Sunday, March 30, 2008

A bumper concrete crop

So overwhelming was our winter that the beltline has multiple fallen exit ramp signs, all broken via icy car collision and then leaned against their supporting bases until summer construction can properly remount them.

The end result is a beltline garden of exit signs poking out of the ground, freshly planted and ready to grow with the assistance of a little water, sunshine, and time.

Exit 142 A has never looked so adorable.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A moment in time

Saturday, 9:16 AM: A craving for orange juice resulted in an unplanned stop at a Sauk City gas station, Sauk City being a town rural enough to render half its name a lie.

I paid for my beverage and headed out to the parking lot where a man was engaged in easy conversation with a fellow local. He leaned his dusty frame over the hood of his Chevy, his face framed with a trucker hat and thick mustache. His squinting eyes folded over me, taking in my black peacoat, fingerless gloves, and white-rimmed oversized sunglasses.

He paused, mumbled something between a grunt and a laugh, and said, "How far are we from Hollywood, anyway?"

I smiled and said, "Only a few blocks west, head down this road a bit and you can't miss it."

He laughed and adjusted his cap.

Love that guy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Today I am operating at about 80% capacity, which is astounding in comparison to the 10% I was at yesterday, for yesterday I was SICK

Riding a white-knuckle night of fever dreams, punctuated by waking up in sweats every hour on the hour.


Donning clothes amounting to a two part endeavor with a much-needed nap in between.


Shivering uncontrollably even when buried in enough blankets to smother a polar bear.


Fighting for the retention of every last calorie, lest it shoot out like a geyser from either end.


Crossing just slightly into Too Much Information territory in one's blog.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

March Lament

While I love the stretch of warm weather we're having, I could really do without the snow resembling piles of dirty, melting elephants.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

12:01 PM on Tuesday

While waiting for my lunch at Cousin's I noticed that the wall was adorned with certificates from the Board of Health denoting stunning achievements in cleanliness and sanitation.

Comforting, that.

I then noticed that the certificates were awarded on a yearly basis and arranged in chronological order, which merely drew attention to the fact that they were administered like clockwork up until a year ago.


"Your sub is ready," they shouted.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I hold with those who favor fire

I've been reading poetry lately.

This information, unfortunately, reads as if presented in a cursive font with a nice pastel background sporting some form of blooming flower.

Not so.

Returning to poetry after a ten year post-college lapse--if there's one thing that is easy to ignore outside the artificial bubble of academia, it is the existence of poetry--has shattered the popular misconception of poetry as a dreamy, feminine form of expression. Poetry isn't the cute, lovable VW Bug puttering through a meadow as much as it is a sports car running wild on a tankful of blood.

By its very nature poetry is the most immediate means of expressing something, be it a concept, emotion, moment, or story. Novelists have all the time imaginable to present their case, and short story writers have however many pages are granted by Playboy that month, but poets have to hit the ground running with the leanest prose possible in the race against the reader's attention span. Poets butcher their babies by carving off every ounce of fat, each individual word weighed and judged for inclusion. There is no form of communication with a higher blood-sweat-and-tears-to-words ratio than poetry.

What interests me most about poetry, however, is that there is also no other form of communication that so directly demands the participation of the reader. Good poetry doesn't just strip down to the compact essentials but instead goes one step further to eviscerate large chunks of content in the interest of forcing the listener to fill in the gaps. Explanation and exposition, who needs them? Or, more importantly, why pull the trigger when the reader is there to do it for you?

Take the following by Hemingway, which, while technically a short story, illustrates my point:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Taken at face value this is merely an ad for a pair of shoes, but once the reader jumps in the fray all sorts of staggeringly sad details begin to emerge.

Who created a situation in which a pair of baby shoes became prematurely unnecessary?

You did!

Who cursed someone with parental grief so deep another child seemed unbearable?

You did!

Who killed the poor infant in the first place?

You did!

Replace the cursive font with italicized urgency, backed with a pattern of mounting tension and headlines of bruised purple.

I've been reading poetry lately.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Justice was not being served

As I prepared for bed and took off my sweater, I couldn't help but feel it horribly unfair that the Batman shirt underneath didn't make an appearance all day.

Cold weather managing victories beyond the Joker's grasp.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Anyone know a 9th level cleric?

Gary Gygax, father of Dungeons and Dragons, dead as THAC0.

R.I.P. to the guy singlehandedly responsible for me spending my teenage years scribbling on graph paper instead of talking to girls.

Gary Gygax: 1938-2008. He pioneered new ways in which to pretend to be an elf.

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

There is a certain genre of novels, call it Book Club Fiction, that sell well due to buzz, word of mouth, and occasionally Oprah. These books come as trade paperbacks bearing four hundred plus pages of character-driven artful prose. There will be passages so lovely you'll want to bob along in the prose's warm embrace, and there will be turns so emotionally grueling you'll feel gutted and drained. There will be love, there will be pain, there will quite possibly be rape, and in the end there will be redemption, and all of this will be tied up in multiple layers ripe for discussion.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants really wants to be the latest sensation in Book Club Fiction, and at a glance it certainly looks the part. It comes bearing book club buzz, and even contains an interview with the author and an accompanying discussion guide. Much like prior Book Club sensation The Kite Runner, Water for Elephants is a coming of age story set in a meticulously researched historical environment, a tale of one man's growth mixed with equal parts love and tragedy. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll recommend the book to everyone at the salon.

There certainly is much to love about Water for Elephants, to be sure. Gruen masterfully resuscitates depression-era traveling circus life from the footnotes of history, and the result is a seductive world of dirty glamor that pulses with sleazy life. Gruen thoroughly paints this historical setting with a stunning attention to detail, and I could easily have spent twice as long in her carefully crafted universe of rubes and roustabouts, of side shows and speakeasies.

Problem is, a stage is set only to tell a story, and that's exactly where the cracks begin to show. Gruen's prose is at best serviceable and at worst prone to cliché, and for a three-time author she has a surprising tendency to tell not show. All too often the book feels condensed, with certain passages reading like expository Cliffs Notes summaries for what should have been fully-written chapters. It's not uncommon for a week to artlessly pass in the blink of a paragraph, robbing readers of the chance to play bystander to unfolding events.

Similarly, Gruen doesn't seem interested in any of the characters that aren't encased in carny grease, which is problematic as the story hinges on a romance that we aren't entirely sold on. Why is the protagonist in love with the star performer, and what exactly is it that she sees in him in return? With every unearned romantic escalation I couldn't help but wish Gruen would get back to the Polish elephant and alcohol raids.

And murders, for that matter. Gruen certainly isn't afraid of cheap melodrama, which occasionally overwhelms what narrative momentum she otherwise accumulates through character development. Several major side characters meet ill ends to provide little more than gotcha moments, their existences forgotten once the string stabs fade. Her roustabouts deserve better.

And yet the books succeeds, due to Gruen's contagious affection for this tatty world and its occupying degenerates. It's the details that stick with you--the drunkard with jake foot, the lemonade-stealing elephant, the hobos tying shoes to their feet--long after the mediocre prose and surface-thin plot have faded. Additionally, it can't be stressed enough that the book is never less than compulsively readable, with easy hooks and brisk pacing that create so much momentum you'll be hard-pressed to resist topping it off with the author's interview and slight discussion guide simply because they're there.

Ultimately Gruen hits enough of the right notes to enable overlooking the few lurking just out of her range. The halls of Book Club Fiction may not be opening its doors for another inductee, but Water for Elephants is a cracking read, and sometimes that's more than enough.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Surprise! New Music!

Nine Inch Nails released a new instrumental double album last night.

Yeah, just like that. One minute their website had tour dates and the next it displayed a link to download this new album for five dollars.

Nobody really cares too much about instrumental albums, true, but the fact still stands: Nine Inch Nails, previously notorious for taking as many as six constipated years between releases, just dropped two hours of new music in the same way other bands might announce a new t-shirt design.

The internet has destroyed the traditional model of releasing new music.

It used to be so simple. A band would go in the studio, record a bunch of songs, and submit the cream of the crop to the record label, who would then package the album and release it to the public, sometimes after a lead single with accompanying video had been serviced to radio stations. Once the band had toured awhile and as much money had been squeezed out of the album as deemed possible, the band would start writing new material and the process would begin anew.

Not all bands in all genres followed this model, of course, but the point is new music was generally released every couple of years, with no small amount of accompanying fanfare and money burned. Each album took great financial investment. Each album was The Next One from the band that brought you The Last One.

Then along came the internet.

When Radiohead announced last fall that--surprise!--the new album was done and would be downloadable in a couple days I felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under me. What, no slow build-up of promotion and teasers? No lead in single, no video? No Tuesday lunch trip to Best buy on release day to hold the plastic jewelcase in my hands and study the track listing as I waited in line at the register? Does this album even count?

Hell yes it did. Not only did Radiohead release the album of the year, but by distributing it online they guaranteed that everyone would hear it.

And now Nine Inch Nails. Trent's been hinting about this for awhile, of course, and the Saul Williams disc was a dress rehearsal of sorts, but last night he did it, just like that.

"I've got a new album you had no idea I was working on and here it is."

A sudden instrumental double album (or, more appropriately, a quadruple-E.P.). Written over a tumultuous ten weeks and released without any of the surrounding fanfare and baggage, with hint of more on the horizon.

Can he do that? Does it even count?

The dying questions of an obsolete mindset.

Just like that.