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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal

Sunday, November 30, 2008:

I just finished reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is fantastic. It's a justly-lauded book that manages to effortlessly conflate two topics: the design and construction of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the grisly acts of H. H. Holmes, who is by some estimates America's most prolific serial killer (and whose busiest period took place at his own World's Fair Hotel in Chicago). Looking at that description, it might be easy to guess which of the two tales is the more action-packed, but although Larson displays a sharp eye for narrative cliffhangers, his wit, storytelling acumen, and respect for the reader's intelligence will have you turning the pages on the Fair--and, say, its landscape shrubbery--just as quickly as the parts on Holmes.

Furthermore, although I generally dislike the entire genre of true crime for its rubbernecking over the details of other people's misery, Larson knows how to keep things tasteful without sacrificing excitement, and adopts a sympathetic (rather than leering) tone when the specifics are unavoidable. That's a big selling point for me, at any rate.

Here's my favorite passage: "As always, [Fair director Daniel Burnham] longed for Margaret. She was out of the city but due back for the opening. 'I will be on the look out for you, my dear girl,' he wrote. 'You must expect to give yourself up when you come.' For this buttoned-up age, for Burnham, it was a letter that could have steamed itself open." Ha!

And of course, for companion reading, Chris Ware's peerless (yet peerlessly sad and eyestrain-inducing) graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is partially set against the backdrop of the fair's construction.

*     *     *

Tim, a bunch of Tim's friends, and I went to see the Electric Six in Detroit last night at St. Andrew's Hall. (Juli was there somewhere as well, but I couldn't locate her.) The sound was messy as fuck and we had to sit through grunge-era leftovers Local H slinging their godawful mishegoss for about a week before the Six took the stage, but once they did, all was well. After a couple quick opening numbers (in which Dick Valentine one-upped James Brown by dramatically twirling and shedding two spangly capes, one reading "Flashy" and one reading "Showtime"), the band fell into a satisfying assortment of rock singalongs from all five of their records. None of the songs sounded particularly different from the studio versions, but on highlights like "Gay Bar," "I Buy the Drugs," and "Germans in Mexico," the band plowed along with admirable enthusiasm to match the crowd's. Valentine's stage presence especially is every bit as hilarious as his lyrics, whether he was delivering an absurdly lengthy apology for playing "Rock and Roll Evacuation" (with its classically stupid anti-Bush sentiment, "Mr. President, I don't like you/You don't know how to rock!") at this time in history or simply striking a series of goofy, grinning catalog poses during the songs' instrumental parts.

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I am not easily moved to dance, but last night was different because you must obey the Dance Commander. I wished Bev had been there to dance with. I specifically wished she'd taken the place of the guy whose version of "dancing" consisted solely of pelvic thrusts. Even when there was no music playing.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Boring World of Niels Bohr, a mix Tim made me.
CURRENT MOOD:
Amused beyond all reason at destroyalltacos' "Photos of TV Ripoff" series. (He just takes photos of things his television tells him to look at, and it's fascinating. It's based on Mike Sacks doing the same thing, but is more discerning, to my eye.)
CURRENT FAVORITE LINE FROM THE WATCHMEN:
"I don't want to be Devo!" Oh Nite Owl, we're all Devo!
TIME:
4:36 p.m.

Doot? | |

Sunday, November 23, 2008:

Outside Noodles & Company on State Street, a girl passing out flyers asked, "Are you going to Noodles?"

I've decided that "going to noodles" is a pretty apt description of how it feels when your brain is deteriorating beneath strata of contradictory emotions, stress, and regret. As Lisa pointed out, "going to pieces" still suggests a certain orderliness; individual shards with sharp, defined edges. The suggestion is that you could glue everything back together again, given time. "Going to noodles," on the other hand, removes the possibility of reassembly, if only because it's practically impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins when you're staring at a plate of pasta.

Sometimes you get lucky and it results in an unduplicable Lady and the Tramp moment that you could never have predicted.

Sometimes you wind up chasing that last slippery noodle around your plate with a fork and you ultimately throw it away rather than having to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to pin it down with your tines.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Concussive Caress, or Casey Caught Her Mom Singing Along with the Vacuum by The Blow.
CURRENT MOOD:
Ordinary.
DAD'S CURRENT PRONUNCIATION OF LAURA LINNEY'S NAME:
"Lana Landry."
TIME:
9:15 a.m.

Doot? | |

Sunday, November 16, 2008:

I'm living in Ann Arbor again, working for Math Reviews, this time for the forseeable future. It's taken me awhile to get around to this post because I really don't have the words to get into all that went into my decision when Tracy offered me a permanent copy editing job, and although I love and trust everyone who reads this thing, there are still some details I don't feel comfortable posting for consumption by the paparazzi and G-men who scrutinize my every move. So I'm going to gloss over it except to say that Bev has been a total saint about me moving back. This isn't a separation in the "we're on a break" sense; it's merely a geographic one. And although it's terribly painful to be away from her right now, I am confident that this is where I need to be for the time being, and that this will make us stronger in the long run. For the past three years, Bev has worked tirelessly to make a beautiful, comfortable home for me in Bangor, and she succeeded. I wish I could have picked up our house and Cora and my sweetie and moved them all with me, but Bev feels that she belongs in Maine every bit as strongly as I feel that I belong in Michigan right now. We will make it work, because love transcends distance and because Tim Gunn's advice is always correct.

I've sublet an apartment from a girl named Kristen, who works for Google and is transferring to Chicago. She is one of the nicest people I've ever encountered, and she and her boyfriend, Patrick, did literally everything they could have to make this a nice new place for me, from helping me move a sofa to extending an open invitation to Google's free employee luncheons. I also like my building. The hallways are dark and Barton Fink-like, which suits me just fine, and apart from the odd whiff of microwaved fish, there would seem to be an awful lot of interesting and adventurous chefs on my floor. Lots of nice smells.

For my part, I was initially concerned that I was going to irritate the hell out of my new neighbors with the chirping and tweeting of Novi the cockatiel and Gormley and Goldklang the parakeets, who accompanied me on my trip. By hilarious coincidence, though, the apartment directly next to mine is occupied by Violeta the Math Reviews copy editor, who works right across the room from me! Upon making this discovery, she immediately asked me, "Do you have birds?" Thankfully, she finds them musical and not stress-inducing.

The drive from Maine to Michigan was an exhausting slog through New York state; areas in which it wasn't even possible to absorb local color through the magic of AM radio. I wound up scanning the FM dial for the first time in years, bypassing cautious midtempo single after cautious midtempo single, trying to catch snippets of culture from NPR, which unfortunately wound up meaning the stuffy witlessness of The Prairie Home Companion and a reading of Elizabeth Crane's "Ad" on Selected Shorts that was so determined not to let any trace of humor escape its leaden delivery that it reminded me of my high school forensics club. I'd never before listened to Selected Shorts, though if "Ad"'s unsubtle monologuing is typical of the program, I thought it would be really funny if NPR started taking advantage of the safe harbor hours to broadcast an erotica-based spinoff, featuring starched-shirt recitations from the Penthouse Forum by, say, Cady Huffman or Miguel Ferrer.

I have already had to turn one couch cushion upside-down thanks to spilling food on it. (Not my fault; leaky bowl.)

Noa, my new friend Ann (who works downstairs with Noa), and I went to see Rachel Getting Married yesterday. The more I think about it, the better I think it was, and it is a movie you'll think about afterward, if only to discern the meaning of certain shots or characters' actions. For my taste, it's Jonathan Demme's best film since Stop Making Sense, and easily his best narrative one. The story is simple: Anne Hathaway gets out of rehab, only to be thrown into the agonizing, sprinting sensory overload of the run-up to her sister's wedding, and we follow her closely as she attempts to deal with it all. The characters frequently speak in allusions to events only from their shared frame of reference, and Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet dole out the explanations deliberately and conservatively, when they arrive at all. Sometimes, instead of explanations, you simply get sequences of tertiary characters interacting, making toasts, or dancing. And if you take the time to connect the dots of the story's ellipses, the film is a portrait of familial love and drama that runs far deeper than anything you get in the pat quirkiness of, say, Little Miss Sunshine.

The wedding itself is a pick-and-choose multicultural fantasy; the family seemingly has unlimited resources with which to host the big day, and rather than splurging on a People magazine orgy of bigger and fancier things, Demme envisions a more communal experience in which the attendees can participate in an all-hands-in cutting of a beautiful, blue, Indian-inspired cake, belly dance at the reception, or enjoy a command performance by indie-psychedelic genius Robyn Hitchcock. Ann was put off by what she saw as self-congratulatory and superficial co-opting of meaningful cultural touchstones, which I think is a fair interpretation, but I personally saw it as a sweet celebration of all the forms love takes around our globe. Despite its many, many intense moments of squirmy familial discomfort, Rachel Getting Married never lets you believe the Buchmans are fractured beyond repair. Very sweet film.

After the movie and some yummy Thai food, I left Ann and Noa to go to Jess's birthday paty that her coworkers had organized. It was being held at Melange, a wretched wine-based club that Jess described as a post-grad hookup bar. You can imagine how pleasant it was. Jess danced and Tim and I pressed ourselves against the wall and talked about Nintendo games as best we were able while the DJ continued playing from his hip-hop compilation Songs That Should Not Be. Jess obviously couldn't leave because it was her party, but Tim could, so after about an hour, he and I took off to the Old Town Brewery, where things were far quieter (even if the absence of thumping Puff Daddy tracks meant we had to listen to a litany of Jackie Martling-level Sarah Palin jokes from the tiresome, "proudly politically incorrect" pseudo-iconoclast next to me). After awhile, I took off and Tim had to go back to the club. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a text message reading, "Oh God! It burns!" It's always nice to see Tim and Jess, in any circumstance, so I'm not sorry I went. I'm just sorry Melange exists.

I think that catches you up!

CURRENT MUSIC: Eugene von Beethoven's 69th Sin Funny by Camper Van Chadbourne. Way to make one of my favorite bands completely unlistenable, there, Eugene Chadbourne.
CURRENT MOOD:
Lack. But in the Ikea sense.
CURRENT FAVORITE SPIRITUAL QUOTATION:
"The point is not the communication of truth, but truth itself. No one should ever say, 'Come hear this speaker,' but rather, 'There is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you.' Or not saying anything at all and loving someone." --John Campbell, Pictures for Sad Children
TIME:
5:15 p.m.

Doot? | |

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