Thursday, December 28, 2006

It Tastes Like Burning!

Got The Simpsons Season 9 this past week. This is an item well worth having, of course, but following the essential and well-nigh-fundamental to-Western-Civilization seasons 4 through 7, and the still very fine season 8, the drop-off in quality starts to be clear. It’s sadly ironic, really, because it’s when these episodes were running, back in 1997-98, that I really became an enthusiast, feverishly collecting the reruns on tape and all of that. But even then I had the uncomfortable feeling that the newer shows just weren’t quite the same thing. I was sure it was temporary. (Dry chuckle here.)

Indeed, the second of episode of season 9, “The Principal and the Pauper,” was immediately upsetting to fans, and was frequently pointed to in later years as a possible shark-jumping moment (though that term hadn’t then come into its eventual all-too-wide use.) This is the infamous “Armin Tamzarian” episode, in which Principal Skinner is revealed to be—to have always been—a possibly-insane con man, who stole the identity of the “real” Seymour Skinner in Vietnam. The show’s humor comes from the unexpected reappearance of this “real” Skinner, and from the gleefully cynical conclusion in which the whole town, including Skinner’s mother, decides that they preferred the fraudulent one. This is actually sort of funny (I particularly like Superintendant Chalmers’ declaration that “Armin Tamzarian’s reign of terror is over,”) but it’s easy to see why it bothered people. Undermining the fundamental nature of a long-running character, and doing so in such a cheerfully callous way, seemed to a lot of people (including me at the time) to be doing a weird sort of violence to the show. We were kind of missing the point, though—the writers were making fun of the whole idea that the characters on a show like this could stay the same for so long, that every episode would always start afresh in exactly the same place as all the others. They were openly mocking the very idea that we could understand the characters on a show this absurd to in some way be actual persons. Was this clever? Well, I guess, at least the first few times. But it was never really all that funny. And there are plenty of other oddly unfunny episodes in this season: Homer becomes a carny! Bart joins a football team! A whole episode devoted to Ralph Wiggum! Jay Leno! Some of these I doubt I’ll be watching more than once.

Still, though, there are some great, great moments here, starting right at the beginning, with “The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson.” Compared to all of the “The Simpsons are going to [insert name of exotic destination]!” episodes that followed, this one is both affectionate and still real funny. I love Homer’s flashback to his nightmarish time in Taxi Driver-era Manhattan, ending with his rueful “…and that’s when the C.H.U.Ds came at me.” It’s got the now-bittersweet set-piece at the World Trade Center, in which Homer buys a sketchy-looking ethnic delicacy named Khlav Kalash from a street vendor, and is faced with a terrible choice of beverages. “Mountain Dew, or crab juice?” the vendor asks. Homer makes a terrible face and orders the crab juice, as any of us would. This episode also features the word “malparkage” and the first appearance of Duffman. The Lord of the Flies parody “Das Bus” makes no sense at all, but has lots of great jokes. “Lisa the Simpson” is still sort of sweet, proving that not all the humanity had yet been drained from the characters. And there are many, many other bits I remember fondly, even from otherwise mediocre episodes: Homer’s gleeful “stealing a car for Moe” song in “Dumbbell Indemnity,” and the cinematic landmark Hail to the Chimp that we catch a glimpse of in that same episode. Homer calling the garbagemen “trash-eating stinkbags,” and then trying to weasel out of it, observing that “a lot of people were yellin’ stuff.” Homer compressing five pounds of spaghetti into one handy mouth-sized bar. (“Hospital, please.”) And of course, Mojo the helper monkey, whose cholesterol is “through the roof.” So many memories. If you’re a fan, definitely get this last glimpse of this show before the serious decadence set it. If you’re a casual viewer, please get season four.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Holiday Greetings, and the End of an Era

Christmas will be over by the time I post this. I hope yours was good, if Christmas is something you do. Festivus will not be over until you’ve pinned the head of the household, so good luck.

Here I am tonight outside the doors of venerable Toledo dive/landmark Rocky’s Bar, doors that within a few hours will be closed for good. So really, this evening is the true end of Old Westgate, a place and time that I know a lot of you remember with fondness, irritation, or both. Rocky’s was noisy, smoky, and tiny, but it was very friendly and very very convenient. Nothing beat being able to walk there after work. Or during the occasional lunch hour. Or on at least one memorable occasion, during a ten-minute coffee break. It was also great to be able to walk home, as you could if you lived at Kenwood Gardens. Toledo will be a little less smoke-filled after today, but a lot more boring.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Screaming Comes Across My Desk

Just got off work at midnight, so now I won't be able to sleep for, like, three hours. The retail game gets a little exciting during the third week of December, as the reader can no doubt guess, so those of us out there on the frontlines get pretty fired up. We get home and we’re like Vietnam vets; we can’t fit back into normal society. Our faces are frozen in a pleasant, helpful expression. Our hands shake. Ask Tim Jensen—he saw me today; I was bouncing off the walls.

But school is done for now, so that’s good. I have no comment about my academic performance until my grades are officially posted, but at least now I can try to read books. Of course that means I immediately threw myself headlong into T.R. Pynchon’s new 1100-page monstrosity, Against the Day. The critics were not all kind to this one (some were) but for those of us who are fans it’s still a big deal. It’s weird now, though: we were so used to the idea of Pynchon as bizarre reclusive genius, but now we’ve gotten to know him as Wacky Guy on The Simpsons With a Bag on His Head. It’s like if the Pope went on Conan, or something. I'm sure that this is exactly what he's always wanted, but how will it affect our reading of this doorstop of a book? So far (page 200 or so) I think it’s pretty great, absolutely no surprises, lots of science and very long sentences and evil capitalists and musical numbers.

Got that Pernice Brothers album I was feeling guilty about a while back. Pretty good. If I made you listen to any of their others and you liked them, you should get this one too. If you’re new, here’s the deal: Joe Pernice is a Boston-based singer and songwriter with a small-but-devoted following. He does indeed have a brother, Bob, who sometimes plays on the records, but that’s still sort of a silly name for the band. He’s got a frail-but-pretty voice and he sings glum-but-perfectly-crafted little grown-up pop songs of the kind that some of us can’t get enough of. 2001’s The World Won’t End and 2003’s Yours, Mine & Ours are improbably wonderful little masterpieces. Get them.

Live a Little, the new album, is not quite up there on that level, but it’s got plenty of great moments. “Zero Refills” keeps the spirit of 70’s soft rock alive in winning fashion—and I have to say that title seems to betray a certain fascination with prescription medications that I’ve noticed before. (This is the guy who came up with one of my favorite song titles ever, “Prince Valium.” Great tune, too.) “PCH One” and “B.S. Johnson” are graceful and pretty despite not having good titles at all. "Somerville" is so perfect that you won't realize it until you're singing it three days later. There are some are some dull spots in the middle: Joe is showing a distressing tendency since Discover a Lovelier You towards mannered, overwritten lyrics and tunes that don’t quite make it. Those songs (“Microscopic View,” “Lightheaded”) are still in the minority, but it’s a little troubling when the most affecting moment here is “Grudge Fuck 2006,” which as the title indicates is a retooled version of a song Pernice originally recorded in 1996 with his first band, the Scud Mountain Boys. Direct, melodic, and self-lacerating, it reminds you how great of a songwriter this guy can be, and makes you wish he’d just remember that.

I also got that Joanna Newsom that I was so anxious about. Don’t know what to say yet. This is some crazy-weird stuff. If you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more harp, this might be for you. It might be as good as everyone says. I’ll let you know.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Poll: Americans Not As Crazy As We Thought

Maybe people will say anything to a pollster, but it's still hard not to find this encouraging:
Americans say they'd be more wary about electing a president who served in George W. Bush's Cabinet than they would be about voting a gay man or a lesbian into office...Only 38 percent of the poll's respondents said they'd be "enthusiastic" or "comfortable" in voting for a presidential candidate who's a Mormon -- the same number who said they'd be OK with voting for a member of Bush's Cabinet.

Another twenty years and we could have us a civilized little country, just like...I dunno, Canada, or something.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Finally saw Babel today, the third film from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Shouldn’t I have seen this one already? As somebody who’s been talking up Amores Perros all decade long, and who will rush to defend 21 Grams despite its grotesque heavy-handedness, I’m a little embarrassed that I dragged my feet on this one. But you know, I just had this gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be a lighthearted romp. I was correct. I remember feeling, after watching 21 Grams, like someone had grabbed me by the collar and shaken me for two and a half hours; Babel at times has a similar effect.

Babel’s good, though, which was a relief—it could have gone either way. It’s flawed, but it’s so clearly the work of somebody in full command of their art that you’re willing to forgive it a lot of things. Iñárritu often almost seems to be showing off, in the contemptuous ease with which he shifts between his interrelated storylines; he’s taken the head-snapping transitions between the lives of the rich and poor characters in Amores Perros and spread them around the entire globe. Babel has affluent Americans (played by Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett,) poor Mexicans, really really poor Moroccans, and a seemingly entirely separate story involving a deaf-mute Japanese girl (courageously played by someone named Rinko Kikuchi. Give her an award.) whose heartbreakingly random connection to the other stories only gradually becomes clear.

Iñárritu seems committed to the idea of Filmmaker as God, which may be why these stories seem curiously undramatic at times—he is so eager to show the centrality of chance and contingency that the characters mostly seem completely powerless. But it’s still pretty powerful just watching things happen to them. Pitt and Blanchett play the wealthy-but-miserable American couple who run into absurdly improbable misfortune on vacation in Morocco; meanwhile their two children and their illegal-immigrant Mexican caregiver run into equally improbable trouble back at home. But it’s all done in such a way that you’re never tempted to laugh at the silliness of it (as I occasionally wanted to laugh at Sean Penn in 21 Grams.) You just think, yeah, that could happen. And Iñárritu just excels at showing people in these Biblically dreadful situations; you just can’t look away, even as things get ever awfuller.

Clearly, too, the man has a way with actors, as witnessed by the astonishing operatic performances he got out of the three leads of 21 Grams and by the classy stars eager to be in this film. Brad Pitt’s certainly gotten a lot of praise for Babel, which is a bit much. This is possibly the first time I’ve ever seen him play a grown-up, and he doesn’t embarrass himself, let’s leave it at that—and that’s high praise since he has to share the screen with Ms. Blanchett. On any equal footing, of course, she would act him right off the map, but she essentially does this whole movie with one acting hand tied behind her back; it’s still pretty harrowing. Adriana Barraza, who as far as I know is unknown, is really great as the nanny, as are all the unknown Moroccans. Gael Garcia Bernal, who Innaritu gave to the world as Amores Perros’ doomed hero Octavio, turns in a tidy little cameo as the nanny’s good-for-nothing nephew. (Rachel, with typically sharp eyes, spotted one Peter Wight, the night watchman from Mike Leigh’s Naked, as one of the tourists.)

Also have to mention the cinematography, especially in the Morocco sequences. Sure, maybe it’s easy to film beautiful scenery, but this is still some pretty jaw-dropping stuff. This guy, Rodrigo Prieto, came up with Iñárritu and Amores Perros, and he’s made a nice little Hollywood career for himself—he did Brokeback Mountain, speaking of scenery—but Babel had to be a camera guy’s dream, and he made the most of it. Probably ninety percent of the movie is done handheld, and it’s hardly ever distracting, like it can be sometimes. And I still can’t figure out how they did the final shot, although it may just be CGI.

Anyway, check it out if you like this sort of thing. What with school and everything else, I feel like I hardly saw any of this year’s good movies, so I can’t tell you if this is the best one or anything. I probably still like Brick better, if it comes to that. But this is the real thing—sooner or later these guys will make another truly great movie, but Babel will do in the meantime.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gardening At Night

[Okay, this is long. But I thought I might as well go ahead and post some fiction here, now that I have it. This was written for class, and it shows in places. Some of it is clumsy. A few sentences I'm secretly terribly proud of. I'm not going to tell you which are the good bits because I hope somebody will read it all. -MD]

Barry saw her on the stairs as he drove away. It was only for a second, and there was no time to slow down - he was late for work already - but someone was definitely there, climbing towards his back door, and he was sure that no one had been nearby when he'd come out two minutes before. This seemed like information that he couldn't process; his stomach felt hollow and vile; he blinked and stretched his face furiously to clear the sleep from his head. The inside of the car smelled like grease and the damp corners of old dark basements. He rolled the window down angrily and tried again to look behind him, before he turned the corner onto Hillcrest, but the house was mostly out of sight, blocked by the sullen yellowed buckeye trees that lined the street. He couldn't see the second story at all, where his doorway was, and the then the traffic cleared and he turned and the neighborhood was behind him.

* * *

In the store the lights were humming and the lines at the cash register were long; he heard his name as soon as he was inside the doors.

"My man Barry knows what I'm talking about!" The voice made him want to speed up, but he slowed. Barely in the building, and Kale was bouncing gleefully at him, all shirttails and flying elbows. "Ain't that right, Barry?" Kale's pale, almost transparent moustache darkened when he grinned; the strap of his nametag was wrapped absurdly around his head. Clearly, his shift was over.

"What's that?" Barry said, voice flat and face stiff, trying for the perfect dead note of male nonchalance that would spare him the brunt of Kale's happy disdain - but Kale was half-gone already, thankfully, whirling through the exit doors. His grin flashed lewdly as he backed out.

"Barry knows! Poland and all that!" Kale cackled at nobody and was gone.

He clocked in; it was seven after. His eyes burned - another point. Three minutes late was a point. Three points and they talked to you; six points and you were fired. They'd already talked to him. Kale had thought that was hilarious, of course, like everything else. Poland. Marta was from Poland, the cashier. That wasn't funny, either.

He worked. Nora wanted him at the register, but Darrell was shift manager and he overruled her. "We need everybody we can get in LG" he told Barry flatly, not bothering to disguise how serious he felt the need must be to include even the likes of Barry Tomczak. LG was Lawn and Garden, and that was fine.

The store sold wood; the store sold pipes; the store sold sinks that didn't run yet and toilets that had never flushed. You could smell the wood as soon as you walked in the door; it was sweet, like something that had just been made. He'd loved that smell at first; now it made him faintly sick, like the first day of school. He didn't have anything to do with the wood, anyway. The men who cut and sold the wood didn't know his name, and he didn't know theirs. He'd never built anything. Mostly he ran the cash register; he unpacked boxes that someone else had unloaded; he wandered the concrete aisles slowly, clipboard in hand, and filled the spaces left among the tiny things - the light bulbs, the washers, the doorknobs.

Lawn and Garden was fine with Barry - some days that meant giant bags of topsoil or spectacularly sinister hedge-trimming tools that he didn't even know the names of, but this time it meant a lot of plants, and that was fine. The plants were on pallets, wrapped in plastic - you unwrapped them, you found a place for them, you watered them. Darrell seemed to think this was a job he was suited for, and Barry didn't care. He worked his cart carefully between the narrow parallel rows of cactuses and ferns and tiny misshapen trees, and tried to shake the feeling of strangeness from his head.

No one but him had climbed those steps outside his apartment for sixth months at least. But somebody had been there -- the picture was there in his head as he worked, the same way the fluorescent lights hummed their little hum all day long beneath the rumble and mutter of every other noise. He kept coming back to it, trying to force his mind's eye into focus, trying to fix on some detail of her clothes or hair, but he kept failing. The house, he could see, if he really tried. The white two-story house with peeling, indifferent paint; the wooden staircase, fifty years younger than the house, that led to his door - but the stranger's face as he drove by and then her back in his rearview mirror was a nervous, shivering blank. Neither old nor young; not wearing the perfect, crisp, modest clothes of the blank-eyed door-to-door church people or any kind of uniform that would mean she was there to read the meter or check for termites. Just clothes, invisible clothes, girl clothes - maybe some kind of jacket against the October chill? And was it something he had caught in her face in that part of a second, or something in her back, in the tilt of her shoulders as she climbed, that gave him the cold uneasy feeling that she had been angry? His hands were cold and stiff; his ankles hurt from crouching as he worked. No customers came near and he was glad. He was hungry and he wanted to be home.

* * *

When he got there, finally, she was waiting for him. A car door slammed behind him as he walked toward the stairs, and he stole a fearful backward glance. Terror flashed into the skin of his face in the instant he saw that someone was hurrying towards him; the menace always there in the dark silent street had turned solid and was making its move. The knife was there for him, the fist in the face, the guns in the shaky hands of washed-out trembling men - eventually it would happen to you. But he stopped, confused, when he saw it was the girl.

"Are you Barry Tomczak?" He stared at her in blank astonishment. There was no question it was the same woman, the woman from the afternoon. He was surprised by how small she was; she was looking up at him to meet his eyes, her sharp face framed by short dark blonde wisps of hair. He couldn't answer for a moment; he took a half-step backward. It was fully dark now, and the darkened crumbling houses seemed dull and faded under the streetlights. His hands were cold from the drive home; he'd forgotten his gloves.

"Yeah," he croaked, finally. He felt something hard in her look and he knew how he looked to her, with his flat stringy hair and his wide flat face. He wanted to keep moving; he wanted to be inside.

"Do you have a brother named Keith?" He stopped again. He felt himself blushing, angrily, suddenly ashamed without knowing why. So that was it. Of course. He let himself take another long look at her face, pale and ageless under the streetlights, and sighed.

"Have you been waiting here all day?" he asked.

* * *

In the end he had to invite her inside; there was nothing else to be done. He went ahead of her up the faintly creaking wooden stairs, feeling her eyes on his back, and let them in. He made coffee as quickly as he could, trying not to see his apartment as it must look to her - the bare yellow walls and colorless carpet, the blankets twisted damply on the couch that all-too-clearly doubled as a bed. Thankfully she stayed in the kitchen, which thankfully was clean. Her name was Maureen; she'd said her last name too, but he'd already forgotten. She drank her coffee silently for a moment. Inside she looked younger; she couldn't be more than twenty-five or so. His age, really. Her green hooded sweatshirt said "MSU."

"I haven't talked to Keith in a long time," he finally said. "Not since our mother - not for a year and a half, since our mother's funeral." No flicker of sympathy or embarrassment showed on her face; he wondered how much she knew already. Strange to think that this woman he had never seen before could know that his mother was dead. What else could Keith have told her, and what had she thought about as she sat in an empty car on his dark street, waiting for him?

"Were you at work?" She was looking at his chest, and he blushed again. Still wearing a nametag, of course. Still wearing a polyester orange vest. My Name Is Barry T - I am Happy to Assist You!

"Yeah," he said. He slipped the strap of his nametag over his head, and without looking threw it onto the counter in the corner of the kitchen, on top of a pile of junk-mail flyers.

"Does that totally suck?" she asked, in a tone of mild polite interest, like someone asking if it was still raining.

"Yeah," he said, and laughed. She laughed too, a tiny, silent laugh. He sat down heavily, finally, and rubbed his face fretfully for a moment. The deadly numbness of his workday was lifting; he was sitting at his kitchen table with a stranger, with a strange woman who was pretending not to notice his dishes from yesterday's lunch.

"See, I came by earlier and you weren't here," she said, and he wanted to break in - I saw you! -- but he let her continue. "I knocked downstairs and the guy told me you were probably at work."


"That's the guy." She laughed. "He asked me if I wanted to smoke a bowl while I waited. I told him I'd come back later."

Barry breathed out heavily. "Jerry owns this place. I mean - it was his mom's and now it's his. He sells a lot of weed. A real prince."

She was grinning. "Yeah, I feel like I made the right decision. Which is not to say that if a gentleman like yourself were to offer that I wouldn't indulge..." She cocked her head with a little comic twist to her lips. He laughed again, a little more easily this time.

"You've got the wrong guy, lady," he said. "All I got is coffee."

"Fair enough." She leaned back and stretched, easily and unthinkingly. "So I came back around seven and waited. I was about to leave when you showed up - I knew it had to be you. You've got the same hair as Keith."

That made him stop. When he'd seen Keith last, his head had been shaved, but Barry supposed enough time had passed that he could have grown it out. But he couldn't remember a time when anyone had thought they'd looked alike - Keith was all angles and bone, and Barry was slow and soft and always had been. Keith had stolen magazines and been in car accidents; he had made speeches at school assemblies that had made the teachers shake their heads and the students roar with laughter. When Keith was sixteen, he had taken a lot of pills and missed two weeks of school - when he returned his aura was more ironclad and fiery than ever. That was when he'd taken up with Laura - Keith had been Laura's great project. Barry had been thirteen - he remembered sitting in the hospital with his weeping shaking mother and feeling glad that he was missing soccer practice, and feeling guilty that he was glad. He never did play soccer again after that.

"Why do you know my brother?" He had to ask it, after all. She took a long drink of coffee and sighed.

"Keith and me lived together for a while up in Detroit," she said. "Did you know he lived up there?" Barry shook his head. The last he'd heard, Keith was in Columbus trying to start a band. Maureen drew a little pattern on the table with a fingertip as she spoke. "You know how these things go." She paused. "Do you?"

Barry shook his head.

"Yeah," she sighed. "Anyway, we did. And people get crazy, you know they do. Things got a bit weird. And with one thing and another I haven't seen him in a little while, but I'd like to talk to him, if I can. And I didn't know where he went, but I knew he had a brother from this town, and I knew his brother's name, and that's your name." She pointed, comically, with both index fingers. "And you're in the phone book, but your phone, I couldn't help but noticing, is disconnected." They both looked at the telephone on the wall - dead beige plastic weight. Barry didn't see the point in paying the bill anymore so he hadn't. The girl gave a final little shadow of a smile. "So I got on the internet and I found your house and you gave me coffee. Is that a good enough story?"

It was. It made exactly the right kind and the right amount of sense - never mind that Keith had been in the north and not the south. It was still Keith, and there was still a woman in his wake, eager and baffled. It was like Laura, all of those times - why was it when Barry thought about his high-school years, that it was Keith and Keith's desperate perfect girlfriend who appeared in every scene? Keith and Laura on the porch, screaming at each other. Keith on the phone, crying. Their mother begging Barry to take their picture, the two of them dressed up for something - a prom? Someone else's wedding? He couldn't remember, but he remembered their faces in the photograph, frozen in some comic travesty of a happy moment. He remembered Laura crying. He looked up.

"Yeah," he said. "That's something. I wish I could help you more."

Maureen sighed, and something about her seemed to settle and condense. She put both hands on the table, palm-down, and stared straight at him. Her eyes were grey, with flecks of orange.

"I was really - I was hoping you could tell me something more," she said. "The thing is - well, here it is - the thing is, Barry, that I'm pregnant."

He stared at her for a moment, feeling it all make him sick. This was it; this was the final joke at everybody's expense. She was here at his house and she was the victim of his brother and she needed the only kind of help that he couldn't ever give her. He closed his eyes.

"I don't know where Keith is," he said. "I'm sorry, I really don't."

There wasn't anything else to say. He took her phone number, just in case, and watched her leave. He put the number on his refrigerator, with a magnet shaped like an apple.

* * *

Kale thought it was funny to talk about Marta, the cashier from Poland. Her English was delicate and peculiar, and she couldn't grasp more than a tenth of Kale's scattershot innuendo, so he never let it stop. He didn't know anything about Barry except that his name was Polish, but that was enough to make him an unwilling part of the joke.

"Barry Tomczak! My man!" Kale yelling cheerfully, coasting along with a hand cart, feet off of the ground. "Is the Polish sausage good and hot, yo? Are the troops massing on the Polish border?" Marta was two checkout lanes over, oblivious. Barry tried to laugh without laughing. A customer was staring at him, a man in a white t-shirt with an enormous moustache. He had a tape measure on his belt. Barry stared back.

He was happier an hour later when he was back in Lawn and Garden. Nobody tried to talk to him there. The only customers were women, brisk and businesslike, and they knew better than to try to ask him anything. Nothing about him would lead anyone to believe that he could help them with their orchids, or their hedges. Every silent signal in his face and his movements said I just work here.

He watered the plants. The plants spread out in a flat green space and the shelves towered over them. The shelves had to be thirty feet tall. It seemed unbelievable how high they were, how determined people were to fill up every inch of space. There were lawnmowers up there, and giant water tanks - enormously heavy things that he couldn't believe somebody wanted to find a place for so badly that they had to store them up by the ceiling. How did they do it? It happened at night; at night powerful competent men with big machines came out on the sales floor and bent the vertical space of the store to their will - if they wanted it stacked high, it would be stacked high. Barry watered the plants.

Somebody was talking to him. He heard someone talking.

"So, can you, like, sell me some fertilizer?" He stared. Keith was there, in a shapeless grey coat, smirking. His hair had grown out. His brother. Barry put the water tank down, and tried to clear his throat.

* * *

"So I didn't know where you were living, now, but I figured you still worked at this hellhole, so I came looking for you." Keith seemed cold; he wrapped his coat around himself tighter as they walked across the emptying parking lot. "Where are you living? You live by yourself? Any ladies in the picture?" He laughed, and did some kind of unrepeatable little dance step. Barry snorted.

"Ask Kale," he said, absently.

"Who?" Keith asked, jumping in place. "Look, can we go hang out at your place or something? I'll follow you. That's my car right there." He gestured with an elbow, hands in pockets. "Go to a gas station - I'll pick up some beer."

* * *

They sat in Barry's kitchen and drank beer. Keith wanted to talk. It had been three years and he wanted to explain himself, to make his interesting life seem even more interesting. He'd been in Columbus a long time, apparently. His band had gotten some national press - had Barry seen it? He hadn't. Barry didn't read the kinds of magazines that covered the kinds of bands Keith was in - apparently Keith had almost opened for Modest Mouse, and apparently that was good. Then there was trouble - the singer in the band had a girlfriend, she and Keith had become close. Things had happened. Incredibly, he'd been married, for three months.

"I tried to call you, man," Keith said, face red and shining over his black sweater. "I really did. But your phone was disconnected, and I swear to God I couldn't fucking call the old man to get ahold of you. I mean, put yourself in my shoes. You know? And then it all went to hell anyway." He got up, and swung his arms, back and forth. "But now, you know, I'm doing pretty okay. I've got a little money set aside, and I thought I'd stop back through town, you know? Thought I'd see what you were doing. I haven't seen you since - well, shit, since the..."

They both sat for a moment. Barry drank his beer, and made a sour face.

"You haven't been in Detroit?" he said, carefully.

Keith stopped swinging his arms, and laughed. He stared back at Barry.

"Detroit?" he said. He was still smiling, but something in his smile had stopped moving.

"Yeah." Barry let it hang in the air a moment. Keith stood still for a long moment, then spun around furiously, spinning till he faced Barry again.

"Fuck!" he yelled, and Barry glanced at the floor involuntarily. "Who's been talking to you? Can't people even leave my fucking family alone?" He grabbed his chair and slumped across it. He seemed quiet, suddenly, and earnest. "What happened, Barry, seriously? Nobody gave you any trouble, did they?"

"What kind of trouble?"

"No, you tell me what kind of trouble!" Keith was laughing again. "Somebody told you I was in Detroit? Who was it? Who the hell knows who you are? It wasn't..." he stopped, and stared. Barry felt his own face go flat, and blank, and he knew that Keith was reading it.

"Maureen," he said, and pounded the table with one palm. "I can't fucking believe it but I totally fucking believe it. Maureen." He jumped upright again and grabbed his beer bottle. "She looked you up? Maureen looked you up?"

"Yeah." There wasn't any point in not saying it.

"When? When did you talk to her?"

"Two days ago." Barry got up, too, and walked over to the window.

"Two days? That is just incredible, man, just incredible. I only left there last - what? - Saturday?" Keith was a blur, now, gesturing and drinking. "She did love her internet. She should've been a damned private eye. Of course she knew your name, because of course I told her all about you."


"Yeah. You know how it is, man - you tell them all that old high-school stuff, they never get tired of it. I told her all about you, and Laura, and, you know, about mom and all that. You've got to say something." He stopped. "Do you even know what I'm talking about? Do you talk to women?"

Barry looked down. He pulled at the label of his beer bottle. Something ached in his chest. What was it about him that left him always in this strange, humiliating place? It seemed like some sort of misunderstanding. He tried to gather himself.

"What did you tell her about me and Laura?" Why did that make him feel so tired and shaky? What was there to tell, anyway? Keith and Maureen, talking about Laura's hands, her voice, her endless unfixable grief.

Keith stared at him. "I don't even know what you mean. I told her about Laura, I told her about you, I told her you were the best of friends, I don't know! You're telling me you just talked to Maureen Walsch two days ago - why don't you tell me what she said?"

Barry told him. There was a long and dangerous pause. Keith walked out into the living room and back and then stopped, balanced on one leg in the doorframe between two rooms. He stared at Barry for a long moment. Then he laughed.

"There's no way." He pointed with a finger as he spoke. "There's just no way. That doesn't add up at all." He clapped his hands, and grinned. "Maureen's a liar, did you know that? Maybe you could tell; maybe you couldn't. She's pretty good. She had your number. Just like Laura did."

"What do you mean?" asked Barry, thickly. His throat was growing tighter, and the ache in his chest was sharp and dangerous. He couldn't seem to look up.

"You know what I mean. Walking all over you to get to me, with that little maiden-in-distress number? Don't you remember - what, how old were you back then, tenth grade? - Don't you remember how she would cry?"

Barry remembered.

"Yeah, but Maureen's something different," Keith went on. "You know what she wants?" He fumbled in his pockets, spilling his wallet out onto the table. He grabbed a handful of bills. "This is it. She wants this money. Because, well, frankly, she helped to steal it."

Barry didn't say anything. Keith's voice was like a car alarm, like a cash register; he sounded like Kale for a moment. Barry suddenly wanted badly to see something outside of the warm damp kitchen. He stood slowly and walked to the back door, bottle loose in two fingers.

"Yeah," Keith said, behind him. "Maureen's not pregnant. I don't believe that for a second. She's fucking married, and she and I stole a whole big pile of money from her husband, and now she wants a little more of it. But I'm done with all of that, and I'm really sorry I gave her your name, but there was about fifteen minutes there when I thought she was, you know, a little better than that."

Barry rested his face on the glass of the window. Keith had stopped talking. He stared down at the backyard. There was a yellow cat picking its way carefully between two garbage cans. The taillights of a car were receding down the block. In the store where he worked, right now, someone was working a forklift and raising impossible things impossibly high off the ground. Was everything happening when he wasn't looking? Laura's hands, and Maureen with her little crooked grin.

"I don't know," he said, still facing the outside. "Shouldn't you, maybe, give me some of that money? Just to make sure I don't call her?" He didn't hear anything. Keith had stopped moving.

"What are you talking about, Barry?" he asked, finally. There was a hard, quiet note in his voice.

"Well, you know," Barry said. "I'm susceptible to these sorts of things. Women manipulate me. I might tell her where she could find you, or something. Like I might have done with Laura."

Keith was suddenly a lot nearer, behind him. Barry didn't turn around.

"What about Laura?"

Barry smiled, a little, finally. He turned around. Keith was a foot away, staring at him, but something had gone out of him. He looked a lot older than twenty-eight.

"I think I've probably seen her more recently than you have," Barry said. "Did you know she came to Mom's funeral?" Keith wasn't moving. His hair fell black and dense around his face. His left hand shook. "She did. I think she waited until you were gone, but I saw her. I talked to her. We talked for a while. You know she always loved Mom, you remember-" and that was that, he was done talking; he was done breathing for a moment, and the room had moved in some peculiar way. Some uncounted seconds later he knew that Keith had punched him but it didn't really make sense, didn't really come together until he had already hit the floor, and the table and the beer bottles had come crashing down around him. (He was still remembering; he was in a car with Laura and she was handing him a cigarette. It was the last time he'd smoked. He'd never cried with anyone else before and he was sure in that instant that he would never see her again.) By the time his head was clear and he could see the cut on his hand and the bruise on his face, Keith was gone. A fifty-dollar bill was on the refrigerator, where Maureen's phone number had been.

* * *

He was at work; he was under the lights, and his head still ached where the table had caught it. He opened and closed his hand and felt the burning protest of his torn muscles. Marta said something to him as he walked past the cash registers but he couldn't understand her; her delicate accent was swallowed by the rattle of the machines and the steady growl of voices. The lines were long. The men were buying wood in long thin strips; the men were buying tile in stacks and linoleum in long rolls. Lightswitches that turned nothing on. They had white shirts and tape measures on their belts. The back wall, the far end of the building, was a long way off, but he found it; he found the restroom and locked the door and stared into the mirror at his own blank face with its reddened, colorless eyes until it was time to clock in and go to work.

There had been a big delivery; he dragged the crates and spread the sheets of plastic and carefully cut each new plant free and set it in the place he'd cleared for it. No one bothered him, and after two hours he stood with an empty cart, and the shelves around him more full than he'd ever seen them. It was something to look at, in a place like this; people would have to be impressed by the variety, by the selection, by the presentation. Darrell would have to agree that the merchandising was sound.

He looked down and saw that his hand was bleeding again. He looked up and saw the lawnmowers hovering near the ceiling and the shelves that held their impossible crippling weight. They were toppling so slowly that you couldn't even see it, but they would fall someday. The air smelled like water and wood, and nothing looked right under the lights. No one was around. He smelled earth and water and worms and something else, something clean and bright and green as he breathed out slowly and took off his vest and let himself gently down to the tile; the leaves were wet and green and the soil was dark and he lay down in the empty narrow aisle and the quiet leaves closed over his empty head.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

People Call Me Circuit City

Sorry. I know I've got to update, or you'll all stop checking. I'm going to make the usual school / holidays excuses and leave it at that. I'm lazy. If you've gotten this far, you know that.

Music stuff again -- I'm going to throw up my hands here and ask: have any of you out there heard this Joanna Newsom person? Apparently this is the new thing we're all supposed to be excited about. Like, if Sufjan were a girl, or something. I'm sold, but I can't get to the record store so often these days. Remember when we could walk to the record store on our lunch hour? That was nice. Now I don't even have the new Pernice Brothers album that's been out for a month and I'm like the guy's biggest supporter in Ohio. I could order it at Borders but how much of a part of the problem do I want to be?

Sufjan's got a Christmas album, if you care. I guess he hadn't put anything out in three months or so, so it's expected. We're playing it at Borders, and it's very pretty.

Bought Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- sounds good, but I haven't had time to judge it. The Long Winters album is solid but not particularly essential -- still a minor cousin to Death Cab and the Decemberists. I actually saw the Long Winters open for the Decemberists in '04 or so. It was good, as I recall. They played the terribly exciting "New Girl," but not their de facto signature tune, "Cinnamon." That's a good song, and you know why? It's got four verses. So many lazy songwriters think they can stop at two and we won't even notice. We do.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

They'll Need a Crane

(Review of The Crane Wife, by the Decemberists)

There comes a time when we all have to ask ourselves: how do we feel about songs about chimney sweeps? For plenty of people, that’s further than they’re willing to go – once a rock band brings up the chimney sweeps, or sailors, or Victorian street-urchins, they’re getting off the bus. It’s hard to blame them. If you’re a fan of the Decemberists, however, that’s where the trip begins. Over four albums or so now, Colin Meloy et al have carved out a distinctive niche – perfectly crafted, evocative little folk-rock ditties incorporating an absurdly elevated vocabulary, loads of period detail, and a healthy dose of pitch-black humor, all delivered in Meloy’s distinctive adenoidal croon.

The new album, The Crane Wife, will not surprise anybody who’s been paying attention. Sure, it’s got not one but two multi-part folk-prog epics: the title story, which is apparently based on some Japanese folktale, and nautical murder-ballad “The Island.” But this is a band that had epic ambitions from the beginning – the bleak, disturbing “Odalisque,” from 2001’s Castaways & Cutouts clearly pointed out that they had no intentions of being some sort of retro-joke act. The problem is that they’ve already taken this sort of thing as far as it could possibly go with their 18-minute Celtic-themed song-cycle The Tain. I like this new album, and I like “The Island,” but when I listen to “The Island,” what I mainly think is: boy, this makes me want to listen to The Tain. The Tain kicks ass! ("The Tain, Part 2" kicks so much ass that it is literally painful to sit down afterwards. It’s like Morrissey showed up to sing Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”)

But the first part of “The Island” is mighty fine, despite wearing its progginess on its sleeve. Lots of organ and accordion and that sort of thing. (Rachel’s brother heard about two minutes of it and said “Jethro Tull!”) Return readers take note: it does give a nod to The Tempest – Sycorax gets a shout-out. And if you didn’t like rock bands singing things like “curlews carve their arabesques,” you would never have even considered touching this record. Parts two and three, well, they’re okay. A little cutesey, perhaps – is there really ever any reason to say that you were “a-ramble down by the water?”

What really matters to me are not the epics, but the regular tunes – I love The Tain, but for me this is the band of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Song for Myla Goldberg,” and “On the Bus Mall” – songs that essentially couldn’t be improved upon. And the tunes are there on The Crane Wife. Do they deliver? Well, yes, mostly. We’ve got a lovely Civil War death-duet, “Yankee Bayonet” – if you’re going to do a damned Civil War duet, it better be lovely, and I think they pull it off. We’ve got a West-Side-Story-type teen death ballad, “O, Valencia!” which is pretty fun. I love exclamation points in titles, and I love the poetic “O” – I’ll forgive a lot if you give me those things. “O, Valencia!” doesn’t quite do it, though – the chorus is big, but not big enough, and the subject matter is just so so tired that I don’t know how Meloy could let himself write it. I can see how it would probably be pretty majestic if you played it live; it really wants to rock. On the record it’s not quite there, but I’ll still take it over most pop songs. (Meloy said in an interview that the main guitar figure was supposed to sound like R.E.M.’s “Seven Chinese Brothers.” He went on to say, a little too proudly, that he’d asked Peter Buck’s permission to use it – presumably when they both were working on Scott McCaughey’s last Minus 5 album. Two things: Meloy’s vocal turn on that record, “Cemetery Row,” is by far the best thing on it and also as good as most any Decemberists song. And also, “O Valencia” makes me want to listen to Reckoning.)

And hey, we’ve got “Summersong.” I can’t complain about that one. One review I read called this song “insufferable,” but nobody who would think that has any business reviewing a Decemberists album. Is it precious? Oh my, yes! (“My girl / linen and curls / lips parting like a flag all unfurled?”) But that couldn’t be any less relevant – it’s a melody you can’t really argue with, unless maybe you think it reminds you of Oasis. If that’s the case, then please just try to forget everything you know about Oasis and remember why “Wonderwall” was a hit.

What else? There’s “Shankill Butchers,” an attempt at a creepy, Tim Burton-ish childrens’ song in the spirit of Castaways' hilariously indefensible “A Cautionary Song.” But that sort of thing is only slightly funny once. There are some admirable attempts at expanding the pallet – “The Perfect Crime #2” is an enormously fun, cartoonish little gangster tale, complete with an invocation of the Muse. I couldn’t help but think of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, and of course it’s by far the funkiest thing this band has ever done by default. It’s a shame the chorus doesn’t deliver, or it would be a highlight. “When the War Came” is puzzling, but admirable; it seems to be an attempt at oblique political commentary in the vein of Picaresque’s much-more-sprightly “Sixteen Military Wives,” but it’s darker and thornier. One review called it “polite hard rock,” which I thought was a terribly backhanded compliment – in my opinion, when a band that sings about vengeful mariners and barrow boys decides to get heavy, then, well, it’s just that much heavier. “When the War Came” is pretty damned solid, I just don’t know what it’s saying, exactly. Why are parts of it in Latin? And how does this new “war is bad” message square with the “war is totally gay” message of Her Majesty The Decemberists’ “The Soldiering Life?”

The final verdict might depend on how you feel about the title song, or songs. “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” is long and slow, and if you can’t get into it than you may ultimately decide this album was a waste of time. But on its own terms, it manages to be graceful and affecting in spite of itself. “The Crane Wife 3” was chosen to start the album, out of sequence, and it’s a decision that makes a certain perfect sense, finally. It’s got the right mix of effortless wordplay (“under the boughs unbowed,” a line that only Colin Meloy could start a record with) and aching regret in the soaring chorus (“I will hang my head low.”)

Really, though, we’re all still waiting for the next step. Like their close associates and fellow Portlandites, Death Cab For Cutie, the Decemberists have won a loyal following and made the jump to a major label. They’ve got a dozen or so tunes, from “Shiny” to “Red Right Ankle” to “Summersong,” that anybody would be proud to have written. But at some point we’ll have to see whether they’re going to be remembered for more than singing about chimney sweeps.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine

So. Here you are. Thanks. Apologies in advance. For everything.

Gonna start things off real nice and highbrow: I took in some theater this past week. Seriously. Technically it was for school, but really that's only my excuse. You see, Dr. Wikander at UT managed to secure a small number of tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company's residency in Ann Arbor this week, and he offered them to his students first. I snapped one right up as quick as I could, and not just because I'm a literature dork. On this particular evening they were doing The Tempest, and the marquee star, doing his farewell tour with the RSC as Prospero, the retiring magician, was one Patrick Stewart.

That's right. Jean-Luc Freakin' Picard, in the flesh, hamming it up for the upper crust of the midwest. Good stuff. So much lovely pop-cultural resonance that you hardly know where to start. (Professor Charles Xavier, of X-Men, with his loyal army of mutants - how is he like Prospero with his spirits? Discuss.) What a lucky guy, Patrick Stewart, who took his stage training and admittedly awesome voice and did really, really well for himself out of American geek culture. But who can begrudge him? He totally carried Star Trek on his back for all those years - they'd never had a real actor before! - and he never passed up a chance to spout some Shakespeare whenever the galactic situation called for it. Does anybody remember him reciting Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech at Q, the scenery-chewing alien supervillain who just wouldn't leave the Enterprise alone? (From a certain angle, that whole series was about the enmity between those two. Discuss.) Picard's trying his best to defend the human race's interstellar reputation, so he pulls out this well-worn set piece - "in form and moving how express and admirable," and so forth. But here's the thing: Hamlet didn't really mean it. He was a miserable guy, he'd lost all his mirth, and he was being sarcastic in front of his college buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He wasn't any more fond of humanity than Q was. And it's only my surmise, but I think that Stewart knew this, and that it was he who insisted that Picard preface his speech by intoning "and what [Hamlet] said in irony, I say with conviction!" It was such an awkward, pedantic thing to say; nothing like what a Star Trek writer would have put there, but absolutely correct. I remember being very impressed by the whole thing, as a fifteen-year-old.

And it wasn't just Star Trek and X-Men! What about Gurney Halleck, from David Lynch's incomprehensible 80's Dune movie? Or Guinevere's Dad in John Boorman's bizarro Arthurian epic, Excalibur? Now that's a resumé. But put Dune and Excalibur together, and you just might have a story as ape-crazy-bananas as The Tempest.

What are we to make of this thing, now? It's beloved, we know, and not without reason, but what, exactly, is the deal? Shakespeare got a bit flaky there towards the end. He'd had a hell of a decade - who's had a better one? - doing stories about startlingly real people doing sort-of-realistic things while reciting some really staggering speeches. But as he wrapped up his career he wanted to do fairy tales and miracles. Was it just fashion? Because mostly it doesn't age well - only we specialists read A Winter's Tale or Cymbeline these days. But we have decided we love The Tempest - and I guess if you pin me down I can't blame us. Especially if it's got Captain Picard in it.

To begin with, they made it cold. That's almost perverse - so much of the poetry is about how lush and fertile Prospero's island is, but they set it in the Arctic. The set was made to look like fractured sheets of ice, and the shipwrecked characters spent the whole play shivering. And not only is it the Arctic, but it seems to be the American Arctic. The spirits chant in some lost tribal language, and Prospero is some kind of shaman; he summons the storm wearing a huge animal-skin robe with an elaborate pointy headpiece, his back to the audience. (It's an eerie moment that the play never quite lives up to.)

Ariel's not American - he's Goth. He's played as some sort of frost-demon in his white face-paint and floor-length Billy-Corgan-style trenchcoat, and he almost steals the show. The tense-but-productive relationship between him and Stewart's Prospero is the most convincing one onstage. He glides in and out of scenes without seeming to move his legs, and, in the show's one jaw-dropping moment, emerges dramatically out of the corpse of some kind of dead walrus-beast. (I wanted to check my text - where does it say "enter spirits with dead walrus?" I looked it up during the intermission; it turns out it was supposed to be a "banquet." I think Shakespeare would have dug the dead walrus.)

Anyway, Stewart is a bipolar kind of Prospero - he's erratic, he's moody. He's really powerful, and there's no telling what he'll do! His relationship with Miranda is sometimes touching and sometimes played for laughs. His most famous speech, "our revels now are ended," etc, is delivered in a state of distraction, half irritated, half in tears. Miranda un-selfconsciously hugs him when he hits "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," and it's a good, solid, lump-in-the-throat moment. The comic characters are not nearly funny enough for the amount of time they're onstage, but this is unavoidable. (Apparently this kind of thing was popular in 1610.) Ferdinand is a cipher, but that's how he's written. Antonio is a cipher of a villain, but that's how he's written. Alonso is confusing enough that he's kind of interesting, but he still doesn't make any sense. (He's sad his kid's dead, but not sad enough. He's happy his kid's alive, but not happy enough. And why is Prospero so eager to forgive him?) Sebastian is a little too good - he's one of those bad guys that Shakespeare couldn't resist giving the good lines to, and the actor made the most of it - but of course the character doesn't go anywhere.

And Caliban. What are we going to do about Caliban? We're stuck with him. He's a "thing of darkness," he's a slave who wants out, and you can't trust him with the white women. Shakespeare goes out of his way to make him not human - apparently he's kind of fish-like - but, honestly, does that really help the situation? He's a savage, created just about the time that white people started buying and selling them. All you can say in Shakespeare's defense is that at least Caliban's resentment is given to us bluntly, and at least he's allowed to speak in verse, which is more than can be said for his co-conspirators Stefano and Trunculo.

(Because the verse, after all, is why we care about this weird play, I suppose. "The isle is full of noises," and "I'll drown my book," and "our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." How can you argue with that? Especially me, who came at this thing all backwards - I got my Tempest and my Dante and my Ovid and my Spanish Tragedy and my Sanskrit when I was seventeen and fascinated with "The Waste Land." Eliot was trying to tell us that all of that was over, that he was the Last Word, but I guess I missed the point -- I remember those are pearls that were his eyes.)

...and do you remember the one where everybody thinks Data died in a shuttle accident but he's actually been kidnapped by some crazy gadget-collector guy? It's heartrending; everybody's in mourning. Picard is going through Data's personal effects, and he just can't help bringing Hamlet into it. "He was a man; take him for all in all," he muses. "I shall not look upon his like again." For sci-fi TV, a pretty effective, if pompous, moment -- especially since Data would be mightily flattered to be called a "man." But of course that's Hamlet on his late dad, which puts a whole new spin on the Picard-Data relationship. (And Data's miraculous "resurrection" has a real Shakespearean-romance flavor to it, doesn't it? "Weeping again the king my father's wrack..." We could do this all day.)

Which brings me back to the RSC, and the secret reason that Prospero and Ariel's labor-relations problem was so interesting. At the start of the last act, Prospero's got all of his enemies under his magical control; he can do whatever he wants to them, but he decides to be merciful and give everybody a happy ending. That's why it's a romance. It's hard to make this dramatic -- since nobody can really threaten Prospero, he's not much of a hero. You can make him tormented, like Stewart did. That's fine; it makes sense. But what they also did was unexpectedly make Ariel his conscience. It's there in the text, sort of -- Ariel does argue for mercy, and Prospero agrees. But this production really obviously made that moment the climax of the play. Ariel says: you know, if you could see how miserable these guys are now, your heart would just melt. Oh, do you think so? Prospero asks, and Stewart turns this into biting sarcasm; he doesn't believe it for a second. "Mine would," Ariel says, deadly serious, "were I [long pause] human." They stare at each other for about fifteen seconds, then Prospero starts weeping like a reformed drunk and talking about how he's going to kick the magic for good this time. Astonishing stuff, but especially astonishing because there had to be a significant part of the audience that, like me, was thinking: "Whoa! Ariel's Data!" He might be practically a god, but according to the creators of this show, (who must have watched Next Generation a time or two,) all Ariel wants is to be a real live boy. O strange new worlds, that have such people in them!