Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Closer Look At ... The Best Magazine (Make That Copycat)

It's one thing to be a fan of mine, as Zooey Deschanel and Mike Ditka are. It's quite another thing to come here, read what I'm doing, and then post lame versions of it on your own website.

That's what The Onion did a while back, prompting me to revoke the paper's original nomination and instead make it "The Best Copycat."

That did not teach The Onion a lesson, apparently.

I wrote about how Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" is a lame attempt to cash in on lesbinism years after Jill Sobule wrote The Best Song About Girls Kissing Other Girls. I did that on June 20.

Then, on August 1, over on The Onion's website, "The Hater" posted a blog entry about how Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" is a lame attempt to cash in on lesbinism years after Jill Sobule wrote her song.

You know what people should hate? Copycats.

So if you want to know what The Onion will write up next, go back and read what I wrote two months ago.

A Closer Look at... A Closer Look At The Best Female Singer.

Well, now I'm totally confused.

Way way back when, I posted "The Best Female Singer" and mentioned how I'd come to like Fiona Apple's voice because of the song "I Need You Like A Drug" which had been on a mixtape a DJ friend of mine made; but I couldn't find the tape and I could never find the song.

Then, searching around on Youtube, I found the song "I Need You Like A Drug," only it was credited to They Eat Their Own and maybe to Moffmen.

Now, loyal reader Krista, who I would link to but her link is blocked, has done some searching of her own and come up with the song "I Need You Like A Drug," available at this site, and credited to...

Fiona Apple.

So will someone just please settle this for once and for all? Who sang this song? And what's a Moffman? And why are candy bars 99 cents?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Best Television Detective

Detectives, television detectives at least, have the easiest jobs in the world. It may look difficult to spend all your time combing through a beach with a tiny rake to see if someone dropped a speck of skin (as CSI investigators do), or pinning drug dealers up against a chain-link fence on a cold day to question them (as every Law & Order detective does) or pretending that you're all artsy by having a drunk God character when really you're just being confrontational and saying nothing at all about anything (a la "Saving Grace," a show so devoid of viewers that they now require viewers of The Closer to sit through portions of Saving Grace to see scenes from next week's episode of The Closer. If you have to bribe viewers, is your show really any good?)

(As a side note, there was actually a scene on one of those CSI shows in which the investigators actually did have to rope off a section of beach and then sift through sand one cubic millimeter at a time looking for something or other, and I had to stop watching because the very thought of doing that for a driving almost drove me completely insane.)

All those things seem hard, but they're just make-work for television detectives until the breakthrough comes, about 40 minutes into the investigation. The breakthrough, on every detective show I've ever watched, happens exactly the same way: The detective (police or independent investigator) is doing something completely unrelated to the investigation -- playing ping pong or looking down Cutty's blouse or hiding a cat -- and someone says something that solves the crime.

Say, for example, the detective is investigating a murder involving a guy who was parachuting out of a plane and died because his parachute failed to open in time and he crashed to his death, and the detective investigating it is baffled because the parachute worked perfectly and the jump was done at the correct height and everyone else's parachute in the group opened up and the guy was a longtime parachutist who in fact worked as an instructor and had won a gold medal at the 2002 Parachute X-Games in Vancouver... leading the detective's friends and police chief to conclude that this was just some sort of freak accident but the detective is convinced it was murder.

Say that's the plot of the detective show you're watching. (Note: I just now made that up and it's my idea, so if you're interested in producing that show, better call me because like Richard Pryor's wife in the movie "The Toy," I'm very litigious.) How in the world is the detective going to solve that crime?

Things look lost... until the detective and his/her police chief friend are having lunch one day at the local bagel shop, and the cop friend asks for a diet soda, and they have this exchange:

Detective: Diet soda? You don't drink diet soda.

Cop: I have to lose some weight. The other day, I sat on the couch and broke a spring and we have to have it reupholstered; it couldn't bear my weight anymore.

Detective: (Clearly thinking about the mystery, now): Gained weight... couldn't bear your weight...

At which point, he/she drops his/her lunch and rushes off, leaving the bewildered chief of police or whoever standing there, while the detective goes to the hangar where the parachutist's gear was stored, and gets the boots the parachutist wore on the fatal jump, and slices open the soles, and realizes that the soles have been stuffed with lead weights, making the parachutist heavier so he falls faster and his parachute can't open in time to bear his weight to the ground!

That, readers, is how you write a detective show on TV, and that's how pretty much every single TV detective solves the crimes they're trying to solve. It's not good detective work or fingerprints or being able to use computers magically to 'enhance' a picture beyond any conceivable number of pixels to see the reflection of the actual killer in the edge of a Bic lighter. It's just that offhand comment by a friend or coworker or sassy housekeeper, every time, that solves the crime.

If you ask me, real-life police should take a page from TV detectives and not go around interviewing witnesses; they should do anything but investigate the crime. Go to a theme park. Put on a variety show for the staff. Take up bowling. Whatever they do, someone somewhere will say something (Sorry, we already have a tenor for the opera... wait, tenor... Ten-or... there were more than 10! That's it!) to solve the crime for them.

Based on that, the only real fair way to rate the television detectives is on how interesting of a person they are to watch while you're waiting for the big breakthrough to come up. I don't even bother trying to figure out the mysteries anymore.

Well, that's not exactly true; I do bother, but I do in fact bother to try to figure them out, but I do it in the most annoying way possible by declaring ever more unlikely suspects to be the actual killers. That guy in the background crossing the street that Lenny just looked at? I think it's him. That's because I've been trained to expect not just a big breakthrough, but a twist ending, too. So I try to figure out how big the twist could be. I'm waiting for the ultimate twist ending -- one in which the detective investigating the murder is actually the murderer but doesn't know it.

(Note: that, too, is my idea. See the foregoing note re: my litigiousness.)

But writers know that viewers aren't actually interested in solving the murder; we're there for the quirks and twists of the detective. We want irascible doctors and feisty Assistant LA Police Chiefs with boyfriends who appear to have been laid off by the FBI because they literally never work anymore. We want humorous fake psychics, or, barring all of that, we at least want a borderline psychotic sex-crimes investigator with a secret crush on his partner. We want, in short, someone to hold our interest until a group of dolphins at Seaworld spells out the answer while the detective is supposed to be having a day off. (Those dolphins... they're forming the shape of, yes, it's a popcorn popper! That's it!)

No detective is better at holding the viewer's interest until the mystery is solved via the time-honored deus ex machina system than Adrian Monk, The Best Television Detective. Monk has, it seems, every possible quirk that someone could have. Remorse over dead lover? Check. Weird psychological problems? Check. Sassy assistant? Got her. Impossible level of intelligence? Right here.

Watching the show Monk often means that the mystery takes a back seat to the quirkiness, in a good-to-great way. Adrian's sessions with his shrink, his battles with his arch-enemy Harold Krenshaw, the money troubles he suffers, his family, and his own internal struggle, are all more than sufficient to hold my attention while the 'mystery' unfolds.

It's essential that there be a mystery, though; a show about a guy with OCD and a crushing level of sadness and guilt trying to live his life while on disability leave from the police force would be completely, utterly depressing and quickly canceled. But a show about guy with OCD and a crushing level of sadness and guilt trying to live his life while on disability leave from the police force... solving crimes = Emmy Time -- because the mystery distracts us from how sad his life would be otherwise, and also because the mystery-solving lets us feel good about Adrian Monk and his life; even though he's very very sad, he's also contributing something positive to the world and that means that we can watch the show and anxiously await the killer's unraveling instead of reflecting on how lucky we are in our lives and going to give our kids a hug. TV executives don't want us spending quality time with our families; they want us glued to our TVs through commercials (and hopefully so glued that we'll watch that crummy Holly Hunter show, which we won't.)

A mystery alone won't trap us in our living rooms; but a mystery with a sprinkling of quirk over it has us pinned to that La-Z-Boy, watching while Monk reorganizes his books and mopes about Trudy until, 43 minutes after we start, Natalie's daughter mentions that she was crossing the street that day and saw a pigeon eating a french fry, and Monk gets that look and runs off to the local fast food restaurant, buys a hundred dollars worth of french fries, spreads them on the table, sorts them out, picks one up and runs to a computer, where he goes to the e-Bay website and finds another french fry, nearly identical to the one he's holding, he realizes that the killer committed the murder because the killer makes his living auctioning french fries that look like presidents, and the victim had just come up with a machine that makes all french fries look like presidents.

That, too, is my idea. Remember: very litigious. So until you see all my detective shows on TV, go watch Adrian Monk, The Best Television Detective.

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The Best Of Everything also picked The Best Boyfriend on Friends, and liked Land of the Lost long before Diablo Cody needed something, anything, to be ironic about.

Help Mateo and McHale! The Wonder Twins are medical miracles, but they can't do everything. Find out more about them, and how to help them with their medical bills, by clicking this link.

A Closer Look At... The Best Female Singer.

Fiona Apple became my favorite (and The Best) Female Singer by accident. I suspected as much when I originally nominated her as The Best Female Singer a little over a year ago.

It turns out my suspicions were (like everything else I think) 100% correct, because the song that made me like Fiona Apple so much, "Like A Drug," is, in fact, by They Eat Their Own. Here is that song:

That song's actual video can be found here; the Youtube entry calls it a "smash hit single," which is a description we in the business would call "inaccurate." Or "misleading."

The description also mentions "Moffmen," and is copyrighted, so I'm probably going to be sued or eaten by Moffmen (which sounds like a Sid & Marty Krofft kind of invention) for linking to it.

To learn about and hear a song that's the exact opposite, emotionally speaking, of "Like A Drug," click here. Or go check the alphabetical listing of everything that's ever been considered The Best.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Best Triumph (?) Over The Devil... In Books.

Yesterday, in addition to solving a problem that has bugged me for years and which, having solved, proves that I'm pretty much the smartest person in the world -- I'll tell more about that soon on Thinking The Lions, where I regularly best science-- I also began setting out how books and music and even TV can help us learn how to beat Mephistopheles. Today continues that theme with

The Best Triumph (?) Over The Devil... In Books.

I was considering this morning the problem of the "unreliable narrator," something I began thinking of because of today's nominee as well as because of cell phones and doctors and "science," which at this point ought to just simply have those quotes surgically attached.

The "unreliable narrator" is a narrator with a compromised point of view -- he or she is a person telling the story you're reading (or watching, I suppose) but for some reason, you as the reader (or watcher) cannot entirely believe them. The narrator may be a child, or have mental problems, or he or she may just be untrustworthy, something that you usually learn early on.

The unreliable narrator is an author's way of making sure that you're always standing on sand instead of rock; the ground can shift from under you in subtle or obvious ways. A perfect example of the "unreliable narrator," one that stands atop of all art as the pinnacle of this literary creation, is Emperor Cuzco from the Disney cartoon The Emperor's New Groove.

[SPOILER ALERT! If you are a small child who likes to watch Disney cartoons, or a small child's parent who also likes to watch Disney cartoons and uses those small children as an excuse to watch Disney cartoons, say on a Wednesday night, telling yourself that you're just spending time with your Babies! instead of cleaning up but secretly you just want to get to the point where [SPOILER ALERT INSIDE A SPOILER ALERT] Hercules beats up the Titans because you love that part, not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular, you may want to skip the next part]

Emperor Cuzco begins the story in The Emperor's New Groove trapped in llama form and moping in the rain, while he tells us in a voiceover that instead of being a llama, he used to be the Emperor until a bunch of people came and ruined his life.

Then, as it turns out, the people were not solely responsible for it because [HERE'S THE SPOILER PART] he's sort of a jerk and has to rethink his priorities, leading to a minor argument with himself.

Yes, the movie is even better than it sounds on paper. What Cuzco, above all other literary creations ever, shows us is that the "unreliable narrator" can make a relatively straightforward story better because it puts the reader or watcher into the shoes of the narrator, letting the reader experience what the narrator felt, a little. As Cuzco grows as a person, we, too, grow as a person. We don't get a mouthful of bats, as he did, but we have some empathy.

What Cuzco does not tell us is the insidious degree to which the "unreliable narrator" has, in fact, become the only narrator in our society. While literature and movies and TV still use narrators that can be safely relied on (such as Morgan Freeman, who most recently has appeared as the voice of God in Olympic commercials), society itself is moving more and more from reliable narrators and into unreliable narrators -- people that we can't quite trust, in part because they tell us up front not to trust them (and then society goes and trusts them anyway.)

Here's what I'm talking about: There is a "doctor" who should probably have his license stripped and be ridiculed in society, and instead, he was featured on CNN Headline News this morning as though he was a rational, sane person. That "doctor's" name is Ronald Herberman, and I feel sorry for any patients of his, as they are probably sore from all the leeches and yet still can't get those pesky demons out of their humors.

Ronald Herberman, the ersatz "doctor," issued a warning that people should not use cell phones because there's a risk of brain cancer. Ronald Herberman claims that he does not have to worry about all of those studies that have been performed which show no connection between cell phones and brain tumors; he does not have to worry about that for two reasons:

First, Ronald Herberman says that he's relying on other "early data." I have an idea what that "early data" is -- it's this Youtube video, I suspect:

Those videos were released a while ago without the clearly marked advertising, and became viral hits, only to subsequently be revealed as advertisements put out by a company that makes headsets. Only Ronald Herberman missed that one, it seems, but it wouldn't have mattered, because whatever Ronald Herberman was relying on, it wasn't "science." Herberman doesn't have time to rely on science, he says, and so he advocates ignoring all the facts and simply running around with our heads cut off.

Herberman presumably would not mind me speculating that perhaps he is doing this because perhaps (this is pure speculation) he has been paid by some headset-making company; presumably, Herberman doesn't mind people just making stuff up to make a point (which is what I'm doing when I speculate that Herberman got paid to announce this stuff and is in it for money; just speculating) if they don't have time to research things.

The real point of all this is not that some nutjob supposed doctor (I don't have time to wait for the facts about Herberman's sanity and/or credentials, so I have to go with my heart) thinks we shouldn't talk on cell phones unless we're wearing tinfoil; the real point of this is that CNN Headline News ran with this, proving that society is in the grip of many, many, unreliable narrators. We in the US are living in a time when bloggers can simply begin making stuff up and hope it becomes news, when news networks spin stories to promote their ideologies, when celebrities and newsmakers are simply taken at their word against all factual evidence to the contrary, and when "doctors" can ignore science and give us advice based on... I don't know, their gut feeling, I guess.

That's why this category is called The Best Triumph (?) Over The Devil... In Books. I called it that because the nominee, A Good And Happy Child, uses an unreliable narrator to make it even more unsettling and have the story seep into your mind and not let go, creeping me out even as I think about it today here in broad daylight at 9:40 a.m., and because [SPOILER ALERT! This entry is chockablock with spoilers! It's spoiler-rific!] the way the book ends makes it clear that... it hasn't ended. Unless it has. Ended, that is.

A Good And Happy Child, by Justin Evans, begins with the narrator, George, as an adult, explaining that he cannot bring himself to pick up his newborn baby. He begins therapy to deal with the problem, and is encouraged to write down memories of his childhood. As he does that, he focuses on the period right after his father's death.

His father died while on some sort of mysterious trip to Central America, and as the story progresses, it appears that his father died trying to perform exorcisms and fighting the devil. Appears is the key word, because George wasn't privy to all the details as a child and this is years later, when he's trying to reconstruct it all.

And appears is also key because as he remembers his childhood, George also remembers "Friend," a shadowy, spirit type of creature that came to him at first in dreams and then while he was awake, and who George's adult acquaintances tell him is a demon or the devil-- possibly the same one that killed his father. It all ends up with various poltergeisty things going on while George is committed for a period of time.

That is an unreliable narrator, squared: George is remembering, years later, things he was only dimly aware of as a child, and remembering them while in the care of a psychiatrist and upset, and also George just might have been possessed.

I'm not going to wreck it any more than I might have for you; what I pointed out [SPOILER ALERT redux] is that at the end of the story, the story doesn't seem to end. Not in the "aw, man he's just setting it up for a sequel way." That would suck. It doesn't seem to end in the manner of how life doesn't seem to end -- just as alcoholics and cancer patients aren't cured but only in remission, just as divorces happen but relationships of one sort continue, just as life continues to go on, at the end of A Good And Happy Child, the story is not over and not resolved and the reader is left more or less just chilled to the bone and trying (in a very, very good way) to make sense of it all.

Because this nomination is The Best Triumph (?) Over The Devil... In Books, I can [THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM FOR SPOILERS, RIGHT?] let you know that George does triumph. Unless he doesn't, because the havoc wreaked on his life as a child has now spilled over into his adult life, and is spilling over into his newborn child's life, too, in a fantastic way.

Unreliable narrators have a way of doing that; they have a way of spilling over from books into life, and affecting us more and more and more. People just begin believing things because they heard them or read them, no matter how unreliable the source is. The millions of tiny details in our lives, the bits and pieces of information that pack into our brains over days and weeks and months and years, have to be formed into something by us, some system of beliefs and rules for life and style. That's all great as long as the information that we get is truthful. When the information that we get is tainted -- when we believe that we are crazy or possessed, or when we believe that we can make medical recommendations based on advertisements instead of science -- things start to fall apart and bad things happen and then get worse. It's not clear to me that we're winning that battle (hence the (?) in the title.)

Unlike what can be learned from beating up on The Devil from music, I'm not crazy about the lesson A Good And Happy Child teaches us, which is that you can never be sure that the devil is down for the count. But at least the book was incredible. As society spends more and more time listening to the would-be doctors and less and less time listening to the truth, at least I'll have the book to fall back on and read while society falls apart around me.

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Babies! Babies! Pets! Pets! is all about the Babies! And the Pets! . Check out the photos there, and send your own to win a t-shirt!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Closer Look At: The Best Candy.

There have been, at this point, well over one mocha-zillion nominations on The Best Of Everything; so from time to time I will be pulling out one of the old ones and updating or highlighting something about it. Here's a Closer Look at: The Best Candy.

I noticed, yesterday, when I bought myself a strawberry Charleston Chew, two things. First, I noticed that candy bars are now 99 cents. I can't believe that I'm paying more than a buck for a candy bar. Second, I noticed that candy bars have begun doing the same thing that movies and sodas have been doing for years: simply taking one brand name and spinning it into 300 variations. They had a "Mint/Dark Chocolate Three Musketeers" for sale -- which means that it's really not a Three Musketeers bar at all anymore, is it? I mean, if I create a candy bar that tastes like Blue Moon ice cream and caramel corn, and then call it a "Blue Moon Reese's Peanut Butter Cup" even though it's not peanut butter, is that right?

And is it sad that I've devoted about an hour to pondering that question?

Take a closer look at The Best Hamburger-- with some classic Grover!

A Closer Look At: The Best Hamburger

There have been, at this point, well over one mocha-zillion nominations on The Best Of Everything; so from time to time I will be pulling out one of the old ones and updating or highlighting something about it. Today's Closer Look is at:

The Best Hamburger. (Read the original post "The Best Hamburger" here.) Back when I started this, TBOE was just a germ of a concept in my mind, an idea I'd gotten while watching 3 TVs at once and pretending to ride an exercycle at the health club. So the early entries were shorter and maybe a lot less pontificating-y.

They also may have been wrong. Because I'm not sure that Kopp's still makes The Best Burger. While I'm not entirely ready to change a nominee-- something that's never been done-- I have to say that the burger I ate at Sonic in Orlando was really, really good; and not only was it really, really good, but it also gave me the chance to compare myself to Billy Pilgrim.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Best Triumph Over The Devil... in Music.

Since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of man, mankind has squared off against his most formidable opponent. No, not fried foods. As terrifying an opponent as fried foods might be, they, too, shudder in their fried boots at the sight of man's worst opponent: The Devil. Despite the Devil's obvious power, though, man keeps on winning, because man knows what tricks to use to beat Old Scratch at his own game. Learn how by following the next few entries, beginning with:

The Best Triumph Over The Devil... in Music.

I like to lead an introspective life; my life is thoroughly examined by me, and by anyone who reads this, so Emerson, I gather, would think that my life is very much worth living.

Part of that introspection is to constantly challenge myself by imagining what scenarios might play out and how I would deal with them; this is probably a habit I picked up from reading The 18th Emergency when I was a kid. Never underestimate the impact of literature on a young mind. I know how to prepare for emergencies because of that book, but that's not all; I also learned not to tuck my thumb into my fist when I punch because doing that might break my thumb.

(I learned, from an entirely different book, that Whangdoodles can be cloned.)

So I ask myself, from time to time, what I would do in given situations, and then decide what I would do. The question might go like this: What if I were challenged by the devil to a fiddle-playing contest in which my soul was bet against a shiny fiddle made of gold? What would I do?

The answer is, first, tell the devil no way. What's a fiddle made of gold worth these days, anyway? Frankly, I don't know, because the only site I can find measures the price of gold in "grams per rupee," and I am 99% sure that both "grams" and "rupees" are made-up words that have no real meaning. The only way I have of knowing that gold is worth anything is because my TV shows are constantly interrupted by commercials advising people to put all their gold jewelry in a box and mail it somewhere, and the company they mail it to will then send them a check. That is by far the best business model I have ever heard of. So I pack up all Sweetie's jewelry and mail it off, and then get a check for $5.00, and what am I supposed to do? Track down the company? I'd bet they'd simply say Well, you didn't send us that much gold, and then snicker.

My point is, gold really isn't worth much, if people are just going to go mail it around the world and/or measure it in "rupees" and "grams." So in the first instance, I would tell the Devil that if he wants me to bet my soul, he'd better put up something valuable like giving me the ability to download songs for free for the rest of my life, or never having to hear about Angelina Jolie again, or something.

But, in the event that the Devil is persistent -- he just might be-- I may then have to have a Fiddle-Off, and what would I do then? If I've been paying attention to music, then I might think I know exactly what to do: I would assume that I could just rosin up my bow and play my fiddle hard, a plan I'd develop after listening to The Devil Went Down To Georgia.

The Devil Went Down To Georgia is something of an anomaly in popular music. A review of how the Devil appears in pop music reveals what John Lithgow and our parents and other grown-ups, back when there were grown-ups, have been trying to tell us all along, namely, pop music is a tool of the devil. Sympathy for the Devil, Friend of the Devil, Devil with a Blue Dress... these are all songs that not only fail to demonstrate how to beat Satan, but in fact encourage just the opposite, telling people to like the devil and helping to bring about the downfall of man. And that's not even taking into account a song called "Devil's Waltz" by some band called the "Disco Biscuits."

So listening to pop music will, in general, not be helpful in battling the devil when he shows up and challenges me to a fiddling contest, first because most pop music doesn't tell me how to fight the Devil, it just encourages me to befriend him and go get a smoothie with him (smoothies being well-known tools of the devil). It would seem, then, that the winner in this category has to be The Devil Went Down To Georgia, as that song is pretty much the only song anyone can remember that tells how to defeat the devil.

Honestly, I don't understand how musicians can be dropping the ball so badly. Movies, TV shows, books ... they all show mankind how to beat the devil. Musicians? Pleh. It's probably because they all sold their souls for a little bit of fame, and a hidden clause in the contract (there's always a hidden clause in contracts with the Devil) requires them to then put out songs that help the Devil.

But The Devil Went Down To Georgia is not The Best Triumph Over The Devil... in Music because on introspection, it's not all that helpful in helping me learn how to defeat the devil. I have to learn how to play the fiddle? What am I supposed to do, tell the Devil to come back in 6-8 years and then start taking lessons? Even then, it's going to be very difficult for me to outplay the devil, with his band of demons joining in and sounding something like this and all.

There's got to be a better way, and luckily, there is. Two better ways, in fact, both of them guaranteed to make the Devil run.

First runner-up is the method suggested by Paul McCartney in perhaps his best-known work ever, Run Devil Run.

Paul McCartney, as one of the few musicans not to be indebted to Satan, has a simple solution: rock out, and also be crazy. He spells it all out there for you: if you want to beat the Devil, live in a swamp and scream, night and day, about how the Devil better run because the Angels are... doing something. Making winners out of sinners, he says, apparently by having them pick cotton. Also, it's probably better, if you follow Paul's advice, not to use electricity, because the Holy Roller uses kerosene.

Assuming, though, that you, like I, do not necessarily want to live in a shack and pick cotton but still want to be a winner instead of a sinner, there's an even better way, this time set out in song by Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins in their song called, originally, Run, Devil Run.

I'd like to tell you exactly what they prescribe, but when I go to look up the lyrics, it seems that the people who compile them have gotten only as far as the first chorus. So I've listened to this song over and over to try to figure out what they've come up with, and here's what I've got:

(A) Praise Him and Thank Him, which will get you forgiveness for all the gambling you've done.
(B) Make a really big sword and pretend that everyone wants peace.
(C) Ask for mercy, and I think also have a big gun.

Which seems somewhat vague, but, then again, it doesn't require me to learn the fiddle or pick cotton.

So that's my plan: If ever challenged by the devil to a fiddlin' contest, while you suckers hope that the chicken keeps pickin' out dough, I will get forgiveness for my gambling and then fight the Devil with swords and a big gun, thanks to the lessons I learned from Run Devil Run by Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins, The Best Triumph Over The Devil... In Music.

I love theme weeks (and theme months). So while you await Friday's review of another great triumph over the Devil, take a look at

The Seven Best Showdowns Between Good and Evil, and

The Week I Examined The Best Rock Bands... and

Robot Week! and

Lame/Cool Month!

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Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! AlwaysMostlyRight!: It’s the sports blog for people who love sports but hate sports blogs.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Best Song To Play While The Hero Is Running To Do Something Heroic

Someone once told me that there are only seven basic storylines in all of literature and entertainment. All stories, this person (who was slightly less fun at a party than I am) said, can be boiled down to one of seven basic plots. He then listed them for me (proving my point about the whole who's-more-fun-at-a-party thing). They are, to the best of my recollection:

1. Boy meets, loses, and gets girl.
2. The quest story where the hero needs to get something and bring it back -- but that something is not the girl.
3. How difficult it is to be the manager of an aquarium.

I can't remember the other four, but you get the gist of it. Interestingly, Ryan Reynolds has starred in a movie about each of the seven basic plot lines.

I think that analysis is too reductive; saying that any story where there's love in it is a boy-meets-girl story is the same as when my kids say hamburger again but it's not hamburgers, it's Sloppy Joes. If the meat is in a different form, it's a different meal, right?

So there's a greater variety of plot lines than Mr. Boring Party Guy wanted to believe, but even with that, there are two constants in storytelling, two elements that must be present in every story for a story to transcend the ordinary. They are [REVERSE SPOILER ALERT, SINCE THE TITLE TELLS YOU WHAT'S COMING NEXT, BUT IF YOU'VE FORGOTTEN THE TITLE OF THIS POST, THEN DON'T GO BACK AND READ IT BECAUSE IT REALLY WILL BE A SPOILER THEN]

... as I was saying, they are:

1. The hero must run somewhere at the end to achieve his goal, and
2. Cool music must be playing over that run.

Those two, put together, are not only a hallmark of, but are the pinnacle of art. Simply put, if at the end of a story, the hero isn't running somewhere with some great music providing the dramatic musical background to the run, then everything that's come before it worthless. That's why the ending to The Sopranos had so many people upset. It would have been entirely different if Tony Soprano had gotten up from that booth, started running outside, made it to the FBI's office or his house or the corner newstand that was just closing up, all while, say, Erasure's A Little Respect was playing over the scene:

and then fade to black.

See what a genius I am? If I'd been in charge, there would at least have been one good scene in the history of The Sopranos.

That kind of scene at the end is necessary because by having the hero run, the writer/storyteller demonstrates the urgency of the hero's quest, and by extension, the urgency of our own lives. It provides a jolt of adrenaline at the end of the story that makes the observer finish on an energetic, up note, as compared to, say, an ending where Richard Gere and Diane Lane just sit at a stoplight, making the viewer want to just sit there, too, and creating a nation of couch potatoes.

The hero running at the end of the story, with music, is also necessary and desirable because it demonstrates the key facets of civilization as we've come to know it and sometimes love it, namely, that humans are always trying to get somewhere, and also that humans really like music.

Having established that any story or movie or TV show that does not end with the hero running to get somewhere is just trash, it's time to consider which movie put those two together best -- and it has to be a movie or TV show, really, because while the running part can be put into books, it's harder to do it with music unless the publisher ships a CD with the book and at various points in the book the reader is instructed to play the CD.

Which they should do; I listen to music when I write to help create the mood I'm looking for (which is always earn money. That's the mood of my writing.) The reader should be given a chance to experience that mood through the music the writer wanted. In short, books should have soundtracks, and they just may someday because of things like that electronic book reader from Amazon which can let you download pretty much any book you want; how long will it be before you download the soundtrack to the book, too?

You know I'm on to something, here. I'm always on to something, here, because I'm a genius and a societal leader. So remember: books with soundtracks = my idea.

Until society catches up with me, great running-with-music scenes will exist only in movies, TV shows, and the rare very-modern art museum where they will play music and have employees perform a sort of flip-book of Monet works. But it's mostly movies, for now.

The real key to a running-at-the-end scene is the music, though, because, let's face it, running is running. It doesn't matter if it's Billy Crystal running to meet Meg Ryan when people liked her still, or all those guys in Chariots of Fire running onto the beach to get away from that shark*

*I haven't actually seen Chariots of Fire; I'm just guessing.

it's all still running. The music that the running is set to, then, is what sets your run-of-the-mill (PUN INTENDED) running scene apart from something classic. That Chariots of Fire scene, for example, with the song they play over it, lacks something of the dramatic element. The song is grand and all, but it's also sad and ponderous and lets you know that probably 3 of those guys are going to get eaten anyway.

What's needed to really make the scene is something that's uplifting and dramatic and a little different and features a really obscure instrument. Something like Music for A Found Harmonium, the song from Penguin Cafe Orchestra which you think you've never heard but which you have in fact, heard.

I've actually known about Penguin Cafe Orchestra without knowing that I've known about them (chew on that for a minute) since their song Telephone and Rubber Band :

was featured over the credits of Eric Bogosian's concert film of his one-man show, Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll, but I didn't know it was Penguin Cafe Orchestra or even know they existed.

Just like I didn't know what a harmonium was until [OBSCURE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT SPOILER ALERT] Adam Sandler found one in Punch Drunk Love, which I heard - -maybe from the same Mr Boring At Parties Guy -- was actually a retelling of Popeye. When I hear something like that, that an Adam Sandler movie that came this close to making me actually cry, is in reality just a live-action Popeye cartoon, I don't know whether to laugh or just start driving until I reach Arizona.

But it all came together, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and harmoniums, when I saw the closing scene from Napoleon Dynamite, where [ENERGETICALLY RUNNING SPOILER ALERT AND ALSO THERE WILL BE A MENTION OF A FISH] Napoleon runs through town to meet that girl whose name I was never quite sure of to offer her a delicious bass, and in the background, the movie plays Music for A Found Harmonium by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

The music, like the movie, is offbeat but engagingly so. It builds and builds, swirling around the theme and adding little bits here and there, until it suddenly seems to take off into flight; it's like the music is evolving from a small grounded creature to a glorious bird, a bird that is best exemplified by ... um, Napoleon running. But the point is that the music and the moment both match each other and inspire each other, the way that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were great together and really never amounted to anything solo.

The music, too, leaves the viewer hopeful and happy and thinking Hey, life is good, and I can achieve my dreams, whatever they may be. That's a good way to end on a Friday, so listen to the song and have a great weekend:

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Thinking The Lions is the hilarious compilation of the adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Best Punctuation Mark

Why do foreign languages have it all over English? English is supposed to be the greatest, most malleable, absorbent language in the world (although I guess when I put it that way, it makes it sound like English is just a new kind of paper towel.) English, like America, is supposed to be a melting pot of words and ideas and marks that takes the highest parts of other languages and molds them into something phenomenal.

Look how well that worked for America, though: from the best and brightest that the rest of the world has to offer, from thousands of years of culture brought here by hundreds of years of immigration and new ideas and rewarding hard work and innovation, from all that, America has come up with: potato chips and reality TV. That's the sum and substance of our culture right now. We took all that brilliance, deep-fried it, and sat back to watch has-beens grope skanky girls. Plus, I'm not even sure that the US invented the reality show; I think maybe it came from England.

Likewise with English, which I think also came from England (because it would be too coincidental otherwise, wouldn't it?) English is supposedly expressive and can adopt other languages and we have 713 different words for love and all that, and English is made up of other languages that went before it and frequently steals from other cultures, and yet English boils down to dude and cool. Or, worse, it boils down to abbreviations and people being too lazy to know how to spell and not capitalizing things and then just making up baby names because they sound good.

Foreign languages don't do that. They don't pretend to be all grandiose and the pinnacle of this or the high point of that, and then secretly spend all their time coming up with new words to describe how a laptop crashed. They just go around having lyrical quality and easy-to-understand grammatical structures and songs that sound better in them and, as it turns out, great punctuation marks.

Here are the English language punctuation marks (source: my computer keyboard): ! , . ? ; : . (That period at the end of the sentence is both an example of the punctuation marks and the period at the end of the sentence. Don't accuse periods of not carrying their load.)

English punctuation marks are so boring that we used the advent of computers to create additional punctuation marks that we now claim as our own, things like "@", or even "emoticons," (one of which I've even created) , all of which exist only because we can't stand the punctuation that we have.

It's our own fault, really; as we get worse and worse with language, as we regress more and more into simply grunting or whatever it is we'll eventually do to communicate because we've given up on grammatical rules and every individual clique has its own incomprehensible slang, we toss out perfectly good punctuation marks... like ampersand (&), which now is used solely to denote something old-timey: Barnes & Noble, for example, uses the ampersand because they would really prefer that you think of them as a little, old-timey bookshop on main street rather than a megacorporation that is so rich is could buy your soul and sell it on the discount rack just for the heck of it.

Meanwhile, other languages hold on to their cool punctuation marks. Germans are loving their umlauts, and the French have their accent symbols, and some culture, I'm sure, has the "schwa."
What is the "schwa," anyway? Is it punctuation? Or some kind of mutant letter that English rejected? I get the feeling that the schwa was explained in school but that I missed it, as I missed a lot in school, and I get the feeling, too, that my life is maybe a little poorer for that.

There is, it turns out, a "Schwa Restaurant" that claims it's about more than food, it's about a state of mind, the kind of 'state of mind' that has to note that it accepts Visa and Mastercard. I'm not sure what you'd be paying for. I just looked at their "three course menu" and the menu begins with the word "amuse," which I don't think is a food at all, and contains the words "cobia" and "chimay" and "galangal." I don't know what those are, but I bet a celebrity will in the next month name his or her child "Cobia Galangal." I don't think it would amuse me to pay $55 for things I don't understand.

Then there's Spanish, which is, frankly, overloaded with punctuation marks. They've got all the ones from English, plus they use accents, plus they have the tielde and they have The Best Punctuation Mark, which is this:


I'm not sure what that's called. To try to find out, I even did more research than usual, both googling "¿ " (and getting no results) and asking someone I knew who speaks Spanish as her native language. She said it doesn't have a name, so as a result of that investigation, It seems that "¿" either (a) is not called anything, or (b) it does not exist.

I'm going to go with: it exists but has no name, because I need it to exist so I can say it's The Best. Here's why "¿" is The Best Punctuation Mark: because it does its job even before you can react.

I'll explain: Let's say you're going to ask a question, and you're speaking English or French or some other language. You ask the question, and then tack on your punctuation, the question mark: ?. The problem with that is the question mark does not mark its question until the end, so nobody knows it's a question until you get to the end, which makes a difference in how you intepret it.

Consider this sentence:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs

Until it's marked, you don't know what the point of that sentence is. It could be a simple statement of fact that is not in any way going to get you in trouble for having the house a mess and not, technically, knowing where both of your twins are:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs.

In which case, I'm fine. But it could be a question, raising the possibility that there is an answer to follow and I won't like that answer and may want to very quickly figure out which door which twin got out of:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs?

But how am I supposed to know that before the end of the sentence? How can I prepare for what's going to follow?

That's where "¿" comes in. Put good old "¿ " in there, and I know right up front that I'd better shove the Cheeto bag under the couch and get moving:

¿ You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs?

See? Much much better, and especially so because not only does ¿ tell you up front that you're running into a question, but it actually makes you think questioningly, right off the bat, because placing it at the beginning of a sentence makes the first thought about that sentence be something like hey, this thing is upside down, or am I upside down and resulting in having to look out the window to determine the exact nature of the reader to the rest of the universe; that disorientation puts the reader in the right frame of mind to then absorb the full impact of the question.

For doing its job so exceedingly well, then, I award "¿ " the title of The Best Punctuation Mark.

Also, if you ever watched Schoolhouse Rock and thought "That's not so hard, writing educational songs that are fun and well-done," well, watch this and re-think that stance:

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Beginning in about 9th grade, I learned to question the world, and in particular, to question pretty much anyone in any position of authority ever told me, ever. This was not some kind of cool "question authority" type of stance on my part; I am about as far from James Dean or any other kind of rebel you might ever find. It was something more primal, something deep inside me that makes me, when someone says right, say left.

One of the main things I questioned, back in those days of yore, was whether writers and poets had actually intended all these hidden meanings and symbols that my English teachers were telling me were in there. We'd read, say, an e e cummings poem, and they'd go ahead and say something like "The tire in that poem stood for death."

I never really got that. Nor do I know how they got it. Who decided that? Did Edgar Allen Poe leave an author's note in which he said "The House of Usher is symbolic of the banking system in the late 19th century; Roderick's beloved sister is the gold standard. Please let out the cat, Thanks." I don't think so. Maybe it was in the teacher's edition.

My stance on this is well-known, and that stance is: whatever the artist thinks the art is saying is interpreted through the eyes of the art-ee, so it's not that big of a deal. (I could call this the My Aunt's Dog Theorem.) What the My Aunt's Dog Theorem tells us, as consumers of art, is this: we interpret art in light of our own experiences, so symbols are likely to be mis-read.

Deep down inside, everyone, even my old English teachers, knows I'm right. The interpretation of a work of art depends on the circumstances of the person who created it and the person who is perusing it, and unless those two people are in similar (if not identical) situations, it's likely the symbolism is lost on the reader. So it's very difficult for me to get the same thing out of a Bukowski poem as Bukowski wanted me to get, and it's very difficult for me to get the same thing out of a Bukowski poem as Modest Mouse gets.

That is, though, a pretty good song to work out to, and also it is the reason why I know who Bukowski is in the first place; after listening to the song for nearly a year, I finally decided to find out who the heck Bukowski was, and then I liked his poems.

I have some experience in this area-- symbolism, not liking Bukowski's poems-- being someone who writes and all and having once won an award for poetry. In particular, I have some experience with people completely missing the symbolism that I tried to insert into a short story I wrote. The story is called Astrid Forever, and you can see it every now and then on my horror website. In the story, a guy is visited by his dead wife for a couple of days. Periodically, throughout the story, the color and scent of oranges is referred to; the point of that is that Astrid loved oranges (and plants are somewhat important to the story) and when the color orange is seen or oranges are smelled, it means that Astrid is around.

So when that story was first read by someone, the comment was "The orange thing seems kind of random." I probably should have simply said the oranges were symbolic of the national banking system.

I continue to use symbolism, as do other writers, and symbolism continues to be missed and/or mistaken for a gimmick... unless it's done really well and actually makes what I assume to be the point it was supposed to make, unless it's done so well that you don't even realize that you're being hit with symbolism until probably 1/3 of the way through the book, even though the author tells you what he's doing.

That kind of genius symbolism is best displayed by Cory Doctorow, whose book Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town contains The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town follows the story of a guy who has just retired from running a variety of stores to write a story; however, before he can really begin writing his story he gets involved in (a) defending himself and some of his brothers from attacks by the brother they killed years before and (b) helping set up a citywide wireless network and (c) the affairs of his neighbors, one of whom [SPOILER ALERT ABOUT MUTANTS] has wings.

The main character's father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine. One of his brothers can see the future; another is dead, a third is an island and three are Russian nesting dolls.

For all that, the story is actually not weird at all. For all the fantastic elements in it, for everything that Doctorow throws into it seemingly at... ahem ... random, it's one of the most believable, straightforward stories I've ever read. It's like all the weirdness cancels itself out, leaving just a great story.

Here's what Cory Doctorow does that's actually genius, though: The point of the story, or at least one of the points of the story, or at least what I think one of the points of the story might be (see My Aunt's Dog Theorem, above) is this: Our identities are slippery; we are different people at different times and who we are depends on where we come from, who we are with, and what we are doing.

That's one of the messages I took from the story, and I took it in part from this gimmick/symbol: The main character, who generally goes by "Alan," answers to any name that starts with A, and sometimes calls himself by other names, so long as they all start with A. His brothers, in order, have names starting with B, C, D, E, F, and G, and their names constantly change; only the first letter remains the same. So "Alan" goes also by "Adam" and "Al" and "Albert" and any other name that starts with A; other characters call him what they feel like, but it always starts with "A." The dead brother, "Davey," goes by "Danny" and "Delbert," or what-have-you.

Alan even tells the reader that's what's going on; early on, he says he's not real stuck on names and answers to anything.

All the other characters except the brothers have names that always remain the same; only the brothers, who all are 'sons of the mountain' have shifting names. The brothers are trying to figure out where they fit in the world, who they are.

It's all done so subtly that I didn't even realize it, like I said, until about 1/3 way through the book, when it suddenly struck me. Then I realized it and watched for it, trying to figure out if one name got used more than others (maybe, maybe not, I decided) and then marveling that it wasn't confusing, not in the slightest. I had no problem following the story or the characters, even though the main characters' names kept changing.)

There are a lot of reasons why it should not surprise me that I was able to follow the story, beginning with the fact that identities in real life and art are already slippery and yet I have no trouble following them. I have lots of names. I'm "Dad" and I go by my name and my title and by the nicknames Sweetie has for me. I have several zillion nicknames for the kids, and everyone in the house can follow them. There are dozens of people I interact with on a periodic basis whose names I am unsure of (including, embarrasingly, one who just quit our firm. The office manager announced that we were having a going away party for her -- I'll call her "Jennifer," and I didn't know who Jennifer was; when I guessed, I got it wrong) but with whom I can work.

Secondly, the human brain is good at making order out of nonsense. We do it everyday in our lives, assembling all the random bits of information that flow into our eyes and ears and nose and mouth into a coherent whole, and we can do it quite well, apparently, without any regard to logic or rules. I know that because I'm familiar with the brain-scramble puzzle, which proves that most rules of spelling and grammar are not necessary for something to make sense; they make it easier, but they're not necessary (like lawyers! ba-dum bump!)

Take a look at this, which I got from that link:

'Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

You could read it, right? So could I -- so your brain just went ahead, without any of the usual rules, and made sense of it.

That's what symbolism and themes and all the meanings that we ascribe to works of art are, in the end -- our brains imposing logic and order and meaning on something that otherwise might seem to be random or scrambled or weird. We have a drive to find meaning in everything: in song lyrics, in paintings, in cloud formations, in fist-bumps. The meaning we ascribe to those things will almost always vary depending on our background and mood and the specifics that make each of us, each of us.

But some things, too, are universal; some meanings are there waiting to be plucked like low-hanging fruit, and like all things that seem obvious after the fact, it takes genius to point them out. The idea that our identities are simply the result of our circumstances, that we are the sum of all the things we've done and all the people we know, is one of those universal truths, but one that is scrambled and hidden and unintelligible until someone like Cory Doctorow points it out through the use of The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Or, who knows? Maybe he was just having fun.

Ultimate present:

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Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! AlwaysMostlyRight!: It’s the sports blog for people who love sports but hate sports blogs.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Stupid Questions: Table Of Contents

Ask a stupid question, get a weird Internet site. Here's the list of all the Stupid Questions I've ever asked:

The Best Stupid Questions About Wizards.

The Best Stupid Questions About 80s Songs Used In Commercials.

The Best Stupid Questions About Disney Cartoons.

The Best Stupid Questions About Star Wars.

The Best Saturday Night Live Skit

I really should have to say nothing more about this entry, as it's just obviously The Best Saturday Night Live Skit ever. But I will say more, and this is what I will say:

First, eventually I think that everyone in society will speak in nothing but quotations from movies and TV shows and songs and books; everything we say will in some way be a quotation from something we heard. That's what our family is evolving into right now: there is nothing in our lives that cannot somehow feature a quote from some movie, show, or comedian worked into the conversation about it, including church. I'm pretty sure that our family is indicative of society as a whole, in that our family has people in it and society does, too.

That process began, for us, with the "Census Taker" skit, a skit we have memorized and frequently laugh about at inappropriate times.

I'm not sure, when society reaches that point, how we will come up with new entertainment to put on TV and the Internet and movie screens to keep generating quotes; it's possible that we'll just recycle old entertainment and make it seem new, a process that has also already begun.

So there's my happy Sunday thought: Someday, we will live in a dystopian society where our conversations are simply reiterations of the things we have seen on TV, and TV is simply a reiteration of our conversations. We will live in a closed-loop so stifling and imitative that once we are in it, it will make Family Guy seem fresh and inventive.

Second, when I win the lottery and have all the time in the world, I will not only perfect Christopher Walken's dance moves, but I will travel the country with Sweetie (and probably with a choir) and we will perform impromptu performances of this on streetcorners in cities to make people laugh and remind them of a time when comedy was fresh and new and featured Christopher Walken. I will do that not out of the goodness of my heart alone, but out of a need to constantly want to be the one who says "Boy, I really overshot it with the 80, huh?"

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Thinking The Lions is the hilarious compilation of the adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.