Monday, December 21, 2009

So 00s

I don't think I'm going to do a lot of decade-end retrospection. For one thing, it's really hard to wrap your mind around a decade that encompasses your entire adult life. (And more! Like I think my first achievement in 2000 was studying enough over winter break to place into a spring-semester music theory class my sophomore year in college, after skipping the fall-semester prerequisite.) For another thing, I'm just in year-end mode and trying to put one foot in front of the other until we're all home for the holidays (except Mike) and having apple pie and coffee for breakfast again. So thinking about large periods of time makes me too tired. And God knows any personal end-of-decade accounting can wait until turning 30 in March. Also I have a terrible memory for details, and it freaks me out when I have to remind myself how much I've forgotten about the past.

I'll make the obligatory personal Best Film call as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, at least in terms of immediate and lingering impact. Pete and I watched it without a lot of premeditation in New York, up at the cinema at Lincoln Center, in January 2008.

Also, I've decided to pronounce the decade as "the oh's," although most of the other possible pronunciations ("the aughts," "the naughts," "the zeroes") don't bother me either. For the coming decade, I favor "the twenty-tens," even if it's a little incoherent. Later, we can switch to "the teens," presuming that nothing really memorable happens between 2010 and 2012. Fingers crossed! -- no news is good news!

Steelers 37, Packers 36

Stu and I watched this one at the Steelers bar in Fairfield, called "Skybox," which has the advantage of being just a few steps from a Metro North stop. They hadn't drawn much of a crowd, since the game was on local TV, and the folks who were there had understandably fallen into the weary agitation that suits the fourth quarter this year. We both had our coats on at 4th and 7 with a minute left, but Ben hit Holmes for 20 yards or so, and maybe you remember how everything went from there. Big Heath Miller, apparent interception called back by penalty, Ben barely escaping a sack that would have run the clock out at about :25 left, and that pretty toss to Wallace with no time left. Yep, that'll win you a football game.

Stu and I ended up waiting for a delayed train on the Metro North platform for about 40 minutes afterward, weathering the frigid evening and watching the Acela trains churn up a cloud of tiny ice particles from the tracks as they shot past. It's good to have some Steelers-related disbelief to go along with the pre-holiday December weariness.

Thirty-seven to thirty-six? Botched surprise onside kick? What the hell??

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's Not Unusual to Haul Coal for Anyone

I caught this on WNHU's Friday night oldies show yesterday: Tom Jones recorded a fantastic cover of "Sixteen Tons" in 1967. By "fantastic" I mean it's got a string orchestra and backup vocals that are hilariously at odds with the song's gritty lyrics, not to mention the cool-cat bass pizzicato and snapping. But what song doesn't benefit from being done up in '60s cheeseball pop style?

According to Wikipedia, Tom Jones's father was actually a coal miner, so even if it wasn't fantastic it's not like you could really call him out on it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pete's Magazine

My most recent absence from blogging wasn't for lack of activity, but instead having an incredible amount of work to do for my online literary magazine Gulf Stream.

I had to, like, work a couple of bonafide full time work weeks there (since, amongst the things about internet coding that I would qualify as "intuitive," layouts in CSS is not). But it's done and I'm proud of it, so go check it out. I've got a book review up there too, of the book Buffalo Lockjaw, which I read over Thanksgiving at home (not the best topic for a book to be reading on your holiday home, since the book follows a 28-year-old going home for Thanksgiving to euthanize his mother, but I fine book for consumption during, say, February).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

All This Plus Internet Christmas Shopping!

Everything about today encourages you to stay indoors and take a lazy day: it's Sunday, it's December, it's a quiet gray day with a cold drizzle. I made pancakes and hot chocolate for breakfast; I'm making black-eyed peas and Brussels sprouts for dinner. I've got that Charlie Brown Christmas music in my head, although I'm in a perfectly fine mood.

It's like a muted version of a normal weekend up here. On Friday the university's Schola Cantorum sang an evening prayer performance in one of the college chapels at 5 pm. The space was apt, a 150-year-old stone chapel designed to look European and much older, like so many structures on campus. I kept dozing off to the plainchant psalm settings, then snapping to more attention for solo antiphons by Hildegard of Bingen, particularly one sung by a mysterious, silvery female voice coming from someone I couldn't see in the choir. English polyphony may be more my preference, and a Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis (circa 1600) by Orlando Gibbons felt as sturdy, intricate, and useful as fascinating old furniture. (Orlando Gibbons, incidentally, must be the only composer whose name could plausibly be the name of a sports franchise, albeit a not very intimidating one.) It's nice to hear the familiar Doxology lyrics lashed together in unpredictable counterpoint, rather than sung out of the same old hymnal. But best of all was a precious couple minutes of Thomas Tallis at the end, for a smaller choir of voices, a Te lucis ante terminum that unwound a single austere melodic line, melted into limpid harmony for a stanza, then returned to melody and tied itself off gently. Good Tallis is, I'm convinced, like good sashimi: you have to savor it in the moment, and it doesn't last long, but the texture of the thing is something to remember.

It was a short performance, maybe 35 minutes. If going to a church was always like this, I wouldn't be so secular. A later portion of the evening was spent out at a bar up on State Street (a Mexican restaurant/bar called "C.O. Jones" -- say it out loud and their pun breaks apart). Early music and a late drink is a good Friday night combination.

Yesterday the big event was having a few friends over and watching Guys and Dolls on DVD while eating pizza and drinking wine. My friend Emily had Netflixed this before Thanksgiving, and excitingly she didn't get around to watching it till I could get on board. I've got that soft spot for Guys & Dolls that you get when you play in the pit orchestra for a high school musical, so hearing all the numbers again is a blast. And between Sinatra's good looks and Brando's singing voice, hey, that's two and a half hours of solid movie-musical entertainment. Two thumbs up!

(There was a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls this summer that I assumed would stick around for a while, but it didn't, so I missed it. I'm also broken up about having missed, twenty or so streets up Broadway, the universally lauded production of Janacek's From the House of the Dead at the Met Opera.)

Over Thanksgiving I watched The Music Man with Mom & Dad -- I think Dad just turned it on from the streaming Neflix menu around 11 one morning, with no apparent premeditation. That's another pit-orchestra soft spot for me. Next to Guys and Dolls it's a much sharper movie adaptation, for all its corniness. Also, Shirley Jones as Marian the Librarian does a better uptight-girl-falls-for-the-cad routine than Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah. It never occurred to me that maybe I should be watching more movie musicals, but they're a lot of fun. Maybe we can all sit down for West Side Story sometime over Christmas break. But that's more planning ahead than I'm inclined to do today.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Placeholder Post

Just so there's something at the top of the blog to look at all day that isn't that picture of Roethlisberger frozen in mid-suck: If you didn't see it when it made the Internet rounds a couple months ago, I think you should watch this animated short by James Blagden about Dock Ellis' infamous LSD no-hitter. The Pirates are going to win another World Series before they have another one of him.

Also, the Onion A.V. Club put up their Year in Band Names feature, their most endearing year-in-review list. This year's starts a little slow but make sure you read at least as far as "Computer Jesus Refrigerator" and "Fuckshovel". "John the Raptist" just makes me sad that Flight of the Conchords won't be back for a third season. And I know I've seen signs for a "We Were Promised Jetpacks" show around my neighborhood.

Browns 13, Steelers 6


To paraphrase Rip Torn in an episode of the Larry Sanders Show (speaking originally of Jeffrey Tambor's character), "They've hit bottom and broke through to another bottom I know nothing about."

Someone want to redo the schedule on the fly and bring in the Rams or the Bucs? Because we can keep this party going.

(Larry Sanders Show clip is here, at about 15:10. Steelers/Browns highlights, if you can call them highlights after they devolve into incomplete passes, are here. Not that you should ever watch that again.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Heroes of Stock Art

Last night through some Pittsburgh-related web browsing (nothing pertaining to the Steelers of course!) I came across a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council listing for an event based on an arts marketing conference with the theme "CollaborACTION!". None of this would be at all notable except I looked at the "CollaborACTION!" graphic and thought, "Hey! I used to have that stock image hanging in my bathroom!"

Some six years ago, the company I was working for rolled out an internal brand awareness campaign, which from my perspective began and ended with all of us getting a glossy booklet aimed, I think, at giving us the proverbial "elevator pitch", so that when asked what our business was we would say something other than "I'm getting billed out at X times my salary to a major Government Sponsored Entity" or whatever. The denotative content was harder to understand than the intent: The pattern for each page was a large image of people (generally young, clean-cut, carefully race- and gender-balanced) in some pose suggestive of teamwork with a business-speakish aphorism printed on it in small type. I would describe the overall tone as "cryptically platitudinous".

The branding material held some small fascination for me, both as an objet d'how-much-did-they-pay-for-this and, in those straight-outta-college days, a seemingly pure literary expression of just how grim big-cee Corporate culture was. E.g., the last page was supposed to represent a mirror, but in fact it was a piece of silverized card stock that "reflected" my pallid flesh tone and the fluorescent lights above me as a grotesque, undifferentiated smudge. Creatively stifling!

The best page of all, though, featured a YOU-deliver-the-brand sentiment set against a drawing of flying comic-book superheroes. Not just any superheroes! Bland, genericized superheroes who, in addition to the young / clean-cut / race- and gender-balanced look, had been rendered with about the level of artistry of the kid in my 8th-grade science class who would draw naked versions of the lady X-Men on notebook paper for a couple of bucks. The hero in front looked particularly dopey and out of proportion. It was great! Like some employees on a company retreat got exposed to a bunch of gamma rays, and also they all had preexisting bone disease.

Here it is, of course the very same as above:

I cropped off the bottom of the team there to fit it into a three-by-five Ikea frame, then installed it in my apartment's bathroom, over the toilet tank at about eye level -- The bathroom, I felt, cried out for decor that was bright yet not hard to part with in case it mildewed over, and this provided ample opportunities to meditate on the company's brand identity under appropriate enough circumstances. I wasn't the only person oddly fond of the image; I remember one of my coworkers scanned it and used it as her instant messenger profile picture for a time.

Anyway, the company's branding efforts disappeared after bigger company bought it, I moved to Oregon, I didn't re-hang the illustration... And then it's yesterday, and I see the same superhero art in a web ad. Weird!

Why do I think it's weird? Other than the oddness of seeing something familiar in an unexpected place, the surprise-that-shouldn't-be was that the superhero picture wasn't actually unique to my old company's brand awareness materials. I'd assumed at first that, given how wonky it looks, somebody must have just dashed it off for our particular account, and I never revisited the thought. Now... I can't call it a loss of innocence, but I feel like I have a better-developed sense of just how desirable it is to recycle already-done work.

This is a lot of words to express, basically, (A) Huh, and (B) After all these years I still think that's a pretty crummy drawing. But perhaps wordy pointlessness is the brand I am truly meant to deliver.


I stepped in this very large pile of dog shit today, which mostly made me angry because it was in the modest little yard right outside my apartment and, although I understand I rent an apartment and don't own a house, I have enough of a proprietary feeling towards the modest little yard that it upsets me when there's other people's dogs' shit all up in it. Like what the hell? I'm sure there are very clear public pooper-scooper laws, probably, I don't really know.

Earlier at work, there was supposed to be a pre-production meeting for this one particular project I'm working on, but it got postponed. So I think there was just supposed to be some natural amount of shit I had to deal with today, and this event may just be a matter of things balancing out.

So because I'm generally too positive, and because I was trying to think of the last time this happened and can't remember, I'm hereby starting the meter at zero and counting until next time, similar to the getting-crapped-on-by-a-bird-o-meter that I'm running. Up to 444 days without getting crapped on by a bird! Hooray. Of course, the bird thing is almost pure luck, while the dog thing takes more skill to avoid, so they're not totally analogous.

Speaking of that skill, I wasn't watching my step because (well, besides from the fact it was my own proprietary modest little yard dammit) I was distracted at the moment by thinking about whether I don't have enough ambitions in life. I actually find moments like this to be instructive: see, rank these problems in order of importance:
1. I might not have enough ambitions in life.
2. Whoa, I think I just stepped in dog shit.

(Here's a similar thing I learned in August, while riding my bicycle in East Rock. Rank these problems in order of importance: 1. I got my heart broken and may never love again. 2. Gghhk, I just swallowed a bug.)

Anyway, that's enough. I mean, do you want to spend all evening dwelling on shittiness? Or are you going to go relax and watch the Steelers/Browns game instead?

* * * * *
Revisiting the getting-crapped-on-by-a-bird-o-meter reminded me that I forgot to celebrate September 22 as Arbitrarily Selected Day of Pittsburgh Pirates Mediocrity Recognition this year. Better late than never! Here goes.

September 22, 2009

The Pirates clinched last place in the National League Central Division for the third consecutive year and lost for the 21st time in 24 games, falling to the Cincinnati Reds 10–4 in Pittsburgh. Starter Zach Duke allowed 5 runs in the 5th inning to earn the loss. Relief pitcher Eric Hacker, making his major league debut in the eighth inning, was applauded by exactly one fan and went on to allow two runs on three hits. Brian Bixler went 0 for 1 with a two-out, bases-loaded strikeout.

I'm telling you, there's something about that day. Of course, when you're from Pittsburgh, every day is Arbitrarily Selected Day of Pittsburgh Pirates Mediocrity Recognition.

Nate is actually emailing me fairly often about the Pirates ever since he stopped reading Steelers news, which is pretty sad, when you think about it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

On the Steelers

So I gather that the Steelers got beaten by the considerably more terrible Raiders this Sunday, or rather I gathered this at the end of the game when Jack texted me the final score like I asked him to. (Honestly, I believed the outcome would be bad once more than three hours had passed since kickoff and I hadn't heard a final score yet. Easy games don't seem to last long.)

Kyle and I had planned on going skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows yesterday but with all signs pointing to inclement weather -- words like "Blizzard Conditions" and "wind standby" on the resort's webpage; icons on the interactive Internet map of the highways leading there showing snowflakes, or exclamation points, or little Honda Civics plunging through iced-over guardrails while their drivers yell out "I just wanted to go up the Buttercup lift a few times until I remembered how to turn" -- we opted not to do so. Nonetheless I didn't push for using the freed-up morning to go watch Pittsburgh/Oakland in a bar; besides owing it to Kyle to let her pick the entertainment for a lazy, couch-sitting Sunday morning for once*, I find that when the Steelers are slumping and playing a bad team, there's no outcome that will actually make my brain happy rather than sad if I actually watch the game. (Mental process helpfully sketched out below.)

Useful brainal flowchart (click to enlarge).

In general, I decided a week ago after the Ravens game to try to take a short break from consuming any Steelers news other than final scores, until I'm back in the local media market for the holidays and, I expect, can easily watch the Steelers take on the Packers and the Ravens and, in all likelihood, mathematically play themselves out of postseason contention. (God forfend that I count them out of course; I'll watch them try.) That span includes two games that entirely fit with the flowchart, one of which they've of course now lost, and covers some time prior to the Christmas season when I have some stuff I should do with my head other than getting the hometown football team all up in it. Hopefully that doesn't make me a fair-weather fan -- maybe a poor obsessive. At any rate I look forward to diving back into the pool of web-based coverage in a couple of weeks.

I tend to exchange a pretty steady stream of commentary from Jack over email during the day, too, so it's not like I don't know Anthony Madison's back on the kick coverage team or anything.

Anyway, as the team's prospects are turning more black and less gold as the season winds down, and the question of the day seems to be whether this season turns into a rerun of 2007 or of 2006, I think my takeaway from following this season (even if they were to get it all the way together and steal another Super Bowl victory out of the jaws of "What the crap, guys, that was the Chiefs, come on") is just how much fun the 2008 season was to pay attention to, in pure entertainment terms. All the hair's-breadth, final drive victories (including of course the championship) were nerve-wracking at the time, but it all sweetened quickly in retrospect -- due in no small part, of course, to the fact that the Steelers won it all the end -- and it's striking how exciting, competitive, and generally worth-watching their average game was last year. (They only really got rolled by the Titans, and of the teams they beat I think they only really ran over the Texans and the Browns twice.) That's probably a once-in-a-few-decades thing. After the loss to Baltimore a couple weeks ago, Behind the Steel Curtain ran a decently eloquent piece touching on the joy in watching a good game, win or lose; 2008 was like a whole year of that, with the added bonus of the good guys actually winning.

That would be my Steelers-related thought for the first half of December, I guess. At the moment I'm most of the way through the second edition of Elizabeth Wilson's excellent biography / oral history of Dmitri Shostakovich, so there's a kind of replacement value in focusing on rooting for my favorite Soviet composer to maintain some respect in the eyes of a younger generation of intellectuals following the Thaw of the 1950s. Or alternatively in rooting for myself to actually do my Christmas shopping at some point.

* That entertainment would be the last several episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender (soon to be a probably much less charming M. Night Shyamalan movie) and playing several bouts of Tetris on my recently rediscovered Game Boy Advance. That would be the same Tetris cartridge from the first-generation Game Boy we bought back around 1990, for any members of my immediate family keeping track, so know that that investment is still paying off a little.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

And I Love a Hockey Game and Then a Cabaret

A typical Saturday in December: sleeping in a little, then doing laundry and cleaning the apartment until 3 pm. Every time, I think I'm going to be done with those chores by noon. But no, never.

After that the day got going more. There was a game on at the modernist ice rink at 4 pm, so a few of us went over to watch the local boys thump the ivy out of Princeton, 4 to 1. Princeton was the underdog coming in, apparently. I didn't know that at game time, which is probably good, since my university loyalty isn't usually strong enough to override my usual impulse to root for the underdog.

I was struck again by how good the soundscape of a hockey game is. And I love trying to identify which '80s pop song the pep band is blaring out, echoingly, from across the rink. And for the first minute of each period, watching how the players leave a trail of skate marks in the ice behind them wherever they go. And having a hot dog. Yes! I love being easily entertained.

By this time we had our first New Haven snowfall of the season, a heavy pummeling of large wet gobs of snowflake. After the game ended I walked through it to the university Cabaret, earning my date night with 20 minutes in the bitter cold. I've been meaning to make it to the Cabaret for a while, but in the way where you never actually get around to doing it. Dinner was overpriced and service was shaky, but the show was a winner. It was written by an 11-year-old, actually, who composed it at an arts summer camp: a sci-fi love story with musical numbers (not by the 11-year-old, I presume). Highly entertaining for its goofy, incoherent plot and for its either naive or uncomplicated, clear-eyed view of human (or rather alien) relationships. Good vibes. I'll probably remember it better than most of the stage productions I've seen here.

Raiders 27, Steelers 24

Until now I've thought we were having a 2007-style season, not a 2006-style season. But the evidence is really starting to pile up.

Watching the Steelers maintain a 10–6 lead against a bad team for the entire third quarter produces a very familiar sinking feeling. And you really felt the ground shift as that quarter ended when Tomlin decided to attempt a 53-yard field goal (wide left -- how is this at all a good idea at Heinz Field?), after which the Raiders ground six minutes off the clock on a 60-yard touchdown drive. And then a whole lot of crazy.

Something is badly wrong with the secondary now, and it sure seems deeper than "Polamalu hurt."

That'll just about do in the season, not like you'd want to watch them playing like this in January. But hey, on the plus side, with Anthony Madison back the kick coverage looks OK.

Man, remember this time last year?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Classical Misc.

Via the indispensable Comics Curmudgeon, we learn that Dick Tracy is extremely dubious about classical music. The look on the usually stoic detective's face in the second panel is all the more priceless / hilarious if you yourself are neither (1) usually stoic, nor (2) at all uncomfortable with the idea of sitting through a symphony performance. I can only hope that the no doubt warped and unintelligible plot line to come will actually take place in a concert hall.

Meanwhile, does anybody else remember Fingers by William Sleator? His Interstellar Pig is his best-known young-adult sci-fi novel, but Fingers is the one that comes up from time to time in my music-related thoughts: In part, it's about [YASF NOVEL SPOILER ALERT] an 18-year-old composer who unwittingly starts channeling the compositions of a crazied-up version of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. (It occurs to me now because Kyle and I have tickets to hear Bartok's second piano concerto at the Oregon Symphony this weekend; to stave off any potential disappointment on her part, I add as a confidential note that the real-life Bartok was a collector of folk music who imitated Magyar themes in his own compositions, not an insane Gypsy whose head and hands were severed in a bizarre accident.) Probably it's more accurate to call it a ghost story than science fiction. At any rate, in with the supernatural business, I remember the book describing the kid's compositional process in some detail, as he enthusiastically reinvents a few developments in early-20th-century tonal music -- wrong-note harmonies, tone clusters, depictions of mechanical sounds, etc. I could tell that Bartok was the inspiration for Sleator's character when I read it (most likely I'd listened to Northland Public Library's CD copy of the Concerto for Orchestra by then), which probably means I was sixteen or so -- maybe slightly old for the book? -- but it was pretty neat, if memory serves. Certainly it's neat in retrospect; other than Testimony, I think Fingers was the only non-nonfiction book about classical music that I read as a teenager.

Strangely that book spoke to me more than Sleator's Singularity, in which cosmologically unlikely relativistic effects help a teenage boy to grow older, taller, and stronger than his more charismatic twin brother. Presumably this is because I was already the awesomer twin, and therefore had no need to relate. And perusing his list of works I also vaguely remember Strange Attractors, in which a boy is entangled in time travel / parallel universe shenanigans with a scientist, his comely daughter, and their vaguely Manson-like doppelgangers, all of which was allegedly related to chaos theory, or more likely to certain key words and attractive full-color illustrations from James Gleick's Chaos. And House of Stairs was definitely pretty rad. But this is no longer classical misc.

No Vember

Well, it looks like I went a whole month without posting anything to the blog. How'd that happen? Well, first I had the flu, then I was lazy, then I was some more lazy, then I was traveling, then it was December.

Having that break for Thanksgiving in there really does lop off the tail of the month somehow. T.S. Eliot famously wrote that April is the cruelest month; maybe he should have written a seminal modernist poem about how November is subjectively the shortest.

But you, November, how long do you last? /
Not for 31 days can you enjoy /
all the rotting pleasures of the calendar year!
[Untitled workplace doodle, 11/2009]

More visual artifacts from November? Here's a blue heron that briefly shared a patch of river walk with Kyle and me in Chattanooga, where we spent the week of Thanksgiving with some of her father's side of her family:

He's a bird.

And here's Kyle trying, just slightly in vain, to point out the very peak of Mt. Adams visible to the north of the Columbia Gorge, as seen from Mitchell Point last weekend (an hour east from Portland on I-84, probably the most scenic interstate highway in the country):

Just a little lower...

Beautiful clear day, last Sunday, and from 1,000-plus feet the river valley here, like Ithaca, is gorge[ou]s. I will note that the path along the ridge line up there, while quite wide in objective, rational terms, still rated maybe a 4 out of 10 on my irrational discomfort with heights scale.

There! My November is documented now! I actually had one!