urgent oath, reduced to lazy execution.

The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity, here, and throughout the country. The government, the President in particular, was given every possible measure of support.

Those who did not belong to his party -- tabled that.

Those who doubted the mechanics of his election -- ignored that.

Those who wondered of his qualifications -- forgot that.

History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics. It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.

Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.

The President -- and those around him -- did that.

They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, "bi-partisanship" meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused, as appeasers, as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, "validate the strategy of the terrorists."

They promised protection, and then showed that to them "protection" meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken, a despot who we now learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated al-Qaida as much as we did.

The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had 'something to do' with 9/11 is "lying by implication."

The impolite phrase is "impeachable offense."

Not once in now five years has this President ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space, and to this, the current, curdled, version of our beloved country.

Still, there is a last snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness: even his most virulent critics have never suggested he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11.

Half the time, in fact, this President has been so gently treated, that he has seemed not even to be the man most responsible for anything in his own administration.

Yet what is happening this very night?

A mini-series, created, influenced -- possibly financed by -- the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavellis, continues to be televised into our homes.

The documented truths of the last fifteen years are replaced by bald-faced lies; the talking points of the current regime parroted; the whole sorry story blurred, by spin, to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent, and the party in office, seem like the only option.

How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections? How dare you -- or those around you -- ever "spin" 9/11?

Just as the terrorists have succeeded -- are still succeeding -- as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero.

So, too, have they succeeded, and are still succeeding as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans.

This is an odd point to cite a television program, especially one from March of 1960. But as Disney's continuing sell-out of the truth (and this country) suggests, even television programs can be powerful things.

And long ago, a series called "The Twilight Zone" broadcast a riveting episode entitled "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."

In brief: a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extra-terrestrials disguised as humans. The electricity goes out. A neighbor pleads for calm. Suddenly his car -- and only his car -- starts. Someone suggests he must be the alien. Then another man's lights go on. As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced. An "alien" is shot -- but he turns out to be just another neighbor, returning from going for help. The camera pulls back to a near-by hill, where two extra-terrestrials are seen manipulating a small device that can jam electricity. The veteran tells his novice that there's no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then, "they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves."

And then, in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves tonight: "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men.

"For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own -- for the children, and the children yet unborn."

When those who dissent are told time and time again -- as we will be, if not tonight by the President, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus -- that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of it, we are somehow un-American...When we are scolded, that if we merely question, we have "forgotten the lessons of 9/11"... look into this empty space behind me and the bi-partisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me:

Who has left this hole in the ground?

We have not forgotten, Mr. President.

You have.

May this country forgive you.

Moving Ahead, Guardedly

Sign of the times: don't do, just support.

(the following is reprinted sans permission from

9/11 Has Changed Few Lives
Surprisingly, the mind-sets of most Americans haven't been greatly altered.
By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
September 11, 2006

Airport trash cans overflow with toothpaste and deodorant.

Thousands of college students bend their heads over Arabic texts.

In Minneapolis, networks of sensors continually sample air for anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman is alerted when cars with out-of-state license plates are spotted cruising cattle feedlots.

On a gravel road in rural Indiana, the Amish Country Popcorn factory makes the federal list of potential terrorist targets — a list of 77,069.

Five years after Sept. 11, this is the new normal.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died when terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the World Trade Center's twin towers, one into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns calls the attack "as seismic as an event can be …. Rarely does the future announce itself so vividly and horrifyingly."

Residents of New York and Washington remain edgy. And those who lost loved ones, or have relatives or friends serving in the military abroad, can't help but be reminded all too often of Sept. 11.

Remarkably, though, the day-to-day lives of most Americans have changed very little. We have found it easy, perhaps startlingly easy, to stick to routines and habits and mind-sets forged before we could have conceived of planes as missiles. Last month, the Pew Research Center polled about 1,500 adults across the country. More than 40% said the terrorist attacks had not changed their personal lives at all. And 36% said their lives had been altered "only a little bit."

Sept. 11 is often compared to another day of infamy, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Historians, however, see no comparison. World War II demanded personal sacrifice from every American family. The global war on terrorism has touched only a few directly, even as the threat level bounces from orange to yellow to orange to red.

"Many of the predictions made five years ago by cultural pundits about positive long-term changes on our behavior, on our attitudes, even on the art we make, have proved largely untrue," says novelist Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award for Three Junes.

She finds the lack of transformation depressing, a moment missed. "You could say it's because human beings are so good at adapting," Glass suggests. "Or because we tend toward a certain set point of selfishness and complacency."

That capacity for moving on, for getting back to normal, infuriated Army Staff Sgt. Jay White when he was home last summer between tours of duty in Iraq. "It used to drive him nuts when we were standing in line and somebody was complaining about their Frappuccino," recalls his wife, Jessica.

Jessica feels that same frustration at the high school in Cromwell, Conn., where she teaches history.

"It's a feeling of isolation and loneliness and confusion," she says. Her husband left on his most recent deployment less than three weeks after their wedding. "You hear about the dramas of the 16-year-old girls all the time, and I want to go: 'You don't even know what people are going through. What your own teacher's going through,' " she says.

Though most Americans have seen little change in their lives, many do recognize the effect Sept. 11 had on their neighbors and on society as a whole. In the Pew poll, 51% said their country had changed "in a major way."

Those changes are not exactly what the pundits predicted in the days after Sept. 11.

Back then, President Bush publicly wrapped the top Democrat in the Senate, Tom Daschle, in a bear hug; unity in the face of adversity seemed the only possible course. But fighting terrorism proved a sharply partisan issue — and all too susceptible to fear-mongering.

"National security has become just another political weapon to beat each other up with," says Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

It has also become a top priority for many voters, a noted change from decades past.

"Generally speaking, you could almost [always] gauge the outcome of elections by the economy," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. "Now that issue has been trumped by the war on terror … and understandably. We received a national shock on 9/11."

Immediately after the terrorist strikes, 64% of Americans said they trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By the summer of 2002, the figure had dropped to 39%.

These days, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that 36% of Americans say it's at least somewhat likely the federal government was complicit in the attacks, according to a recent Scripps-Howard poll.

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed "God Bless America," it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. "Spiritually speaking, it's as if nothing significant ever happened," says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

So what, then, has changed since Sept. 11?

The American Civil Liberties Union has devoted vast amounts to fighting Bush administration policies such as eavesdropping without a warrant on certain phone calls and imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without charges or access to a lawyer. Those efforts have clearly resonated: ACLU membership has grown more than 80%, revenue has jumped 34%, and the group has nearly doubled the size of its national staff.

Other civil liberties groups have been equally charged. At New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Director Bill Goodman has handled cases brought by terrorist suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and by U.S. soldiers forced to serve beyond their terms of enlistment. He has sued on behalf of immigrants detained after Sept. 11 and foreigners who allege they were tortured by American agents.

The center's caseload has "been taken over by post-9/11 litigation," Goodman says.

The government, too, has been consumed by its new focus on terrorism. The FBI's budget has doubled. Federal spending on air security has quadrupled. The Department of Homeland Security has checked 2.7 million truckers against a terrorist watch list.

In Los Angeles, Edina Lekovic, a Muslim, senses Sept. 11 fallout when she leaves the house in her head scarf. Strangers stop her in the supermarket to ask if her father forces her to cover her hair. They wonder aloud if she's oppressed. Then they grill her about jihad.

"Life has gotten a lot more complicated," says Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national policy group. "To be a Muslim in this day and age is to be in a pressure cooker, 24/7. You have to constantly explain your faith…. [We] went from private citizens to public ambassadors."

For Chris Simcox, the new normal means a new vigilance — and long nights pacing the Mexican border with a gun. Long disturbed by illegal immigration, Simcox says he had an epiphany after Sept. 11: "The next terrorists are not going to come in on visas." So he moved to Phoenix and founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to help guard his country.

Simcox says he has signed up 8,000 volunteer Minutemen. His themes are also seeping into election-year politics. Randy Graf, an Arizona Republican running for a U.S. House seat, explains his call for a crackdown on illegal immigration this way: "We all remember what happened on Sept. 11."

"I tell you," Simcox says, triumphant, "the sleeping giant has awakened."

The fallout from Sept. 11 has affected the world of culture as well.

Musicians have channeled sorrow, rage and fear into anthems to that indelible day. Classical composer John Adams gave us a haunting elegy with "On the Transmigration of Souls." Country singer Toby Keith served up a lusty cry for vengeance with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." And Bruce Springsteen poured out his empathy for terrorism's victims — and its perpetrators — in his 2002 album, The Rising.

With his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus brought black comedy to the age of terror. He sets his satire about a divorcing couple in Manhattan in 2001; at one point, husband and wife each think the other has died in the World Trade Center — and each is secretly delighted. It's a deliberate effort, Kalfus says, to disprove what "we were told after 9/11, that irony was dead."

For her part, New York writer Martha McPhee, a former National Book Award finalist, had one of the main characters in her cross-cultural love story, L'America, die in the collapse of the north tower.

"It's not surprising that novelists want to try" to take on Sept. 11, McPhee says, "because what a novel tries to do is make sense out of something that makes no sense."

That's what Americans have tried to do as well these last five years: make sense of the senseless. Shock waves from Sept. 11 reverberate still, but carrying on with the familiar humdrum of our lives lets us feel stable, even as radiation detectors are installed at the Super Bowl and security guards at the airport order us to toss our bottled water.

"Probably no American life is totally unaffected by 9/11, but very few people are immobilized or totally preoccupied with it," says Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

Lifton studies the psychology of survival, and he says we as a nation have not fully come to terms with the fear, the anger — or the humiliation — 9/11 evoked. We have learned to live with the new normal, yes. But that doesn't mean we've moved past that bright September day of unthinkable horror.

"It's a powerful event which has not been fully absorbed," Lifton says, "and in many ways floats in and out of our psyches."


Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Janet Hook, Jenny Jarvie, Lynn Marshall, Scott Martelle, Charles McNulty, Ann Powers, Maria Russo, Mark Swed, David L. Ulin, Henry Weinstein and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The End Of Drama: Floods, Bills, & The Stupidity Trifecta

A few weeks back, I wrote a post whining about how it felt like we were living on Waterworld, and lemme tell you, that was peanuts compared to the Biblical deluge of this past week.

Flooding a few miles from here

You may have heard that Mother Nature went ballistic on Northeast Ohio last Thursday, dumping 9" of rain over most of Lake County in about 24 hours, and flooding the living shit out of Painesville, Fairport Harbor, Eastlake, Mentor and Willowick.

Don't worry: we're untouched and, as it turns out, damned lucky: the worst we had to cope with (aside from the hellish driving conditions exacerbated by most major roads being shut down) was a wet stretch of carpet and linoleum from rain pushed underneath the door and into our little foyer. The folks on Bayridge Road (a few hundred feet away from here) weren't so lucky, however, as water piled up in their basements to a depth of 3 feet, resulting in a tons of ruined carpeting and furniture being piled up on treelawns up and down that street over the last couple of days.

Now that the waters have receded and getting around town is no longer a challenge in coming up with alternate routes on back roads, I can attend to more pressing matters in the form of my medical bill situation, which I am extremely pleased to report is now largely a non-issue, save for a few small issues to be picked over tomorrow. To my surprise, The City Of Willowick wrote off the $460 ambulance bill, which was a relief, but nowhere near as much as being able to tap into some money my Dad had squirrelled away in a mutual fund for me years ago, which will cover the balance of the remaining bills.

A hospital bed somewhere in middle AmericaAs expected, I apparently make too much money for the feds to write off the charges incurred by Chuck's visit. This is kinda sad, really: I earn well below what is popularly considered "the poverty line" and I can only imagine what unbearable financial one must live at for the State will absolve you of being in debt up to your eyeballs from medical expenses. However, I was also informed that the astronomical (and still non-itemized) figure I was mailed a few weeks ago has been cut in half as long as I can pay it off in one lump sum, which I will be taking care of as soon as my check arrives. Said check will cover the remaining amount, as well as the two other bills that are not covered by these financial help people (and it would have been nice to know this over a month ago so I might have started to pay them off by now). The only drawback to this good news is that I am going to feel some sting from this withdrawal come April 15 of next year, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

It wasn't all good news this past week in the money department, however: the cherry on the sundae of this life update is that I managed to snap my record 8-year streak of good traffic behavior in pretty spectacular fashion last Wednesday night (just as The Deluge From Hell was starting to get going). Realizing that I had forgotten some work that needed to be done, I headed back to the store at 2 AM to retrieve a new release order book that had to be taken care first thing Thursday morning. Upon leaving the store, I neglected to turn on my headlights (something I am always prone to do when the roads are wet) and was pulled over a few moments later on Route 306 thanks to that and the fact that I was speeding through a very popular downhill speed trap underneath a railroad bridge. You see, this section of Route 306 is a 25mph zone and I was clocked going 41. Oops.

Friends of the family for 16 yearsMaking matters worse, the policeman returned to my car after writing the ticket and asked me if I knew that my driver's license had expired. "That's incorrect, sir" I said, looking at the card in his hand with some irritation, "it doesn't expire until two thousand and...six..." Oops again. So, I was handed a ticket for 41 in a 25 and an expired license, and was pretty steamed at this development, but at the same time thankful that I was allowed to drive home instead having my car towed on the spot (which he was certainly in his right to do as I had just nailed The Stupidity Trifecta) and thus forcing me to get a ride in the middle of a downpour at 2 AM.

The license problem was taken care of the next morning, and (depending on the waivable price of the ticket) I will either pay that off sometime this week or decide to show up in court a couple of Wednesdays from now in an attempt to get the costs knocked down a bit. After that, all of this wonderful endless summer drama will at last be over. Here's to a peaceful August.

NP: The Go-Betweens 1978-1990

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ultraman Revisited

Ultraman DVD ArtworkMonths after posting in a nostalgic sense about the wonderful world of Ultraman, the powers that be have elected at last to release the original series on DVD ... well, the first twenty episodes, at least.

Let's get the technical stuff out of the way first: the presentation is fairly good throughout, especially with the factors of time and storage considered, though there are some issues with the sound, in particular the dubbed English dialogue switching irritatingly to Japanese at the drop of a hat without automatically triggering the subtitling (I had to manually activate this function on a few occasions). The extras, sadly, are largely inconsequential: a dull, amateur-quality recording of a conversation with the three principal voice actors who dubbed the series for English television, a more informative (though very dry) slideshow walk-through introducing of the monsters featured during this batch of episodes, and finally the English-language opening credits for the show.

As was the case during my marathon week of Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot on a home-made DVD compilation a few months ago, watching Ultraman Vol. 1 over the last few nights was a rather illuminating experience, as many newer impressions of the show have surfaced since the last time I watched it (which was somewhere around 25 or more years ago). It was also impossible not to contrast the two series as the series wound onwards, and I am pleased to report that Ultraman quickly overpowered Sokko in nearly all fields of comparison.

The most immediate impression I got from watching these DVDs was what a weirdly schizoid show Ultraman could be as it occasionally blended goofball slapstick humor with surprisingly heavy existential plot developments, not to mention an unexpected, not-quite-psychedelic-but-definitely-mid-1960s surreal twist noticeable in the style of the later episodes.

Science Patrol Members Ito, Captain Mura and IrashiDespite some genuinely creepy monsters and set-pieces scattered around the first 20 shows, Ultraman comes off as a lot more overtly kid-aimed than I'd remembered. I realize that this isn't exactly an amazing observation concerning a show that features stunt performers in silly rubber monster suits getting their asses kicked on a weekly basis by another guy in a skin tight silver getup, but bear with me a bit. Unlike Johnny Sokko, whose characters were taciturn and businesslike with only rare occasions where they engaged in comedy, there are times watching Ultraman when you wonder exactly who selects agents for Science Patrol duty, especially if such clods as Ito (an electronics whiz who comes off like a Japanese version of Jerry Lewis), Irashi (a hot-headed dolt who wants to blast everything in sight with his two-handled ray gun), and the obligatory "troublemaking kid character" Hoshino somehow made the grade.

Then again, the whole reason I watched this show as a kid was the monsters, and watching these epic battles between Ultraman and his foes is a massive giggle not altogether different from a pro wrestling match (with some good ol' fashioned sumo moves here and there for color). While Johnny Sokko's Giant Robot fought in pretty much the same clunky way you'd expect a robot to fight, Ultraman was a nimble, graceful, sometimes playful figure in the ring who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. I will also add that the carnage is often spread equally by the battling titans, as Ultraman also seems to cause just as much damage to balsawood Nipponese infrastructure as his nemesis in any given battle. It was also surprising to note how quickly most of these fights were resolved: Ultraman was able to dispatch many of his assailants by simply utilizing his badass Specium Ray after a few moments of spirited leaping about and a few strategically-placed karate chops.

Another thing that struck me was that the production values on Ultraman seemed much higher than those of Johnny Sokko in nearly all areas, from the music to the use of location shooting and generally more creative monster design (not only were many of Sokko's adversaries rather cheesy in comparison, but the show's creators gleefully re-used their monsters two and three times over during the show's run).

I'll conclude with what is for me the most interesting difference between the two series: the tone of the shows as a whole. The U.N.I.C.O.R.N. organization were effectively at war with the Gargoyle Gang throughout the run of Johnny Sokko as every single foe faced by the Giant Robot was a stooge of the bad guys. With Ultraman, the enemies are spawned by nuclear accidents, radiation exposure, or just happen across the Earth from the depths of space and time, and not all of them had what could be construed as "evil" intentions. Thus, there are a few episodes of Ultraman that end on a surprisingly melancholy note as the defeated monsters are given a mournful musical sendoff rather than a rousing fanfare of victory.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett: 1946-2006

Syd Barrett, circa 1968
Largely thanks to the remarkable talents of Syd Barrett falling dormant to rampant hallucinogenic abuse (which in turn triggered a crippling bout of schizophrenia) almost before I was born, this feels kind of like writing an obituary about 35 years too late, but here goes ...

The music of Syd Barrett, for years, remained the one and only part of the history of Pink Floyd that I never "got." While I now regard 1967's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn as a true psychedelic classic on a par with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, my first impressions when hearing this record in late 1987 were more bemused than amazed as it sounded absolutely nothing at all like the Pink Floyd I had been obsessed with for months. Instead of the large scaled (and sour-eyed) ruminations on the human condition common to Roger Waters, Barrett's Pink Floyd dealt with house cats, rascally transvestites, simple love songs, fanciful gnomes, and passages from the I Ching. At times almost mincingly fey (I hate to admit that I often thought of Spinal Tap's "Listen To The Flower People"), at other times bordering on semi-chaotic, Piper struck me as more akin to The Monkees on acid than anything as fascinating as, say, The Dark Side Of The Moon.

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
Over the years, however, sporadic airings of that album (or the wonderful period singles as "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" on sundry Floyd compilation albums) gradually brought me around on Barrett's unique and indisputable talent ... at least in regards to the music of Pink Floyd. Following that qualifier, I regret to add that, thus far, the appeal of much of his solo work continues to elude me: most of it I find far too raw and harrowing to be truly "enjoyable." That said, amongst all of his fractured missives from the other side of sanity, there are a few odd diamonds-in-the-rough that have gradually wormed their way into my subconscious like "Octopus," "Dominoes," "Golden Hair," and the nursery rhyme-like "Effervescing Elephant."

Since, like so many others my age, I discovered Pink Floyd by working backwards from their mid-1970s peak, it took me a few extra years to fully appreciate the band's evolution. Therefore, nearly all of what I'd learned about the band's formative years was gleaned from an supply of books and articles on the band I'd collected over the last two decades. While I'd slowly started to grow an appreciation for the sunny innocence of his work on its own merits, my respect for Barrett's time in the band also increased exponentially as I became more familiar with Pink Floyd's history and gradually came to realize just how much of a shadow that Syd's short-lived brilliance cast over music that came years, even decades later.

Pink Floyd, as I would discover, could not have existed after 1967 with Syd Barrett in the lineup, yet of course they also couldn't have existed without him: for in the beginning, it was all his baby. Roger Waters may have become the band's second frontman and through sheer force of will a couple of years down the road, but in the beginning Syd's natural charisma made him a natural (and magnetic) focal point on stage, at least until his psychological meltdown began to manifest itself on the eve of the band's U.S. tour (which, unsurprisingly, quickly became an unmitigated disaster). When Barrett's exasperated bandmates had finally had enough of his unpredictable behavior in early 1968 and bounced him from the lineup, it seemed to me like a simple pragmatic survival move (as if the band's attitude had been "Jesus, get this nutcase out of the band, already ... we need to get cracking on Dark Side Of The Moon!"), but I came to realize just how dangerous and risky this move was in retrospect. Imagine The Rolling Stones sans Mick Jagger, U2 minus Bono or The Smiths minus Morrissey and this is exactly the kind of place Pink Floyd found themselves in the spring of 1968.

Instead of rising up and conquering the world immediately after losing whom I'd considered their fifth wheel, Pink Floyd initially floundered in Barrett's wake, nearly capsizing over the next few years as they flailed about madly in search of something, anything, to keep the band solvent and relevant. Of course, against impossible odds, that did eventually come to pass. Interestingly, in his role as the band's chief lyricist, Waters seemingly could not avoid invoking Barrett (passingly or otherwise) in song as the band's profile grew. From what may or may not have been an offhand mention in the couplet Fearlessly the idiot faced the crowd / Smiling on 1971's Meddle, to the entirety of the song "Brain Damage" on The Dark Side Of The Moon, Barrett seemed to be lurking around in the back of the band's consciousness.

Roger Barrett, circa 2000That "lurking about" flowered into a tribute album of sorts with 1975's Wish You Were Here, an album that many (including myself) consider the peak of the band's output. Unlike in past Pink Floyd albums, Wish You Were Here addressed Barrett in no uncertain terms throughout, in tones ranging from aching ("Shine On You Crazy Diamond") and sarcastic ("Have A Cigar") to resigned ("Welcome To The Machine" and the ubiquitous title cut). It's also fair to assume that memories of the ex-Floyd leader's mental collapse were referenced at various points during 1979's The Wall as well (certainly moreso during the 1982 movie), particularly during the track "Nobody Home."

Since then, it's nearly impossible to attend any Pink Floyd-related show without seeing or hearing at least one reference to Barrett. The David Gilmour-led lineup of Pink Floyd performed "Astronomy Domine" on their 1994 tour (you can see the 1994 version here) and screened an affecting, allegorical film during performances of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," while Roger Waters screened the whimsical videoclip for "Arnold Layne" during his 1987 outings, and later showed slides from the film during his more recent excusions. Gilmour's recent solo tour also featured "Arnold Layne" (one night in London even featured special guest David Bowie on vocals, which can be seen here), as well as the solo Barrett track "Dominoes."

It's a shame that, for many people, Barrett's work and the shadow he cast over some of the most popular rock music in history remains nearly unknown, while tales of his erratic touring behavior (and Herculean drug intake) are legion. There is an old cliche that reads "the flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long," and for a very short time, Barrett's flame was as bright as a magnesium flare. His was a vital, fragile, and totally original talent ... you know, the kind we just don't see too often anymore.

For a far more entertaining (and coherent) look at the life and music of Syd Barrett, I highly recommend USD's The Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett Story DVD, and you could do a lot worse than to check out Pink Floyd's classic debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn or the Syd Barrett solo collection Wouldn't You Miss Me: The Best Of Syd Barrett.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Break From Dormancy

It's been a pretty slow month here at I Am A Bug (which you've probably deduced for yourself from the number of posts in the last four weeks), but now that I am year older and the weather has finally stabilized into true summer, this feels like as good a time as any to say "hello" once again.

First and foremost, "Chuck"'s fate remains undetermined at this hour. There are three possible scenarios:

  1. He broke up and passed and I had no idea it happened.
  2. He didn't break up, but still passed and I had no idea it happened.
  3. He is still down there, living rent-free, and therefore owes it to me to get a job. I could use the help on the financial tip.
While we're on that angle, my current financial situation after last month's drama remains in a state of flux. A week after the "Chuck" incident, I was mailed a "Hi, can we help?" form letter that offered financial assistance and quoted me a fairly enormous figure (not including ambulance costs) that was coming my way. That figure was a third larger than the amount that sent me into a monetary tailspin when my car went to Hell in a handbasket last summer (said car has not been helping things lately, I might add), and I quickly contacted these people by phone and was summarily mailed a follow-up form to fill out and mail back at them.

This little rigamarole was completed three weeks ago, and I have yet to hear back on the status of that claim (which I suspect may be in doubt thanks to some money my Dad tucked away when I was a teenager that I've been paying taxes on for a years). In the meantime (say, a week later), the dreaded hospital bill arrived and to my considerable surprise was about ten times less than the whopper I'd been expecting and whose only itemization was in the vague form of "evaluation and management." With no apparent due date, or any clue of a larger total (or subsequent payments down the line), I've been sitting on this bill for a couple of weeks debating whether to metaphorically rustle the hornet's nest or not. I suspect at this point that the best option is to re-establish contact with the financial aid people and check on the status of my claim (does the following line that reads "Services billed to Medicaid Ohio" mean that everything is hunky dory?) and then proceed from there. Should be interesting no matter how that pans out.

I also just received the ambulance bill from the City Of Willowick. At $460, this was the most expensive two-mile ride of my lifetime (and one which I bitterly regret lemme tell you), and I have been advised to call the department from which this came and plead poverty and then see what happens, as the possibility exists that this rather amazing total is aimed squarely at an insurance company and not a lower-class retail worm like myself.

Aside that still-developing situation, life has been pretty blessedly routine (*knock on wood*), and hopefully stays that way for the next couple of months (it can't hurt to beg for small favors). Assuming that I manage to duck a financial haymaker (i.e., pay only a few hundred bucks and walk away), things should be on the upturn around here once again, and right about now that is all I can ask for. If not...well, we'll just cross that bridge when we come to it, eh?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Grand Night Out

The Jake and downtown Cleveland

With my recent visit from Chuck still fresh in my memory (and now having to find a way to scrabble my way out from underneath a medical bill even bigger than my car repair surprise from last summer), it was a welcome relief to have a carefree, breezy late spring evening off to take in a Tribe/White Sox game at beautiful Jacob's Field.

This event was actually an unplanned surprise: Sarah had lucked her way into a pair of tickets at work a couple of days earlier (the original ticketholder's friend could not make the game and he simply gave the tickets away) and with only a minor amount of scrabbling about, I was able to get Brian to cover the evening hours on short notice. I met Sarah outside of her place of work, and we caught the RTA to Tower City, and made it to the park a little ways into the first inning.

Yes, Cleveland won the game, but that was secondary to the whole experience of the evening. I had been to a couple of games at the Jake back in the '90s that I took in from the upper bleachers (kind of like looking down on the first base line from about three stories up), but these seats were located about 30 rows behind home plate and that completely changed the entire affair. Instead of watching the game, it feels like you are right in the middle of it, especially with killer foul balls zooming bullet-like through the air around you (note to self: next time, bring a mitt for self-defense/possible souvenir acquisition).

Foul balls aside, it's a far more immersive trip to be able to call balls and strikes from your line of sight than having to trust the scoreboard. Being seated at a low angle to the playing field also gives a lot more depth to home run hits (or pop-flys, which happen to look a lot like home run balls from the bleachers), and the view of the city around that mammoth scoreboard is a beaut, especially as the sun set and the lights came on.

field And skyline from section 154

(While we were closer than the above picture suggests, this was the closest approximation of our view that I could find from image-searching on Google.)

Of course, half the fun of the ballpark is the food, the smells, and the sounds (jeez, why so much Kiss on the ballpark PA?) and everything else that sounds so hopelessly cliched but is 100% true. While it was rather darkly amusing that the concessions stands overlapped each other in offered foods (yet the booth you were at always seemed to be lacking one item you just saw at the previous stand), the snacks were ragingly yummy. Having been on a largely water-and-salad diet lately, it was sinfully fun to indulge in a few hot dogs, a tall Pepsi, a hot pretzel, a bag of Cracker Jacks, and a deee-licious Stricklands ice cream waffle cone. As the game was winding down, we headed over to the team shop where I scored a couple of snazzy t-shirts, and scoped out a few other knick-knacks and doo-dads that just might tempt me the next time we head down there. Hopefully, it won't be another decade.

NP Kate Bush Aerial

Sunday, May 28, 2006



Once every few years I see a movie that completely knocks me sideways and gets me in that "holy shit, what was that?" obsessive mode where I watch the thing time and time again, as if I were dissecting it layer by layer in an attempt to understand it. Primer was such a movie.

I'm not going to give out many details of this movie to you since most of what made it work on me was the element of surprise. To my consternation, the packaging for the DVD gives a bit of the surprise away, but then again, with this movie it's not so much the plot as the execution of it that either drives you up the wall or sucks you in right from the get-go.

Primer was recommended to me over a year ago by a longime 'net friend, and I'd picked it up through work a few months back and let it sit on the shelf for a while with the other dozens of unviewed DVDs I intend to watch sometime or another. The other night, Sarah was looking for something for us to watch at a relatively late hour, and I decided to throw Primer into the DVD player, figuring its concise running time (73 minutes) wouldn't keep us up until past 5 A.M. (unlike, say, King Kong).

As it turned out, I was wrong: we were up a couple hours after Primer ended, looking for information and insight into the movie we had just seen and maybe partially understood...we think.

Rather than deal out typical Hollywood-style introduction to the central characters and "ease" you into the story, Primer drops you right smack in the middle of a group of bright and driven would-be inventors (all of them looking for a profitable break to get them out of their dull-as-dishwater day jobs) and dares you to keep up with them. At first, this seems like this is a film that goes out of its way to confuse the living shit out of you, though for me that feeling of disorientation had me wanting to know what the hell was going on right from the first scene.

While there are a few breaks in the "action" that let you do some "catching up" of sorts, Primer is chock full of dense, Robert Altman-esque overlapping conversations thick with tech-speak and, in the case of finally getting to the central idea of the movie, painstakingly slow reveals. While I generally find the use of the "subtitling" function on DVD players to be an annoying distraction, I was very thankful to be able to re-watch Primer and pay close attention to the dialogue and draw out far more of what was happening than before.

OK, that's all I'll say about this movie for now. Go find it, rent it, and watch it and let me know what you think. Primer is definitely not for everyone, and even for indie-cinema fans it isn't easy to process, but I found it extremely rewarding in the end.

For those of you who watch Primer (or have seen it and would like some additional insight and illustrative help with the whole thing), I'll end this post with a couple of websites that shed some light on the events of the film:

Here we have an illustrative page (apparently created by a guy who has WAY more free time than I do and has seen the movie possibly dozens of times more than I) providing a series of timelines to put the film's events into better focus.

And here is the official film site, containing a forum (frequented by the lead actor/writer/director Shane Carruth himself at one point) discussing various plot points and interpretations of key scenes/dialogue.

NP Eurythmics In The Garden

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Visit From Chuck

This is not ChuckThe following is a rather lengthy, agonizing tale detailing a most unexpected appearance from one of those visitors that seem incapable of taking hints and, thus, never leaves. My 'net friend Quag7 has affectionately named this guest "Chuck" (which explains the title of this post). Unfortunately, Sarah is well acquanited by now with these types of visitors, and I'd foolishly assumed that I would never have a guest of my own to deal with. However, last week I did, and here is what happened ...

It was shortly past noon last Thursday morning (18) when I awoke a bit earlier than usual, thinking I had slept wrong and managed to pull a muscle in my side. I turned over and attempted to catch a few more winks of sleep, but was unable to find a position that would make the knot go away. In fact, by the time I finally gave up and headed for the shower, it had become sore enough to make me grit my teeth as I rose from the bed: it felt like someone had kicked me with a steel-toed boot very hard square in the left flank.

The shower relieved the sensation almost immediately, and I went about my usual auto-pilot shampoo & soap-up routine, letting my arms move mechanically about while my head started to tot up a list of what had to be done when I got to work. Upon exiting the shower, I frowned as that persistent kicked-in feeling returned almost the instant I started toweling myself dry. I worked my left arm around a few times, trying to loosen what felt like a nasty cramp or maybe some kind of gas bubble and ultimately gave up and went into the rest of my pre-work routine of dressing, starting the car a bit early, (engine seems to be having some issues running "cold" lately, possible tune-up needed this weekend), checking the news online, locking up the condo and leaving.

I dropped myself into the front seat, debating a stop at the drugstore on the way to work to grab a box of Gas-X pills, and was about halfway into a turn towards N Marginal Road when that leaden lump of pain in my side stabbed me hard enough to make me groan aloud. I sat motionless for a second, probing the pain site with my hand and realized with mounting concern that the pain wasn't receding at all, but intensifying and pulsing in palpable waves. Slowly the idea that this was not, in fact, a gas bubble began to dawn on me. Deciding that sucking this in wasn't going to fly, I parked the car and headed back inside to call Greg and let him know I'd need an extra hour or so to work this out.

By that point, my voice must have already reflected how I felt since he seemed to know right away that something was wrong. When he asked me what it was, I took the best guess I had, which turned out to be the right one: "I don't really know, but it hurts like a sonofabitch and feels almost like a kidney stone or something." I gave my co-worker Brian a call, or at least left him a message, asking if he could spot me for a couple of hours and then attempted to get some rest ... well, at least for a minute or two until the pain seemed to kick it up another notch and I was doubled up on the bed, starting to breathe like a locomotive and moan softly, wondering what the hell I should do to knock this down a bit. Attempting to void whatever was sitting around in my lower gut didn't help matters at all.

A solution presented itself quickly: I reasoned that since my shower a bit earlier seemed to make the pain go away, then taking another one was the smartest course of action. Stepping into the shower stall a second time and letting the water land directly on my side was an almost orgasmic experience that time: the relief was so great and instantaneous that my response probably would have sounded like something from an X-rated movie had someone been able to hear through the bathroom wall. I didn't care. I just slumped gratefully against the sliding panels on the stall and soaked up a little bit of heaven.

After about ten minutes, I had dialed the cold water mix all the way down and was starting to lose the real kick of bracingly hot water, and I knew already as my side had started to awaken from its heated slumber that there was going to be some pretty rough times ahead (at least until the hot water tank downstairs refilled its supply). I stepped out and toweled off just enough so that I wasn't dripping wet and started skulking around, looking for a heating blanket that I knew we had somewhere but had no luck finding it. After a few minutes, I had to relent and sprawled back onto the bed, still wet, starting to writhe around, and unable to find any position that would lessen the continuous fiery pressure that was now definitely moving down towards my lower abdomen.

This is not ChuckSince I was out of hot water for at least the next half hour or so, by my estimation, I started to consider my painkiller options and (rather hilariously, in hindsight) opted to pop a couple of Tylenol gelcaps. Staggering downstairs and into the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water and knocked it back in a rush to wash the pills down and get them working ... and almost immediately regretted doing so. By the time I'd made it back to the bedroom, my stomach was starting to do slow rolls, and I collapsed again onto the bed, clutching a pillow to my side and trying to will away the growing spinning nausea. Oh shit...

I'd barely made it to the 'loo before going off like Old Faithful: up came the Tylenols, the water, and who knows what the hell else since I hadn't had anything to eat since the previous evening. That was followed by a second torrent, and then a few good old fashioned dry heaves to get the point across: Don't do that again.

That was pretty much the point of no return. After that, with the afternoon descending rapidly towards all-out Hell, I made a semi-lucid, pain-slurred call to Greg, who asked if I'd had any luck getting Brian to come in yet. I hadn't, of course, and he told me not to worry about it and to get my ass to the hospital. I replied that there was no way I could drive a car in this state, and that I had to wait for Sarah to get home from work before I'd be able to get anywhere and she wouldn't be home for another couple of hours. I had tried to call her earlier at the wrong extension (nice form, there, Vic) and sent a couple of e-mails to various addys of hers, but she was away from the computer and tied up in the lab.

With two hours to kill before Sarah got home, I made a final, half-crazed (yet fruitless) search of the entire upper floor of the condo for that old electric heating pad, all the while battling waves of nausea and feeling the pain reach an unrelenting intensity that I can't think of any comparison to (and my points of comparison include breaking fingers and getting tooth fillings sans anesthesia). With pain meds effectively out of the picture, I basically spent the time lumbering in and out of the shower (eventually having the presence of mind to plug the drain and do some additional marginally-effective soaking in the accumulated, cooling, bathwater while waiting for the hot water tank to refill once again), kneeling miserably in front of the toilet, or trying very hard to lie absolutely motionless on the bed. It was an ugly, endless slog, made only barely tolerable by the wonderful, blessed, all-powerful shower, which (when running at sub-scalding heat) was nearly making me weep in shoft-lived relief every time I stepped back into it.

Sarah made it home around 6 and I was flat on my back in the tub, soaking up the last of the precious hot water and I begged her immediately to find that electric heating pad, which she did (how the hell had I missed it?). To my considerable dismay, the effectiveness of the heating pad was virtually nil in relation to the shower and I lay dripping wet on the bed, pad pinned beneath me, fruitlessly trying to dial down the agony and waiting out the hot water tank once again. Sarah was trying to get me to commit to the hospital, and I knew I needed to go, but I told her that there was no way I was going to be able to handle a waiting room in my state. She then said she would call an ambulance, figuring that I would be taken into care (and, by extension, drugged) far more quickly. That sounded a bit better, so I let her make the call while I hobbled into the shower for probably the sixth or seventh time that afternoon for one last anesthetic blast.

This, sadly, is also not ChuckI made my way downstairs a few moments later (which Sarah wasn't very pleased about since my inability to move downstairs beforehand was part of what made her call the ambulance in the first place), walked slowly outside in a t-shirt sweats and socks and shivered as I lay down onto the stretcher and promptly started to throw up again in front of the half dozen-or-so people gathered outside wondering what the blazes was going on (don't worry, the paramedics had kindly provided me a towel for this).

Aside from being my first-ever trip in an ambulance anywhere, my ride to LakeWest was memorable for two reasons:

1) The paramedic treating me managed to get the IV line smoothly into my hand while we were in the middle of a surprisingly bumpy ride. That's some pretty impressive prick-fu.

2) There was some bizarre misunderstanding between us had the two paramedics thinking that I only had one kidney, which they relayed ahead to the hospital, followed by my hoarse, shocked "WHAT?" (I'm still not sure how that intuitive leap came about.)

Once at LakeWest, things get pretty mercifully faint as to what happened when: though unfortunately this narcotic dimming of memories was delayed a half hour and change as the promise of quick drug IV was quickly thwarted by the standard big hospital "Nurse A sets you up and asks your name and info, followed by waiting, followed by another Nurse who asks your name and info, followed by waiting, followed by appearance of The Doctor who asks your name and info and then decides to administer treatment via the second Nurse" rigamarole. Once that painkiller IV was finally hooked up, though, the fog began to roll in and the rest of that night is a jumble of conversations between me (mumbling or offering a thumbs-up to indicate comprehension), Sarah, and whatever Doctor or Nurse was in the room at any time, with a 20-minute adventure deeper into the hospital to be stretched out on another table and zapped by a CAT-Scan machine (this was kind of like being positioned in the hole of a 10' tall silver donut covered with switches and readouts). I wasn't paying a lot of attention to much of anything else: by then, I just wanted to sleep since the previous seven hours had utterly sapped me dry (in more ways than one). Thus, I spent most of my LakeWest stay drifting in and out of consciousness and trying not to accidentally rip the IV out of my hand while tossing and turning on my gurney.

Yeah, I was tossing and turning: the drugs weren't quite what I'd been hoping for. In fact, I was better off standing in the shower at home as far as comfort went. Apparently, at some point that night, The Doctor explained to Sarah and I that it was best not to dial down the pain to zero but to keep it around 5 so that I would know when the kidney stone left my ureter and entered my bladder at last, which would kill the sensations of pain in my left side instantaneously. The Doctor said that when this happened, the effect on me would be like being strung out on pure brown Mexican heroin (or some shit that sounded an awful lot like that) and that would be baaad, mmkay?

I figured saying "no" might somehow lessen my current weak-ass painkiller dosage so I gave The Doctor a thumbs-up and tried to rest. A couple of enthusiastic appeals for urine samples early on were fruitless as there hadn't been a drop of fluid in me for a couple of hours before getting to the emergency room, and whatever fluid IV they had started me on wasn't exactly getting Mother Nature on the hotline. It didn't really matter, as they had apparently lost their zeal to get me to piss in a cup when the giant CAT-Scan donut reported that I indeed had a 4mm guest wending its way through my system. Smile for the camera, Chuck.

This is also not ChuckAfter some more rest, I was given a pat on the head and taken out to Sarah's waiting car, dry-heaving most of the way, and clutching a plastic bag containing a plastic jug and a couple of paper strainers (you do the math) and a prescription for the same Percocet I still had leftover from my wisdom tooth extraction. I was told to set up an appointment with so-and-so at such-and-such a time once my guest left and have a nice night, etc.

Back at home, I fell almost immediately into bed, fumbled down a Percocet tab, drank a couple sips of water (which in itself was a battle to keep my hitchy stomach from rejecting) and dropped into an uncertain, fitful sleep punctuated by trips to the 'loo as my earlier fluid IV worked its wau through my system. A few hours later, stumbling through the dark towards the bathroom for the third or so time that night, I realized with a slow smile that the pain was gone: my guest had finally reached the waiting room.

Barring the appearance of a possible second guest (or maybe Chuck's crumbly coulda-been twin) that made Saturday an unpleasant (though Percocet and hot shower-maintained) echo of that awful Thursday, things have been steadily improving ever since. I was finally able to start eating more than a couple of spoonfuls of food at a time by Sunday morning, and actually had an honest-to-God full-on dinner Monday night. Barring a lone Pepsi on Sunday night, I've been almost entirely cold turkey from caffeine (and 100% so on the nicotine) for exactly a week as of this writing. Go team me.

About the only thing that hasn't improved is my guest, who has yet to leave the premises as of the hour of this writing, and I have long since grown exasperated with pissing into a jug in an attempt to retain my guest "Chuck" for further study. Being that 1) I am probably looking at a bill totalling at least a grand for my LakeWest adventure last week (and I'm not much for adding to that figure) and 2) I have a pretty good idea exactly what caused Chuck to crystallize in my left kidney in the first place, my zeal to capture him is also declining as nearly a week passes since he made his dramatic stage entrance.

Now now, don't get too uppity with my impatience: I still plan to try to catch the bastard when he leaves. Despite my near-certainty that my once-heroic Mountain Dew intake is 100% responsible for Chuck's entire existence, there is always that little uncertainty that there might be something else at work here (though I doubt it), so I have to at least give this a shot. Perhaps sensing this (as if a calcified crystallized chunk of excess chemical crud could do so), Chuck has been a very quiet and courteous tenant ever since he arrived, and has been extremely reticent to show himself at daily curtain calls. Unless he has somehow spontaneously disintegrated, I will certainly be very aware when Chuck makes his exit at last (though apparently the discomfort level will be nowhere near the scale of last week's extended suffering).

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Not The NY Times Book Review, 2006 Edition

It's spring again, and that seems to be the time of year that my book reading starts to spike for whatever reason. With that in mind (and since it's been rather slow in here with business being so surprisingly brisk at work), I thought it was high time to do another catch-all book review post.

For Christmas, I received John Harris' The Dark Side Of The Moon: The Making Of The Pink Floyd Masterpiece, which was a reasonably entertaining and quick read, but didn't do an awful lot to shed additional light on a record that I know as well as the back of my own hand. If there is any unique quality to this book, it would be the freestanding nature of the piece as I can't think of any Pink Floyd book I've ever seen that focused primarily on one record to the exclusion of all others. That said, Harris does take plenty of time to bring the reader up to speed by recounting the band's trajectory over the years 1966-1972, and then tackling the album's extended live unveiling and then the subsequent recording sessions that honed and refined the new work to its perfect final state.

I suppose, for those new to the music of Pink Floyd, Harris' book will probably be seen as an invaluable aid in the understanding of the album's dense thicket of sonic layers and lyrical ideology, but for longtime fans, there is very little revealed here that has not been recounted elsewhere, minus perhaps a few previously-uncirculated points of insight from various band members or industry names. But being such a pivotal record in the Pink Floyd's career (and for rock music as a whole), accounts of the recording of Dark Side (be they oral, written, or televised) are legion, and have been for years, so there isn't a lot to be said anymore that will surprise and enlighten.

From there, it was off continue reading the pile of books I'd had boxed up ever our move. Of these older books, by far the best of the lot has been Stan Cornyn's Exploding!: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, And Hustlers Of The Warner Music Group, which was exactly the kind of thickly-detailed music industry insider's tome I'd been looking for ever since reading Frederic Dannen's fantastic corporate/payola expose Hit Men back in 1996.

Covering nearly 50 years from the resurrection of Warner Bros. Records in the late 1950s (the label had a brief, calamitous initial existence in the 1930s) and closely following the company's first baby steps into novelty, pop, folk and eventually rock music, Exploding! tracks the major releases released by Warner Bros., as well as the ever-accumulating list of labels owned or distributed by the company (soon known, variously as WEA, Warner Music Group or WMG) as the decades went by.

Having started at Warners from the get-go (starting as an acclaimed liner notes scribe and moving into advertising and then nearly all the way up the executive ladder over the following 30 years) Cornyn offers insight into nearly every significant event to shape the record industry in the rock era and how these insane profits of the 70s and 80s began to shape the industry into the reviled reptilian behemoth it has become today. While only referring to artist stories on an incidental basis (rarely is a career followed), Cornyn stays focused on the larger trends and executive deals that steered the emerging monolith through the massive 1970s sales surge, through the post-disco hangover and into the go-go CD-driven 1980s.

Cornyn also takes time to set up the stories of the other labels that eventually came to represent the most successful music corporation in the history of the music business, and introducing all of the key players who pulled the strings, including the beloved label heads Mo Ostin (Reprise) and Joe Smith (Warner Bros.), longtime Atlantic Records eminence griese Ahmet Ertegun, and benevolent WCI CEO Steve Ross (whose death seems to coincide with a tailspin that shook the corporation to its very core in the early 1990s).

If there is a drawback to Exploding!, it is the occasionally very dry and exhaustive asides that lay down the details of distribution, manufacturing, corporate expansion and executive shuffling on all levels, which might put off anyone not intimately familiar with the music industry. But once you get around the mechanics that made the industry work, the rest is a very smooth, revealing, and entertaining read.

On the other side of that coin is Walter Yetnikoff's Howling At The Moon: The Odyssey Of A Monstrous Mogul In The Age Of Excess, which I'd picked up under the bad assumption that I would be reading some engrossing memoirs of Yetnikoff's stewardship of CBS Records (WMG's only true rival) from 1975-1990. However, rather than dishing out enlightening gossip on artists or boardroom politics, or even discussing the hows and whys of CBS's success (climaxing in their surprise trouncing of WMG in the Thriller-powered early 1980s), Howling At The Moon is instead a tiresome, egotistical litany of "I smoked this, I drank that, and then I said this and I fucked that" excess that had my eyes rolling instead of widening.

If you want to read about one man's all-consuming, self-destructive drive for absolute power and a shitload of money, then Howling At The Moon is just the book for you. Those looking to find out what made CBS tick will come away sorely disappointed, if not outright revulsed. Hell, Exploding! gave more details on what was going on at Black Rock more than Howling At The Moon, which instead obsesses on underlining again and again in thick black Magic Marker just how much of a king-sized prick Yetnikoff was to everyone he encountered (professionally and otherwise).

The last third of the Howling At The Moon deals with Yetnikoff's dismissal from CBS just after he'd finally started to reap the rewards of its purchase by Sony Music (who apparently had finally had it with his increasingly psychotic behavior). We then follow his directionless flailing about in the 1990s as he tries his hand at Hollywood, goes through de-tox, and makes a second attempt at success in the music business via. his ill-advised, self-financed independent label, Velvel Records (after his Yiddish first name). Finally, the book draws to a close with this human Tyrannosaur apparently tamed at last ... yet instead of feeling any kind of relief or joy over Yetnikoff's renewed membership in the human race, we are simply left marveling at how he was able to keep his job for as long as he had. Ugh.

Finally, I am currently winding my way through Tom Tomorrow's The Great Big Book Of Tomorrow as I write this. The Great Big Book... is a cherry-picked best-of collection spanning the entire existence of This Modern World, a lacerating weekly "alternative" comic strip that mercilessly zaps the criminals we regularly elect into positions of power (no matter what side of the ideological fence they may sit on). Tomorrow also saves plenty of venom for the forces of consumerism, capitalism, and conservatism running amok in contemporary society as well as the apparent near-total apathy of our voting population, and the sad state of modern televised news programming (if you've never heard of this strip and are interested in seeing what I am talking about, you can keep up with current editions of This Modern World here).

While always hilarious (and generally spot-on) with his satire, Tomorrow's humor, much like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's, is equally capable of making you laugh aloud or seethe in contempt: as with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, This Modern World isn't so much outrageous as simply outraged, and his fury is contagious. Be prepared to giggle ... and think.

NP Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables

Monday, May 08, 2006

Baseball's Best: Online

I was in a bit of a Tribe nostalgia mood (or perhaps merely feeling a tad masochistic) a couple of weeks ago, and I wound up watching both of my aging commemorative World Series videotapes over a couple of evenings.

The 1995 series against the Atlanta Braves was certainly the far less painful of the two to watch, since the Tribe was quite simply outmatched on the pitching front from the get-go.

The 1997 series against the Florida Marlins, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish to watch. This time, the times were far more evenly matched and walking into a packed-to-thegills BW-3's to watch Game 7 on that cold late October Sunday night, it looked like we were finally going to get the sports championship that this town has wanted for so long. Of course, it wasn't to be, and perhaps in the worst way possible ... we were one strike away from winning it all in the bottom of that ninth inning.

One. Lousy. Strike.

Thus, instead of becoming one of the the high points of my life as a baseball fan, Game 7 represented instead one of the most excruciating evenings in the history club. Talk about having your heart just ripped out of you. Ugh.

Anyway, while watching the opening set-up montage for the '97 Series, I was shown blips of the preceding, bitterly-fought ALCS battle with the Baltimore Orioles which reawakened my memories of that series, particularly Games 3 and 6, which remain to this day two of my favorite Indians games ever. Wishing for the thousandth time that I'd taped these marathon pitching duels, I started combing the web looking for a way to land copies of these gems for myself.

What I came across instead of way to own these games was a way to watch at least one of them (Game 3) via. streaming video from MLB itself. I also managed to kill the rest of that day with a $3 "day pass" to's Baseball's Best library, where a large array of their selected greatest games await you in streaming form (be it audio or video), including that gutwrenching 1997 Game 7 in full. There are also a bunch of "shorts" as well, which combine some highlights with modern interview footage for those who don't feel like watching entire games, or you can pick specific innings to watch, should the mood strike you. Pretty cool stuff, and I've become a bit tempted to subscribe for a month in July or August when the pennant races get going and watch whatever games I please whenever I want.

A quick note: your overall enjoyment of the Baseball's Best selection will be greatly enhanced if you happen to be a fan of the Goddamned Yankees, since they seem to dominate a large part of the offered games on the list. Even if you aren't, however, there are a couple of reccomendations I can pass along in the form of featured perfect games from David Wells and David Cone, both of which manage to transcend being Yankees games and become more about individual achievement. Despite my intense loathing of the Bronx Bombers, I couldn't help but get swept up in the moment as these two guys pulled off the rarest feats in the game (there have only been five of these in my lifetime to date).

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"Let's Play Global Thermonuclear War"

And now, a post for those of you who came of age in the era of Fail Safe, "Russians," The Day After, "Two Tribes", Threads, The Cold And The Dark, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," Testament, "Christmas At Ground Zero," Alas Babylon, "Forever Young," Warday, Miracle Mile and all those other wonderful, high-cultural paeans to the ideal of Mutual Assured Destruction ...

Ever really wanted to know what a nuke strike would do to your backyard (but were afraid to ask)? Fear no more! There are a couple of family-safe, non-radioactive ways to find out courtesy of your best friend and mine: The Internet!

First up, courtesy of meyerweb, we have the High-Yield Detonation Effects Simulator, which blends Google Maps technology with publically-available weapons data to create a graphical simulator of the effects of a nuclear detonation over just about any location you can bop in terrestrial coordinates for (you'll probably need to Google your own locale's longitude and latitude unless you have this shit memorized), as well as a few preset named locales like New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle (but not Las Vegas? Boo!).

Adding more fun to the fracas, you can also adjust the yield of your desired airburst anywhere from 1 kiloton (boooring) upwards to 99,999 kilotons (holyshit), with a shaded bullseye indicating different levels of overpressure (which indicates the radius of total vs. partial destruction) radiating from your hypothetical ground zero. Put another way: the former setting knocks down a few square blocks of downtown Los Angeles, while the latter pretty much wipes the entire region from the map.

While this is certainly a very interesting exercise, the 99,999 kiloton limit (that's basically 100 megatons, if my brain serves me well) may seem a hindrance to the more boredom-crazed individuals out there who wish to destroy whole continents at a shot. For those sociopaths, another site exists called the Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator. Sadly, the NWEC lacks the ability to plot your weapon's effects on a city map, but it more than makes up for this deficiency by giving you the ability to ramp up the firepower of your theoretical nuke: taking it, in effect, from a merely catastrophic "destroy Los Angeles basin" scale event to an Ultimate Superweapon on a similar level as the Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

While the Calculator (located, appropriately enough, on may look boringly plain-Jane in comparison to the Detonation Effects Simulator, it thinks on a much larger scale: the lowest setting is 1 megaton and it spirals up to truly dizzy heights from there. So, what is a healthy American male to do but try and throttle the bastard?

Filling the little white box with nines, I decided to witness the effects of a nuclear weapon with a yield of 999 trillion 999 billion 999 million 999 thousand 999 megatons.


Oh dear.

Thermal radiation radius (3rd degree burns): 16475727.4 kilometres

Yes, everyone in a 10,238,016 mile radius of this blast is in for a really bad day.

Air blast radius (widespread destruction): 643694.5 kilometres

Oh jeez, that's 400,000 miles.

Well, I was getting sick of looking at the damn moon anyway...

Fireball duration: 25305359.6 seconds

Woof. Let's see, that works out to... 421,756 minutes, which is 7029 hours, which is 293 days. A little short of an NBA season, isn't it? That's one pretty amazing fireball.

Fireball radius (airburst): 528297.7 kilometres

The fireball radius for an airburst is 328,284 miles. You could roast smores n' weenies on Mars just by waving 'em up in the air for a few. I suppose the radiation would kill you dead as Elvis in a few moments, too, but that would be one tasty last meal.

Pretty amazing number-crunching on an epic scale, eh? Here's the kicker: what I thought was the biggest number you can possibly enter for megaton yield isn't even close. Lots of decimal points in this sucker. Hours of potential amusement.

Anyway, have a nice Sunday, all. I'm headed back to that site to calculate the yield specs on a 100 octillion megaton warhead.

NP Various Artists No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Once Upon A Time, A Junkman Had A Dream..."

Man, this poster promised so much and wound up a waste of great promotional artwork. Typical.

With no homework to do and an itch to watch something instead of aimlessly tool about cyberspace, I popped in a borrowed DVD of Explorers the other night. I think I saw this once or twice on cable when I was in high school, and seeing it again years later hasn't changed my opinion of it at all, for better and for worse.

The first half of Explorers is completely charming (and somehow nostalgic) as we follow around a trio of misfit early teens (including a cherubic Ethan Hawke and a hilariously nerdy River Phoenix) who have literally dreamed up a way to create a spherical force field that moves according to commands input into an Apple computer. Following some experiments with their discovery, the boys realize that this force field can also be used to fly them around their hometown (and beyond), so they quickly set about building a kind of exploration vessel cobbled together from junkyard materials (namely, a discarded Tilt-A-Whirl car) to achieve this end.

After such a heartfelt and engaging first hour, however, we seem to switch movies in a hurry as the young adventurers set their sights on extraterrestrial destinations. This is not to say I found the idea silly (I know I would have been all for the idea if I were one of them), but it was how the second half of the movie plays out that feels so jarring and ultimately disappointing as we are reduced to watching a lot of silliness by way of upright Cootie bugs in hokey rubber suits. It's doubly frustrating that director Joe Dante had his heart in the right place on Earth, but was so desperate to avoid something that felt like E.T. or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, that the only way out of Explorers was to goof off and hope that cheap laughs would save the day.

The Vulture has landed!
Another fragment of childhood that Explorers made me think of was the old TV movie/series Salvage 1. I really want to see this original movie again now that I've been poking around on the 'net for a bit (including this splendid fan website), and I remember being pretty taken by it as a nine year old ... despite the starring role of Andy Griffith, of all people.

What brought Salvage 1 to mind was the strikingly similar plot idea of fashioning a spacecraft from junk, only for a very different reason (to grab all the discarded crap sitting around the moon from the old Apollo missions). Looking again at the website, it looks like Salvage 1 might hold up about as well as, say, Galactica 1980, though who knows? If nothing else, I'm pretty sure the end was nowhere near as farcical as Explorers. Hopefully, I'll find out again sometime soon (hint hint, Dave M.).

NP Cocteau Twins Lullabies To Violaine Volume 2: Singles And Extended Plays 1993-1996