31 May 2005

Feliz CumpleaƱos

I'd like to continue to blame jetlag for my lack of productivity, but I'm sleeping just fine. The cause is something more insidious and painful--laziness, malaise, complacency. Throw in a three-day weekend and my birthday and I'm truly hopeless.

Speaking of birthdays, I've missed all kinds of them. So forgive me if you will. Speedy, Nils, whoever else. It's not that I don't care, it's just that I'm a bad person. But you probably already know that. So let's move on.

I recommend When We Were Kings--a 1996 documentary about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire--to anyone who cares one bit about personality and perspective. I've heard it before, but it took this li'l film to force the point: Ali was a one-of-a-kind. He captivates and entertains and mystifies like no other athlete had or will. His fearless interviews and unruly responses were both shocking and beautiful. Ali was a poet, even in an academic sense. Language obeyed his commands and words twisted to follow his jabs. It's sad to think that Ali would be devoured alive today. We simply can't handle brilliance anymore. We're afraid of athletes who say something beyond "We just need to play harder." We're petrified when an athlete exhibits political opinions. And if he were on the scene today, we'd call for Ali's head every time he opened his mouth. We've smoothed over his rough spots and his current physical condition paints an illusion of harmlessness. If it weren't for his deteriorating motor skills, I have no doubt that Ali would be tearing us all apart today. And I'd be loving every second of it.

22 May 2005

Where am I?

This is assuming that someone out there actually cares, but I'm sitting in a hotel room in Singapore right now. I've been in Thailand for the past week. And I guess that explains the lack of activity on this here blog. I'm sure this trip'll occupy more space than justifiable once I get over the jetlag. Until then…

12 May 2005

Singin' Along with the Shins

Maybe I'm getting old. Or maybe I've reached a new level of elitist snobbery. A zealous nirvana of sorts. But last night, I should have reached a furious froth. I should have been kicking walls and pulling on earlobes. Last night, the Shins played to a packed house at the University of Utah's Olpin Ballroom. I'd guess there were close to a thousand bodies packed into the poorly set-up scene. And I'd bet all my Jennifer Garner refrigerator magnets that most of them were born after 1985.

A year ago, I would have fumed. I would have mocked and insulted the li'l grommets. I would have intentionally stepped on ankles and made jokes about parents waiting to pick them up out front. But last night, I just laughed.

The Shins are a good band. They write fine songs. And they perform them capably. I'm happy for the Shins. If they can make some cash and strike while the iron's hot, more power to them. If this lets them quit their day jobs, outstanding. There are certainly worse things that the Shins getting a li'l play and paying some bills. For crying out loud, Maroon5 has had like 7 top 10 singles. If I want to get raged, I'll think about that injustice and crime against humanity. But the Shins don't merit my wrath. They released a superb debut and followed it up with an outstanding sophomore record. They really can't be blamed for dropping a few songs on a soundtrack and then promptly blowing up. There are greater forces at work.

One of the most disturbing/amusing developments of the last year is the marketing of the indie dork lifestyle. It's been written about (read a superb article here), discussed endlessly in hipster blogs, and even self-referenced on the show that many blame for the mainstream-ization of indie-ness, the O.C. And last night it hit me: it's never been more to cool to be a dork.

As a life-long semi-geek, it's a little disturbing. I'm still getting used to the idea that glasses are cool, that people wear them as fashion accessories. Really? I was mocked from kindergarten through high school for wearing glasses…and now they're cool? Wow. And bad hair and skinny clothes and shirts that don't fit…they're cool too? Well… ok… I guess.

You can see why I might get upset. It's not just my musical tastes that have hit the Billboard Top 100. It's my clothes, my shoes, my spectacles, my hair, my lingo, my lack of peak physical fitness, my friends. I'm just waiting for an inexplicable attraction to bacon to become fashionable.

My sister-in-law has a theory about the people who stand in the front rows at concerts. It's simple: Most front-rowers don't deserve to be there. Last night, the theory became law. It was fantastic. These kids are youngsters, so they can't be faulted for a lot of things. Nonetheless, I've gotta break down the front-row behavior.

Because the house was packed and the sound was generally bad from any spot in the "ballroom," we (K and I) took a post at the side of the stage. The view was outstanding and the sound wasn't any worse than anywhere else. But mostly, we had an uncluttered view of the front-row kids. Mostly, the shaggy-hair boys and skinny, straight-hair girls pogo-ed and stared at each other. Yeah, the band was playing, but they were more concerned with their peer status. "Look at me! I'm at the Shins! Oh my heck!" It was kinda cute actually. But two things floored me: 1) A newspaper photographer was snapping a few band candids and made the mistake of turning the camera on the kids. After he went back to the band, the kids spent the next 15 minutes hassling and begging him to take their picture--hanging over the railing, waving, yelling, etc. And, yes, the band was still playing. They're 4 feet from the Shins and they're dying for buried-in-nowhere coverage from the Daily Herald. And 2) I'm still laughing about this, but I watched a girl form the universal rock'n'roll hand signal and then she spent a solid 30 seconds grooming it. No joke. Inspecting her hand and arranging her fingers just so before she thrust her "Rock On!" out into the open. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Despite the comedic crowd action (and completely unnecessary sing-alongs--what is it with kids and sing-alongs? I just don't get it. Who sings this song? The Shins. That's what I thought. Let's keep it that way.), the Shins were solid. Like I mentioned, they're capable fellows. Still, I've been trying to figure out the problem with the show. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact shortcomings, but let me say this: The Shins need to get off the road. They know their songs too well. They're too comfortable with them. And whether they lack the skill, mischief or adventure required to dismantle and rediscover their catalog, or they're just plain road-weary, they need to take some time and figure out where they stand. They plowed through song after song without any noticeable improvements or diversions. Nearly every song was album-quality. Some a li'l better, some a li'l worse--but no thrilling departures.

And that might be the underlying void--there's no tension at a Shins show. The crowd is pleased just to be able to tell their friends they were there (or to text-message their friends while the band is playing an encore--saw girls in the front row doing just that). And the band is content to play their hits and semi-hits and collect some cash. I don't blame the Shins for making a li'l bread and quitting their day jobs. In the end, a break is a break and taking advantage of it may make them a better band. But for now, there's no drama. I never felt like things might spin out of control. I'm a biased Wilco-head, but at several points in a Wilco show, I'm afraid that one misstep could lead to a full-blown implosion and that the roof might fall in on my head. Not so with the Shins. The closest thing to danger is the fear that the chubby keyboardist might keep on talking well into the night.

This isn't to say that there were no highlights. New Slang is still a great song. And I couldn't help but feel a touch jealous of the under-20 crowd to whom the song seemed to mean so much. They've taken Natalie Portman at her word and pretend to grasp the even the difficult lines: "Godspeed all the bakers at dawn/May they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns." What's James Mercer saying? No one knows, but gee, it sure sounds pretty. And the blistering closer "So Says I" with the unparalled "Woo-hoo-ooh-hoo" payoff even had this leadfooted jerk tapping his toes and bobbing his head.

There's hope for the Shins. Mercer is a fantastic singer with a voice that creeps into what the Am Idol judges would call the "upper register" and the band plays a tight set. The keyboard player needs someone to stand behind him and whisper "Less talk, more rock, son" but that's a cosmetic fix. Worse bands have risen to greater heights. The Shins are still infants and perhaps I should cut them some slack. But it's no sin to hold an artist (or band) to a higher standard based on phenomenal studio work.

The Shins just need to be brave. They can cut away and build back up. They can rinse and repeat. If I can smile through a night of improbable indie marketing and shaggy-haired head flips (gotta keep the mop outta the eyes and perfectly flipped), then anything is possible.

10 May 2005

The Difficulty of Starting Smoking

Last week, I found out that I smoke. Normally, this sort of news isn't news. Normally, you know when you smoke. The rough-looking lady in the 1978 Ford pick-up--she smokes the unfiltered goodness to the tune of a pack-and-a-half a day--and no one ever has to remind her. I, on the other hand, needed a phone call to figure out that I smoke…and therefore will have quite a bit of trouble getting life insurance.

Now that I've got a wife and a two-year-old, the responsible thing to do is to pick a li'l life insurance and take care of my crew. So I've tried to do just that. Actually my wife has set the whole thing up. Made the calls. Answered the questions. Even woke up early a couple Saturdays ago, filled a cup with urine and let a nurse draw a couple vials of blood. I was feeling all right about the situation. I was feeling like a man taking care of his family.

Then I got the fateful call. "You have tested positive for nicotine." Hmmm. The (not-so) funny part is that I don't smoke. Never have. Never sparked up a Marlboro, or a stogie, or a pipe. All I can think is, "This is what I get for spending my formative years in Taft, CA--a burned out oil town 35 miles outside of Bakersfield. (yes, there are places 'outside' of Bakersfield. And, oh yeah, they are incrementally more depressing.) Seriously. All that community secondhand smoke from 1987 to 1994 must have really done some damage.

So the insurance company won't budge. A positive test is a positive test. Even if you're positive by two one-hundredths of a point. Even if you've never smoked a fleck of tobacco. Even if you have signed affidavits from everyone you've ever met. Even if you had your upstairs neighbor evicted for piping her foul cigarette smoke into your apartment.

They say the first step to recovery is admission. So here it is: I'm a smoker. A sad, uninsurable smoker who enjoys none of the narcotic effects of his preferred drug.

07 May 2005

Dia de la Madre

Tomorrow is Mother's Day and all I can say is it's about time. I could drag this out for a couple thousand words or so, but let me do it like this:

Moms rule.

For 29ish years, my mom has put up with the worst. Eight kids. I'll say it again: Eight kids. Now, she even admits that she must have been crazy. And she kinda was. She did things that still don't make a lot of sense. Like dragging me out of 3rd grade to go home and make my bed. Or like telling my brother that if he didn't finish his oatmeal, she'd feed it to him through his ear…and then doing exactly that. Or like playing connect-the-dots with my sister's freckles. But I'm gonna cut her some slack. Why?

Because I remember that she held me and let my cry it out when I was four and the other kids left me in the dust on my big wheel. Because she taught me to ride a killer bike with a banana seat. Because she helped me believe that there was hope for a 13-year-old with glasses AND braces AND a spelling bee title. Because she endured my senseless 17-year-old rage when I misplaced some ridiculous necklace and blamed it on her 'cuz she had cleaned my room earlier in the week. Because when I returned from living in a third-world country, she ran to the gate yelling "My boy! My boy!" Because she gives an old school Tonka Mighty Dump truck to all her grandsons. And most of all, I forgive the third-grade embarrassment because she's my mom and I love her.

06 May 2005

Alias has LOST it.

Puns are never funny. But sometimes--and only sometimes--they are accurate. It's just something we have to live with. (Tangent alert--why say "no pun intended"? Of course the pun was intended. And if it wasn't, why call attention to it now? I have a friend who decided to follow just about every sentence with "no pun intended" and a wink. Pure comedy. Try it. Watch people dig for the pun.) On to the topic.

I've seen every episode of Alias. Every single one. I watched the pilot in the Fall of 2001--one of the flashiest, catchiest, sexiest pilots in the history of pixelated viewing. So…I think I can speak with a li'l bit of cred when I say that I'm considering giving up Sydney Bristow. For good. Cold turkey. Will it hurt? Some. But not nearly as much as it should.

For two full seasons, Alias was the best show on television. At least on my television. 24 was hot and Jack Bauer has no equal, but Sydney Bristow was un-freaking-touchable. Some elements of the show were unfathomable--primarily the idea that this show came from they guy behind Felicity. But the leaps of logic were forgivable. Shocking red wigs and frantic costume changes kept my attention occupied. More than anything, however, the drama was not dramatic. Jennifer Garner somehow kept Syd grounded in everyday. And, for two seasons, I couldn't stop watching this grad student turned spy turned double agent turned confused daughter.

I applauded every twist. I sucked up every Rimbaldi mindbender. I thought my left arm fell off when Lena Olin appeared as Syd's mother at the end of season 1 and pumped a bullet into Syd's shoulder. And…I fell in love. Not with Jennifer Garner (or Syd, although it was tempting), but I fell in love with a story. A fragile, twenty-something utterly confused by her surroundings and struggling to establish some sort of familial identity. Someone my age unable to keep up with it all.

And nothing could match the Sydney's realization at the end of season 2--a two-year period had been wiped from her mind. Everything had changed. Vaughn was married to a woman my friends and I would soon refer to as "Horseface" and Syd was more alone than she had ever been. I hesitate to draw any sweeping parallels, but Syd's situation spoke to a broader condition. Modernist writers struggled to express the senseless devastation of World War I and the growing difficulty of real, personal communication. Not that JJ Abrams is T.S. Eliot, but Syd's growing disorientation seems to express the disillusionment and confusion of Gen X, especially in a global community teeming with enemies and no clear-cut bad guys.

So where did it go wrong? Why would I discard a show I love? I don't know for sure. In fact, writing about it now makes me want to hold on and grab every remaining thread of intensity. But my desire is waning. My pulse fails to quicken in the critical moments. The bottom line: This show isn't about Sydney anymore. Sure, she plays a prominent role and Jennifer Garner has a contract extension with ABC through 2008, but Alias is too concerned with fringe characters and subplots to hand the keys back to the woman behind the wheel. Nadia? Yeah, right--a girl like that would definitely go out with chubby slob Weiss. Vaughn searching for his father? Who cares (even if it did involve a clever twist at the end of the interminable mini-arc). Proto-Sloane? Really? A look-alike? Of Sloane? Yikes.

When I saw the first episode of LOST, I thought this would happen. LOST is a new challenge for Abrams and his crew. A fresh story with infinite possibilities. And while LOST is still in season 1 honeymoon bliss, it's everything I want Alias to be. It's creepy and beautiful and sad and uplifting. The characters are wonderful and the acting is first-rate. And it succeeds where Alias fails. While Alias continues to wander and drift to secondary characters, LOST is beginning to hone its scope. Each episode features the backstory of one character. Some have featured lesser characters like Hurley and Charlie, but the most powerful and consistent episodes have focuse on Jack, Sawyer, Locke, and Kate--the very souls of LOST. Hopefully, JJ Abrams won't forget about them.

Is there hope? I hope so. I miss Sydney. Most of all, I miss the way I felt about her. I miss Will Tippin. I miss thinking Vaughn was el hombre furioso. I miss wishing Jack would give his daughter a hug. I miss hoping Sloane would die a slow and painful death. I miss season 1. I miss season 2. I miss parts of season 3. And, like a frightened twentysomething with a wife, a 2-year-old, a partially-rewarding career, and no clue how I'm going to survive the next 40 years…I'm just as confused as ever.

05 May 2005

Temporary means permanent for now.

First things first: Blogs are finished. Over. Is there anything more uncool than starting a blog? And on 05-05-05? It's doubtful. Well…what's done is done and things can only get better from here. Let's not pretend anything great will come of this. Two things will happen--I'll write and my handsome family will pretend to read (if only to avoid my wrath at some future birthday party).

I have no further ambitions. I'm not Seth Godin. I'm not John Darnielle. I'm not BatGirl. And I'm certainly not the inimitable Paul Shirley. I'm just a corporate hack somehow stranded in the borderlands of Salt Lake City. Two steps to the right and I'm lost in the UC (that's Utah County…infinitely more distressing than the sunshine wonderland of Seth Coen's dreams).

So without any ground rules and only a handful of wit, let's spin this record.