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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: August 19-October 5, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008:

This is a post about the multiple opportunities for musical and artistic expression I was afforded while in Ann Arbor. No, not recording in my apartment. No, not the ubiquitous drum circles. I am referring to the one sure-fire way back into a woman's heart and parts beyond. I speak, of course, of karaoke.

The MR staff had a karaoke night the Thursday after I started work. We went to Circus, a carnival-themed bar next to the Blind Pig. It took me about 15 minutes to walk there from my apartment (probably much longer on the way back, as I was not the steadiest on my feet). Loads of fun. Though each song request does go along to a karaoke backing track, there's also a live band onstage providing keyboards, guitars, backing vocals, or anything necessary to make you sound a lot better than the tinny little MIDI arrangement would.

I was sitting at a table in Circus, watching 10,000 B.C. on the closed-captioned television ("[sounds of footsteps]," "[exhausted sigh]," "[sounds of footsteps]"), when Tracy and Lisa mercifully showed up. Lisa carried a bag with two feather boas in it in case we needed props. The three of us took turns buying rounds of drinks for each other throughout the evening. Later, copy editor Julie showed up with her sister, and copy editor Violetta and her friend Adam joined us for a bit.

For about half the evening, Lisa and I convivially pawed through the book of available karaoke numbers, commenting on the songs and bemoaning the absence of songs we wished were there. She came up with the idea that, on a subsequent karaoke night, we should all hand in our requests at once in the hopes of going onstage back-to-back-to-back, and pick the biggest downer songs we could think of, just to bum out everyone in attendance. I said it would be funny for me to request "I Got You Babe" and perform it by myself, silently standing there and looking heartbroken as Cher's part of the song wordlessly flowed by, at which point Lisa emitted one of the heartiest laughs I've wrung from my friends in some time. Booze helped, surely, but Lisa's is a very satisfying laugh to prompt.

Tracy performed a really terrific version of Peggy Lee's "Fever." At its conclusion, she returned to our table and said to me, "I hope that wasn't too sultry. My friend who I babysat when he was an infant is here..."

Some of the other performances were interesting. My very favorite was a guy who donned disdainful Britpop shades and performed a hilariously literal, obscene version of Pulp's "This is Hardcore," going so far as to walk into the crowd and make the fratboys in the front uncomfortable with his pansexual banter. Julie and her sister were completely horrified, and Adam and I tried to explain that the guy was doing an incredibly awesome Jarvis Cocker impression. I admired that guy beyond words.

Julie performed a funny, rednecky version of the Beatles' "Don't Pass Me By," complete with suspender-stretchin' hoedown dancing. Her sister did a very good Sheryl Crow impression. And I was pretty proud of my Elvis Costello on "Radio, Radio." Elvis isn't the most difficult to sing, of course (Davids Bowie and Byrne are equal friends to karaokists in that regard), but I know that song inside and out, so I felt confident and people seemed to enjoy it. The Jarvis Cocker guy made his way to the front of the stage and was whooping and egging me on, and shook my hand afterwards, which actually made me feel very nice.

Lisa dithered over which song to perform until Tracy reminded her that we'd reached a point where she had to submit something if she hoped to take the stage before 3 AM, so the two of them decided to do "Midnight At the Oasis" together, which they had lots of fun with. I can't hear that song without thinking of Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara in Waiting for Guffman, but I think I'll think of Tracy and Lisa twirling their boas around as well whenever I hear it from now on.

Thereafter, the evening becomes a bit of a blur. Many gin and tonics (gins and tonic?) were consumed, to the point where my hands smelled like lime all day Friday. I remember trying to convince anyone who'd listen to perform Prince's "Erotic City," in a manner that I thought was funny but was probably tremendously icky.

Several weeks later, another karaoke night was planned, but we hadn't counted on Ann Arbor being invaded by Hollywood, with its traffic-frustrating roadblocks and puffy directing pants. Michael Cera and Steve Buscemi were in town to make a movie, and although that pairing might sound entirely too awesome to be contained by mere celluloid, the film already has three strikes against it: (1) It is named Youth in Revolt, which is an atrocious title. (2) It is directed by Miguel Arteta, who directed the atrocious Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. (3) Next to Circus, the filmmakers constructed a storefront for a hotdog stand (which--strike 3.5--I believe was called Ghetto Dog), and it was then demolished using more pyrotechnics than can be a good sign for a studio comedy that is not a Tropic Thunder- or Team America-style parody.

Circus itself, on that evening, was crammed with the Youth in Revolt crew, who were having their wrap party, and the wall-to-wall people would not have made for a good, casual evening. It didn't stop me from quickly guzzling a gin and tonic before anyone else showed up, but once Noa arrived, we sat outside and waited for Tracy, Lisa, and Julie to show so we could make new plans. Some guy asked us to keep an eye on his bike so it didn't get stolen. The bike quickly vanished when we weren't paying attention, so I hope that guy had returned.

After some confusion, we all decided to walk a bunch of blocks to the Heidelberg, a pub that supposedly also offered karaoke. Unfortunately, it was "ladies and ladies only" night at the Heidelberg, so my genitals once again ruined things for everyone. (Noa suggested I pose as her seeing-eye man, but we would likely have giggled far too much to pull that off.) Thereafter, we walked a bunch more blocks to sportsbar The Arena. This prompted an interesting e-mail conversation the following morning with my hilarious friends and fellow copy editors Kerri and Alex, who'd asked me how the karaoke went:

Kerri:
i have always somehow known never to go in the arena.

Alex:
i don't even know what that is.

Me:
My brother took me in The Arena once before, but it was on a deserted weekday afternoon, so it was tolerable then. (They offered something that purported to be "deep-fried pizza" that I was eager to try. It was okay.) Last night, we were confronted with two fratboys standing in the middle of the room bellowing what I believe was an Eagles song while cheered on by a ring of like-mindless sportsbar regulars, and I immediately went into a position that my therapist used to describe as "cocooning," and sought refuge on the pavement outside.

Kerri:
deep fried pizza sounds delicious.

you should work in anti-pr. is that a field?

Me:
I believe anti-PR is called "LiveJournal."

Alex:
where is this place? i was picturing a colisseum!

Me:
(I shouldn't imply that everyone who frequents sportsbars is mindless. That was an overgeneralization. I was merely speaking of the vibe given off at The Arena last night, which was the frattiest of the fratty. It felt like an East Lansing bar.)

Kerri:
thank god cuz dissing sportsbars full of frat boys is the quickest way to piss off a lesbian.

Alex:
i've got to say i have always been anti-frat boys and bought into all the generalizations. This lasted up until my brother joined a frat at State. Sure he might like DMB and be a huge stoner, but he's also really smart and into science and reads tons of books and had a great heart. Am I biased? Sure. However, I enjoy when sterotypes that I hold become fractured. And he did it for me with the frat sterotype.

Kerri:
i think this just means your brother's not the typical frat boy.

Me:
I think it's on Washington and Fourth? Somewhere on Fourth. It's just a big sportsbar. I think the presence of deep-fried pizza is about the only remarkable thing I could tell you about it. (I'm not sad I ate the deep-fried pizza or anything. I was just expecting something incredibly revelatory, and it was merely good.)

I understand what you mean about painting all fratboys with the same brush. I know it's dangerous to lump people into stereotypical groups like that, and I shouldn't use "fratboy" as shorthand for That Guy, because I know it doesn't always apply... "Loud Vince Vaughn-wannabe macho misogynist homophobic asshole" just doesn't trip off the tongue in the same way, though. I'll have to think of a better term.

Alex:
i wanna f*ck vince vaughn

Me:
I actually mostly like Vince Vaughn. I reserve my contempt for guys who've at some point been told that they resemble/act like/are as funny as him and take it as a license to approximate his top-of-the-lungs motormouthed arrogance from Swingers without any of the charm.

Alex:
it's ok chris. we *believe* that you mostly like vince vaughn types and fratboys

Kerri:
he'd probably like your brother. so would i probably. but i also like my stereotypes, especially ones i'm attached to like "the typical fratboy" and "the typical ann arborite" etc.

Alex:
what about the typical lesbian?

Kerri:
another useful one! the typical lesbian refers to "fratboys" a lot.

Alex:
do frat boys wear Merrel shoes?

Kerri:
i don't think so. that's your queer ass.

Me:
You're right, though. I do apologize for overgeneralizing. I shouldn't do that. My social anxieties aren't their fault or their problem, so I shouldn't toss around words like "mindless." Even if they were singing The Eagles.

Alex:
o my god. chris you are too funny. if you thought i was calling you out on some level, i really wasn't.

i'm sure your description was right on. i mean, dude, who sings Eagles for karaoke?

Kerri:
see chris--with alex, never be sorry. you'll be sorry!

Me:
No, I didn't take it like you were angry or anything. You're just correct; if I want to practice whatever "love and kindness" thing that I profess to believe in, I shouldn't do that. (Unless it's really, really funny to do so. But this wasn't quite funny enough to justify it.)

This is what it's like in my brain! Only noisier, with more cartoon devils with pitchforks whooping and hopping around.

Last time we were at Circus, incidentally, someone did "Hotel California." All 20 damn minutes of it.

Alex:
that's just brutal

oh and the karaoke song too

ha. joking.

Kerri:
i feel love and kindness and making fun of fratboys are not incommensurate. they don't seem to be one of the more systematically marginalized and misrepresented groups. therefore, even not funny comments make sense to me, if for no other reason than insecure self-defense.

Me:
"Insecure self-defense"?! That's where I'm a Viking! :)

I see what you're saying too. I just don't like thinking that I'd offend a perfectly cool person like Alex's brother while making fun of people who may really deserve to be made fun of. I certainly don't think that fratboys as a group are marginalized in any way, of course. I just always appreciate when someone points out to me that I should be more thoughtful and precise with how I phrase things...

I dunno. As long as I can still use the word "douchesack" a lot, I think I'll be happy, because I am very fond of that word.

[End of e-mails]

After further hesitation about where to go, Julie finally started walking across the street and called to us, "Phil! I'm standing!" in the voice of Karla Tamburrelli in City Slickers, which made me laugh. We finally wound up at a downstairs club called Babs (there may be an apostrophe somewhere in there). No karaoke and the most truly repellent techno music ever made, but it was a cozy little lounge, and we all got some good conversing and drinking accomplished.

A karaoke do-over was arranged for the Tuesday before I had to head back to Maine, this time at Conor O'Neill's pub. Noa and I got there an hour or two early to eat dinner, since it's important to carbo-load before karaoke. We ate boxty, a yummy Irish potato pancake/veggie thingy. (From Wikipedia's entry on boxty: "Boxty was seen as so much a part of the local culture in the areas in which it was made, that the following poem was written: 'Boxty on the griddle/Boxty in the pan/If you can't make boxty/You'll never get a man.'" This article does not cite any references or sources.) We lingered over our dinner and drinks and had a very nice talk of the sort that made me wish Noa and I had grown up together as friends.

Shortly thereafter, Tracy arrived with her sister, whose name I have shamefully forgotten. Lisa brought along this nifty LED spinning top she'd acquired, which captivated her easily-hypnotized coworkers (me). Julie, her friend Simone, and Julie's sister whose name I have ignominiously forgotten also arrived. Juli showed up last and was very excited that she'd walked past a house party that was blaring "Electric Demons in Love" by The Electric Six off a balcony. At some point, we were joined by a guy who was most likely named Jeremy, and who spent quite a bit of time hitting on Tracy and then her sister, both times leading off creepily by talking about his court-ordered alcohol counseling.

The karaoke set-up at Conor O'Neill's was quite a departure from Circus's, in that it wasn't so much designed to give you Jackpot-esque delusions of stardom as to keep your off-key caterwauling corralled in a way that would not interfere with the TV-watchin' and conversations of the pub's other patrons. A mike and a monitor were placed in an out-of-the-way corner, beneath a giant-screen TV. For most of the night, the TV was broadcasting NBC's Olympics coverage, and if you were willing to cede a little rhythmic precision, you could pretend that the gymnasts' floor exercises were dances to supplement whatever song was being belted out below, like in the Chemical Brothers' "Electrobank" video, so it actually made an entertaining visual accompaniment.

Julie and Simone sang that song by The Darkness whose name I've never bothered to learn. Tracy, having decided that Bowie's "Space Oddity" would necessitate the uncomfortable straddling of several octaves, wrestled with an Olivia Newton-John number that thankfully had nothing to do with Grease (yes, we had to sit through somebody doing "Summer Nights"; if you go to karaoke night, you will have to deal with that and "Love Shack"). Lisa sang "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm" by the Crash Test Dummies and could fairly be accused of not taking the song seriously. Simone did a counterintuitively sexy, Nouvelle Vague-style version of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." Noa and Tracy's sister giggled their way through Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" (it's very difficult to get through all those "I know"s with a straight face).

Noa blew everyone away by taking on "It's Oh So Quiet" by Bjork. Julie joined her to dance and do the "Shh! Shh!" bits, which added the sort of absurdity that the song requires, but Noa managed an unthinkably perfect imitation of Bjork, right down to the accent and every loonball vocal tremor. I pratically expected her to attack a photojournalist on the way back to our table, so uncannily did she embody Iceland's pixie lunatic.

I sang "Punk Rock Girl" by The Dead Milkmen, largely out of loyalty to one of my favorite bands ever, but also because I still aspire to sing with the same snotty, tuneful, endearing nerdiness that makes Joe Jack Talcum's voice my very favorite in rock history.

Someone discovered that the karaoke book had a section for songs marked "specialty," which turned out to mean something entirely different from when that label is applied in video stores. It turns out this was a section for traditional songs and hymns. The comedy possibilities were endless, but Lisa, Simone, and Tracy's sister finally settled on a raucous singalong rendition of "Home on the Range." I think some guy threw them some money.

Noa and I thought about dueting on The Postal Service's "Nothing Better," but no Postal Service songs were available. However, during a break between performances, the guy running the equipment used "Such Great Heights" as a filler track, so Noa and I quietly sang along with it while each holding other conversations. It was a fun little moment. Eventually, we sang "Don't Dream It's Over," and I accidentally took the first verse even though Noa said she wanted to sing whichever verse had the line "You can catch the deluge in a paper cup," because she likes Neil Finn's accent on the word deluge. I am a horrible friend to one and all.

Late in the evening, Lisa took this photo of Noa and me with her phone:

I like how we look like we're up to mischief. Combined with the staticky picture quality, it makes me think of a WarGames-style prank gone too far, like we were joking around about beaming our image onto The Big Board at NORAD and accidentally did it for real. This picture makes me happy.

As did the entire evening. I had so much fun with everybody and there was such an unusually comfortable level of camaraderie that my heart breaks a little every time I think back on it. I could never explain exactly why, but it was one of those nights where no one thing happened that you could point to as being especially revelatory, but scores of individual moments of silliness, emotion, conversation, and insight all added up to the sort of unpredictably rich experience from which ineffably strong bonds are forged between friends. At least, that was how I came away feeling, and I'm very grateful for it.

And on a completely unrelated note, here's why Bev cracks me up:

[I am staring listlessly at our cable guide, looking for anything that will be less dull than Unbreakable, which we are currently watching.]
BEV: Turn it to World's Sexiest Men. Let's see who the world's sexiest men are.
[I turn it to the channel on which World's Sexiest Men is airing.]
COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: ... Kellogg's Smart Start.
BEV: Disagree!

CURRENT MUSIC: Palo Santo by Shearwater.
CURRENT MOOD:
Vexed beyond all reason by Henry Roth, the ersatz Tim Gunn who is constantly barging into the sewing room on Project Runway Australia. Obviously, only Tim Gunn is Tim Gunn, but the last thing I need is a smug hybrid of Greg Proops and Admiral Stockdale taking that role.
CURRENT MOST BIZARRE PARAGRAPH I'VE EVER READ ABOUT FILMMAKING TROUBLES:
Regarding Deepa Mehta's first, aborted attempt to make her film Water: "After two takes into the first shot of the movie, government authorities hustled their way onto the set. Law and order was at risk, they declared, and filming must stop immediately. We were forced to evacuate the location. One key protester had taken a boat out into the middle of the Ganges, consumed poison, tied a rock around his waist, and jumped into the water, yelling that Deepa Mehta and her film were his reason for attempting suicide. Days later the press revealed that the man, who was rushed to the hospital and survived, was a professional suicide attempter, employed by various political parties to attempt his own execution for various political reasons. This had been his sixth suicide attempt, and this was the reason given for closing the film down. Law and order was in jeopardy."
TIME:
6:47 p.m.

Doot? | |

Tuesday, August 19, 2008:

As I mentioned, I spent the middle of June through last Friday living in Ann Arbor, putting in another two months at Mathematical Reviews, as is my calling. I had an unequivocally spectacular summer out there, and specific topic-based entries will follow. For now, however, enjoy the following excerpts from the journal I kept while away.

*     *     *

The trip to Michigan from Maine was surprisingly stress-free. I downloaded about 40 hours' worth of unreleased Scharpling & Wurster calls, so I had plenty of entertainment for the journey. My favorite bit came in the middle of a call in which Jon Wurster plays a brusque, sleazy convention magnate, responsible for fan conventions such as CerealCon and AssassinCon '92 (which featured Sirhan Sirhan's nephew as a guest speaker):

WURSTER: At NirvanaCon '98, we've got Spencer, the baby from the cover of Nevermind, who'll be signing autographs.
SCHARPLING: Oh yeah? How old is he now?
WURSTER: Tommy, can I say the F word?
SCHARPLING: What? No!
WURSTER: Okay. He's seven or eight.

Those kind of left-field interjections are my favorite parts of Scharpling & Wurster calls.

So yeah, apart from my car getting disassembled and reassembled by Quebecois customs agents, the drive through Canada was pretty pleasant. I stopped in Toronto for dinner with Amanda and Sean, who were, naturally, tremendously gracious and friendly. We ate white pizza, drank Keith's IPA (which Amanda described as her "gateway beer" because it's the first beer she's ever tried that she has enjoyed), and chatted, accompanied by the friendly mutterings of their parakeets and the beautiful view of Toronto's financial district (I think?) through their living room window. Amanda played the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album as we sat, and it really was as good as she's always saying.

One interesting tidbit we learned as we chatted: Sean and I were both at the Radiohead show in Barrie, Ontario, on the Amnesiac tour. As Sean was apparently a denizen of George Starostin's Music Babble message board (along with me and Amanda) long before he or Amanda had ever met, it's interesting to discover that our paths had previously crossed in another way.

I got lost on the way out of their apartment building. Turns out it wasn't entirely my fault; the fire doors had closed on the way to the elevator.

*     *     *

The family that lives behind my parents isn't outwardly fond of their children. The mom especially, apparently, punctuates her dialogue with shrieks that make the neighbors pop out of their houses in the fear that someone has been murdered.

DAD: She's such a bitch!
MOM: Yeah, it really doesn't seem like the son can do anything right in her opinion.
DAD: She's a bitch.
MOM: Jeffrey, we get it. You don't have to keep saying it.
DAD: [sotto voce] She's got chubby legs.

*     *     *

I made a new friend at Math Reviews, Noa. I'm pretty sure that we'd been introduced during my previous MR stint, but only briefly. Noa now works in the bibliographic services department, and has great taste in music. Oddly enough, she was also at the Radiohead show in Barrie that Sean and I attended. Seems that Radiohead show was the Woodstock of our generation. (Or, in my particular case, the Altamont.) I haven't made a new friend in so long that I'd forgotten how invigorating it can be; just to get an e-mail from someone and think, "Yes! Someone who thinks like I do; i.e., correctly!"

*     *     *

I copy edited a review today from a guy named Christian Wieners. I e-mailed Bev with the suggestions, "A snack to accompany your sacramental wine at the tent revival? A chat room for gay fundamentalists?"

*     *     *

Helped Tim and Jess move yesterday. ... After everything was safely inside their new apartment (which is gorgeous), Tim and Aaron went to take the U-Haul back and Jess and John went to procure us pizza and beer. Before everyone took off, Jess asked what kind of beer we wanted, and there was a moment of silence as each of us contemplated what kind of beer we could even choke down in our sweaty, dehydrated state. Aaron, with perfect timing, said, "Get us a nice, thick stout. A winter oatmeal stout!" Best laugh of the day, I think.

Aaron's wife Emily, Tim and Jess's friends Chris and Dave, and I sat in exhausted silence for a couple minutes, and then Emily and I reassembled the futon so we'd have someplace to sit besides the floor. I hope the stench of my sweaty ass doesn't linger on that futon for too long.

Chris was poking around through Tim and Jess's stuff, before proclaiming, "Nope; doesn't look like they have any games we could play."

Emily indicated a box of Corningware on the coffee table and deadpanned, "We could play Corningware. It's great."

CHRIS: How do you play?
EMILY: We each close our eyes and pick a piece of Corningware out of the box, and whoever gets the biggest piece... wins?
CHRIS: Nah, it takes forever to set up.

After everyone returned, we all sat around eating, drinking, and talking for a little while. Jess brought up the two high school charity car washes we'd passed in the caravan from their old apartment to their new one. Both were staffed with depressing high school bikini girls.

EMILY: Did you notice that the first car wash had, like, only two bikini girls outside but then the second one had seven or eight? I bet if we kept going along Ford Road, it would've kept getting exponentially greater.
JESS: The first car wash also had a SpongeBob bounce hut.
TIM: That would be the one to go to.
ME: Definitely.
JOHN: Yes.
AARON: Mm-hm.
EMILY: So SpongeBob trumps bikini girls, huh?
JESS: Did you see how many belly rings there were?
ME: Yep, a shimmering sea of them.
TIM: One of them did a kick for Aaron.
EMILY: Of course.
JESS: So did you pull the U-Haul in for a wash?
ME: "Make sure you get up on top."
TIM: "There's a lot of bird shit up there."

*     *     *

I find myself walking on tiptoes occasionally just because I found Summer Glau's barefoot prancing on Firefly so graceful that part of me hopes to come away with a bit of elegance myself.

*     *     *

I visited the 'rents tonight and watched the Tigers game with them. During one of the commercial breaks, FSN aired a PSA from something called the "Foundation for a Better Life" (whose website insists that it's a nonprofit organization not affiliated with any particular religion--or cult--but I nevertheless have my suspicions) in which a lone kid on a baseball field shouts, "I'm the greatest batter in the world!" before tossing the ball in the air, swinging at it, and whiffing enough times to strike out. In the commercial, he looks dejected for a moment, brightens, and shouts, "I'm the greatest pitcher in the world!" and the tagline is "Optimism: Pass it on." I commented that the PSA should've ended with the kid sadly trudging off the field, bat dragging in the dirt, and the slogan, "Not all dreams can come true." (Which I stole from Dinosaur Comics.) I don't think Mom or Dad thought it was nearly as funny as I did.

After the game, Tigers manager Jim Leyland was interviewed, and took what seemed to me a bizarrely disinterested attitude toward the very exciting and ultimately unjust game that had just taken place. (The top of the 10th inning began with one of the Tigers being called out at home even though even a cursory replay shows that there is at least half a foot between the catcher's mitt and the sliding Tiger as he crosses home.) Mom said, "I keep trying to think of the perfect adjective to describe Jim Leyland and I can't quite come up with it."

"Laissez-faire?" I suggested.

"Not quite," she said.

"Fatalistic?"

"Um... maybe, but no."

"Insouciant?"

I like my conversations with Mom because we get to use lots of words.

*     *     *

Yesterday was just work. Robin is really cute in her support of Obama. I know that, like me, she would prefer it if he were rather further to the left on a lot of issues, but she knows she's going to vote for him anyhow, so she is throwing herself wholeheartedly behind him. She e-mailed me a YouTube clip of Barack effortlessly throwing a three-pointer on some basketball court at which he was speaking to some military folks, with a note that said something like, "Is there anything he can't do? How cool is he?" So I e-mailed her back with a note that said, "Sure, the liberal media will spread this around, but do you see any coverage of McCain's amazing back-to-back ringers in his outstanding 'Casual Game of Horseshoes for Our Troops'?" Robin thought that was funny.

*     *     *

Robin and Alex invited me to go on a walk with them around 1:00, and we wandered around the Math Reviews neighborhood. It was a very nice day and there were lots of dogs about.

I saw a campaign sign that said, "Bobrin: Democrat for Drain Commissioner!" I think I've found the line where I stop caring about people's party affiliations.

Robin got into mom mode and started giving me guff about the fact that my shirts are always wrinkled and I look like I sleep in a hamper. Fair enough, since my clothes have gone immediately from my parents' dryer into my duffel bag, where they remain until they are deployed. "It only takes a minute to fold them!" Robin started to lecture, and Alex and I laughed at her for being Mom. Robin is a trip.

*     *     *

After work, Noa and I spent the evening hanging out downtown. She bought me supper at NYPD Pizza (big, greasy slices, like when Sbarro's used to be good) and then took me to the kids' section at the library, where they have a great aquarium with many beautiful, multicolored tropical fish. We were there to see Porky, the big puffer fish, who was swimming determinedly in circles around the tank, looking like the very happiest fish in the entire world. He has a very expressive face; his mouth always hangs open, but there's either a tongue or some sort of flap inside that he moves up and down, so he looks like he's trying to communicate. I think he recognized Noa, because he swam right up to her and, just judging from the way his mouth flap moved, he actually looked like he was mouthing, "Hi!" I love him.

There was also a little puffer fish in the tank who was very speedy and adorable. He wouldn't stop for anything; just kept swimming 'round and 'round the tank. Noa said he was kind of sketchy looking. He does have kind of a shifty look about him, but I suspect it comes from self-consciousness about his size. There was a very pretty clownfish who kept hanging out by the filter, which I guess was breathing very soothing bubbles onto his scales. The informative laminated cards taped to the top of the tank claimed that the Naso Tang fish likes to eat zucchini and broccoli. So maybe someone accidentally spilled their salad in the tank at some point? Because how would you find that out, really?

After that, we went to the Dawn Treader bookshop looking for those Helen Cresswell books I've been hunting. No luck, but I bought Noa a used copy of Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastrointerologist (she said she would buy it herself, but I insisted because there's a possibility she'll flat-out hate it, and if that's the case, she'll be able to console herself with the knowledge that she didn't spend any money on it). When I brought it to the cash register, the kind, older-middle-aged man behind the counter smiled at me and quoted, "You've got a car bomb." I told him that's the first piece that always comes to my mind too, and giggled. As we left the store, he started reciting the rest of the short story "The Suggestiveness Of One Stray Hair In An Otherwise Perfect Coiffure" to his coworker.

We went into a comic book store and I was good and just bought Bev a copy of the first volume of The Firefly Companion (we have only been able to find the second one around Bangor). Down in the basement, we had to be very quiet because there were some nerds playing some nerd game, but Noa was pleased to see that they had a replica of Buffy's gravestone from the end of season five. ("She saved the world a lot.") Then we had to wait in line behind someone who kept asking questions about some sort of, I don't know, role-playing accessory, and the clerk kept talking about all the available special powers and it was very silly and took forever. I flipped through the Firefly book to make sure there was a big cheesecake picture of Adam Baldwin for Bev's... needs, and Noa said, "I can't believe Bev has a crush on him. He's the third... fourth most attractive man on the show."

"Really? You're into Badger?" I replied.

"Shut up," she said.

When she dropped me at my car, there was a friendly tabby cat in the playground next to where I parked. I scratched his ears and he closed his eyes and affectionately pressed his head against my hand the way cats do, and then he bolted.

*     *     *

I helped Lisa feed some cats she'd been taking care of while Bert and one of her other neighbors were out of town. She thought it was funny that I instinctively said, "It was nice meeting you," to the cats as we left each house. She told me a story about one of her friends who would always deputize one cat as being "in charge" when the humans were leaving the house, and the cat in charge would rotate each time, so no one felt left out. I sheepishly admitted to doing the same thing, except the rotation includes stuffed animals as well.

*     *     *

At work, I discovered that tonight was the last night that My Winnipeg would be playing at the Michigan Theater--Guy Maddin's new film, about which I've been excited for awhile, and thus the sort of film that Bangor repels as though they're two positively charged ions--so I asked Noa if she felt like going. We got pizza again because we are both pizza fiends, and she wasted one of her Michigan Theater passes on the likes of me.

The film was excellent and damn near indescribable. It's presented as a stagy post-Michael Moore first-person documentary in which the character of Guy Maddin threatens to escape the city in which he's lived his entire life, and in the process gives a history of Winnipeg told through real stock footage, entirely fabricated silliness, and narration that's delivered with such obnoxious art-student gravitas that it's simultaneously impossible to take seriously and credibly forceful. At the same time, Maddin has sublet his childhood home for a month, coaxed his mother there to live with him (played, in My Winnipeg, by silent film actress Ann Savage), and hired actors to play his siblings as part of an ostensible "experiment" to see if any revelations will arise to explain his attachment to the city.

The "experiment" portion of the film is flat-out hilarious as a parody of gimmicky documentarians like Morgan Spurlock and Kirby Dick (whose name I initially typed as "Toby Keith," which would've made the rest of this review extra-inscrutable), who have a tendency to insert themselves into their studies to no discernible end. There is clearly nothing to be learned from the fictional Maddin's re-creations of, say, the daily attempts to straighten a hallway runner that refuses to be straightened, or from sitting in front of the TV watching the same local programming his family used to watch (a creation too funny to give away, but one that's also completely of a piece with the Winnipeg Maddin imagines), but his fake family goes through the motions for him anyway.

(There's a particularly mean--and funny--swipe at Moore, too, as Maddin high-mindedly decries the media's coverage of striking workers as "Bolskevik rapists" when, in fact, that's exactly what they're revealed to be.)

What's disarming, though, is how Maddin manages to paint a portrait of this goofy, straw-man Winnipeg as a city full of folly and corruption without ever truly seeming less than fond of it. My Winnipeg doesn't turn on its titular city with both barrels the way South Park does. I believe Maddin shared his fellow citizens' outrage at the demolition of the old hockey arena, just as I thought it was funny when his documentarian character gravely went into the condemned building for one last piss in the urinal trough. I believe he finds something genuinely inspiring in the First Nations legend of magnetic underground rivers that cross exactly beneath the fork of Winnipeg's two major rivers, just as I admired his incessant repetition of "the forks beneath the forks" for its bullseye imitation of the cheapo documentary tactic of repeating narrated words ad infinitum in the hopes of thus somehow imbuing them with meaning. He employs a light touch with the people of Winnipeg and their daily ironies, real or imagined.

Beneath all the sharply observed genre parody, and just as in The Saddest Music in the World, there's a great deal of imagination, subtly innovative camerawork, and, at unexpected intervals, sequences of completely counterintuitive emotion. It's a very funny film, but it's not a film in which the laughs rise homogenously throughout the theater; rather, an individual shot or turn of a phrase might prompt guffaws from one or two people in the room, and the next shot will tickle two different people. The laughs proceed thusly like a Whack-a-Mole game, and there comes a point where you're never really sure which lines are the laugh lines and which aren't, as the whole movie eventually blooms into a believable, dreamlike reality. I doubt there's a single verifiable fact about Winnipeg in the entire film, but I also fully believe that it's as emotionally true to the city's atmosphere as any straight documentary could be.

*     *     *

Lisa had returned from vacation just today, so I caught her up on some gossip and sent her an e-card that said, "Sorry your post-vacation workload has completely negated any benefits of your vacation." She said that she really enjoyed the mix I made for her to take on her trip and that her stay in NYC was short enough that she could still appreciate the very particular sort of filth that signifies, "Wow, I'm on a NYC subway!" rather than "Wow, this subway is filthy!"

*     *     *

T-Bone said that the first thing he's going to buy when he gets the job [as a technical services worker at a place called Epic] is a set of illegal Jarts. The lawn dart game with the heavy, stabby end that enables the darts to stick in the ground--or the skulls of passersby, which is why they've been outlawed. (Infinitely superior, honestly, to the "safe" version whose ends are rounded and full of sand. Without the metal point, the darts bounce and slide a little bit on the ground, which is annoying for everyone, but I suspect it's particularly vexing for a sporting purist like T-Bone.) They've been banned for some time, but he found a place online where he can get a set for $50.

T-Bone also told me that he'd gone to see Matthew Ryan at a local bar a week or two ago, and most of the audience wasn't really interested in the concert but was just there to drink (which is odd, since there was a $15 cover), and Ryan himself was pretty drunk, so the show was a little sloppy. However, for the first encore, Ryan grabbed his acoustic guitar, told everyone who was interested to gather 'round at the front of the stage, and he climbed down there and sang to a crowd of about 20, un-miked and unplugged, for 20 minutes or so, performing requests from anyone who'd care to call one out. T-Bone requested a song that required a harmonica, and Ryan told him, "It's just cruel to make a man who's this drunk play two instruments at once," but he did it, stopping in the middle to exclaim to T-Bone, "You know, this is the saddest song in the world!" That sounds like it was really cool.

Apparently, T-Bone has gotten into a new author called John Nance, who writes "aviation thrillers." Commercial aviation thrillers, from the way he described it. Thrillers that are set on commercial airplanes. It's a pretty specific niche to write in, it seems to me, but I suppose it does have the advantage of a built-in ticking clock (fuel) and a tense, claustrophobic setting. T-Bone and I don't like the same kinds of books.

Another book he read recently was something called Nightfall (or thereabouts) by Nelson DeMille. T-Bone said, "For the first 560 pages, it was the best book I'd ever read and I was ready to run out and buy all the other books by this guy. The book is 562 pages long. The ending is the biggest piece-of-shit cop-out I've ever read and it convinced me to never read another book by this chump."

I really love listening to T-Bone talk. Whether he's enthusiastic about something or upset about something, he's completely wholehearted about it. In my family, we still talk about the time he was watching a NASCAR race, rooting for Bryan Herta, and all I heard from the other room was this, without him taking a breath: "HERTA'S GONNA WIN! ONE LAP TO GO, HE'S IN THE LEAD! HE'S GOING TO WIN HIS FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP! GO! GO! GO! NO! ZANARDI, YOU STUPID ITALIAN! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? NO!" (Alex Zanardi had somehow crashed into Herta or something.) It doesn't come through in text, but literally in the same breath, he went from bellowing from the heights of utter euphoria to bellowing out of complete dejection. It was remarkable.

He also directed me to a photo he got featured on passiveaggressivenotes.com.

Very sleepy. It's 7:50, so I should probably attempt to stay awake for a couple more hours...

*     *     *

Adrienne and I went to see Mamma Mia! in the middle of the afternoon, because we'd seen the stage version in Toronto and liked it. The film was just ludicrous. On the stage, the fact that there's a bare minimum of plot and character development doesn't matter because the entire thing has an affable, "Hey gang, let's put on a play as an excuse to sing a bunch of ABBA songs!" vibe. On screen, however, with fancy Mediterranean locations and recognizable nonsinger leads Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, the whole multimillion-dollar endeavor seems so slight that I kept giggling out of sheer astonishment that it even counted as a film. (I can't even say the story seems contrived because that implies some effort.)

That said, I didn't hate it or anything. It's impossible to hate a movie that's sweetly misguided enough to spontaneously present "Dancing Queen" as an anthem of female empowerment, and as disasters go, it's hard to imagine another one with so much of its running time devoted to such indelibly enjoyable music. Streep can't sing, and Brosnan appeared to be completely confused by the fact that he was singing ("The director was having me do the oddest thing with my voice: it wasn't quite yelling, but it wasn't quite talking either..."), but everyone was clearly having fun. Colin Firth managed to emerge unscathed, actually. He has a nice, Davy Jones-style singing voice and managed to give a likably lightweight performance without appearing to phone it in.

*     *     *

Tuesday night, I went over to Steve and Jessica Knowlton's place for supper, and then Steve, his buddy Derek, and I (along with Derek's supernaturally patient girlfriend, Hannah) drove to this great old church in Ypsilanti to get some recording done. We set up on a stage on the top floor of the church, where the acoustics were marvelous. I played a keyboard part that I'd written for some of Steve's lyrics on Tim's MicroKorg, and both Steve and Derek seemed to enjoy it, so we managed to cobble together a song on Steve's four-track. While recording percussion, Derek came up with the idea of sitting an open snare drum on the stage and stomping his foot next to it, which had the effect of making it sound like the snare and bass drum were being hit simultaneously. It had a nice, lo-fi drum effect that reminded me of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" for some reason.

We recorded the keyboard and percussion at the same time (me managing to play through the keyboard bit without a single flubbed note, which never happens), and then Steve added a bass part and Derek added a guitar part that sounded a lot like Dean Ween's spacier work on quebec. As much of a control-freak ProTools knob-twiddling overdubber as I am, the evening reminded me of the romance of being in a rock band: Steve and Derek's respective parts were very clever and also nothing that I could ever have come up with, and the song was much better for the contributions of three people than it would've been if I'd tried to build it up myself in my dank little apartment.

Hannah napped on a bench for most of the session until a bat flew in through the open window. From that point on, she sat in the corner of the stage and kept brushing her fingers through her hair to make sure the bat hadn't lit on her head.

*     *     *

I crashed with Amanda and Sean on Saturday night, on my trip back to Maine. Once again, loads of fun.

Sean did some searching for videos online and showed us a hilarious dramatization of the 1917 Halifax explosion that was one of a series of Canadian pride PSAs that aired on CBC when we were growing up, as well as a remarkable confrontation between Canada's then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and a slow-on-the-draw reporter during the October Crisis of 1970. The latter struck me as kind of shocking, as I am not used to lengthy, uninterrupted, unsupervised, and combative dialogue between world leaders and reporters, let alone an unbroken six minutes of fairly frank discussion. Trudeau comes across as kind of spooky in his detached determination, but he's a quick-witted son of a bitch.

Sean is a fount of knowledge about Canadian history and government, and it's very interesting to hear him explain things. For someone who grew up, what, 20 miles from the Canadian border, I know embarrassingly little about the country. I didn't realize, for instance, that in 1999, Canada introduced a new territory called Nunavut until last year, when T-Bone called to say that he'd discovered it on his geography-themed shower curtain, and wanted to know whether I'd heard of it either.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Fountain soundtrack. Just as pretty as the film, but a thousand percent less tedious.
CURRENT MOOD:
On the road to Drinkytown!
CURRENT DANNY MCBRIDE SATURATION LEVEL:
The very high end of acceptable.
TIME:
10:53 p.m.

Doot? | |

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