Monday, December 31, 2001


I've never needed art (particularly music and literature) as much as I needed it in 2001 (and I don't think I'm alone on this although maybe I am). Whether it was for direction, distraction, explanation, consolation, clarification, inspiration, or expression, I sought out my favorite artists (both new and old) more than ever before. Some examples:

10) John Hiatt at O'Shaughnessy: My seatmate best liked the second to the last song the spacey, loopy "Farther Stars." I fancied the final song written about September 11 when "New York had its heartbroken." Hiatt's songs ably show how the personal can be universal and how the universal can be personal too.

9) David Sedaris at the Ruminator: Reading his latest collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day I was struck by an overwhelming sense of jealousy. A writer that is funny, witty, poignant with something to say. What a novel concept.

8) The Minnesota Twins: What a wonderful reminder it was to have a good baseball team again. Keep together the three starting pitchers, Guzman and Rivas and with Mauer appearing to be the real deal this team should be a shining example of the proper way to run an organization. Instead... What would have been a sad off season what with the departure of the fiery red headed skipper turns into a disheartening legal battle to keep the team alive.

7) Loudon Wainwright III's "Homeless": A song that equates the loss of a parent with the loss of a greater myth and comfort in thinking there will always be a place to call home. The lesson learned in a moving song seemingly torn from a journal is that a home isn't just a place, it's the memories and the people (and kitties) who helped make those memories.

6) Buffy: Three absolutely stunning and sterling episodes this year: Buffy's mom dies, Buffy dies, and the musical that explained life in a nutshell. This series is on a whole other level than any I've ever seen.

5) "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" at the Guthrie: Just when one thought it wasn't safe to make new friends anymore I went with two youngsters that shared work battles with me. After a series of philosophical discussions over lunchtime that seemed to finally renew something other than my magazine subscriptions, it seemed a tad ironic that Cap'n Picard's portrayal of bitter George was like looking in one of them circus mirrors that distorts as much as it reflects.

4) Lucinda Williams at First Ave: I was worried that her live performance couldn't possibly match the intensity of the wonderful CD Essence (a difficult trick for anyone to do). But the live versions of the songs were as sultry and searing as the sweltering, stifling, stuffy July summer air.

3) Bob Dylan at the Xcel Energy Center: The much hyped Love and Theft deserves the praise lavished upon it. My 20th time seeing Bob live was best one of all accompanied by my faux second cousin (a person who I got to share in a lot of nice memories this past year, a person who oddly shares the same birthday as my mom and sister). His performance of "Sugar Baby" that evening was intense, in the moment and was an excellent demonstration that there is no finer singer/ songwriter.

2) 911: It's still too big to comprehend (or maybe even accept). Scattered feelings and images- serving as an election judge and having to rely on reports from distressed voters to find out what was going on; Carl Frie's gripping newsletter article on his family's loss; David Letterman's wonderful opening to his first show back where he did what is probably the best thing to do in troubled times- speak from the heart. And a final lesson learned: in the following daze I reestablished contact with a seamstress who once gave me a rock. Operating for years under the belief that a sure sign of my insanity was going to Sandra Bullock movies and being personally spellbound by being reminded of an old friend. Finally getting to talk with this friend again, to express some regrets and to hear I'm not alone in the Bullock comparisons created enough warmth to carry me through most any cold night.

1) Shaking hands with the Dalai Lama: As they dig through the rubble out east and we all dig through the rubble inside to be able to look at a photo of me (ME!) shaking hands with his gracious holiness was a needed reminder of the goodness that exists all around us even if the world is exploding.

Monday, December 24, 2001

Traditionally Speaking

The holidays are nothing if not about traditions. And by their very nature traditions have a shelf life, falling by the wayside to make people nostalgically wistful for the way things used to be. One of the things that used to make Christmas Christmas for me was the decorating touch of a homeowner whose house sits merrily on a corner of an intersection on the way to my parents' house.

This guy had a simple and tasteful light display around the trim of his house and garage. His one garish declaration of independence and humor was he put an illuminated Santa on top of his basketball hoop. I never quite was in the holiday spirit until I saw the ultimate shot blocker Santa on top of that b-ball rim. I may have had the worst day shopping or wrapping presents or preparing myself for whatever stress is associated with the season but whenever I drove by Santa I couldn't help but smile.

Over the years the guy has added reindeer, candy canes, elves, wise men, nativity scenes and all the rest to his yard decorations and moved Santa from the hoop to the garage roof. This year Santa is gone altogether. Bah humbug.

The only other holiday tradition that resonates inside does so for an entirely different reason. Every year I was in grade school around Christmas time we would have an all school assembly where they would drag us down to the gymnasium and show us the 1956 French film Red Balloon. School assemblies were few and far between (who could forget the time Ian Mackinnon's father came in and played the bagpipes. You think Def Leppard is loud? Try saving your ears against the hurricane strength sound of bagpipe screeching off the metallic girders of a grade school gymnasium) so it wasn't as if I didn't appreciate the annual film tradition. Rather to this day I'm not sure what the point of the movie was.

I noticed that the movie was playing on cable TV the other night so I made a point to set aside the time to watch it. It was almost exactly as I remembered except the balloon was bigger than I recalled. The movie is about a boy who befriends a red balloon. He finds the balloon one morning and drags it with him around town. The next day the balloon follows the kid around the streets of Paris until an unruly gang interrupts their good time and end up killing the balloon with a slingshot. The boy's temporary sadness over the loss of his friend suddenly turns to pure delight as every balloon in Paris flies on over and gives the boy a literal lift.

Maybe it's that I've had my heart broken a time or two by people associated with the French. Maybe it's I have a bias against developing too close a relationship with a rubber product but the meaning of the symbolism of the movie still eludes me. There's something about mob mentality and the corrupt nature of gangs. There's something in there about both the educational and religious systems turning their backs on the kid as he brings the balloon with him into church and school only to get into trouble for doing so. Maybe it's significant that the color of the balloon is red- the movie was made during the mid 50's when everybody was scared about Communism. Perhaps the ultimate moral of the story has to do with dealing with loss but shouldn't the boy have felt a tinge more than a minute worth of sadness after he sees the deflated red balloon? Fickle kid.

Yup, I'll admit the holiday spirit is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. As my family grows (another two nephews added this year) the number of gifts I'm responsible for seems to be hitting the budget more than ever. Thus taking a cue from Major League Baseball I intend to propose something at our annual family get together this year. Either those large revenue generating members share more of their wealth with us poorer members or we contract this gift giving business and do more name drawing.

Happy Holidays all!

Monday, December 17, 2001

The Difference Between the Atlantic and the Pacific

A friend who hadn't been by for a while was over the other night and she noticed how the normally gray haired Mr. Max's coat is getting redder. I had just assumed since he hasn't seen one of his favorite red-headed inline skaters in a while, he was taking on a new look in a show of protest. Turns out it is a zinc deficiency. Yes the passing years can change a whole bunch of things.

Perhaps the very best gauge of my changing (or not changing) mental state is to analyze my movie watching habits. Last week I was surreally spooked as the amphibian precipitation scene from Magnolia played out on my computer's DVD system. So spooked that it put me in (for only the second time this year) a let's go to a movie type mood (the other excursion was to see Ms. Congeniality for a whole other reason). I wanted to see either Mulholland Drive or The Man Who Wasn't There. Unfortunately neither was playing at a theater near me. So instead I went to Ocean's 11.

In the interests of full disclosure let me begin by saying that until last week I hadn't seen the original version starring the Rat Pack boys. My exposure to the movie was limited to the wonderful SCTV spoof featuring Sammy Maudlin and Bobby Bittman. It's usually difficult to enjoy a spoof unless you've seen the original but the SCTV bit was done with such love and glee that it remains deeply etched in my memory. "EEEOOOUHLEVEN..."

The new Ocean's 11 is flashy and entertaining. I love heist movies where the intricate split second plans unfold even if they turn out to be slightly unrealistic. The way this movie's plot plows forward, the sheer momentum makes it as fun to watch as the charismatic performances of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Elliot Gould.

But there is little comparison between the original and the remake, not because one is better than the other but because the movies don't have much in common. Both are about a group of men deciding to pull off a historic heist by ripping off a number of Las Vegas casinos simultaneously but other than that there isn't too much of a connection. (I'm 37 years old and I spent hours seriously contemplating the corresponding character to Brad Pitt: Was it Joey Bishop or Dean Martin?) Watching both movies back to back one is able to clearly see the difference between being slick and being cool.

The original "Ocean's" is fun, fun, fun. It was a heist caper that was just an excuse for a bunch of friends (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., et al) to get together and make whoopee. They met in the capital of decadence, Las Vegas, during that precious pre-p.c. era when a man in an orange angora sweater stirring a martini could call a woman in a tight skirt and pumps a "great broad" and she'd take it as a compliment.

The new version is dumb, dumb, dumb. It's a heist caper that was an excuse for a bunch of highly paid actors (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, et al.) to get together and make big box office. It was made in the post-p.c. era when a man in a badly fitting suit can't say anything witty or clever in a movie because 12 people on some team have to OK the script based on its appeal to 13-year-old boys and whether it will offend some special-interest group.
-Karen Croft

Well maybe. For me the reason I enjoyed the original movie better is while the 2001 version is about a group of stars pulling off a high tech caper the 1960 Rat Pack version was ultimately about friendship and loyalty. One doesn't necessarily automatically associate the word "heart" with Sinatra and Co., but the genuine friendship and camaraderie that existed between Frank and Dean and Sammy and Peter and Joey was palatable in the movie. Plus there are a lot of great lines:

"Give it to me straight doc. Is it the big casino in the sky?"

"You'd better stop getting prettier every day otherwise you'll be a monopoly."

"I married you once and it didn't work out. What's wrong with a little hey hey?"

A big surprise is that Angie Dickinson (the jiggling Pepper of Police Woman) is absolutely fabulous in the role of the wife of Sinatra's Danny Ocean. She actually comes across as radiant and demure. On the other hand Julia Roberts' Mrs. Ocean to Clooney's Danny is stiff, humorless and quite frankly rather boring. A little hey hey indeed.

And yes it's entertaining to watch the token Asian character played by the acrobatic Shaobo Qin flip and contort himself in order to help Clooney and the gang's heist but it still doesn't come close to watching ole Dino suavely sing that wonderful song about love being a kick... a kick in the head that is.

Monday, December 10, 2001

You Know the Song in My Heart

There's something seriously wrong with me (and hush to all of you who reflexively sighed, "duh"). It isn't that I took it as a personal attack when I received the latest invoice from my Columbia House video club threatening that if I didn't return their notice by December 7, they would ship me Pearl Harbor. I surrender already. Nor is it the voices I've always heard in my head have started singing a group of songs that just won't leave me alone and for whatever reason I don't exactly mind. Or maybe it is.

A couple of weekends back the Minneapolis attorney who pays fairly cheap parking and the divine mother of little baby Henry Louis served me English tea and cookies. There were a lot of lessons to be learned that day. I learned that you always pour the milk in first so the hot tea can cook it. I also learned what a long elusive tea cozy looks like. Finally I learned it's OK to borrow an egg from a neighbor. I left the mansion on the hill with a tape of two Sopranos episodes checked out from the Roseville branch of the Ramsey County Library. I was asked to return the tape to the library after I was finished watching it. "Do you know where the library is?" I was asked. Well I may look like I'm perpetually lost and confused and I also may look like I've never read a book, but the building is a mere mile from my house so I do have some memory of driving by it now and then.

I was glad to finally get to see the Sopranos having heard and read so many rave reviews of the show. Indeed it was entertaining and very well done. I love the premise of Tony the ultimate bad-ass gangster being in therapy for depression. I can see why the show has won so many awards and so much critical acclaim. Like the similarly lauded West Wing, the Sopranos features sharp, witty writing and complex characters.

But I remain firmly convinced neither show comes close to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of emotional depth, artistry, creativity and insight. While the West Wing admirably deals with politics and power and the Sopranos looks at dysfunctional families and power, Buffy unblinkingly takes on slightly more meaty theological subjects like what the meaning of life is. There's a thoughtful running thread about what a soul is, whether someone without a soul is capable of love, and what love itself is through its many incarnations. By its very nature does it have to be about either ecstasy or melancholy? Is there a stable middle ground to be found? Though I know all of you are tired of reading about the show in these pages week after week, it's on my mind more than ever now that I haven't been able to stop watching the musical episode. I also haven't been able to stop listening to the clever songs (downloaded from the Internet) that capture the rich humor and intelligence of the best Buffy episodes.

Before the musical ("Once More with Feeling") I was convinced Buffy the Vampire Slayer was among the all time great network TV shows. After the superlative episode I am now convinced it is THE greatest series of all time. I think the episode represents a clear line in the entertainment continuum. From this point on we will be forever identified with those that saw the episode (and thus were duly enlightened) and those who did not see it (and thus have to wonder why the rest of us are walking around with a knowing grin on our mugs).

Now that we've come to that line in the sand I think the only way I'll die a happy gray hatted man is if I live to see the day when high schools across the land will be staging their own versions of Buffy the Musical in place of standard fare like Oklahoma! and the Sound of Music.

Like the best art "Once More with Feeling" was able to spoof and pay tribute to its art form all at the same time. It cheerfully acknowledged musicals that preceded it while setting the bar a little higher for any that are to come. While none of the songs are instantly memorable like say "Climb Every Mountain" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" once heard they cannot quite be forgotten (or ignored). Upon repeated listening the songs reveal more and more, the level of reflection truly unmatched by anything I've ever seen on TV.

I've always been a fan of the musical genre. Ever since I was a kid I remember thinking how cool it would be if we could spontaneously burst out in song every now and then. Some of my all time favorite songs come from musicals, and some of my all time favorite memories come from participating in the orchestra of some of my high school's productions. Of course I've also understood the point of view of those who can't stand musicals because it seems absurd to them that the gangs of West Side Story, or the brooding king in the King and I would interrupt their lives with a song and dance. That's where "Once More with Feeling" has an advantage- the premise is that a demon comes to town that makes people reveal their hearts through songs. Thus the gang can't help but sing at the most inopportune times.

Of course like most demons on Buffy this one is evil as it turns out that once someone gets too involved in their number they will spin out of control and eventually burst into flames. Pure emotion ends up burning you after all. The show begins with the wonderful cliche of Buffy's alarm clock clanging opening the overture that establishes the musical themes of the show. Buffy's first number "Going Through the Motions" is about going through life, work and relationships without any passion. And it's not as if the passion wasn't at one time there, it's a passion lost that is the most difficult loss of all just like our most famous romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald losing his life's romanticism and having to endure the aftermath. Writer Joss Whedon's wicked humor is immediately on display with the dancing demons supporting Buffy's ambivalence. As she stabs a goat guy he bellows, "She's not half the girl she (looks down at his chest) OW!"

The song plays off the major theme of the series season thus far, that Buffy died last year saving the world and jumping into an abyss of energy only to be brought back by her friends through a witch's spell. They thought they were saving her, but it turns out they ripped her from a warm place where she felt unequivocal, unending love; a place where she felt peace at last only to be ripped and returned to a world that is "cold and hard."

The next song is perhaps my favorite amongst the bunch. "I've Got a Theory" has the group trying to figure out what is going on. Willow guesses it's all somebody dreaming and they're all "stuck inside some wacky Broadway nightmare." Xander guesses it might be the mischief of witches, and then quickly recants as he realizes he has offended Willow and Tara (practicing members of the craft). Anya, the one time demon, not quite figuring out the human experience thing and soon to be married to Xander bellows out it must be hares. "They've got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses! And what's with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?" The group looks at her as if she is daft and she meekly retracts her outburst "or maybe midgets..."

Every little detail of the show has been carefully thought out and when Buffy wonders if it is just the group that has been affected she opens the door and sees a mob of people out side a dry cleaning establishing dancing in unison with a guy proudly belting out, "They got the mustard out!" A wonderful touch indeed.

Tara's love song to Willow, "I'm Under Your Spell" is one of the most erotic scenes that will be on network TV this year and certainly the most effective prime time lesbian love scene imaginable. "Spread beneath my willow tree... you make me com-plete..." And likewise Anya and Xander's "I'll Never Tell" about the fear of commitment and the absolute terror of marriage is not only a wonderful tribute to all those sappy sunny duets of 50's musicals but also is wickedly funny with its frank lyrics playing off the dippy melody. "She eats these skeezy cheeses that I can't describe/I talk, he breezes/She doesn't know what please is/His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe..."

Spike the used to be poet now evil vampire who can't act evil because of a government chip implanted in his brain (see season 5), has his moment in the sun (so to speak) in a dark love song to Buffy. He's the only one Buffy has revealed her secret too (that she was in heaven not hell) even though his expressions of love have fallen not only on deaf ears but with disgust filled eyes. "Whisper in a dead man's ear, it doesn't make it real..." One of the most interesting things that the musical touches on (and the rest of the season's episodes have dealt with) is Buffy's willing decision to sacrifice her life and not being able to feel the same since her return. Once you decide that it doesn't matter whether your live or die you cross a line and you can't quite come back all the way again. That it takes a soulless living dead being to understand this speaks volumes about the depth of insight the show consistently wallows in.

The finale "Life's a Show" is where "Once More with Feeling" departs from the traditional musical genre. Most musicals start with the conflict quickly stated and end on a happy note; this show starts sunny and ends on a decidedly ambivalent gloomy tone. Once a heart is revealed it can't be hidden and it is thus weakened. Buffy's revelation stuns her friends "All the joys life sends, family and friends. All the twists and bends, knowing that it ends. Well that depends on if they let you go. On if they know enough to know."

Leave it to Spike, the only one without a soul to save Buffy from spinning out of control and burning. "Life's not a song. Life isn't bliss. Life is just this. It's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel. You only can heal by living." It's a perplexing revelation. The old thought that it is better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all is seriously called into question. Is the best way forward not to let yourself feel or is it to accept that not feeling is part of the process of letting yourself feel once more?

This episode was absolutely as breathtaking as it was heartbreaking as it was thought provoking as it was spellbinding. Being an alum from a school that was recently named number one for having students who most often ignore God, maybe I'm not supposed to think (or feel) about things like this that deeply. A friend recently returned from New Orleans told me how there are parts of the city you don't dare roam at night because the locals are afraid of vampires. Misguided reality? It was a revelation that was life affirming rivaling the brilliant production Nimrod High's must have been great rendition of the "Butler Did It" featuring a decidedly anti-Meryl Streep like lovely Ms. Haversham.

Monday, December 3, 2001

All the Cyclamens in Minnesota

"You're gonna die, gonna die for sure/And you can learn to live with love or without it/But there ain't no cure..."
-John Hiatt

The last time my placenta previa, or one true one in a million once reliable friend and I saw John Hiatt together was the night in Minneapolis when the Holidazzle accident occurred blocks from the State Theater in which Mr. Hiatt was playing. This time around a few days after receiving my tickets in the mail to see him at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium on the campus of St. Kates there was a silent crash of another kind. There probably won't be any lawsuits involved but suffice it to say the damage was real and permanent enough.

Now I've been around the block more than a few times (I even learned that there's a library near by) and if there's but one thing I've learned it is that during a time of great anguish and trouble perhaps the best thing you can do is something kind for somebody else. And for me, that's what the best Hiatt songs are all about.

At the risk of getting all philosophical here let me just say that if there is a better symbol with what is wrong with this country than the current cover of Rolling Stone magazine I don't know what it is. The cover features young Britney's bosom fully thrust in our face bursting from a bra that looks to be a size or two too small. Thursday night the voice of America performed at Target Center to a packed arena while Hiatt played a much smaller venue in the other Twin City. I don't know what to make of a place where the majority of folks would rather see the aerobics demonstration in Minneapolis over the goofy giddy witty performance of one of our most insightful songwriters.

I'll never understand why Hiatt has never achieved the popularity his music warrants. His words are always rewarding, his melodies accessible. His voice isn't polished but it gets the job done. He sometimes can be a bit too clever for his own good or maybe it's just that he's not a size 34C. There was something rather peculiar about the audience at the show. Most looked like what I imagine the prototype Cities '97 person looks like complete with very long legs. And there I was scrunched up sitting feeling rather naked without my Survivor/Reebok buff on my head (and without my attractive Einstein hairdo).

I ended up going to the show with the right person after all the fish taco headache, the girl next door (down a few blocks or two). It was nice catching up after not having much of a chance to talk recently. And I knew the evening was perfect when after guitarist Sonny Landreth did a wailing Hendrix like Star Spangled intro to "Memphis in the Meantime" with John doing a bullfrog dance around the stage she said to me, "That was beautiful." She was right of course.

The setlist consisted mostly of material from Hiatt's new CD The Tiki Bar is Open and 1988's Slow Turning, the two CDs that feature his current touring band, the Goners. The songs sparkled particularly on the driving "Tennessee Plates" and the head bobbing "Everybody Went Low."

"I was there that day/Don't know what to say/'cept New York had her heart broken"

I'm not sure there's another writer whose songs have better captured and touched the arc of my own life's journey. That's quite the magical trick to pull off. Hiatt opened the show with a jangly "Drive South" which played during my cross country trip with the star of my novel who I called on September 16, 2001, 13 years later. "We were always looking for true north/with our heads in the clouds/just a little off course/I left the motor running/Now, if you're feeling down and out/Come on baby drive south." And almost as if to demonstrate how far the journey has taken me for his first encore Hiatt played a touching version of "Have a Little Faith in Me" which is a song I'll always associate with my oldest and dearest friend who happened to be sitting next to me this evening. When I took a major step along the way as a going away gift she gave me a photograph of me in a hat with the inscription on the back that says, "Take a look and you will see." That picture maintains a prominent spot in my regular eye sight, a constant reminder of perspective when things aren't going exactly right. And the words were used in that Hiatt song though she didn't know it at the time.

Hiatt's humor was his redemption as it often has been. "I believe this is the first time we've ever played at an all girls school," he said with a bit of drool deliberately dripping from his lips. He screamed, he whispered, he sang and he danced, he came and he conquered. And what a fine night he gave to us all.

Monday, November 26, 2001

They Got the Mustard Out

Unlike all those daycare pampered precocious children of today, my pre-school education primarily consisted of the TV shows my mom let me watch while my siblings were off at school. For science there was Sea Hunt; for contemporary American history there was 77 Sunset Street; and for political science there was Mission Impossible.

Perhaps the shows I learned the most from, and were the most fun to watch were cooking shows like the Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr and a locally produced show with Chef Hank Meadows. I would cook along with the chefs using my Romper Room plastic cases, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys serving as substitute food items and utensils (Mom let me borrow her oven mitts). I'll never forget the day Mom (Watakushi no kioku ga tashika naraba...) taught me how to prepare my first real food item (not counting toast and Pop Tarts)- instant pudding. Precisely measuring the milk and mixing up the two ingredients (milk and pudding powder) was a thrill like nothing I had ever experienced.

Thus there was a tinge of nostalgia when I discovered the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef a couple of years ago. For those of you who haven't seen the show it essentially takes the art of cooking and turns it into a fiercely competitive sport. The premise of the show is that Chairman Kaga, a fan of fine cuisine, decided to build Kitchen Stadium, a place where the world's finest chefs would come to test their skills against his "Iron Chefs." The four Iron Chefs specialize in a different style of cooking- Sakai is Iron Chef French, Chin is Iron Chef Chinese, Kobe is Iron Chef Italian, and Morimoto is Iron Chef Japanese.

The challenger is allowed to choose which of the Iron Chefs he/she wishes to square off against. Then Chairman Kaga unveils a food ingredient that must be used in all of the chefs' dishes. (My favorite episode so far was the "carrot contest" in which Kenichi-san defeated his challenger by better realizing that the meat around the core of the carrot is what should be used in fixing exquisite meals.) Many of the shows feature some wacky main ingredients like sea urchin, Shittake mushrooms, and squid- not exactly stuff you'd likely have lying around your house.

There is something uniquely Japanese about the style of the show in its mixture of melodramatic sincerity and humor. Chairman Kaga's presentation of the whole show is over the top but in a sly way. As the chefs scramble to complete their different courses running commentary is provided by a play by play guy, a color commentator and Ota- the roving reporter who runs between the two chefs and breathlessly reports on what ingredients are being used and how the dishes are being prepared. The panel of judges also includes Japanese celebrities usually a bubble headed actress or actor or athlete or politician with no apparent knowledge of food other than they like to eat it. The chefs have 60 minutes to prepare their dishes (usually four or five) and then the panel of judges comments on what they are served.

Despite appearances I'm not exactly the most Japanese guy around. Sure I love my sushi but has there been anyone in recent memory more Americanized by this country's popular culture? Shamefully no and thus I think some of my fondness for the show has to do with my ancestry and feeling some guilt that for an hour I can feel a bit Japanese and a culinary expert as well. At its best Iron Chef inspires not only a love for fine food but also for creativity. Not much of a cook my own self, I must admit being a tad more ambitious with my stir fries after becoming a regular viewer of the show and I even learned what foie gras is. (The duck liver is used in many of the chefs' dishes- and apparently for good reason: It is an expensive delicacy and the chefs are allowed to take items not used up in preparation back to their own restaurants. Thus we see heavy use of caviar also.)

The American version of the show debut last week and predictably something got lost in the translation. While the premise of the show is the same none of the subtle elegance remains. By its very nature there is a campiness but the American version has too much of wink to it- as if the viewer has to be reminded that the whole thing is some big joke. The choice of William Shatner as the chairman was inspired and the over the top actor seems to be having a great time (I liked his little spiel about food being fuel for the body but great food is fuel for the soul.) But the American show is loud and soulless- more akin to professional wrestling or the XFL than Julia Childs or Wolfgang Puck. On the first episode we seldom knew what was being cooked or how it was being prepared- the focus instead was on the celebrity of the chef (and lingering shots of the Playmate of the Year who was one of the judges). While the Japanese Iron Chefs never seem to play to the crowd, the American pretty boy Iron Chef did little but that.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a fun little show and turn it into a spectacle emphasizing flash over substance. It was almost enough to make me want to finally live up to my surname and remove the hyphen from the census category I fall in.

Monday, November 19, 2001

I Can't Imagine (a) This World Without You

My one-year-old nephew Caleb, one of the two true Minnesota twins, said his first word ("apple") during the days before my 37th birthday. Thus he like his uncle is on pace to learn about a word per year. And like me I'm not entirely sure the little guy quite understands the meaning of what he uttered having never had the fruit (other than applesauce), but he said it quite clearly and over and over again. Point to a picture of an apple and impressively Caleb clearly identifies it, but read him a Sesame Street book point to a picture of Elmo and ask, "who is that?" and Caleb quite cutely also says, "apple."

Before we delve too steeply into the symbolism of his first word and the obvious Adam and Eve analogy let's just say I think the kid is wiser than his year(s). There are many words I wish I didn't know and there have been many times when I wished and prayed that I didn't have to use the same word to describe the situation I found myself in. Taking my cue from Caleb next time someone asks me how I'm doing I might just mumble, "apple." That should say it all.

You have to envy somebody who can look at just about everything in the world as brand new and shiny and still doesn't have the arrogance to believe that everything all kinda ends up the same no matter what you do so you might as well do the same things over and over. Call it the old comfort routine. But what you find out is that inevitably life intrudes and throws you for a loop by taking away something you've depended on, relied on leaving you gazing through the hole where the bottom fell out.

My day these days (daze e daisy give me your answer do...) is more predictable than it is spellbinding. I have developed a morning ritual that has only changed slightly over the years. It always begins with waking up, a process that one certainly can't take for granted nor even hope for. Also in the morning mixture is enjoying my morning homemade cappuccinos while reading both local daily newspapers. Of course one of the first things I've turned to the past couple of years is the comics page where among the first comics I always read was the Fusco Brothers. Last week those wise folks at the Pioneer Press decided to replace the Fuscos with a generic locally written strip called Amber Waves..

Though I appreciated the fact that the Pioneer Press chose not to follow Major League Baseball's lead and contract its comics page I still was a tad disappointed that they didn't expand it and merely switched one of the better strips with what appears to be another cute kid and animal comic. Which reminds me of another part of the soon to departing routine- occasionally glimpsing up to see the peering gaze of Mr. Max looking around the corner wondering if it is in his best interests to join me. Usually Max decides to postpone really checking up on me and instead goes and finds a splash of sunlight coming through the window to lie in. Eventually he ends up on the couch with me, usually first plopping on the spread out newspaper page I'm trying to read. The twins would chuckle, sneeze and wheeze at the lil guy's antics.

Caleb's brother Micah was the first of the two to take a step bringing up the age old debate whether or not it's better to move forward without saying a word or whether one doesn't dare take a step in any direction without first expressing oneself. I think Buffy/Joan said it best when she sang, "Life's a song/You don't get to rehearse/And every single verse/Can make it that much worse..." Baby Steps baby steps... When one word can make all the difference in the world especially if it is the only word that you know. Sometimes as that other famous slayer bard said "the silence can be like thunder."

And it was at the Bob Dylan concert during the first encore when the band strummed the chords of "Love Sick" when my friend, call her the Fusco sister, turned to me and said, "You like this song don't you?" And I muttered something incoherent back to her (as I'm wont to do) as I nodded my head. If only I had been able to say what was in my heart, what was in my mind: "apple."

Monday, November 12, 2001

Ask Me To Sing About the Second President

I spent Tuesday in the basement of St. Therese's Catholic Church in Highland Park serving as a head election judge. Besides coming uncomfortably close to running out of ballots (the county gave us 800- we ended up with exactly 800 people voting) things went pretty smoothly. Despite all the repetitive jokes about hanging chads and whether or not we allow dogs to vote (not if they're them foreign dogs like a German shepherd) I enjoyed working with a group of people many of them believe it or not, a little older than myself. I was even tolerant of the woman who kept saying to departing voters, "See ya later alligator..." in hopes of grown ups playing along and completing the greeting with the proper response. She wasn't having a whole lot of takers. As a group we did form a bond, a team camaraderie that comes with doing one's civic duty and working a fifteen-hour day protecting the legitimacy of our election system.

One of my fellow judges was an elderly gent named John who told me the best thing he ever did was to get married. He said that when he turned 36 he figured it was time, so he went out church hopping in search of a good woman. Forty years later John had nothing but nice things to say about the missus. The other thing John sure couldn't say enough about was the exploits of our nation's second president, John Adams. Seems election judge John had just finished reading the new Adams' biography written by David McCullough. Every five minutes or so John would walk over to me and tell something else about Mr. Adams. The only things I could offer to judge John in return were a couple of conversational nuggets: that I had recently learned the world now has turkey Spam; and that more and more I'm becoming convinced life is all a song and dance.

Like most conversations I'm responsible for starting, the Spam one drew first a blank stare followed by a look of what can only be described as sympathetic concern. The other observation elicited more curiosity especially after I told John that I was sacrificing watching my favorite TV show to be working in the precinct. (Of course true to accusations, I wasn't disclosing everything I knew- before I left for work that morning I was quite paranoid in double and triple checking my VCR to make sure that it was all set to tape the special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Buffy the musical (or "Once More with Feeling") got a fair amount of publicity, enough so that even my nieces who don't watch the show and roll their eyes whenever I mention it, asked me if I was looking forward to the episode. Actually I was a little worried that having the cast members break into song would be too gimmicky, an ambitious experiment gone wrong (does anyone remember Cop Rock?). But I should know by now that the show's creator/producer/writer Joss Whedon is too skilled an artist to not pull off the unexpected.

Unlike peers like the West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, Whedon doesn't need to rely on cliche to get to the heart of his show's emotional fabric. The West Wing may have gotten ALL the Emmys but has anyone noticed how through this entire impeachment/the president lied to his staff and the country story line how Sorkin more and more has relied on swelling background music to convey the emotion of payoff scenes?

Whedon on the other hand has created a world so rich, so complex that even when the characters spoof old musicals they do so with wit and charm and it even makes sense in the series' overall plot. (I was seriously pissed off however when the show ran eight minutes longer than normal and thus my tape shut off just as all the revelations were occurring.)

I told none of this to election judge John. Didn't think he'd be all that interested. But he persistently told me about the love/hate relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two men played such an integral part in establishing our country yet they shared entirely different points of view. They died on the same day, exactly fifty years to the day that our country was born.

The relationship reminded me of another rivalry/partnership that produced great things- Lennon and McCartney. I would have told election judge John that but again I figured the connection might not click. I almost recommended he listen to Paul's new CD, Driving Rain- a CD I couldn't stop listening to over the weekend. Driving Rain is a departure from much of Paul's work. Many of the songs deal with his undying love for Linda, and finding solace through song and through the inspiration of the new love of his life Heather Mills. Unlike Lennon, Paul has never particularly been a autobiographical writer. While many of Lennon's best songs seem torn directly out of his diary, Paul has never been one to reveal much in his writing. His best songs like "Hey Jude" and "Tough on a Tightrope" remarkably convey deep emotions without revealing that much about the writer.

More and more I've found myself feeling defensive for remaining a staunch Paul fan but his music holds a special place in my life. I can play most of his songs on the piano. And I remember the day in high school when my life became a musical as I serenaded Sue Weiss, who I didn't ask to the prom, with "C Moon" over a game of shoddy played pool even though I was much too shy to speak to her.

Paul's melodic bass playing on the new CD is stellar and expressive and the singing of a revealing set of lyrics shows a skilled artist meshing his life with song. On Driving Rain it is truly refreshing to hear Paul writing music that truly matters; if not for anyone else, certainly for himself.

Monday, November 5, 2001

Waltzing the Floor with a Podiatrist

The electric Christmas card photographer got in line with many others and as we were listening to Emmylou sing Lucinda's "Sweet Old World" she said to me, "You sure do like sad songs." If I had a nickel for every time I heard that I'd be at least three dollars and fifty-five cents less in debt by now. That particular song (which happens to be my current all time favorite song) never has struck me as being all that sad. Sure it's a song chastising one who has killed himself, but it isn't so much about losing one with suicidal tendencies as it is all the beautiful things in this world that are worth cherishing, loving and living for.

Now if you want to hear some really depressing music listen to the Cranberries' new CD, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. It's not that the new disc is downbeat, indeed it is the group's most chirpy to date; rather it's the music is downright awful and listening to it not only insults your intelligence it sucks brain cells right out of your noggin.

Normally (if that word can ever truly apply to me) I'm as big a fan of insipid music as anyone I know. Paul McCartney remains one of my favorite songwriters precisely because his music can be so inane and cloying. Paul has worked hard to earn his reputation as the empty headed producer of the world's silliest love songs and I for one applaud him for that.

But the new Cranberries' disc is so annoying that it goes beyond my tolerance for such contrived happiness. It reminds me of the fairly lousy Buffy episode in which John Ritter plays a robot/boyfriend of Buffy's mom and seduces Mrs. Summers by putting a drug akin to Ecstasy in her chocolate chip cookies. Just when you think the episode will take the less than normal standard network "ignorance is bliss" stance, pouty Buffy ruins things by showing she is right and that the Ritter character is a bit more evil than your normal "I don't want my mother dating anyone who is not my father" boyfriend. Similarly Wake Up and Smell the Coffee tries to sound convincing in its vapid "we've done the depressing stuff now it's time to sing happy songs" approach.

Lead singer Dolores O'Riordan Burton writes in the liner notes that since having her second child she thought the group owed the world music that's "extremely up and grateful." "I guess family and friends are the essential key to happiness," Dolores writes. "It is from such simplicities that we create love- for me love is all."

Well, fine. But how about writing music that conveys that love and joy and not one that seems contrived and listless? Happiness isn't that uninspiring is it? There isn't a single moment of revelation, a single bit of insight in the 13 songs- a pretty mean trick to pull off. The best song of the lot, "Analyze" sounds so much like the group's biggest hit, "Dreams" that a copyright violation citation seems in order. (In perhaps a bit of unintentional irony the chorus of the song ends with the sing along tag- "lie, lie, lie, lie lie..." how bloody appropriate.) So many of the songs sound so eerily derivative of the group's earlier work that one wants to take the songwriter(s) aside and tell them that if they're going to steal music, at least steal something classic and with roots.

Maybe it was the sour mood I was in when I first listened to the disc. The CD provided background soundtrack noise to the gossip/rumor turned news that MY heart's team is in immediate danger of disbanding. It sure will be a sad day when Macalester no longer has a football team. The news hit me like a needle inserted into a familiar feline's ample stomach. After a difficult day when Mr. Max came home with a shaved belly and I resorted (some would say insensitively) to calling him "Mr. Poodle" in reference to his stylish fur and skin look, I desperately needed some music to pick me up. Believe me, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee wasn't the right tonic.

To get rid of the icky goo stuck inside my mind I put on Loudon Wainwright III's new CD Last Man on Earth. That CD is truly a powerful and admirable effort, a sterling cycle of songs about dealing with the grief after one's mother dies. After listening to the disc my nerves were a bit less agitated. All the songs are worth listening to but the final song "Homeless" effectively closes out the journey in such a powerful manner that it is a wonderful reminder of the healing powers of the sharing of music. "People have called to find out if I'm fine/I assure them I am/But I'm not/It's a line/They say in the end/Your good friends pull you through/But everyone knows/My best friend was you..."

I guess Ms. Electricity was right all along: maybe I do have an affinity for sad songs after all.

Monday, October 29, 2001

The Meanest Tunafish Sandwich in North America

It's one of those circumstances in life where the line between being lucky and being blessed is rather a blur. Who knows the exact number, the frequency that we should expect to experience one of those perfect musical moments in life that we all sometimes have? One of those rare instances where what you are listening to perfectly echoes what you are currently going through?

I was on my way to St. Cloud the other evening to cover a legislative hearing. I left my house around five o'clock figuring two hours would give me plenty of time. But it took me forty minutes to make my way to Maple Grove in the bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. The drive, which I had been dreading to begin with, was now beginning to cause more than a slight bit of anxiety. Then in a moment of perfect harmony and synchronicity the CD mix I had gurgling out of my car stereo speakers came to Brian Wilson singing "Sloop John B." "Let me go home, I wanna go home. This is the worst trip I've ever been on," Wilson's wavering voice sweetly sang. The timing was perfect, the calming effect was even better.

It did occur to me that many of those people so spooked about receiving anthrax in the mail had no qualms, no second thoughts about driving their large metallic deathtraps 90 miles per hour in and out of heavy traffic so they could arrive at their destination ten minutes before the rest of us. But I digress...

Of course the purveyor of many of my life's most memorable musical moments was back in town Thursday night playing at the Xcel Energy Center in our state's finest city.

Over the past fifteen years I've been fortunate to see Bob Dylan in concert twenty times. I've been even more fortunate to attend those concerts in the company of many of the people I've considered the most important friends of my life. The names and faces may have been rearranged and different but often the reaction was the same: the concert (and Dylan) wasn't what the person expected going in. Beforehand all those involved had some appreciation for Dylan's music and an equal amount of curiosity as to why that music has had such a major impact on my life. Somewhat ironically (or is it sadly?) none of those people ever went to a second concert with me and many have disappeared from the beaten path meaning I've actually seen Bob more often over the past few years than some I thought would be around for a long time. Maybe they heard (or saw something) that I'm still missing.

I was particularly looking forward to taking a new friend to see my friend Bob. This friend's insight, intellect and inherent electric artistic soul have been truly appreciated over the past year. Upon meeting and conversing uncomfortably at a book reading party I asked her if she was a fan of Dylan's music (kind of a standard question) and she had a most perfect response. "I'm the more enthusiastic than educated kind of Bob Dylan fan." (She quite likes Tom Waits.) Any apprehension I had that she may not enjoy the concert disappeared a few days beforehand when she revealed she had never seen a concert in an ice arena before. She wondered if she should dress more warmly and if the band was going to be on skates (now that I would pay big money to see!). If those were her preconceived notions going in, than the quirkiness of Bob's performance was sure to entertain her.

I'm a little sheepish and not exactly proud that I've shelled out my hard earned (and I do mean hard earned) cash to see the same performer over twenty times. If I think of all the money spent on the concerts and the CDs that could have been invested in a high yielding mutual fund I most certainly could have had a house in the suburbs and three kids by now. I'm not sure there's another artist out there I'd want to see more than a handful of times (with the possible exception of Sandra Bullock reading Shakespeare soliloquies). But each Dylan concert is different in mood and shape. I've heard at least a couple different songs at each show (who can possibly forget the five concert 1992 Orpheum run where over 50! different songs were performed). On the off night there always is a turn of a phrase, a new twist of an old lyric that gives an entirely different perspective on a familiar song. As a live performer Dylan is at his best when things seem close to coming a part, where the band is struggling to keep the song together and Bob somehow pulls the rabbit out of the hat and brings home the bacon. He accepts chaos and chaos smiles upon him.

If Dylan were a meal he'd be a fine sushi dinner. Most people I know when asked if they would like to try sushi either squish up their faces and shake their heads in an emphatic no, or they coolly decline as if eating raw fish falls far below their hipster level. Yet the few people I've introduced the delicacy to, or those who admirably have discovered it all on their own, inevitably list sushi as one of their all time favorite meals and always seem enthusiastic in joining me for a meal. The variety of fish flavored with just the right amount of wasabi and soy sauce always leaves diners feeling refreshed and full of anticipation for the next time they can enjoy the meal.

Likewise most of my friends mostly unfamiliar with Dylan's work can't quite get around his unconventional voice to appreciate the quality of his music. I've made tapes and CDs for people of some of his more accessible and popular songs and still they don't seem to think he is all that special. Those that do count themselves as Dylan fans tend to list him as one of their all time favorite artists.

His new CD Love and Theft would be mandatory listening for any rock fan if only for the dazzling different musical styles it employs. It's an impressive stroll through American music history. Add to that some of his most playful lyrics in many years and it becomes something truly truly magical. His touring band provides the proper musical embellishments as effectively as the mixture of our favorite green horseradish and black sodium liquid.

Ever since the events of September 11 people have sought comfort, solace and some insight to try and make sense of things. We've been told countless times that the world is now such a different place. Even the President of the United States said so. Much (or at least some) has been made that Dylan's CD came out on the day of the attack and many of the lyrics seem so appropriate and true to the aftershocks. "I'm on the fringes of the night fighting back my tears I can't control /Some people they ain't human, they ain't got no heart or soul/But I'm a-cryin' to the Lord, tryin' to be meek and mild/Yes, I cried for you, now it's your turn, you can cry awhile." Yet Dylan ain't no Nostradamus, a seer of the future. Rather he is proof positive that the world didn't change so much as we became more aware of the ugliness that has always been out there. It's a world where people kill others for a cause they think is just and the only seemingly appropriate response is to do the same.

The band strolled on to the stage first, dressed in burgundy suits. Dylan followed in a white suit that made him look like he would be the perfect owner of a fast food fried chicken chain. They quickly went into the bluegrass based Fred Rose song, "Wait for the Light to Shine." It's the same opening song of every show since the new CD came out, the same opener since the first words Bob uttered would be examined for some connection to September 11. And it's the perfect opener. It's Dylan singing what he has been singing all along. "Pull yourself together and keep lookin' for the sign/Wait for the light to shine..." He also sang "Masters of War," (which he has been quick to point out isn't an anti-war song as much as it is an anti-military establishment song) "Blowin' in the Wind" ("how many times must a cannonball fly before they are forever banned?") and "Searchin for a Soldier's Grave."

I was sitting there quite enjoying the show when he played "I Don't Believe You" back to back with "Positively Fourth Street." I remembered the first time I really listened to either of the songs was back in my freshman year of college when the boxset Biograph came out and my parents gave it to me as a Christmas gift and I became one who was interested in Dylan to one who was fascinated with him. There wasn't a bad song on the five records in the set and several of the songs blew me away. Though I've heard the aforementioned songs hundreds of times since then I found myself sitting there in the arena thinking how much I really really liked both songs. Favorite lyric of all time? Try "I Don't Believe You"'s "From darkness dreams are deserted/Am I still dreamin' yet?/I wish she'd unlock/Her voice once and talk/instead of acting like we never have met." The lyrics of "Positively Fourth Street" are as bitter as they are sad and on this particular night Dylan sang them perfectly. "I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

He sang five songs from Love and Theft and each of them crackled with energy and urgency. "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" was rollicking; "Summer Days" swung and swung hard (it was amusing listening to a skilled singer get in all the words in a rather wordy song); "High Water (for Charlie Patton)" was menacing and intense; "Honest With Me" rocked hard. The highlight of the entire set was a quiet and reflective "Sugar Baby" which had a tremendous singer singing his heart out; a vocal full of mesmerizing power and fluidity getting to the heart of a complex song about regret and loss. It was as moving as it was stunning. In a recent interview Dylan has said this CD is his most autobiographical, that every line has something to do with who he is. The way he sang "Sugar Baby" shows he wasn't exactly joking. "Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one/You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done/Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born/Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn ." Twenty one shows and this was the single most moving moment of all. Right place, right time, with the right person at the right moment.

Monday, October 22, 2001

Dra Dria

"When suddenly, at midnight, you hear/an invisible procession going by/with exquisite music, voices/don't mourn your luck that's failing now/work gone wrong, your plans/all proving deceptive- don't mourn them uselessly"
-Constantine P. Cavafy

Regular readers of the newsletter (all three of you) and people who stay up really really late probably already know that if you were ever to describe me you would wanna use an awful lot of words that end with the suffix "niac." Part of that is a lifelong affliction that has grown worse over the past few weeks. Let's just say that there's a whole lotta sheep being counted these days and we haven't even begun to worry about all these mysterious piles of powdery white substances (remember the days when it used to be fun to receive a letter?) piling up and the hysteria that surrounds them.

One lesson learned after countless sleepless nights in the past is that I usually don't listen to music while lying in bed. This is especially true for music with words since I usually end up staring at the ceiling pondering (and often times envying) the meaning of it all. I broke the rule last week after purchasing Leonard Cohen's new CD, Ten New Songs, at our friendly reopened neighborhood Cheapo. Actually I discovered that Cohen was coming out with new music by accident. I've been on a poetry reading kick of late, God knows why, and I knew one of my friends had a book of Cohen poems (a definite plus on her side) and I asked to borrow it. She loaned it to me mere days after I had an 11 year old cloud lifted from inside my noggin and she appropriately bent back the page of a very special Cohen poem titled, "True Love Leaves No Traces" with references that literally brought tears to my eyes. If she only knew...

"As the mist leaves no scar/On the dark green hill/So my body leaves no scar/On you and never will"

I was looking up information on the poem when I read the news that a new CD had recently been released. I bought the disc along with two others so I didn't have the chance to listen to it before bedtime. I was anxious to hear it however since Cohen is an artist that usually has some pretty intriguing stuff to say and this is certainly a time where that is even more appreciated than ever. So I put it on before settling in under the layers of covers. Understand when I buy the CD of a gifted lyricist the routine has always been to look closely at the packaging, from the cover art to the lyrics and liner notes, not wanting to miss a clue as to what the whole thing is about. This time around I didn't do that however; I was just too damn tired. So I didn't know quite what to expect.

My first impression was one of slight disappointment. Cohen's music has always been a tad dour and downbeat (he once joked his CDs were the only ones sold along with razor blades) but it usually has this ethereal spookiness to it that is hard to ignore. The first few new songs while masterfully crafted all kinda of blended together into an amalgamated collage of goo. Not only did nothing jump out upon first listen nothing even stood out.

I was actually beginning to doze off when track number seven started to play. I thought I was dreaming or at least wasn't listening straight because I kept hearing the words, "Alexandra leaving... Alexandra lost..." The name itself has personal implications but that wasn't what got me paying attention. The song spins a hypnotic if not a bit cryptic tale that is Cohen at his mystical best.

"Alexandra Leaving" I later learned is a song based on the great Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy's rather disturbing death poem, "The God abandons Antony." Cavafy who was born and died in Alexandria, Egypt casts a stark look into the blackness of night. The poem almost has a religious comforting tone to it but the title gives it away. This isn't about being reassured about what comes next it is about facing the moment with clear vision and appreciating the place you now are.

"As one long prepared, and graced with courage/say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving/Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say/it was a dream, your ears deceived you/don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these"

Cohen's song isn't so much about the death of a life as it is the death of a love. "Even though she sleeps upon your satin/Even though she wakes you with a kiss/Do not say the moment was imagined/Do not stoop to strategies like this"

And while there is nothing specific about the song that I can directly relate to my (current) life the song really touched me deeply. After comparing it to Cavafy's wonderful poem I was inspired by how Cohen was able to take a tautly spun tale and turn it not only into something of his own, but something near but completely different from the original words. It's a connection with a writer but it extends beyond that to what truly seems to matter, that wondrous once in a while connection with another.

Monday, October 15, 2001

Owed to My Cat (Part 412)

I could make a list at least three parsnips long detailing my many anxieties as a youth revolving around the beginning of a new school year. At the top of that list would be the annual pre-school doctor checkup. We used to go to a place (this was before they called them clinics or before HMO's were involved), a round building in Edina near the nation's first indoor shopping mall, Southdale.

It sucked that the building was circular because as they took you on that dreaded walk to the examination room it was hard to get your bearings and the walk that seemed to go on forever never quite lasted long enough. The only parts of the experience at all bearable were that the pre-check up area (commonly referred to as the "waiting room") was full of neat toys, and after we were done being poked and prodded our parents would take us over to the mall for hot pretzels.

My brother and I used to prepare for the examination weeks in advance by pinching our fingers to simulate the horrid pain of having our fingers pricked for the blood test. Now days it strikes me that we weren't at all concerned about the results of the test, we just didn't like the pain of the prick (which coincidentally is the title of my new autobiographical novel). One year my brother was so afraid of the pain that just before the nurse put needle to skin he yanked his hand back. If she had begun the prick, he of course would have ripped his finger wide open. I guess I was a bit braver than that having resigned myself to accepting that life sometimes is about enduring a little bit of pain.

I was reminded of all this the other day when I took Mr. Max into the University of Minnesota's veterinary hospital for his annual physical. The last time Max and I had been there was after he had consumed some Azalea leaves and we were told he had a 50 percent chance of surviving. That episode left its mark on both of us as it served as a reminder that there will be a day when a relationship so appreciated and now ten years running will inevitably be over. I guess the price of love is that some day there will be inconsolable loss.

As part of the checkup a veterinary student does the preliminary examination. This year's student put her stethoscope to Max's teenaged chest and asked me if I had noticed any difficulty in his breathing because she heard what she thought might be some congestion in his lungs. I said no, his breathing, unlike his growing uncertainty in his jumping ability, or his noticeable need for more attention, wasn't one of the increasingly visible signs of aging.

Later the doctor came in to finish up the exam. The student asked her if she too heard the congested lungs and the doctor said no, that the breathing difficulty was coming from Max hyperventilating. The strange surroundings (with painfully memorable connotations) were causing the little guy with eyes fully dilated to shake like a bunny.

I've given some thought over the last few years of getting a little kitty to join Mr. Max and myself. I figured since I haven't been around as much he might enjoy some company. I also figured when the time comes that it would be nice to have some continued feline companionship nearby to plow my way through the heartache and tears. But we haven't taken on another roommate because Max ain't too fond of other cats and the sure to be noticeable stress involved has scared me away. I've also realized that I'm fooling myself if I think bringing in another cat is somehow more for Max's sake than my own. One of the student vet's questions to me was if Max had been through anything traumatic this past year (other than the Azalea incident). I responded, "Besides living with me, um no..." We all had a good laugh as Max's breathing remained heavy and present.

Still I can't help but feel a tinge of melancholy that the current life situation isn't a little like lil' Jackie Paper and that rascal Puff. I always used to look down upon those who spoke about their pets as if they were children. And granted I've come to relate to those people more and more (if not actually becoming a tried and true practitioner of such dialogue- complete with pictures!). Still the relationship between Max and I has taken on partnership proportions more than any thing else. I've learned at least as much through him as he has picked up from me. In the realm of relationships there are those that end up taking a lot out of you, leave you searching for some kind of consolation, conciliation and meaning. There are others that ultimately make you a better, more thoughtful person. There'll never be a doubt which category my relationship with Max falls under. If only the deepest pain in life was still that of a little finger prick.

Monday, October 8, 2001

She'll Save the World Some More

"You can always come back but you can't come back all the way..."
-R. Zimmerman

Through all the words, all the blinding images of the past year the one that I can't seem to get out of my mind was a quiet lunch with a friend when she told me that she used to like watching scary movies until she realized that life itself is scary enough. The startling sad events of the past month have somehow changed all that existed before. Pieces of art, works of music, and even old friendships have all been recast in a different hue in the light of the day that some of us were woken up.

One of the issues I've been struggling with is the proper role of art in a healthy life (and thank you Liz for the reassuring note last week). There are times when I just have to hear some music, not as entertainment, not as a distraction but because I need to feel connected. Maybe that's what friends are for. Maybe that's what happens when the rock runs out of luck, but there are times when music, movies, and literature centers me amongst the swirling chaos. Good art does that. Great art teaches as it inspires.

Yes the world has changed since last we saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The best show on TV had a brilliant season last year ending with Buffy's death and fans have been anxiously awaiting the resolution- how they will bring the slayer back to life. It now feels a tad silly to say but the superb writing and acting of the show made me not merely cry twice but (and still in a most manly manner mind you) uncontrollably bawl my eyes out. First was the stunning episode in which Buffy's mom unexpectedly died (probably the best hour of episodic TV I've ever seen) and then the season finale when Buffy sacrificed her own life so that her sister and the rest of the world could live.

The show has always been metaphorical about surviving in the world with vampires and demons and scary beasts that coexist alongside the normal demons, like being a teenager, being unpopular, just wanting to be normal, having your heart broken ("What's worse than being in love with someone that used to love you?" Darla asks Angel in the first season) etc. But now that we have seen how pure evil can truly exist in reality, how there really are beings out there that want to kill the faceless out of undiluted hatred, the show seems both sillier and more profound.

On a selfish note the good news is that the show switched networks (locally from WB23 to UPN9). I live in a house where I have to manipulate my antenna, stand on my head, hook up electrodes to Mr. Max's whiskers in order to get the WB's signal halfway decently. So I've become accustomed to watching Buffy through a haze (different than the one normally in my head) with clicks, buzzing and an occasional fade out and blue screen at the most inopportune times.

Ironically my friend and I recently made a swap. Part of what I received was a TV to place in my office. She hadn't used it since living "way out there" (Hopkins she thought) and so none of the channels was properly tuned to receive the local stations' signals. I spent all of an afternoon trying to get the TV to work but about the only channel I could get clearly was channel 23. Figures.

With the big finale last year on the WB and the switch of networks and Buffy dying and all this year's season premiere promised to be something special. So special in fact that the pressure to be a satisfactory resolution to the state of things seemed a daunting if not impossible task. The show, like most network series has episodes that serve merely as a transition to get the overall storyline to another place. For awhile it appeared as if Buffy's season premiere was just such a show. The episode had plenty of gore and campy humor (though Zander had a nice line about being a "manwich" and Anya was pretty funny with her persistent wish to reveal some exciting personal news even though the world was quite literally on fire around her).

A gang of demons overtook Sunnydale because they found out the slayer was dead and turned the town into a hellish inferno with no moral structure. Just as it appeared the episode would be mostly devoted to fight scenes, scary moments (Leave it to your friends to cast a resurrection spell but then leave you stranded inside your coffin. DOH!) and the mysticism that those who don't follow the show think it's all about, the final scene showed why the show shines.

It wasn't the cast of a witch's spell that brought Buffy back to life. Rather it was the sisterly voice of love and fear and connection that restored Buffy's heart. The show is at its best when it subtlety raises questions about life- what is the soul, the spirit, the essence of another? Both Willow and Dawn in separate scenes had to grapple with being expected to be courageous and strong while grieving the death of a loved one. Does that mean getting back to "normal," to the way things used to be? Does it mean assuming responsibilities of the dead? Does it mean honoring the spirit by pressing on even through the fear and loss? Let's see any other show deal so intelligently and sensitively with such a basic but complex emotion. This is a remarkable show and it's good to have Buffy back and kickin' some serious butt.

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Harshin' My Buzz

If September 11 had not happened, had not gone down the way it did, I probably would have spent many hours of the following days and weeks listening to Bob Dylan's new CD. Yet I haven't really felt much like listening to any music. As it is Love and Theft is the only CD I've been in the mood to play of late. Music tends to connect me with things both inside and out. I'll be the first to admit to being guilty of what Carl Frie's heartbreaking article chastised last week- being numb to the tragedy of it all. The most prevalent feelings I've noticed through the numb people around me are fear and anger and helplessness rather than compassion.

Maybe it was the distance, not knowing anyone directly killed or injured in the attack, maybe it was all too big to comprehend, but I don't think it all sunk in until I watched David Letterman's first show back when Dave gave such a moving account of the mood of New York City, the town he has had so much fun making fun of the past 20 years. To see him so saddened, so stunned by it all made me cry for the first time. Then there was the celebrity telethon held last week with a wealth of good music performed- it really touched a place inside reserved for the expressions of art.

So kinda lost in the mix was the fact that one of my other all time favorite artists also released a new CD on September 11. I finally got around to buying it last week and unfortunately it is a major disappointment.

I admire John Hiatt as a writer because he has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry- all in the same sentence. I admire his performing ability because despite being an artist whose songs have been covered by a myriad of artists, none of the covers quite express the mixture of family, love, inner demons and fears, cynicism and pure joy as effectively as Hiatt himself. His work over the years has been consistently rewarding yet his new CD, The Tiki Bar is Open fails to ignite much of a spark or connection inside.

It's not as if the music is bad, indeed Hiatt is working with his old band, the Goners, for the first time in a dozen years and the sound is impressive (particularly the playing of guitarist Sonny Landreth). But none of the songs linger, resonate and remain like Hiatt's best work. The weakness of the new material is demonstrated by the fact that probably the most memorable song of the set, "I'll Never Get Over You" was written eight years ago and has been performed live on occasion since then.

Hiatt is a master craftsman who has a stunning number of great songs in his catalog. Yet the new CD sounds totally crafted and by the numbers and it lacks any palatable inspiration. We do get a glimpse into his songwriting prowess with the song "All the Lilacs in Ohio." Hiatt said the song's motivation came from one of his favorite movies, Ray Milland's Lost Weekend. That movie of course is a dark look at an alcoholic self-destructive writer but it's a joyful line that caught Hiatt's artistic eye. He recalls the sweet scene in which Milland's character is talking with Sam the bartender about his true inspiration:

"You take her home. She goes up to her apartment and opens her window and waves goodbye. You notice the way the light hits the gray of the drainpipe on the side of the building. Or she's supposed to meet you the next day for lunch but she can't come and she sends you a little note. You open it up and it smells like all the lilacs in Ohio."

In Hiatt's hands the scene is translated- "You pin her handkerchief to clean white linen sheets/And you unmake the bed and crawl in/You imagine her there and you're tangled in her hair/And she smells like flowers again/And it's springtime and you are just a boy..."

I was listening to the song in a cubicle with a broken chair outside of the office of a person who I had forgotten I had gone with to see a Hiatt concert a few years back. I so wanted to like the CD, I so wanted the music to be memorable so I could remember that exact wondrous moment of where I found myself and who I was with but it wasn't to be. She came out of her office for a moment and grabbed a handful of caramel covered popcorn from a bag in my cube, and I had to admit to her that the CD was nothing special.

Perhaps the most sterling song of the set is the title track which shows Hiatt's cutting wit along side some expressive playing by Landreth. It's a somber song that is a nice reflection of the times we are living in. "I was driving by his majesty's court hotel/Where the sign said praise his name/I was tired and alone, I couldn't see too well/But I don't think that he was to blame..."

The workmanlike Tiki Bar is Open is a reminder of just how great Hiatt's last CD, Crossing Muddy Waters was. That CD's smoky acoustic blues was a powerful personal statement from an artist who specializes in those. The disappointing follow up lacks not only the intimacy but the power of Crossing Muddy Waters and the customary mastery of much of Hiatt's other work.

Monday, September 24, 2001

My Most Remarkable Day or What Would Have Happened if Sandra Bullock Had Become a Seamstress

The best birthday present my folks gave me when I was growing up was a pretend radio station from Sears complete with a microphone, headphones, turntable, and a station manager's board to write down all the programming. I would take my tape recorder and record many a day's programs altering my voice to mimic the different DJ's and newscasters on WQSR-AM. The station had a dynamic afternoon lineup featuring the wacky comedy of Benny Gideon and the hits of the day played by Shotgun Smalley.

WQSR's music collection was a combination of 45's my mom had given to me and records I had spent many a week's allowance purchasing. One of the songs that was played often on the station was Gordon Sinclair's "Americans" which was a Mom donation to the station. The 45 wasn't exactly music- it featured Sinclair, a Canadian, bestowing the virtues of the United States above the background music of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'm not exactly sure why Mom had bought the record in the first place and I'm even less sure why it always stirred such a strong reaction in me. Besides its patriotic tone the essay was the first I had known of redemption, of being able to pick yourself up and not kicking others while they are down.

I'm not exactly a patriotic leaning guy. I have problems with any large group thinking (and as too often the case with patriotism it isn't even about thinking but rather feeling) in mass. One of my assignments at this year's State Fair was to interview kids about some of the issues that have been swirling around the Legislature. One of the questions was about whether or not students should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I was heartened by the answer from one Elizabeth Arnold, an extremely articulate and opinionated young lady from St. Paul. Elizabeth had just spent the year studying in Venezuela and was able to pick up a broader perspective than the other kids I interviewed.

She said that making the kids say the pledge was a rather pointless exercise unless you were also going to teach them what the pledge meant, its history and the ideas it presents. Making kids say anything by rote wasn't exactly the type of behavior our forefathers founded the country upon, Elizabeth said.

One undeniable outcome of the terroristic attack of New York and Washington DC is that it has forced people to think a little bit about what being an American is about. The senselessness of the violence and murder made us want to pull together and mourn as a nation.

Likewise one of the things I've learned as I've struggled to deal with my grief over my Mom's death two years ago was that seeing her die, holding her hand as she breathed her last breath forever changed my perspective on things. It wasn't as if I could ever just go back to every day life and get as upset about trivial things especially after losing such a valued perspective and close friend.

In a way the current national tragedy touches a similar vein. Life long irritants and pet peeves like people who don't use their turn signals, people who don't return phone calls, people who make promises they fail to keep aren't worth getting upset over in the long run. Life is too short to let yourself be bothered by such things.

Reading the news and seeing that awful video of the destruction it's all been rather difficult to think about anything else. Thus I was glad when my favorite new mother who lives on the mansion on the hill asked if I wanted to go with her to the service being held Sunday on the Capitol steps. We walked down the hill in the drizzle and were immediately impressed by the fire trucks from cities throughout the state, lined up and down John Ireland Boulevard with their ladders extended and flags atop each one. Equally impressive was the huge flag on the roof of the under construction Cathedral.

Though the service itself was a tad long, it was nice being able to share in the moment with 35,000 others (and one of my best friends). And if I needed to be reminded about what is important in this life I even got to hold the divine baby (albeit not exactly voluntarily or without some awkwardness) and to have lil Henry Louis look up at me with the bluest of eyes and then grin was a remarkable breathtaking moment.

That lone smile would have made my day memorable but it was just the beginning of things. For the past twelve years I've had a shadow next to me existing wherever I went, whatever I did, whoever else I may be with (even in the darkness). A large part of this shadow was composed of the biggest regret of my life, of a friendship I let get away in an entirely self destructive, selfish manner. The regret was not only based on the loss of a dear friend, but also by the way I treated her and what I put her through and not having any opportunity to say how sorry I still am and how thankful I remain that the spirit of this shadow has lifted me time and time again and has helped me achieve some of my proudest accomplishments.

I've written about her often here, and not always intentionally and seldom directly. Her influence was tremendous. We met at Cheapo. In a period of my life when the thing I couldn't feel was my old self she immediately restored that part and my sense of humor and adventure in a quiet and simple way. She left for Australia but when she returned she brought back for me my still proudest possession, a rock she found on her last day on the beach. We took a trip together. I fulfilled a life's dream by writing a novel and without her it would not have happened. Then I shattered and some of the chards were sent her direction. We lost touch as her last words to me echo, "I still feel the same as always." I was even able to convince myself at times that she never existed that she had always been a character I created in my novel. I let go and moved on and yet I didn't.

Over the years as I pulled myself up I hoped I would somehow run into her and she could see me for what I was now capable of being. I sometimes found myself looking for her in an otherwise anonymous crowd. Whenever I had access to a database of people's names hers was among the first I would type in. But I couldn't find her. I figured she had gotten married, that her name had changed and that the opportunity to express anything from remorse and regret to thankfulness and appreciation was long long past.

Besides the lucky rock (which I lost for a while but thankfully was able to find again and hold on even tighter to) the lone times that this person was truly with me was at every Sandra Bullock movie. The first Sandra movie I saw was Sylvester Stallone's Demolition Man, in which she had a minor role. The first time I saw her, the first time Sandra spoke she reminded me for whatever reason of my friend. Was it her voice? Her face? Her facial expressions? Her character's charming personality? I wasn't quite sure but I was in tears. I forgot about Sandra didn't even bother remembering her name until I saw Speed and the same reaction happened. Sandra's goofiness, her immediate awkward ease? was so much like my friend's personality. And over the years as I have made it my duty to see every Bullock movie as soon as I can it hasn't always been due to my admiration of her work or even how much I like her as an actress. It often is because the spirit it evokes and how much that spirit continues to make me smile.

I've been working in a data base these past few weeks that is a pretty comprehensive list of the adults living in Minnesota. One of the fun things about working with the information is typing in old friends' names to see where they are and if they are still in the state. I had reached a point of so accepting that this person wasn't around anymore that hers was a name that I didn't even think of trying to search for. But I came across a similar name of another person so I typed in her name not expecting any results to pop up. When I saw the first, middle and last name, and the date of birth my jaw dropped. Forgetting about the time, about the difficult circumstances of the end of our friendship I knew, just knew I had to call her.

To tell the truth I didn't even think that much about what I would say. My only focus was to somehow not startle her too much, to keep it light but to ultimately convey how very sorry I felt for what had happened.

I recognized the voice immediately. Her reaction was about what I expected- "Oh my God," she said when I identified myself. She thought I had tracked her down because ironically she had been in town the day before selling records to our store. Our conversation was a bit awkward as we struggled to convey what we were up to. She was understandingly reluctant to reveal all about her life. And I did detect a bit of anger in her voice when she asked if I was doing better. She said she was the same person that I had known. She's living in Duluth working as a seamstress sewing purses. And she's married.

As our conversation was wrapping up I asked her if anyone else had ever told her she reminded them of Sandra Bullock. "Only about 150 times a day," she said. "In fact the guy at the liquor store told me that yesterday and then he tried to short change me." Although we may never talk again (I extended an invitation to see my house and meet Mr. Max whenever she's in town) I was so glad I called. She seemed touched when I told her what a wonderful influence she has been. And she has and will always be.

Things are a bit frightening out there and it's sometimes hard to see any beauty amongst the senselessness of it all. But the smile of a beautiful little baby, and the restoration of a proper tone of a friendship long gone makes me think (and believe) just about anything is possible as long as you keep plugging along with the right perspective.

Monday, September 17, 2001

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

"There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring"
-Bob Dylan's "Sugar Baby"

I should have known what kind of day it would be by the ominous beginning. After waking up at 4:30 in the blessed a.m., casting a more clingy than usual Mr. Max aside, scuffling to get my things together, downing two homemade lattes I headed off to the Catholic church in the most Jewish part of town to be a head election judge. Just a block or so from my house in the pitch black darkness a white and black cat flew in front of my car in pursuit of a bunny. The bunny easily cleared my wheels but the cat froze for a brief instant as I swerved and just barely avoided him. Had I run over him I don't think I could have handled the rest of the day.

Back up a few months if you will and know that the thing that has kept me plunging forward after a particularly difficult professional period and equally numbing personal life was the knowledge that on September 11 (911 to an alarmist) I'd be able to hear 12 new Bob Dylan songs. Maybe connecting with art more than reality is some kind of disturbing symptom of a larger disease but it's been this way for me since I became a Dylan fan all those years ago in college. Besides if you ain't looking forward you gotta be looking back and I'm a tad weary of doing any more of that. I did my best to resist the temptation of downloading most of the new songs from the new CD Love and Theft off the Internet as was possible to do. To hear all the talk amongst online Dylan fans of the new songs was as painful as it was Christmas Eve exciting since those that had heard the new music were ecstatic (Rolling Stone magazine gave the CD its first five star rating since REM's 1992 Automatic for the People).

But I wanted the experience of consuming the whole CD at once much as I memorably did with Dylan's last CD, Time Out of Mind. Back in 1997 I was going to wait until the day of release for that CD but as it closed in on midnight before the official release, knowing that our friendly neighborhood Cheapo stays open past it's usual hour to be the first in town to make available Tuesday new releases I meandered down to the store and bought Time Out of Mind. This was days after having a relationship shatter after a silent walk and then hearing Bob sing the first words of the CD, "I'm walking through streets that are dead. Walking with you in my head..." The appropriately eerie words haunted me and I ended up listening completely mesmerized to the entire CD even though I knew I had to wake up early just a few hours later.

Alas for Love and Theft I knew I couldn't duplicate the after midnight run knowing the extraordinary hour I had to be up and about. Fortunately a kind soul called me and offered to pick up lunch and deliver it out to the precinct for me and on the way she even was willing to stop at Cheapo to buy the new Dylan disc for me. Her offer of kindness almost restored my faith in the goodness of people if only for a moment.

After the initial rush of pre-work voters had passed we got the first word that something was amiss in the world. "The World Trade Center has exploded," someone said. "Hijacked planes," another reported. "Someone just crashed a plane into the Pentagon," we heard moments later. What the hell was going on?

Being in a precinct I couldn't allow a radio because we wouldn't want any election discussion, or candidate advertising to influence anyone. But to just get bits in pieces in scraps and spurts was remindful of one of my biggest fears in life.

Growing up my health was such that I missed just a handful of days of school. The days I did miss I must now admit were mostly days of hooky when I felt I deserved time away from school as mental vacations. So guilty did I feel from skipping a day every ten years or so that I became fully convinced that one of the few days I did miss was the ONE day that the teacher finally tied it all up and explained what everything meant. I figured it was my luck to miss out on something that everyone else now knew.

So the forever wannabe journalist inside of me was screaming to know the story of what was transpiring as deeply entrenched as I was in an isolated polling place. I felt like I was missing out on the biggest "story" since last year's Gore/Bush debacle that I also happened to miss because I was doing my civic duty as an election official. To add to the seeping dark feelings was my lunch delivery with the news that Cheapo had sold out of the new Dylan disc and that I would have to wait a whilebefore I could hear it.

Turns out sometimes it's just better off not knowing. As I drove home late that night still not quite knowing, or at the very least not willing to comprehend the day's events, I became quite spooked as I drove past gas station after gas station with lines of cars wrapped around the solitary pumps. Figures that just as I re-found my long lost soul mate the world would come to an end.

When I got home I was too tired to watch much of the news. And since I had for whatever reason (and feel free to criticize me- you'll just have to stand in line) made the decision to take my lone isolated vacation this year in beautiful downtown Minneapolis in the heart of Hennepin County I wasn't able to read much of the morning news. So I still to this point don't think it all has quite seeped into my actual consciousness.

The stuff I did allow myself to see and hear made me terminally sad. As much as I've seen how cruelly the people you love most can end up treating you there is something very jarring, very unraveling about living in the world where there is so much hatred and disregard for life and others. Having to listen to something you need not hear, having to emotionally deal with the rubble, one wonders about people who can seemingly revel in the cruelty they can inflict.

The only consolation (and it was sadly a very small consolation) was finally being able to pick up the new Dylan disc. (Bob even expresses the terrible pain of losing his mother last year.) All the hype for the CD is well warranted. This is our greatest living artist creating at his highest level, an inspired and truly great piece of work. The world may crumble but as long as there are those voices out there who can express deeply rooted emotions one can't ever quite entirely throw in the towel.

The music on Love and Theft is the kind that no one besides Dylan could possibly come up with yet it's unlike any music he has ever delivered before. It all sounds brand new, but it's as if it has always existed. What's truly inspiring is the amount of wit present. He hasn't come close to conveying his acerbic sense of humor so effectively since the Traveling Wilburys or arguably since 1966's Blonde on Blonde. The CD features a leisurely stroll through several of America's most deeply rooted musical styles. From bluegrass to country shuffle to blues to rockabilly to straightforward rock to 40's like crooners, the music is the most diverse of Dylan's career. And the lyrics live up to all the attitude- quoting everyone from Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Shakespeare (leave it to Bob to have Romeo and Juliette trading barbs).

The CD opens with the wondrously rollicking "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" (pronounced in Dylanese as "Tweedely dee and Tweedully DUMM). The next song, "Mississippi" was left off Time Out of Mind but later covered by Sheryl Crow. The song contains some of the best lyrics of a song cycle that contains some staggering brilliant words. "Walking through the leaves/ falling from the trees/Feeling like a stranger nobody sees/So many things that we never will undo/I know you're sorry/I'm sorry too." The ONLY thing the narrator did wrong was stay in Mississippi a day too long.

"Summer Days" features another intriguing song story. I love the line, "Well, I got eight carburators and boys I'm usin' 'em all/I'm short on gas, my motor's startin' to stall." My favorite song upon intial impressions is the bluesy "High Water (for Charley Patton)." A tribute of sorts to the great jazz musician, this is loving music from a heart that continues to feel things a bit deeper than most.

But with all the great new songs it is the final track, "Sugar Baby" that somehow manages to tie it all up and is Dylan at his most disturbing and his most beautiful. This is a song that is beyond belief, transcendent in the mood it conveys. It's a song about heartbreak about above the ground and in the heart observation; about being connected and disconnected all at once: "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick/Any minute of the day, the bubble can burst/Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up makin' it thousand times worse.
Having to involuntarily be forced to buy the disc at the downtown Sam Goody (ewww) and experiencing the first listening outside the door of one who has surely inspired many a song and will probably inspire (right or wrong) more than a few more I came upon the realization that things will never quite be the same again. Sharing what we all shared and still feeling the shivers of the devastation, crying deep within I can't possibly begin to fathom a world without these 12 wondrous, timely and perceptive songs. Listen closely and with careful consideration y'all.