Thursday, October 29, 2009

around the october horn

Baseball has been my favorite sport as long as I can remember, but somehow in more than a year of blogging, I don't think I've mentioned it outside of a passing reference to a Strat-O-Matic draft.

I find this odd, since I truly love the sport, and spend a lot of my leisure time with Strat or Baseball... um... Sports Weekly. And I devote a good chunk of my time on the Internet to superb baseball websites like Baseball Prospectus, Dodger Thoughts (I'm not even a Dodger fan, but Jon Weisman is such an eloquent, fair-minded writer and the DT community that's grown around the blog is so fun to read that it's always worthwhile to hang out there), Baseball Musings, Aaron Gleeman's Twins blog, and a bevy of others. In fact, I usually eat breakfast at the computer while pouring over the previous day's baseball bloggitude.

So here's some random and not-so-random baseball thoughts on this cloudy October day.

  • I'm rooting for the Phillies in the World Series. Following the Reds all these years has made me a very solid National League fan, and unless I view the NL entrant as despicable in some way and/or see the AL team as historically outstanding, I'm always for the NL team. The 2009 Phils do not strike me as objectionable, therefore I want them to win.
  • Plus the Phillies are playing the New York Yankees. I'm for anyone who's playing the Yankees. While I do not loathe the Yankees of the '90s and 2000s like I did the loathsome 1970s Yankees of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, and Roy White, there is no way I can ever be for any incarnation of this franchise.
  • Three of the races for individual honors in MLB should be no-brainers (operative word there: "should"): Zack Greinke for AL Cy Young, Joe Mauer for AL MVP, and Albert Pujols for NL MVP. The NL Cy Young is less clear-cut, with about seven or eight pitchers having decent cases, but I'm going with a repeat for Tim Lincecum, slightly edging out Adam Wainwright. For the record, I'm a pretty standard sabermetric thinker on these things, heavily discounting team-dependent counting stats like runs, RBIs, saves, and, worst of all of 'em, pitcher wins. I also don't give a crap whether someone played on a contender or not when it comes to an individual award. For instance, I believe Mauer should be the AL MVP even if his Twins had collapsed during the final week of the regular season. Yep, the Twins did go on that hot streak that got them into the postseason, but as far as Mauer's deservingness goes, to me it doesn't matter if they won by 10 games or finished 20 games out. If he's the best player, he's the MVP. Period.
  • Speaking of things I don't give a crap about, the whole performance enhancing drug thing is a total non-starter with me. I am not interested in it. I don't care. I am not morally outraged if athletes attempt to perform at a higher level. I don't think it's wise to use human growth hormone, steroids, etc., but I am not going to get worked up about it if they do. I don't think the stars of the '60s and '70s should be disgraced because many of them were swallowing greenies by the handful, nor is there a public outcry that they should be. For some reason, steroids generate more faux outrage amongst the press. The bottom line for me is this: Barry Bonds was the best player I've ever seen (Johnny Bench was my favorite, and he's arguably the best catcher ever, but Bonds was a better player). Roger Clemens was not only the best pitcher of his generation, but has to be in any discussion of the five or ten best starting pitchers in baseball history. Excluding them or Mark McGwire from the Hall of Fame strikes me as completely silly.
  • While broadcaster Joe Morgan's increasingly terminal case of old-player-anti-stats-crony-pimping-itis makes him an easy and deserving target for every baseball blogger's ire, I do want to point out that when Mr. Morgan began his broadcasting career in 1985 with the Reds' TV network, he was the best baseball color man I've ever heard. Joe's primary strength then and even now is his ability to explain how the game is actually played, and I learned more about baseball from listening to Joe Morgan cover the '85 and '86 Reds than I probably did in all my other years of watching baseball combined. Even my decidedly non-sports-loving mom chimed in during one of those games (maybe one of the epic '85 confrontations between Reds rookie Tom Browning and the Mets' mighty Dwight Gooden) that she enjoyed listening to Joe, because he made the game understandable to her. Unfortunately, these days it's Morgan's only redeeming quality, but back in the '80s, and even the early '90s, when he became ESPN's primary MLB color announcer, Joe was not so anti-stat, and much of his commentary was very friendly toward many of the same concepts that had captivated me in Bill James' Baseball Abstract annuals.* In fact, on those '85 Reds broadcasts, I distinctly remember him explaining how then-Red Gary Redus was a valuable player despite his low batting average, because Redus walked a lot and stole bases at a high percentage. Modern-day Joe would dismiss Redus based solely on that low BA, and I for one mourn that as Joe has aged, he has allowed his mind not only to harden but to narrow. Just remember that it wasn't always that way.
*I'm not suggesting that Joe Morgan read any of James' work back then. What I am saying is that what Joe Morgan said on those Reds broadcasts produced no cognitive dissonance in my mind with what Bill James, Pete Palmer, Craig Wright, et al, were writing about at the same time. As many folks have pointed out during Joe's dotage, it's ironic that he should be so anti-sabermetric given that Morgan's strengths during his Hall of Fame playing career practically make him the poster child for sabermetrics: he walked a lot, he got on base a lot in general, he hit for power at a premium defensive position, and he stole bases at a very high percentage. If only what came out of Joe's mouth then had stayed consonant with what made him an all-time great, Fire Joe Morgan would have been instead.

Monday, October 19, 2009

not expecting both perspex and lowe bonnie

The musicians who spent most of Saturday night (October 17th, 2009) together on the Bluebird stage, none of them as they appeared on the Bluebird stage, but their photos do appear L-R in the configuration in which they stood: Abigail Washburn, Robyn Hitchcock, Rayna Gellert

After reviewing April's Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 show at length, I think folks are expecting me to review Saturday's unprecedented second Robyn show in Nashville within a calendar year. Especially the person from Winfield, Alabama, who landed on that previous entry today while searching for "robyn hitchcock bluebird review." Since I don't want to let my happenstance audience down, I'm going to oblige him/her, if he/she Googles their way back here.

So's anyways, I certainly wasn't expecting a full-on rock extravaganza like April's show, given the tininess of the of the Bluebird Cafe's stage. I did think we might get a Venus 3 member or three, and likely some Gillian Welch and David Rawlings since it was a Nashville Robyn show on what appeared to be an off night for GilNDave's various projects. It could have ended up a repeat of the Basement Tapes covers/Spooked-heavy shows that characterized Robyn's non-V3 Nashville appearances during the 2000s.

Instead, none of those people appeared and none of those things happened.

A few minutes after the listed showtime of 9:30 PM, a pair of slender women walked onstage and set up banjos and violins. I thought they might be an opening act, though the show, billed only as "An Evening With Robyn Hitchcock," listed none. But then they left the stage, and Robyn, harlequin shirt donned and acoustic guitar in hand, walked on and began the show with Olé Tarantula's "Museum of Sex." Nothing out of the ordinary solo Hitchcock show there, and Robyn said something about some "friends" joining him later, getting the crowd all a-twitter (and probably all a-Twitter) over whom might be appearing.

Robyn would play four more songs by himself, including the always-gorgeous "I Often Dream of Trains" and Welch/Rawlings' "Elvis Presley Blues." During the intro to the latter, we learned that GilNDave would be elsewhere tonight, so two likely "friends" could be ruled out then and there.

After the fifth song, "Full Moon in My Soul," he called for those "friends" to join him. The two women who set up the banjos and fiddles beforehand reappeared, picked up their respective instruments, and assumed flanking positions around Mr. Hitchcock. Then some fiddling and picking commenced, but it wasn't until Robyn began singing that I knew what they were playing: the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Tonight's friends were Abigail Washburn on banjo and vocals, and Rayna Gellert on violin and backing vocals. Though both looked vaguely familiar to me, especially Abigail, I didn't immediately know them, and even after post-show Googling, haven't found a project of theirs I think I've seen or heard. As far as I can figure, the connection to Robyn Hitchcock may be that both women played in the band Uncle Earl, an album of whose was produced by Robyn's sometimes-collaborator John Paul Jones (yes, that John Paul Jones).

Anyway, after Abigail and Rayna joined Robyn, the rest of the set took on a very traditional/folk feel, more so than Robyn's work with violinist Deni Bonet or even on Spooked, the album he recorded here in Nashville in 2004 with Welch/Rawlings. During this most rootsy part of the setlist, we got two, maybe three "trad."-authored songs, along with an apparent new Robyn tune ("Thank You Timegirl"?), a very traditional-sounding song that Abigail sang from which I couldn't decipher a Google-friendly lyric, and, my personal highlight of the evening, a rare sighting of the beautiful "Birds in Perspex."

For the encores, Robyn started solo again, with a cover of the Doors' "Crystal Ship," following it with a song by "another dead songwriter," Nick Drake's "River Man." Abigail and Rayna rejoined Robyn for another song that it tickled me to hear: I Often Dream of Trains' "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus," which was perfectly suited for the banjo/fiddle/acoustic guitar setup. Then it was back to just Robyn, who returned to the Jim Morrison Songbook for the last tune of the evening: "The End."

While walking out of the Bluebird and even on the drive home, I had a lingering feeling that's difficult to put into words. It wasn't disappointment, because the quality of the show was high and Robyn put his heart into his singing and playing. So it's not a case of "Do you ever feel like you've been cheated?" Not even close.

I suppose it's more like confusion: I not only didn't get what I was expecting - which is not always a bad thing and wasn't a bad thing on this particular evening - but I'm still not sure just what I got or what Robyn's intentions were. New project? Fun one-off? Two Doors covers in one show? I left with more questions than answers, but I'm still glad that I went.

Complete setlist follows:

1) Museum of Sex
2) Elvis Presley Blues (Welch/Rawlings)
3) I Often Dream of Trains
4) I'm Falling
5) Full Moon in My Soul
[Rayna and Abigail join Robyn]
6) Tomorrow Never Knows (Lennon/McCartney)
7) Thank You Timegirl (?)
8) Lowe Bonnie (trad.?)
9) Ole Tarantula
10) ?? Something that Abigail sang
11) Birds in Perspex
12) Log Cabin in the Sky (Trad.?)
13) Balloon Man
[Robyn solo again after brief encore break]
14) Crystal Ship (Doors)
15) River Man (Drake)
[rejoined by Rayna and Abigail]
16) Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus
[just Robyn again]
17) The End (Doors)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

baby, can i buy your car?

It happens the same way every time. I walk out of work, get in my car, turn the key, start to pull out, and then I spot it: one of these notes on the windshield.

They're always the same medium: ballpoint pen on paper grocery bag. And the same message, whether it's from Andre or Dave or Zach: they want to buy my car. As soon as possible.

I've gotten these notes eight or nine times this year, and twice this week.

My car is not a Lamborghini, Lotus, or even a Miata. It's not a Model A or '55 Chevy. It's a red 1998 Pontiac Sunfire GT with over 125,000 miles. In other words... uh, you want to buy this?

I was completely mystified until a few months ago when I posted a Facebook status asking why anyone would be so hot and heavy to buy my car. Jaimie Vernon responded thusly:

It's a popular chassis size that's easily converted into a street-racing car for the Honda Accord street thugs. Before I got rid of it, I had similar offers for my 1998 Ford Escort.

Huh. I had no clue. This makes me think I should be calling these guys and thanking them for offering to buy my car rather than just stealing it.

A few years ago, before I knew my wife, her '94 Mazda Protege got stolen. It turned up in a salvage yard a few weeks later, burned out and with "#90" spray-painted on the side. I hope the Happy Little Red Car does not have a similar fate awaiting it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

carradio (autumn sweater mix)

As I get older, I find myself more affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). When I was younger, my mood and energy were impervious to weather. But now I feel listless and glum when it's cloudy and gray.

As my car gets older, it too is more affected by the weather. Or at least my car's stereo system is.

This cloudy, gray, cool morning, with rain coming down in that annoying quantity between "drizzle" and "umbrella needed," my car stereo exhibited a sign of the changes of seasons as sure as leaves turning or Vanderbilt's football team getting trounced in SEC games. When I started the car and backed out of the driveway for the commute to work, the CD I left in the car overnight started sputtering and skipping. I didn't even make it off my street before giving up on the CD player and switching over to the NPR (as the kids call it these days).

My '98 Sunfire didn't come from the factory this way. Unfortunately, over the last four or five years, when the weather's cold, or cool and humid, the CD player is practically inoperable - certainly intolerable - when I start the car. I guess all the bumps and rattles over eleven years have made the car more, um, porous? Dash gets more moisture, moisture fogs up the laser and CDs, CD skips until the in-dash fog burns off.

Mind you, if I'm going on a longer jaunt, this is only an annoyance for the first 15-20 minutes: eventually the daylight and/or the defrost warms up the console, and then the CD player works normally for the rest of the drive.

But for the morning commute, which usually lasts 15 minutes, it means I'm stuck with the radio for the length of the drive. My default radio option is WPLN, our local NPR station. While I'm very NPR-friendly, I'm not in the mood for news and talk every morning. Tolerable music options just aren't on the dial: maybe WRVU (Vanderbilt University's station) will, at this particular hour on this particular day, feature a DJ whose tastes I like, but they probably won't; classic rock is, well, classic rawk; WRLT, a.k.a. "Radio Lightning," a.k.a. our market's "adult alternative" station, will be up to its usual adventurous-only-to-Brentwood-housewives strummy midtempo tricks.

And to anticipate two likely reader suggestions: I don't feel like investing in an iPod car audio solution is worthwhile, since I'll probably buy a new vehicle with a built-in auxiliary jack within the next twelve to twenty-four months, which renders superfluous any purchase of an iTrip or its ilk. And there's not room in the budget right now for Sirius or XM (I'd likely pick the latter since they have Webb Wilder and Major League Baseball).

So until Spring sufficiently thaws Middle Tennessee, it's probably going to be all NPR all the time for me.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

one more for chef michael

At the risk of going all Andy Rooney - wait, I guess it isn't, since I'm not railing against everything that's changed in the world since 1952 - I don't get why there's this explosion of "gourmet" or "chef-created" pet foods.

While we can't be sure just how canines and felines perceive taste, my understanding was that what their taste buds register is more than likely not even close to how humans perceive flavors and seasonings. Cats, from what I've read, are strictly a four-taste show: sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. I've had a couple of cats who prefer beef to fish, but that's about as far as it went. Dogs have more taste buds than cats, and like with people, the appealingness of the food gets intertwined with its scent, but dogs in general seem far less discriminating than cats about what they put in their bellies.

So why, then, do we have "Tuscan"-style pet entrees and chefs putting their name on pet food? It seems like wasted effort as far as the cat or dog's appreciation of the greens, seasonings, and textures; all I can figure is that it's supposed to make their owners feel better about themselves and up the manufacturers' profit per pound.

The most disturbing thing I've seen in this regard isn't Purina's Chef Michael line, as depicted above, but the new-ish Fancy Feast line of "cat appetizers." First, there's the notion of a cat meal having courses, which seems like anthropomorphizing of the first rank.

But worse, it's pitched as "an entirely new way to celebrate the moment."

What? I'm not sure if the target audience here is the stereotypical "crazy cat lady" or practitioners of bestiality, but this seems wrong on so many levels. You shouldn't be having "moments" with your cat! Or at least not the kind of moments you celebrate over a meal with courses and a glass of wine.

All this romancing-the-pet ickiness reminds me of a picture my former employer used in an award-winning advertising campaign. The "About Life, About You" series of commercials and print ads for our bank featured black and white shots of people insipidly doing the insipid things that were supposedly important to them, like fishing with the grandson or planting tomatoes outside Del Boca Vista II or setting up a nursery for the new arrival. By implication, our bank was helping them do these insipid things.

But anyway, the shot I'm remembering featured an attractive young lady of Asian descent. She was wearing a semi-formal dress as though headed out for a date, but she was sitting at what appeared to be a table in her residence eating what appeared to be a nice dinner. Across the table, sitting in a chair, was a dog, who also appeared to have a place setting in front of him/her.

Every time I saw this picture, be it at an ATM or the wall of a branch or in a statement flyer, I wasn't thinking how our financial institution was enabling young, attractive Asian women to live out their dreams. All I could think was She's on a date with her dog.

This woman would definitely be working the Fancy Feast appetizer, that's for sure.

Monday, October 5, 2009

meeting in the ladies' room/they're all gonna laugh at you/duke + funk (medley)

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in ladies' rooms.

I know, I know, all of you who know me are saying "well, that explains a lot." Here's the sitch: It was the early '70s. My dad, who would divorce my mom in 1973 and then exit the picture completely, was rarely on the scene even then. My household from birth until age 17 was my mom, my maternal grandparents, and, until December 1976, my aunt. That's three women and one elderly man, plus me. So when we went out, odds are that I was in the care of one of those three women. And they were not going to let their little boy go into a men's room by himself.

And who can blame them? It wouldn't be a great idea to let a preschooler go into a men's room by himself now. But this was the '70s, when child kidnappings and cult abductions seemed to be in the news every day. So when my mom, grandmother, and/or aunt needed to go to the restroom, or even if the restroom visit was on my impetus, it was always to the ladies' room and accompanied by one of them.

You may be asking "why didn't your grandfather supervise that?" Well, he wasn't always on these outings, so he may not have been there. Even when he was, he just wasn't a "tend to the little kid" kind of grandfather. Don't get me wrong, I never doubted that he loved me completely, and he was a wonderful man whom I miss more every day. But out in public, he did his own thing. During our visit to whatever store we were in, he more than likely would have wandered off from the main family grouping to eyeball what was new in the hardware department, or he would have flagged down another old man whom he recognized from a carpentry job in 1948 and they'd be chattering each others' ears off out in the lobby.

So it was a life of ladies' rooms for me. This would come back to haunt me in first grade. The women who raised me, who did a boffo job in the things that matter most in child-rearing (unconditional love, nurturing, protecting, giving me intellectual freedom to become myself), didn't really understand male-specific things. And one of those male-specific things they never thought to teach me was to use my zipper when urinating. Every adult I saw urinate dropped their pants to do so, so I did it too.

This didn't matter when all my toilet visits were either at home or behind the closed door of a ladies' room stall. But on my second day of school, Mrs. Semanco marched her Switchback Elementary first graders (I never attended kindergarten - that's a blog entry for another time - so first grade was my first year of school) to the restrooms, where the class split by genders: girls to the girls' room, boys to the boys' room.

So for the first time in my life, I was alone with a bunch of other boys in a male-only toileting facility.

OH. MY. GOD. This was a different world. The stalls had no doors. (I'm not sure if I ever did #2 at school in all six years I spent at Switchback. Pooping in public? No way!) There was another, larger stall that housed some large non-commode porcelain objects, but on that early September day in 1973, I had no idea what a urinal was. (A few years later, when the girls' room was being repainted and the girls and boys had to take turns in the boys' room, Vanessa Rucker exited the boys' room and excitedly asked the waiting line of boys "do y'all ever take showers in there?" Obviously, she also didn't know what a urinal was.) Plus, relative to what I was used to, the conditions were filthy.

I had never seen anything like this before. I was freaked out.

But I also had to pee.

So I went into one of the open stalls and reluctantly did what I always did when I had to urinate: I undid my pants, let them fall around my ankles, and started peeing.

The gales of laughter started almost immediately. And in some ways, wouldn't stop for twelve years, even though I subsequently figured out what that zipper was for and never dropped my pants to pee again. It wasn't like I could explain to them over all that cacophonous cackling the context that I just spent umpteen paragraphs explaining to you. Heck, even if I could have explained it, they wouldn't have been more understanding. They were kids. And kids are cruel.

I'm not kidding about the humiliation lasting for twelve years. David Law, who was present on that day and for the remainder of my pre-college education, found fit to mention this incident to me when we were both in high school, and Mr. Law by then had become a good friend, so in some ways I never lived this down.

And, I guess by retelling the story here in a public forum available to God, man, and law, I might never live this down. But that wasn't what this blog entry was going to be about, even though it's about that now, I guess. What my intro was really about was some background for a totally different toilet anecdote, which will still follow:

So, there I was, going to ladies' rooms in the early 1970s. Graffiti, while not a new phenomenon, was reaching unprecedented proportions in the U.S., and was the subject of much denunciation from the mainstream media as well as from my family.

And graffiti was in the ladies' rooms of southern West Virginia. For whatever reason, the one piece of graffiti I remember most was on the door of one of the stalls in Grant's in Bluefield, West Virginia. (For the WV locals, Grant's was on Cumberland Avenue in a shopping center with the non-downtown Kroger and the bookstore, and the location became our area's first K-Mart after the Grant's chain went out of business.)

Also, keep in mind that, as you probably have surmised, I had a very sheltered childhood, so my notions of obscenity and vulgarity were my mom's and my grandmother's, i.e., lots of things were obscene. I have yet to hear my mother utter a single curseword. Ever. I heard my grandmother say "shit!" once, when someone pulled in front of her. My grandfather would occasionally say "shit!" and get roundly chastised for it. And even more mild stuff like "heck" and "darn" was equally prohibited, because, to quote my mother, "it's just standing in for the worse word, so you're still thinking the worse word." My family was not particularly religious beyond a kind of general Protestantness; they all believed in God and Jesus and the Bible, but we didn't go to church except for my grandmother on Easter, and they thought the super-Christian folks amongst us were, well, nuts.

So it wasn't religious zealotry. They were just prudes.

Anyway, on the door of one of the ladies' room stalls at Grant's in Bluefield, WV, was inscribed the following item of graffiti:


To my little mind, this was the Most. Obscene. Phrase. Ever.

I'm not sure why I thought that, or why it's still stuck in my head nearly 40 years later. Was it "funk"'s proximity to the truly reviled "f" word? But at that age, I hadn't encountered the f-bomb at all. And why did I think "DUKE" was also a "nasty" word? I knew that "duke" could be a title, and I didn't think that the Duke of York or "Duke of Earl" were nasty. I don't even think my mom or grandmother had pointed out this particular piece of graffiti as disgraceful. So I got nothin.'

But "DUKE + FUNK"... oh man, I thought I had to cover my eyes when I went past it on the way to the next stall or back to the sink for handwashing, lest Billy Graham yell at me and I end up in Hell.

OK, I'll stop writing any time now. Let the psychoanalysis begin!