Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fandom gone wrong

In an attempt to make folding laundry a little bit more palatable, I put on a documentary on Netflix Streaming called I Think We're Alone Now. This documentary had been recommended to me by my friend Rachel. When I realized that it was about a couple of very mentally disturbed people who were obsessed with late 80s teen pop star Tiffany, I immediately thought of the documentary For the Love of Dolly (see my post on that movie here.) At only 64 minutes long, I figured it was at least worth a shot.

The stars of the movie are Jeff Turner and Kelly McCormick. Turner is a 50-something year old man from Santa Cruz, CA with Asperger's syndrome and his obsession with Tiffany resulted in her getting a three-year restraining order on him in 1989. In my mind, that restraining order needs an extension. He gleefully shows off clippings of the incident and talks about how Tiffany is his "life-long friend." He goes to her concerts, writes her letters (many of which he shows have "refused - return to sender" written across them) and remembers the time when he kissed Tiffany. Inside his small apartment are countless bits of Tiffany memorabilia along with large amounts of other junk that looks makes it look like he just barely missed qualifying for Hoarders. Perhaps most bizarre amongst all this is a retro-fitted bicycle helmet he calls a "radionics machine" that he wears to "be in touch with Tiffany." Kelly McCormick of Denver, CO, an intersexed person who identifies as female, serves as an intense counterpoint to Turner's almost child-like glee when discussing their idol. Eventually the two meet in Las Vegas for a Tiffany concert.

As I was watching this film, I must say that I didn't have very many positive emotions. I was uncomfortable and at times, angry, but mostly, I was sad. Although both of these people would have me backing slowly away or trying to find the quickest escape route, I couldn't help but notice the absolute loneliness that both of them must feel. To be so isolated in our modern society must be very difficult to handle - it's no wonder they've channeled a lot of this negative emotion into an obsession with a former teen star. I don't think that either Turner or McCormick would hurt a fly, but I found their obsession a bit disturbing and it made me wonder why no one is helping them when clearly, they need some sort of help.

That said, I don't agree with many reviews of the film that take the filmmakers to task for exploiting Turner and McCormick. I think that they deliberately tried to portray them in the best possible light. I was sympathetic to their situation, although I didn't condone their behavior that came out of it. If anyone came out looking bad in this movie, it's Tiffany herself who, despite the late 80s restraining order on Turner, continues to feed his obsession by meeting for a few minutes after shows and at various conventions - the most surprising of which was Glamourcon which featured adult film stars and Playboy playmates (Tiffany is there because she posed for Playboy) It also featured the hilariously blurred out faces of other convention attendees. Has Tiffany come to terms with her stalker and decided that further attempts to restrain him would only serve to invigorate his attempts or does this kind of thing feed her ego? It's hard to tell.

Fan is short for fanatic, so I guess that it might be hard for some to know when they've crossed the line between fandom and psychotic obsessions. For me, I was never much of a Tiffany fan - I did like "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Could've Been" but I always liked Debbie Gibson. And now, they're together in Mega Python vs. Gatoroid which is, sadly, not streaming on Netflix.

I Think We're Alone Now is worth the 64 minutes it took to watch it. It's like that train wreck that you can't look away from.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Pluto's 2006 loss of planetary status was not easy for many of us to take. I remember being conflicted by the International Astronomical Union's decision to relegate Pluto to "dwarf planet" status. Reading Mike Brown's How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming not only sealed it in my mind that Pluto doesn't deserve to be a planet but it was also a hell of a fun read from the man who, had Pluto remained a planet, would have been the discoverer of the tenth planet.

Brown is an astronomer based out of Caltech in Pasadena, California who spent the early part of his career scanning the Kuiper belt - a collection of bodies out past the orbit of Neptune widely believed to be the frozen equivalent of the asteroid belt that exists between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In his quest to discover the tenth planet, he and his telescope scanned the whole sky looking for objects 55 times further from the sun than the Earth is. Like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, finding a planet involved comparing photos taken on sequential nights and looking for the "thing that moved." As you might imagine, it's no easy task and reminded me that being an astronomer is far more tedious and much less sexy than it might seem. Like being a researcher in any science, you really gotta LOVE it.

Brown eventually discovered not just one but several Kuiper belt objects and, in so doing, turned our popular perception of the Solar System on its ear. His discovery of these Pluto-like objects led the IAU in 2006 to take up the topic of the "definition of a planet." The more he thought about it, the more he felt that none of the KBOs deserved planetary status. He based his argument in an over hundred year old debate when hundreds of newly discovered asteroids in the asteroid belt were being named as planets. Eventually, this nonsense was called off and the asteroids, while named were rightfully removed from the list of planets. In discovering these KBOs and the who-knows-how-many-more there were, the bodies were starting to resemble asteroids rather than planets with discrete orbits. In other words, they didn't deserve to be called planets. There were simply too many of them in the same general vicinity in space.

In the end, I completely agree with this distinction, despite the fact that seeing Pluto go was hard and completely destroyed "Interplanet Janet" on Schoolhouse Rock. And hearing Brown's impassioned endorsement of the IAU's decision when he would have been the only living discoverer of a planet and, therefore, had the most to gain or lose based on the decision, lends an air of credence to the decision. If the man whose discovery was disqualified as a planet based on his own argument isn't qualified to speak on the subject, who is? It ultimately showed that in hard science, there is no room for emotion. Just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no emotion in research science. However, that doesn't translate well to non-scientists, especially when we're talking about things as ingrained as "how many planets are there in the Solar System" and even more so when it looks like we're picking on a puny planet that can't defend itself.

A lot of reviews of this book take issue with Brown's insertion of his personal life in the narrative - he married and had his first child during all this. I would argue that the inclusion of this information only enhanced the story. It's kind of similar to how I look at album reviews. Anyone can write a half-assed review or tell a story, but if you can insert your own life and somehow put a spin on it that no one else can, well then you're a step ahead of the game.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is an engaging read that is accessible to everyone, not just science heads like me. Like I said at the beginning of the post, he convinced me that Pluto doesn't belong in the planets. Perhaps he can convince you as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why shouldn't we

I was walking home from work tonight in the dark and cold. It was 28 degrees outside and I didn't bring either a hat or a pair of gloves. I hadn't walked to work in quite a while and it's something I'm trying to remedy but it's proving more difficult to get back on the wagon than I thought it would be. I've been annoyingly sick for over a week now - you know, that kind of sick that never really graduates to a full-on sickness, but still makes you periodically feel like shit. My iPod was on shuffle and oddly enough it pulled two old Barbra Streisand songs in a row. With 10,000 songs on my iPod, what are the chances?

The Mary Chapin Carpenter song "Why Shouldn't We" also played on the way home. I had kind of forgotten about it, but I always thought that it would make a good addition to the UU song book. With a line like "God is all around/Buddha's at the gate/Allah hears your prayers/It's not too late" is espouses a lot of the religious tolerance that UU really is all about. But more than that, it also talked about how it really is human to, as Fox Mulder would say, want to believe.

Belief is a tough nut and certainly a topic that I can't even scratch the surface of at 11:20PM after working a full shift. But what struck me in that song is the first line - "we believe in things we cannot see/why shouldn't we?" I think that for me personally, I have a strong desire to believe in something bigger than myself, but as an ex-Lutheran, I can't bring myself to go running back to the Christian god. There are many times that even I find my lack of faith ot be disturbing, but I'm not sure what the answer is. Once upon a time, I took great comfort in religion which looking back I don't even think I'd recognize that person now. Maybe it's why I love stories of ghosts and UFOs and aliens. Maybe it's why I was pissed that there was nothing in Wikileaks about alien life forms. I don't really believe it, but boy wouldn't it be cool?

But I still believe...or I want to believe. I believe in a lot of stuff that I can't prove or that time and again I've seen proven false because I just feel it so strongly. So maybe my faith isn't as lacking as I think, it's just that, like the things I believe, it's not easily quantifiable.

But as usual, Mary Chapin Carpenter says it better than I ever could. So I sign off with her. Can't you just hear this at a UU service?

We believe in things that we cannot see
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we
Hands that heal can set a chained man free
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we

We believe in peace within every heart
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we
Burning brightly, brightly in the dark
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we

So come on darling feel your spirits rise
Come on children open up your eyes
God is all around
Buddha's at the gate
Allah hears your prayers
It's not too late

And we believe in things that will give us hope
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we
Let your voice be heard, celebrate your vote
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we

We believe in things that make us all the same
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we
Love belongs to all in deed and name
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we

And we believe in things that can't be done
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we
Lift up your heart, put down your gun
Why shouldn't we, why shouldn't we

We believe in things
We're told that we cannot change
Why shouldn't we
We had heroes once, and we will again
Why shouldn't we

So come on darling
Come on children
God is all around, Buddha's at the gate
Allah hears our prayers
It's not too late

Why shouldn't we
Why shouldn't we
Why shouldn't we
Why shouldn't we
Why shouldn't we

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ramona and Beezus and Dan and Anna

As a kid, I enjoyed but didn't love Beverly Cleary's Ramona books. I think had I been a girl, I might have related more to young Ramona who was either a pest, brave or age 8, depending on the book. A few years ago, Heidi and I read all of them out loud to Anna at before bed, a chapter or two at a time and she loved them and, honestly, so did I. There was so much I had forgotten. They are clever and well-written and they deserve their status as modern day classic childrens' books. Most hilarious is how each book is contemporary, even though Ramona ages a year at a time through the series. Ramona may be four in 1955, but it's 1999 when she's in 4th grade.

So it was with great anticipation that Anna and I finally sat down and watched the movie Ramona & Beezus. We had planned to see it at the dollar theater but it must have been there for two and a half minutes (as is common for movies at the dollar theater) because I never saw it show up there. Heidi was working on her rejuvenated iMac (thanks to yours truly) so we decided tonight was the night. There might have been tornadoes and other severe weather in the forecast, bu watch it we did.

I expected to be amused by it. I did not expect to be completely won over by it.

The movie smartly draws plot points from all the Ramona books. All the classic Ramona moments are in there - the toothpaste in the sink, the burr crown, the demise of Picky-Picky the cat, Ramona's dad losing his job, the raw egg vs. the hard-boiled one - and they are all blended effortlessly together in a contemporary telling of the story. The cast is attractive and while it veered occasionally into mushy, I didn't much care because everyone was just so darn cute. A part of me hopes that Joey King (the actress that plays Ramona) fades into obscurity so as not to suffer a Lindsay Lohanesque fate.

I think the fact that I watched this with my own daughter played a huge role in my fondness for the movie. Ramona's dad is played by John Corbett who was vaguely familiar to me until I realized that he was Aiden in Sex & The City - yes, I had to look it up. I am a huge sentimental sucker for stories about dads and their daughters and while it wasn't entirely about that, all the dad-daughter moments hit me squarely in that spot underneath my breastbone. Watching it and anticipating all the previously mentioned classic Ramona moments with Anna, who frequently remembered what was going to happen from the books before I did, was just perfect.

I always kind of semi-joke that sometimes I feel like an absent father - between work and other things, I sometimes feel like I am not home as much as I should be and that I'm missing out on my own daughter's growing up. This would be the point at which Heidi looks at me sternly over her glasses and says "you are NOT an absent father." Watching this movie made me want to get out the longest stretch of blank newsprint ever and fill it up with color, just like Ramona and her dad did in the movie. Towards the end of the movie at the wedding dance between Ramona's Aunt Bea and Howie's uncle Hobart, Ramona's dad gives her a goofy look and does a funny dance as he walks toward her saying it was "time for the father-daughter dance." Upon seeing that, Anna looks at me and says "that's just like you do to me."

With that, I knew I was doing something right.

I am unapologetically sentimental when it comes to my daughter - give me a break, she's the only one I have. It will so be worth the trouble tomorrow morning getting her out of bed because I let her stay up a half hour past her bedtime to finish the movie.

Totally recommended. It even caused me to have a passing fondness for that hideously awful Bangles song "Eternal Flame."

I'm over that now. But I would totally watch that movie again.

(Beverly Cleary is NINETY-FOUR and still writing. All I can say is wow. Heaven help me if I'm still working when I'm in my nineties.)

Three books

Amidst everything else going on this spring, I'm proud to say that I really am keeping up on my reading. Sadly, I'm not keeping up on blogging my progress. I set myself a private goal of reading 30 books this year and I just finished #14 yesterday. At the rate I'm going, I shouldn't have any trouble hitting that goal by the end of June. We'll see though. So consider this a catch up blog post for three books I just finished reading.

Going Postal / Terry Pratchett
My wife is a huge Pratchett fan. I'm pretty sure she's read everything the man has written and she's been on my case to read Going Postal for quite some time now. And to be honest, I needed something light-hearted. After books like Insignificant Others and Thirteen Reasons Why, I was ready to leave the Debbie Downer books behind and read something funny. Heidi says that Going Postal is not only her favorite Pratchett, it's also her favorite book.

Moist von Lipwig has gone to the gallows for his petty crimes and fraud. But rather than die after his hanging, he ends up being offered a job by Lord Veternari running Ankh-Morpork's post office. The post office had long since been abandoned with the Grand Trunk Company's clacks towers (think: telephone/video chat) taking over all message delivery in Discworld, despite the fact that the towers fail frequently. As it turns out, a shyster like Moist is just the man for the job of Postmaster as Grand Trunk is run by the unscrupulous Reacher Gilt. Shenanigans ensue which result in unlikely triumphs for the post office.

I liked Going Postal quite a bit. I don't love Pratchett as much as Heidi, but I do appreciate his writing. This one was easy to follow and Moist was a fun anti-hero. I also liked the group of men that made up "The Smoking Gnu", former clacks workers that now made it their life's work to hack into the towers. I couldn't help but see Byers, Frohike and Langly from The Lone Gunmen and X-Files fame. Demerits for Death not making an appearance though.

Frankenstein / Mary Shelley
Next up is Mary Shelley's classic tale of gothic horror, Frankenstein. I read this with fellow members of the Heretics & Sprituality group that I belong to at the UU fellowship we attend. It's a good group and we always have great discussions about whatever we happen to be reading. I had read Frankenstein when I was a senior in high school (for fun, no less) and I remembered really liking it. I was also kind of amazed at how accessible it was for being written so long ago. Having been forced to read nearly unreadable classics like Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities, it was a pleasure to read something of that era that wasn't so thick you had no hope of ever really getting into it.

The narrative of Frankenstein is both familiar and not-so-much. When comparing the book to the famous Boris Karloff incarnation of the monster, the two stories couldn't be more different. Instead, Frankenstein serves as a cautionary tale as well as weighing in on the nature of being human. Who is more human - the man who gave life to a creature so hideous that he turned his back on it or the monster that just wants, as Queen would say, somebody to love?

And I'll never get over how the monster, that we're so used to hearing speak in grunts, is so damn eloquent in the book. He is one fast learner.

The Q Guide to The Golden Girls / Jim Colucci
I borrowed this book from Jeff when we were all over at his house a few weekends ago for a Golden Girls marathon that inexplicably also included a complete viewing of the movie Supergirl. As you might expect, this is an incredibly easy and enjoyable read, especially for fans of the TV show. And really, if you're not a fan of the TV show 1) what are you doing reading this book and 2) why the hell are you NOT a fan?

My friend Mary famously says that during high school, while everyone else was out on Saturday night getting laid, she was at home watching The Golden Girls. The same thought applies to a lot of my high school career as well, but we both seem to have turned out okay. Let's face it, The Golden Girls is comedy, well, gold. I think I've seen every episode multiple times and yet, we still go back for more. Not many shows hold up that well, although I think Roseanne does a pretty good job for at least the first 75% of the show's run. The Q Guide to The Golden Girls is written from the point of view of The Golden Girls' legion of gay male fans. It tells the story of how the show got started, including the original ideas ("Miami Nice") and the casting of all the lead parts. It devotes a whole chapter as to why so many gay guys gravitate toward that show and another to highlighting episodes that addressed LGBT issues (Lesbian? Lesbian? Lesbian!). It also tells a hilarious story about how at certain New York gay bars during the show's original run, the thump of dance music would stop at 9PM and all eyes would be on The Golden Girls. I love it.

This is a featherweight of a book (not a bad thing) and I skimmed toward the end, but I would recommend it to anyone who really likes the show. It'll take you two and a half minutes to read.

(The Lady Gaga/Scissor Sisters post is coming. Life has not slowed down for a single minute since the concert so sit tight.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bound for Gaga

Through a massive trade of days off and shifts (and the graciousness of one of my co-workers), I managed to get time off during Spring Break week to head to see Lady Gaga in Omaha tomorrow night. Heidi's staying home and I'm going with my friends Kyl, Jess and Brandt. The seats don't appear to be the best seats in the house, but they were affordable and from the sounds of it, we were lucky to just get into the arena. Regardless, it promises to be a good time even though I'm not feeling wildly good tonight. I think an early bedtime is in my future so that I can be at my best tomorrow.

Even now, a full two years since I finally succumbed to Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" at the first daddy-daughter dance I attended with Anna, I'm not fully sold on Lady Gaga. I am not convinced that she is the next Madonna, but what I do know is that she's the closest that anyone's come for me personally. Whether she will have the longevity that Madonna has had remains to be seen, but I do admire her moxie. Her songs are light, inoffensive dance/pop songs that don't really aspire for anything greater ("Born This Way" not withstanding) but you know, it doesn't all have to be Shakespeare in order for it to be worthy. As I so frequently say, the music makes me feel good and well, a lot of times, that's enough for me.

I'm sure she'll put on a great show and with Scissor Sisters as her opening act, it's hard to imagine this being a disappointment. I did listen to The Fame in its entirety today - something I had not done until today. I've always liked the singles but most of the album tracks left me a little bit cold. I snuck a peak at the set-list and there were some songs from The Fame that I didn't know so I figured I better educate myself. But I was glad to see that most of The Fame Monster made the set-list. Honestly, that EP is just heads and shoulders above The Fame. It makes me very eager for her new album in May which I predict will be one of two things - pop brilliance or overbaked and overthought drivel. Not likely to fall anywhere in the middle.

No matter what though, whenever I hear her sing "Papa-papa-paparazzi" I will always expect her to take a page out of Yentl's playbook and sing "Papa-papa-papa can you hear me?"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Iowa City, 1992-1993: The Music

People who know me well know that I love my iTunes playlists. I have been making a more concerted effort to listen to more full albums these days - and let me tell you how I will NOT be blogging that endeavor as I certainly can't blog an album a day - but I still love grouping seemingly unrelated songs into a playlist that results in a cohesive whole, if only in my own head. One of my very favorite playlists is one crafted from the music I listened to during my first year at U of Iowa, creatively titled "U of I 1992-1993." You'll have to click it to make it readable, and I had to put two screen captures together to get all the songs on there, but damn it, I did it!

I think what I love most about this playlist is its variety. I have similar playlists from each year of high school, but when I was compiling those, I only allowed songs that were released during that time to make the cut. When I got to my college playlists, I was a little more liberal because my sophomore year of high school playlist has not one little bit of Stevie Nicks on it. That's a pretty glaring omission and because of that, I decided that allowing songs of any time period on to the list - just as long as I was actively listening to them at that time - was allowable.

I'm not going to comment on every song, although I will pick out a few, but allow me to make a few comments about the list as whole and the time period it represents. As I have mentioned before, that year was my third year of college, but my first at U of Iowa and my first year of pharmacy school. I had uprooted my life and moved it across the state - not that I was leaving terrible much because I was ready for a change after two years at Iowa State. Most of the music that I remember listening to was listened to in relative solitude, not that that was a bad thing. In hindsight, it was pretty important that I have that year in a single room on a floor full of guys, 99% of whom I shared not one single thing in common (although admittedly, my effort left something to be desired.) Eventually, I would make good friends in my pharmacy classes and would move out of the dorms for good at the end of the year. I specifically remember the spring of the year feeling like real living - friends and experiences and, well, life. The songs on this playlist provided a worthy soundtrack to that time period.

And now for some specifics...
  • The songs from The Bodyguard soundtrack were inescapable during that time. While my favorite Bodyguard song is not represented on this list (the screaming-meemie "Queen of the Night") I always think about how that album was selling a million copies per week at Christmas 1992 and remember how much the record industry has changed since then. That, and how Billboard described "I Will Always Love You" as "beautifully undersung." Were we listening to the same song?
  • Rick Astley's "Be With You" is on there because it applied to a girl in my class that I was enamored with. As shy as I was, it was not to be and looking back, it was a good thing.
  • There is one Olivia Newton-John song on there - "Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying." I bought the Come On Over/Clearly Love Two-on-One CD at Camelot Music. The guy working behind the counter was so excited that I was buying that that he dug out some other ONJ CDs that were not on display. I bought those as well.
  • You'll notice three songs from Deborah Harry's solo CD Def, Dumb and Blonde. This CD was purchased out of the cut-out bin at Camelot. I have said on multiple occasions that this was the best $3.88 I have ever spent on a CD. The last song on the playlist, "End of the Run", is the last song on the album and takes me back to those days instantly. Between this album and Erotica, I am hard-pressed to come up with what album provided more background music for me in the fall of 1992.
  • Speaking of Erotica, the fall of 1992 would have been a different animal altogether had it not been for Madonna's triple threat of Erotica, Sex, and Body of Evidence. It forced my Madonna fandom out of the closet so-to-speak amongst those that I was getting to know. At our 10 year reunion several years back, more than one person told me that whenever they heard a Madonna song, they couldn't help but think of me. Mission accomplished.
  • Simply Streisand (also another Camelot Music purchase) is an indelible part of that fall, as detailed already in this post. Plus that post discusses Babs, pussy AND the Beastie Boys. Top that.
  • The sole Spandau Ballet song on the playlist, "Round and Round", is there because I HAD to have a copy of the song "True" on CD. Today, I would head over to iTunes and download it. In 1993, I bought Spandau Ballet's greatest hits CD. What a surprise to find that I liked (almost) every song on the album. Wouldn't have happened today.
  • I first heard "Walking on Broken Glass" while studying for a test at the Iowa City Public Library, but I'll let this post speak for it. For as much as it was played on the radio, I'm still surprised it wasn't a top 10 hit.
  • My flirtation with Eurodance started here as evidenced by the presence of "Rhythm Is A Dancer" and "Mr. Vain" - the latter being of particular importance as we had a TA whose name was "Mr. Fain." Hilarity ensued.
When I look at this list, I think that had anyone listened to what was coming out of my headphones at the time they would have probably had me committed. Maybe I needed to be. That's what I love about music. I can still see the nearly 40 year-old guy in the stuff the 20 year-old was listening to. The minute that stops, I need to throw in the towel.

Is it the most manly stuff in the world? Hell no. Do I care? Double hell no. Do I sometimes get teased for it. Yeah, sure. But it's all in good fun and if you can't laugh at yourself, you might as well just forget it. I didn't know that then, but I sure do now.

The only song missing from this list is REM's "Nightswimming." And because it's a playlist, well, I can just go add it because it's just that easy.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Peanut days

A couple weeks back, Heidi and Anna were, for reasons known only to them, at Theisen's. Being a kind of a store for farmers, you can imagine it's not a place that we frequent all that often. When they were there, Heidi told Anna stories about how going to Theisen's reminded her of her girlhood. She and her father would go often and she would go look at the one aisle of toys while her father shopped for whatever it was he was looking for. She also talked about Peanut Days - the time during which the store provided free peanuts and you dropped the shells on the floor which in turn oiled the floor. I vaguely recall doing this at some point in my life, but for the life of me, I can't remember where or when.

As it turns out, Peanut Days is alive and well. We thought that it was going to be March 1st, so we headed out to Theisen's after work, only to be disappointed by the lack of free peanuts. Apparently, we got bad information and the Peanut Days Sale actually started on March 9th. This was not to be missed.

To be honest, I was expecting more peanut shells on the floor, but as Heidi pointed out is WAS only the first day of Peanut Days which lasts a whole week. I imagine if I trekked out to Theisen's today, we'd find a different situation altogether.

Walking into a store like Theisen's is like taking a trip back in time - at least for people like Heidi and me that have relatively rural backgrounds. In comparison to Heidi, I was a city boy growing up, but this is only because she actually lived on a farm for the first decade of her life, until it was lost in the 1980s farm crisis. I grew up in a town of 10,000 people that had it's own version of Theisen's (S & S Store, now closed) and while I didn't have as agrarian of an upbringing as Heidi did, there were definitely more rural aspects than Anna is getting growing up in a college town. But it doesn't stop her from enjoying this kind of stuff. She can't resist mugging for the camera, which makes getting a candid shot of her all that much more difficult.

To my great shock, little-Miss-Picky actually liked peanuts out of the shell.

And if you're looking for wildlife printed long underwear, Theisen's is apparently your one-stop long-underwear shop.

You know I was this close to buying them (not.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Witchy woman

The interval between Stevie Nicks albums just keeps getting longer, so now's the time to celebrate the release of the album artwork for her new album, In Your Dreams, which is due on May 3rd.

I had two thoughts when I saw this album cover. My first thought was how well it fit in with a long line of classic album covers from Stevie. As my friend Matt said, they really nailed the Stevie vibe. My second thought was "Whoa! Stevie! Lay off the Photoshop!" The woman on the cover of this album doesn't look like a woman in her 60s. My armchair psychological assessment is that Stevie probably doesn't have a problem with growing old, it's looking old that she takes issue with.

This album cover vaguely recalls the cover of Heart's Little Queen - perhaps Stevie has just left a Renaissance fair, absconding with the white horse on the back cover of this album?

And at least it's better than Street Angel's cover, which I swear to God looks like it was done at the color copy machine at Kinko's.

In any event, new Stevie is always a cause for great excitement. I just hope that nine songs is enough to keep me satisfied for another 10 years. Viva la Stevie! The woman has been such an integral part of my musical development and I really wish more pop fans appreciated her. But I do recognize that she's an acquired taste and not for everyone. But for me, she's been a perfect fit.

For another great take on the album cover, visit The Middle Eight.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Little Girl Blue

The minute I heard about it, I knew that I would like Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. What I didn't expect was to tear through it in less than a week nor did I expect it to keep me up well past my bedtime several nights last week. My exposure to the Carpenters is about like you'd expect - I know of them, their biggest hits and of Karen Carpenter's battle with anorexia nervosa. I own none of their studio albums and would not classify myself as a Carpenters "fan" by any stretch of the imagination. What I will say though is that reading this book has caused me to listen to more Carpenters music than I have in forever and the book itself is the best book I've read all year.

Little Girl Blue is written as a music biography, but it reads like the best pager-turner of a novel that you can imagine. It follows the path that most music bios do, starting with the childhood of musical genius Richard Carpenter and his kid sister Karen. Long before Karen was the voice of the Carpenters, she was also a drummer, playing in the high school marching band. In order to maximize the chances of Richard's career taking off, Harold and Agnes Carpenter moved their family to southern California when Karen was in ninth grade. One connection led to another and then another and before you know it, Karen and Richard are signed to Herb Alpert's A&M records. The hit singles followed. We all know them. "Close To You," "We've Only Just Begun," "Superstar," "Rainy Days & Mondays," and "Top of the World." They toured relentlessly and were hugely popular even though their music and image seemed white bread and out of step with the acid rock music of the same time period.

Author Randy Schmidt does an exceptional job of respecting the memory of Karen Carpenter and recognizing her amazing talent, but he also pulls no punches when it comes to her struggles. Perhaps because there was no cooperation from the Carpenter family, which has famously whitewashed everything surrounding Karen's death in an attempt to keep the Carpenters' legacy intact, I feel like this book comes the closest to giving us the real story of Karen Carpenter. Whether it was dealing with a mother that always loved Richard more and gave Karen precious little validation or getting married to a man that ended up living up to all her worst expectations, it seems to me that all Karen ever wanted was to be loved. This all came to a head when Agnes Carpenter forced her daughter to go through with a wedding to a man when the marriage was already over because "People Magazine will be there!"

Another example came after she recorded a solo album with Phil Ramone in New York while Richard was hospitalized for quaalude addiction. After taking the better part of a year to make the album, it was trashed by A&M executives when the album was played for them. But Richard's reaction was probably the worst. This quote from the book sticks with me:

"He told her it was shit," Frenda [Karen's best friend] says. "All Karen ever wanted was his approval. It could have turned everything in her life around, but it wasn't there. What's sad is that he has to live with that, and I don't think it even fazes him. I do think he should be excused to some extent because he had his own problems, but God Almighty, what does it take to just be kind? They could see she was melting away like a snowman in front of their faces, but they couldn't do it. It was brutal."

The album was shelved, but eventually released in 1996 in its original form.

Behind all this relationship drama was Karen's very real battle with anorexia nervosa, complications of which would ultimately claim her life in February of 1983. She was so dishonest with everyone when it came to her anorexia. When asked point blank about it, she was incredulous and in denial. This interview was referenced in the book, and I am still kind of shocked by the forwardness of the interviewer's question.

Karen would bottom out at 78 pounds just before seeking treatment. Trouble is, our knowledge of how to treat anorexia was in its infancy in the early 80s and much of what was done then was not much of a treatment at all. Move this story forward a decade and I think Karen might have survived. Her death brought anoxeria out of the closet and worked wonders for raising awareness of the disorder. In that respect, I feel like her early death had at least some meaning and was not completely senseless.

I was extremely moved by Karen's story - I've been telling Heidi anecdotes from the book all week long. Like I said, I have none of the Carpenters' studio albums but I do have the greatest hits album Singles: 1969-1973. My parents had that 8-track when I was a kid and I purchased it on CD my freshman year of college, thus destroying what little musical credibility I had with other 18 year-old males at that time in my life. Needless to say, it's gotten quite a bit of play this week. I've also broken down and purchased a few songs off of Karen's solo album and will undoubtedly purchase the rest of it once my eMusic account recharges sometime next week. It's better than you think, if rather dated early-80s music is your cup of tea.

But for most people, it will be the music that she made with her brother during the 70s that they will remember. For my money, my favorite is still "Top of the World." I do love a little 70s country-pop, and that song fits the bill quite nicely.

Little Girl Blue is highly recommended and I guarantee you will want to listen to Carpenters music after you read it.

Your zombies are in my classic literature

I'm going to say right here and right now that I'm officially DONE with books that take a classic piece of literature and suppose that the simple insertion of hot zombie action will somehow generate something worth reading. I say this after an ill-advised attempt to read Alice in Zombieland. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, Alice in Plagiarism Land would be a more appropriate description.

The funny thing is that this book has pretty much everything that would make for a quick, fun, undead read. It's only 130ish pages, and not only does Alice meet all sorts of undead characters after she follows the Black Rat into a seemingly bottomless grave into zombieland, but Alice herself starts turning into a zombie. You can't go wrong, right?

WRONG. Heidi and I were talking about this and clearly, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is in the public domain now so rubbish like this can be made without any repercussions. All this book did was take Lewis Carroll's original text and change words. At least Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (which I didn't much care for either) had the decency to write some new parts and change things - i.e. instead of telling Mr. Darcy off after his marriage proposal, Elizabeth Bennet kicks his ass and basically leaves him for dead. This kind of stuff you see in Alice in Zombieland is just plain and simple lazy writing. It's almost a Mad Libs way of writing except I've read Mad Libs that make more sense and are more entertaining than this book.

So I'm doing the e-book equivalent of throwing the book across the room. And I won't ever fall for this genre again - it's going to have to work really hard to make me interested again. This is kind of sad because as someone who consumes pretty much any and all zombie content, I feel like turning my back on it just seems wrong. Plus it'll mean I never get to read this, but it looks like it's by the same publisher that put out the dreck that is Alice in Zombieland, so perhaps it's for the best.

And of course, all this talk about Alice in Zombieland just made me think about Alice in Pornoland which I wanted to link to but didn't because I couldn't find a SFW link. This is still a family friendly blog!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A good pancake

We went to Cedar Rapids today for Heidi's grandfather's 90th birthday party. Relatives from all over converged on their relatively small house to celebrate 10 years shy of a century. Anna and I were goofing around making videos of each other and when we tired of that, we went back and watched the videos that were already on there. I had completely forgotten about this insanity, which was recorded on February 12th, 2011. It was the day of the Oscar movie marathon with Caryle and Jeff and what better way to start out than with a hearty breakfast at IHOP?

Why am I posting this kind of embarrassing video of myself? Because when I watched it, I smiled and laughed at my ridiculousness. That needs to happen more often. And it proves, yet again, that any situation in life can be satisfied with a quote from 9 to 5.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Between a Heart and a Rock Place

As pretty much everyone knows, I'm a sucker for a celebrity biography, especially a celebrity autobiography. When I was in the 9th grade, I checked Joan Collins' memoir, Past Imperfect, out of the library and that basically started me down that road and there's been no looking back. So last summer when both Belinda Carlisle AND Pat Benatar released memoirs, I figured I must have died and gone to heaven. Two of the 80s leading female singers telling their stories of navigating the music business during the time of my adolescence was too hard to resist. Being a bigger Belinda Carlisle fan than I am a Pat Benatar fan, I read Belinda's book last year. After having read Benatar's memoir, Between a Heart and a Rock Place, I have to say that while I'm a bigger fan of Belinda's music, I have about a thousand percent more respect for Benatar.

Pat Benatar's - which, if you can believe it, is her actual name (Benatar is the last name of her first husband) - hit making career is bookended neatly by the 80s. While she's had output since the dawn of the 90s, none of it has approached the success that she had during the dawning days of MTV. Benatar tells a great story, starting with her days back at Catch a Rising Star in Manhattan to getting signed by Chrysalis Records and spinning out hit after hit for them throughout the 80s. She was truly one of the hardest working people in the music business, and so much of it was not by choice. Her contract with Chrysalis pretty much had her in indentured servitude. Due to a clause in her contract, the record company could demand a new album whenever they wanted and if she didn't comply, they had the right to withhold all payment to her until she did. Because of this, throughout the 80s, she was either in the studio or on tour.

She put out eight albums (and one live album) in nine years and it wasn't until the release of 1988's Wide Awake in Dreamland that her luck started to turn. The crowds weren't showing up and the album was not promoted well, mostly due to the disintegration of the label. Ironically enough, Wide Awake in Dreamland is the only of Benatar's studio albums that I actually own. I don't care what you say, "All Fired Up" is a classic Pat Benatar song.

I said to Heidi that it was kind of amazing that Benatar was able to craft such an engaging book from her life, beings that most celebrity memoirs rest on multiple trips to rehab and partying late into the night. She did none of this. No drugs, no trips to rehab, no affairs or any of that stuff. She has been happily married to her husband, Neil Giraldo, for 31 years now which is such a rarity in the world of celebrity. Now in her late 50s, Benatar seems grounded and well adjusted and happy with life. See, celebrities really are not all that different from us after all.

This book is also notable because it's the first book that I finished on my brand spanking new NOOK Color that Heidi bought for me out of her 1st quarter royalty check. I guess all those years of turning a blind eye to iTunes purchases finally paid off! We were in the market for an e-reader because we are always fighting over the iPad and while the Kindle and NOOK apps for my Droid are nice, I am not crazy about reading on such a small device. What tipped the scales in favor of the NOOK is that our local library checks out e-books that are compatible with NOOKs but not Kindles. This apparently is a huge draw as the Best Buy here in town can't keep NOOKs in stock. Between a Heart and a Rock Place was not only the first book I finished on the NOOK, but also the first e-book I checked out of the library. So YAY for firsts.

(Sidenote: The celebrity memoir I'm really looking forward to is Deborah Harry's. Come on Debbie!)