Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Thrilling music

So I finally got a chance to watch Saturday Night Live I tivoed. Bad, bad, bad for comedy, hyper-cool for music. U2 were the music guest and after playing their two songs - it's great to see U2 writing good rock songs again, take notes REM - they came back at the end of the show to play, wait for it, "I Will Follow". Wonderful, wonderful, and more wonderful. The cast of SNL was freakin' out, a good bit of the audience were on their feet screaming and waving their arms, the band was fantastic, and the hairs on my arms were standing up.

A couple verses in, Bono jumps off the stage and wanders about, grabs a camera to sing into it, and straddles a woman in the audience who actually swoons. Edge jumps off the stage too and the director must have been spazzing. Camera men running everywhere trying to capture an actual spontaneous occurence on this live show. Near the end of the song, Bono goes over to the cast and embraces Amy Pohler who looks like she's going to ascend straight into Heaven. She and Maya Rudolph are wiping away tears of joy. Then, as the credits finish, you hear Bono call for another song right before NBC cuts away. Amazing television. Whoo-hoo!

Why oh why couldn't they have cut one more lame sketch and had U2 play another song?

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Boredom and it's consequences - a high school story

[names have been changed to...well I guess just for the hell of it]

High school freshman biology lab can be highly entertaining when dissecting fish, or stultifying boring when counting maize kernels. Fish eyes contain a sphere of, well, eye juice under such pressure that they bounce really well. Get five or six of those babies going and it’s nirvana for a class of 14 year-old boys. When tired of ricocheting organic superballs, a scalpel reveals the fluid inside. And by reveals, I mean causes-to-spurt. Maize kernels don’t bounce when detached from the ear and thrown, or spurt when sliced open. They just sit there, varying in color.

It was a kernel-counting sort of Thursday in biology lab when Matt Levy and I started exploring the section of the lab behind our table: charts, tubing, beakers, animal skulls, a mini-refrigerator. The refrigerator showed promise. Despite our imagination, it did not contain petri dishes, fetal pigs, or even lunch; just a bouquet of roses. With a card attached. That was blank.

Since I don’t believe in Hell or its denizens, I’m not sure what possessed me to take the card and write “Love, Satan” in red, jagged letters. I was experimenting with impulsiveness at the time, and it made Matt laugh. When you’re a skinny, un-athletic geek who talks too much, making peers laugh is good. Even if you write “Love, Satan” on someone else’s flowers, which is bad. Also bad is putting the flowers back hurriedly because the teacher comes back into the lab, then forgetting about what you'd written.

Forgetting until Matt pulled me aside Monday morning, his eyes bugged out in fear. I had missed Friday at school because of an out-of-town debate trip. While everyone else had to sit through prayer service on Friday morning, the team and I were on our way to Shreveport, Louisiana. Far enough away that when the women who was being honored by the school was given the bouquet of roses, we did not hear her muffled scream at reading, “Love, Satan.”

After prayer service at my school, the classes are dismissed one at a time, Seniors first. When a class is skipped over without explanation, everyone knows there’s trouble. No classes were dismissed that day.

Can-be-nice-but-surely-hired-to-make-you-dampen-your-pants-at-a-single-eyebrow-lift Disciplinarian Vice Principal (yes, my school actually had that staff position — the DVP part, not the damp pants part) addressed the assembled student body. Matt couldn't coherently relate the story very well, so I don't know exactly what was said. Suffice to say that it was ugly and a large dose of Catholic guilt was dispensed.

Matt was convinced that we were going to be discovered and expelled. Knowing that a sure way to get caught was for Matt to crack, I sought to calm him down. I pointed out that we knew no teacher saw us do it and if a student told on us, we'd get called down to the office after homeroom. If not, we were safe. We were not called down.

I figure the statute of limitations has passed for Matt and I, so it's probably safe to tell the story. Though, now that I think about it, many teachers and administrators from my time are still there, so I can just imagine Mr. Vice Principal (since promoted) calling me into his office for a dressing down while I'm at the school for an alumni event. Uncomfortable.

Satan was to figure into another bit of trouble I didn't get into Senior year. Stay tuned for that story.

Friday, November 19, 2004

More ha ha in nutrition class

It was another day to giggle in nutrition class.

The professor was explaining that there is a small amount cyanide (actually cyanogenic glycosides) in certain fruit seeds: apple, peach, apricot, plum.

"But who's going to sit and eat a bowl of apple seeds? There's more of the compound in the peach pit, but you'd have to crack it open with a hammer and then eat the bitter, meaty part of the seed inside. Who's dumb enough to do that? Maybe we just let these people go. If you have a real desire for peach pits, save us all some work and dig a hole in the yard first."


Thursday, November 18, 2004

Oh yeah, The New Yorker graphic novelist panel

I posted my article about it below, but then forgot to report on how the night went.

Fairly well actually. Much like the Yo La Tengo panel (see 11/14/04 entry because I haven't learned how to make a link that skips down to it), the moderator was flustered and quite nervous to be on a stage with people watching. After a bit, he settled in. They talked about their biographies, current projects, the life of an artist, the process of making a graphic novel, the future of the medium, etc. All in all an interested chat. The best part was that the moderator had arranged to have images of the artist's work and their inspirations shown on three plasma screens. A great help when speaking about a visual medium.

I jotted down a few of the best lines.

While talking about the years-long process of creating a graphic novel, Seth observed,

"You're just worried you're going to die before you're done."

When asked to summarize the premise of his comic Jimbo, which he's been working on for over 20 years, Gary Panter said,

"Japanese and Texans are terraforming Mars using a Texas map and the Tokyo subway as a plan."

At another point, Gary was speaking about the personality of comics artists,

"These are people who hide in their room and make this little bomb that will blow everyone up."

The organizers pulled the plug right before the audience question period and hustled the artists over to the merch table to sign and draw beautiful little pictures in their books.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Botulism can be funny

The professor for my nutrition class cracks me up consistently. Today, after explaining what botulism is and why it's a problem, he told said,

"Well back in the '60s, some hippies, my people, decided that honey was magical. It's not, just flower juice and bee spit."

And so the equation is:
folksiness + (resigned exasperation x eye-rolling) = funny

He also let loose a whole string of observations about skinny people vs. fat people. When just standing there skinny people are moving to some song in their head, fat people are leaning against something. Skinny people sitting in class are bouncing their feet, fat people are slumped in their chair. Etc. while acting out the parts.

It was like a classic "black people are like this, white people are like this" act on Def Comedy Jam. The class ate it up.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

New Yorker speaks to Yo La Tengo

On Saturday night I went to the New Yorker College Tour event where author and New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds) interviewed Yo La Tengo, and not very well. Surowiecki was clearly excited and nervous which led to long, unstructured questions that got round a point rather than at it. I felt for him as I've experienced the same, but others in my seating area were quite exasperated. The band was very much Yo La Tengo, alternating between coy, wry answers and earnest, thoughful ones.

The funniest answer was in response to what they do as a band when they're not on stage. Ira responded that over the past year they've been learning a lot of cover songs for friend's weddings, "We've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to learn 'Brick House' without much success."

Then came audience questions which tended toward the geeky. A friend asked them about their many love songs, whether they were written for each other (drummer/singer Georgia Hubley and guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan have been a couple for something like 20 years) and what were their favorites by them or other bands. Ira was glad for the "out" and told the story of when bassist James McNew and Ira learned Gary Lewis and the Playboy's "Count Me In" secretly so they could play it for Georgia at a show on her birthday. Ira specifically cited the last line as the inspiration, "Count me madly in love with you." Awwww.

After a break, they came back to play a short set. They opened with a stripped-down, rawk version of Devo's "Beautiful World" something that had played at Rock Against Bush (or some other similar thing) in swing states, "For all the good that did us," Ira noted. As for covers, they also played a Neil Innes song as they had just seen him in Austin the previous night and "Count Me In". They played six or seven of their own songs, I remember a very quiet "Big Day Coming", "Autumn Sweater", "Little Eyes", and there my memory fails me.

While tuning extensively between songs, Ira observed that since this was not a regular show they didn't have any people to tune his guitar for him, "It's not that I can't do it, it's just beneath me."

Great evening for only $5.

Friday, November 12, 2004

A nice little piece about comic artists

I wrote an article published today about comic artists coming to Austin for the New Yorker College Tour. Normally I'd have a link to the published article, but due to the constraints of the publication (grumble, grumble, resigned sigh) my article had to be edited down to half of the intended length. So, I'll post the original version of the article with the two illustrations that should have accompanied it. I had fun writing it (I've never used five sources for an article before), I hope you enjoy reading it.

New Yorker brings graphic art to Austin

“Comics? That’s kid’s stuff.” When people’s only experience with comics has been short superhero stories written with a younger audience in mind, the sentiment is inevitable. For those who’ve dug a little deeper though, there is a world of great art and nuanced stories.

The superhero comic market has cooled over the past decade, but interest has grown in long form comics called graphic novels. The last few years have seen a surge of sales for beautiful, thoughtful work from Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth), Craig Thompson (Blankets), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, David Boring) and others.

Juan Segarra at Funny Papers in the Dobie Mall has seen a 40 percent increase in sales. Looking to increase exposure, he moved them up to the front of the store, a strategy that worked.
“People are coming in who refer to them as graphic novels,” Segarra says. “People who otherwise wouldn’t be in a comic shop. They’re more accepted in the mainstream. People are thinking of them as actual literature.”

Graphic novels are now widely available in both independent and chain bookstores that don’t carry traditional monthly comics. And it’s not just retail outlets that carry these works. The UT Austin library system has a solid collection of distinguished work.

“Anytime there’s a new genre or format that enters the field of publication…we’re interested in looking to see if that’s something that the library should acquire,” explains Lindsey Schell, bibliographer for English Literature, “We’ve had a lot of requests from individuals for specific titles as well as just beefing up the collection in general.”

There’s no consensus on why graphic novels have gained in popularity. Increased media attention, high-quality work and better availability have all contributed, but there is no single controlling factor.

“I think culturally there’s been a build up of things that have let it into the eyes of people that have work in the media,” observes artist Seth (Palookaville, Clyde Fans: Book 1), “The Crumb documentary, Ghost World, American Splendor, there’s a cultural awareness rising out of comics that there’s something hot going on.”

A veteran of the field, Seth is a little wary about the sudden boom.

“[I]t’s a trendy thing at the moment. It’s something the public could really embrace, but I’m not sure whether I totally trust the attention at the moment.”

Fellow artist Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde) worries about the downside of the trend.

“A broader acceptance of comics as a legitimate art form is heartening, but it hasn't changed the way I work,” he says. “There’s…a sudden rush in the publishing world to put out graphic novels and, unfortunately, I don't think there's enough quality material to meet the demand. I'm fearing a backlash as a result of a sub-par graphic novel glut.”

Prestige work

Comic artists have worked for years illustrating outside their own publications. Now, their working worlds are merging.

“The people I worked for weren’t really aware of my comics work,” says Seth, “They just knew me as an illustrator. In the last couple years, more and more I’m getting hired because of the comics work. People are aware of the work and so they’re hiring me for jobs that are more appropriate for what I do.”

Chief among those is The New Yorker magazine. It’s a natural match for a magazine that’s held cartoonist in high regard for at least half a century.

“We’re always looking for new artists,” explains Illustration editor Owen Phillips, “Comic book artist’s [are people] who can imagine their way around a space in a room. If they’re illustrating a movie, they’re not stuck on the photos the way some illustrator’s can be. I know that they can build on the reference and make it their own while adding atmosphere to it.”

Tonight in Austin, The New Yorker College Tour is highlighting the work of graphic novelists through “Ray Guns and Moping,” a panel featuring Seth, Tomine, and Gary Panter (Jimbo, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) moderated by Phillips.

Working for The New Yorker has many advantages for artists: paid work, an appreciative audience, a certain prestige.

“I think the New Yorker has a lot of cache to it,” Seth observes, “You can be working for years and if do the cover of the New Yorker, it makes a big difference on the way people perceive your work after that. It does have a stamp of approval to it.”

Phillips is glad to help.

“If we’re helping them pay their bills a little bit and their true love is their comic books, then they go hand and hand.”

New Yorker College Tour: “Ray Guns and Moping,” an evening with graphic novelists Gary Panter, Seth, and Adrian Tomine, hosted by New Yorker illustration editor Owen Phillips. La Zona Rosa, $10/$5 student discount

Adrian Tomine's cover for The New Yorker
(courtesy of The New Yorker)

Seth's cover for The New Yorker
(courtesy of The New Yorker)

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Dang, I'm running late

Shortly I will be going to see the Delgados about whom I wrote an article.

I like their music and their adorable Scottish accents (especially when contrasted with the frightening Scottish accent of Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting). They are the best band named after a bicyclist.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Go hither to yonder window and act as if you know NOTHING!

I just finished re-watching The Lady Eve, a fantastic film in the canon of the greatest comedic writer/director too few have heard of, Preston Sturges. I send love out to Walter, a grad student at UT who introduced me to the sublime pleasure of Sturges through The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (still my favorite).

Tonight's screening was introduced and, uh, concluded by New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, a wit if there ever was one. After his hilarious, pointed scripted remarks on the film, Lane opened the floor for audience questions and comfortably held forth like he had always wanted to answer that very question. Sure, I'm a sucker for slighty stuttered, too-fast-be-be-completely-intelligible Brit-speak, but this guy was just compelling. I almost invited him to go see the Spongebob Squarepants movie with me before I recovered my senses. His overall point was that movies aren't made like that anymore. Sort of obvious, yet still true and sad. Later, my heart lept with joy when there was a question about what movies of the past 20 years would still be appreciated years into the future. His answer? Groundhog Day.

Getting back to what I meant to talk about, the time has come for a broader appreciation of Preston Sturges movies. You'll thank me when you treasure Eddie Bracken for something else besides Uncle Wally from Vacation. Mr. Bracken died a couple years ago and I was quite melancholy over it. I'd met him several years ago when he came to UT for a screening of another Sturges classic Hail the Conquering Hero. He told wonderful stories about making the film and the old days of Hollywood. I always thought that "sparkling eyes" was a ridiculous cliche, but he had 'em. Great hair too. It was his birthday and there was cake afterward. I managed a few words with him, but I was star-struck and can't remember what either of us said. Great comic actor, sweet man.

There I go again, talking about someone other than Sturges. Suffice to say, be at the crest of the Preston Sturges appreciation wave, call me and we'll watch one of the Sturges/Bracken films.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

What I was thinking at 8 AM today

Today I was at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with some fellow nursing students. While we were getting ready to start walking, one of them got my attention and motioned behind her, "Is that...?" And there was Governor Rick Perry, spitting distance away, though of course I didn't. He looked older than I remembered.

For those outside the state, or even Texans who haven't tumbled to it, being Governor of Texas is a cakewalk. Contrary to widely-held beliefs, it confers little to no leadership experience. There aren't many duties per se to execute as part of the office. If you choose to ignore death penalty clemency requests (or mock the condemned while speaking to a journalist), than you pretty much just show up to public appearances and commence gladhanding. Of course, the Governor can also choose to veto massive amounts of legislation passed by his own Party without telling anyone what he was going to do, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

So, being Governor doesn't usually cause the amount of stress that ages a person like being President does.

Probable reasons Gov. Perry has aged considerably since taking office:

1. He badly flubbed school financing in Texas with a proposal to legalize gambling, an idea firmly rejected by the majority his own (Republican) Party.

2. He will be facing stiff opposition in the Republican primary from, in all likelihood, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

3. The swirl of rumors in February that he's gay, was having an affair with the Secretary of State, and that his wife had filed for divorce - none of which backed up anyone going on the record, merely innuendo from unnamed sources.

In that moment I almost felt sorry for him, almost.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Pondering a move to Canada?

These adorable Canadians are so helpful.

Election aftermath

So the front page of the Daily Mirror (a London newspaper) today is:

I sum up the results with this imaginary quote:

"I work two jobs and have no health insurance like a lot of people around here. A couple kids in town were born with birth defects from mercury poisoning last year. This guy from work who's in the Reserves died in Iraq last month, a war I feel increasingly uneasy about. Even though I agree with the the philosophy 'Get government off our backs,' I receive far more federal government spending per capita than anyone in, oh say Massachusetts. I have or probably will cheat on my wife at some point. My daughter contracted gonorrhea from oral sex because she wanted to stay a virgin. But damnit, I don't want to see no men kissing. Vote Bush."

We're clearly in a culture war.