To follow up on my recent post about why, on average, gay parents are better than straight parents, I want to point you toward a terrific blog post by my cousin Erika's daughter Lia. (Because I was born a Mormon and have genealogy in my genes, har har, I must point out that this specifically makes us first cousins once removed.)
Anyway, Lia's post is dedicated to answering the stupid questions she gets asked about having two moms. Here's a sample:
Q: Did your mom become gay because your dad was a jerk? A: Even though that is more a question for her, I'm going to go ahead and answer: NO. Being gay is no more a choice than being straight. Every person has natural attractions. Some people are naturally attracted to the opposite sex, and some to the same sex. It's really simple. You can't just "become" or "turn" gay, it's kind of built in. Someone could get into a terrible car accident (God forbid) and become paralyzed, but as far as I know, there isn't an event that can subsequently change your sexual orientation. [read more]
I've always been proud of my cousin Erika for the way she's lived her life and raised her kids, but now it's obviously past time to be proud of the next generation too. Just more anecdotal evidence for my original thesis.
Before the first month of 2012 is entirely gone, I wanted to run down my list of the 10 most interesting albums of 2011. I didn't think we'd bought all that much new music last year, but I was somewhat startled to look back and see nearly 70 albums from 2011 in our collection. I'm not going out on a limb far enough as to say these are the best of that crop, but they're definitely the ones that were interesting enough to keep me coming back for multiple multiple listens.
I've put the top 10 in a rough order, then followed those with some unordered honorable mentions.
TOP 10 MOST INTERESTING
1.St. Vincent - Strange Mercy The only thing predictable about the dark, engaging songs on this third straight amazing album from Annie Clark and crew is their unpredictability. Clark is a brilliant poet, arranger, and guitarist, and every track is gorgeous, thrilling, and shot through with beautiful noise. ["Cheerleader"]
2.Wild Flag - Wild Flag Wild Flag is what you hope for in every supergroupthe best of every component band joined seamlessly into something greater. That's exactly what you get from the combination of Mary Timony of Helium, Rebecca Cole of the Minders, and Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, ten perfect slabs of joyous rock 'n' roll. ["Romance"]
3.Low - C'mon I started listening to Low out of curiosity because the husband and wife behind the band are Mormon. I kept listening because they're just that good. This return to their low-key roots is enhanced but not overwhelmed by their recent years of experimentation. Pull up a pillow but don't think about sleeping. ["Witches"]
4.The Black Keys - El Camino What can I tell you about the new Black Keys album that you don't already know? Their secret weapon is Danger Mouse, back in the producer's chair, who adds just the right background touches to make these strong straight-ahead stompers something more than just your basic blues blasts. ["Gold on the Ceiling"]
5.The Feelies - Here Before No one ever expected the Feeliesa huge influence on bands like R.E.M.to reunite for an album of new material in 2011, much less that it would be their best in the 31 years since their debut. Strikingly confident and direct for all that it's about questioning their place in the world of today, this one's worth the price of admission for the slinky, sly guitar solos alone. ["Time Is Right"]
6.TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light The kings of moody, layered avant-pop deemphasize their trademark wall-of-vocals sound for an album that on first listen seems more simple and sunny than anything this band that never repeats itself has ever done. But subsequent spins reveals more depth and nuance beneath the sunshine than is immediately apparent. ["No Future Shock"]
8.The Roots - Undun Renowned as the best live band in hip-hop, the Roots don't get the attention on record they deserve. Which is a shame, because this concept album tracing the life of a murdered thug in reverse, like all their records, is a clear, angry, artful distillation of life in a segment of society that remains unseen to many of us. ["The OtherSide"]
10.Mastodon - The Hunter The prog-metal monsters scale their epic tendencies down into pure pop nuggets, showing us every last thing they can do along the way. Okay, it's no Crack the Skye, but it is fierce, fast, virtuosic, surprising, and addictive. ["Curl of the Burl"]
And now, twelve albums that didn't quite make the cut but still rewarded repeat listens over the past year.
Childish Gambino - Camp Troy from Community is equally fresh, inventive, and stinging when rapping about childhood as when examining the asshole inside all of us. (Is there nothing Donald Glover can't do?)
Our friend Ali is on TV again. John Klima points me toward this clip from Jamie's American Road Trip, which just recently starting airing in the States. It features Jamie Oliver traveling from Manhattan to Queens to learn Egyptian cooking from Ali El Sayed of the celebrated Kabab Cafe:
(The actual arrival in Queens comes at about 3:28, and you can click here to jump straight there.)
I dragged a very willing Mr. Klima to Kabab Cafe back in 2008, when we both happened to be in New York, and a memorable night it was. If you find yourself in New York and want to get off the beaten path for a culinary adventure, the address is 25-12 Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. Tell Ali that Bill from Chicago sent you.
To follow up on yesterday's belated review of The Book of Mormon, I wanted to tell you about a funny thing that happened after the show. As at most Broadway productions, we were invited to contribute to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS by depositing cash in the buckets that cast members would be holding various exits. When we reached the main floor from our nosebleed seats, I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and made a beeline for Lewis Cleale, who was still in his Joseph Smith costume.
Now, you have to understand that I came to the show in costume. Laura had dug up my old missionary name tag, which I proudly wore together with a white shirt and tie (much to the amusement and/or chagrin of our theatergoing companions). Imagine the confusion and concern of the poor actor, dressed as the founder of Mormonism, as, after a production lampooning the faith, a stout Mormon missionary marches straight up to him. According to my friend Chris Connolly, the man flinched as if I might attack him.
Imagine his relief when all I did was tell him what a great job he'd done as I dropped money into his bucket. Yeah, that was fun.
It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.
The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.
The Book of Mormonfrom South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopezwas the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask fordirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbersall consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.
Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yesbut to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.
The Book of Mormon tells the story of Kevin Price (Andrew Rannells), a Mormon youth who dreams of serving as a missionary in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he gets assigned to Uganda with Arnold Cunningham (an irrepressible Josh Gad) as his companion. Elder Cunningham is just about the biggest screw-up ever to pass through the Missionary Training Center, and Elder Price tries to put the best face on both disappointing assignments.
But Uganda turns out to be even more hellish than he could have imagined. The more experienced, longer-serving missionaries have not managed to convert a single soul in that war-ravaged land. Poverty and famine reign supreme. AIDS is rampant, its spread only exacerbated by the belief that it can be cured by having sex with a virgin (which spawns a surfeit of baby-rape jokes). A local warlord rules with a bloody iron fist. And the villagers get through their days by cursing God in no uncertain terms from behind philosophical grins.
Elder Price, depressed, does his best to preach the gospel according to Joseph Smith, but throws in the towel after the warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (Brian Tyree Henry), murders a man in front of him. It falls to Elder Cunningham to take over the proselytizing effort. But the well-meaning Cunningham, who didn't pay very close attention in class at the MTC, has never actually read the Book of Mormon, which forces him to invent gospel stories more tailored to the realities of life in Uganda.
The Book of Mormon is, above all else, funnyside-splittingly funny through a couple of long stretches. Okay, I'll say it. I think my first viewing of the South Park movie in a crowded theater was the last time I laughed as hard as I did right up through the show-stopping musical number "Hasa Diga Eebowai," an incredibly profane and blasphemous riff on sunny, reductive ditties like The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata." (On the off-chance you've been living in a cloister for the past twelve months and don't know the translation of "hasa diga eebowai," I won't spoil it for you.)
The songs are mostly terrific too, certainly up to the standards of the past twenty years of Broadway musicals. The production numbers are tuneful and funny, and there are even good laughs to had in the quieter numbers. (A particular favorite of mine is "Baptize Me," a song that very cleverly casts a request for cleansing from sin into the mode of one of those syrupy R&B loss-of-virginity ballads.) And the performances are certainly spirited, especially Josh Gad's in the role of the hapless but well-meaning Elder Cunningham.
But the show suffers in other ways. From a dramatic standpoint, the story's through-line is fractured by the disappearance of Elder Price, the nominal protagonist, through large portions of the second act. (I know that Price's character is meant to skewer the trope of the Broadway hero whose naive confidence enables him to conquer the world, but that doesn't mean it works.) Characters behave in inconsistent ways that undermine the plotthe murderous General Butt-Fucking Naked, for example, who early on is unafraid to shoot an innocent villager in the head or to sodomize a missionary with a holy book, but in the end is cowed by inspirational stories. The violence itself plays more like a blatant attempt to shock than an organic element of the plot, as if a page from a Quentin Tarantino script had been pasted by accident into the book, and introduces an unwelcome tone of reality that sits at odds with the relative sweetness of the rest of the production.
All that is forgivable, but the worst sin The Book of Mormon commits is to grow boring through much of its middle. Somewhere on the way to the muddle that takes Elder Price out of the spotlight, the show just stops being clever. It never exactly stops being funny in a low-level way, but neither the plot nor the jokes rises above a certain bland level of predictability. Oh, so one of the older missionaries is a repressed homosexual? Yawn. So the naive young Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) imagines Salt Lake City as a magical wonderland where the warlords are kind and there's a Red Cross on every corner? Ho hum.
The show catches fire again toward the end, after the miraculous conversion of nearly the entire village catches the attention of the Mormon mission president, who comes to congratulate the local missionaries and is treated to a hilarious production number in which the villagers rehash all the mixed-up misconceptions Elder Cunningham has taught them about the Book of Mormon. Some of this material verges on the racist, but The Book of Mormon is ultimately saved, if not redeemed, by the villagers' innate understanding that they are not being taught literal truth but rather a series of parables intended to help them process and deal with the harsh realities of their daily existence.
This final message about religion's palliative effects in a grim world did enable me to leave the theater with a smile on my face, but I still can't shake my conviction that The Book of Mormon is hardly the flawless gem so many people seem to think it is. Still, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun watching it, and the funny parts are so funny that most theatergoers will probably forgive the parts that drag.
All right, so that's my review of the production itself. But how accurately does it reflect the realities of Mormonism, and of the lives of Mormon missionaries? Well ... not all that well.
Don't get me wrong. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done their research, at least into Mormon history and doctrine, as two rather funny numbers ("All American Prophet" and "I Believe") amply demonstrate. They've come a long way from the days of Orgazmo, their 1998 film about a Mormon missionary who becomes an accidental porn star, which was wall-to-wall stupid-funny but didn't have the glimmerings of a first clue about Mormon teachings or missionary life.
They had a much better handle on things Mormon by the time they made the infamous "All About Mormons" episode of South Park in 2003, which I gave high marks for the accuracy of its portrayal of the way the church presents its own history. But in the interim Parker and Stone have only somewhat improved their knowledge of the way missions work.
One of the things they get right, which matched my experience to a scary degree, is the crushing sense being exiled to a strange land for a period of time that seems so long it may as well be forever. They also nail the feeling of despair that comes from being saddled with a companion not of your choosing who doesn't share your same work ethic.
But the mechanics of missionary life they get mostly wrong. "Two by Two," for instance, the song in which the young elders at the Missionary Training Center get their assignments, makes for a fun production number, but is based on fantasy. In reality, missionaries learn where in the world they'll be sent months before they report to the MTC. They also are not normally assigned to be companions with other greenies, and certainly aren't assigned to just one companion for the full duration of their missions. New missionaries get more experienced elders as their first companions in the field, and their companions rotate every two or three months. (I had over a dozen different companions myself over the course of my mission.) And no missionary would ever be allowed to leave the MTC with as non-existent a grasp of the basics of Mormon theology as Elder Cunningham demonstrates.
Most wrong of all, though, is Elder Price's desire to serve his mission in Orlando. I have no doubt that plenty of lazy young men, hoping for two cushy years, have no greater ambition than to serve an English-speaking mission in a subtropical tourist destination, but that in no way reflects the thinking of young Mormons with ambitions to set the world on fire with their preaching. No, the glory-seekers among us (myself included) hoped for the most difficult assignments in the most exotic locales imaginable. Central America. Southeast Asia. Communist Russia (which was rumored to soon be opening to missionaries at the time I was putting my application papers in). These were the places we wanted to go. An elder as ambitious as Price would have been beside himself to get a calling to Uganda.
But if it sounds like I'm calling out the creators of The Book of Mormon for sloppiness, I'm really not. The reality of Mormonism is almost incidental to the show, which is not actually about Mormonism. Instead Mormonism is a proxy for religion itself, a safe choice for giving adherents of other faiths room to distance themselves from any critiques leveled in the production, which really aren't very deep. I can't even call The Book of Mormon a black comedy because in the end it doesn't have the conviction of its meanness. It has no interest in skewering the religious impulse, or in pushing its ideas to any absurd dark extreme. It lands sunny-side up, and is satisfied with the status quo. This, despite the lip service to naughtiness and edginess, makes The Book of Mormon a supremely conservative production, and thus perfect for Broadway success.
If I had to sum my opinion up in one sentence, I'd say that The Book of Mormon, while quite funny and entertaining, did not offend me nearly enough.
Ella has now possibly ruptured her other CCL (cranial cruciate ligament, analogous to the ACL in humans). She's on tramadol for the pain (an anti-inflammatory would be better but they're really tough on her digestive system) and on limited activity for a week or more. This is actually good news, though, because when I described Ella's symptoms the vet's gut hypothesis was arthritis. Fortunately, the physical exam and X-rays did not support that diagnosis.
But those few moments of facing the prospect of arthritis only reinforce the sad knowledge that Ella is getting older. She's eight years old, well into middle age for a dog, and though we joke (somewhat desperately) that she has another thirty or forty years left in her, we know that's not the case. (It's more like fifty.)
News organizations keep obituaries of public figures ready to go, just in case. I keep thinking that I should start working on Ella's obituary now because I'll be in no shape to do it when it's needed. We are no respecters of species hereElla is the third person in our family, and I know that when I have to write that blog entry I'm going to leave out some of the important details of her life and personality that I want so much to preserve.
There's the slight crookedness of her spine, which means that when you're walking behind her in a straight line you can see how her hindquarters are angled a couple inches to the right. There's the way she decides some mornings that she wants to walk all the way to the lakeshore and resists all attempts to turn her from that eastward path with a withering staredown. There's the way she often misses the first step when she goes charging up the back stairs. There's the way, when she has a toy in her mouth, that she likes to bash you in the backs of the legs so you'll keep playing tug with hereven if that toy happens to be a stick three feet long and perfectly positioned to take you out at the knees. There's the way that she'll try to pick up even a huge fallen willow bough to drag around with her at the park. There's the way she can't control herself when you reach for the plastic bag with her basketball inside and starts hurling herself into the air to bite at it. There's the way that she invented her own game to play with that basketball, chasing it so she can push it around with her face. There's the way she kicks back dirt in every direction but the direction where she left her droppings. There's the way she loves to tease other dogs when they're leashed and she's not. There's the way she sometimes goes on a tear at the park and runs in huge figure-eights for the sheer joy of it. There's the way, when it snows, that she can't seem to walk four feet without throwing herself down on her back and wriggling around in the powder. There the way, when she hasn't eaten her breakfast, that the urgent devouring of it suddenly sidetracks her when we're trying to usher her out the back door. There's the way that, if we give her a treat before leaving her alone at home, she won't eat it until one or the other of us has returned. There's the way she scratches at the hardwood floor like making a nest before she collapses onto her side and curls up. There's the way she sighs and rests her chin on your knee while you're reading on the couch.
I have to make myself stop now, because I could just keep going. Just like Ella is going to, dammit.
While we're on the topic, some of you have wondered how I get so many good photos of Ella. The answer is, I take about ten times as many as I ever put online, and when I see Ella do something unbearably cute I try to make her do it again so I can capture it. This picture of Ella examining a toadstool, for instance? Totally restaged.
If you're curious to see what sometimes happens behind the scenes on an Ella photo shoot, this video should give you some idea. I'm not actually taking photos of her here (I'm shooting video, duh), but I am trying to incite her to keep doing cute things over and over again when she's clearly ready to go home already. Oh, well. At least she sleeps well after a play session like this.
UPDATE! After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:
I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.
Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.
I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.
This, Your Honor, is so much mealy-mouthed rot. Something that quacks like a duck, though it may do so in an erudite, hipper-than-thou cadence with its bill raised snootily in the air, is nonetheless still a duck. There may be some "meta" purpose at work, but if we po-mo roughnecks have learned nothing else in the course of our rude existences, is it not that the very definition of "meta" is to be the thing being referenced? Have we failed to heed the lesson of the yin and the yang, which is that a thing can, nay, must embrace, embody, and give rise to its apparent opposite?
They in their towers of ivory glass may not like it, but I'm sure such an enlightened nerd as Your Honor must agree that science fiction can also be literature, that comedy can also be horror, and that from time to time even a judge can be wrong.
Science Fiction Writer
Five years ago today, Michael Breckerone of my favorite saxophone players, and a pioneer on the instrument in many wayspassed away of complications from leukemia. He had suffered from the rare blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome, and never found a matching donor for a successful stem cell transplant.
Brecker was one of the most in-demand session players of his time, besides being a consummate jazz innovator in his own right. He was also instrumental in promoting and pioneering the use of the EWI (electronic wind instrument). Back in 2007, I put together a Michael Brecker tribute mix as my contribution to the CD Mix of the Month Club I used to belong to in New York. Called Tenor of the Times, it contained a sampling of some of his best work both as sideman and band leader. On this anniversary of his passing, I thought I'd make a zip file of the mix available. Grab it quickI won't leave it up for long. Some liner notes are here.
So I headed down to St. Joseph Hospital yesterday morning for my abdominal CT scan. When I scheduled the appointment, I was told I'd have to show up two hours early to drink a nice barium milkshake. It turned out when I reached the radiology floor, though, that my urologist had merely ordered a scan with and without contrast. No barium required. This meant I was there two hours early.
That was okay, though. They squeezed me right in. Lying on the table being slid like a magician's assistant through the donut hole of the scanner, I was amused by the light-up pictographs that instructed me when to hold my breath and when to exhale. The fellow in the breath-holding pictograph looked like he had a huge wad of chewing tobacco stuffed into his cheek. Among the other icons on the scanner display were a heart, a pair of lungs, and something that at first looked to me like a bondage hood. It was actually supposed to be a radiation warning symbol with a camera aperture affixed to its underside.
I went through the scanner twice before a nurse stuck me with an IV line to flood my veins with a radiocontrast dye to help my urinary tract show up better in the images. She warned me that I would probably feel warm or flushed for a minute or so when the dye went in. The sensation was actually a whole lot weirder than that. It actually made me feel like I was being cooked from the inside out, like my bones were glowing red. It was like having the worst fever I'd ever experienced. And the sensation faded, as promised, after a minute or so.
(Does anyone know why it feels that way? I'm wondering if it's some kind of immunoresponse.)
Anyway, my urologist will have the results by the time I go in to get scoped next week. I'm holding out hope that it's just a mild case of stones. We shall see.
As you may recall, Bob, @MayorEmanuel was the anonymous but highly popular tweeter who created a profane and fantastic alternate Chicago during the course of our 2010-11 mayoral election season. Though it started out as something of a lark, by the time it wound down on the night of the election the stream had grown into one of the most absorbing works of science fiction of the year.
I think this innovative story is deserving of a Hugo. At the very least, a nomination for this most Chicago-centric of SF works would be appropriate in a year when Worldcon comes to our fair city. I've consulted with experts, and we agree that we're best off to nominate @MayorEmanuel in the Best Related Work category. If you're with us, then for consistency please fill out your nominating ballot in that category exactly as follows, including the asterisks:
TITLE: The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel AUTHOR: Dan Sinker PUBLISHER: Scribner
The book is essentially a work of non-fiction that describes and fully annotates the process of writing the original work, even though the tweets are included in full. For that reason, calling the book a Related Work seems to fit best. We think it would be dicey to attempt to nominate a Twitter stream in one of the fiction categories.
Anyway, if you're not familiar with @MayorEmanuel and want to catch up, the annotated book is a terrific place to start. And here are a few other relevant links to get you going: