Monday, December 29, 2008

It's almost gone

Here are some more or less random items from the end of December, 2008:

  • My nephews (5, 5, and 7) are getting a kitten in March. Specifically, one of the twins wants a kitten for his birthday. He was all ready to let Santa bring him one for Christmas, but then my sister pointed out that if he waited for his birthday, he could pick the kitten out himself. He liked this idea better. (Overheard explaining to his brother: "What if Santa brought a really mean cat?")

  • I'm already mulling over 2009 travel possibilities. Currently waffling on whether or not to go to D.C. for the inauguration. Fun? Of course. Crazy? Double of course.

  • I made an art piece for our company silent auction in February. All proceeds go to a local food bank, so it feels nice to be contributing something. I made another, larger piece that I took in to have framed on Saturday. It's a (late) Christmas present for a friend who doesn't read my blog, so I'm safe. The lady at the shop wrote the following description on the slip: "Cut photos on matboard/Good." I don't know if "good" is framing parlance for something mundane, but I enjoyed it anyway.

  • My hair has gotten curlier in the past year or so. I'm not sure how. But it has.

  • I'd like to make a quilt in 2009. Which would necessitate learning to sew. I'm stopping short of a resolution on this, but I think it would be fun.

  • We broke the December record for snowfall here. Is next month April, by any chance? No? Are you sure?

  • I'm still kind of thinking about that Bon Iver show from the 19th. Perfect confluence of music, weather, venue, and people.

  • I can't believe 2009 will be the fifth year for the basement show at SnS. The traditional fifth anniversary gift is wood. Heh.

Okay, that's enough for tonight. I'll end 2008's blogging with a random picture: a chicken vending machine at the Tulsa airport.

Bring on 2009!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Trip through the Christmas tree

I meant to make this post earlier in the season, but the time got away from me. Blog posts were taken up with actual things I did. This morning, though, I'd like to take you on a little tour of my Christmas tree. I have a tradition of buying a Christmas ornament when I go on a trip. Any place where I spend a decent amount of (enjoyable) time qualifies. I kicked off the effort when I was nine years old, in Atlantic City, where I used to spend summer vacations with my parents. I saw a clear globe in the gift shop, with sand and glitter and tiny poker chips and dollar bills inside. I begged my mom to buy it, so it could remind us of summer vacation at Christmas time. She did, and it did. Since then I've amassed a nice collection of ornaments, the goal being to capture with each something that will remind me of the trip. Every year, decorating the tree brings me back in time. To, almost invariably, warmer locales. Here's a sampling of the ornaments I've collected so far:

Waikiki. Purchased at the weirdly great little Borders above a parking garage on Kalakaua Ave., which was at least 50% local books and authors.

Muir Woods, California. It's real!

Boston, MA. Purchased at the information center on the Freedom Trail. I'll bet Paul and Maudie thought I was buying it as a present for a niece or nephew. Haha.

Ulan Ude, Russia. I can't remember exactly where I bought her, but I do know she used to have a little wooden fish on her platter.

Seattle, WA. I bought this on my free morning on the tail end of a business trip, at Pike Place Market. The artist was wearing an Autumn Defense shirt, which I commented on. In the course of chatting I learned that A) her husband was from Racine, and B) she's a friend of John's. Small world.

Melbourne, Australia. Purchased at the Garden Shop at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Talkeetna, Alaska. Purchased at the same shop where Heidi and I bought warm socks.

Halifax, Nova Scotia. Purchased at a shop next to the blown glass workshop, on the harbour.

Dublin, Ireland. Purchased at a shop off Grafton Street where Anya and I also got some nice wool blankets.

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. A new purchase this summer, and it made me laugh out loud when I unwrapped it a few weeks ago.

New York City. The gift shop at The Met.

Wellington, New Zealand. Purchased at the gift shop in Te Papa. Sigh.

Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Purchased at Green Gables!

Atlantic City, New Jersey. The ornament that started it all.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bon Iver

I'd been looking forward to Rob and Tamala's trip to Madison for the months since Bon Iver's Barrymore show was announced. As the date drew closer, it started snowing. And snowing. ("Good winter," my ass. Well, I guess it depends on your definition.) Thursday into Friday brought yet another winter storm and snow day, but luckily the snow stopped in time for everyone to make it to town.

As it turned out, I couldn't have imagined a more fitting atmosphere in which to see Bon Iver. I had never seen Justin or the band before, and I was truly blown away by the show. Having nothing with which to compare it, I don't know if it was any better than other Bon Iver shows. If they're all this good, I have definitely been missing out. Justin's songs are gorgeous, and eminently suited to a late December evening in the cocoon of a small Wisconsin theater. Opening the show was The Tallest Man on Earth; Kristian Matsson of Sweden. I was very impressed by his set, and see a purchase in my future. (I will report that he is not really, however, the tallest man on Earth.)

Bon Iver is from Eau Claire, and the Barrymore concert was the last show of a long year on tour for the band. (There is one final 2008 show, Monday night in Eau Claire.) Justin struck me as a very sincere guy - he definitely has a sense of humor that came across onstage, but you could also tell that he very much wanted to communicate with the audience. He brought up more than once that they've had a pretty amazing, inspiring year - and that he's been told he says thank you too much onstage, but he really did want us to know that he was extremely grateful. It seemed like many thoughts were swirling around in his head throughout the night.

There were many standout songs, but my favorite was probably "Skinny Love." Apparently that's the 'hit,' and accordingly the band played it second - otherwise they may have heard drunken calls for it all night. It may be one of those songs that seasoned Bon Iver veterans await with polite enthusiasm. For me, though, standing right up front, "Skinny Love" was one of those performances. You know, those performances. I love live music, and I go to more concerts than the average bear. I've seen plenty of great bands play plenty of great shows. But every once in awhile there's a particular song or moment that just utterly sucks me in and reminds me: "this is why I go to see shows. This, right here, holy shit." I can remember a handful of them in my concert-going life. Colin Meloy playing "Red Right Ankle" at Luther's the first time I saw the Decemberists. "One" to close out the first U2 show I saw from the front of the pit. Jon Brion and Flanny playing "All is Full of Love" at the last show in the old Largo. The crescendo of "Bleeding Heart Show" the first time I saw the New Pornographers. "Sunken Treasure" the first time I saw Jeff Tweedy play solo. And Justin Vernon channeling Lord knows what; putting everything out there on "Skinny Love," the first time I saw Bon Iver. (Close runners-up: "Creature Fear" and "Wolves." And "Blood Bank.")

Madison isn't Eau Claire, but it's not too far away. This show seemed like a sort of homecoming. It was December, and it was Wisconsin, and there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground and more on the way, and we were all in the Barrymore under the twinkling ceiling stars, and we were home, and Bon Iver was home. And it was good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy ho ho ho to you

What do you get your mom for Christmas? Every year I struggle with this question. I know plenty of things my mother would probably appreciate, but what would be a really great gift? This year, inspiration came in the form of an email from the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee: Harry Connick Jr. would be playing a full band holiday show on December 12th. I've long had a soft spot for Harry, and both of his Christmas albums get tons of play in Mom's car every year. I scored a pair of balcony seats in the presale, and last Friday it was off to Milwaukee for my mother's Christmas concert.

It was great. The concert was heavy on the Christmas songs, but they weren't the whole story. We were also treated to some old standards; songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," and "Basin Street Blues." From the familiar Christmas tunes to the extended instrumental solos on jazzier numbers, everything was top notch. Harry has assembled an incredibly talented group of musicians, and he's no slouch himself. Lucien Barbarin, in particular, gave a standout performance - he received a standing ovation from the crowd. I also hadn't expected Harry to be so funny. He told many stories, including a great one about Frank Sinatra on what would have been his ninety-third birthday. There was much witty banter with the crowd, especially those up front. Harry's not afraid to make fun of his fans, and I like that in a performer. (Addressing the husband of a woman who has seen four shows in a row: "You do know you're married to a freakshow, don't you?") And aside from the musical skills, Harry also has got some moves on the dance floor. (Dance floor in this case being the stage.) I'd like to see a Southern white boy dance-off: Harry Connick Jr. vs. Patrick Sansone. Let's make this happen.

Experiencing the concert with my mom was wonderful, but the night's surprises weren't over for me. On the way home I learned that one December in the mid 1960's, Mom and her girlfriends drove down to New Orleans. They stayed in the French Quarter. They swam in a pool on Bourbon Street on New Year's Eve. They went to Preservation Hall. I had no idea. The concert also brought up many memories of my grandpa. I knew Grandpa had taught himself to play the piano and guitar, but Mom told me all about how he and his brother and their friends used to get together and jam. Many nights when she was a little girl, Mom would do her best to fall asleep in her bedroom upstairs while down in the basement she could hear Grandpa on his guitar, Uncle Richie on the harmonica, and their friends on trombone and saxophone, playing and laughing into the wee hours. "He would have loved that show," Mom said. As we were walking into the house, she told me this had been her best Christmas present ever ... right behind Cinnamon Bear, the teddy bear she got as a little girl.

I'll take second place to Cinnamon Bear any day. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Letters to Santa: a 147-hour benefit

Well, perhaps it clocked in slightly under 147 hours. More like twenty-six for me ... but isn't that basically the same thing? As it is every year, the 2008 Letters to Santa benefit at Second City in Chicago was a test of endurance. But the few (the proud) who attend the entire event get an experience unlike any other. This year there were intimate musical performances, special guest appearances, sketches about Michael McDonald and the world's fattest baby, outdoor caroling, interviews, a special video appearance from Stephen Colbert, free bagels, and football. All of this is provided on a 100% volunteer basis, and it all goes for a really terrific cause. Here is a brief, incomplete photo timeline:

12/9 10:14 p.m. (1.25 hours in): Bird Flu Extravaganza: a musical

10:23 p.m.: ASSSSCAT with Mick Napier and Tim Meadows

12/10 12:11 a.m.: Nina Nastasia. She got sick on the drive from New York and her voice was almost completely gone, but she still performed.

3:06 a.m.: Tim Midgett

4:30 a.m.: Outdoor field trip. We marched around the entire city block, over the ice and snow, singing the melody to "Carol of the Bells." The whole way. The photo quality represents pretty accurately my memory of the walk.

7:38 a.m.: Young Sofia Mia makes her annual before-school morning appearance. Here she is dancing in a musical about a dentist.

8:13 a.m.: Baked goods, costumes, and Babyco. The fireman's helmet appeared in a later sketch in which one of the actors uttered the phrase, "If you piss your pants, we all piss our pants. It's the fireman's code." I looked over at fire captain Dick. Dick: "That's true."

9:29 a.m.: Janet Bean, Sally Timms, and Jim Elkington

10:18 a.m.: This is the kind of thing that happens 13 hours in. There are contests to see who can be the fastest to push one actor, with another riding on his back, across the barrier between the front and back of the theater. You also see how stunningly crowded things are at this time.

12:04 p.m.: The Lonesome Organist one man band

2:34 p.m.: Robbie and Donna Fulks perform Robbie's annual Rap of the Dead

5:12 p.m.: Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders

5:58 p.m.: Town parade! Paul's favorite.

6:42 p.m.: Time for that heartwarming annual tradition: selling chances to peg Joe Canale in the balls with a football.

7:07 p.m.: Tullymonster, rocking. Before they were renamed by a clever young audience member.

7:53 p.m.: Stephen Colbert and Pete Grosz perform half an improv scene, taped and sent especially for Letters to Santa.

9:16 p.m.: Jeff Tweedy rummages through his wallet

10:03 p.m.: Red lights as the big charity auction begins. Jeff looks like I feel.

If I can help it, I will never miss this event. Six years and counting!

Monday, December 8, 2008

The thick of it

I spent a nice weekend in Rochester. Saturday morning and afternoon I toured George Eastman House and the Strong National Museum of Play. Eastman House is impressive, and the gingerbread houses and Christmas decorations made it even more fun. I got there in time for one of the two free daily guided tours, and learned a lot about George Eastman. I didn't know, for example, that he made up the word Kodak. (The tour also represented the largest single gathering of women wearing Christmas sweaters I've ever seen.) The galleries were fun to browse - my favorite was the Link exhibition of night train/depot photos from the 1950's. Of all the gingerbread on display, my favorite was the creation you see above ... a local Girl Scout troop made a gingerbread landfill.

On to the Strong Museum. The lower level was charming, but geared toward small children at play. I liked the Berenstain Bears room, and appreciated the reproductions of the cubs' clubhouses from "No Girls Allowed. (I was quite the Berenstain Bears fan as a child.) The best part of the installation was on the walls leading up to the playroom itself. They were lined with information about Stan and Jan Berenstain, and the cartoon work they did in the 1940's. It included some great magazine covers they made for Colliers. One of the fun things I read: often Stan and Jan would work on the same illustration at the same time, with one reaching across the desk and working on it upside down.

Upstairs was the National Toy Hall of Fame, and beyond it a huge gallery of toys from the past. I saw cases and cases of dolls, plates, gadgets, video game systems, dollhouses, miniatures, stuffed animals, bicycles, whimsies, shaving mugs, train sets ... it was fascinating, but somewhere along the line it became overwhelming. As I left to meet Paul for coffee, Gary the Happy Pirate was performing for children outside the main gift shop. This performance was preceded by a few announcements: "Attention guests, please join us in ten minutes for pirate fun with Gary the Happy Pirate!" The kids looked like they were having a grand time as I passed, and it was part of a toy drive being covered by the local news. Just as I walked out of earshot, I heard Gary quizzing the children.

Gary: "Okay, kids! Does anybody know what a pirate's favorite food is? Yes, young man?"
Little boy: "Chicken!"

Saturday night, we saw Wilco. It was a fun show; one I never would have attended if I hadn't pulled up first row pit tickets. But, I did. My favorite aspect of the night was the "welcome back" for Glenn, who missed the previous night's show with Neil Young to play his own gig at Carnegie Hall. Much fun was had at his expense (and in his honor) - including the drum set being adorned with flowers before the show began. The band didn't play anything new, but the Rochester crowd was treated to an energetic selection of songs befitting the band's inaugural show in the city.

Sunday I had a lazy day of doing nothing before my flight. The weather reports had looked a bit ominous, but I was only half an hour late getting home. No, the really bad weather was waiting for Tuesday. Tuesday night, when I'm supposed to drive to Chicago. Does Letters to Santa count as an emergency, National Weather Service?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

100 Days, 100 Nights

I'd known that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were coming to the Barrymore for at least a month, but for some reason I resisting buying a ticket. Many of my friends have waxed poetic about her live show, I own and enjoy her latest album, and I've wanted to see her for some time ... yet I hesitated. Busy month, the holidays, other concerts, lots of work to do in the meantime. Monday morning I remembered that the show was in two days, and gave it only the most fleeting of thoughts: "Yeah, definitely not going to that."

So, of course, Monday afternoon I received an email from The Onion informing me that I'd won a pair of tickets to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Who am I to argue with the concert gods? Nobody, that's who. Accordingly, Anya and I braved the slippery roads to the Barrymore last night. I'm very glad we did.

I now understand all of the superlatives I've heard to describe the live Sharon Jones experience. She has a great voice, the Dap-Kings are a tight and talented band, and Sharon has energy and moves that just won't quit. I enjoyed seeing her pull audience members up on stage to dance throughout the evening. I briefly wondered if she ever pulls someone up and then regrets it: think of crazy people you've encountered at concerts, and then picture the craziest ones onstage. But everyone last night seemed perfectly cool. And, at any rate, I'm pretty sure Sharon can take care of herself.

While Sharon's Tina Turner moves and Janet Jackson cover were highlights, and hearing familiar songs from 100 Days, 100 Nights was a treat, my favorite part of the show came toward the end. Sharon called Charles Bradley (an excellent James Brown impersonator who sang a few songs during the opening set) back to the stage. She said some heartfelt words about the recent election, and then together she and Charles sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

So, thanks, Onion, for getting me downtown in the middle of an extremely busy work week. And thanks, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, for making it more than worthwhile.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Here we go (again)

November is in its waning hours. The long Thanksgiving weekend is over. It's only been two weeks since I was sitting on the beach in Honolulu, but looking out at the Wisconsin snow, that seems like ages ago. Time for the year-end schedule to shift into high gear.

I have a work deadline Thursday, and another two weeks later. Next weekend I'm headed to Rochester to see Wilco play a headlining gig in the middle of their tour with Neil Young. That's upstate New York, not Minnesota ... though when it comes to flying in December, both may be equally ill-advised. Days after I get back, it's time for the seventh annual Letters to Santa charity event in Chicago. It will be my sixth year in attendance, and once again I'm planning to stay for the entire 24 hours. Actually, this year things are changing up a bit, and it will be even longer than 24 hours. I'm not sure what we've done to earn this extra test of endurance, but wish me luck. Throw in a couple more concerts - Harry Connick Jr. with my mom in Milwaukee, and Bon Iver with Tamala and Rob in Madison - and we're pretty much up to Christmas. Yipes.

Random thing I've been wondering for years, but was just reminded of when the song came on: is the title of Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's "Blues for Helen Burns," actually a Jane Eyre reference? Lord, I hope it is.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Whitewashing of Betsy

Before we begin: I'll bet I'm not actually allowed to include the excerpts I have included below, for copyright reasons. Same with the illustration, probably. However, I'm going to go ahead and chance it. If this disappears at some point, you'll know that the book police found me.

When I was a little girl, some of my favorite books were from the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood. Haywood was a prolific writer and illustrator of children's books. She was also responsible for the Eddie series. (Eddie and Betsy knew each other, and shared some crossover adventures.) I enjoyed stories about Eddie, but Betsy was always my favorite. The first Betsy book was written in 1939, and they have a classic, wholesome feel to them that always appealed to me.

Since the books come from a different time, some aspects can seem out of place when transplanted into the present day. Not long ago, I reread the second book, Back to School with Betsy, for the first time in at least ten years. I picked it up from the local library on a whim: a paperback edition from 2004. The cover illustration was snappy and updated, but the inside illustrations featured the classic Haywood drawings I know and love. Ah, Betsy. What fun she had with friends Billy and Ellen, and cocker spaniel Thumpy.

Near the end of the book, I reached a chapter I remembered well from previous readings. Entitled "Exactly What Betsy Wanted," it tells of Betsy's desire for another sister to go along with her existing baby sister. The catch is, Betsy wants her parents to adopt a little black baby. Her mother informs her that this isn't really likely to happen, but Betsy keeps hoping. Lo and behold, she finds a lost little black girl in town the very next week. Although Betsy wants to keep her, the little girl's own mother is found - and it just so happens she's the new housekeeper at the house right behind Betsy's. How fortunate!

What I really remembered about the chapter was the fact that it was a little ... hmmm. Racist? I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, but I definitely recalled the distinct impression that the same chapter today would not be written as it had been in 1943. With that in mind, I delved into the 2004 edition. I immediately noticed that it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered. It was really pretty innocuous. In fact ... it was too innocuous. Something was amiss.

My sister is the current owner of the original 1943 edition of Back to School with Betsy that we all read as kids. I borrowed it from her and paged to the same chapter. And what do you know? The 2004 wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered because it was edited! Quite liberally edited. The good old 1943 edition was every bit as "innocently" racist as I'd remembered. Let's compare and contrast:

"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want."

"Well, what kind do you want?" asked Mother.

"I want a little colored baby," said Betsy.

"But, Betsy," said Mother, "we can never have a little colored baby."

"Why not?" asked Betsy. "I saw one the other day. It was so cunning. It looked as though it was made of a piece of your brown satin dress. Why can't we get a little colored baby?"

"Because, dear, colored babies have to have colored fathers and mothers," replied Mother.

"Well, I know," said Betsy, "but couldn't we get one all ready made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?"

"No, dear," said Mother. "Colored babies like to be adopted by colored fathers and mothers."

"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want. Could we get one all ready-made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready-made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?""

"No, dear," said Mother. "We already have a baby."

The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited. In a few moments a lady opened the door. She looked at the two on the step. "Well, what do you want?" she said to Betsy.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"She certainly does not," said the lady. And to Betsy's surprise she slammed the door.

The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited.

In a few minutes the door was opened by a plump old lady, wearing a checked apron. "What is the matter?" the lady asked.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"No, she doesn't," said the lady, leaning down to look at the children. "Now, I've just made some cookies," she said. "Perhaps if we give her a cookie she'll stop crying. Just wait a minute."

Soon the old lady was back with two cookies. She gave one to each of the children.

(and my favorite)

The colored woman ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! What fo' you go 'way from yo' Mammy?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mammy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mammy'!"

Lillybell's mother ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! Why'd you run away?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mommy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mommy'!"

So, what do I think about this? My first reaction was one of amused shock, that a publisher can just completely hack up an author's work and not note anywhere that it's an abridged version. Isn't this censorship? The chapter is rather impressive today in its non-political-correctness. But that's how it was written - we can just delete anything uncomfortable for today's audience and not say a word about it?

On the other hand, I can kind of see the point. This chapter in Back to School with Betsy was meant to be another charming, lighthearted tale in a book - and series - full of the same. It didn't completely ignore racism. The door-slamming woman is meant to be an example of it. Yet although Haywood aimed for a sweetly amusing story that highlights Betsy's innocence and good nature, incidental bits like the the reunion scene actually undermine her intent when read today. They're a byproduct of the time and place of the book's writing. The contemporary 1943 audience reflected by the chapter, and fact that these elements weren't given a second thought, is actually much more interesting to me than the chapter itself. But since the book is currently intended as fluffy elementary school fare for children today, I can see deciding that the questionable elements simply aren't worth the trouble of including.

What I really want to know is how common such practices are. Do publishers "clean up" older titles all the time? Do they need permission from the author or the author's estate to do so? The book was reprinted in 1971 for the first time; were the changes made in that edition? Am I disgusted by the censorship, or do I think it's not really a big deal in cases like this?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Middle of November

The view from our dinner table tonight, 9:00 p.m., Waikiki Beach. Tiki torch light visible on the right.

I have to pack tomorrow night. Noooo! (The horrified exclamation is half because I don't want to leave, and half because I think there's a pretty good chance all of the crap strewn about this hotel room - my home for nine days - is not going to fit back into one small suitcase.)

Monday, November 10, 2008


Five days into my trip. Five days to go. I'll have more to write when I have time to do more than work, go out to dinner, and sleep.

I will say that being in a location like this for business kind of messes with my head. This is my first time in Hawaii, and we are staying in a resort across from Waikiki Beach. Everything about my surroundings screams "exotic vacation." We've gone out for long, fun dinners every night. There are palm trees and tiki torches and Christmas lights up and down the street below my 18th floor balcony. On Saturday night I watched the sun set over the ocean while an old man played a violin nearby. Local surfers mingle with tourists outside the doors of our hotel, and every big name designer you could think of has a store down the street. (Coach has at least three.) And by the time Wednesday night comes, I'll have worked 50+ hours in four days.

I love it here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gone til November

Here I am back in California - probably for the last time this year, but I won't make any promises. I'm on back-to-back work trips: first in Sacramento, and then on to Honolulu tomorrow. I draw your attention to the photograph above. I took it on my way to La Bou a little while ago to scrounge up a wrap for ... breakfast, or whatever meal it is that one eats upon waking up at 2:00 p.m., and getting ready to work until 6:00 a.m. the next day and then fly to Hawaii. Anyway, does your university book store rent breast pumps? I didn't think so.

I flew out yesterday morning. The country had known that Barack Obama would be our next president for less than twelve hours when I touched down in Chicago for my connecting flight. (Chicago: home of Barack Obama, and also home of my checked bag for the next 18 hours. Thanks a heap, United Airlines. That's why we pay you $15 per checked bag. To babysit.) Anyway, the general mood I encountered all day long was very positive. I scored a Chicago Tribune from one of the million newspaper boxes strewn around O'Hare. It was only 8:30 a.m., but I got one of the last issues I could find. 75 cents. Nice. I passed people wearing Obama shirts. Our African-American flight attendant apologized to us as we got off the plane: "I'm sorry; Obama is president and I can't stop smiling." When I was walking around at Macy's in Sacramento yesterday afternoon, a makeup counter employee called out that she liked my Wisconsin for Obama button. There was a poster of Obama at the Downtown Plaza reminding people to vote, and groups of kids would burst into cheers and applause as they passed it.

I've been enthralled this afternoon reading articles like this one from Newsweek, reporting inside campaign gossip obtained by reporters on the condition that it wouldn't be released until after the election. My respect for Barack Obama continues to grow. I'm discovering I had more reason than I'd even known to be very, very afraid of Sarah Palin. Most interestingly, and a little sadly, I'm seeing more evidence that the John McCain I respected up until about a year ago, and saw again in his concession speech on Tuesday, was never really gone. He'd just gone underground in the hopes of winning this election. Maybe his campaign's tactics gave him a better chance than he otherwise would have had - and maybe not. Regardless, I'm hoping this McCain has returned for good.

I overheard a man on one of my flights yesterday talking about the election. "I'm not saying who I voted for," he said. "But all I'm saying is this - being president isn't all that. People are acting like Obama being elected is a big deal. Whatever - it doesn't make any difference." It doesn't make any difference? Barack Obama being elected isn't a big deal? I don't feel any sense of triumph over people (including some friends) who supported John McCain. We all want what's best for our country. I don't believe that Barack Obama's election will change "everything." Any candidate elected would have a huge uphill battle in the next four years trying to dig us out of the hole we're in right now. Obama isn't going to ride into the White House on a unicorn, wielding a magic wand of change. But there is so much hope alive right now that no matter what, it's already a good thing. It has already made a difference, and it is most certainly a big deal.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Concert for Change

Less than twelve hours after the Decemberists show, it was time to get ready for another concert. Not just a concert, but an Obama campaign event featuring Senator Russ Feingold, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, and half of Wilco. And this event was nice enough to take place right in Madison.

My most specific Russ Feingold memories involve him speaking at Law Day when I was in junior high. It was nice to see him again on Saturday, watching him speak in support of Barack Obama and introduce Pat Sansone, John Stirratt, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I'd never seen this particular incarnation of Wilco perform, and I was impressed at what they could do with acoustic guitars, bass, and keyboards. Jeff did a nice job of tying the set together with a thread (sometimes tenuous) of political and voting references. And of course, it was a treat to hear "Wilco the Song" in person. Debuted just a couple of days ago on the Colbert Report, I'm not sure if anyone knows the ultimate fate of the song ... but I do know that the chorus has been going through my head all day.

Tammy Baldwin wrapped things up with a call to the polls, leading a group of concert attendees to vote early after the event. With election day within striking distance at last, there was a palpable sense of excitement around the Union on Saturday - and, dare I say, optimism. I was lucky enough to find myself in the middle of the action, and my respect has grown enormously for those who combine their talent, time, and organizational skills to make things like this happen. And they're happening all over the country right now. Here's hoping that it culminates in the biggest party yet - on Tuesday, just a couple of hours south in Grant Park.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween with the Decemberists

If ever there were a band made to play Halloween concerts, that band would be the Decemberists. Hey, some kids dress up for their shows even when it's not Halloween. So when I learned that the Decemberists were playing on Halloween night, at Wheaton College, in a chapel ... well, it didn't take too much consideration for me to buy a ticket.

The show met my expectations. The band came out half an hour later than the ticket-listed time of 7:30, but there was no opener, so I'm not complaining. And what an entrance they made. Colin rode out (well, rode/was propelled out) on a big wheel, dressed as Danny Torrance from The Shining. John and Nate appeared next, dressed as the creepy twins. (Colin later remarked that this was probably the first time two cross-dressing men had ever stood on stage at Wheaton College.) They were followed by Jenny as Wendy Torrance, and Chris Funk in the role made famous by Jack Nicholson. Short movie scenes were reenacted, and the movie was brought up throughout the night. The band members weren't the only ones dressed up, of course. Costumes abounded in the crowd. My favorite was a woman who dressed as a crooked French Canadian complete with guts spilling out, and even brought along a a bottle of "gin." Later in the show Colin perched her little Canadian flag on his guitar.

Colin stated that they had crafted the setlist with an eye toward the spooky, and there was an abundance of songs about murders and ghosts. Then again, that could be said about the Decemberists' catalog in general. The show was also peppered with new songs. The ending of one in particular ("Days of Elaine?" "O New England?") may have been the most rocking thing I've ever seen the band do live. In fact, the whole show was probably the most energetic I've seen from the Decemberists. During "Culling of the Fold" Colin ran all over, climbed things, and eventually wound up writhing on the stage. He also stole someone's iPhone and sang a verse to the kid's mom.

After the show, the setlists went to a few incredibly eager kids. I thought a setlist from this show would be a fun souvenir, in part because I wanted to remember what all the new songs had been. I decided to try something that I had tried at another Decemberists show a few years ago. I was successful then, and I was successful this time, too. I passed by the soundboard at the back on my way out, and sure enough, nobody had thought about the setlist from up there. The sound man told me it was all mine. Excellent. I'll take a nice setlist over trick-or-treat candy any day.

The set:
-Shanty for the Arethusa
-July, July
-Valerie Plame
-Dracula's Daughter (may be out of order - request from the crowd - played in full; Colin directing the band through the second verse. Colin, "At last, with the full band treatment I'd always dreamed of. Now we should never play it again.")
-Leslie Anne Levine
-Bachelor and the Bride
-Yankee Bayonet
-O' New England (nice Irish treatment on the setlist)
-Shankill Butchers (featuring Jenny Conlee on the Edman Chapel pipe organ)
-Culling of the Fold
-Days of Elaine
-16 Military Wives (with election-themed call and response)
-Record Year for Rain
-O Valencia
-Cautionary Song

-Raincoat Song
-Perfect Crime #2 (breakdown featuring vocals from the creepy Shining twins)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bridge School

Cat Power roaming the crowd

Wilco with Neil and Pegi Young, "I Shall Be Released"

Smashing Pumpkins

Neil Young