Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Best Explorer

I hate to disagree with Stephen Hawking and my brother Matt in the same week, but sometimes events force my hand.

It's not that I never disagree with either of them. I disagree with both of them lots of times. For example, I disagree with my brother Matt about whether he should post online a video of himself trying to learn to surf, indoors, and failing. I presume that he fails hilariously, and maybe painfully, and I want him to show me the video and put it online. But he won't, and I disagree with that choice.

I disagree with Stephen Hawking on other subjects. Like dark matter. Stephen Hawking apparently believes that "dark matter" is real. "Dark Matter" is what physicist call "all the stuff they can't explain," and the theory of dark matter can be explained this way: "There's a bunch of stuff out there that that we can't see, test, find, touch, or in any way measure or comprehend, but we need it to explain all the theories we have, so we'll just say it exists."

"Dark matter" could also be called the "Not Me" of Physics -- as in Family Circus, when "Not Me" was used to explain how a lamp got broken. Like "Dark Matter," "Not Me" was an invisible culprit who conveniently explained all matter of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. "Not Me" was preferable to being spanked, and "Dark Matter" is preferable, apparently, to "actually knowing stuff."

I also disagree with Stephen Hawking about whether we'd have Whoppers if Columbus hadn't ever lived, although I get his point he was trying to make, and so, philosophically, at least, Stephen Hawking and I were on the same page even as I was disagreeing with him and my brother Matt this weekend.

The disagreement arose when I mentioned that NASA was discontinuing the space shuttle program and Matt said that was good because space exploration was a boondoggle. (My word, not his. But he meant to say boondoggle.)

That got me upset, and so I said this:

Space exploration is the most important thing mankind can be doing. In the entire pantheon of things that man could spend his time on, exploration is far and away the best and highest calling we could engage in.

Actually, what I said was more along the lines of You're an idiot. But I meant to make that speech about "best and highest callings" and all that.

We then debated, briefly, whether space exploration had any benefits, and then whether exploration at all had any benefits, and I was (and am) astounded that anyone anywhere could think that there are no benefits to exploring.

That's when my disagreement with Stephen Hawking came in. Stephen has said that we wouldn't have Big Macs or Kentucky Fried Chicken if Columbus hadn't been sent by Spanish royalty to sail off the edge of the world. I disagree with that specific statement. I suspect he meant it as a joking reference to how progress flows from exploration, and we're both right that progress does, in fact, flow from exploration, but it's silly and reductive thinking to say that we would not have come up with fast food if Europeans never found the Americas.

("Silly and reductive thinking" being what passes for "science" these days, though, I suppose I should not hope for better, even from Stephen Hawking.)

But in principal, like I said, Stephen and I were on the same page, and both are firmly opposed to Matt's way of thinking. Exploration is important -- and so important that it should be the number one priority of countries in the world right now. Yes, even in the midst of an economic crisis, even in the very beginnings of the American Idol voting scandal, even in a time when "Baconnaise" is not yet available worldwide, we should be exploring and exploring and exploring.

This is not a nuts-and-bolts lecture on how "exploring" creates jobs and benefits the economy in the short and long term. Those things are all true -- and jobs building space stations and satellites and new interplanetary rockets, plus all the support structures that they need are high-tech and long-lasting, as well as being easily as valuable as jobs building libraries in Arkansas.

But looking at the basic realities of the situation, as much as we want to do that these days, is not what exploration is all about. Exploration is all about expanding human thoughts and endeavors into unforeseen possiblities, and that's why it's so valuable, and so important -- more important than any other thing any human being could be doing.

Yes, more important even than constantly monitoring Brett Favre's status as a football player.

Well, as important, let's say.

Yes, exploration brings tangible benefits almost immediately: it employs people and requires the production of goods and services that provide spin-offs into the mass market. In that way, exploring is kind of like World War II: it helps fire up an economy, or could if people understood it that way, instead of saying it's a boondoggle (or meaning to say that.)

But more importantly, exploration opens up people's minds, and opens up their world. It creates new, boundless possibilities that engender new ways of thinking about the world and its people and its societies.

Consider some very very good explorers and their effects on the world. (We're not to The Best Explorer, yet, but we'll get there.)

Any survey of explorers has to start with Christopher Columbus, a man who has in recent years been the focus more of criticism than of praise. I'm going to go back to praising him. (I'm not ignoring the bad stuff. I'm just not focusing on it for now, okay?) Columbus didn't just stumble across America and open up a New World for exploration and exploitation. Columbus did far, far more than that. Remember how I phrased his voyage before: sent by Spanish royalty to sail off the edge of the world. That's what they thought would really happen, back then. Everyone, or almost everyone, in the world thought that Europe and Asia and Africa were all the land that existed, and that if you sailed off away from those things, you'd fall out into space.

But Columbus did just that: He sailed away from the world we knew and into the unknown. It's easy to sit here today and think Well, sure, but their beliefs were ridiculous, and also Columbus thought the world was round. Maybe that's true. Maybe Columbus did think the world was round, was pretty convinced, in fact, that it was round. It still took a phenomenal amount of bravery to sail off and prove it, didn't it?

I once went bungee jumping. I watched about 10 people before me go up and go off the ledge and bounce around and then get lowered down. I knew that the thing was safe, that the cords wouldn't break, that the harness would hold. But I was still about as scared as I'd ever been when I was strapped into the harness and ready to drop off the ledge.

Columbus showed us, as humans, that we could challenge popular beliefs and face not just death, but Unknown Scary Consequences That Might Be Worse Than Death. Who knew what might happen if you did fall off the edge of the world? Maybe you'd just fall forever until you died of thirst or starvation. Maybe you'd fall to Hell. Maybe you'd pass into some other dimension where sentient versions of inanimate objects existed and you'd find yourself the slave puppet of a Barcalounger. Any of those fates could have awaited Columbus - but he went ahead and sailed off, anyway.

Think, too, about Admiral Robert Peary, the first man to reach the North Pole -- one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, and a place that exists only temporarily. Unlike Antarctica and the South Pole, the North Pole is made up of ice, not land, so the North Pole sits, unsteadily, in our imaginations on a shelf of material that could disappear into the water underneath it. Peary braved conditions that are inconceivable to those of us who complain that 55 degrees is chilly, that are unimaginable to a society of people who insist that the Superbowl be played indoors so that we can be comfortable sitting in our corporate luxury boxes.

Peary proved that humans can go anywhere -- regardless of how inhospitable or unstable the area may seem to be. Nearly-Absolute-Zero temperatures and a landscape that has no stable features and changes from day to day? Bring it on.

Lewis and Clark, too, deserve mentioning, because they mapped the extent of an unknown and previously unfathomable continent, a vast expanse of land that dwarfed other land masses not just in size, but in emptiness. Europe -- smaller than North America -- was crowded with people and cities and cobblestones by the time Lewis & Clark set off into the wilderness of the American continent. At the time, I imagine, one couldn't travel more than a day or two in Europe without running into signs of civilization -- a city or town or farm or road or something -- and those signs of civilization would serve as fences of the mind, blocking in thoughts and preventing the expansion of possibilities.

North America, though, was largely uninhabited. Native American tribes existed here and there, but they didn't do as much cultivation and city building as the Europeans, and they left little to no impact on many places they lived or had lived.

Picture, in your mind, a clean white sheet of paper in a typewriter. Or a blank canvas on an easel. Or an unmarked set of musical staves. Those empty vessels could become anything. Anything you want them to be. A science-fiction story. The Great American Novel. "Starry Night," or a portrait of your mother. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A catchy jingle. Anything.

Lewis and Clark explored one of the greatest (nearly) blank canvases ever seen by humans: a continent that had everything available to it, but which hadn't been marked up, written down, folded bended mutilated and spindled yet. Lewis and Clark came back and told the world of the existence of a seemingly-boundless area just waiting to be filled in, filled in with houses and monuments and roads and train tracks and factories and playgrounds and filled in with people who would make things, do things, go places. Lewis and Clark gave the human race a blank piece of paper and said Make something.

That's what exploring does. It doesn't just give us Tang and good-jobs-at-good-wages. It gives us a future, a challenge. Exploring -- finding out what's beyond the next bend, over the next ridge, across the ocean -- opens the gates and lets the horses of our imaginations run free: free to challenge our beliefs and face our fears and test our limits and create something new and better.

There's lots of places left on Earth to explore, and we should be exploring those. But space... ah, space -- the infinite! The endless! The multiplicitous nature of space, with its billions of miles to cross and billions of stars to orbit and billions of planets to fly to and land on and walk around. Space is all those things that have come before us, and new, at the same time.

Outer space is our fears and beliefs challenged: Is the Universe infinite? How does that work? What happens if we just keep on going? Are there black holes and alien cultures waiting for us?

Outer space is the most hostile of environments, lacking everything we take for granted: no heat. No air. No gravity. All our constant companions from birth to death -- gone. Left behind.

Outer space is the ultimate blank canvas. There are countless asteroids and planets and stars and other constructs awaiting us, with landscapes we've never scene and elements we haven't thought of yet and life forms that will boggle our collective consciousness, opening door after door after door in our imaginations, freeing our minds to roam even further than our bodies could go. Who knows what progress we will make, what inventions we will invent, what cures we will devise, what art we will create, when we have seen, with our own eyes instead of a picture, a binary star, a comet crashing soundlessly by, when we have walked on a planet surrounded by rings instead of a solitary moon?

Exploration, and specifically exploring outer space, is far from a waste of time. It is absolutely necessary to the future of humankind, because only through constantly exploring, constantly pushing our boundaries, constantly challenging ourselves, can we continue to improve more than incrementally. Progress will always happen: We would eventually have found a way to mass-market fried chicken, whether or not we crossed the Atlantic in tiny boats. But progress will not happen quickly enough to matter unless we force the issue by forcing ourselves to go ever higher, ever further.

And that's how I've selected The Best Explorer: by asking myself: who is most qualified to demonstrate, to the human race, the importance of exploration for exploration's sake? Who is The Best person to hold up to the world and say "Look at this person and what this person has achieved! Let us emulate this person!"

Once I phrased the question that way, the answer was easy. The Best Explorer is:


If you accept the challenge, that is. You can lead the human race onwards and upwards. And you should. Whether you do that by yourself getting on a spaceship and flying off to Mars someday, or by helping make sure that someone else does, we're all relying on you to keep us moving into the future.

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Just Exactly What Life Looks Like...
next book I'm writing. A collection of short stories about cowboys and scientists and safaris and more cowboys and probably an art teacher and there's also one about a bunch of people sitting on a hill...

Look for it online in Summer/Fall 2009. And, for a limited time only, I'm offering a chance to be part of the bold new future of publishing: Sponsor my book! Click here to find out more about this.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Best Jobs For Brett Favre When He Finally Doesn't Play Football Anymore (Number 3)

It's a MiniBest!

People think I'm maybe being sarcastic about this, but I'm not. I genuinely want Brett Favre to come back and play football, and to keep doing so for as long as he can throw a football, even if he's doing so as a Minnesota Viking.

And then, I genuinely want Brett Favre to get a new career which is just as satisfying as his football career was, which is why I'm making these helpful suggestions for new careers he could have when he finally doesn't play football anymore. If it's hard for Favre to leave football behind, maybe the blow could be cushioned a little by finding some awesome new thing to do.

Coming up with awesome jobs is not easy, after all. Consider this article on "Six-Figure Jobs You Never Thought Of." Leave aside the fact that I doubt many elementary school principles make over six figures and focus, instead, on the question of who, really, wants to manage a coal mine? Even for six figures?

And who, especially, would want to manage a coal mine when you could, instead, manage a cave?

I bet you never gave any consideration, up until now, to just how hard it is to manage a cave as a tourist attraction. That's because you're not Grant Carey, manager of "Cave of the Winds" in Colorado. Grant knows just how hard it is to compete for tourist dollars with today's high-octane thrill rides. You can't just tell people "Hey, Cave of the Winds is the third-oldest continuously operated for-profit business in Colorado Springs" and expect them to come in droves the way they did back in 1881 (when it was considered exciting simply to be in a place with no lights on, according to Grant.)

No, as great of a selling point as that slogan is, cave management these days calls for something more -- something like laser light shows synchronized to music as you walk through the cave.

That's where Brett Favre comes in. Who, I ask you, would be better at managing the third-oldest continuously-operated for-profit business in Colorado Springs than a veteran quarterback with a penchant for attracting media attention?

I can just hear it now: Brett Favre takes over managing Cave of the Winds, and before long, ESPN will be doing stories on spelunking, and kids will be wearing stalactite hats with the number "4" on them, and John Madden will come out of partial retirement to say that "Brett Favre has brought the magic back to caving because he's old-school. He's a throwback to the early days of cave management."

So while it's pretty obvious right now that Brett will be coming back for a record 73rd consecutive football season, someday, he's going to have to call it quits. I suggest, that when he does finally decide it's over, he hangs his helmet on a stalagmite and begins a career as the Manager of Cave of the Winds.

But not the Cave of the Winds that's near Niagara Falls. That'd be dumb. The Cave of the Winds that's in Colorado Springs.

(Only, Brett, don't actually hang the helmet on a stalagmite, because that'll interfere with the natural growth of the cave and will require your employees to spend extra time with their toothbrushes cleaning the cave, which'll drive up costs and get you off to a bad start. I was only speaking metaphorically.)

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Monday, May 18, 2009

I Stand Corrected: The Best Reader Comment Pointing Out How I Was Wrong:

Although in general I am right about everything and anything I think (as are you, my readers -- remember, the TBOE slogan is Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours) occasionally an error slips through here and there. I blame the lack of coffee.

That error might be as simple as a reader thinking that the Olsen Twins aren't identical, or it might be something far more serious, like getting the biography of supervillain Chillblaine wrong.

It seems I've done just that -- gotten Chillblaine's history wrong, and reader Lia Brown (who writes a very entertaining blog that you can find here) has called me on it. She writes, as a comment to my post on Supervillains who just kept coming...

Dear sir, I apologize in advance for the nerdery. However, I must make a few corrections on your Top entry (for I am the world's biggest Top nerd...yes, such a thing exists). Firstly, Captain Cold never became Chillblaine, and thank god for that, because they were all having sex with his sister. They were a bunch of mostly-anonymous himbo thugs. Secondly, the "damned souls" the Top encountered at the end of the presidential storyline were actually soulless Rogues fresh from Hell -- Captains Cold and Boomerang, Mirror Master, etc. They didn't take him back to Hell, they just did something traumatic to him and left him an incoherent mess. He was actually taken to prison. Thirdly, your post is awesome and I enjoyed it very much. Especially the energy drink ad!

So, if you're keeping track, more or less every single thing I said about The Top turns out to be incorrect. In my defense, I will say this: (a) too little coffee, and (b) to quote my favorite philosopher:

"Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."
-- Homer Simpson.

In honor of Lia's corrections, though, and because she called me "sir" and said the magic words (Your post is awesome), and because I've decided it's important to keep the World's Biggest Top Nerd on my side, I am going to give her a free book of her choice from my ever-growing collection.

Keep those comments coming! I've got two reader nominations coming up this week, too. You can leave comments here or email me at "thetroublewithroy[at]"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Best Versions Of My Life, According to Singer/Songwriters.

It's a SemiDaily List!

I was driving home from Milwaukee yesterday, rocking out to the plethora of songs on my iPod (and by rocking out, I mean "singing along with Springtime For Hitler from The Producers) and on came the song Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan. You, like me, probably know the song by heart:

So I was then singing along with that, and I began thinking (always a bad sign) and what I began thinking was everyone is always thinking about what their life would be like as a movie, and who would play them, but nobody ever thinks "what would my life be like if it were a song by Bob Dylan?"

Nobody until me that is. Then I broadened out my thinking -- in part because I had nothing else to do, since I'd already eaten the apple I'd brought along for a snack -- and wondered what would my life be like if it were a song by some other guys who write songs about people?

And then I thought I bet that'd be a good way to waste about 3 hours at work tomorrow morning while also listening to cool music.

And, voila, here we go with:

The Best Versions Of My Life, According to Singer/Songwriters.

'll start with the guy who is the undisputed king of songs about people, real or imagined, Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan has written songs about people ranging from the aforementioned Jack of Hearts to Arthur McBride to someone named Angelina (twice!) to John Wesley Harding to even more, including singing with the Traveling Wilburys about someone named "Margarita."

Representative Song: "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Johnny mixes up medicine while Bob Dylan stands on the pavement thinking about the government, then various surreal things happen.

What Bob Would Probably Do With My Life: Dylan's songs tend to go one of two ways: exciting short-stories about interesting people, or weirdly-rambling cautionary tales about people mixing it up with the girl by the whirlpool. Since I've never robbed a stagecoach or been a Master of War, but instead ended up practicing consumer law my life would probably end up a hodgepodge of images with Dylan making a cameo appearance in the song, probably about the way the legal system messes up people's lives, a la the Hurricane. You'd listen to the song and think Now there's a guy who really took on corporate America, sometimes for as much as 5 hours a day when he finished surfing the Internet.

Then again, he might just try: People forget that Dylan once rapped -- so maybe Bob would turn my life into a free-flowing stream-of-consciousness rhyme with some fresh beats underlaying it...

Or I could have my life done up by Tom Petty, who also has written many a biographical song. The American Girl, the person who wanted to be a rock'n'roll star, the girl who's a good girl in Free Fallin' all help populate Pettyville, which now could have Population: me.

Representative Song: Before he went all mello lately (was it all those dances with Mary Jane?) Tom was a rocker, and nothing rocked out more than American Girl, which he liked so much he released it twice:

What Tom Would Probably Do With My Life: Tom's songs are all about how things that seem really great and heartwarming and nice and American are, in fact, horrible and awful and heartbreaking. Seriously -- go listen to one of them. Like this one:

Which, I'll note, I can play on the guitar. But I can't hit the high notes. Not anymore.

So Tom's song about my life would probably emphasize the hopes, the promise, the ideal road laying out before me when I was a young guy of 18, heading off to college, carrying my parents expectations of becoming first a doctor and then the president, and then winning a Nobel Prize or something. (You know -- a common American story.) Then it would take a jarring turn midway through, hit some minor chords, and I'd go to law school. The video would finish with a shot of Mom and Dad looking at my yard and saying "Couldn't you at least mow it once in a while?"

Then Again, He Might Just Try: Tom was in a band for a while there called "Mudcrutch," or is in a band called "Mudcrutch." It's not clear to me, since Wikidiotpedia (and here's why that name is so true) says that Mudcrutch is "best known as the forerunner to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," but also says... in the same sentence... that the debut album by Mudcrutch was released in 2008, which is something like thirty years after the debut album from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

So if Tom didn't go the Man, You Really Let Your Parents and America Down route with my biographical song, he might, I guess, try bending space and time back on itself to release a forerunner song 30 years after the thing it's supposed to be forerunning.

Hey, how about Paul Simon, who's written a song or two about a person or two? Him and Julio, Him and Garfunkel, him and the 59th Street Bridge... I might have to meet him first, but Paul might be able to do my life justice.

Representative Song: It's hard to pick out just one, but since when have I shied away from a challenge, especially if that challenge keeps me from having to answer my office phone?

Everyone who's anyone would probably go with The Boxer as an epic tale of some guy's life or something, but I'm gonna mess you up and go with the girl that had diamonds on the soles of her shoes:

Nice, huh? I once taught myself all those African words at the beginning of the song. I don't know what they mean, but I knew 'em all. It begins awoo tri-you-lang-you-lang on john.

What Paul Might Do With My Life: There's two keys to a Paul Simon autobiographical song: One: home in on a specific detail about that person's life to make it an extended metaphor of, well, everything. A specific detail like how diamonds on the soles of someone's shoes could show their entire attitudes towards life and relationships, or how someone's being old may just relate, somehow, to the entire universe (as on "Old") or how someone might hear loud music from next door and remember their whole life:

I know that wasn't Paul Simon doing "Late In The Evening" but it was cool, wasn't it?

Step Two of a Paul Simon song is find the next kind of quirky music that America hasn't heard much of and ride it to fame and fortune. From the New York ska of Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland to that stuff on "The Rhythm of the Saints," Paul Simon has been a one-man imperialist force, co-opting world music to his own ends in a way that Peter Gabriel can only envy.

So my life via a Paul Simon song would pick out a specific detail about me, and set it to the next music. Let's just assume it would be a rock-inflected Polka with a male voice choir backing him up, and that the entire song would be about my Darth Maul tie.

Then Again, He Might Just: Sometimes, Paul got away from metonymy and went for a synechdoche, instead. (God, I hope I'm using those right or Mr. Schaeffer, my old English teacher, will have my head.) I mean to say, sometimes he dropped focusing on details and went for the big metaphor, like he did on the allegorical tale Pigs, Sheep & Wolves, which I think was a commentary on the legal system. Or maybe on meat. I'd love to show you the song, but the only video I could find is a terrible one on Youtube. People, if you watch your video and the sound is terrible, don't post it.

If you want to try to listen to it anyway, click here.

So Paul might just couch my entire life in a fable about animals. If so, I hope he chooses Vampire Duck.

And, finally, no roundup of biographical singer/songwriters would be complete without Johnny Cash, who treated us to musical bios of drunken Ira Hayes, a Boy Named Sue, and Jesus:

Heady company to be in. But I think my life stacks up favorably to my cohort. Or at least to Sue and Drunken Ira Hayes. Jesus has a better resume than me.

Representative Song: While Johnny sang about others sometimes, he mostly sang about himself, so at first, I struggled to decide which song best shows how Johnny would describe someone else's life. Then I remembered Sam Hall:

That is awesome. I love the cackle! Even better, on the later version, Johnny repeats the phrase: "Damn Yer Eyes!" I use that in meetings now at work.

What Johnny Would Do With My Life: Johnny was at his best when singing about scoundrels: guys who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or who beat people up because they were named Sue, or who told their wives that they were going out for the paper and would be back by noon, but they were lying and instead of getting a paper and coming back, they wandered through some kind of wasteland, maybe metaphorically:

So to get into a Johnny Cash song, I'm going to have to have done something bad and the world's going to know. This is tough for me, but I'm going to make a confession here, and hope that society will forgive me:

When I was about 8, my brother and I went to the mall with my Mom. Usually, we'd just wander around and look at the stream that ran through it and the goldfish that were in the stream. But on this particular occasion, we found ourselves at the "Marshall Fields" candy counter, and there on the counter was a package of candy.

We thought it was samples, and we took them... a lot, eating some and putting some in our pockets. We were headed back out to the mall proper when...the long arm of the law got us. A store security guard stopped us and told us that we'd been shoplifting and we were in a lot of trouble.

There. Now you know. Take it away, Johnny. Let's hear The Ballad Of the Unrepentant Candy Thief.

Then Again, He Might: When Johnny wasn't singing about desperadoes on the run through Mayfair Mall with pockets full of Frango Mints, he borrowed from other songwriters and sang of... well, death and pain:

So I'm really hoping he'll stick with the candy-stealing thing.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Update: Guess Who's Reading TBOE Now?

I don't talk about sports often on here -- but often enough, judging by the sports media folks who

Steal from blatantly plagiarize copy write about the same things I do, only later.

The latest is Michael Rosenberg, a Detroit Free Press Columnist who today wrote a column called "It's Brett Favre's World And We're Living In It." In that column, Mr. Rosenberg develops some entirely new ideas, including:

1. We need more news about Brett Favre, and

2. Brett Favre should play for all 32 NFL teams.

Note: The links in those statements do not go to Mr. Rosenberg's article -- published May 13 at 12:47 p.m. EST, but to my posts, published much earlier than Mr. Rosenberg's.

Welcome, Michael Rosenberg, to the ranks of TBOE readers, and remember what I always say: Plagiarism is the sincerest form of copying.

The Best Jobs For Brett Favre When He Finally Doesn't Play Football Anymore (Number Two)

It's a MiniBest!

If you're a sports fan, you probably thought it was over, for real, last week when Brett Favre said he wasn't going to play for the Vikings.

(If you're not a sports fan, then you probably said, just now, Brett who? But if you're not a sports fan, too, what's your deal? I'm not saying you have to be obsessed, but you probably ought to like at least one sport. Maybe Brockian Ultra Cricket.)

But it's never over with Brett Favre -- and thank God, because what else would people who like sports do for fun and entertainment right now, when the best thing sports networks can do is claim that people actually watch the NBA playoffs which are now entering their third consecutive year -- just two more and we'll have a champion!

It's a little-publicized fact that the NBA playoffs are so long that they actually overlap. Since they expanded to best-of-seven games (best of seven for no apparent reason) the NBA playoffs take, on average, 5.3 years. So the games that you're watching now are an amalgamation of several years of NBA Playoffs -- the 2009 versions, which just began, and all the prior years back to the 2004, which should be done any day now. This model has been so successful that the NBA, word has it, plans to eventually just say that every game is a championship, and award a trophy every week.

Which (a) I suggested long ago on my now-defunct sports blog, and (b) is what golf and NASCAR do already.

Anyway, it wasn't over, and Brett Favre The Greatest Living Quarterback (And Also Best Quarterback Ever) is still contemplating coming back to play another season. While I'm hoping that he does -- and, now, hoping that he does it as a Viking, because that'll help guarantee that my prediction about Packers' GM Ted Thompson's fate (he'll be fired on January 9, 2010) will come true -- I know that there will come a time when Brett hangs up the cleats and calls it a day on his football career, for real.

But I don't want to lose Brett, and the public doesn't want to lose Brett, and Brett doesn't want us to lose him, so as a public service to Brett and me and the public, I'm offering up, today, the Second Of The Best Jobs For Brett Favre When He Finally Doesn't Play Football Anymore.

Today's job is:

Not Being A Spy In Iran.

This is a job that opened up only recently, when Roxana Saberi, who was definitely not being a spy in Iran, was released by the Iranian government recently. Ms. Saberi was convicted by an Iranian "court" of being a spy... even though she clearly was not being a spy in Iran... and then had her 8-year-sentence commuted to a two-year-suspended sentence by another Iranian "court."

Ms. Saberi was originally arrested, she said, for buying a bottle of wine on the black market. Iran then said she'd been arrested for not actually having press credentials, and ultimately charged with buying information about Iran's nuclear program. She confessed to that, although she recanted that confession later. She also had a classified Iranian government report on the U.S.' involvement in Iraq.

All of which leads to one inescapble conclusion: she obviously wasn't a spy. If being an uncredentialed journalist who is in possession of foreign government's classified documents makes one a spy, well, then, we're all spies, aren't we? Or, at least, those of us who are uncredentialed journalists in possession of foreign goverments' classified documents are spies.

Except Roxanne Saberi.

Although she's kind of shady, anyway-- nobody seems really sure if she was Miss Dakota 1997, or 1998. With those kinds of questions about her, it's no wonder she was convicted.

Anyway, the job of "Not Being A Spy In Iran" is open now, and Brett Favre would be perfect for it: He's used to keeping people guessing about his intentions, he's comfortable dealing with the media and the constant swirl of speculation, and he's already made a lot of money (which is important, because I don't guess the job of Not Being A Spy In Iran pays much.)

Plus, Favre likes attention, and the world loves to focus on people who are not spies in Iran -- witness the 299 people who signed the online petition asking to free Roxanne Saberi! She got 299 people to sign up to free her from Iran's evil clutches.

And you may not think that 299 people is very many, but it is -- it's 71 more people than signed the petition to relocate the Windemere grad hallway -- a petition that echoes the words of the Declaration of Independence with its lofty goals and flowerly language:

We, the future graduates of the 2007/2008 school year, would hereby like to request that our grad hallway be relocated to where it originally has been for the past number of years. We all have shared the vision for the past 4 years of one day being in the grad hallway, all together and celebrating our last year. It has been a tradition for graduates from year to year to have lockers located on the basement floor grad hallway and we feel as if we should have been given at least some notice or some warning before the hallway was moved. The grad hallway isn’t just a hallway to us, it’s going to be apart of our memories and it’s an area where we can be by ourselves and share the laughs, tears and special moments. We will not give up on the hallway we have looked forward to for many years. Attached is a list of names of graduates and undergraduates who feel the hallway needs to be relocated to its original placement. We, the grads and undersigned undergraduates hope you will reconsider on the placement of the grad hallway.

Don't you get a lump in your throat just reading that? I almost stood and saluted.

Ms. Saberi's plight drew nearly 33% more worldwide attention than the deplorable state of Grad Hallways at Windemere-- and that kind of publicity is the kind of publicity that Brett Favre craves, and the rest of us want for him. Here's hoping Brett follows in Ms. Saberi's footsteps and becomes the next person who is Not Being A Spy In Iran.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Best Creepy Instrument That I Nonetheless Would Like To Learn To Play.

There are a lot of instruments I would like to learn to play.

I'd like to play the bagpipes. I tried, for a long time, to learn how to play the bagpipes, because I own a real bagpipes (set of bagpipes?) (bagpipe? But there's more than one pipe...) given to me by Sweetie when I graduated law school. I then learned that there's a lot more to playing the bagpipes than simply blowing into a pipe and/or standing on a Scottish Moor waiting for Nessie to appear. A lot more breath, for one thing. Bagpipes take a lot of breath. And finger dexterity, which you'd think I have because I play piano and also used to know three card tricks, but I don't have it, or at least not the kind of finger dexterity you need to play "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.

Learning to play the bagpipes also requires getting a "practice bagpipe" which is like a part of the bagpipes without the other pipes and the bag -- it looks like a recorder -- and practicing with that, and also requires that you learn how to assemble the bagpipes and fill them with something to keep the air from leaking out and rope them together, and in my case it required that I go to a guy's house in Madison 3 or 4 times for bagpipe lessons, until I gave up and now I don't play the bagpipes.

But I'd like to play them, is my point.

I'd like to play the harmonica, too, but that never worked out. And I want to play the accordion, and also the banjo.

And I want to play the xylophone, which is weird because the xylophone kind of freaks me out. It's a creepy sounding instrument, at best. Listen:

That's "The Nurse" by The White Stripes, and before you can say "Well, sure it sounds creepy because it's being played by that weird guy in The White Stripes, and he's singing about a creepy nurse," consider this:

That's "Sleepwalkers" by They Might Be Giants, a band not known for their creepiness, unless you count the rather creepy quality of their song "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair," in which a character has something spill on his brain and the Ugliness Men keep trying to bug Mr. Horrible... but it doesn't include a xylophone, so it comes off more as a playful song in which someone's visiting friend accidentally was killed:

So you see the difference? Xylophones + Sleepwalkers= Creepy song. Brain-spilling dead friends with Ugliness Men - Xylophones = jaunty little tune.

Lest you be unconvinced of how creepy the xylophone can be, let's consider an extreme example. Someone who could never ever be down, someone who's so up, so positive, that he virtually exemplifies all the qualities that we associate with "America." (Note: that's "America" in quotes, the "America" of apple pie and rags to riches and Westward Ho! and stuff, not the America that invades countries and wrecks world economies and puts Sean Hannity on TV night after night.) Let's consider: Neil Diamond.

Here's Neil at his most upbeat:

Nice, right?No Sean Hannity there. No way Neil could ever be a downer or creepy or weird or spook me out. Unless...

You've got to listen close, but the xylophone is there, and it's creepy. Which says a lot. When the King of Upbeat, when Mr. Forever In Blue Jeans wants to go all sadistic and psycho, he puts a xylophone in the song. As does everyone. Like the Violent Femmes, who used the xylophone in their song "Gone Daddy Gone." I wasn't able to find a good Youtube video of that song, but I did find a high school band playing a version of it

and while they don't have a xylophone, I think we can all agree that the feeling is the same -- you could either listen to a xylophone, or you could watch a high school marching band play a Violent Femmes song about love being gone forever. Either one.

And the xylophone only gets creepier the more you look into it. Like if you do a search to try to find other songs with a xylophone in them, because you're not sure your list (of five songs) is complete, you might find a band called "Gorky's Zygotic Mynci," which has a song called "If Fingers Were Xylophones:"

Which is really a weird image, and, oddly, there seem to be no xylophones in that song, but it's instructive, I think, that Gorky didn't choose to say "if fingers were banjos," or "if fingers were clarinets" or "if fingers were pianos," which would seem weirder, but, let's face it, the xylophone is weird, and creepy.

Cool, but weird and creepy. So weird and creepy that the xylophone manages to bring down a black-and-white scene from the 1930s, and everyone knows how funny those are, usually. If I told you there was a fat guy in a tux playing an instrument in a 1930's black-and-white movie, you'd be all like "oh, man, this is gonna' be good. I bet he gets hit in the face with a pie." But watch:

No pie. No humor. And the song sounds spooky, right? If you said no, then do this: Close your eyes. Play that clip again. Wait, do that in reverse, because you won't know where to click if you close your eyes first. Play the clip, then quickly close your eyes. But not right away. First read all this, because you won't be able to if you close your eyes.

So read all this, then play the clip, then close your eyes and do what this paragraph tells you to do, which is, once you close your eyes and listen to that clip again, to picture the most innocent thing you can imagine. Let's say a duck. Ducks are innocent, right?

Okay, go ahead. Click, close, imagine, duck.

Now, open your eyes. Did you imagine a duck with fangs, and glowing red eyes, maybe a duck with fangs and glowing red eyes outside your bedroom window, tonight, at 3 a.m.? Just sitting and looking at you and you're thinking did the duck wake me up, or did I just luck out and happen to wake up before this Vampire Duck killed me?

If you didn't imagine that, then answer me this: Am I weird because I did? And, now you're imagining that, aren't you? So click the clip again and imagine Vampire Duck outside your window.

Creepy, right? I rest my case.

But I still want to play the xylophone, and here's why: It's cool. I'm always on the lookout for a new way to be cool, and/or a new way to impress people at parties -- even though I never go to parties, and even though if you invite me to a party I'll probably make an excuse and tell you that I can't come, and if you force me into it I'll come but I'll probably leave early.

But on the offchance that I do ever go to a party, I like to have a repertoire of cool things ready to go -- card tricks, playing a couple songs on the piano, what-have-you. And since juggling isn't easy (I've tried that) and ventriloquism is on the way out (I can do that pretty well, actually - - it's not so hard once you know the trick) I need backups, and xylophoning is my newest possible backup.

Because look at this:

So. What was the deal with that German interlude, there at the end? That's a video of Ralph Held, the World's Fastest Xylophone Player, and he proves two of my points:

1. If you could do that at a party, people would definitely think you were cool, and
2. Xylophones are creepy, because even in that video, there was something off about it; it goes from a demonstration of superfast xylophoning to a Nazi propaganda film, just like that.

Anyway, though, you can imagine how great the Xylophone-playing-ability would be at a party, and the only flaw in my plan appears to be that xylophones are neither common, nor easily portable, so that the idea that I'd go to a party and simply sit down and begin xylophoning to wow people over is kind of silly...

... unless I had this:

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