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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: June 19-September 3, 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006:

NBC’s Miss Universe pageant was our TV companion last night, because it’s instructive in helping me determine my prejudices for the coming year. (IN: Peru. FIVE MINUTES AGO: Cayman Islands. OUT: Sweden.) Predictably, it was a beautiful disaster.

The aptly named Carlos Ponce was one of the co-hosts, and his shining moment came during his interviews with the pageant’s judges. 11 judges were present, from the talented (Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, who was identified only as “creator of a popular TV show” because Desperate Housewives is on ABC) to the middling (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, of Saved by the Bell and Billy Madison) to the useless (newest Donald Trump Apprentice and insufferably overenthusiastic Brit Sean Yazbeck), and the Ponce chose to speak only with the latter category. Sure, if he’d wanted to take the easy road to entertainment, he could’ve interviewed Cherry, or the hilariously sardonic Project Runway contestant Santino Rice, or the reliably memorable Tom Green… but instead, he talked to also-ran actor James Lesure, Claudia Jordan from NBC’s spackle-in-our-programming-holes mainstay Deal or No Deal, and former NFL great Emmitt Smith, who declared the pageant “funner” than playing football.

For the record, I was rooting for Miss Japan, because she first appeared onstage in an impossibly cool samurai outfit—complete with katana blade!—and my fondness for her only grew during the question-and-answer session, because her translator was clearly bonkers. The first softball question she was given was “We understand you speak both French and Spanish. Can you tell us why you’re interested in learning other languages?” After the interpreter got done converting the question into Japanese, poor Miss Japan actually answered the question in French, which was sad not only because the interpreter had clearly jumbled what the query actually said… but because the interpreter also didn’t speak French, so English-only viewers like myself didn’t get a translation of what came out of her mouth there.

Even worse was the second question, “If you could change any event in human history, what would it be?” After the question and Miss Japan’s answer were sent through the Babelfish daisy wheel of the Japanese interpreter, the response was the weirdest example of mistranslation since Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Academy Award acceptance speech. It seemed to be something about gender equality being good and violence being bad. Commentator Shandi Finnessey immediately called the viewers’ bluff by proclaiming Miss Japan’s answer “brilliant,” while Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley made his billionth joke about “switching teams” due to the contestants’ allure.

Really, the main effect the program had on me was to underscore the silliness of notions of attractiveness. You know how some words become nonsensical in your mind if you write or say them over and over? (To use an example once given by Gordon Shumway, try saying “ballerina” a couple dozen times and see if it sounds like a real word at the end of the exercise.) Watching dozens of essentially identical women parade about onstage does the same thing for the human body. You like big boobs? Abdomens so free of body fat you can count the ribs? Long, skinny legs? Have a million of them! Now try to remember why you thought they were so special in the first place!

We’re bizarre creatures, us humans. The Grays would surely find us unappealingly lumpy; a race of Jabba the Hutts (I don’t care to know what “race” Jabba was; don’t correct me) would find us disgustingly sticklike. We’re given odd bodies that have assorted orifices and protuberances, and although they’re generally functional, and evolution has taught us to desire certain traits over others… attraction still doesn’t make sense.

I mean, I get the biological reasons each person looks the way he or she does. Because of who your parents are, you look the way you do because that’s what biology has decided is the most efficient configuration for your body given the tools at its disposal. And, per my understanding, you’re attracted to the people you’re attracted to because some aspect of genetics/biology/evolution has decided that’s the body type you’re compatible with. (Which isn’t to say reproduction is attraction’s sole goal, of course. I certainly don’t want to imply or argue that homosexual attraction is abnormal or “a choice” because it’s not conducive to making babies, or any such dumbshit notions. I simply know nothing about science, so I can’t explain my half-baked theories very well.) But how to explain personal proclivities like being into brunettes or redheads or Jewish guys or whatever?

I’m not claiming that I’m immune to lust or that those who succumb to physical attraction are dumb. One gaze into Bev’s eyes and my knees attain the consistency of Terri Schiavo’s brain. (Get me, being topical. Ugh.) The Miss Universe pageant simply emphasized that such concerns are illogical. Why is it considered “pretty” for women to have long, manicured dead cells at the end of their fingers? Blue paint swabbed on their eyelids? Legs painstakingly made hairless? Or, from another view, for men to have muscular rumps? Thick heads of hair? Pecs that can dance like Soda Popinski’s?

Here’s some homework for you: for the rest of the day, pretend you’re a robot with no concept of attraction. Humans have different appearances for purposes of identification, but there’s no qualifying concept of one being “better looking” than another. After a few hours of this, think of someone who you’ve always thought of as tremendously physically attractive, and someone whose appearance has always struck you as odd. What’s the underlying difference? Why is Brad Pitt “prettier” than, say, Frank Black? Use complete sentences in your answer.

We’re weird, is my point.

As an offensive side note, Miss Indonesia may be faced with indecency charges when she returns home because of the swimsuit competition. This is why you don’t legislate morality.

* * *

Speaking of misogyny, the pageant’s Sunday night competition, Iron Chef America, has evinced a creepy, woman-hating attitude this season. Particularly toward the first female Iron Chef, Cat Cora.

First off, I know there’s very little reason to watch Iron Chef America because it lacks the unique, hyperkinetic kitschiness of the original Japanese version. The know-it-all smarm of Alton Brown is a poor substitute for the wide-eyed play-by-play of Fukui-san, for one thing, and the winking attitude of the production sucks out the charm of the original, whose main draw was the solemn appearance of not being in on the joke. Still… it’s on TV, which means I’ll watch it.

Furthermore, you do get occasional, accidental moments of bliss: for instance, during the judging portion of a battle whose “secret ingredient” was frozen peas, one of the judges cluelessly raved that “the peaness really comes through!”

However, with the recent addition of Ms. Cora to the cast of Iron Cheves, the series has taken an awkward turn, because Iron Chef America treats her like garbage. It took quite some time after her appearance on the roster before she even got a giant background portrait to join those of Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Masaharu Morimoto. Moreover, although her dishes are consistently beautiful and appear appetizing, I daresay she’s already lost more competitions than the other three combined.

I know it may sound like I’m simply off on another of my conspiracy theories by speculating that the judges are harder on her than on the other Iron Chefs. I’ve got proof, though. The clincher was her loss of one particular battle by a tenth of a point.

To the uninitiated, this might sound as though it were merely a particularly close challenge; a loss by a tenth of a point being nearly a point of pride, like losing the Kentucky Derby in a photo finish. What’s odd, though, is that it’s the only Iron Chef battle I’ve ever seen that’s employed decimal points. Apart from that particular episode, the judges always—always—assign marks consisting only of integers. Bev and I both instantly called shenanigans on this. Changing the rules of judging so suddenly is like being the banker in Monopoly and, midway through the game, declaring that you’re entitled to a 10% transaction fee just to screw your opponents. Bullshit.

Even when the challengers choose to face Cat, it generally seems condescending. On one episode, she had to face two challengers—twentysomething hipster putzes reminiscent of infuriating Amazing Race winners BJ and Tyler—who said they challenged her because they wanted to face “the hottie.” So not only was she unfairly outnumbered, Cat’s ample culinary skills were downplayed in favor of her looks. Greeeeat.

This sort of marginalization of women would be offensive in any context, naturally, and I understand that I’m unqualified to speak about it in a certain way: I’m a white male, age 18 to 39, and everyone listens to what I have to say, no matter how stupid my ideas are! So I can’t entirely “get” the feminist fury of, say, Ani DiFranco (not that I’d want to, to Jon’s assured chagrin, because she strikes me as being intolerably arrogant) or Linda Holmes (who, on the other hand, is awesome), but when sexism punches me in the face, I pride myself on spotting it.

What’s egregiously offensive to me about the Iron Chef America attitude is not simply that it hates women, but that it actively tries to expel women from one of few territories they’ve unquestioningly held dominion over for decades: the kitchen.

Hear me out.

[EDIT 12/12/06: I usually make it a rule not to go back and edit my older entries without threat of legal action, but I re-read this bit today and it really bothered me because it just sounds ignorant. Please allow me to clarify: I'm sure there's a great deal of sexism in the culinary field and I certainly am not trying to pooh-pooh those concerns. However, my impression as an outsider is that women have historically been afforded more respect as chefs than as power players in most other industries. That's not to say there's the sort of equality there should be or that there isn't a streak of good-ol'-boy misogyny at work among foodies; merely that the obstacles for women in this industry, while not in any way insubstantial, are somewhat fewer than in other areas. At any rate, I've softened the following paragraph, because the point I'm trying to make is not that there's never been sexism in the industry, but rather that it seems Iron Chef America is actively trying to erode the position female chefs have attained through the years. If anything continues to sound stupid or sexist on my part, I hope you'll chalk it up to verbal clumsiness and not ignorance. Thank you.]

Obviously, it’s an idiotic stereotype that cooking is women’s work, and it’s definitely not cool for a man to come home and demand of his wife, “Where’s my dinner?” like William H. Macy in Pleasantville. However, cooking is a skill—an art—the collective knowledge of which has been reverently attributed as much to women as to men for a long time, and that’s not a bad thing. Julia Child is spoken of in tones as respectful as those referring to James Beard; James Barber is dismissed as easily as Sandra Lee. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, from my possibly faulty observation, the cooking world is one in which the glass ceiling isn't as insurmountable as in other industries. And while that’s uncomfortably predicated on the myth that women should be the ones who know how to cook, it’s still a highly regarded field, so strong female participation therein is, in my view, a victory. One that Iron Chef America subtly, but clearly, undercuts in a way that strikes me as truly mean-spirited.

Which isn’t to say I won’t watch, mind you. They’ve still got cool judges like Ted Allen and Mo Rocca, and as I said, it’s TV. But because of their treatment of Cat Cora, it’s hardly the guilt-free pleasure provided by other cooking competitions like Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef, which present all genders, races, and sexual orientations as equally brain-dead and incompetent.

* * *

Finally, in the found objects department, Bev brought home a copy of the following letter. It was received by the utility company she works for, and it’s wonderfully insane. Identifying information is changed, spelling errors are not:

I, Cameron Lily Grohl, reference Cameron Forgive, CORRECT The Address—843 Larch St., Bangor, ME 04401.

You are quick to committ evil, CRIMES, and slow enough to do good.

I am writing to order $1 electrical service: I have enclosed a check for $1. As the Lord Jesus Christ and myself, His own, have stopped all payments out, this is a Not-payable check.

The seven have committed Heinous Crimes against me! Among them—Forgery, Fraud, grand Larcony among plenty of others. Therefore, I will not allow payments of my Poulton Bank checking account.

I have made a police report to the Bangor Police Dept. on these crimes. You are suspect and guilty!

Please remember that the next time you decide to send a hench man to disconnect!!! I will call the Bangor Police Dept. Sgt. Andrea Andrew Hughes (Detective Division) immediately, Immediately, and prior to your Crime! Sgt. Andy is a good person. (myself in Title.)

You who are in Title are good and Blameless.

You, Seven, are going to motherfucking pay. I will make you pay.

Everything you do, I report to the Bangor Police Dept. I expect you to return the $1 stolan stolen light/electric Service on Wednesday, June 18, 2006. Should you fail, the Bangor Police Dept telephone will ring Non stop.

I have NEVER been so offended than I was by your disconnect stop at my house. Do it again. I will make you regret it I will follow this letter with a call to Bangor PD PD and a letter to the Editor! (BDN)

Cameron Lily Grohl
The Lily of God.
The Lily

CURRENT MUSIC: Souljacker by the Eels and No Word from Tom by Hem.
LYRIC I JUST REALIZED I'VE BEEN MISHEARING FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS: The woman from Berlin is actually singing, "Watching every motion in this foolish lover's game" in "Take My Breath Away." She is not insensitively griping, "Watching every motion in this foolish love is gay."

Doot? | |

Wednesday, July 19, 2006:

Something that made me extremely happy today:

For the past month or so, Bev and I have been working in earnest to put together a mix CD to distribute at our wedding reception. Bev's patience with my hilarious wedding jokes has been wearing thin lately, so I've had to start refraining from making song suggestions like "No Children" by the Mountain Goats or "Argh Fuck Kill" by the Dayglo Abortions, and actual progress has therefore been made. The list is far from finalized, but it's shaping up to be a sweet, eclectic little collection of songs for us both to be proud of. 

Early in the process, Bev realized that the song "How Very Special Are We," which Debbie Reynolds performed in the Charlotte's Web cartoon, would fit perfectly. Thus, for weeks, she (Bev) has been relentlessly searching for it using every file-sharing program on the computer, with little success. She did locate a 30-second promotional snippet of the song (did someone bother recording the streaming audio from an Amazon sound clip?), and an atrociously squeaky a capella cover of it by Gregory Whitfield, but nothing usable. She tried searching under misspellings of charlotte, made educated guesses about incorrect titles that may have been used to label the track, tried searching for different file types... no dice.

This morning, in The A.V. Club, Tasha Robinson posted a fun article for the weekly "Inventory" column: "15 Book-to-Film Adaptations That Live Up to the Source Material." The article contains lots of great choices, and Charlotte's Web happened to be among them. She writes, "Even some of the songs are sweetly memorable, with an eye toward fleshing out characters and moving the action along instead of slowing it down." In the A.V. Club's bulletin boards, I agreed with her, and, simply as an aside, mentioned Bev's quest to find "How Very Special Are We."

Tasha replied, "I don't know whether 'Charlotte's Web' ever got an official soundtrack release — the only mp3s I've been able to find from the soundtrack were probably made by a fan who cut their own tracks from the DVD. But they're good quality. If you can't find the song for your wedding elsewhere, email me ... and I'll send you an MP3. Can't stand in the way of true love, after all. (I'm just going to go ahead and credit you both with true love for convenience's sake.)"

I dropped her a line, and, good as her word, she sent it on over to me along with a nice note wishing Bev and me well. Bev was thrilled beyond words when I played it for her, and I'm ludicrously excited that The Onion now has a hand in our wedding! To put it in a less glib fashion, I like that we now have this song solely as a result of one person going out of her way to be generous. That makes it far more special, in my opinion, than it would be if we'd just found it on Soulseek and unceremoniously grabbed it. I like having stories to go with my music. (See my previous entry, for instance.)

So thanks, Tasha Robinson!

CURRENT MUSIC: The Executioner's Last Songs by Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
Ashamed of how many people I owe e-mails, phone calls, or other contact, and of how long I've owed those things in some cases. If you haven't heard from me, I haven't dropped you, forgot you, or anything; I'm merely a lazy man and an awful friend. My apologies.
"Shortly after reaching San Diego, Hubbard ordered his crew to practice their gunnery by shelling one of the Coronado Islands, a small Mexican archipelago off the northwest coast of Baja California, in the belief it was uninhabited and belonged to the United States. Neither assumption was correct."
8:56 PM.

Doot? | |

Monday, June 19, 2006:

It’s been a mighty long time since I’ve enjoyed a good quest for an album. Last summer, I had a brief but powerful need to get a copy of Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois with the original Superman art once I heard it was being yanked from shelves, but Bev had already picked it up for me as a birthday gift. Before that, I think the last time I was so single-minded in my desire to acquire a record was the Great Jazz Butcher Hunt of 1999, which was brought to an abrupt conclusion when some guy read my reviews of the few JB albums I’d managed to find and then sent me copies of all the others. (Man, that guy was cool.)

I know I’m not saying anything new here, but the thrill of the chase is all but gone for us music junkies. On Friday, for instance, I read in the All Music Guide that two members of the Urinals were once in the amusingly-named band Trotsky Icepick, and within the hour, I’d ordered four of the latter’s albums from half.com (for only $14.13!). Instant gratification. Even after moving to Maine, where I have easy access to only a few good record stores, it’s rare for me to want an album and not be able to get it immediately from a shop, an online store, a download site like All of MP3 (which, incidentally, is a wonderful thumb-in-the-eye to the RIAA because it’s perfectly legal, but can offer entire albums for roughly the cost of one song on iTunes since it’s based in Russia), or from one of my rock geek online friends from around the globe. To have a genuinely difficult time locating a record at this point, you’d have to be a true collector looking for something like the “butcher baby” version of the Beatles’ Yesterday… And Today. And while I’m certainly not saying that there’s anything impure or soul-damaging about this age of digital convenience, I must admit that I miss the frustrating magic of a lengthy record hunt.

In the early ‘90s, when I first started devoting my life and allowance to nothing but CDs, my only option was hunting through the shelves of the brick-and-mortar establishments (or, in the case of Sam Goody’s crappy Midwestern counterpart Musicland, the prick-and-moron establishments, har) to which my mom was willing to drive me. Though it was still very easy for me to find the entire discographies of most of the bands who were victims of my burgeoning fanaticism (They Might Be Giants, R.E.M., Ramones), every now and again, the first three or four record stores I checked would lack an album I was looking for, and at that point… it was on.

Oh, was it ever on.

And never was it more on than during my mission to buy Total Devo. Enigma Records, 1988. “16 digital cartoons from the de-evolution band.” First studio album from the spuds since replacing drummer Alan Myers with Sparks’ David Kendrick. Most importantly, my seventh-grade Holy Grail.

Before moving forward, let me be quite clear: Total Devo is not a good album. Although every American household should contain at least twice as many Devo records as fire extinguishers, there is no reason for Total Devo to be among them. It’s an ill-conceived junk heap of clichés both lyrical and musical, the band’s pioneering balance of gnawingly catchy hooks and discordant synths has been replaced by irrelevant Flock of Seagulls-style new wave, and for every song that’s catchy in spite of its un-Devo-ness (e.g., “Disco Dancer”), there are three that will make you wince like Benicio Del Toro with an ice cream headache (“I’d Cry If You Died,” a cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” etc.).

Of course, when I was 12, I knew none of this. All I knew was that tracking down Devo’s discography was nigh impossible, and I would not rest until I heard each and every song they’d released. I purchased the import compilation Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo even though its entire tracklist overlapped with the Greatest Hits and Greatest Misses compilations I already owned (plus one song I had on their debut)… except for a cover of “Secret Agent Man” that I had yet to hear. I bought the 9½ Weeks soundtrack, to my parents’ alarm, solely for Devo’s awful version of the Newbeats’ “Bread and Butter.” The Christmas when my awesome Aunt Kimmey and Uncle Dave gave me the UK releases of Duty Now for the Future, New Traditionalists, and Oh No! It’s Devo may still rank among the top five days of my life as measured by the amount of endorphins released by my brain.

But Total Devo remained my white whale. At the time, I knew nothing about albums going in and out of print (and I’m fairly certain that Enigma Records went under at some point between the album’s 1988 release and my obsessive search in 1992), nor did I realize that even if the album was still being pressed, most record stores would not have stocked it because exactly one person in the entire nation was actively looking for it. So every time my mom took me to the mall, Target, anywhere—even to a store we’d hit earlier in the week—I’d dash right for the D section of the pop/rock department and paw through the CDs like a rescue dog searching for survivors.

I happened to be conducting this pursuit during the era in which the record industry was phasing out the environmentally stupid cardboard longboxes, but hadn’t yet come up with the idea of putting top-spine stickers on the CDs to allow you to see what albums were in the bin without flipping through them and looking at each cover individually. Since I didn’t know what the Total Devo cover looked like, this led to a lot of moments of naïve glee which were instantly crushed, as I’d discover an unfamiliar record in front of the “Devo” card, between Freedom of Choice and Greatest Hits (the only two discs you could count on seeing every time), and my heart would conduct a victorious triple salchow in the second before I ascertained that I was looking at a misfiled Derek & the Dominoes CD.

I wasn’t the only one in my world hunting for a particular record, but it felt like I was. Many of my friends spoke in hushed tones about Metallica’s short-lived The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, whose existence they were aware of only from cheapo biographies of the band. However, they could at least consolidate their efforts to locate it, with each young man agreeing that the first one to locate it would tape it for the rest of them. I was basically alone in my search, as Devo was not a name that was commonly bandied about in the halls of Larson Middle School in 1992, and even those who were aware of the suburban robots programmed to monitor reality (mostly my friends, who never stopped hearing about de-evolution unless I was talking about Simpsons) didn’t really care about them one way or the other.

All I could do to keep my spirits up in the days between record-store jaunts was sit in my school’s media center (when I guess I was supposed to be doing research for some project or another) and pull up whatever reviews of Total Devo I could find on microfiche. My school had an odd collection of periodicals thus indexed, including back issues of garbage rags like People, and I was able to find quite a few write-ups of the album. Ignoring the content of the reviews, which unanimously declared that there was no reason for Total Devo to exist, I was just so happy to be reading something about Devo that I would print them all from those weird microfiche copiers that would spit out negative images of whatever page you wanted (so most everything would be barely legible white text on a gray background, occasionally accompanied by disconcerting pictures of people with white pupils and black sclerae) and tack the articles on a corkboard above my bed.

Yes, it’s more than a little depressing that, in a place where many people will hang personal affirmations like the Serenity Prayer or portraits of people they find inspiring, I hung mimeographed two-star reviews of an out-of-print record published in magazines of negligible worth.

So the search continued for many months. Then one enchanted Saturday, I was sent to a forensics meet in Ann Arbor with a few of my classmates. (Forensics competitive drama, that is, not forensics examination of dead bodies.) My parents agreed to be parent chaperones, which was probably because my dad wanted to buy some University of Michigan gear, but which also meant that during the lunch break, alllllll the poor saps in our group had to go record shopping with me because there was a record store next to the sandwich shop where we ate. I forget the name of the record store, and I think it’s long gone now, but I assume it involved a play on some common phrase that contained the word record, like Land Speed RECORDS, Off the RECORD, Some Portions Pre-RECORDed, or somesuch.

My parents gave me a ten-minute limit to look around, out of courtesy to their charges to whom they were unrelated. Fair enough. I really needed only one minute to investigate, because there was only one album on my mind. I clearly remember Laura Uberti and Laura Carbone standing next to me in the aisle, chatting and probably bored out of their minds, when I literally shouted, “It’s Total Devo!” The Lauras looked over at me with a mixture of disgust and pity and then continued their conversation. Screw them, though: there it was. The incredibly unappealing picture of five nearly middle-aged men wearing primary-colored jumpsuits, posing in a bizarre fashion that emphasized Jerry Casale’s jowls and inexplicably required Kendrick to rest his chin on Bob Casale’s ass, all in front of a reddish-orange backdrop that featured the happy/sad Venn diagram I’d be drawing on all my schoolwork for the next year. Total. Devo.

There’s not much of a denouement to this tale; you can basically picture the words “THE END” superimposed over a shot of me holding Total Devo in my materialistic little fanboy hands for the first time. I can’t even remember my inaugural listen to it. That may be because it’s not a very memorable album, but it’s probably because the music was, by that point, secondary to the capture.

Since then, I have naturally come across any number of albums that thrilled me, but I can’t recall another whose acquisition was such a personal triumph. The only comparable experience I can think of is my effort, two years later, to get a copy of the film Sirens, as I was harboring an unhealthy adolescent crush on Elle McPherson, but that’s a far more unwholesome story which I’ll spare you. The point is, as much as I love the Jiffy-Pop accessibility of our society, I wish I didn't have to sacrifice the little treasure hunts that kept my senses sharp.

CURRENT MUSIC: Live 04 by Mouse on Mars.
CURRENT MOOD: Too much paranoias.
CURRENT FAVORITE OFFICE SUPPLY: A combination stapler and tape dispenser that’s meant to promote Avapro.
TIME: 5:20 PM.

Doot? | |

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