ABBA Reconsidered

Growing up in the 70’s, I heard my fair share of pop music, mostly as I dawdled over a bowl of cereal while our local AM radio station spun tunes in between news updates and weather forecasts. WIMA programmed an adult contemporary playlist that was as digestible at the breakfast table as it was suitable for dentists’ offices. Songs like Feelings, Tie A Yellow Ribbon, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Music Box Dancer were mixed with country crossover hits such as The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Southern Nights, all topped off with a liberal sprinkling of Bee Gees hits. From the dawn of disco to its twilight and shortly thereafter, WIMA also kept ABBA in heavy rotation.

I was familiar with ABBA because of their inclusion among the small stack of 45’s I had inherited from my siblings. Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room. Clint Holmes’ Playground in My Mind. The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. Something had to go under the needle of my very first record player, and whatever I found around the house was added to the playlist. I still remember the red and black Atlantic Records label revolving as the low-fidelity strains of Waterloo warbled from built-in speakers. It was a happy and infectious tune, and although I had no idea what the song was about, I knew I liked the music. Like most of the ABBA hits that were destined to dominate the airwaves, Waterloo was so catchy that it was hard to forget. Hear it once, and you know it. Hear it twice, and it’s stuck in your head. Read More

Green Machine

Why learn to balance on two wheels when you don’t have to?

I don’t remember exactly when I learned to ride a bicycle, but I’m pretty sure I was the last of my peers to acquire the skill. I have a vague notion that it wasn’t even necessarily my idea. Somehow we ended up borrowing an old and rusted girls’ bike with training wheels, a literal vehicle for shame and embarrassment. I knew that the whole world was watching me as I wobbled up and down the sidewalk. Ha, ha! Look at that kid who hasn’t learned how to ride a bike yet! I kept my head down, tried to keep my balance, and wondered how I had unwittingly fallen behind the rest of the pack. Like every childhood drama, it seemed terribly important at the time.

My first experience with self-propelled vehicles was the classic tricycle, which by all accounts I heartily enjoyed. It was the standard, all-metal model with a runner between the back wheels. I am told that it was stolen from our front yard one night, a heartless thievery that I do not recall, yet I am willing to cast blame upon the anonymous robber for activating latent neuroses. If ever I am called to plead my case before a jury, I’m blaming whatever I did on the tricycle thief. Read More

A Nearly Perfect Circle

I imagine that Dick Ireland, were he alive today, would be surprised to learn that a former student fondly and frequently recalls his old geometry and physics teacher nearly thirty years later. Once our mortarboards arced through an overcast spring sky and clattered onto the asphalt parking lot, I never returned. Nor did I bother to contact any of the instructors who were an integral part of my life all those years ago. Somehow the thought of keeping in touch with my alma mater and its faculty seemed like moving backward instead of forward. Yet in a minor irony that I never foresaw as a teenager, I eventually became a teacher myself.

Like most educators, I wonder about the lasting impact of my instruction and guidance. I hope that when I sign off on my last report card, I will have made a net positive difference in the lives of my students. But I’ll never really know. Students move on, just as I did. It took me years to truly appreciate what the best of my teachers had given me, just as I had to reach a certain level of maturity to understand how and why the worst of my teachers had shortchanged me. Good or bad, my lasting impressions of them have little to do with the content they labored to teach me. Read More

Every Boy Does Magic

Thank you, Marshall Brodien…

Illusionist Penn Jillette recently revealed to Tuscon Weekly that his estimation of magic was changed by James “The Amazing” Randi, who taught him that it is an honorable profession provided that audiences are fully aware they are being deceived. I suppose the vast majority of those who bothered to tune in to The Rock ‘n’ Fun Magic Show, a gaudy spectacle featuring Bill Cosby, Doug Henning and the Hudson Brothers that aired in the fall of 1975, were cognizant that they were being exposed to illusions rather than manifestations of the supernatural, Henning’s wide-eyed proclamations that “anything is possible” notwithstanding. I, however, was only seven years old, an age at which I accepted almost everything at face value. Even though I understood that all magic was some sort of a trick, I totally bought into the false drama that Henning employed to heighten the effect of his most dramatic stunt.

“Not only is this the first time this escape has been attempted since Houdini did it, it’s the first time it’s ever been tried on television,” intoned a sober host as he stood before a glass tank filled to the brim with water. “And remember, it’s being done live at this very moment. If this looks dangerous to you, believe me, it is.” Henning then emerged from the wings, striding purposefully in a rust-colored robe with the confident air of Christ on his way to give what-for to the temple desecrators. Stripped down to a pair of orange trunks, he was hoisted by his padlocked ankles and dangled over the tank. “And now, Doug is going to take four deep breaths – and hold the last one.” Read More

Best Picture

What do Brad Pitt, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jessica Chastain have in common? Each of them appears in two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture of 2011 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Four of the films include French settings or characters, three of them use World Wars I or II as plot elements, and two of them feature a boy trying to strengthen ties to his late father by solving the mystery of a missing lock or key. Aside from all that and a pervading air of nostalgia, the field of nominees is most notable for its diversity. Good luck to the Academy trying to sort it all out, because these nine films are nearly incomparable.

The Artist may appear to casual moviegoers as the oddball of the bunch. After all, it’s a silent movie shot in black and white. This does not, however, signal pretentiousness. On the contrary, it’s a very accessible, entertaining film that’s bound to charm anyone who gives it a chance. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo are magnetically charismatic as falling and rising stars at the dawn of the talkies. Those with a fondness for silent cinema will enjoy the evocation of that era, but it’s not necessary to be a film buff to like The Artist. It’s a lightweight yet engaging romance, a rare crowd-pleaser that does not pander to its audience. Read More

That’s Entertainment

The PTL Club: One of the funniest shows ever? Mark certainly thought so.

John Cleese tells a story about the early days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, when the fledgling series was difficult to catch due to its erratic broadcast schedule. A friend of his from Newcastle managed to tune in one night and laughed at a long and rambling introduction featuring a boring documentarian droning on about Newcastle’s ancient monuments. Only after twenty minutes of the program had elapsed did the friend realize that he wasn’t watching Python. He had been laughing hysterically at a straight documentary feature.

That incident occurred over forty years ago, yet it illustrates a strange duality that persists in our media-saturated culture. Only a small percentage of all programming appeals to any particular viewer as genuinely entertaining, a perception that leads us to bemoan the paltry amount of worthwhile broadcasts among an ever-increasing buffet of cable channels. Yes, you really can have 100 channels and nothing to watch. But that is true only if we demand to enjoy shows as they are intended by their creators to be enjoyed. The dichotomy of modern television is that a large portion of it is unintentionally entertaining. Read More

Ding!

Encamped at opposite poles of the English-speaking world are extremists whose habits annoy the general population. At one end are those who are either profoundly ignorant of correct usage or completely indifferent to it. Tell one of them that he just misused the possessive your in place of the contraction you’re, and he may clap a palm to his forehead and exclaim, “I should of known!” Less forgivable is the tendency of their nemeses, the strict grammarians, to point out linguistic transgressions at every opportunity. They’re the ones who won’t let this whole lie versus lay business lie. Or lay. Whatever.

In between is the vast spectrum of English users and abusers, each of us harboring a unique sense of that which is laudable, that which is permissible, and that which must be condemned. To trample over one of our beloved conventions is to commit a heresy. Conversely, correcting any of our colorful colloquialisms is boorish dogmatism. That is the crux of the problem with grammatical debate. It’s impossible to define a universally appealing set of standards. Read More

Between The Lines

If the mixture of articles selected for inclusion in this weekend’s USA Today meaningfully reflects a diverse population’s collective interests, then ours is a nation of strange priorities. The current issue runs an unusually hefty 54 pages, thanks to a special section highlighting Super Bowl XLVI. The 14-page supplement, longer than any one of the self-billed Nation’s Newspaper‘s customary News, Money, Sports, and Life sections, includes detailed analyses of the upcoming game, in-depth profiles of players, and even a cutaway diagram of host venue Lucas Oil Stadium. As hyped as the Super Bowl is, it’s an understandable – and I imagine rather profitable – editorial concession.

But the spotlight on Super Bowl Sunday is not contained within its designated section. A quarter of the Sports section provides further insights, including Madonna’s tantalizing comments on the nature of her highly anticipated halftime performance. A lead article on the relationship of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady dominates the front of the News section and continues over the whole of page two. The Money Section boasts a cover story about Super Bowl advertising, accompanied by a look at related smart-phone promotions and some insights on the rising popularity of chicken wings as a game day staple. Even the Life section is not exempt, lest a lightweight patron of the arts somehow miss the news that there is a very important football game this Sunday. There in the Travel subsection is a list of Larry Bird’s favorite haunts in Indianapolis, which, by the way, just happens to be hosting the Super Bowl this weekend. Read More

Wherefore Endorphins?

Creativity is an enticingly rewarding yet elusive pursuit. It seems to spring into existence like a strange and wondrous flowering plant, popping up in our gardens now and then regardless of whether or not we attempt to cultivate it. Those of us who appreciate the blooming presence of creative inspiration do all that we can to nurture it, to keep it alive and thriving for as long as possible. Despite our efforts, creativity withers, dies, and springs anew according to its own natural laws, an unfathomable set of principles that we sense yet cannot know. How is it that one can be all fired up to create something one day yet utterly unmotivated and bereft of ideas the next? The answer is as difficult to grasp as the creative muse itself.

While I cannot pin down the cause of creativity, I can vouch for its beneficial effect on my psyche:  creating something (almost anything) simply makes me feel better. Conversely, enduring a period of creative stagnation makes me feel worse. As this correlation has gradually become apparent to me over the years, I have concluded that there is a physiological basis for it, hence the tagline for my blog: Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring substances that are released by the brain. They are known to deaden sensations of pain and are thought to produce feelings of well-being. Some people think endorphins foster creativity, but I suspect it also works in the opposite direction. I know that I need to be in a good frame of mind in order to write well, yet I also know that I always feel better after I write well than I did before I started. So, Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. The stories and commentary are for you, and the endorphins are for me. Read More

Pulling The Plug

The news came while I was at work, courtesy of a text message from my wife. It was not unexpected. We had been discussing the issue for months, but it took a surprising amount of courage to see our decision through to its implementation. Staring at my phone, I sighed with the knowledge that what was done was done, and life would never be quite the same. “It’s official,” read the message. “Our land line is no more!”

Maintaining a phone line into our home was costing us $420 a year, an expense that was hard to justify now that everyone in our family of four carries a dedicated cell phone. There were few advantages to keeping things as they were. We did liked the peace of mind that came with communication redundancy, the smug assurance that should sun spots interfere with satellites and cell towers, we still had a sure-fire means of making and receiving calls. Also, it was easier to have someone just pick up an extension rather than engineering a three-way cell phone call. And it’s nice to hear the phone ringing throughout the house and be able to answer it quickly without being tethered to a device. But $420 for such luxuries? We realized that never would we have taken on the expense as a new expenditure, and it became clear that we were keeping a land line mostly because we had always had one. Not much of a rationale for spending money that could be better used elsewhere.

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