Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Latest Spin on Chinese Democracy

It's a running joke with my brother to say, "I hear the new Guns N' Roses album is coming out," followed by uproarious laughter. We've been hearing about Chinese Democracy for how many years now? Six? Eight? And Axl Rose has had more guitarists than Spinal Tap had drummers, though at least Buckethead and the others escaped with their lives.

Well, Gunners, your long wait is over. Check out the special preview of Chinese Democracy in the latest issue of Spin magazine. Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait for you... (spoiler ahead)...


Interesting, eh? I hope you figured out before you got to the bottom that this isn't a real review. The funniest thing about it is that Axl is such a wacko that one can actually believe much of this satire. Hmm, maybe Axl would refer to the architect who designed his topiary garden. Maybe he would tell bassist Tommy Stinson to replicate the bass line from "Another Brick in the Wall." But Bob Ezrin and Phil Ramone as producers? Well, maybe sometime in the past decade. After all, it seems like everyone else has worked on this album, and Axl has fired several producers.

Oddly enough, I found out about this review on a Soul Asylum e-mail list. Someone was excited that Chinese Democracy was going to include "an embarrassing 'roots rock' duet with new buddy Dave Pirner titled 'You're Still Too Sweet Not to Be My Baby Anymore.'" Another list member noted that Soul Asylum and GNR toured together in Europe years ago. Then someone pointed out that it's an April Fool's Day joke. You would think fans of a band that did a song called "April Fool" on their best-selling album Grave Dancer's Union would catch on, but instead they argued that it just couldn't be a fake. More amazing to me was that no one was incensed that their favorite band's lead singer had become the butt of a joke. Incidentally, Soul Asylum has taken a GNR-like eight years to come out with a new album, due this summer. In the interim, their original bass player died, being replaced by -- oh, the irony -- GNR's Stinson.

In defense of those Soul Asylum fans, the review originally ran online without the obvious "Fast Facts" clue: "This version of Chinese Democracy only exists in an alternative reality ruled by the fools of April." And the original URL and date on the story didn't reflect April 1; apparently a date shift into the waning days of March was enough to give the review credibility in their eyes. But if the magazine's date doesn't naturally fall on the first, they're going to use whatever issue date is closest to April 1.

Another red flag is that this is Spin magazine. Anyone who has heard "Get in the Ring" from GNR's Use Your Illusion II knows that Axl hates that magazine. Why on earth would he give them exclusive access to his new album?

In related news (not April fool's), the Chinese won't be reading about Chinese Democracy in Rolling Stone -- government regulators are shutting down the magazine's Chinese edition after just one issue. The chief editor there hopes to get things ironed out soon. Maybe he'll get the magazine going before Axl puts out the album, which some sources say will be July 2006. My brother and I will believe it only when we see it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

IT'S HERE!!!!!

Hot off the presses, my copies of Biking Illinois arrived today!

Naturally, I've already found something to complain about. The "about the author" section on the back cover claims, "He covers the Illinois biking scene on his popular Web site, BikingIllinois.com." That is wrong in so many ways! First of all, that site exists only to promote the book. Second, I've never really covered the "Illinois biking scene" anywhere (it describes my friend Chris better, though he covers the Illinois bike racing scene). Third, BikingIllinois.com is anything but popular at this point; the site that people have visited in the past is DJRider.com, which includes a few rides in Illinois but surely doesn't cover the scene.

Do other authors fall victim to misguided jacket copy writers? I'm really afraid this is going to hurt my credibility, especially with Internet users who will know better. I can see the reviews now (read this with Bill O'Reilly-esque disdain and sneer):
Mr. Johnsen supposedly covers the Illinois biking scene at his Web site. But when we visited, we found only promotional materials for the book he is peddling. It seems that the only "scene" he covers is himself! Would you follow directions on a bicycle from an author who can't even get his own facts straight?
I hope I'm blowing this way out of proportion. And speaking of "out of proportion," my lesser complaint about the back cover is the size of the author photo. My editor said repeatedly, "It's only going to be the size of a postage stamp, so don't worry about it." Well, when was the last time you slapped a four-inch-square stamp on an envelope? I would have airbrushed the heck out of my photo if I had known it would be that large! I look like a drunk, fat guy in that photo. But I don't remember drinking that day...

Also, an astute observer will notice that they changed the subtitle of my book, at least on the outside. On the inside, it's still "60 Great Road and Trail Rides," but on the front and back covers, it is "60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides." I've always associated road trips with cars, so it doesn't make any sense to me. The subtitle was long enough already anyway. If they really wanted to add a word, "tours" would have been better than "trips." I first saw the change at BN.com, but I assumed it was an error on BN's part. Alas, I was wrong. So the bottom line is, I have written a book but I honestly don't know what to call it!

Actually, I am afraid to read a word of my book at this point. If something is wrong I can't fix it or take it back. That is a really scary feeling. If I screw up something on my blog, I just edit the entry and republish immediately. But anything wrong in the book is wrong forever. Sure there will be more printings (I hope!), but once it's out there, you can't take it back. Excuse me, I have to go bite my fingernails now...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bastard of the Day

For completely misrepresenting the Democratic primary in Illinois' Sixth Congressional District, today's Bastard of the Day is CNN's John Roberts. With all she's been through, it's sad that Tammy Duckworth has to deal with crap like this interview on yesterday's American Morning program.
ROBERTS: Good to talk with you. Hey, a tough question right out of the box, here: It was a very narrow victory that you had in your Democratic primary contest. Is that an indication that maybe this idea of running Iraq war vets for the Democratic Party isn't as hot an idea as some Democrats originally thought it was?
Obviously, Roberts knows nothing about this race, except perhaps the Republican talking points. Duckworth's victory margin was relatively narrow (though 4 percent isn't bad in a three-way race) for reasons completely unrelated to the Iraq War and Roberts should be ashamed of himself for his lack of research -- unless having Karl Rove coaching you through your earpiece counts as research.

Duckworth's closest opponent, Christine Cegelis, was the Democratic candidate in the last election, and she gave old Henry Hyde a run for his money. She took 44 percent of the vote in 2004, a pretty strong showing against a powerful Republican who had held a House seat for 30 years. After Cegelis accomplished that, a lot of people felt that she deserved another chance this year since Hyde is retiring, leaving an open seat. I haven't seen much about Duckworth (it's not my district), but the only thing I have against her is that she's taking a spot on the ballot that probably should have been Cegelis'. Party leaders recruited Duckworth to run even though Cegelis seemed to have a pretty good chance, so they effectively abandoned Cegelis by showing no confidence in her. Of course, the bottom line is that Duckworth won the primary despite Cegelis' popularity, no small feat.

For Roberts to make this all about the Iraq War and imply that Democratic voters don't want to support soldiers or patriots is reprehensible. Duckworth lost limbs doing something most of us, especially the chickenhawks running the White House and Congress, don't have the guts to do. Democrats are every bit as patriotic as Republicans claim to be, if not more. But wait... Bastard Roberts wasn't finished with Duckworth:
ROBERTS: Right. Well, certainly the Democrats are looking for some credibility on this issue of national security because polls historically, and particularly over the last few years, have shown that Republicans score much better on the issue of national security than Democrats. But there are some very smart political analysts who don't think that the Iraq war veteran thing is going to work for the Democratic Party, that you're not going to win the overall race, and that you're being held out there as sacrificial lambs just to get the Democrats a little more credibility and get that antiwar message across in this election.
First of all, the only reason the Republicans "score much better on the issue of national security" is that they point it out every time they get on TV. I don't agree, but what else could they claim to be strong on? The economy? Record deficit spending is selling our country out from under us. Health care? Their only idea, health savings accounts, won't help those who can't afford insurance in the first place. Absent any programs that help the ordinary American who doesn't have access to a corporate learjet, what else can they say? Hey, we're fighting wars so that makes us strong on national security! Yeah, sure. I still can't see how stirring up trouble in Iraq helps us at home or anywhere else in the world.

As for pundits "who don't think that the Iraq war veteran thing is going to work for the Democratic Party," why is Duckworth's candidacy merely a "thing," a gimmick? She has views about important issues like health care, which she knows a lot about after spending a good deal more time at Walter Reed than the Republicans mugging for their publicity photos. She pointed out in a TV interview that she never could have received such good medical care as a private citizen without going bankrupt, and that she wants all Americans to have access to the care that she got as a veteran. Roberts dismisses all of that by claiming she's just a "sacrificial lamb" in the general election. In truth, Duckworth stands a pretty good chance of winning this open seat. After all, 44 percent of the electorate voted for a Democrat against a powerful Republican incumbent two years ago.

I give Duckworth credit for keeping her cool with Roberts' insipid questions, allusions, and allegations. I, on the other hand, will call him out for the bastard he is.

Hail to the Chef

The Chicago Sun-Times had a headline Friday:
Daley appoints Trotter emergency chief
Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter is probably an appropriate choice for the new position of chief emergency officer. At first glance, however, I left out the "i" in chief. It just so happens that the executive chef and owner of one of Chicago's fanciest restaurants is Charlie Trotter. If I needed an emergency chef, I think he'd be the guy to call.

I wouldn't know from experience, though. Charlie Trotter's is the sort of place where a meal for one costs as much as a week's worth of groceries for two. Any dish with a name ten words long is far beyond anything I'd want to eat. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin Cobb Salad is made with quail eggs, for goodness' sake!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Things That Make Me Drink

This week my wife had Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off. On Sunday night I suggested that we could go out of town for two or three days. I had an ulterior motive. She kept talking about going to a benefit on Thursday for an animal shelter that involved bowling, potentially bad pizza, and the inevitable emotional appeal to adopt another dog. I desperately wanted to avoid all three of those things. She also said there wasn't anyplace she could think of to go, an amusing response since it has always been my responsibility to plan any outing longer than a few hours. I reminded her that I had three days worth of free Hertz car rentals to use by March 31. Then she said she didn't want to go anywhere. Instead (ha ha), she intended to clean the house. At least she didn't call me on my hidden agenda.

On Monday morning I asked her again just to confirm that she didn't want to go anywhere. Nope.

On Tuesday morning I asked her what she was going to do on her days off. She mentioned a few things and added, "...Unless you want to surprise me with a trip out of town." That was patently unfair, and I told her so. I had practically begged her to go on a trip, and only now, when most of my planning time had passed, did she give the green light.

We stayed home. She didn't clean the house. And after all the fuss, she didn't go with or without me to "Bowling for Canines."

Today, for the sixth time in the past week, I mentioned the free car rental days that are about to expire. She said we could just rent a car so we'd have two cars for a few days. But if we needed two cars, we would own two cars. I said, "Well, maybe I should go somewhere next week." After spending about two months of 2005 on the road, I have had a terrible case of cabin fever this winter. The last night I didn't sleep in my own bed was in mid-August. "Without me?" she asked pitifully.

Aaaaarrrrgggghhh!!!! "Dammit, I gave you two chances to go on a trip this week and you shot me down both times! It took three weeks of car rentals to earn these certificates, and I'm not going to waste them."

If I can decide where, I am going away next week. Right now I'm either driving south far enough to ride my bike in warm weather or driving north to add to my "collection" of counties. The latter is slightly more appealing just because I did "enough" downstate biking last year. On the other hand, I have to start burning off that winter fat one of these days. No one wants to meet Jabba the Hutt at a book signing for Biking Illinois.

To Vote or Not to Vote

There was a primary election in Illinois on Tuesday, and voter turnout was abysmal. Although an incumbent in a major race suffered a stroke the week before, only about 25% of eligible voters in Chicagoland bothered to go to the polls (incidentally, the incumbent won, though many doubt whether he will be fit to run in the general election). Tribune reporter Rex Huppke questions whether this is really such a bad thing. He quotes experts who point out that the fewer people vote, the better informed those people are, and that those voters tend to represent the opinions of the general populace pretty well. Huppke didn't vote and doesn't see it as a big deal. Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, on the other hand, practically begged people to vote on Tuesday.

While I agree with Zorn about the importance of voting, I do not tell everyone to go out and vote. As far as I'm concerned, there is an implicit pact in the voting process. You get to choose our leaders, but you have to do your research and make an informed decision. Representative government requires diligence. If all you know about the candidates is what you saw in a television commercial, then you don't deserve a ballot. Sure you are legally entitled, but you have not earned it.

Rather than imploring the ignorant masses to vote on election day, people like Zorn should make their big push ahead of time: "The election is coming in four weeks, and these are the contested races... Now get to work!"

On a related note, I do not fill out my entire ballot. I only vote in the races that I have been following. If I haven't done my research on judges, I don't blindly vote to retain all of them -- that behavior prevents those who know better from getting the lousy ones voted out. If I don't know anything about the water commissioners, I skip them, too. I vote for unopposed incumbents only if I am pleased with the work they have done (for example, John Fritchey is a great state rep who agrees with my views nearly every time I contact him, plus he writes his own blog so constituents can learn his thoughts). Zorn's idea of offering a "no confidence" or "none of the above" option for uncontested races is interesting, but only if it is binding -- otherwise the cynic in me figures it would be roundly ignored by the powers that be.

I have to confess to another, less noble factor determining whether I tell someone to vote. Frankly, I only encourage people to vote if I think they will vote similarly to me. So I always drag my wife along to the voting booth, but I would never dream of reminding my dad that it's election day (alas, he remembers on his own). I wouldn't hide my Republican grandfather's car keys until 7 PM so he couldn't vote (wouldn't that be illegal?), but I'd volunteer to drive my liberal mother-in-law to the polls. Yes, it's partisan, but that's my contribution to (usually) the Democratic Party in lieu of writing checks or walking the precincts and ringing doorbells.

Our Next Dog

No, we're not getting another dog just yet, although my wife has been bugging me a lot. Judging from how Rosco acts around other dogs, I don't think he minds be an "only dog" anyway. I think other dogs make him nervous, especially when it comes to food and bones. Now we can even pet him while he eats, something that made his lips curl when we had Teddy around.

I have come up with a name for our future new dog, though, and it's one that my dad would probably endorse: Underfoot.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bastard of the Day

With the Illinois primary elections just days away, today's Bastard of the Day award goes to the purveyors of political phone ads. With an unlisted phone number and my aggressive "don't call me ever again" policy (my wife weasels out with "she's not home right now"), we get very few calls from telemarketers. But in the past two weeks we have been inundated with prerecorded messages in support of either Forrest Claypool or John Stroger for Cook County Board President. Most have been from Citizens for Claypool, but I'm pretty sure one was from Stroger backers (I could be wrong since I don't listen closely before hanging up).

I've been leaning toward Claypool simply because Stroger has been in charge for too darn long. I'd like to see someone else's name on every freaking forest preserve sign in Cook County. Now, however, I am having second thoughts because I tend to support the candidate who irritates me the least. If you want my vote, don't call me. Let your opponent fall into that trap.

(Note: This entry doesn't consider the ramifications of Stroger's recent stroke. A vote for Stroger may really be a vote for the person that the party selects to replace him.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Speedy Delivery!

Whenever I see a bicyclist in an advertisement, it catches my eye. Especially in one of my wife's horse magazines. This ad features a special breed of cyclist, the aerodynamic time trialist. What are they advertising? A container to ship horse semen!

It's a cool photo, but I'm not sure it works here. The ad says "The Leader of the Pack," but time trialists ride alone (except as part of a team in which case it doesn't really matter who is in front among teammates). There is no "pack." A photo of a cyclist leading or breaking away from the peloton would fit the words better. And how would this person carry an Equitainer? It would be funny if they doctored the photo to show an Equitainer strapped to the rider's back. Maybe they should have used a touring bike with a rear rack instead.

Lance Armstrong was one of the best time trialists in the world before he retired. Since there are lots of horses in Texas, semen delivery could be his second career!

UPDATE 03/18/2006 - Somehow I forgot to mention the name of the manufacturer: Hamilton Research, Inc. Coincidentally, Tyler Hamilton is another formidable American time trialist.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's award goes to John Cougar Mellencamp. If I see that old fart with his band on a basketball court singing "Rockin' in the N-C-Double-A" one more time, I'll scream. Of course, this Hoosier has been on the downward slide for a long, long time. Even his best albums like Scarecrow contained their share of filler and pop garbage. Heck, "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." sounds inspired compared to trash like "Lonely Ol' Night." At least it was better than American Fool. I hate "Jack & Diane" with every fiber of my being -- except the fibers I reserve for hating "Hurts So Good."

One of the first times I can recall my future wife making fun of me was when we heard Mellencamp on the radio (circa 1997), and I said, "It's John Mellencamp, trying to stay relevant." She thought I was goofy to use a word like "relevant" to describe a performer (as if a woman who has memorized Slayer lyrics has any right to judge my rock criticism). But I was right, and even then he was losing the fight. Aside from dusting off the ol' guitar to play "Rain On The Scarecrow" at Farm Aid, this guy should have hung it up a decade ago.

But I have a special reason for directing my vitriol at Mellencamp now. He and his freaking NCAA basketball March Madness are on CBS, and some of my favorite shows aren't on this week because of it (I lucked out with the Olympics since I don't watch NBC). That makes CBS and the NCAA honorary bastards. I have always hated basketball, probably because it requires two things I don't have: height and coordination. I didn't watch the Fighting Illini in the Final Four last year. Even when Michael Jordan, arguably the best player ever (if you would argue, you're not from Chicago), was working his magic for the Bulls, I hardly paid attention to anything more than the last five minutes of a few playoff games. It's okay if they want to show this stuff on Saturdays and Sundays -- I don't watch TV on weekends anyway -- but don't waste prime time on some lousy first round college playoff game like Goober Tech versus Bumwipe State.

And to think, I have to put up with another two weeks of this.

Monday, March 13, 2006

They Drive By Night

Last night we watched They Drive By Night, an old-time trucker movie from 1940 directed by Raoul Walsh. I am rarely disappointed by noir classics, and this was no exception. I gave it five stars at Netflix, though someone less enamored with the genre might give it four. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers trying to make it in the cut-throat trucking business. They meet waitress Ann Sheridan at a roadside diner (great scene with salty, uh, pre-feminist dialogue) and cross her path again on the road. Ida Lupino turns up a bit later, and she has a past with Raft's character. The action includes accidents ranging from surprisingly minor (the first, where the truck slams into a tree and needs only a new wheel) to utterly horrific. I suppose the ending is predictable, but there are some great twists getting there. And Lupino's final scene is unforgettable.

DVD special features: The documentary about the movie is brief but excellent. The Swingtime in the Movies short is pretty goofy, although there are amusing cameos. Don't miss the doc, but you can skip Swingtime (not to be confused with Swing Time starring Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, of course). The theatrical trailer is also included, but I don't care much for trailers (they usually just spoil the movie by giving away the best parts).

Bogart is only billed fourth -- this was before he became a big star. The accompanying documentary points out that Bogart had been making movies regularly for ten years and was getting frustrated. Indeed, his character in They Drive By Night fades into the background. He was on the cusp of greatness, however. The next year he starred in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon followed by Casablanca, becoming a Hollywood legend.

Bye Bye Wycliff

The Chicago Tribune's public editor, Don Wycliff, posted a farewell column last week. Perhaps it is fitting that it lacked any real substance, for that has been Wycliff's flaw all along. In fact, if the next public editor is going to be like him, the Tribune Company should just save their money.

I won't say Wycliff is a bad person (notice this is not a "Bastard of the Day" award), but his contributions were worthless at best, damaging at worst. Rarely did his investigations into Tribune reporting venture beyond his own navel. Wycliff was the most wishy-washy writer I ever saw in the Tribune. When someone questioned the Tribune's coverage, he would write about both sides but rarely take a position (and if he did it was usually half-hearted). Is that what a public editor is supposed to do? If it is, then what is the point?

I only contacted Wycliff twice about obvious reporting errors in the newspaper. He blew off one entirely, but his treatment of the infamous Farm Aid smear was downright unconscionable. The reporter clearly made a mistake because he did not understand accounting practices for non-profits, giving the impression that the charity was far below the recommended standard for fiscal responsibility. The reporter's editor stood behind him, and the spineless Wycliff fell right into line. The best he could do after having a month to mull it over was to say that it wasn't clear that the Tribune had reported anything meaningful. But it was meaningful; it was an uninformed hatchet job, and people who didn't understand the underlying details took the reporter's implications as truth. The Reader's Michael Miner got to the bottom of the story. He even called the reporter's sources to verify that the reporter screwed up. Why the hell couldn't Wycliff do that?

I was not surprised to hear that Wycliff was taking a job outside of journalism. I can't speak for his previous work, but as public editor, he always sounded like somebody bullshitting his way through, biding his time until he could find something better. If Wycliff really cared about being public editor, he sure didn't show it. Goodbye and good riddance.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Bastard of the Day

This is the first Bastard of the Day in memorium: Slobodan Milosevic, found dead in his prison cell today. The "Butcher of the Balkans" is no more. As former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke said, "I'm not going to shed any tears." Milosevic was still undergoing trial for "66 charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes." Although I don't know the horrific details about his actions, I don't think it is a stretch to figure he was guilty of at least a count or two.

One wonders why the International Criminal Tribunal brought so many charges against him that would take more than four years in court. Wouldn't it be more expedient to pick a handful of ironclad cases and put him away for life based on those? Just focus on the worst ones and leave it at that. Were the In Cold Blood killers tried for stealing that kid's radio? Of course not -- it paled in comparison to the four homicides they committed.

Maybe the tribunal figured he wasn't going anywhere so they could take their time. I know what they would probably say -- something about how every crime is important, every life matters, each case must be seen through to justice, etc. But look what happened... Now Milosevic apologists can say he was never convicted of those heinous crimes, as if he never committed them. Well Milo, convicted or not, you'll always be a bastard in my book.

UPDATE 03/20/2006 - Mark Vlasic, one of the Milosevic's prosecutors, offers some examples of Milo's evil deeds that go above and beyond mere bastardry.

Blagojevich May Not Want Second Term

I was walking home from the grocery store today and saw a familiar figure run across my path at the corner of Western and Wilson: Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. I've seen him run in the neighborhood before (our dog once lunged at him), but what surprised me today was his recklessness. Traffic on Western Avenue, one of the busiest surface streets in Chicago, had the green light, and yet Blagojevich ran across, dodging five lanes of traffic and at one point running along the double yellow centerline. His security detail, a state trooper on a bicycle, watched the governor's Frogger impression and waited for the light to change. He was shaking his head and smiling as if to say, "Man, that guy is crazy!"

On the other side of Western, the governor ran on Wilson Avenue instead of the sidewalk. Considering that Wilson is 3.5 lanes wide with parking on each side and two-way traffic (i.e., four lanes of cars on 3.5 lanes of pavement), that isn't a bright idea either. This behavior tells me that Blagojevich doesn't really want to be reelected. That is why he is endangering himself in this way. Someone looking forward to the future doesn't do things like that.

Political gadflies should note that this was a Saturday evening, so Blagojevich was not playing hooky from his gubernatorial responsibilities. On the other hand, he was crossing against the light and disobeying the "Do not walk" sign. Of course, that's not much of an offense compared to the crimes of his predecessors. It would be like busting the newest home run king for drinking Red Bull.

In Blagojevich's defense, I have to confess as a former runner that I've done some pretty stupid things under the influence of adrenaline. One night I came to a railroad crossing that was blocked by a stopped freight train. Without a second thought, I scooted underneath a coupling between two cars. Ten seconds later, the successive clang of couplings down the line told me the train was moving again. My already elevated heartrate doubled when I realized how easily I could have become human sausage. As if that wouldn't have been bad enough, no one knew I was there and I carried no ID. My scrambled remains could have spent eternity in a potter's field.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

My first thought upon flipping through Chicagoan Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in the bookstore was Damn, I could have written this book (Jen Garrett recently expressed a similar thought in her own inimitable way). Now that I've had more time to consider it, I think Damn, I have written this book, but in blog form. But of course Rosenthal had the idea to organize her random musings into a fresh yet traditional and accessible format (she even describes her experience of conceptualizing, writing, and publishing this book). Setting aside my petty jealousy, I must admit that using an encyclopedic format for what is essentially a memoir is a stroke of genius. Just collect a bunch of random thoughts and reflections, then organize them into alphabetical order, complete with cross-references. The format holds everything together instead of the narrative.

I can identify with many entries since the author is near my age. She reflects on the Free to Be... You and Me album by Marlo Thomas and Friends that I had when I was growing up. She and her husband listened to the CD one night on the way to a restaurant:
When we returned to our car a few hours later... the valet guy hops out of the driver's seat and says, Dude! That was awesome! I'm not kidding you, I haven't heard Free to Be... You and Me since I was a kid!
I could see myself as that valet. Those moments of recognition and connection with the author were my favorite entries.

Overall, however, Encyclopedia is a mixed bag. The trick to making a book like this work is to make it appear to be about oneself but actually focus on things with universal appeal. I nod in agreement with her critique of DVD director's commentaries ("nothing more than a love-fest opportunity for the two commentators"), but she loses me with two pages about her favorite coffeehouse (I don't even drink coffee, much less hang out at coffeehouses). And while the saga of contesting a parking ticket on the grounds of karma provides some graphic relief (as do illustrations and tables throughout), it isn't worth spending five pages of the book on it. Finally, like many memoirs written by women, parts are a little too girly for me (I know, what do I expect?).

A few of the short entries are flaky, but at least they are brief. The author's voice weakens the longer entries. Rosenthal's rambling, conversational style gets annoying to those of us who prefer tight, precise prose. Come to think of it, I might like this book better as a blog because my expectations would be different.

My biggest problem with Encyclopedia is that it looked better in the bookstore when I was flipping through it than it did when I actually read it. Perhaps the format is the problem -- as a browser, I naturally gravitated toward the shorter or more interesting topics, but as a reader, I felt obligated to read every word. Ultimately, I got bogged down and the book sat for weeks with a bookmark somewhere in the S's until I finally plowed through the last few letters. I suppose one could argue that an encyclopedia isn't meant to be read from front to back in the first place.

I recommend that you check out Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in a bookstore (though I provide a link to Amazon below!). Flip through, but force yourself to read a few of the longer entries to decide whether you like the author's style, not just her format, before buying.
 

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Anyone Going to Paris This Summer?

I have been waiting to announce this, but now it appears to be a sure thing. One of my photographs will be displayed in a special exhibition at the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle of Paris! The topic is "Dragons," and they are using my photo of the Piasa on the Mississippi River near Alton, IL. It opens on April 5 and runs through November 6, 2006.

There were some issues with the first photo they tried to use, so the photo didn't make the deadline to get into the accompanying book. Still, I am very excited since this is the first international showing of any of my work. Unfortunately, I will not be going to Paris anytime soon, so I won't get to see it. If by chance anyone reading this goes to the museum between April and November, could you please take a picture of my picture for me?

B-slapped by Yanni

Greek easy-listening keyboardist Yanni was arrested Thursday night for allegedly slapping his girlfriend.

It's no surprise to me. Whenever I hear Yanni, I want to hit somebody.

I was going to write "[rimshot]" after that, but I looked it up in Wikipedia and learned that it is a misnomer:
A sting is a short sequence played by a drummer to punctuate a joke, especially an obvious or slapstick one. A sting is often used as accompaniment during cabaret- or circus-style shows. It is often erroneously called a rimshot... It is often spoken as "badum-CHING!" or similar, in response to hearing a particularly corny joke.
Coincidentally, nowadays hearing Sting makes me want to hit somebody, too.

Bastard of the Day

I can't let this quote from South Dakota State Senator Bill Napoli (Republican, of course) slip by without note. Napoli's anti-abortion bill, which passed, allows abortion for only one reason: to protect the mother's life. He claims that cases of rape or incest could be covered by that exception, apparently if the experience was enough to make the woman contemplate suicide. So tell us, Bill, how bad would it have to be?
BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.
Let's see, first the rape has to be brutal (he even uses that word twice, as an adverb and a verb). I guess it's not traumatic enough unless it really hurts. The woman (I won't even comment on his patronizing use of "girl") has to be a virgin. After all, if she has already had consensual sex, obviously she was just begging to be raped. Break that hymen and you're fare game for public consumption. She has to be religious, because only religious women don't deserve to be raped. Perhaps an atheist would lack the moral compass to be traumatized by being violated (you know how those atheists are with all their orgies). I am surprised he didn't come right out and say "Christian." Then he reiterates the virginity aspect: it's not enough to be a virgin -- she should be saving herself for marriage. The next part is my favorite: "sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it." Uh, what the Hell does sodomy have to do with pregnancy?!? I'm guessing Napoli just likes the word or the imagery. Call it a "biblical buzzword." So if a religious woman who was "saving" herself gets violently raped in every orifice and might kill herself if forced to give birth to that baby, then her "real-life" example is good enough to merit a South Dakota abortion. Gee Bill, thanks for painting that picture for us.

Okay, I know he didn't say it was the only "real-life description," but it was so nutty that I had to comment. Blogger Melissa McEwan summarizes Napoli's words well: "Everything wrong with our societal views on rape and abortion summed up in one ridiculously stupid statement by one ridiculously stupid man." Digby, another blogger, thinks Napoli's description is a little too vivid to be anything but creepy:
He seems to have given it a good deal of thought. I suspect many hours have been spent luridly contemplating the brutal, savage rape and sodomy (as bad as it can be) of a religious virgin and how terrible it would be for her. It seems quite clear in his mind.
Regardless of how you feel about the abortion issue, Napoli's bizarrely detailed quote shows that he deserves to be the Bastard of the Day. Personally, I think the issue is all about population. No one wants to live in the Dakotas, where the weather is decent for only three months a year (I have that on authority from a former North Dakotan -- six weeks in spring and six weeks in fall, otherwise miserably cold or unbearably hot). To keep South Dakota from being vacated entirely, except maybe the Black Hills and the Corn Palace, they need to prevent abortions. Otherwise, they might have to give the whole state back to the Sioux.

UPDATE 03/09/2006 - Molly Ivins, one of my favorite columnists and proof that not everyone from Texas is a compassionless conservative, rips into Napoli here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Way back in the early days of the DJWriter blog, I nominated Disney princess Hilary Duff's version of "My Generation" for "Worst Cover Song of 2004." It is with heavy heart that I inform you that the mouseheads are about to unleash an even more offensive assault on the ears of America. Today's Bastard of the Day is Walt Disney Records for conceiving and foisting upon us DEVO 2.0, aka DEV2.O .

Don't hate DEVO 2.0 because they are another prefabricated pop band. Don't hate them because they are a cover band. Hate them because they are desecrating the music of Akron, Ohio's finest band. Okay, that's not saying much, but just listen to this crap. And it just gets worse...

Read about the band. Lead singer Nicole (there are no last names in DEVO 2.0, which at least gives these kids a chance to lead normal lives as adults) cites as one of her musical influences Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. The idea of a pre-adolescent girl singing "Whip It" with "my hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps" going through her head is rather disturbing, don't you think?

I know this concept has been done before, notably by A*Teens. But Abba was pop schlock from day one. DEVO is deeper than that. Beneath the flower pot hats, there is good music with interesting lyrics. A Wikipedia entry confirms my worst fears:

The lyrics to the songs they perform are also heavily edited, to make them more "family friendly" and remove all of the innuendo typical of Devo songs. (In "Through Being Cool", for instance, the line "eliminate the ninnies and the twits" is changed to "eliminate the time you waste in cliques", and the innuendo-filled "Girl U Want" is completely re-written and sanitized as "Boy U Want"... The song "Beautiful World" remains mostly unchanged until the end, where the line "it's a beautiful world ... for you, but not for me" becomes "for you... I guess me too".)
Damn, that was the best line in "Beautiful World" (it was bad enough when that song was used in a Target commercial). This is the fluffiest of fluff, Hilary Duff with New Wave backing music. I noticed that they didn't record "Gut Feeling" -- I'd hate to think how they would rewrite the "slap your mammy" part of that song (probably "hug your mammy").

How did this come to be? Disney had to get permission from DEVO to use the name, right? Did DEVO completely sell out? To my surprise and disappointment, the answer is a huge YES. From clubdevo.com:

DEV2.0 is a strange, Corporate-Feudal experiment that attempts to bring the original DEVO music sensibility to children in the 5 to 8 year old demographic range. The band is composed of 5 talented kids ranging in age from 10 to 12 years old. They are able to play and sing. DEVO produced the music for them and Gerald Casale directed all of the videos for the DVD which was funded by Buena Vista Records, a division of the Disney Company. From Billboard.com: The "Devo 2.0" CD is due March 17 via Disney Sound. A companion DVD will feature animated and live action videos for each of the tracks directed by Devo bassist and co-founder Gerry Casale.
When I first heard about DEVO 2.0, I never dreamed that DEVO had this much involvement. Now I'm not sure whether the Bastard of the Day should be Disney or DEVO! The only good thing ("everybody, it's a good thing") that can come out of this is a new interest in the original band's body of work.

What's next? A kid singing folk songs named "Bob Dillon?" A group of kids playing 1970s heavy metal called "Blue Oyster Club?" They could perform their biggest hit, a song about studying hard in science class called "Don't Fear the Beaker."

With Disney's marketing muscle behind it, we're sure to hear plenty about DEVO 2.0 in the next few months. "Through being cool," indeed.

What's Wrong With Breed Bans?

Answer: This (hat tip to ASPCA). Many people don't know what a pit bull looks like, and lots of breeds look similar. Even my wife, an avid reader of Dog Fancy, went through more than a third of the photos on that Web page before she picked the American pit bull terrier. You have to really know your stuff to tell them apart. Do your neighbors or local police have that knowledge? If they do not, your perfectly harmless and legal pup could be taken away in a case of mistaken identity.

Our experience with pit bulls is mixed. The pit bull at the end of the block, Snowman, acts aggressively, and our dogs don't like him. His owner knows this, however, so he keeps Snowman behind a tall fence and doesn't walk him around other dogs. On the other hand, we have taken care of two young pit bulls found on the street for a couple days each. The only problem we had was when our dog -- sweet, docile Teddy -- attacked the first one. Teddy was fighting for a treat that the pit bull had dropped. After Teddy knocked her on her back, she bit his leg. At first I was mad at the pit bull, but clearly it was just a scared dog defending herself. We found a home for the second pit bull, and her owners love her; she's a good dog.

That is another big problem with breed bans. Pit bulls are not inherently aggressive and dangerous, nor are rottweilers (another breed often singled out). On the other hand, under the right (or should I say wrong?) circumstances, beloved breeds can be violent and unpredictable. Granted, a bichon frise isn't going to maul a six-year-old, but a poorly bred or trained German shepherd might. Even a labrador retriever will bite if you back it into a corner or taunt it.

Dog attacks are tragic, but the breed bans being considered in many states and local jurisdictions are not the answer. Responsible ownership, proper breeding, good training, and common sense behavior by people around dogs would go a long way toward solving aggressive dog problems.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's award goes to Crystal Lake homophobes. Organizers of the 2006 Gay Games would like to hold a rowing event in Crystal Lake, a far northwestern suburb of Chicago. Unfortunately, the plan tripped over its first hurdle, the Crystal Lake Park District board vote. At least it was close, 2-2 with one absent when three votes were needed for approval.

Like Tracy Baim, co-vice chairwoman of the Gay Games board of directors, I was not surprised by this. Chicago may be willing to accept the Gay Games, but the suburbs, particularly on the fringes, are not. Remember, Illinois is a red state with a blue city. Here's one goofball homophobe's logic:
Crystal Lake resident Scott Spencer told the Park Board that homosexuality is "contrary and detrimental" to traditional family values. Saying that view doesn't make him a bigot, he added: "Let me point out what my prejudice is toward: my wife, my children, my grandchildren and the sanctity of the home."
Yes, because gay people just want to rape your kids and grandkids (while the bull dikes have their way with your wife), as soon as they're finished with the family dog. You are a bigot. And a moron.

First of all, this isn't going to be like Sturgis, SD when the bikers come to town. We're talking about one event, and come on, it's just rowing. It's not the Super Bowl, and it's not a Gay Pride parade marching up US Highway 14. Gays are not going to infiltrate every nook and cranny of Crystal Lake. Just don't go to the lake while the event is being held -- "problem" solved. As for "the sanctity of the home," who said Gay Games spectators or athletes want anything to do with your home? Was this a vote on, "Should gay rowers spend the night at the Spencer residence?" Trust me, they'll steer clear of your ilk, just like blacks avoid the KKK. If you're worried about your kids and grandkids (and the family dog), just lock them in the basement while the Sodomites corrupt someone else's youth.

Secondly, and this may cause Mr. Spencer to shudder, you already watch gay athletes all the time. You may not know it, but they are out there. They were at the Olympics (and not just the figure skaters). They are in baseball, basketball, football, maybe even (cringe) NASCAR. Yet you probably allow your kids to watch sports on TV. And their family values haven't been corrupted, at least as far as homosexuality goes (beer commercials, on the other hand, probably are detrimental to family values).

Another resident was worried that more than the expected 200-300 people would show up, possibly overwhelming the city's resources. At first blush this seems like a reasonable concern, but think about it. Most of the Gay Games events are in Chicago. Rowing has limited appeal, and fans would have to drive 50 miles to get to Crystal Lake. How many people are going to do that? Even if the Gay Games organizers are wrong and 100 percent more people show up, that's still only 600 people. Crystal Lake isn't Mayberry -- it has a population over 40,000. Surely the city could handle a crowd the size of a company picnic.

Again, it was a split vote, and I am not indicting all Crystal Lake residents as homophobic morons. But the Scott Spencers need to be called out as the bastards they are. As Rev. Dan Larson said at the meeting last night, "Everyone has a right to row their boat."

UPDATE 03/08/2006: The Crystal Lake Park District board voted last night to approve the rowing event after Board President Jerry Sullivan, who was on vacation last week, cast the deciding vote in favor. I thought it was strange that the board voted on such a contentious issue with one member absent in the first place. Alas, the bastardly side of Crystal Lake was still evident:
We're going to welcome the opportunity," said Rev. Joel Anderson, of Harvest Bible Chapel in Crystal Lake, before the meeting. He said gay athletes who come to Crystal Lake might be greeted by people from his 900-member congregation and from other churches with messages about their belief that homosexuality is immoral.
Why can't people just "live and let live?" They would be much better off ignoring the event altogether. Anderson went on to hint that something ugly might happen when the Gay Games are held. At this point I think that's likely. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot more people than anticipated show up both to support and protest the event (much to the chagrin of people like my anonymous commenter who fear that their "quiet lakeside village" will be spoiled by the crowd). In the meantime, expect more raucous debate when the Crystal Lake City Council takes up the matter, followed by the Lakewood Village Board.

Dan Ryan Construction: Ironic Headline

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is preparing for a huge reconstruction project on the region's busiest highway, the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94). All of the express lanes will be closed, leaving only three lanes open in each direction and cutting the road's capacity in half. IDOT wants cars to use alternate routes and keep trucks on the narrowed highway. The Chicago Tribune ran a story yesterday titled "IDOT's plea: Stay off the Ryan." But the headline on today's follow-up cracked me up:

State lacks backup plan on Dan Ryan

Of course, the state does have a backup plan -- to simply let traffic back up!

This is going to be such a mess. The Dan Ryan is busy all day at full capacity -- I have driven home at 4 AM just to avoid the traffic. The alternatives on Chicago's South Side just aren't good. Many adjacent neighborhoods are marginal or downright scary. I can imagine an out-of-towner becoming frustrated by the traffic and exiting the highway only to find himself in a really bad situation. And it's not as if the alternate routes are underused right now. The construction could turn every major north-south street on the South Side into a parking lot.

My advice to out-of-towners: if you're just passing through, cough up the cash to drive on the Tri-State Tollway. That goes for anyone going to the suburbs -- you have no reason to drive through downtown Chicago to get there. If you do have to go downtown, do you really need a car? Check out the Metra commuter trains and the South Shore Line, which runs from South Bend to downtown Chicago. There is also construction on both the Kingery Expressway (I-80/94) and the Chicago Skyway (I-90), so your best bet coming from the east would be to park at a South Shore station (the line runs parallel to the Indiana Toll Road) and take the train.

Dan Ryan construction is scheduled for completion in late 2007. For more information, check out the highway's Web site.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Free Maxi Pads!

If anyone doubts my love for getting a deal, read on...

The story began last week when I bought some Stayfree maxi pads at Jewel (a grocery store) for my wife. They were on sale 2 for $5, and I had a coupon for $1 off. When I checked out, the machine at the register spat out a coupon for $2 off Always pads, any size. Those machines offer deals to try to get consumers to switch brands, but Always is my wife's usual brand anyway (she said I could buy Stayfree since it was on sale).

This week I noticed in the Jewel/Osco sale flyer that Always pads are 2 for $5. Cool, I'll get a package for only 50 cents, I thought. Today I walked into Jewel and stopped at the Avenu machine. This is a relatively new feature where you scan your Preferred Card and get a page of personalized savings good for one day. I scanned my card, thinking it was a waste of time since the Avenu offers are never for anything I want to buy. At first glance, today's special savings looked to be more of the same. But the eleventh item of the twelve on the sheet caught my eye: "$.50 OFF Always Feminine Pads & Pantiliners."

YES! I combined the 50-cent Avenu savings with the $2 coupon... and I got a free package of maxi pads! I'd venture to guess that there aren't a lot of guys out there who'd be so excited about this, but it made my day.

Bastard of the Day

This is such an obvious choice. How could I not pick George W. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" Bush? The videotape shows that he knew damn well that New Orleans was in danger of horrific flooding, and that he was told the levees could be topped. At the very least, he could have ended his vacation immediately and cancelled his jaunt to California. On the tape, Bush didn't even ask one question when he was told of the looming disaster. Would any other president in our history have been so disinterested or so thoroughly certain that he had heard all he needed to know? (Okay, maybe Reagan, but only if he was asleep.)

Those wacky White House spinmeisters are on top of this, of course:
"I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing," Bush spokesman Trent Duffy said, citing a variety of orders and disaster declarations Bush signed before the storm made landfall. "He received multiple briefings from multiple officials, and he was completely engaged at all times."
Wait a minute, Duffster. When someone claims to have no idea about something but "a single briefing" shows that he did know about that thing, that is all we need to see. How can one not draw the conclusion that Bush was full of sh*t? And if he was "completely engaged," why was he screwing off in California as the bodies started floating through the streets of New Orleans? White House spokespeople must get tired of trying to cover for this guy all the time. It is now clear that Bush's contention that he was caught by surprise just doesn't, pardon the expression, hold water.

Bush and his cronies like to talk about running the country like a CEO runs a company. It is true that a good manager delegates and trusts his people, but when something really important is happening, any CEO worth his salt isn't out on the golf course or playing a guitar. He's on the spot making sure everyone is doing his/her job. And if they aren't doing it right, he finds someone else who can or steps in and gets it done himself. He doesn't just fly overhead and peer out the window at the problem.

I'll give a runner-up Bastard of the Day award to "Bruce," the boneheaded commenter here who tries to draw a distinction between levees being "topped" and "breached" to claim that Bush didn't lie at all. What a load of semantic bullsh*t. Regardless of whether levees are topped or breached, the end result is the same: you'd better grow some gills.

What will our fearless leader's response be? My bet is that he'll undertake an investigation to find out who leaked the tapes. Such a compassionate conservative. At this point, I'm starting to think Kanye West was right.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reflections on Ignored Olympics

This began as a comment on In The Gutter, but when it started to get long I decided to put it in my own blog instead. I agree with a lot of what Chris says about the Olympic sparkle being gone.

I used to be an Olympics junkie. My first Olympic memories are the "Miracle on Ice" and Eric Heiden in 1980. I watched the 1984 Los Angeles games day and night. I thought the USA had the most awesome athletes in the world; it was only later that I realized just how stacked the competition was with the Soviet boycott. (Indeed many would argue that the end of the Olympics' golden era came with the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, if not the Munich tragedy in 1972. I wonder today how many countries might boycott Olympics in the USA because of our invasion of Iraq, which really isn't much different from the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.) I liked the Olympics so much that I preferred JCPenney's "USA Olympics" gym shoes and clothing over any name brand.

My interest has waned over the years, especially in the last decade or so. I saw one hour of Torino, and only because it was on TV at a restaurant. A few stories caught my eye online, but nothing compelled me to actually watch the Games. Apparently, Chris and I were not alone in shunning the Olympics this year:
NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage from Turin ended up averaging 20.2 million viewers per night, a 37 percent decline from the Salt Lake City Games four years ago, with an even steeper decline among young viewers.
Ouch! It doesn't bode well for the future that the 18-49 age group was down 45%. Think of how much NBC paid to carry the Olympics (and to cover them), and you can imagine some network executives must be pretty upset. Incidentally, the best market for the Games this time around was the host last time, Salt Lake City. Of course, that is one good excuse for the ratings slump -- the Olympics are always more popular on American soil. Another excuse is that with the Games in Europe, people could get results on the Internet before the TV coverage started at night.

But I think it's more than that. The Olympics used to be about competition and sportsmanship. Now it seems like many of today's Olympians are just as obnoxious and annoying as the spoiled crybabies in MLB, the NFL, the NBA, etc. And yet when Eric Zorn blogged about Shani Lewis' lack of sportsmanship (in reaction to a boneheaded guest editorial from an ivory tower academic), he took a beating from commenters who said he just doesn't understand how hard it is to be black, and that whites only accept blacks when they are smiling and nice. Bullsh*t. As Zorn said, "it's about class, not race." Anyone who doesn't win graciously in the Olympics insults and embarrasses his country as well as himself. I don't care if you're black, white, brown, or blue. Bite your tongue and smile. You won, dammit! Besides, let's face it, this is the only time 99% of the world will give a damn about you and your chosen sport. No one pays attention to speedskating, bobsledding, curling, etc. during the four years between Olympics.

And like everything else in this world, the Olympics are too commercial. I know it takes money to put on the events, but now it seems like everything has a sponsor's name on it. I don't remember that from the Olympics of my youth. And individual athletes are hyped so much that sometimes we're sick of them before they even compete. Heck, remember the series of Dan and Dave Reebok commercials in 1992? Dan didn't even make it to the Olympics. Oops. That should have been a warning to marketers that they were getting too far ahead of the Games. Instead, every four years a new crop of skiers, skaters, runners, and gymnasts is exploited leading up to the Big Event. As if these athletes aren't under enough pressure to succeed, now they have millions of $$$$$ on the line dancing in their heads and adding to the stress. After Sasha Cohen fell, articles talked about how much it would cost her in endorsements. Then reporters go on and on about the "tragedy" of someone like Bode Miller losing when they and their advertisers were responsible for raising expectations in the first place.

I also hate the every-two-years Olympics (alternating winter and summer). I understand why it was done for branding and organizational reasons, but they were more special when we had to wait four years. An Olympic year was a big deal, and it coincided with the Presidential elections in the US. The Winter Games led up to the Summer Games a few months later, followed in November by the election. Now it seems like the Olympics are happening all the time, which lessens the excitement and interest.