Thursday, October 19, 2006

Searching For Deliciousness

My trip to Michigan a couple of weeks ago had two things in common with my trip to Thunder Bay a year ago: One was the opportunity to be awed by the beauty and power of Lake Superior.

The other was the fact that I was less than awed by the food on each trip.

It’s mostly my fault, not only for expecting the fare in Ontario, Minnesota, and Michigan to be some exotic manna that melted on my tongue with the savory taste the Japanese call umami, but for making some dumb choices along the way.

For instance, on my 2005 trip from Duluth to Thunder Bay, I passed countless smalltown inns, diners, restaurants, taverns despite getting hungrier by the minute. Why didn’t I pick one at random and stop? I don’t know, but I think it had something to with thinking I’d find something better in the next town. Of course, without actually stopping to try them out, I had no way of knowing. I think I was looking for a restaurant called “Perfectly Cooked Steak Served By Kate Winslet.”

In any event, I ended up at an extremely mediocre rib place in Thunder Bay. The next day there was some good lasagna at Karen’s Kountry Kitchen, but the day after that I had a couple of run-of-the-mill meals in Grand Marais. Expectations were high, but the reality fell short.

Same thing this year. Driving north on US 51 through Wisconsin, I passed about the same number of little hometown eating establishments as I did the year before. Some of them I just didn’t see until I was past them—and even though I could have turned around and drove a block south to visit any one of them, I pressed on. Kate Winslet’s Steakhouse was surely just around the next curve. So to speak.

As I approached the town of Woodruff, I noticed signs for Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty, which sounded promising if for no other reason than the logging-camp breakfast, which, I hoped, would be available at lunchtime. I made up my mind to drive slow enough through Woodruff that I could see Paul Bunyan’s in time to make a turn.

That’s what I did. I stopped and went inside, and found the inside of the building fairly confusing. There was a gift shop, a lobby, and what seemed to be a couple of entrances to the restaurant. I looked for a sign that said “Hostess will seat you,” but if one existed it was obscured by the thirteen busloads of senior citizens milling around everywhere. I didn’t want to wait, so I kept driving north and wound up at the only Monical’s Pizza franchise in Wisconsin.

Rescued by a central Illinois classic. The lunch pizza-and-salad special at Monical’s rated an A-minus.

When I arrived in Copper Harbor that evening, I realized that the town wasn’t jam-packed with restaurants. Basically, I had my choice of the Tamarack Inn, The Pines Bar and Grill, The Mariner North, and the Harbor Haus. I chose the Tamarack and had the Upper Peninsula specialty known as a pasty. (I learned by dating a girl from Sault Ste Marie 25 years ago that pronouncing pasty with a long A would mark you as a clueless outsider.) A pasty consists of ground beef and pork, potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabagas, all cooked in a flaky pastry crust. Pasties are good. This one was good. That’s about all I can say about it. It was good. I gave it a B.

On Sunday I drove down to Eagle Harbor on one of my picture-taking jaunts and wound up at the Eagle Harbor Inn, where I made an adventurous food selection, the pesto burger, despite being fully aware that pesto dislikes me as much as I like it. Put this in the “dumb choice” category, because pesto, to put it as delicately as possible, makes a very good high colonic. To top it off, the burger was overcooked and most of the pesto fell out of the bun. Not enough of it, as it turned out.

The saving grace of that meal was the onion rings, the best I’ve had. The onion rings got an A-plus, but the pesto burger and its raging aftereffects dragged the average down to a C-minus. There might be blogs that go into greater detail about such things; this is not one of them.

Sunday night brought a trip to the Mariner North, whose sign offered country-style ribs for $13.95. The Mariner is proud of its salad bar and rightly so, but the ribs weren’t that exciting: B. I was back there for lunch the next day because they had free wireless access, so I grabbed a booth, ordered a fish sandwich with fries and slaw, and tried to check my email. Alas, the wireless wasn’t working that day because there was some sort of regional fiber-optic outage. The waiter forgot to bring me my slaw, possibly for the same reason. I had finished my sandwich and fries and had pushed my tray to the other side of the booth before the slaw arrived. “I bet you thought I’d forgotten this,” said the waiter.

I wanted to say I assumed he wasn’t withholding it from me as a demonstration of his all-powerful waitering abilities, but instead I said “Yeah, kinda.” He offered to adjust the bill accordingly, which I thought was nice until I got the bill and found he’d knocked a quarter off the tab. A-minus for the sandwich, B-minus for the experience.

Monday night I went back to the Eagle Harbor Inn, 14 miles away, ready to put the pesto fiasco behind me and sample some other Upper Peninsula fare. How I ended up with the taco pizza I don’t know, but it wasn’t the least bit inspiring. An objective B-minus for the food, lowered to a C for my baffling selection.

On Tuesday I tried the Pines for lunch, because they were another place with free wireless access (which, in this case, actually worked). The menu was fairly standard bar and grill fare, so I wasn’t expecting anything ambrosialicious. Still, I would have liked something a step above high school cafeteria food, and my pizza burger rose just to that level and stopped. It took me right back to 1974, which was an experience pleasant enough to warrant a generous B-minus for the meal.

But I wasn’t looking for vacation food that evoked old memories. I wanted it to create new ones. I wanted an A-plus meal, and I was hoping the Harbor Haus would be the place to find it.

Now, Harbor Haus is the spendiest of the four restaurants in Copper Harbor, and as the name suggests, it has numerous fish-based entrees on the menu. I have no doubt that if I’d ordered a fish-based entrĂ©e, I’d have been thoroughly pleased. However, when I’m in a spendy restaurant, I’m going to order steak. Most people know this about me, especially those who have ever seen me dining on an expense account.

I believe there were only two steaks on the menu, and I ordered the big one. The Cowboy Ribeye, at $27.95. Eighteen ounces of heaven right there, with scalloped potatoes and steamed veggies for my sides. Yes sir, bring me that Cowboy Ribeye—how could I go wrong?

How indeed?

Maybe ribeye steaks are just naturally served thick in the spendier places, and maybe I don’t eat in enough such establishments for that to be fresh in my mind. But as much as I like steak, I find the thicker cuts less tasty, less fun to eat, less worthy of my $28.

So, thanks to my skewed expectations, I was disappointed in a steak that most carnivores would have loved. I’ll give it a B, because, well, it was still steak.

Two meals left in Copper Harbor. For Wednesday’s lunch, I returned to the Tamarack—and found it so crowded the overworked waitress/hostess didn’t have time to seat me. I should have been more patient. I went back to the Mariner, but instead of ordering the tasty fish sandwich I’d enjoyed on Monday, I went with the Italian Galleon—which had Italian sausage, mozzarella, peppers, and marinara.

I’ve never in my life been impressed with marinara on a sandwich. I’ve never finished such a sandwich and said “Wow, the marinara made that a taste sensation.” What’s more, I still know how to read. I’m well aware that m-a-r-i-n-a-r-a spells marinara.

But I choked as bad as I did when I ordered the taco pizza. I just made the wrong call.

D-plus on the Italian Galleon. And then I skipped dinner that night and munched on a bag of those caramel corn pops.

So except for the marinara deal, I can’t say I had bad food anywhere on the trip. What I can say is that I need to stop hoping that I’ll find the holy grail of deliciousness at every little smalltown restaurant.

On the way home the next day I played it safe: Perkins and White Castle.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beauty, Solitude, and the Irish Whistle

Musings From Copper Harbor, October 1

Beauty and solitude.

Those were the two reasons I gave when people asked me why I was going on vacation, by myself, to a remote town called Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I’m looking for beauty and solitude, I told them.

It isn’t like I don’t get plenty of solitude. I live alone, and I have plenty of time to myself—to write, read, watch baseball, surf the net, and so on. But there’s a lot of time, too, that just feels like cooped-up time: stuck in an apartment with no human contact but a lovely view of the tennis court. Weekend nights, when other people are out with friends, dining, going to movies, and getting laid, I’m still there in the apartment, where, to be fair, I do dine.

So in seeking out even more solitude on vacation, I figure it’s mitigated by the search for beauty. Fortunately the U.P. specializes in beauty. Today I hiked along Hunters Point Trail to a red rocky beach where Lake Superior was crashing and cool breezes were blowing—I found a person-shaped nook in a stack of big rocks and made myself comfortable with a book. Later I drove south on M-26 and found a beach with a 200-yard stretch of rock, 200 yards long, 10 feet high in places, that looks as if it had once been part of a cliff. I got the impression it was a big rock shelf that had fallen from a mountain a million years ago: You can see the various strata in places, at about a 45-degree angle from the beach itself. There are little pools in this stretch of rock where the waves crash over the first layer and then have no way out.

From there I drove south and got a glimpse of Great Sand Bay (didn’t stop because I was getting ready for lunch). This bay is unusual for Lake Superior: Instead of the usual red rocks on the beach, it has what looked to be golden sand. I’m going back for pictures tomorrow when I’m not so hungry.

Tonight I was back at the beach with the big rock shelf, watching the sunset. I read until the light got too dim, then sat there on a high rock improvising Superior-influenced themes on Irish whistle as a freighter slowly crossed the northern horizon.

So yeah, there’s been beauty to go with the solitude.

But there’s been soul-searching, too. I don’t think you can play Irish whistle on a rock in Lake Superior while the sun goes down without proscribing some sense of mystery to the whole thing. I was sitting there thinking “It’s very cool to be sitting on a rock playing the Irish whistle, 700 miles from home.”

My next thought would invariably be “Why am I the sort of person who thinks this is cool?”

And “Why am I the sort of person who would do it in the first place?”

I put the Irish whistle in the backpack this morning, knowing that at some point on this vacation I would use it to serenade the world’s largest freshwater lake. Why? And to what end?

Perhaps it’s because it was so far removed from what I usually do. Usually I sit at my desk and write advertising copy for clients who think they can do it better. Usually I write fiction (when I have some fiction going) that the publishing world has made quite clear they have no interest in reading. Usually I play the piano and write songs no one will ever hear. Usually I sift through online dating profiles searching for someone who might not exist.

Those are my usuallys.

And somewhere among them there must be an explanation of why I felt compelled to stand on a stretch of rock that’s been there for millions of years and ad lib some tunes to a lake that’s been beating on those same rocks for the same amount of time.

Maybe there is no reason other than the fact that I thought it was cool.

And if that’s the case, then there’s another question nagging at me: Why weren’t there more people doing the same thing?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

E. Coli Claims Life of Retired Sailor

WHARFTOWN, Mass. - Contaminated spinach is being blamed for the death yesterday of Popeye T. Sailorman, a colorful local character known for his massive forearms, his infectious laugh, and his decades-long rivalry with a local bully known only as Brutus.

Witnesses say Popeye had just squeezed open a can of spinach, forcing the contents to arc into the air and land in his open mouth--a feat of dexterity he had performed on numerous occasions without incident. Only after the elderly sailor dropped to the ground and began vomiting did the onlookers notice that the can was labeled Earthbound Farms, a brand of spinach recalled recently because of its link to an outbreak of e.coli.

"He was strong to the finish," said an acquaintance, Wimpy J. Wellington. "Well, except for when he was convulsing and screaming for a merciful end to the excruciatingly painful cramps, bloody diarrhea, and complete kidney failure."

Popeye's longtime girlfriend, Olive Oyl, released this statement: "Popeye was always ready to fight for my honor. It's one of life's bitter ironies that he was felled by the vegetable he loved most, the vegetable that gave him his incredible strength.

"I'll miss him," concluded Ms Oyl. "He was what he was."

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Everyday Mysteries

If you can't find amusement in fast food and telemarketers, you've got no business trying to write an entertaining blog. With that in mind, I offer these recent incidents:

(1) The Mystery of the Dropped Quarters

Earlier this week I took my younger daughter through the drive-through at the Burger King on 73rd in Des Moines. She ordered a small amount of food and I ordered nothing, so the total was $2.37.

I paid with a five-dollar bill, and then as the girl at the window was handing me my change, the two quarters slipped off the bills and clanged onto the pavement below. I smiled sympathetically, but then I realized she was staring at me, waiting for me to pick up the money she dropped. This would have required moving the car, getting out, and walking back into the lane.

I looked at her until she realized that perhaps in the interest of customer service she should hand me two new quarters and retrieve the others later. And that's what she did, but not before she leaned forward about an inch and stuck her arm out the window, apparently hoping the coins would jump into her hand.

That or she thought she was Inspector Gadget.

(2) The Curious Case of the Long Pause

Why aren't telemarketers more prepared to deliver their spiels?

Honestly, if that's your job, I know it's tough and I wish you luck--but for crying out loud, be ready to speak when your prospect answers the phone.

I'm on the national Do Not Call list for telemarketers, , but one of them slipped through last night and immediately blew any opportunity I might have given her to sell me whatever she was selling. How? By not being ready to speak.

Here's how the conversation went:

Dono: Hello?
Caller: (20-second pause, making it obvious a telemarketer was calling) Hello?
Dono: No, see the way it works is, when I say Hello, that's your cue that the conversation has begun. You don't have to wait to speak at that point. And if you do speak, you don't have to say Hello with a question mark as if you're not sure if I'm here or not. Once I say Hello, I'm definitely here and engaged in the dialogue.
Caller: (befuddled) Could I speak to J...M...Dono--
Dono: No.

What possible reason could there be for not speaking to the person to whom you wish to sell your wares?

There's some strange stuff that goes on in this universe.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Standard For Cub Futility

Last Saturday afternoon, the FOX Baseball Game of the Week was the Cardinals/Cubs contest at Wrigley Field. The announcers did a lot of the typical blabbidy-blabbidy, which is to be expected because I'm sure they have orders from the top to make sure no nanosecond passes without their mouths running.

But they also did something that drives me up the wall, something that people within the game of baseball should be smart enough not to do: They misstated the standard for Chicago Cubs futility.

That standard, quite simply, is this: The Chicago Cubs have not won a National League pennant since 1945.

That's it. 61 years, no pennant. For 16 of those years, there were only seven other teams in the league. For 24 of those years, there were only 11 other teams.

That's not only bad, it defies mathematical probability. The Cubs should have won a couple of pennants purely by accident since 1945.

But they haven't, because they're a bad, bad organization. (The fact that they're so suckworthy isn't exactly important to this entry, but I'll admit to doing a little Cub-fan-baiting now and then. All in good fun, more or less.)

Point is, the FOX announcers kept referring to the fact that the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. And while that's true, it's really just kind of the icing on the cake. It is irrelevant to speak of World Series futility when referring to a team that hasn't even appeared in the World Series since 1945.

Now, before the Boston Red Sox won the Series in 2004 (in four games I'd just as soon forget), there was talk of how many years had passed since they'd won a World Series. That was acceptable. It made sense, because the Sox had lost the Series in 1986, 1975, 1967, and 1946--four times since winning it in 1918 (when they beat, of course, the Cubs).

Baseball announcers should know better. If a team keeps going to the World Series and losing, you can talk about how long it's been since they've won one. In the case of the Chicago Cubs, though, please stick to the true standard: 61 years, no pennants.

Next time I hear someone say the Cubs just can't win a World Series, I'm going to point out that they haven't had much success in the Kentucky Derby, either.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ten CDs It Won't Kill You To Own

The ten CDs on this list have one thing in common: They won’t embarrass you if someone happens to find them in your collection. There’s nothing here by the Brady Kids, or Vanilla Ice, or the Flirts, or Scott Baio. Which is not to say I don’t have some CDs of questionable quality in my cabinet—yes, I own The Best of Foghat—but trust me, owning the ten CDs on this list sets you apart as a person of eclectic and discerning musical taste. Of course, that’s coming from the guy who owns them, so take it for what it’s worth.

Amazing Blondel
Evensong/Fantasia Lindum

In the mid-to-late 1960s, a number of British groups went looking for inspiration in England’s musical past—all the way back to the Elizabethan era. Some groups, like Fairport Convention, used modern instruments to record updated versions of authentic minstrel ballads from that time. Amazing Blondel took a different approach: They wrote original songs that sounded as if they could have been written in the 16th century, and played them on actual instruments from that time period—lutes and crumhorns and whatnot.

This presented a problem in concerts, because the old instruments often required five hours to tune. All Music Guide says “…and unlike many rock acts of the era, if they couldn’t get their instruments in tune, they didn’t perform.”

This CD is a combination of two of their original albums, and it’s on the list because it’s all very mellow, melodic, and peaceful.

Gordon Lightfoot
Gord’s Gold

As my friend and co-worker Jeff White recently pointed out, one of the things that makes an album great is the memories you associate with it. Gord’s Gold takes me back to the classic long-distance romance of my college years, a passionate relationship with a girl who was born in New Jersey but lived in Michigan, a girl I met in Indiana and later visited in Texas—after she’d spent the summer of 1980 in Kansas. I believe her dad was from Maine. He didn’t like me, but that’s not Gordon Lightfoot’s fault.

Gord’s Gold is a double album of songs GL had released on a number of earlier records, but re-recorded in 1975 with his current band. This album is like a cool summer wind off Lake Superior: It surrounds you, lifts you up, and deposits you in the middle of a forest of lodgepole pines. There is no more romantic album on this list, nor in my entire collection. And I have The Best of Foghat, so that’s saying something.

Gordon Lightfoot’s voice and gentle guitar-picking can make a song about the history of the Canadian railroad sound like the greatest love song ever sung.


If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, let me assure you that No, Donovan McNabb is not on my list of top ten NFL quarterbacks. But if you’re thinking something else, you might be thinking right along with me that Donovan Leitch (for that is his real name) is possibly the most underrated singer-songwriter of the 1960s. He got painted with the hippie-flower-child brush, and admittedly some of his lesser known stuff gets mystical to the point of being twee (a word I never really knew until I heard it used to describe the songs of Belle & Sebastian, a group that sounds uncannily like Donovan), but still, his best ‘60s pop songs hold up today as simple, sincere, truly original, and highly listenable.

Sutras was released in 1996, 13 years after Donovan’s last collection of original material. I hadn’t intended for so much mellow music to be clumped together on this list, but this album falls right into line, with 14 songs that kind of amble along in Donovan’s warm breathy voice.

By the way, Donovan (or Dono, as I like to call him) is the father of actress Ione Skye.

Fairport Convention
The Best of Fairport Convention

Fairport Convention is one of those bands I’d heard of for years before actually hearing them. It didn’t take long to become a fan. As you might infer from the presence of Amazing Blondel, Jethro Tull, and Donovan on this list, I have an affinity for British folk-rock, especially when it’s blended as seamlessly as it is on this and other Fairport albums. Another reason to love this group is the voice of the lead singer, Sandy Denny. All Music Guide says that her “penetrating, resonant voice qualifies her as the best British folk-rock singer of all time.” I don’t disagree. Her voice makes me want to go back in time and make out with her, but that’s neither here nor there.

This particular CD is part of A&M Records’ “20th Century Masters” series, which seems to be a pretty shameless attempt to separate music fans from their money with yet another repackaging of hits. Nevertheless, if you don’t own any of the other albums, it makes a great introduction to one of the best folk-rock bands of the ‘60s.

Hot Tuna
The Best of Hot Tuna

One of the great thrills of my life was when I finally heard somebody pronounce Jorma Kaukonen’s name. For years I’d been pronouncing it a variety of ways, all of them wrong, until I heard Garrison Keillor say it correctly on a commercial for Prairie Home Companion. (For those without the accompanying audio track, it’s YOR-ma COW-ko-nen. It’s Finnish.) Jorma was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane and the guy who came up with the name. He’s also a hell of a guitarist who seems to be equally comfortable with the psychedelic songs of the Airplane, his own folkie originals, and acoustic and electric blues.

Hot Tuna began in 1970 as a collaboration between Kaukonen and Airplane bassist Jack Casady, a side project that let them both indulge their love of the blues. For some reason, Hot Tuna struck a chord with my daughters when they were in grade school, so it wasn’t uncommon to see them dancing around the house to the Spice Girls one minute and Hot Tuna the next.

Jethro Tull
Songs From the Wood

You can take any three people with the sketchiest musical talent, put ‘em in a room with two guitars and a drum kit, and a couple of hours later they’ll be playing “Louie, Louie.” It’s a safe bet they won’t be playing any Jethro Tull songs. The typical Jethro Tull album features songs with complex arrangements, unusual chord progressions, unexpected tempo changes, and a few surprises on top of all that. It’s pretty clear that Ian Anderson and the boys aren’t banging out these tunes in their garage overnight, and that’s part of the appeal to me—not only for this group and this album, but for art rock in general. There’s nothing wrong with music that makes you realize how much thought went into making it—as long as it’s good, which this is.

I think of this album as belonging to the category of Stonehenge-rock. The jazzy flute solos, the earthy rock beats, the lyrical references to ancient mystical English legends—it all evokes images of Druids dancing around gigantic stone monoliths, frolicking on the village green, and drinking ale out of pewter goblets.

Ah, but what do I know from Druids?

They Might Be Giants
Apollo 18

If you had to describe They Might Be Giants in one word, “playful” might be the first thing that comes to mind. “Peerless” would be appropriate, too, because I can’t think of anyone who does what John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been doing for well over two decades now. Name another group that writes catchy melodies about palindromes, James Ensor (“Belgium’s famous painter”), prosthetic foreheads, purple toupees, and being reincarnated as a bag of groceries—and does it all with so much fun and what seems to be, over the course of several albums, every instrument ever invented.

If you’re looking for a place to start getting into TMBG, I’d recommend this album or the album Flood, which contains arguably their biggest hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” I also highly recommend seeing them in concert.

Loudon Wainwright III
Album III

Younger people who know Rufus Wainwright might not necessarily know that his father is an accomplished singer-songwriter whose albums are an eclectic mix of absurdist humor and soul-baring confessionals. People closer to my age might not remember that for one year, Loudon Wainwright III was a regular on the TV series M*A*S*H, playing the role of Captain Spalding, who mostly sat around and sang songs that didn’t sound as if they’d been written during the Korean War. (Though that wasn’t nearly as grating as Suzi Quatro singing ‘70s raunch-rock on “Happy Days.”) And people who haven’t delved into LW3’s consistently impressive body of work over the last 30 years might only know him as the artist behind the classic song “Dead Skunk.” That song is probably what prompted me to purchase this album, but what I discovered in the other nine songs makes it one of the best musical investments
I’ve ever made.

This holds the distinction of being the only album I’ve owned on 8-track, LP, and CD.

The Roches
The Roches

I became aware of the Roches in 1979 when they were the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” (Bea Arthur was the host that night, if you’re keeping score—and yes, SNL used to book musical acts that didn’t fit in the top-40 crap-of-the-month category). The Roches are three sisters—Maggie Roche, Terre Roche, and Suzzy Roche—who specialized in original acoustic folkie tunes with quirky lyrics and amazing vocal harmonies. One of the songs they did on SNL that night was an a cappella version of the Hallelujah Chorus, and it blew me away. I immediately started looking for their debut album, which, in the days before, meant going down to Morning Glory Music in downtown Crawfordsville, Indiana every week and asking if it was in yet.

This album also brings back some memories of the same girl who’s forever linked with the Gord’s Gold album. Fourth of July, 1981: She and I and my cousin and my cousin’s husband were driving around downtown St Louis in a Renault Le Car, singing these songs at the top of our lungs with the sun roof open. Ah, yes—to be drunk on love.

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

Anger. Pain. Loneliness. Confusion. It’s all here on what I consider Dylan’s finest album, which chronicles the whole range of emotions associated with being separated from his wife Sara Lowndes. Of course, Bob makes it easy to listen to, even if it’s not always easy to grasp the meaning of it. “Idiot Wind,” for instance, is one of the most bitter songs ever recorded—but at times the anger seems directed at himself, other times at his future ex-wife, other times at some unnamed interloper. The press, maybe? The amazing thing about a record this personal is that it never becomes uncomfortable. You never feel like you’re prying. You can just listen and be glad that a talented musician used his pain to create some hauntingly beautiful art.

Whenever people tell me they’d like to get into Dylan but don’t know where to start, I point them here first. I think if you love this album, you’ll love the man.

These 15 CDs Didn’t Make The Cut But Aren’t Exactly Chopped Liver Either

Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (You also can’t go wrong with Moondance. But Astral Weeks has a weird ethereal quality that’s unforgettable.)

Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Stephen Stills, Super Session

Gram Parsons, GP

Nick Drake, Bryter Later

Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant (I can’t think of another song that has influenced my sense of humor more than “Alice’s Restaurant.”)

Steeleye Span, Spanning the Years (Vocalist Maddy Prior would have to be Sandy Denny’s closest rival for the title of “Best British folk-rock singer of all time.”)

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic

Billy Joel, The Stranger

Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Queen, Greatest Hits (There are probably 114 different collections of Queen’s greatest hits. Some of them don’t even have “Bohemian Rhapsody” on them, so caveat emptor.)

The Proclaimers, Sunshine on Leith

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue

Laura Nyro, Time and Love: The Essential Masters

Todd Snider, Step Right Up

Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (You’ve got to love an album that contains the line “He has a mistress/She’s Puerto Rican/And I’ve heard she has a wooden leg.”)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Did I Order A B?

Maybe I just take too much for granted.

I just got back from Blimpie's, where I ordered a 12-inch BLT. The employee who took my order promptly placed the bacon in the microwave, and then when the dinger dinged, she took out the cooked bacon, laid it neatly on the bread, and asked what I wanted on my sandwich.

You see where this is going, don't you?

I said I wanted mayo, because really, what else would you put on a BLT? She squirted mayo all up and down the bottom piece of bread, and then closed the sandwich.

At which point I had to fake surprise and pretend I had a sudden revelation: "Oh, let's go ahead and put lettuce and tomato on there, too."

Should you really have to request lettuce and tomato when you order a BLT? It's like to going to McDonalds and asking for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese with cheese.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Floss, Toss, and Follow the Dictates of Your Own Conscience

The tag line for my favorite brand of individual floss picks is "Floss, toss, and go."

For some reason this strikes me as presumptuous. After I've flossed my teeth and tossed the pick, it’s no longer the concern of the Dentek Corporation what I do. I might not want to go. I might want to linger in front of the mirror admiring my freshly flossed teeth. It’s more likely that I’d want to stick around and brush my teeth.

Where, exactly, do they want me to go at that point?

As a writer by nature and a copywriter by profession, I'm a big believer in rhythm. There's a reason why good writing is said to flow: It's because it moves along with the same pace and fluctuation of human speech, allowing the reader to concentrate on meaning without crashing into the rocks of poor sentence construction. Or goofy metaphors.

There is, however, such a thing as being a slave to rhythm. You see it in advertising copy from time to time, when a writer just can't stop himself from going for a line that sounds good but doesn't quite work. “Floss, toss, and go” certainly fits into a rhythm that we’re all familiar with: “Stop, look, and listen,” “Stop, drop, and roll,” etc. But the “go” is unnecessary. It oversteps the assumed boundary between manufacturer and consumer.

It’s like saying “Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Step out of the shower. Make yourself a sandwich.”

I should point out that I became a convert to flossing a little over a year ago, after a rather tragic dental appointment that finally made me see the light and realize that brushing twice a day isn't enough. The problem (before my conversion) was that I just couldn't get the hang of standard dental floss. That business of wrapping it around both index fingers was just too awkward, so I'd given up on flossing, assuming it to be the exclusive province of the superdexterous--gymnasts and ballet dancers and whatnot. But then I discovered the individual floss picks, and my teeth and gums were saved. With these little deals, you can floss an entire mouth in 30 seconds or less. You could theoretically floss yours and a friend's in under a minute. It's all about speed and convenience, which is why the Dentek copywriter went with "Floss, toss, and go."

But he should have stopped at “toss.”

Friday, June 30, 2006

Do The Math

Sportswriter Greg Cote of the Miami Herald was, I’m sure, just trying to be funny when he made a comment about the possibility of increasing the NCAA basketball tournament from 64 teams to 128. Cote wrote “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to March April and May Madness!”

Because you don't have to be all that good at math to understand that doubling the number of teams would lengthen the tournament by a mere one week. Quadrupling the number of teams would only make it two weeks longer, and so on and so on.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Return of the Rat Race Choir

I’ve actually posted in the Runes three times this month, so I thought it was time to bring the Choir up to date.

When last I wrote, the Patsies were going to Chicago to perform in the nation’s largest sketch comedy festival. And we did. Two nights, Thursday and Friday, with a decent crowd of 40-50 people coming out to see the visiting Iowans each night. We got some laughs, but there was a lot of ball-dropping, line-flubbing, and cue-missing--and while none of that made me wish we weren’t there, it did put a bit of a damper on what was otherwise a fun-filled trip to Chicago.

It was, however, the last hurrah for the Patsies. The group itself was going in a couple of different comedic directions and there was a considerable amount of drama and conflict that eventually began to affect certain friendships within the group. So, after 16 shows in 11 months, the Patsies just sort of disintegrated.

The good news (and one thing that prompted the rebirth of the Choir) is that some of us are coming back in a new group, tentatively called The Comedy Cooperative and scheduled to perform at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner Theater in August. It might be a one-off or it might be a semi-permanent thing, but it should be a pleasant diversion for everyone.

Random Thoughts

+ I was listening to Yahoo LaunchCast today and a Sandy Denny song came on: “Been On the Road So Long.” It made me realize that if time travel were possible, I think my first destination would be to go back to the early 1970s and sit at her feet listening to her sing. Her voice just reaches inside me.

+ Today I happened to see a TV spot for some sort of funeral insurance (something I’m quite familiar with from my days working on the Brintlinger Funeral Home account back in Decatur), and the spokesman said this: “These days the cost of a typical funeral can be up to $10,000--or more!” But see, you can’t do that. You can’t say “up to...or more” because it’s a contradiction. If it’s up to $10,000, it can’t be more than $10,000, too.

+ I’m just pointing that out for future reference. Tell ‘em where you got it.

+ Look for more posts here at the Choir in the next few weeks. I’m between novels right now.