Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Chasing UPS Trucks on St. Paul Pavements: Top 11 Songs of 2008

(This could end up being my year-end list. Or I might put up a new one)

(I'm aware that my #1 song was first released in 2007 but careful wiki-research reveals that it did not have an official U.S. single release until 2008. A technicality? Yes. But I'm not changing it.)

11. Yeah Sapphire - The Hold Steady

Listen to the song here while it's still legal. It makes the list solely for the following lines:

Sapphire, if Cheyenne's too small/We'll haul it all back to St. Paul
I was just about to call you when you called

or maybe these lines:

Sapphire, if St. Paul don't call / We've always got Aberdeen
'Cause dreams they seem to cost money but money costs some dreams

Yeah. it's the latter.

10. Easy Does It - Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Not sure if this is an "official" video but I like it. The song pretty much describes my life philosophy in 1987, 1993, 2002, and maybe 2009.

9. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa - Vampire Weekend
I could pick five different songs from their album for this list but this is the one that I sing for hours after hearing it. I make up new lyrics sometimes. Great song. Annoying/funny video.

8. White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes

Gets more perfect (technically not possible) each time I hear it.

7. Chasing Pavements - Adele

Back in the mid-80s I would go to late, lamented Northern Lights Music in Minneapolis (or sometimes the one in St. Paul, after which I'd hit the White Castle on Lexington). I'd buy well-produced, carefully written "soul" records by British artists like Simply Red and the Style Council. I'd take the records carefully out of their English sleeves and listen slowly/sleekly/collegiately to each song, all the while making a cassette version of the album. Then, I'd put the record away and never listen to it on vinyl again. I'd listen to the tape 10 times, a dozen tops. Then I'd go back to Northern Lights and do it all over again. This song reminds me of those albums. Go here and find the video.

6. All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco - American Music Club

Yes that is Lois Henrickson from Big Love in the video (or Laura Palmer's mom from Twin Peaks if you prefer). When I saw American Music Club this past summer in Echo Park, she was in the audience, with the guy who plays her grandson Ben on Big Love. I hope they weren't on a date because that would be weird. Anyway, I was in San Francisco recently. The souls there are not nearly as lost as in Los Angeles. That's a compliment. To both cities.

5. Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? - She & Him

If she asked me to, yeah I'd have to marry her.

4. The Old Days - Dr. Dog

There was a time when I'd play this song over and over again on my iPod. It was like I was addicted to it and only further listenings would cure me. Then I listened to the rest of the album and liked it nearly as much. Scroll down the song list here and find the song and listen. You might like it or you might consider it time better spent doing something else.

3. Buriedfed - Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson

An odd song, a beautiful song, an iPod-on-an-airplane song if there ever was one. The song just builds up and soars and flies and lands and it's unsettling and your brain is rattled but then you're glad you got where you were going.

2. Ask Her For Adderall - The Hold Steady

Why they made this song a not-available-on-iTunes-only-available-on CD "bonus track" I have no idea. It's the only linkless/video-less song on my list. It's also maybe the tightest, coolest, purest, best rock and roll song I've heard since this one and that's saying quite a lot. Some memorable lyrics: "If she wants to help the cause / Tell her we need sterile gauze." And it gets pushed up one spot in the rankings for the final verse which updates all us listeners on what happened to two characters from some songs from two albums ago. That's thorough!

1. Paper Planes - M.I.A.

In the end it wasn't even close. I could hear this song every hour, every day of my life and still not get sick of it. I can't say that about any other song (not Crazy, not Hey Ya, not even Baker Street). And I'd have to marry M.I.A. too. There would have to be a prenup though. And has any song ever started out better than this?

I fly like paper, get high like planes /
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name

(what's important here is that she has VISAS (plural) in her name. Not just one.)

and two bonus songs from 2007:

Rainbowarriors - Coco Rosie

Sweetheart in the Summer - Ween
(not a video; just the sky)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

18 Things I Did On Saturday

1. Ate an awesome breakfast scramble on a patio.
2. Toured a historic house.
3. Noticed the kitchen fixtures.
4. Sold 9 CDs from 3 different decades at Amoeba. Made 20 bucks.
5. Walked in circles at IKEA.
6. Heard a Steely Dan song in a Starbucks. Strangely this has never happened before.
7. Watched "The Nightman Cometh" episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia two more times. 8. Couldn't get "the troll toll" song out of my head.
9. Put on a shirt I haven't worn since Minnesota.
10. Bought two kinds of cheese - one hard and one soft - at Whole Foods. For the party. Got a baguette too.
11. Drove to Santa Ana.
12. Saw an old friend for the first time since 1990.
13. Celebrated another friend's birthday.
14. Comforted a condo complex cat after the sprinklers freaked the cat out.
15. Sat on a leather chair and closed my eyes and listened to Richard Marx. Okay I just tried to listen. Eventually my eyes had to open.
16. Ate one of my two cheeses and three of someone else's.
17. Ate a cupcake - part of a fish-and-rocks-themed cupcake birthday cake.
18. Recalled some poolside memories from younger days with Katinka and Matt.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weird Hazy Twinkling

This interview with comedian/Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange on NPR is great - funny, heartbreaking... insightful, poetic. The book excerpt at the same link is worth reading too. I completely understand the concept of boredom leading to chaos. For Artie, boredom lead (leads?) to alcohol and heroin and other drugs. For me there was the online poker thing. If only there was a cure for boredom...

Looking out the window at the hills tonight - the lights are twinkling in the haze, the palm trees are swaying, the police helicopter finally stopped circling. I'm thinking about sleeping. I'm thinking about going to Whole Foods. But I have a sweet parking space. And I'm not bored. And Seymour's at my feet and he doesn't seem to want me to go anywhere.

I just found this "lost poem" I wrote in 2002. I like it a lot.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Long-Limbed, Short-Rested

Driving down the 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles last night I had time for a lot of thinking. There were thoughts of mortality, of history, of love and loss, of music and friendship. There were thoughts about thoughts. And thoughts about those thoughts.

(Yes I could have taken the 5. Not as reflective.)

Driving past Montecito I saw three shimmering night clouds of smoke, left over from last week's now-extinguished fire. It was creepy - the remnants of a fire that destroyed many homes on a beautiful hillside, one that I've driven through a couple of times with a couple of different people, under a few different circumstances. The clouds were beautiful even if the fire wasn't. I'm sure in the daytime nothing was beautiful. But that's why I drive at night.

Today I'm tired and still reflective. Wired from the caffeine I drank to keep me awake from the drive, I watched two episodes of Entourage after arriving home at 1:00. After a weekend in which the idle times between brunches and other outings were filled with watching eight episodes of True Blood, I needed to see something not about vampires, about people grounded in "reality" to relax my racing mind. Some time before the second absurd episode ended but after the conflict was established, I fell asleep. I slept soundly, only to wake up an hour late. I didn't hear the alarm.

Now it's 1:00 in the afternoon and I haven't really said anything of substance here. I need a snack before the next meeting. Perhaps some Red Mango.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Past, the House

I've discovered that when one writes blog entries and mentions people by name, it is indeed possible that the named people can eventually read those blog entries (especially when I provide them the links!)

So I'll say the following:
  • Not everything I write here about events from the past is necessarily true (even when I don't provide a "may be exaggerated" warning).
  • If I label something as "3/4 true" or "25% lie" it's quite possible that the true ratios/percentages are different.
  • Overall, my memories of that time are good ones.
  • The bullhorn was cool.
I will now vow to be more careful with what I say. Or I'll just use fictional names. Like the time me and my old buddy Barack rode our inner tubes down the Delaware River on a weekday afternoon in '85. When it started raining, we and the others convened at the Burger King back in town for an early dinner. I had a deep-fried chicken sandwich and deep-fried onion rings. I was wet from the river and the rain. It was at the table in the back, near the bathrooms, where I noticed that my other friend Sarah P. was looking at me in a flirtatious manner. She had long brown curly hair like in the bible.

Then, the whole group - seven of us in all - decided to go the haunted house down the street. What happened next is immortalized in this short story, one I wrote under winter duress in Minneapolis at the turn of the century.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I Measure Outcomes

You might ask yourself. Or you might ask me. What's up with the new photo? The one with the purple wall. The one where I'm "candidly" looking up. The one with the exaggerated dimples. Hey - sometimes one must experiment. Risks must be taken.

Some random stuff:

Pandora is awesome. So so awesome.

Yesterday I made reference to a Spike Lee student film. This is it. I wish to see it again. It's pretty great.

(You should know I have a critical "blind spot" when it comes to Spike Lee. As far as I'm concerned: He has done no wrong. He can do no wrong. I used to have a refrigerator magnet of his head. If anyone knows where it is...)

(Yes - even that movie. And that one too. All of them - brilliant!)

(But especially this one. If anyone knows where I can find the She's Gotta Have It soundtrack please let me know. It's more important to me than the refrigerator magnet.)

For those of you who don't know, I have a Facebook page. Just search my name. If you don't know it, email me. In recent days I'm actually using it - providing pointless "news" updates and cleverly commenting on random photographs and ignoring invitations to join political "groups."

Note to inviters: I likely agree 100% with all of your political views (no on Prop. 8, yes on Obama, free Al Franken, etc.) It's just that I do not believe in the concept of "group." Not yet at least.

If you have to see one It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode this season, this is the one to see (at least until the Dayman / Nightman musical hits the air.)

I'm listening to a Pavement song from near the end of their time together (chosen by Pandora for its musical similarity to Magnetic Fields, a similarity which doesn't really exist but okay). You could hear it all coming to a halt. Now they're playing Andrew Bird on the Vampire Weekend "station." Makes a little more sense. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just go here. It's so cool - like Last FM with forethought. And genomes.

And now I hear this song, which I almost forgot about:

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Thousand Pieces Around (Me)

Yes there are days like this. I wake up on my couch unsure of how I fell asleep on my couch. Oh I remember. I never went to my bed. I curled up on the couch with a laptop and a remote and a cat and a bottle of Target's store brand water. After the Ambien. And next thing I know it's the sunrise and is that the Hollywood sign dead-clear in the hills, no fog and smog in the way? Yes it is. Wasn't I just waking up on Emerson Avenue in south Minneapolis, putting on my glasses so I can look out into the alley to see if the snow stuck to the ground? Wasn't that just yesterday? No. That was more than years ago and then there are days like this.

So I get out of bed and change the cat litter and discover that that new brand of "revolutionary" litter... those spring-fresh-scented pellets that would make my life easier.... well, they don't exactly work. You see - they get rid of the urine odor but allow the actual feline urine to coalesce in the little space above the "filter." When I lifted up the box to pour the litter out, I also poured out... never mind. I'll just say I cleaned it all up and returned the old purple litter box to its rightful place. The kitchen no longer smells like urine. Rather, it smells like Begley's Best surface cleaner.

In between the waking up and seeing the Hollywood sign and changing the cat litter I watched a Hulu'd episode of Psych. It's getting closer - the moment when I declare Psych the true revolution, at least during the Monk hiatus. I know - what the hell happened to me? I used to have an edge. I bought R.E.M. 12-inch singles in unlit low rent indie record stores in '84. I wateched Spike Lee's student film in the student-run screening room on the crappy student-run film projector at the University of Minnesota back in '85. I saw the Tindersticks at the Troubador in '96, with 23 other people in the room and a heatwave outside. And here I am praising shows on the USA Network - but dude on Psych they referenced the Robert Forster-read audiobook of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in an offhand truly unnecessary aside. I loved that book (the printed one). He needs to write another one. Essays don't count.

I'm writing this from the Sabor y Cultura coffeehouse on Hollywood Boulevard. High ceilings, space between tables, and free internet. Perfect for a Sunday morning. Pretty good coffee. I'm listening to The National on my headphones. Two songs left and then it's Nellie McLay on the alphabetical playlist. So yeah I need to take action soon. Sunday has just begun.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Hostages, the Hardware Store, and Identity Politics: Barack and Me

Barack Obama's election means a lot to a lot of people. It is not insignificant that he is the first African-American president in U.S. history. Or that he is a cerebral and (seemingly) humble figure who will think things through and consider every option, unlike the last four presidents we've had (yeah even Bill). But his election means something to me for entirely selfish reasons: He reminds me of myself.

There's the way he believes in every word he's saying despite not exactly feeling entirely comfortable speaking to groups; this manifested itself in last night's brief and brilliant acceptance speech. Yeah he's a somewhat stuffy professorial type - nothing wrong with that.

More importantly, there is his background. Some detail for those who aren't familiar with me or my background: I'm half Swedish and half Egyptian. I spent most of the first 2 1/2 years of my life Alexandria, Egypt with my Swedish mother and Egyptian father, the exception being my first few weeks of life in Sweden (my mother gave birth to me there, ostensibly because she "didn't trust Egyptian hospitals" after giving birth to my sister; is that the real reason? who knows?) At 28 months, I got on that America-bound plane and landed at JFK. During the plane ride I distinctly remember being disgusted by the taste of tomatoes.

We settled near the banks of the Hackensack River in New Jersey. It was there that I saw two of my childhood idols crossing a Teaneck street: Gordon and Susan from Sesame Street. The family - me, my sister, and my parents - bounced between the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, settling in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home to historical novelists and the world's greatest rock and roll band. This is the closest I've been to a "home" in my life, spending seven years in a rust-colored house in the then-brand new Pheasant Ridge housing development.

So what's the Obama connection? Well, at the risk of causing eyes to roll in Hyde Park or faces to smirk in Long Beach, I'll say that Obama and I share the same outsider-ness. We grew up as Americans but also as the sons of Muslim fathers from Africa. Absent from these fathers, we exist as essentially non-religious adults. We grew up in matriarchies in lands that were as foreign to our parents as they were to us (Hawaii, Doylestown). We resettled in different and bigger American cities as adults (Minneapolis, Los Angeles... Chicago and.... D.C.). Home has never been nor will ever be one place. Home is elusive until we figure it out is everywhere.
Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
-This Must Be the Place - Talking Heads
But even if I'm already here or he's already there, it really doesn't feel like home, at least not in the mostly Western sense of historic entitlement. Yeah I live here but I could have lived there. Yeah I grew up on Southview Lane but I could have been in South Philly. I would have turned out the same, except I would have had a thicker accent and worn more sleeveless shirts back in 1985. I ended up in Minnesota by accident and stayed there half my life since. I ended up in California not exactly by accident but I've come so close to leaving this place that I have to give Los Angeles credit for persistently, stubbornly keeping me here and not letting me go. Obama was shuttled to Kansas and Hawaii, to Kenya for a month and Los Angeles for a few semesters, to Columbia and Harvard and Chicago. But he's steadfastly remained himself and location didn't seem to matter (except when it's all that matters, which happens from time to time and then you forget).

Do I really feel like an outsider? Do I really feel like an observer of a life (even my own) and a culture and a world? Yes. On The Office, when they have those (too) frequently used shots through a half-open blind into an office, of an uncomfortable conversation between two romanced co-workers, do the scenes have special resonance to me because of the "outsider status" of the camera eye? Yes.

(Speaking of The Office, I DO NOT look like him. Please stop telling me that I do.)

But outsiderness has its benefits. Has Barack Obama benefited from an adoring press because he's just so different (and outside of) from the political establishment? Sure he has. But do you know how hard it is to succeed in politics as an outsider? He deserves what he's worked for. Besides, over the next four to eight years he'll be the most closely followed and, thus, persistently critiqued (per capita) human being since Jesus.

I've always shunned groups and clubs. At meetings at my present job and previous ones, there is often discussion of those that are not part of the the "family" or of individuals who do not contribute to the "culture." This makes me cringe but it also makes me happy because I truly feel outside of it all and thus superior. Does this lead to me feeling alone and bored? Sometimes above it all and infrequently bitter? Yes, yes. It is no accident that my favorite TV and literary characters of all time are Adrian Monk and Don Gately.

And then there's the outside-of-America-ness issue. Despite being born and raised in the U.S., Barack Obama has had his loyalty questioned, his family history poked around, and his name mocked. This is partially because of where his father is from (Kenya), partially because of where he grew up (Hawaii - a United State but that's not good enough for some), and partially because of the color of his skin. But more than these three factors there is his name. I consider it a small miracle that a country with so many citizens who mock and hate the unfamiliar would (in majority) vote in a man as president with three seemingly "dangerous" names. It actually makes me joyously happy.

But not happy enough to erase the bad memories and bitterness of so much name-inflected mistreatment. I've written about the kid in school growing up who blamed me (me!) for the Iran hostage crisis. It's funny in a way - we got off the school bus and he started punching me hard in the shoulder, screaming "This is for the hostages! This is for the hostages!" Okay, it's hilarious but not when you're a kid completely aware of the difference between Iran and Egypt, of Doylestown and Teheran. So Chris McGuire, if you're reading this - I know you were just a kid too but what the fuck?

(I did fight back. But this is the same Chris McGuire who a few years later was the biggest kid on the high school football team. He was huge!)

(I clearly remembered this incident when, years later after 9/11, Iranian-Americans went on a PR campaign to distance themselves from "Arabs." Like that family in the movie Crash. Whatever.)

And then there was the man in the Minneapolis hardware store in the late nineties. I was paying for something with my credit card. He looked at the name on the card. He looked at me. He looked back at the card. And then back at me. Not waiting for him to say something stupid, I said "yes that's really me." And of course he said "how do you get a name like that?" So the very short version of my family history was told and I hoped (prayed) that that would be it. But no. He decided to make a parallel. "You know - I know this family who adopted a little black boy and called him Bjorn. I thought it was so strange. A black boy named Bjorn. That's kind of like you being named Ali" I responded to him with silence as I waited for the credit card receipt to print. Bjorn, if you're reading this - respect.

I'm sure a guy named Barack Hussein Obama has had to endure the same ridiculous comments about names and essentialist questions about backgrounds. I've been asked countless times about my experiences in Egypt (barely remember the childhood years; sort of remember the trip there in '83). I've been asked a handful of times about my experiences in Sweden (no memory of my birth; vague recollection of candy kiosks and the IKEA factory during a visit in '74). No one has ever asked me about living in Doylestown or North Hollywood or Eden Prairie. Or Feasterville or Brea or New Milford. During the election, Obama's childhood in Kansas and Hawaii seemed almost fictional (it wasn't) and his ties to mysterious nefarious individuals seemed meaningful (they weren't).

I fear my analogy is slipping so I'll just say I'm happy that the man I voted for won, that the outsider is on the inside, that a man with a strange name was elected in a country that has, in the past, shied away from the difficult and risky best decision. All I ask of Barack Obama is that his administration gets rid of the ridiculous archaic rule requiring presidential candidates to have been born in the U.S. To put it simply: it's discriminatory and wrong, especially in a nation built largely on by immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary. I'm not saying I want to run in 2016 if the rule gets changed. But I don't want that option denied me just because I was born in Eskilstuna.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

With Jam to Lace the Bread

You may have noticed that I haven't written as much these past few weeks. I could attribute this to being busy. But really there's just been too much on my mind - both happy and sad, easy and difficult, old and new. With all that racing through this already too-busy brain of mine, my attempts at blogging have been a bit unfocused and off, and much of what I've written has gone unpublished. Hopefully this will change soon.

These are definitely interesting times. In the last few weeks and the upcoming month, the following things have happened or will happen:
  • Reunions with old friends from both the Golden Age and the Harvest Years
  • A visit from the cousin and a trip up north
  • Car accidents (not me; no one was hurt) and moving vans (again, not me)
  • Insomnia and bliss
  • Long phone conversations and short attention spans
  • And - not to jinx things which won't happen because really jinxes just don't exist - we'll have the best president of my lifetime
Soon I'll have another one of those epic posts that I reread over and over again and effusively praise myself for. Maybe that short story that I've been perfecting for eight years will see the light of day (it's so good; it's the one). Maybe there will be lists.