Warning: Very Mundane Stuff

My wife bought a new vacuum, and it works exponentially better than our old vacuum; in fact, when we saw what the new vacuum sucked into the canister from our rugs, we wondered if our old vacuum was sucking up anything . . . our new vacuum is a Shark NV500 Rotator and it's so awesome and sleek that I actually volunteered to vacuum the upstairs carpets, just so I could use it.

Ronald Reagan Needed Barry Goldwater . . . and American Politics Needs Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

I was having trouble finishing Before the StormRick Perlstein's book about the 1964 Lyndon Johnson/Barry Goldwater election, but Donald Trump renewed my interest; like Goldwater, Trump is a political outsider, and like Goldwater, he is galvanizing an angry conservative minority that feels that no other politician is speaking for them . . . and like Goldwater, if Trump gets nominated, I'm pretty sure he is unelectable and will lose in a landslide . . . but Perlstein-- who is a liberal-- understands the significance of the loss; Goldwater paved the way for Ronald Reagan, and Goldwater paved the way for an organized and radical conservative movement in America . . . to read about a more tactical politician, check out the second book in his historical trilogy (Nixonland) but if you want something that explains what is going on right now in America, read Before the Storm, which is subtitled Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus . . .  if you want to read something shorter on the same theme, there's a good article in The Week and I also highly recommend Dan Carlin's podcast, Common Sense . . . his analysis of the first televised GOP debate, "Trumping the Playbook" explains the influence an outsider can have on typical political rhetoric and why we should appreciate and enjoy the waves these folks create, whether or not we are for their policies . . . so I'd like to give a big thanks to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for shaking things up and making it real.

Kids Trick You Into Thinking They Are Civilized

After a productive morning of podcasting, Stacey, Cunningham, my wife, Alex, Ian and I went out for Mexican food-- and Stacey treated the boys to a ride to the restaurant in her new Jeep (with the top down) and the ladies were very impressed with our boys' behavior at the restaurant . . . and when Alex and Ian were finished with lunch, they asked if they could walk home, which they occasionally do instead of sitting and waiting for the check-- it's four or five blocks, so if Cat and I have driven, we usually arrive at home around the same time-- and after the kids left, Stacey said, "they're just like regular people!" and we agreed and we were very happy with our children . . . BUT . . . and this is the update for Stacey and Cunningham-- they are NOT like real people, even though they occasionally fool us into thinking they are . . . when we arrived home, we heard screaming and a loud banging noise coming from the backyard, and quickly surmised that it was Alex, banging on the giant glass sliding door-- I raced around the side of the house and told him to stop and he explained that Ian had locked him out of the house (and chained the front door) and then taunted him from the comfort of the air-conditioning and Alex totally lost his mind and came close to shattering a very very expensive window and probably hospitalizing himself . . . moments later, Ian's friend showed up and Ian had the awkward task of sending him home, since he was in so much trouble, and then we sent Alex over to Ian's friend's house to explain what happened, and Ian had to stay home, miserable and alone, and face the consequences of his actions.

There Are Good Dogs and There are Bad Dogs

The Hand That Feeds You opens with a scene so grisly and disturbing that the rest of the book hangs under its shadow . . . and the fact that dogs might be responsible-- and good dogs at that-- makes it even worse . . . but this is one of those psychological thrillers where nothing is at it seems, and I highly recommend it if you are looking for one last fast summer read; even the author-- A.J. Rich-- is a facade for something more complicated . . . I learned the story in this New York Times review: the name is a pseudonym, and the book was collaboratively written by acclaimed short-story writer Amy Hempel and her friend, novelist Jill Ciment . . . that's the "A" and the "J" in the pseudonym, and the name "Rich" is in honor of their friend Katherine Russell Rich, who had an idea for a thriller based on what happened with a man she had been dating who proposed to her . . . she grew suspicious of him, paid someone to hack his e-mail, and she found out that he had several other lives-- he was living with another woman, and seeing several others on the side . . . so she broke up with him and started a novel with a similarly deceptive sociopath as the main character, but never got past the first chapter, she died of breast cancer soon after . . . so Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment took the ball and ran with it, and the result is a crisp, taut, disturbing story that may or may not be something dog lovers would enjoy, but the lesson is this, which the band Camper van Beethoven pointed out many years ago: there are good guys and there are bad guys/ and there are crooks and criminals/ and there are doctors and there are lawyers/ and there are folks like you and me . . . and the same goes for dogs.

This Test Sort of Goes To 11

On the 11th Episode of The Test, Stacey does NOT quiz us on our knowledge of This is Spinal Tap . . . instead, she focuses on current events, which are not my area of expertise (at one point in the show, I can't think of anything recent and bring up a related event that happened 112 years ago) but Cunningham and I survive . . . and even get a few right; follow this link and you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes . . . play along, score yourself, and get ready for the next episode where we have not one but TWO guests.

No Need to Worry, I Have Them All

If you're wondering where your extension cords went, apparently they attained autonomy and migrated into my junk room, where they've been hiding out behind the cabinets and in the storage bins (I found 23 unused extension cords in there . . . 23!)

One Summer, Two Stephen King Books

It's been a long time since I read two Stephen King books in one summer-- maybe thirty years-- but Finders Keepers is even better than Joyland . . . it's a compelling thriller, and at the heart of it resides a Salinger-esque writer who is King's antithesis: a well-reviewed artist scared to damage his legacy, scrawling away but afraid to publish . . . things do slow down a bit in the middle of the book, but press on, the ending will make you sweat: eight Moleskine notebooks out of ten.

Giant Apes, White Whales, Cheeky Monkeys, and a Can of Worms

It took two nights for my family and I to make it through Peter Jackson's epic 2005 remake of King Kong and-- despite the three hour running time-- everyone loved it . . . my kids loved the action, my wife loved the romance (especially the ice-sliding scene) and I loved how much the film reminded me of my favorite novel: Moby Dick . . . like Moby Dick, the story is too long, more of an adventure than a narrative, and both Kong and The White Whale are inscrutable violent natural forces-- a yin and yang of black and white, ocean and jungle . . . these creatures have nothing to do with idealistic environmentalism . . . let's save the dolphins and the panda bears . . . Kong and The Leviathan are far too frightening and primitive for that kind of sentiment, but at the heart of both animals is something deeply emotional and intelligent-- they are not monsters-- and because of this, they are both doomed . . . they go down fighting (and though Moby Dick breaks the Pequod in half and drags Ahab to his death, he is full of harpoons, wounded and hunted by man . . . he doesn't die at the end of the novel, but we all know what happened to the rest of his kin) and both King Kong and Moby Dick are stories of love and obsession . . . Carl Denham (Jack Black) has the same monomania for film and spectacle as Ahab does for the White Whale . . . both these creatures would be fine if left alone, but humans open the can of worms (or the barrel of monkeys, lots of metaphors here) and monkeys must meddle, it is in our nature, and then when we stare into the eye of the Other and call it monstrous, we have to wonder: who is the real monster?

Aleppo Causes Me Cognitive Dissonance

I'm having a hard time reconciling what I remember about Aleppo and what I have been reading about the city recently; an article in The Week called "Life Under the Caliphate" describes the some of the things happening in the region, which is mainly under control of ISIS:

1) unIslamic activities-- smoking, listening to music, wearing hair gel-- are punished by flogging, execution, and amputation;

2) there is video footage of gay men being thrown off tall buildings to their deaths;

3) Jews and Christians are given the choice to convert or die;

4) public executions and floggings happen nearly every day;

5) an ISIS pamphlet from Aleppo lists some crimes and punishments . . . drinking alcohol is 80 lashes, as is slander, spying for infidels and renouncing Islam both result in death;

6) women may marry at age 9 and should be married by age 16, and they must wear two heavy robes to conceal their figure . . .

and so I went back to the email updates that I sent from when I lived in Syria (200-2003) and looked at some of my recollections from our various trips to the city and surrounding regions;

1) we wandered through the Dead Cities, abandoned Byzantine olive-oil towns in the hills just outside of the city;

2) we watched Embassy folk collect ancient pottery shards at various tells and middens;

3) we stayed at the Baron Hotel-- the spooky but notable spot where Agathie Christie wrote "Murder on the Orient Express"-- drinking beer at the bar is right out of The Shining (but apparently, the place is closed down now);

4) our Syrian friend Yara told us tales of covered women in Aleppo that openly took lesbian lovers and I wrote a treatment for an erotic Syrian film:

the taciturn husband warns his wife not to leave the house for any reason, and then goes to play backgammon with his friends . . . a woman covered in black from head to toe shows up at the door, and the lady of the house invites her in for  tea . . . she lifts her veil and gives her host a long concupiscent look . . . soon enough she’s shedding her robe, and there’s nothing underneath . . .

5) we ate-- notably at the Beit Sissi-- drank, wandered the city and the region, were mobbed by Syrian children who treated us like rock stars, took tours with our favorite guide in the Middle East-- Jihad-- and generally felt like we were on vacation . . . Aleppo always seemed a little less oppressive and a little more Western than Damascus, a little more like Turkey . . . but apparently those days are gone, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this (I also read that ISIS beheaded the antiquities expert for Palmyra, the spectacular Roman city in the Syrian desert, because he refused to reveal where valuable artifacts were hidden . . . ISIS considers preserving ancient artifacts "akin to idol worship and punishable by death" and when they say that, apparently they aren't kidding . . . if you've got a strong stomach, you can watch ISIS sponsored beheadings all day on the internet, even some done by children . . . this really diminishes my concern over my basement beer fridge, which has lost it's ability to chill beer-- though the freezer is still fully operational-- at first I thought it was a crisis, but then I read about this stuff, and now it doesn't seem all that significant).

This Picture Is NOT Photoshopped (I don't even know how to use Photoshop)

While I was walking the dog in Donaldson Park, I saw in the distance a small tree, floating horizontally, levitating five feet above the ground, and then, after an awestruck moment, I realized that it was not completely defying gravity, but instead balanced on a slender slice of trunk . . . upon closer inspection, I could tell that the split was the work of termites, but my main thought was: I've got to get one of my children under this thing and snap a photo before it topples over . . . and while I may have put my son Ian in some degree of mortal danger, it was obviously well worth it.

Heavy Stuff in Small Packages

Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan chooses some heavy stuff for The Best American Essays of 2014; tales of sexual abuse, miscarriage in Mongolia, alienating illnesses, foreign deaths, candid sexual promiscuity and obsessive contemplation (even of joy) dominate the collection, but there are two "lighter" essays and both are worth reading:

1) "The Old Man at Burning Man" by Wells Tower, which describes a trip the narrator and his dying father take to the bizarre post-apocalyptic festival out in The Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada;

2) "Slickheads" by Lawrence Jackson, a description of a Baltimore gang war in the '80's between the Woodlawn slickheads and the Oxford preps . . . the language in this one is wild, inventive and colorful-- "yeah, they was popping and breaking, helicopter and all that, but that shit is for tourists"-- and there are lots of nicknames-- Pretty Ricky, Knuckles, Meechee, Charm Sawyer (and, if you listened to Serial, then you'll appreciate the references to Leakin Park).

Tchotchke Overload

We had a spectacularly sunny week in Sea Isle City this year; four families shared a five bedroom house with a beautiful view of the ocean-- and while the house itself was perfectly situated and also of new construction, our only complaint was with the interior: it was overloaded with tchotchkes . . . brass mermaid on the counter, wooden Italian man holding a pizza amidst various sized pottery, giant model ships, bowls of glass balls, a wooden canoe on the dining room table, strange ornaments on the toilets, little chairs on the landing, loads of throw pillows, etcetera . . . and everything was BIG . . . big couches and big chairs and a huge table on the porch that you could barely walk around and big wooden beds that couldn't be moved, something between Pottery Barn and Vermont farmhouse, and so all the kids slept up in the master bedroom, and the two littles guys got to sleep in a four corner poster bed-- ridiculous-- but none of this mattered, we only broke a couple of things and we'll probably get the deposit back, the only thing that was actually dangerous was a giant wooden mirror leaning against the wall at the foot of the stairs (there's a picture of it above) and when I saw it, I immediately put it behind a chair in the corner so that someone wouldn't put their arm through it, or worse-- so it wouldn't topple over and kill someone (one of the kids on the trip has CP and walks with sticks and occasionally leans on furniture for balance, so this thing was a hazard) and right after I put it behind a chair, the owner came in to check things out from the previous week and I thought he said he was going to do something with the mirror-- like remove it-- but we left to go to the beach and he put it back in its original location, so we had to move it again . . . I think in a situation like this, the owner has created an attractive nuisance of a house, and the deposit should be reversed and we should receive some money for making sure his giant Harry Potter mirror of Erised and his wooden boat collection and his various gewgaws didn't get destroyed.

The Yin and Yang of Soccer

In honor of Sunday, the most holy day, which has been deemed both The Day of Soccer (both travel and pick-up) and the Day of American Football, I will bequeath the internet a sporting thesis; soccer presents a perfect yin and yang of speed and deception, a player with a dearth of one can compensate with an abundance of the other-- when I was young I got away with lots of speed and a modicum of skill, but now that I'm old and slow, I need to add an element of trickery to every move I make-- and while other sports require these elements in some amount, it's not a perfect balance; basketball inordinately rewards height and this throws off the equation, and football prizes size and strength as well as speed (in fact, with enough size and strength, there's no need for deception . . . this is most blatantly illustrated by the fact that soccer players "dive" when they are fouled, while football players run forward for yardage-- whether they are being face-masked or not) and it is this simple balance of skills that makes soccer the most accessible game in the world and why there are infinite variations in how to train and play.

A Good Summer (So Far)

Summer is my least favorite season-- too hot and sunny-- but I shouldn't complain . . . as there are only two requirements for having a good summer if you live on the East Coast:

1) you don't contract Lyme's Disease;

2) you don't mistakenly wade into a patch of poison ivy;

the rest is bonus, the beach trips and the pool barbecues, the hiking and the tennis, the paddle-boarding and the garden plot . . . you can't do any of these if you're bedridden, on antibiotics, and oozing pus.

This One Almost Goes to Eleven

I'm especially proud of this new episode of The Test because I edited the entire thing on vacation on my ancient MacBook Pro laptop . . . I made a template with all the bits and pieces: the intro, the outro, the intermission and voice of God music; then I used some Garage Band effects to create the voice of God-- and I'm sure my fellow beach house residents thought I was insane, talking in the voice of God to a computer-- but I got it done: the episode is a bit spooky, because I use my clairvoyant powers to read Cunningham's mind and to predict Stacey's imminent demise, but I promise that you will learn the secret information that will enable you to date Cunningham . . . or at least meet her on a Tinder booty call.

Favelas and Futebol at the Copa

Juliana Barbassa's book Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink is a frustrating and fascinating tour of Brazil's most celebrated city . . . you journey from the beautiful but polluted beaches to the lucrative but labyrinthine real-estate system to the seediest of brothels-- "at a place called Vanessa's Bar, the prices were posted on the wall, starting at $15 dollars for 15 minutes of straight-up oral or vaginal sex with protection"-- Barbassa details the history of the favelas (made famous in the awesome film City of God) and the slow improvements, including the firefights between police and gangs -- especially the Red Command-- and the UPP, police units stationed inside the shanty towns . . . and the current dilemma: the ongoing battle between the residents of the favelas and the city, which is preparing for the 2016 Olympics and attempting to raze many of the shantytowns; the Olympic Park is moving out into the far western suburbs of the city and there are caimans on the golf course and terrible sanitation and sewage problems, but Brazil managed to get it together for the World Cup, and Barbassa has faith that they will figure this one out as well; her chapter on living on Brazil during the cup is fantastic, especially her description of the awful 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany; she sat with her relatives and cousins and watched "dumbfounded" as the players came forward; team captain David Luiz spoke for all of them when he said, "I'm sorry everyone, I just wanted to give my people something to be happy about," and that is the theme of the book: the Brazilians are an emotional society that wants to live in the moment and be happy, partying on the beach, drinking beer in the street, dancing in costume to the samba during Carnival, but they are also realizing that to take a major place on the world stage takes planning and foresight, and they are slowly, with lots of bumps and hiccups, learning to do that as well; the book is excellent and really makes you appreciate living in America, which may not be the most efficient, most environmentally pristine country, but it sure beats the byzantine corruption, pollution, and class stagnation that Brazil is trying to overcome . . . the book ends on a hopeful note, and I think all the world is rooting for Rio to get cleaned up and do a fantastic job hosting the Olympics (except, perhaps, for the Uruguayans, who still relish their upset victory over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup in Rio and are angry that no one ever considers them for hosting major world events).

Another Trip to Sea Isle, Another LeCompt Show . . .

It was Sunday night and we were on vacation in Sea Isle City, so-- of course-- we were at the required LeCompt show, and while we were taking a break outside on the beach behind the Springfield Inn, checking out the newly constructed dune, and we saw something glittering and it was Mike LeCompt's sequined shirt: he stumbled through the sand and right up to us and said, "Whatever you're doing, I'd like to do it too" and after he regaled us with stories of whiskey, meth, and recovery and his tour of various seaside jails, and we all reminisced about old shows and his old band members, we realized that if we didn't nudge him back to the bar, there would be no second set, so Connell said "We've got to get back inside to see the band" and that reminded LeCompt that he had to go play, and then Connell requested that he play "Born to Run" to open the second set and he also requested that I should sing the "1, 2, 3, 4!" bit, which I was hoping to never do again because then people high five me for the rest of the night for my ability to count, but there was no escaping it and so I got shoved to the front, and LeCompt swung the microphone in my direction and I must be getting old, because I was a little slow on my delivery . . . the whole thing smacked of The Holy Grail . . . I only got to three before he yanked the mike stand back so he could power through the final verse; this might be the fourth time I've done the 1, 2, 3, 4! so it would be fitting if it was the last, but history tends to repeat itself at LeCompt shows, so who knows (and as a side note, this is the first LeCompt show I made it through without breaking down and buying some chewing tobacco during one of the endless breaks between sets, so I felt much better Monday morning though I was a bit grouchy during the show . . . especially when Lynn poured beer on my head) because I was jonesing for nicotine, it's hard for me to stay awake past ten without it, but I am using LeCompt as my inspiration and trying to completely quit; a big thanks to Dom for some diligent record-keeping during the show; because of his hard work, we have a fairly complete set list:

1) These Eyes (The Guess Who);
2) California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas);
3) Heart of the Matter (Don Henley);
4) Find a Reason to Believe (Rod Stewart);
5) Forever Young (Rod Stewart);
6) A Cat Stevens song;
7) Angie;
8) Ruby Tuesday;
9) Levon (Elton John);
10) Come Sail Away (Styx);
11) Piano Man;
12) Italian Restaurant;

13) Born to Run;
14) Suffragette City;
15) Behind Blue Eyes;
16) Bargain;
17) You're So Vain (Carly Simon);
18) Thunder Road;
19) What is and What Should Never Be;
20) Ramble On;
21) Here I Go Again (Whitesnake);
22) Thinking Out Loud (Ed Sheran);
23) Bill the Kid (Billy Joel);
24) Easy (Lionel Richie);

25) Brandy (Looking Glass);
26) Dancing in the Moonlight (Van Morrison);
27) Heroes (David Bowie);
28) Young Americans (David Bowie);
29) Suspicious Minds.

This Sentence is about . . . Something

I listened to Harlan Coben on Freakonomics last week, in an episode called "How to Create Suspense" and he was so engaging that I decided to read one of his books . . . it took me three days to plow through Tell No One and I'm proud to say that I learned absolutely nothing, the book is pure plot and as-billed: it is very suspenseful . . . during the Freakonomics interview, Coben explains one of his methods: "if a person's dead, they're dead; I'm just trying to solve the crime . . . but if a person's missing, you have hope" and that's the main way he generates suspense in this novel, but he also alternates between first and third person narration, which limits the amount of information you receive into a very cautious flow, a drip from a spigot . . . and, as a topper, he's got Eric Wu wandering around, a dude from North Korea who endured some kind of harrowing childhood and now lives only to use his giant hands to torture humans until they break; aside from Wu, most of the characters are fairly stereotypical, but the book moves so fast, and the scenes are so vividly drawn, that it doesn't really matter, the purpose is to make you keep turning the page (or poking the edge of your Kindle screen) and the book serves its purpose well.

All Apologies

To the young lovers cuddling on the lifeguard stand and the lady combing the beach for shells and the the man driving the sand sweeper, I apologize for the view you had to endure: me striding out of the ocean in sheer gray spandex . . . after my morning run, I stripped down and took a swim; so if you're in Sea Isle City this week, and you like to head to the beach in early AM for some peace and serenity,  then I suggest you stay north of 45th Street.

The Long Goodbye

I am cleaning out my side room so I can expand Greasetruck Studios, but getting rid of the piles and piles of books I've acquired over the years is extremely difficult . . . the books I've read and don't remember are easy to part with, and I'm keeping the best books by my favorite authors, but it's hard to get rid of all the trade paperbacks-- even though I know I'll never read them, the numerous Philip K. Dick and Elmore Leonard and Clifford Simak novels-- but the font is too small and pages are yellowed and my kids will never touch them and I've got a Kindle . . . and it's also hard to get rid of the books that I bought but never read, the testament to my literary failures, but I didn't pick up The History of the Vikings for the last ten years, and it's been sitting there in plain sight, so I don't think I'm ever going to read it (the same goes for Bleak House and Finnegan's Wake . . . but I've still got aspirations for Nostromo).
A New Sentence Every Day, Hand Crafted from the Finest Corinthian Leather.