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.