Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ten Years Ago...

Ten years ago...

I had just declared bankruptcy. Moved in with my brother because I had nowhere else to go. I had just gotten a new job which was going really well - my first year in the nonprofit world.

I can't remember exactly what I was doing, but I think my brother and I just stayed in and watched the fireworks on tv. Or else I had gone somewhere to sing karaoke with a bunch of drunken strangers for New Year's, hoping to get lucky.

The WTO protests had just happened in Seattle, and everyone was feeling a little edgy. Seattle's New Year's celebrations were scaled dramatically. The fireworks went off as planned, but Seattle Center was shut down to the public. Some guy named Ahmed Ressam had been caught smuggling explosives on a ferry into Washington State, and he said he was planning to blow up LAX.

What a difference a decade makes. Happy New Year to all of my beloved readers.  

Albums of the Year - 2009

It's the end of the year, so let's do a frigging list!

Sometime, if I get around to it next week, I may put together a list of my favorite albums of the decade. But for now, here's my fave albums of two-diggity-diggity-nine. In no particular order. (That's not really true.)

It's an idiosyncratic list. It's only the albums I actually heard. So while some people thought Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective or Pearl Jam or the Dirty Projectors produced the best album of the year, I never got to hear them all the way through. So I can't judge. (To be fair, the Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective were two bands that I chose not to check out. They weirded me out a little bit.)

Now that I said that, I'm going to break my own rule with the first selection. That being:

I started the year not knowing who this woman was, and ended up the year fascinated by her. I haven't heard half of this album. Doesn't matter. Lady Gaga is one of the strangest and most interesting people in music today.

Wilco - Wilco (the Album)

Predictable, sure. (After all, they did borrow my name for their previous album.) But I really loved this album. They continue to produce sweet, introspective songs like "One Wing" and "You and I", and added some new classics like "You Never Know" and "I'll Fight." A great album, all the way through.

St. Vincent - Actor

This was such a delightful surprise for me. The combination of those lovely orchestral flourishes and snarling, scuzzy guitar really won me over. Saw her on Austin City Limits, and it did absolutely nothing to remove my crush on Annie Clark.

Taken by Trees -
East of Eden

Another surprise. Waif-like singer goes to Pakistan and ... what? Devours Pakistani music in a Graceland-like colonization? Tosses her vocals onto someone else's music like Jay-Z did with that Panjabi MC song? (Which I love, for the record.) No, instead this is a glorious merging of beautiful songs and sublime instrumentation. A gorgeous merging of styles.

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis - Kitty, Daisy & Lewis

Thanks to TBTL for turning me on to this album. It's pure, old-timey fun music, full of old novelty songs and slide guitars and harmonica and hand clap percussion. Love this one.

thenewno2 - You Are Here

This was a real surprise for me. I listened to it because Dhani Harrison was on Sound Opinions. I was intrigued by the sound of the music, picked up the album, and loved it. It's right in that sweet spot between rock and electronica. Memorable songs, interesting and unexpected hooks. A band to watch.

Lunch Money - Dizzy!

That's right, I put a kid's album on the list. Lunch Money is completely awesome. They write effortlessly hooky songs that your kid can sing and will cause him/her to jump around the house like a maniac. Any band that sings out loud about how much they love their library gets my vote.

Seriously, go listen to these guys. Go listen to "Tiny Dinosaurs" or "I Love My Library" or "It Only Takes One Night to Make a Balloon Your Friend" and see if you're not grinning. I love Lunch Money.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Metric - Fantasies
"Help I'm Alive" and "Sick Muse" were probably some of my most-played songs this year.

Passion Pit - Manners

Dark Was the Night - Various Artists

Biggest disappointment of the year: Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

I loved American Idiot, and I wanted so badly to love this album. But I've listened to it a couple of times and just gotten bored by it. They took all the wrong lessons from American Idiot. It sounds like show tunes and Hot Topic faux punkrawk and has the whiff of desperation. Omigod, we have a niche! Quick, let's plug something else into the niche before someone else does it! Sorry guys, I ain't buying it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Books for Dads

I was asked recently if I knew any good storybooks for kids that involved dads. It's a much harder question than you would think.

Fathers are given the short end of the stick in kid's books. Often, mothers are the only parent in sight, and fathers don't even exist in the book. Moms cook the dinner, moms play with their kids, moms tuck in their child at night. Where's dad? Oh, he must be working.

Sadly, when fathers are a part of the book, they're often portrayed as pathetically as they are in sitcoms: bumbling, disinterested, or just not involved at all. Look at the Olivia books, just for one example. What does dad ever do in those books besides read a newspaper?

Or else, they're about dads working. There are an amazing number of books out there that feature dads, but the story involves dad going away for a business trip and how much the kids will miss daddy when he's gone. So we're present in our absence.

And then there's all the divorced dad books - "Weekend with Daddy"-type stories. And I'm not complaining, because for all the dads out there in that situation, it's great for them to have something that reflects their reality. But there's not enough books that reflect the other reality - real fathers, as a part of the daily routine in the house just like moms are.

But there are a number of books that show dads in a positive light. I especially love finding books where dads are the caretakers - we tuck our kids in at night, we solve problems, we comfort our kids when they're upset. Because that's what we do, in real life, all the time. Here's a partial list of my favorites, along with suggestions I've gotten from friends. I can't vouch for all the books, but I wanted to provide the longest list possible. Let me know about your favorite books about dads in the comments, and I'll keep the list going.

Night Driving, by John Coy and Peter McCarty. This is my #1 favorite book about dads. It's the story of a boy and his dad driving cross-country at night. The pictures are beautiful and the bond between the father and son is really touching.

Other suggestions:
This is meant to be a partial list. Tell me in the comments about the books I missed. What are your favorite books featuring real dads?

More suggestions from readers:

Two Old Potatoes and Me (suggested by the author himself, John Coy!)
"Two Old Potatoes and Me is the story of a girl and her father planting potatoes and I think you'd enjoy both the story and the art."

On Our Way Home - suggested by anonymous commenter
"An outstanding book about a little bear and his Daddy on a hike. No mentions of absence or anything other than special time with Dad. For a bonus, Daddy tucks the little bear in at the end."

Some Dogs Do - suggested by JustineR
"'Some Dogs Do' is about a little dog who has a bad day, and his father is the comforting one. Mother dog doesn't even have a speaking role."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Christmas Present to Remember

I have to share the amazing feat I just witnessed.

Oliver got a lovely present from his grandmother - a copy of "The Night Before Christmas." It's one of those books that Hallmark sells where you can record your own voice reading the book. It's pretty clever. The pages all have sensors on them, so every time you turn the page, her voice begins reading the words on the page.

And he loves it. He's listened to it probably a dozen times in the last two days, over and over again. And one time, we saw him listening to it, and we noticed something interesting. After grandma was done reading her page, he would repeat everything she just said, word for word.

So tonight, he listened to it one more time as his bedtime story. And then he had me read it. But here's what happened. He started reciting the story along with me, so I started reading lines and then stopping to let him finish the line.

And then he took over. He started reciting the poem from the names of the reindeer - "On Dasher! On Dancer!" - all the way to the end, on his own. I didn't have to prompt him once. We just watched him, jaws hanging open, while he delivered the entire poem all the way to the end. All I could do was turn the pages, one by one, and stare at him. He didn't skip a single word.

That is a complicated poem, full of long sentences and quirky words. And he just rolled right through it, like he was doing Mary Had a Little Lamb.   It was one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Toasted Marshmallow Confusion

I ordered a vanilla latte, and the guy obviously grabbed the wrong bottle of syrup. So I ended up unexpectedly with a toasted marshmallow latte.

The taste was at once bewildering - delightfully pleasurable, and completely disarming at the same time. Every time I took a sip, my mouth would react like "Mmmmm. Wait, what the hell is going on here?" The flavor was that cottony delicious sugar rush of marshmallow, with just a hint of charcoal and caramelization. It was a strong enough flavor to completely overwhelm the taste of coffee. I don't know what kind of chemicals they put into that syrup to generate those sensations, but it's amazingly lifelike.

Drinking a toasted marshmallow out of a cup feels completely wrong to the senses. It's like petting a shadow on the head, or tucking a sunbeam under your pillow, or listening to the pages of a book.

That being said, it was delicious.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Workout Playlist - Dec. 6, 2009

A brutal workout today. I recently created a 40-minute routine on the elliptical machine, which might not sound like a lot to you hardcore workouty types. But it's absolutely punishing to me. And at the same time, incredibly satisfying. I'm dripping with sweat and endorphins right now.

Anyway, the playlist today was just fantastic.

Open Letter (to a Landlord) - Living Colour
Cult of Personality - Living Colour
Innervision - System of a Down
Zero - Smashing Pumpkins
Ashes in the Fall - Rage Against the Machine
Date with the Night - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Loud, crushing old-school rawk music full of roaring guitars and screaming vocals. The two exceptions were hip hop songs that both hit like a punch to the jaw. The Kanye song is the perfect right-in-your face song, one of his best. Jagged samples and a weaving, swaggering delivery by Kanye. And that Paris song is just perfection. Great flow, military-precision scratching, relentless beat. One of the greatest rap songs produced in the '80s, maybe ever.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher

I know very little about this case.  I have avoided stories of this story feverishly, even though it is a story that touches many of my neighbors.  Even though the accused lives in the same city, the same neighborhood, as my family.  However, I feel called to talk about it because it is so close to home, literally and figuratively.  

I have avoided this story the way I avoid all stories of murder:  gruesome murder, celebrity murder, exploitative stories about murder, tragic stories about murder.  I avoid these stories.  I don't watch movies that talk cavalierly about murder, or movies like Pulp Fiction that use dead bodies as a punch line.  I wince at the way murder is treated in this country, and especially in the news.

So I did not seek out and I do not wish to know more about the Amanda Knox story:  about her alibi, her claims of innocence.  I do not wish to hear the cries from her family that she could not possibly have done something like this.  I do not want to know.  I don't follow murder stories.  

My brother was murdered fourteen years ago, you see.  (Some of my longtime readers have heard me talk about this before.)  We found out weeks after it had happened.  They found my father's address in his personal effects and were able to track him down, and they called him to identify the body of his son.  

One of the killers was found and arrested, years later.  He went to trial.  I was asked to attend as a witness.  I saw photos of my brother's body, taken at the morgue, depicting the blows that ended his life.  I saw the evidence of what had been done to him.  I saw these things and I wish that I never had.

I saw the man who was accused of murdering my brother.   I heard the prosecutor and a witness to the crime describe the things that had been done to end my brother's life.  I heard his attorney offer alibis, explanations, reasons why their client could not possibly have done these horrible things.

I met his family, the murderer's family.  They couldn't understand how such a mistake could have happened.  They were upset, angry, confused, and they know their son was innocent.  They just knew it.  He wasn't that kind of person. 

He was found guilty by a jury of his peers, and was sentenced to life in prison.  I have not seen him since that trial and I don't know if I will ever see his face again, except in my dreams, except when I want to think about my brother and instead, I see the ruddy face of the man who took his life.

So no, I don't want to know more about Amanda Knox' situation.  I don't want to know the holes in the prosecution's case.  I don't want to know the alternative theories of how the murder transpired.  It's not that I dislike Ms. Knox or that I've prejudged her.  I just don't want to know any more.  I can't do it.  I choose to just close my eyes and let the system do its job.   

I know this, however.  I know that Italy is a nation of laws, a nation with a legitimate government.  I know that Knox' trial was not conducted by reading goat entrails or casting runes.  I know that her trial was carried out in a legitimate court.  And if the jury said that she was guilty, then I have to believe that she was guilty.  A person was murdered.  Meredith Kercher's family deserves justice.  I will not, I dare not question the judgment of that Italian jury.  It is not my right.  None of us has that right except the judge and the men and women who made up that jury.  That's how it works.   

I believe that the jury who convicted my brother's murder carried out their role and meted out justice.  I believe that the jury who convicted Amanda Knox did the same.  I have to believe that.  There are so many murders in this country and around the world that go unsolved, their perpetrators left to roam free, the families of the victims left with gaping wounds in their hearts.  I have to believe that justice was carried out here, and I do believe that.  It is disrespectful to Meredith Kercher's family, to that jury, and to the entire country of Italy to claim otherwise.  

And that's all I can say about that.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

And so it begins...

I bought a scale. Yep, finally.

So you're probably wondering - how do I know I'm overweight if I don't own a scale? What was all this sturm-und-dranging about if I don't even know how much I weigh?

I didn't owned a scale for ten years, until now. The truth is that I was relying on doctor's scales, which of course means I was being weighed with clothes on. And my big ol' clodhopper shoes, which probably weigh two pounds each. But still, I was weighing in 10-15 pounds heavier than I had ever been before, even in a doctor's office, even with all my clothes on.

So I bought a scale so that I could actually weigh myself daily and measure my progress. Now I have an actual baseline of where I'm at and how far I need to go.

And like I'm said, I'm serious about this. So I'm 'fessing up right here. This morning, I weighed myself first thing in the morning, right before hopping into the shower.

My actual verified weight, as of 6:00 this morning, was ...

ulp ...

210 pounds.

I want to get down to 190. That's twenty pounds by next June.

My original goal was to lose 30 pounds, back when I thought I weighed more than I did. I'm going to see how quickly I can shed the first 20, and I'll see if I want to go for the extra ten.

I realize I've started this diet, or whatever, at the worst possible time - right during the overeating holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was relatively good during Thanksgiving, largely aided by the fact that I was sick as a dog with a chest cold. But I was careful with the turkey, doled out my portions and weighed them dutifully on our little kitchen scale, and plugged them into my LoseIt app. At the end of the day, I only went over my goal by only 75 calories. I considered that a good day.

I was under for the week of Thanksgiving by over 400 calories, and that's pretty good. Again, I was sick, but I'll take it. Progress is progress.