Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Thumb in the Eye

There's an old board game called Wiz War I've played a few times with my friends. The original edition has this card:

THUMB OF GOD (Attack/Anywhere)

This spell allows you to flip, drop, or throw the die from a distance of no less than 6 inches onto the board so as to hit playing tokens. Whichever space the displaced tokens land closest to is where they must be placed. Tokens knocked off the board are put back on onto the nearest space. There is no COUNTERACTION against this spell.

I feel like we're living through this right now.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Ain't Nobody Like to Be Alone

I just looked up the setlist to Friday’s Springsteen concert in Philly, and I’m even more impressed by the scope of the thing now than I was that night. Thirty-three songs!

A few memories of the show:

First off, had a blast tailgating with brothers Ed and Jim, sister-in-law Lindsay, and cousins John and Suze. How’d I go through 46 years of life without ever doing this? By not being a sports fan and not seeing a lot of big-arena concerts, I guess. (And after the show? More tailgating. So much better than pointing the car into the endless scrum of escaping vehicles.)

For someone who’s not really a big Springsteen fan, I sure know a lot of his songs. Out of the 33 songs he played, I could have hummed 24 of them before heading into the show...and walked out amazed that he hadn’t even gotten to “Jungleland,” “Born in the USA,” or “Thunder Road.” (Not to mention “The River,” the title song of the album this tour is celebrating.) The man has a catalogue. 

My favorite stretch of the show came early on, a four-song stretch beginning with “Spirits in the Night,” and then moving on to “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Kitty’s Back,” and “Rosalita.” I like other Springsteen songs, but I’d be hard-pressed to name another four that I like better and go so well together.

Then again, there’s “American Skin (41 Shots),” inspired by the police shooting of Amadou Diallo and still so relevant today. It's a song that can't help but stand apart. Springsteen is a curious phenomenon, in that he’s so beloved, and yet more liberal than a significant portion of his fans. I’m trying to think of another artist who are similarly outspoken (in either direction) and still enjoy the broad swathe of fans that Bruce has. (On a much smaller stage, I’m a big fan of Bill Willingham’s comics, and Nick Searcy’s Deputy Art Mullen was always a joy to watch on Justified; two conservatives whose work this liberal can’t get enough of.) Anyway, back to “American Skin”: Absolutely haunting, marred only by my minor annoyance that the people next to me took the opportunity to step out to get a beer. (The conservative version of football players not standing for the National Anthem? Maybe so, judging by my irritation.) 

I was really impressed that Bruce would pull signs from the audience, show them to the cameras, and then play them with the band. They seemed prepared for anything, including inviting a college student to come up and jam with them on “No Surrender.” And then at another point, a handful of other fans came up to the stage, including a little girl with a guitar. Bruce tried to adjust her baseball cap to let the camera see her face a bit better; this’ll be a memory she’ll have a chance to look back on forever. Her ponytail wended through the hole in the back of the hat, so there’s was only so much he could do, but it was a thoughtful gesture that stood out for me. 

And then there was “Hungry Heart.” The band played, and we all sang the lyrics on our own, with Bruce urging us to continue between the lines. He wandered through the audience, found a woman with a sign that said she was a breast cancer survivor, on her 7th week of chemo. He held up the sign and we sang our hearts out -- a cascade of love going toward her, music and love rising into the sky. It’s a fanciful idea that something like that can help in any tangible way. And yet there are tears in the corner of my eyes as I type this. I’m some kinda romantic, I guess. 

Overall, Bruce played for nearly four hours, so there’s plenty I’m glossing over. (One silly moment worth a mention: When “Dancing in the Dark” started up, some fans began waving giant poster-size heads of Courtney Cox.) But it was a phenomenal show, made all the better by the time spent with family not as family, but as friends.


Friday, August 26, 2016

What's Spanish for 'Heaver,' anyway?

A quick Fest story so I don't forget it:
Sunday night after the show, the Dunces and the Monks headed into heavy camping to see where people were playing, and Brian could join in with his guitar. Found a great group camping in the back corner, The Fish, who had people jamming in back around a table of snacks and bourbon. A great, friendly bunch, they welcomed us in, and we sang and played a bunch of Beatles tunes, a few Monkeys ones, and this and that—”Mrs. Robinson,” even newer stuff like “500 Miles.” A big guy—named David, I think—offered a bottle of bourbon and was pulling people into the circle. (I stuck with beer, still recovering from a rough Saturday.) It was someone’s 50th birthday, and a cake was cut up and shared—pound cake piled high with icing. It was a great time. Everyone was singing and playing. A couple people got into the Fish’s pantry and were using anything they could find there as percussion.
Eventually, after the singing breaks up and we start walking back to Dunce Central, we start comparing notes:
“That big guy was from Los Lobos, right?”
“I thought so, too. He had one of those special performer lanyards.”
“I think it said Los Lobos.”
“Well that’d do it, then.”
“And that one guy sang a parody of ‘La Bamba’ to him: ‘What are the words to ‘La Bamba’? What are the words to ‘La Bamba’? Nobody knows, nobody knows, nobody knows...’ He just shook his head and said ‘My mother is crying right now.’”
So—although we’ve no hard proof of this—I’m choosing to believe that we were all hanging out with Los Lobos frontman David Hidalgo, belting out a Proclaimers tune at the top of our lungs. I’d walk 500 miles right now to do that again.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The Accidental Breakdancer

The body is a gyroscopic miracle. Even my body. Even yours. 

I know this because I was in New York’s Penn Station the other night, talking on the phone to my wife. There was an unexpected hangup as Kathy and I were saying goodbye, so I was sending her a text to explain. (This is not the miracle. This is just me setting the scene.) I’ve got my phone in my hand, my earbuds are still in my ears from the conversation, my backpack is around one shoulder. It’s a warm night; warmer inside the station than outside. My thumb is telling Kathy to say hi to our ferret, Charlie.

Behind me, as I text, I hear a buzzing. “Excuse me, sir.” Bzzzzzz. “Excuse me, sir?” Buzzzzzz. I don’t know what this is, but I do know I’m out of the way, tucked into the side of the hallway, leaning against the wall. There are a bunch of late-night commuters walking past, so I assume the voice is talking to someone else. I look behind me anyway, because you never know.

It’s a guy riding one of Penn Station’s floor-polishing zambonis, basically the size of a golf cart, moving slowly toward me. 

I startle. I realize he is talking to me, and he needs me to get out of the way. He’s hugging the wall, same as I am. I reach down to pick up the bottle of water and the banana at my feet. There is literally a banana peel at my feet, but it is wrapped around a banana, so I don’t immediately clue in to the type of situation I’m in. I am still holding my phone in my hand, its earbuds connected to my head. My backpack, loaded down with a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, a bag of dice, a crime novel, a notebook, and a half-dozen comic books, is slung over one shoulder. It is full of the pressed pulp of dead trees; it isn’t light.

I’ve got one hand free to grab the banana and the water bottle. The backpack is keeping me off-balance, but I manage to lean over and pick up both items with my left hand, like some sort of boardwalk claw-machine miracle. This is a feat any schoolkid could do. I feel like an acrobat. 

As I start to stand upright. bringing the banana and bottle up from the floor, my glasses slide down my nose and off of my head. Warm night; sweaty bald man.

The polishing zamboni maintains its approach.

I have my phone in my right hand. I have my backpack over my shoulder. There is a banana and a water bottle in my other hand. I am off balance. I am bending over again. I am on one foot. There is a zamboni bearing down on me.

I try to slip my phone into my shirt pocket to free my hand. The pocket is unhelpfully horizontal, rather than at its normal vertical orientation, because I have bent over at the waist. I am balancing on one foot. I don’t remember putting my other foot up, but I am on one foot. I think it’s to counterbalance the backpack, pulling me to the right. Toward the zamboni. The inexorable zamboni. I think about my crime novel. Cause of death: Inexorable zamboni.

The guy driving, dreadlocked and smiling, says, “Take your time, take your time, man.” He’s chill, but he’s not stopping. And my glasses are on the tiles he’s about to polish. 

Somehow, bent forward and on one leg like an impossible backpacked flamingo, I manage to slide my phone into my horizontal shirt pocket. With my now-free hand, I bat at my glasses, my fingers suddenly unwilling to grip. The glasses move a few inches, still in the zamboni path. I teeter from the effort, a middle-aged example of Newton’s third law. Swat glasses, wobble: an equal and opposite reaction. The weight of my backpack sends me listing to the right. I flap my arms like a cartoon duck that realizes he can’t fly. I spiral toward the floor, Swan Lake–style.

A second swat sends my glasses out of the path of the zamboni and toward the center of the corridor, where people are rushing to catch their trains. I jettison my cargo: Backpack, banana, bottle all gone. I spring after my glasses among all the high heels and sandals. Did my upraised flamingo foot ever touch the ground, or was it a one-legged spiraling leap? Grainy Penn Station security camera footage will have to tell the tale.

Afterward, it’s all anticlimax. My glasses back on my head, the backpack around my shoulder, the bottle and banana tucked within. Phone miraculously still in my pocket.

“Take it easy, man,” the zamboni guy says. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

I wake up in the morning and wonder why I’m sore.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thinking about Alan Rickman

I've seen a lot of reminiscences about Alan Rickman today -- mostly about his performance as Hans Gruber or Severus Snape, with mentions of Dogma or Galaxy Quest here or there.
But there's one movie he was in that I haven't seen anyone mention. I saw Closet Land in a film class years ago, an intense film that made a big impression on me. It had just two actors -- Rickman and Madeleine Stowe -- on one set, as Rickman interrogates Stowe, a children's book author, about subversive messages he suspects she's inserting into her books. It knocked me out, this two-person performance that had the power of a much grander drama.
Now, I haven't seen it in 20 years or so. It might strike me now as too sincere, or somehow quaint. The past 20 years have seen a lot of news about interrogation and torture, and today I'd be viewing the film through more experienced (more cynical? almost certainly) eyes. Roger Ebert, a little older then than I am now, thought it pious and smug. But I suspect with actors the caliber of Rickman and Stowe, it's as good as it ever was. And it made such an impression on me, that when I heard he'd died, this was the first movie I thought of. The particulars of the film had faded, but it had one resounding lasting impression: the memory that Alan Rickman blew me the hell away.
The movie is hard to find: Amazon has only six VHS copies available, and I don't think it was ever pressed onto DVD in the US. (Apparently there's a Spanish version that you can switch the language to the original English.) But if you want to see for yourself, your best best is probably YouTube, where it's available in 9 parts.
Here's part one: