ShaneHalbach.com

Hero Worship

Queen

Like so many young men of my generation, I was introduced to Queen via Wayne’s World and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Wayne’s World came out in 1992. Back around that time I bought a lot of cassette tape singles. I used to hang out at NRM music in the mall, and I think the tape singles were $4 apiece (you whippersnappers and your $0.99 instant downloads). I bought the single of Bohemian Rhapsody and I remember telling my mom she had to hear this amazing, cutting edge band known as Queen.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’ve heard it. How did you hear it? These guys have been around for a long time.”
“No way,” I said. “This song just came out.”
“Shane, this song was out when I was a kid.”

I didn’t believe her, couldn’t believe her. This song was cool! No WAY my mom could have heard it before.

I remember that, after a heated argument, my mom finally did somehow convince me that Queen had been around for awhile. “Well then, they were ahead of their time!” I declared, stomping out of the room. Of course, Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975, and Freddie Mercury was dead by the time *I* ever heard that song, but we didn’t have smart phones back then to look that kind of thing up.

(Side note, the reverse side of that tape was The Show Must Go On, which is probably now my favorite Queen song, so you whippersnappers don’t know what you’re missing with your “only buy the song you want” nonsense!)

There is just something about a Queen song that, when you hear it, just makes you start pumping your fist in the air and bobbing your head (and maybe there is something to that, since Another One Bites the Dust is literally the rhythm of your heart).

Could there be a more perfect stadium rock song than We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions? Who hasn’t rocked out to Another One Bites the Dust? Who hasn’t harmonized to Fat Bottomed Girls? For my money, no tv theme song will ever top Princes of the Universe (“I am immortal! I have inside me blood of kings, YEAH!”).

Queen was ahead of their time, man. That front man, that stage show, that sound. So many hits. Their sound is still unique. The show may go on, but we’ll never have another one like Queen, my friend.

I make my kids listen to Queen. I don’t care that their hits are 40 years old. I want to ride my bicycle, and I want to ride it where I like, thank you very much.


Mystery Science Theater 3000

Oh, my friends. Let me tell you about one of the greatest shows every produced in the history of mankind: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The MST3K planet logo

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″ is a mouthful, so it’s often shortened to mst3k, or even “misty” due to the fact that even mst3k is a bit of a mouthful, and misty is what it sounds like when you say “m-s-t” really fast.

The premise of the show was simple (and spelled out right there in the theme song):

In the not-too-distant future — Next Sunday A.D. –
There was a guy named Joel, Not too different from you or me.
He worked at Gizmonic Institute, Just another face in a red jumpsuit.
He did a good job cleaning up the place,
But his bosses didn’t like him, so they shot him into space.

We’ll send him cheesy movies, The worst we can find (la-la-la).
He’ll have to sit and watch them all, And we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la).
Now keep in mind Joel can’t control Where the movies begin or end (la-la-la)
Because he used those special parts To make his robot friends.

Makes, perfect sense, right?

So Joel and the robots were forced to watch terrible movies (mostly science fiction) and in order to keep their sanity, spent the entire time making fun of them. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may have run across the iconic image of the guys sitting in their movie seats in front of the screen:

As is the case with writing about any of the things I love, I just don’t know how to convey how much I loved mst3k. I’d have to explain how funny the show is, or how I would practically prop my eyes open with toothpicks to try and stay up until the episode started at midnight, or how much I loved my mst3k tee shirt in college, or how devastated I was when Joel left the show, vowing I would never like Mike no matter what, only to later like Mike so much that I had trouble deciding which host I preferred, or how my and Sara’s first date involved watching Manos: The Hands of Fate. Eleven years and 197 episodes, not to mention how many times I’ve watched the ones I have on DVD (and even more that I can’t watch anymore because they’re on VHS!)

Long story short, it was a great show and I’m feeling all sad and nostalgic just thinking about it.

There are so many good episodes (about 197 of them, give or take), but off the top of my head I would have to list my favorites in this order:

  1. The Final Sacrifice
  2. Pod People
  3. Manos: The Hands of Fate
  4. Space Mutiny

I know the guys are still out there doing RiffTrax (you buy the mp3 of their commentary and sync it to the movie as you watch it), but I’ve never tried it out. Anybody want to make it a movie night? And if not, I’ve got plenty of old misty episodes lying around…


Stephen King vs. H.P. Lovecraft

Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft (most famously known for the cthulhu mythos) are two of my all time favorite authors. They are similar in the sense that they are both extremely famous horror writers who are widely acknowledged as masters of their craft and legends in the horror genre. However, it occurred to me the other day that the similarity ends there. Within the horror genre, they are at absolute opposite ends of the spectrum.

Mr. King’s genius is in capturing the “every man”. He is so good at capturing a slice of life, painting a picture that is so ordinary, that you’re absolutely sure it could be you. The horror is that it could happen, really honest to god could happen, and close to home too. When you read a Stephen King story, you kind of feel like the story was written by a nice guy, a friend of yours, to whom you can relate.

H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft is the opposite. Somehow he’s able to capture something so awesome and alien that your mind shudders to comprehend it. Lovecraft’s horror relies on a sense of majesty, a sense of wonder. The horror is that it’s so big and alien that there’s absolutely nothing you could do about it. In fact, there’s nothing anyone could do. Lovecraft doesn’t disrupt suburban “every man” utopia by bringing the story into your home, he destroys your home, the world, and everything in it. When you read an H.P. Lovecraft story, you kind of feel like the story was written by an alien in human skin, or, best case scenario, a strangely lucid lunatic.

King’s heroes are every men as well, the duty usually falling to kids, housewives, or middle-aged, small town sheriffs. Lovecraft has no heroes. In a Lovecraft story, you’re the hero if you survive, period (with or without sanity intact). That’s really the best you can hope for.

So both are frightening for their own, very different reasons and I wonder if anybody enjoys both ends of the spectrum as much as I do?

I guess the take away is that the horror genre is as wide and deep as the tentacle of great H’chtelegoth himself.


The Tick

me_tick

Ah, my friends. Let me tell you about the greatest show in the history of the universe: The Tick.

(Just to be quite clear, I’m talking about the original cartoon from the early ’90’s, not the live action television show from 2001. The live action show had moments of brilliance, but nowhere near the level of the cartoon.)

What to say about The Tick? I love it so much that I don’t even know where to start. I feel like any words I put down here are not going to really capture the essence of the show. Of all the times that I’ve tried to tell someone about the show, or explain a particularly funny scene, it just always seems to fall flat. But you could say that about a lot of things I try to write about, so once more unto the breach as it were.

I guess I’ll just start with this picture of me in my Tick costume from 2002:

I have enjoyed a lot of shows over the years, but none more than The Tick. It only lasted 3 seasons, and it has been off the air for almost 16 years now, but I can still recall nearly every episode. Basically, they all went like this: some ridiculous super villain shows up, the tick bumbles his way through, relying on exuberance more than intelligence, until his semi-reluctant sidekick Arthur comes up with a legitimate plan to save the day, with or without the help of a ridiculous cast of super heroes that inhabit “The City”, after which The Tick wrapped up (?) the whole episode with an absurd and strangely worded “moral lesson”, like the ending to some kind of surreal episode of Full House.

Something like, “When a nice clean brain tumbles into the dirty street to lay among the discarded wrappers and spat-out gum wads of wickedness, you can’t just pick it up and wash it off with soap and water; you have to think it clean from the inside out.” Or “Let your journey into hugeness teach us all a lesson. Absolute power is a sticky wicket. And, Arthur, chum, you were the stickiest. Don’t you get it, good friend? Some of the best things come in small packages. But large things can’t. Unless they’re inflatable, or require some assembly, or unless they’re hearts. Yes, giant, juicy, loving hearts. As big as the moon, but much, much warmer. “

The Tick was a parody of superheros and comic books, two things which I love. The best thing about it were the characters. They weren’t anything like the prototypical comic book heroes and villains we knew and loved. They were weak, they were stupid, they were arrogant, they were cowardly. Their powers were lame and their schemes and plans were even lamer. The heroes often did more harm to The City than the villains (such as the Tick, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, breaking off chunks of stone and decorative moldings with his clumsy bulk).

There were heroes such as Bi-Polar Bear (“This looks like a job for Bi-Polar Bear… but I just cant seem to get out of bed.”), the Caped Chameleon (“Can’t…do….plaid”), Baby Boomerangutuang (A combination baby boomer / boomerang throwing orangutan), or Sarcastro (a Castro look-alike who fights crime with the “razor sharp sting of sarcasm”) who engaged in battles with villains like the Deadly Bulb (a.k.a. “pigleg”, who happens to have a pig for a leg, so he became a super villain to keep people from noticing that), Stalingrad (he’s not actually evil, just a graduate student who happens to look like Joseph Stalin, which is enough to qualify him as a villain) and, my all time favorite, The Evil Midnight Bomber (What Bombs at Midnight!)

The Tick himself was a fantastic character. He was stone stupid, but had an endless enthusiasm that kept him going when all the other heroes fell by the wayside. Stupidity and child-like exuberance are a great recipe for a character, a la Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin.

I could throw great quotes at you, or episode synopses, but none of those could make you love The Tick the way you aught to. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on youtube watching some clips. Or start with the quick compilation below:


Ben Folds

Just to finish off the week of “things we’ve been doing lately”, two weeks ago today Sara and I actually got a babysitter (*gasp*) to go see the man, the myth, the legend: Mr. Ben Folds.

I have been a fan of Ben Folds for such a ridiculously long period of time (though not quite as long as Sara, who claims I “stole” Ben Folds from her, despite the fact that I had a couple of pirated mp3s before I met her!) that it’s almost hard to remember a music landscape without him. Actually, I just remembered that “Whatever and Ever Amen” was the first thing I ever bought off this crazy new website called eBay. Sara and I danced to “The Luckiest” at our wedding. My mom liked the song so much, that years later she danced to “The Luckiest” at her wedding.

Previous to this concert, I’ve seen Ben Folds four times, and each one was unique and totally awesome. I sat in the front row of the balcony at the University of Illinois in a venue so small that I probably could have sweat on him. I saw him at a true college show at Purdue as part of my bachelor party, where he was hilarious in between songs. He was very chatty, telling all kinds of stories about growing up when we saw him in his home state of North Carolina. And finally, we had the truly unique concert experience when we saw him with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Still, through all of that, I had never actually seen Ben Folds Five together in concert (Sara saw them once in the ’90’s). So when our friend Dabu informed us they were coming to Chicago for the “World’s Largest Block Party”, we knew we had to go. It was every bit as awesome as I could have hoped it would be. They played all the best old stuff, and I heard every song that I hoped I would hear.

(They don’t look this young anymore)

I believe we have 16 Ben Folds or Ben Folds Five CDs (technically four of them are just EPs, and one is a DVD), and every one of them is awesome, start to finish. I love the old, ironic nerd rock, Ben Folds Five stuff. I love the slightly more serious solo Ben Folds stuff. Even the very newest stuff is good, the last new album “Lonely Avenue” is one of my favorites. And the new retrospective “The Best Imitation of Myself” is probably the best compilation I have ever heard from any artist. I even loved Mr. Folds on the now-defunct acapella show The Sing Off.

You know the old saying, you have to know the rules to break them? I think Ben Folds’ deep understanding (intuition?) of music is what allows him to get away with the things he does. Like writing a beautiful song about something ugly, or an upbeat song about something sad, or to have a harmony-driven-piano-centric-with-no-guitars pop band, or to call three musicians “Ben Folds’ Five”.

I don’t know what it is exactly about the music, but the best I can say is that it’s just beautiful. It’s beautiful when it’s about the human condition, but it’s also beautiful when it’s talking about Americans over-consuming. It’s beautiful when it’s talking about love, but it’s also beautiful when it’s talking about breakups, or relationships gone wrong, or abortion, or a bad acid trip, or people who wear fanny packs. It’s just always, unceasingly, heartrendingly beautiful.

Ben Folds Five is preparing to release a new album, and you can pre-order it here. In fact, if you do, you instantly become a “Vice President of Promotion”, which you should go ahead an do, so we can be co-Vice Presidents together. It will be very nice working with you.


The Dave Matthews Band

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a band. Specifically, the Dave Matthews Band.

I got my first DMB CD (Under the Table and Dreaming) when I was in high school, sight unseen (unheard?) based on the recommendation of my best friend. Who knew that it would spark a love affair that would last for more than a decade?

Everybody was a DMB fan back then, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that I lived, breathed, ate, and slept in their music. Most of the time, literally. Certainly there are super-fans who had more “cred” to their name, but I did alright. I have something like 20 DMB CDs. I had shirts, hats and stickers. I saw them in concert more times than I can count, including one magical tour when I saw them three consecutive nights in a row. I listened to CDs in the car, in my room, and on my discman in between classes (that’s right you youngsters, a discman). I learned how to play the guitar because of Dave Matthews. It seems ridiculous now, but I used to wear a hemp necklace. A hemp necklace people!

Considering all of this, I felt like I must have tons and tons of old blog entries about the Dave Matthews Band, but surprisingly I didn’t. However, I did find a pretty good excerpt from a blog post as recent as February 2008 that sums things up quickly:

One final note, Live at Radio City Music Hall by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds is really good!  Dave and I used to have a pretty good relationship.  We hit a rocky patch during the whole Lillywhite Sessions debacle, but Busted Stuff and Some Devil were better than a dozen roses.  Still, the endless live compilations began to wear on me (see Live Trax vols 1 – 10).  How many CDs can I own with the same songs on them?  Finally, Stand Up did our relationship in.  But here comes Live at Radio City to make me remember all those romantic weekends at Deer Creek.  Of course it is good!  Did we forget that Live at Luther College inspired me to learn how to play the guitar?  And that Tim Reynolds still can play the hell out of a guitar.  Dave’s voice is a little more raspy, the song selection is decidedly spiritual and I’ve never heard acoustic guitar sound so…sinister.  They really work that low E!  But it certainly brings back memories and I’ve spent more than a few trips in the car singing my lungs out.

Although I rarely listen to DMB these days, there’s no denying that a large portion of my life is inexorably tied to that music. It was the unceasing soundtrack of my life for a large, important chuck of time, spanning from high school, throughout college, throughout my time in Philadelphia, and into my life in Chicago.

Which is probably why, when I pulled out some old DMB CDs for a road trip a couple of weeks ago, I startled Sara by weeping openly several times.

It would be impossible to hear a DMB song that didn’t have some associated memory with it. I know them all by heart, but it’s like they know *me* by heart as well. I can’t hear Under the Table without thinking about driving around Fort Wayne in Chris’ red S10. I can’t hear Crash or Recently without thinking about playing Magic the Gathering in Casey’s basement. Live at Luther College reminds me of the guys that lived in my hallway at the dorm my freshman year. Before These Crowded Streets reminds me of playing guitar in Hillenbrand with Casey and Jeremy. Rody and I listed to Live at Red Rocks in the car on the way Deer Creek for concerts (ha, I just remembered, Rody won DMB tickets once by calling in to a radio show and singing Ants Marching!). Reid and Casey performed #41 at an open mike in the basement of the Union. I think about ex-girlfriends, friends half way around the world, and now I think about the DMB songs I sang to my kids when they were babies and wouldn’t go to sleep (and still occasionally now).

Everybody has a particular band or particular style of music that really defines them, or reminds them of their childhood. For me, that is and always will be the Dave Matthews Band.


I miss Mr. Rogers

If you haven’t seen this popping up everywhere already (including my own Facebook and G+ streams), you will soon.

Somehow, in addition to making an awesome song, these quick clips totally captured the essence of Fred Rogers. It only takes about five seconds of video to see his absolute love of children, his absolute love of his job. He wasn’t delivering lines, he was saying something he absolutely believed in, all the way down to his toes (which were no doubt stuffed in some comfortable yet tasteful indoor shoes).

A friend on Facebook said, “Wow, maybe it’s because I’m a child of the early 80’s, but I really loved this. It makes me feel like I can be an astronaut, or the queen, or the president, or a ballerina!”

It’s true. Seeing this video not only brought back my memories of the show, but it specifically brought back my memories of how the show made me feel. Not like I was being entertained, but like anything was possible. Like the world was right outside my door, waiting for me to come out and claim it. Like Mr. Rogers believed in me. Like imagination and a love of learning were all anyone needed.

“Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind? You can grow ideas.” – Mr. Rogers.


Jem and the Holograms

Back in the ’80s, there was a fantastic cartoon by the name of Jem.

Jerrica was a mild mannered band manager by day, but a mysterious pop superstar known as Jem by night. She achieved this with the help of a computer known as Synergy, which was able to project holograms out of Jerrica’s earrings. Therefore, in addition to other illusions, Synergy could project the Jem image over the top of Jerrica, keeping her identity a secret. Sort of Hanna Montana with crime-fighting superpowers.

Jem was supposed to be for girls, so why did I like it? Was it because Jem was outrageous? Truly, truly, truly outrageous? Wikipedia tells me “the same team responsible for G.I. Joe and Transformers”, so I guess those guys just had my number. The thing is, I don’t feel like Jem is remembered with the same fondness as G.I. Joe and Transformers. Is this some kind of gender issue? Or is it because the bad guys on those show were cold blooded killers, and the bad guys on Jem were only evil because their “songs are bitter”.

The best part is that I now use a program at work called Synergy. Is it a coincidence, or do you think the creators of that software were Jem fans? It neither speaks, nor creates holographic projections, but that doesn’t mean I can’t say things like, “Synergy, download the latest model for me!” I don’t think it listens to me.

Maybe I have the wrong earrings.


Digital Underground

In the early ’90s I became obsessed with a little band known as Digital Underground. You may have heard their biggest hit before, a little song known as the Humpty Dance.

However, Digital Underground was so much more than that. Most of their best songs are songs you’ve never heard (though I admit, that bass line in Humpty Dance is still impossible to resist).

You may not realize that Digital Underground helped launch the career of one of the early members of the group, Tupac (who of course went on to be one of the most successful and well known rappers of all time). Despite that, they were never gangsta rappers. You might say they were a little silly.


But underneath that silliness was a lot of seriousness about social issues. They sampled a lot of George Clinton and talked a lot about funk and the musical influences behind rap. And pretty soon they had this white kid from the suburbs checking out old Parliament and Funkadelic albums. Humpty Hump introduced me to a whole new world and everything that went along with it (particularly the roots of the frustration and rage felt by a lot of black people from urban environments that would go on to fuel later, darker rap movements). They didn’t just influence me either; I think you can point to a lot of elements of that entire West Coast rap scene that they had pioneered.

Sons of the P was one of the few (if not the only) CDs that I went back and re-purchased after my worn out tape was no longer very useful anymore, and I still listen to it occasionally. Digital Underground is embodiment of that early rap that just doesn’t exist anymore: awesome grooves, socially conscious lyrics, and plain silliness. I know I’m not the only one gets nostalgic for it.


Warwick Davis

What do all these movies have in common: Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ray, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Chronicles of Narnia : Prince Caspian, and Willow?

Besides the fact that they are awesome, they all star one amazing actor by the name of Warwick Davis.

It would be almost impossible to have not seen Mr. Davis in some movie. Aside from the fact that he works almost continuously (1992 was the last year he didn’t have something come out, and the only year since Star Wars Episode VI in 1983 that he didn’t have anything), but he’s also been in some of the biggest movies of all time.

Warwick Davis as Wicket the Ewok

Of course, his big role was arguably the most famous little person movie of all time, Willow,

Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood

but for my money, his finest performances were in some movies near and dear to my heart, Leprechaun 1 – 6.

Warwick Davis as The Leprechaun

This is, of course, not to mention some rolls in movies you probably saw but didn’t recognize him in, such as a member of the goblin corps in Labyrinth, or Marvin the Robot in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.

Maybe it is because I am a big fan, but I always recognize him instantly, even in makeup. I’ve learned that, for some reason, no one else seems to recognize him. For example, I don’t know how anybody could have watched the Harry Potter series without recognizing the same actor played Flitwick and Griphook:

Warwick Davis as Prof. Flitwick and Griphook the Goblin

Because he is a little person, he is not known as a hugely successful actor, but his resume matches any but the absolute biggest movie stars (I mean biggest figuratively, not literally). I was so happy to see him get some big on-screen moments as Griphook, and I thought he was fantastic. Hopefully casting directors will (continue to) take note.

Isn’t it about time for a Willow sequel?


Board Game: Ticket to Ride

When you don’t have the time for Axis and Allies, and you don’t feel like exerting the mental stamina it takes to play Acquire, but you still want to play a great game, how about Ticket to Ride?

I should start by saying that the game I actually have is Ticket to Ride: Europe. So when I say Ticket to Ride, I really mean Ticket to Ride: Europe. However, I believe the two games are the same, but just with different maps. So everything I say probably applies to both.

Ticket to Ride is about building trains. You get secret destination cards, and the goal is to try to complete your destinations by connecting the two cities listed with a train line. The farther apart the cities are, the harder it is to connect them, the more points the destination card is worth (higher risk = higher reward). Of course there are wrinkles along the way, like tunnels and ferries across bodies of water.

This game is a *little* complicated, but not too bad. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a breeze. Also, you don’t really compete much against each other. Sure, someone might steal your route now and again, but usually you just build a train station to lease their line and move on. It’s certainly less player-to-player competitive than most games of this caliber. You’re more playing against the clock: seeing if you can complete all of your destinations before the game ends.

It’s hard to explain why this is fun exactly, but everybody we’ve introduce it to has enjoyed it. There’s a little bit of stress and worry over completing your destinations, there’s a little bit of strategy over choosing your routes, and there’s a little bit of friendly competition (especially when you get to flip up the cards on someone who’s trying to build a tunnel!). But there’s not *too much* of those things, so it keeps it fun.

So come on over and give it a try! You’ll definitely have a good time. Games take about an hour and a half.


The Greatest Movie of All Time: Hook

Once upon a time (in 1991), a fantastic movie by the name of Hook was released, and changed the world of film forever.

Okay, not really, but I liked it nonetheless.

The story line was fairly unique, as far as I know: after Wendy left Neverland, Peter followed her as well, grew up, and became a dad, and a lawyer. Years later, Hook finds him and steals his kids, forcing Peter back to Neverland, and back to the life he left behind and forgot about. Finally, he reconciles his two identities: Peter as the never-growing-up-carefree-leader of the Lost Boys, and Peter as a responsible adult in the real world.

Robin Williams was alright in the main role, but for me the star of the show was Dustin Hoffman (I guess you could argue that Dustin Hoffman had the main role, since the name of the movie is “Hook” not “Pan”). Bob Hoskins and Julia Roberts are no slouches themselves. And I can guarantee you, nobody has ever seen Dante Basco in *anything* without shouting, “Bangarang Rufio!”

The whole world of the Lost Boys captured my young imagination. An awesome tree house, an adventure every day, whatever they could ever want to eat, they could fly for christsake, and a cool nickname to boot (well, most of them were cool at least). Plus, they continually out-thought and out-fought the adult pirates. Kid power all the way!

The characters were multi-dimensional too. Coming to terms with growing up. Jealousy issues. Parental issues. And Hook is just a flat out mess. It’s one thing to be a kid forever, but what about being trapped as an old man forever? And an old man who has to suffer defeat at the hands of a bunch of kids over and over for all eternity no less! Heaven for the Lost Boys, but hell for Hook. I was kind of glad that he stole Pan’s kids and tried to turn them pirate: at least the evil old bastard finally had a plan that was relatively successful! (Excuse me for being on the side of the pirates here)

I watched this movie about a million times when it came out. I haven’t seen it recently, but word on the street is, it holds up. I’m sure I would enjoy it through sheer nostalgia factor alone.

Any specific Hook memories?


Shel Silverstein

We picked up a used copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, and Evie and I recently finished reading it.

Although Evie is a little young for it, it went over surprisingly well. There are a few poems that seemed to have captured her imagination, specifically “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too”, “Hungry Mungry”, and “The Unicorn”, among many others.

Actually, I forgot how much I liked this book until I was re-reading it with her. It really took me back to my childhood, when I read this book innumerable times. I felt like each time I turned the page I thought, “Oh yeah! This one!” It felt pretty special to share those with her. And here it was something I had almost completely forgotten about!

Shel Silverstein has a lot of famous books, but the two best in my opinion are “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and A Light in the Attic”.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody that didn’t like the poetry of Shel Silverstein, and I kind of feel like these books are part of the pop-culture landscape of my childhood, in that pretty much everybody was familiar with them. I hope that my kids enjoy them as much as I did when I was a kid.

Based on Evie’s reaction to “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, it seems likely.


Board Game: Axis and Allies

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Acquire without mentioning the OTHER best board game ever, Axis and Allies.

Axis and Allies is like Risk on steroids. In fact, after you’ve played Axis and Allies, Risk seems so un-strategic and pointless, it is hard to ever play it again.

Like Risk, you have a certain number of units that “fight” against an opponents units by rolling dice. That’s about where the similarities end though, because in Axis and Allies there are many different types of units, and each need to roll a different number for a “kill”. For example, if I am attacking you with my infantry men and my fighter jets, my infantry needs to roll a 1 to kill one of your guys, but my jets need to roll a 3 or lower (obviously a jet is a lot more powerful than an infantry men).

So why wouldn’t you just have only jets then? Well, much like Risk, you gain “points” during your turn based on how much territory you control. In Axis and Allies, these points are money, and you can spend them on units. This is where some of the strategy comes in: do I buy a ton of cheap infantry to throw into the breach and eat up bullets, or do I buy something more expensive, like tanks or bombers? Do I spend money on a navy, and patrol the Atlantic with wolf-packs of subs, or do I blitzkrieg my panzer divisions across Africa? Or maybe I should be going  Luftwaffe all the way?

As you’ve probably picked up, this game is centered on World War II, and is eerily accurate, historically. In fact, the initial setup of the board is to replicate the troop placements of a specific year of the war. I’ve seen alternate setups online where you can replicate the troop placements of other years of the war. And if you make the same historical decisions (good or bad) made by the countries in those wars, you tend to have the same results those countries had. I am always amazed at how accurate the whole thing plays out (like the way Russia is almost forced to sacrifice ridiculous numbers of infantry men to buy time against the German army, or the way the U.S. has very little effect on the war until the end, when they become a powerhouse. The “sleeping giant” indeed!) History classes should be forced to play this game; I think they would learn a lot about why certain decisions were made.

However, the game gets interesting when you DON’T follow the precedent of history. Russia captured by Japanese invaders from the East. Britain fighting Pacific naval battles from a base in Australia. A powerful Russian navy (strategy-wise, this is about as bad as it sounds). D-Day taking place, but in Africa, or Scandinavia, or some other strange location. Now we’re talking!

The downside to this game is that it takes a long time to set up and an eternity to play. If you have people who don’t know all the troop placements off the top of their heads, it can literally take 45 minutes to an hour to set up. An hour before you can even begin playing! But that’s nothing compared to the game itself. I’d say 6 hours is not unreasonable.

This is crazy talk, you’re probably saying. 6 hours or more to play one game? Well, sometimes a long game can be immensely more satisfying than a short one. These are games that you’ll be recounting years later (no joke!). It is also technically possible to play a game over a couple sessions, unless you have kids or a cat. Seriously, I swear Nala just *has* to lay in the middle of the board! In high school we used to keep a game going in the back of Mrs. Jones’ class, and she would keep curious kids from messing up the board. Then we would run in and take a turn in between classes. Games would last for weeks! And don’t even get me started about the ill-will we generated playing a game entirely through the night on Christmas eve.

Anyway, I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a gaming session as much as I’ve enjoyed a session of Axis and Allies, but it’s pretty intense, and the length of the game makes it difficult to play very often. If you have a chance though, it’s well worth it!


Board Game: Acquire

I grew up playing a little-known game called Acquire. I don’t run across many people outside of my family who are familiar with this game, but once people play it, they are hooked. It’s sort of like Monopoly meets Pit (except a lot more complicated than either).

Acquire is about buying stocks. You have a “hand” of tiles which allow you to start companies (hotels in the old school version, but I have the newer set, pictured below)(picture not taken by me), increase the size of companies, and merge companies into other companies. You buy stocks in these companies, and, depending on how the tiles fall, you can sell these stocks for money (hopefully for more than you paid), parlay stocks from a smaller company into stocks in a larger (and thus more expensive) company, or hold onto them until the end of the game, when they could be very valuable.

I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t sound fun at all. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to convey the fun of the game in this simple blog post. However, if you’re really interested, you’re all invited to my house for a giant Acquire tournament! It is deceptively simple, as you soon find out when you’re forced to purchase a stock which might have implications 3 or 4 turns from now and you have to count your stocks, your opponents stocks, your money, your opponents money, and the number of stocks left for that company 5 or 6 times each, trying to predict how it will all end out.

The thing that makes Acquire the best board game ever, is that every game is different. For such a small board, you’d be amazed at all the combinations you can have. The board shapes up depending on how many people you have and how the tiles come up, and there are even multiple different ways for the game to end. Sometimes you have one big company that eats up all the others. Sometimes you have 2 or 3 even sized companies. Sometimes the guy with all the cash wins. Sometimes the girl with all the stocks wins.

The tricky part is that you can only buy 3 stocks per turn, but you have many different things going on at the same time. So the hard part is deciding what to buy. Do you get majority stockholder in this company, or do you get second place in these two? If you buy one stock is that going to be enough to hold on until the company merges, or do you need to buy two? But if you buy two, what else can’t you buy? Who seems to be doing better at the moment? Can I sabotage them somehow by giving majority to someone else who’s not doing as well?

It’s exhilarating, and it’s hard. When you get done you feel like you’ve really given your brain a workout. And if you can do that while having fun, what’s not to love?

Some people complain that the game takes too long. Honestly though, I think our average is around an hour and a half per game. To me, that’s not really much longer than any other board game you’re going to play. And it’s a lot more fun than any of those other games anyway.

Trust me on this one: Best. Board game. Ever.


A Dance with Dragons

After a long, long hiatus, the latest book in the greatest series of books ever written, the Song of Fire and Ice, was finally published. (Note: no spoilers!)

I read it about as fast as I could, but 1,000 pages takes a minute or two. Now that I’ve had a chance to sit back and think on it for a second, all I can say is, “Wow.”

I’m on record with my appreciation for George R. R. Martin, but the quality of his writing is simply amazing. I’m not exaggerating when I say this series is the best series of books I have ever read, by far. Better than Harry Potter, better than Twilight, better than Lord of the Rings, better than Dune, better than the Sword of Truth, and about a million times better than the Wheel of Time (don’t get me started on that one). The world building is amazing. The characters are a study in character development. The plot twists are unprecedented in their twistiness. Do you get the impression I like the books?

The only knock on the books whatsoever is the *looooong* wait in between installments. I think it was something like 6 years between this book and the last one. That’s a pretty long time, and it puts you in a compromising position, since you can’t always remember what happened in the previous books, but you don’t have the time to re-read the monsters. And by the way, that’s 6 years of anticipation for the next book, which you would think would almost doom it to fail, since it couldn’t live up to the hype.

Well, it did. It’s as good as any of the books in the series, and probably better than the last book.

I’ve always maintained that Mr. Martin can take as long as he wants to write them, as long as the quality is good. I don’t know what kind of writing process he has, but it’s obviously working, so I’d rather have him stick with it. However, as time wore on, and promises about deadlines began to pile up, I began to worry that perhaps success had gotten to him and he was knuckling under all the pressure, unable to finish or even proceed for fear of letting everybody down. Imagine my relief at finding out I was worrying for nothing.

Furthermore, writer John Scalzi makes some very good points I hadn’t considered concerning my expectations about how long it *aught* to take to write a book the size of a Dance with Dragons:

Add all those up, and I’ve written roughly 440,000 words worth of novels since 2005. A Dance With Dragons, so I am told, clocks in at 416,000 words. So, in terms of total novel words written for publication since 2005 (and omitting excised material), there’s a 5.5% difference between the amount that I have written for novels and what Martin has. If we’re talking about the actual words published, written since 2005, there’s a 13.5% difference — in Martin’s favor, because my 2012 novel won’t be published until, well, 2012.

In other words, maybe it just takes 6 years to write 416,000 publishable words.

I promised no spoilers, and I won’t include them since I know several people who are dying to read the book but haven’t yet. But let me just say that there is a cliff-hanger at the end of the book that is going to kill you. Especially since it is entirely likely it will be 6 years before we get to find out what happens!

I am also aware that HBO has turned the series into a tv show, Game of Thrones, and it’s killing me not to watch. From what I’ve seen online in terms of clips and reviews, it seems like it does as good of a job at living up to the books as could be done. Thanks, in no small part I’m sure, to HBO’s history of making some fantastic television, and Mr. Martin’s heavy involvement in the project (and he knows a thing or two about writing for a television series). Alas, I am waiting for the DVDs, since we don’t have HBO.

Get the book. Pick up the series. You might not like it as much as me, but if you like high fantasy even a little bit, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it.


Joss Whedon

Nobody on the Internet needs less hero worship than Joss Whedon. He has plenty. However, I have always been a day late and a dollar short to the Joss Whedon party, so there’s no reason to stop now.

Although I was a very early supporter of the (now generally reviled) Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, I didn’t start watching the most excellent tv show until season 4 or so, and I had to catch all the back episodes on reruns, as well as catching up on Angel. I even managed to be late to the Firefly party, despite watching the first couple of episodes as they aired. I thought the show was terrible and stopped watching. Later, people told me, “You have to watch this show Firefly, it’s awesome!” and I said, “Ha, nice try! I watched it on tv and it was awful.” Well, it turns out that there were some issues with the show when it was on tv, specifically that the episodes were aired out of order. When I was eventually convinced to watch the show in the correct order (way after everybody else), it was indeed a pretty good show. And I’ve never even seen Dollhouse.

So, compared to most of the rabid Whedon fans, I hardly even register on the meter. Therefore, how do I find myself writing a fanboy blog post?

There are two big reasons: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the musical episode of Buffy, Once More with Feeling. Here’s a guy who is a television writer/producer/what-have-you, and he’s written two distinct “musicals” that I would put up there with many of my favorite musicals. If you haven’t checked out the music from these, I would highly recommend it. Yes, you can tell they are a little more amature than a big budget production (especially in the case of Buffy, when the actors and actresses are not normally singers), but that makes them a little more endearing. And it also makes it all the more amazing that the songs are so catchy. (Heck, I started out hating the Serenity theme song, and even that eventually grew on me! Burn the land and boil the sea, but you can’t take the sky from me)

So lets give it up for a guy who has consistently provided smart, funny, quality entertainment since before I was out of high school, and who somehow managed to write a couple of pretty fantastic musicals along the way, with less to work with than a lot of people.


Lonely Avenue

Ben Folds just released a new album, Lonely Avenue.

The thing that makes this album interesting, is that all of the lyrics were written by British novelist Nick Hornby. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to write music for someone else’s words. I mean, obviously people do it all the time, and I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write music at all, even to your own words. But Ben Folds has always written his own lyrics, so it must have been a challenge.

So the lyrics are very story oriented, but Ben’s own style is very much storytelling anyway. So it probably wasn’t too much of a switch for him. That being said, having a literary writer definitely gives the songs a little something different. All in all, I thoroughly enjoy the album (thanks Anna for lending it to me!), and I like it better than the previous one (Way to Normal).

So, here are my 5 favorite songs on the CD, in reverse order:

5) Levi Johnston’s Blues – I’m willing to bet this is the #1 song in America about Levi Johnston (of Bristol Palin’s baby-daddy fame). Basically it’s just about how he was a regular 18 year old dude one minute, and the next minute was the focus of an entire presidential campaign (at least for a little while).

The lyric: I’m a f—–‘ redneck, I live to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey, do some fishin’ and kill some moose / I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’ I guess / You f— with me and I’ll kick your ass*

*This entire chorus was taken wholesale from Levi’s MySpace page before it was sanitized by the political machine.

4) Claire’s Ninth – All Claire wants for her 9th birthday is for her divorced parents to get together and take her out for dinner. This song is flat out amazing. It somehow manages to capture both the sarcasm and embarrassment of being a pre-teen, and also the feelings of the parents: sort of a strange mix of regret over what happened and how it affects their daughter, but at the same time sort of oblivious to how they’re hurting her.

The lyric: Or what we were, you’re all that’s left / It used to be our birthday too

3) Belinda – This is a song about a singer who wrote a love song which became his biggest hit, the song he will be forever known for. The problem is, 40 years later, he’s not with the girl anymore and he’s forced to sing the song over and over, night after night. I wonder if this one rung especially true for Ben Folds, who’s written a love song or two over the course of his 4 marriages.

The lyric: There’s a lot of 40-somethings wouldn’t be in the world without it

2) Saskia Hamilton – The entire song is based on falling in love with the name of poet Saskia Hamilton. Seriously. The entire song is just about her name. Aside from being very catchy, the video is pretty awesome too. From what I understand, Ben Folds just contacted some dude who made cool youtube videos and asked him to make a video for the song. It turned out fantastic. The entire thing is filmed in the guy’s bedroom. This had me screaming, “Saskia Hamilton!” at odd times for at least a week.

The lyric: She’s got more assonance than she knows what to do with

1) From Above – The premise is that soul mates do exist, and we walk by ours every day without ever noticing. The song follows two such people through their lives. I liked this song immediately, but it wasn’t my favorite at first. However, after hearing a few times, the lyrics are so poignant, and the music fits them perfectly. How sad to think that each person has a perfect second half, and the vast majority of everyone will never even meet them.

The lyric: Maybe that’s how books get written / Maybe that’s why songs get sung / Maybe we owe the unlucky ones


Nicholas Was…

Nicholas Was…

by Neil Gaiman

I recommend the video, but just in case, the words are reprinted below:

Nicholas Was…

older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.

The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.

Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen into time.

He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.

Ho.

Ho.

Ho.

Merry Christmas!


An Ode to Rick Steves

Though awkward seems to be thy major trait
Appearing with the visage of Bill Gates
And foreign words thou seem to mispronounce
Huge glasses thy misfit status doth announce
It must be said thou never lead astray
A lonely traveler with little cash at hand
Thy book a pilgrim’s bible to the world
Where and when it’s worth to spend a day
Which restaurants and sites are bland or grand
And where head upon a pillow safely curls

‘Twas Italy where first we learned to trust
The walking tour of Rome which was a must
We quickly learned to check with thou before
We even set one foot out yonder door
In England books of thine were in demand
A thief who broke our window just to steal
And left us in distress without your aid
Since all the trip upon the book was planned
Forlorn and nearly ruined by this ordeal
‘Til the guest house’s copy we managed to persuade

And now with trip to Paris looming near
No other guide’s advice would we now hear
When traveling through far and foreign land
We know we are kept safe in adept hands
From shortcuts in the Louvre to look and leave
and tips on what to buy to skip the lines
To spaces for the kids or fine cuisine
We wouldn’t know what to do without Rick Steves
We know that our vacation will be fine
And Evie even gets a guillotine!

(Special ode formatting thanks to Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats)


Captain Planet’s 20th Anniversary

Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Captain Planet debuted in 1990? Way to make me feel old.

Well, it’s time to start gearing up for September 15, 2010, or “National Captain Planet Day” as I like to call it. There is a website and everything, so you know it is official. You’re going to especially want to check out the retro videos from the original Captain Planet launch, including Mayim Bialik from Blossom and Jodie Sweetin from Full House talking about how excited they are about the show.

You know, I guess i was on the older side for Captain Planet. I remember even at the time thinking, “This is kind of heavy handed in the lessons department for me.” But I still watched it and I still liked it. And I can still sing the song, these 20 years later.

“EARTH!”
“FIRE!”
“WIND!”
“WATER!”
“HEART!”

“Go Planet!”

“By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!”

Captain Planet, he’s our hero
Gonna take pollution down to zero

He’s our powers magnified
And he’s fighting on the planet’s side

Captain Planet, he’s our hero
Gonna take pollution down to zero

Gonna help him put asunder
Bad guys who like to loot and plunder

“You’ll pay for this Captain Planet!”

We’re the Planeteers
You can be one too
‘Cause saving our planet is the thing to do!

Looting and polluting is not the way
Hear what Captain Planet has to say!

“The Power is Yours!”

Link via Sara.


Happy Birthday Hulkster!

Today is Hulk Hogan’s birthday. On the news they were listing people’s birthdays and under the name it said how you would know the person (i.e. what they were famous for). Under the Hulkster’s name it said, “Hogan Knows Best“.

I died a little inside.

Side note, he’s is turning 57. The Hulkster is pushing 60!


The Twister

When I was little, there was no bigger game in town than the minor league hockey team, the Fort Wayne Komets.

It doesn’t seem like a minor league team would be any big deal, but I’m telling you, people had signs hanging in their window. Every game was packed. We talked about the Komets at school. Everyone knew the names of the players. I think I still have a puck or two lying around somewhere.

But of all the excitement provided by the team, there was one thing that was a bigger deal: The Twister.

The Twister was a gentleman of, ::ahem:: generous proportions who sat somewhere in the stands. At some point during the game, they would play “The Twist” over the loudspeaker, and the Twister would leap to his feet and start doing the twist.

The Twister

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I’m telling you, when I was a kid, this was probably the most famous guy in Fort Wayne (thinner than I remembered, by the way…maybe this was a more recent picture). When the song started up, the entire arena would freeze and begin frantically searching for the Twister. Spot lights would come on, people would be pointing. He had an official Komet’s jersey with the name “Twister” written across the back. You might go to the bathroom during the game, but as soon as you heard, “Come on baby!” rip out over the loudspeaker, you dropped what you were doing and ran in to see him.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal. I couldn’t tell you why it was. Even now I’m scratching my head a little bit over it. The guy just liked doing the twist. He always had a big grin plastered all over his face. You might think that people were just mocking the fat guy doing the twist. Maybe they were at first, but I’m telling you, the guy was beloved. You could be famous just by association to the Twister, like, “The Twister is my neighbor!” “No waaaay, dude!”

I don’t know what his real name was, or if he’s still around. From some searches I did, it sounds like he’s still out there, twisting the good fight. Obviously, only the people from Fort Wayne are going to understand how awesome the Twister was. But all I can tell you is, look at the other people in the crowd. Look how happy they are. Look at how happy the Twister is. Think about how much joy the Twister has spread in his days. What have you done to make the world a better place?


Death of a Legend

If you felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced, it was because something terrible has happened.

That’s right, Glen W. Bell Jr., the founder of Taco Bell, died.

Truly, a day that will live in infamy. And to anybody who says Taco Bell isn’t healthy? Dude was 86.


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