Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Weirdness: alone and with a group

It's not that I mind being the lone oddball, but sometimes it's nice to have your oddballness validated, to hang with people who share your particular peculiarities. I had a great time at last weekend's big family get-together, but a lot of the conversation revolved around football, basketball and -- God help us! -- golf, so it was good to turn the old XM radio to channel 175 and commune with those who believe as I do that the only game worthy of one's attention is baseball.
And you know I love that neglected and underappreciated artform, the obituary. That's why I am so enjoying this book:

because it's about people like me who haunt the alt-obituaries newsgroup, people who would buy the New York Times even if their crossword puzzles were not the best just because their obit page is awesome, (and awesome is not a word I toss around lightly), people who actually have a favorite obituarist. (Mine is definitely Stephen Miller, but I did just order and can't wait to read "52 McGs. : The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas" cuz McG was pretty darn good too.)
Here's hoping that you never have to be weird all by yourself. (Unless of course that's the way you want to be weird.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Buck and me

I have a confession to make.
But first let's pay tribute to a great man who passed away over the weekend, Mister Alvis Edgar Owens. Better known as Buck.
This is the kind of man I am: I decided when I was about 12 years old what I thought was cool -- baseball, comic books, country music and girls with dark hair and dark eyes. And I never changed my mind about that. That's still what I think is cool.
My first exposure to country music was subliminal. There was a radio station in the small North Carolina town I grew up in that played pop music all day long, but switched to a country format sometime around midnight. I would fall asleep listening to the Grass Roots and Badfinger and Bobby Sherman but wake up with Conway Twitty, Charley Pride and Waylon Jennings. My classmates fell asleep listening to the radio like I did, but they were horrified at the hillbilly wailing they heard in the morning. I, on the other hand, was entranced. I loved country music and never felt like I had to choose between rock and rockabilly, I just enjoyed it all.
Buck Owens had a syndicated TV show back then that I have not seen mentioned in any of the obits of the Bard of Bakersfield, but I know I didn't dream it. I used to watch it every Saturday night at 10:30. I have to say that although I enjoyed Buck's music he was never one of my favorite singers, and one of the reasons I watched the show was to try and figure out what the hell was up with his lip. Was that a scar or a harelip or what? (Even after watching him for years on Hee-Haw, I still don't know for sure, but I'm guessing scar.)
Single-handedly (and later with some help from Merle Haggard, who started out as a bass player in Buck's band the Buckaroos, before stealing his boss's wife Bonnie Owens) Buck invented a new style of country music named after his adopted hometown of Bakersfield, California. He had a string of hits in the 1960's. But he is probably best known today as the co-host (along with Roy Clark) of the TV show "Hee-Haw!". According to the New York Times Buck had mixed feelings about the success of that show: he thought the persona of "country rube" he wore on that show destroyed his album sales. But I really think that was his persona before "Hee-Haw!" I mean while Haggard was singing about hard times in songs like "Working Man Blues" and "If We Make it Through December" Buck was singing "I've got the hungries for your love, and I'm waiting in your welfare line." While Johnny Cash compared falling in love to being engulfed in a ring of fire, Buck said it was more like having a tiger by the tail. Not a novelty act but certainly more light-hearted than a lot of his contemporaries.
(Although in fairness, it must be said that "Act Naturally" and "Crying Time" were great enough to be covered by, respectively, the Beatles and Ray Charles.)
And here's my confession: when I learn that someone I admire has died, my first thought is compassion for their family. But it's followed closely by "Do I already have his (or her) autograph?" I know that sounds horrible, but in my defense I must say that I always tell the autographer how much I appreciate their work, and I'm glad I got to do that while they were still alive. I mean, I wish I had thanked Don Knotts for being Barney Fife, whether I got his signature or not.
Fortunately, in Buck's case, I did get a chance to thank him for the music and to get his autograph.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Helping verbs

I have no idea why I remember some stuff forever and forget some stuff right away, although I think the more important a piece of information is the more likely I will be unable to hang onto it. And music might help. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade we had to learn all the helping verbs by singing the aptly-named "Helping Verbs Song." It goes something like this:

"Am, is, are, was, were, has, have, had
Do, does, did, can, may, might, must
Shall, will, should, would, could."

The helping verbs, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you very much.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Last Spring when the weather started to turn nice (i.e. warm) I abandoned my usual lunchtime ritual of farting around on the internet and instead went outside to the lovely Waterfront Park next door.

Of course I took a book with me. The book was "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger. I'm not sure why I picked up this particular tome, because I didn't like the cover at first, but it turned out to be the best book I had read in a long long time, maybe ever. It's the story of a man with chrono-displacement disorder, a disease that causes him to bounce around uncontrollably back and forth in time, and the woman that loves him and how they deal with his affliction. Niffenegger is a master of words and I had to keep reminding myself that there was no such disease, because it and everything else in the book seemed real, realer than the park or the job I was supposed to be going back to. It blew me away, and it blew me away time after time. I wrote Niffenegger a letter to thank her for the book and I said that books like hers were the reason I kept making time for books and wading through mediocre books and refusing to join the modern subliterate zeitgeist; it's because of the handful of books like this one that you find in a lifetime (if you're lucky) that makes it all worthwhile. When our kids were little if somebody said they loved Persi-Cola or Sesame Street or anything they would say "If you love it why don't you marry it?" I thought of that after I finished reading"The Time-Traveler's Wife" and I told my wife Kim if I weren't already married to her I would marry that book.
In other words, I liked it.

All right, so now the weather's turned nice again. I'm emerging from my winter torpor and heading back to the park. The book under my arm this time is "Love and Other Near-Death Experiences" by Mil Millington It is about a guy who is on the run from Christian fundamentalist terrorists who believe he has cheated God by surviving a restaurant explosion and who intend to help God out by blowing his head off. It may not sound like it, but it is absolutely hilarious. Millington cracks me up on almost every page. And I'll prove it. Opening it up at random I find the protagonist and his new girlfriend in bed after the kind of sex where the sheets need to be "ritually burned on a hilltop exorcism by an especially steely-nerved priest." And he says to her:

"I would never have guessed you'd be so . . ." I gave up trying to think of a word for it and settled for simply blowing air out between my lips. "I mean, you read books. You're 'bookish.' Aren't books and sex pretty much an either-or choice?"
"A notion that could only possible have gestated in the low-ceilinged brain of someone who doesn't read enough books. Just think of Emily Bronte, for example: psychotically bookish -- but was there ever a woman screaming out so loudly for a good f***ing? I even suspect that's why Wuthering Heights carries on decades too long rather than sensibly drawing the curtains a little after Cathy's death. It was Bronte saying, 'Look -- I'm simply going to keep on writing this stuff until someone comes and shags me raw."

It's hard to imagine two books more dissimilar. The only thing they have in common is that they both sent me back to work with red eyes and a warm glow.
And what I want to know is it the park? the season? the book? some combination? Would I have enjoyed these books as much if I'd picked them up in the winter? Could I take a crappy book to the park in March and would it sing to me?

Friday, March 03, 2006

The terrible toll tobacco takes

We've lost some really cool celebrities in the last week or so -- everybody knows Don Knotts, the immortal Barney Fife, who passed away on February 24th at the age of 81, you should know Dennis Weaver who played Chester Goode on "Gunsmoke" and starred as "McCloud," (although you may not remember that he had a minor hit record called "Prairie Dog Blues.") Some of you probably know that Peter Benchley (who died on February 12th) scared the hell out of everybody back in '73 with a book called "Jaws" and you probably know Darren McGavin either as the furnace-fighting father in "A Christmas Story" or as Kolchak, the Night Stalker.
But how many of you know who I'm talking about when I say Jack Wild died ? Not many, I'll wager. Mr. Wild is famous for two things: He played the Artful Dodger in the award-winning film "Oliver!" and he played Jimmy, the kid with a magic talking flute named Fweddie on the no-doubt-about-it trippiest kids show ever "H.R. Pufnstuf." Mr. Wild died on March 2nd at the age of 53. He'd have probably been with us for another twenty or thirty years had he not been such a heavy smoker. The last few years of his life he suffered from mouth cancer and had his voice box and various other pieces of his facial palatte removed. He couldn't talk (or swallow either) which makes it hard to get work as an actor, and he lived with constant pain.
But it was worth it, right? Cuz smoking is so darn fun.
Actually, I can't think of many things less fun than lighting a noxious weed on fire and inhaling the foul fumes.
(By the way, you'll always know as soon as a prominent person perishes if you do like I do and subscribe to the Celebrity Death Beeper. I used to also subscribe to "Good-Bye, the Death Zine" but it's no longer being published, although if you want to read some really cool obituaries check out their archives here.)

Well, I was trying to add this picture to my profile page, but it kept popping up over here as a new entry instead. I fought it for a while, but finally gave up. It's hard to fight when you're laughing and that shirt just cracks me up.