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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: April 8-April 17, 2004

Saturday, April 17, 2004:

I'm writing this on Friday night, but it won't be posted until at least Saturday because I have to wait for the Ameritech guy to come fix the phone line I use for my modem. Did you know there's an amusing little box behind your house that contains "test jacks" which can help you determine if your phone problems are your own stupid fault or those of the phone company? It's mildly fun to hook up a phone in your backyard to test it. It's less fun if you have to clumsily kick the branches off a shrub that's blocking your access to said box, but... well, it was a nice day to fiddle with fiberoptics in the yard, at any rate.

Anyway, I was looking through boxes of my old stuff, in search of that incompetent interview I conducted with James McNew for YAFE, when I came across the journal my second-grade teacher made me keep during the moments when she needed a respite from us rugrats. (I do indeed save everything. If you've ever written me a letter or note, or otherwise given me anything, I can guarantee you I still have it.) As far as I'm able to tell, my teacher never even looked at this thing despite her promise on the first page that "I am the only person who will read it. I will also write back to you." This may or may not have been an Operation TIPS-style attempt to find out if anything fishy was going on in the students' homes. But I pretty much stuck to making crap up and talking about television. It's a good thing I outgrew that, huh?

So here are a few of the more noteworthy entries, to illustrate the gestation of this loathsome creature I am today. Comments from 2004 Willie are in brackets:

10-2-87: Now we have a leak in our roof! My brother dropped his yo-yo in the toilet, his kazoo also, my dad used it and the toilet went fzugurfzgurglfzzzzzgurgle---- and then... BLOOEY! CRASH! My dad backed up and fell into the bathtub full of water and he went: gurgle! The yo-yo and the kazoo went straigt up-up-up trogh the roof and my dad is still up there looking for them and our house is flooded! f-l-o-o-d-e-d flooded! Bye-Bye journal for today!

10-22-87: Well, It's almost Halloween and if one more day goes by I am going to faint! You see, when I was a kid (I mean about 5 years old) I was (not that I don't now) so exited... Hey! That remids me of a song!.. Well... Back to the point I was so exited my stomach gets all sorta' jumpy and I have to pee! Heh-heh! [The entry from 10-26-87 is then spent writing down all the lyrics I could remember to "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters, which was later popularized by Jessie Spano. The entry from 12-9-87 also consists largely of the lyrics to that song. Good grief- so does the entry of 12-16-87. I must've learned the song from Alvin & the Chipmunks or something, because I don't think my parents had any Pointer Sisters records. Luckily, in February, I move on to "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics.]

1-11-88: Well, my predictiion was right. The tigers went to the playoffs, but they didn't make it to the world sieries. I went to Tim Georgen's birthday party on the 9th. It was a sleepover. We went to bed at 10:23 but we didn't go to sleep really until 1:54. Acually I went to sleep at 1:54. I was keeping them awake...well... so was Rob. He kept beefing.

2-5-88: Today is Miss Blanchard's birthday! For a treat we got 3 Hershey's kisses, 2 peanut butter cups and 2 lollipops! URRRP!! Speaking of birthdays, mine's only 6 monts away! BLOP! Huh? Oh. It was just Dave's chair falling over. Yaawn! T.G.I.F. That is, Thank Goodness It's Friday. Blop. Blump. Sorry. But my pencil got away. Come back here! Go-go gadget earplugs! WHUMP! Not gadget magnets, gadget earplugs. Plop! Hebabdu! That's better. Bye! [I actually wrote the word earplugs in slanty, handwritten italics there. Apparently, I was well on my way to being a grammar nazi even back then. On another note, my birthday is on July 5. Way to go, Wass Elementary School mathematics curriculum!]

3-28-88: Hey! Guess what? I'm a brain surgen! See my brain surgin'? Ha! But seriously, after Easter brake, when do we come back to school? Jerrod is in trouble with the big p*. [This asterisk corresponds to the sort-of word "pricipal" at the bottom of the page.] He called Scott, Dave and Matt a fag, a "a" word, and the "F" word. I'm the only witness. Now we need Encyclopedia Brown to prove he did it! We have a club, it is made of me, Anne, Dave, Matt and Scott. We all have code names. Mine is Inspector Williams. Matt's is Jocko. Scott's is Oy Man. Dave's is Muscle Man and Anne's is (I didn't make this up. Anne did.) Stupid Samantha. We used to have this kid named Eric. But he let someone in our base, so I yelled, "ERIC, YOU'RE FIRED!"

CURRENT MUSIC: Castaways and Cutouts by the Decemberists.
CURRENT MOOD: Impatient.
"The Cloud Climber was furious. The frown on its face turned into a scowl." Also, several pages later, the name of the Cloud Climber is suddenly and inexplicably changed to "Air Tiki." Yet another childhood treasure.
6:56 PM.

Doot? | |

Monday, April 12, 2004:

A reader named Wade Smith just wrote me and described my song "Hell" as "simultaneously annoying and captivating," in the midst of a smart little note about how his favorite music is that which bugs him a little bit. I really appreciated the compliment- in a way, I find being annoying every bit as satisfying as being captivating- but even more than that, I thought it was a really insightful observation. When I think of the albums I consider my true favorites, they do invariably possess a certain ability to irritate the hell out of me if I'm not in the right mood. There are times when I think to myself, "There's no way I can handle listening to OK Computer or Beelzebubba or I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One right now," because each of those albums requires you to work a little bit for their pleasures. If you're not feeling up to being an active listener, then you're going to be somewhat irked by Radiohead's off-kilter structures, Rodney Anonymous's intentionally obnoxious rambling, or the storm-and-drone of Heart's "Spec Bebop" and "We're an American Band," for instance.

And then there are albums that I can listen to anytime, like Hem's Rabbit Songs or Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway. While I think they're both truly perfect albums, they're so seamlessly arranged and friction-free that they occasionally drift into the background. It's not that they're boring or less than engrossing; it's just that they don't keep me the tiniest bit on-edge in the way that I find so thrilling in my favorite favorite albums. It's an ineffable feeling of being just slightly rubbed the wrong way that makes the good stuff more rewarding, I guess, and it doesn't necessarily have to come in the form of discordant melodies or "groundbreaking" arrangements or whatever. Sure, the potentially annoying aspect is more overt in quirky masterpieces like the Meat Puppets' Forbidden Places, Soul Coughing's El Oso, or Of Montreal's The Bedside Drama, but even my more accessible favorites, by bands like Talking Heads and R.E.M., have the same quality, even if it's more of an undercurrent.

I guess the best way I can think to describe it is a metaphor I remember from Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist: my favorite music is like when you've got a canker sore, and you keep chewing on it a little bit throughout the day because it hurts, but in a really good way. I'd never really put my finger on it before until Wade did it for me.

CURRENT MUSIC: Under the Bushes Under the Stars by Guided by Voices.
CURRENT ARTICLE I WISH I COULD RELOCATE: That one piece Bill Simmons wrote a few months ago about how the Portland Trailblazers are a bunch of thugs. Man, that was funny.
9:18 PM.

Doot? | |

Saturday, April 10, 2004:

Erica's awesome sister, Andrea, had a birthday party at Como's Pizza in Ferndale last night. I think she was turning 23, but I'm not sure. Every time I see her, I think she's 26 or 27 because she's a very confident, mature person, and therefore seems way ahead of me, so I subconsciously tack a few years onto her age. Anyway, she invited me along. I'd intentionally arrived in Ferndale 45 minutes or so before we were supposed to meet, so I could stop in Record Time and look around. As I was thumbing through the used CDs, I heard a voice say, "Hey! I know you!" I looked up and it was Jen.

"Hey! What are you up to?" I said.

"I'm meeting someone here before we go to the Stereolab show," she said.

"AGH!" I replied. "How'd you get tickets?"

"They're selling them here."

"Dammit! Rita told me they were sold out!" I said. "Hmmm... I wonder if my friends would miss me..."

"Don't stand your friends up," Jen smirked.

We asked each other's advice on a couple albums and then she took off for the show. I bought Glam by Mouse on Mars, a promo copy of Subliminal Plastic Motives by Self, and a used copy of The Blue Moods of Spain by Spain. Once I got home, I looked at the liner notes to the Spain album, and out of the booklet fell an advertisement for the record that its previous owner had clipped from an old issue of Rolling Stone. The names "Patti Rothberg" and "Bill Withers" are written in the margin. That makes me feel oddly special for owning it.

But anyway, I wandered down to Como's and met Andrea in the bar. I was the first one to arrive. She told me about a date she'd been on the previous night: "He was a dentist, but he was kind of an indie guy. Like he dressed really vintage and listened to a bunch of music I'd never heard of. Like, tonight, he's going to see this band... Stereolab?"

"AGH!" I replied, dismayed at apparently being the only person in metro Detroit who didn't get to see Stereolab.

Andrea's friend Barb showed up soon afterward, and as they chatted for a moment, a beefy guy with glasses and a pierced lip tapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, introducing himself as Ryan. He was with a giggly guy named Ian, who reminded me of Adam Goldberg. They were both clearly wasted- a fact that they made explicit several times over the course of our conversation. I introduced myself, and Ryan plopped down on the chair next to me and cheerfully said, "Let me get you a shot of Jack Daniels!"

"No thanks, man," I replied.

"Chris. Come on. It's Friday night. The weekend. I'm going to get you a shot. It's on me," Ryan said.

At this point, I wasn't sure whether they were hitting on me or what, and I was unsure how to communicate to Andrea that I needed to be saved without offending these guys. So I said to Ryan, "I seriously can't do it, man. I really appreciate it! I do! But beer's all I can handle because otherwise it mixes with my meds and it makes me, shall we say, 'vomit.'"

"Why? What kind of meds are you on?"

"Lexapro," I said. "It's an anti-killing-yourself mechanism."

"Dude," Ryan said, teetering on his stool, "I'm on Zoloft. Which, as I understand it, is pretty much the same thing. And I can pound shot after shot of Jager. Lemme getcha a shot of Jager."

"That's really okay," I said. We finally compromised, and he bought me a bottle of Killian's. I still wasn't sure whether he was hitting on me or what.

Ian piped up and said, "Do you think they'd change the channel on the TV if I asked them to? I've had a long week and I really don't want to watch golf; I'm out now. It's the weekend. It's all about the party. I want to see Trading Spaces or-"

"Yes!" I interrupted, happy to have some common ground.

As Ian and I briefly chatted about reality TV, Ryan picked up Ian's lighter and made a few attempts at lighting his cigarette. It reminded me of the scene from The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey tries a similar feat with his gimpy hand. Finally, Ian took the lighter away from Ryan and said, "The lighter doesn't work anymore, man. Remember? It stopped working when you put it in your beer earlier."

"Oh yeah!" Ryan mumbled, picking up a matchbook instead. By this point, Erica, Hugh, Lorenzo, and a bunch of Andrea's other friends had arrived and I was trying to think of a polite way to excuse myself. Ian apparently has a job in the medical field, and he asked if I know what the word intubate means.

"Yeah, I watch ER," I said.

"Oh my God," the bartender interrupted. "Did you see last night's episode?"

"I did!" I confirmed. "It was really sad."

"Hi, I'm Ryan," one of the guys said to the bartender, who introduced herself as April. She brought a couple of shots for my new friends, and then recapped the entire ER episode for Ryan and Ian even though it was clear that names like "Gallant" and "Neela" were as foreign to them as the word moderation. She got called away and Ryan promptly spilled his beer all over the bar before staggering off to the restroom.

When he returned, my friends all passed me and informed me that our party was going to the private room upstairs. I told them I'd be there directly. "Let's go!" Ryan said.

"Ahh, you know..." I started.

Ryan was quickly becoming belligerent. "Why can't we go upstairs?"

"If it were up to me, dude, I'd love to have you guys along, because you seem awesome," I said as diplomatically as I could. "But it's not my party."

"What the fuck," Ryan said.

April came by to mop up the spilled beer, and Ryan said, "Hey! I'm Ryan!" to her.

"Yup, you're still Ryan and I'm still April," she said flatly. Ian cringed a bit. I tried not to laugh.

"So I don't understand," Ryan said to me. "Why can't- why we can't go upstairs."

Ian shot me an apologetic look, clapped a hand around Ryan's shoulder and said, "Because tonight is about the bar, man! We're just gonna stay in the bar, alright? That's what we're doing. That's where the party is!" As Ryan pouted, Ian indicated that maybe I should just head on upstairs while he distracted Ryan, so as to avoid a scene when I left. I nodded a tacit "thank you" and took the stairs three at a time.

During our meal, I went downstairs to the restroom. As I was washing my hands, a random guy entered who jokingly said to me, "Oh, so you're one of those guys who wouldn't let poor Ryan go upstairs!"

"Oh no!" I said, laughing. "You heard about that, didja?"

"The guy was bitching for like 20 minutes about how he wasn't cool enough to go upstairs: 'Those motherfuckers!' He could barely sit up on his seat, he was so wasted, and I wanted to tell the bartender to get rid of him, but he was so sad!"

"Awww, I feel bad now," I said.

"Well, you know, I think ol' Ryan had enough fun for the evening," Urinating Guy said. "One time, one of my buddies got too drunk to fish, and I think Ryan was about at that point. When you can't even handle simple tasks like that, you're gone."

"I'm glad to hear you're on my side, man."

He laughed and told me to enjoy my evening. Which I did! Very much! I love my friends. I'm comfortable with them. Andrea got the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm from one of her friends, and invited me to watch them with her, so I don't have to rent them. I'm never talking to anyone new ever again, however, and if anyone has any suggestions as to how I might become invisible to strangers, I would be very interested to hear them.

CURRENT MUSIC: Satanic Panic in the Attic by Of Montreal.
CURRENT MOOD: Cromulent.
A REALLY FUNNY JOKE THAT ANNE INCLUDED IN AN E-MAIL TO ME: "A man goes to his shrink and says: 'Doc, I've been dreaming that I go into my neighbor's house and screw her brains out.' His shrink: 'Well, that means that you want to ride a horse naked through a tunnel with a bore in your hand.'"
TIME: 9:53 AM.

Doot? | |

Thursday, April 8, 2004:

I've mentioned my coworker Vince in this journal before. He's the older, conservative, homophobic guy who has an amusing fondness for Ween and the Super Furry Animals even though he hates everything else Jon and I play in the receiving room. Last week, Vince and I got into a debate about politics in which he said, "Everyone's saying how bad the economy is right now, but at this point in Clinton's presidency, the unemployment rate was exactly the same and people were saying how great it was!"

"That cannot possibly be right," I said.

"That's the statistic I heard," he came back. "Mind you, they were talking about the unemployment rate in terms of percentage, not in terms of actual numbers, because the population has changed between 1996 and now."

"Okay," I said. "But I still can't believe that. Bush has lost more than two million jobs since he took office."

We argued back and forth for awhile, and since it was clear that the argument wasn't going to be settled without the actual statistics in front of us (and since Vince had gotten this figure from Sean Hannity's syndicated program on WJR, a Detroit radio station that has an impressive roster of uninformed, yammering fools that also includes Rush Limbaugh, Mitch Albom, and Laura Schlessinger), I said I'd look up the numbers over the weekend and report back to him.

So I did. And the thing of it is... Vince was right.

According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for March 2004 was 5.7% (8.4 million people). In March of 1996, when Clinton had been in office for three years, the unemployment rate was 5.5% (7.3 million people). Percentage-wise, the numbers really are pretty much the same.


If you go to the BLS's "Most Requested Statistics" page and ask to see the charts for "Civilian Unemployment" and "Unemployment Rate" over the last ten years, it makes clear an important bit of information that hadn't occurred to me when Vince- and, by extension, Hannity- tossed that statistic at me: the unemployment rate over the past ten years has basically been an upside-down bell curve. (Kind of like the inverse of the Peak Oil phenomenon that's going to kill us all in the coming years.) When Clinton took office, he'd inherited an enormous unemployment rate from Bush Sr. The BLS charts go back only ten years, so I couldn't determine exactly what the unemployment rate was when Clinton took office in January of 1993, but in January of 1994, the unemployment rate was 6.6%. Two years later, it was down to 5.6%. And by the time Clinton left office in January of 2001, the unemployment rate in the United States was 4.2% (slightly up from the healthy 3.9% we'd held steady at between October and December of 2000).

Immediately upon Bush's assumption of the office, however, the numbers start to climb again. By the end of 2001, the unemployment rate was 5.7%. (And before anyone rushes to point out that 9/11 surely damaged the economy, the unemployment rate had already hit 5.0% by September of 2001, so the numbers were already trending upwards.) Although our current 5.7% rate is down from last June's 6.3%, which was the highest unemployment rate since April of 1994, a quick look at the actual civilian unemployment numbers confirms that roughly 2.4 million people have nevertheless lost their jobs since Bush took office. And by "took," I mean "cheap Jay Leno-quality joke about how Bush stole the election"! So even though the percentages are indeed the same for this point in Bush's administration as they were for Clinton's, the respective contexts are clearly different.

Sorry for all the numbers. I know it's probably not that interesting to read, but I thought it made for a nice illustration of what to be on the lookout for when people like Hannity lie with statistics, because I almost got suckered.

And it's been a week since I posted about music, so my promise is fulfilled and you all owe me a Coke. I saw the Pernice Brothers in concert for the fifth time Tuesday night in Ann Arbor, along with my brother T-Bone, and you're going to sit there and listen to me talk about it in my inimitably acerbic-yet-humane style.

After T-Bone painstakingly guided me through the process of parallel parking in the alley behind his apartment, I visited with him for an hour or so. I made a makeshift chair out of the gigantic mound of dirty laundry in his room, and we chatted. For some reason, we got on the topic of old-school video games, and he excitedly said, "Dude, you've gotta see this video I downloaded. Some guy beats Super Mario Bros. 3 in like eight minutes!"

We watched the video, and I admit to being thoroughly engrossed. T-Bone and I spent innumerable hours of our youth playing that game- he manned the controller and I, being the hand-eye-coordination-challenged one, spouted tactical advice I'd memorized from Nintendo Power- and here was video of some guy who was not only beating it as quickly as possible, but who effortlessly leapt on top of every foe he encountered, racking up 99 extra lives seemingly incidentally to the process.

"Can this be real?" I asked.

"I think it is," T-Bone replied.

"But... no human could play this well. It's gotta be a robot or something. I wonder if they just hacked the game and programmed Mario to do everything as perfectly as possible."

"It's not a robot," he retorted, always way too eager to crush my theories about what is and isn't controlled by robots. "Look- he just shot a fireball for absolutely no reason. No program or robot would waste a move like that."

"Yeah. Well, I guess it's an autistic kid or something then, because... wow. That's awesome."

Turns out the game was actually played on hyper-slow speed and then the video was mastered at normal speed, and I am a dork. Luckily, my brother is as well, because we then spent the next half hour looking for another videogame movie file he'd seen, in which some guy beats MegaMan 2 in 29 minutes. Hilariously, as we searched for this file, the first page T-Bone came upon was Dave Weigel's blog. I started giggling, and T-Bone couldn't figure out why until I showed him Dave's entry on the Cracker show we attended together last month. It was a funny coincidence. We then found the video and my mind was blown yet again. Then we went to the concert.

The show was at the Blind Pig, a cozy little bar that has carefully protected its hole-in-the-wall vibe over the years. I ran into Keith there, an old friend who I haven't seen since... the Pernice Brothers show at the Blind Pig a few years ago. Another funny coincidence, that. We chatted briefly and he told me about getting to play at the South by Southwest festival last month, as a fill-in guitarist for The Singles. I thought that was really cool.

The Long Winters were the opening act, and they were pretty good. Their semi-rootsy indie-rock wasn't the sort of style that generally appeals to me- they suggest Counting Crows signed to the Saddle Creek label- but for what it is, it's a nice sound. They seemed like incredibly nice, funny guys as well. In the middle of the show, the frontman kicked off a spontaneous jam around the "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" riff, quickly proclaimed it "terrible," and dared the bassist to attempt to play the bassline from Devo's cover of said song. The frontman also happened to be a dead ringer for Jen's little brother- both in appearance and in his sharp, self-effacing sense of humor- so for most of their set, I was thinking, "Awwww! It's like Chris has a band!" The Winters were visibly having a blast onstage, which made their set lots of fun even if I didn't care one way or the other about their music.

After a break, the Pernice Brothers pulled off the feat of impressing me a fifth time with a set very similar to the ones I'd seen before. Each time I see them run through the bittersweet "Clear Spot" (imagine the Zombies covering Nirvana), the harrowing "Flaming Wreck" (growling indie-pop about the sole survivor of a plane crash), or Joe Pernice's acoustic staple "Bum Leg" (profane folk rock), it feels like the songs are hacking through the scars that surround my heart and giving me a much-needed emotional bloodletting. Microphone troubles marred the glorious, four-part harmonies that close the driving "7:30," but that was the only bit of the concert that even came close to disappointing. Joe's physical resemblance to Elvis Costello was made all the more appropriate by the fact that he sang in a pinched, clipped voice reminiscent of Elvis, but the band was playing with such energy that it would've overpowered Joe's voice if he'd stuck to his usual detached hush. An excellent performance choice. And as a bonus surprise, the Pernices dragged out their understated cover of New Order's "Leave Me Alone," which I hadn't seen before.

Before kicking off "She Heightened Everything," Joe said, "Now, Detroit has a special place in my heart because the first true love of my life actually left me for Brendan Shanahan of your Detroit Red Wings. In retrospect, she probably made the right choice." When some people in the crowd said, "Awwwww," he replied, "No, really! Shanahan is tall, he's good-looking..."

One audience member joked, "And he could probably beat you up!"

Joe smiled, "Not necessarily. You might think so, but I learned that when they're not expecting it, you go for the knee! Try to take their knee out! Anyway, this song goes out to Brendan Shanahan's wife."

Joe moseyed out into the crowd to mingle after the show was over, and I shook his hand and gave him a copy of The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss, just for fun and to thank him for the many hours of listening pleasure he's given me. (And because I'm never going to sell all 2,500 copies of the disc, so I think giving them to famous people is probably the best course of action.) I wasn't sure how that act would be perceived; whether he'd politely refuse the album or at least wonder, "What kind of angle is this kid playing?" and I was incredibly nervous. But Joe looked down at the CD and said, "Oh, wow! Thank you! That's- I really appreciate it!" in a way that was genuinely grateful and made my whole evening. He accepted T-Bone's handshake and then excused himself to put my CD with his gear, and I felt giddy. Who knows if he'll actually enjoy the album, but the fact that he was so gracious and truly flattered when I gave it to him meant the world to me. So you'll all be happy to know that not only does Joe Pernice pen perfect, shimmery pop songs that can easily compare with The Shins, he's also a very nice man, even to stammery fanboys.

I dropped my brother off at his apartment and headed home. On I-275, a rock flew off a truck several lanes over and put a nick in my windshield. Fiercely protective as I am of Pip, I shouted some profanities at the truck but quickly contained myself. It's just a nick, I reasoned. It can probably be patched cheaply and quickly. Naturally, the fact that I allowed a semi-optimistic thought to traverse my synapses meant the nick was then obligated to start growing and growing and growing, the crack winding its way across my windshield like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing, until it reached a length of several feet. So now Pip has to undergo surgery yet again due to another driver. This is why there should be a special Willie-only highway system erected, so I wouldn't have to deal with other people. The Willie-only highway system would also feature complimentary monkey chauffeurs stationed every five miles or so, who would take over my driving duties if I got tired or wanted to do some reading.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Oily Years (1983-1993) by The Scene is Now.
CURRENT MOOD: Being rather underwhelmed and annoyed by The Oily Years (1983-1993) by The Scene is Now.
CURRENT FEAR BESIDES THE WHOLE "PEAK OIL" THING: Is my writing style toppling over into self-parody? This entry felt extremely labored as I wrote it. You can be honest with me.
TIME: 5:38 PM.

Doot? | |

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