Shake the Dust

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine.

Anis Mojgani performs Shake the Dust at HEAVY AND LIGHT

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine. But the code and the sound and the light the machine spits back is pure beauty. Pure magic. Pure love.

And sometimes this gift is delivered with the simple chime of the arrival of a new text message. Cutting through haze and blur of just another day. Landing like a burning ember, glowing red hot, right in the crotch of our day causing us to jump and slap wildly, dancing, flailing.  Trying in vain to maintain the shroud of an ordinary day.

The spark sets us alight. And for a few minutes, as the flames consume us, feeding off the tinder we pull over ourselves to keep out the cold, we can see in the light a different world. A place flickering with hope. Shining with love. Radiant with life.

Shake the Dust came to me today. Sent unheralded, unannounced. A flaming cannonball shot over my wall. And my kingdom is ablaze.

May the fire spread to your heart. The amazing and incomparable Anis Mojgani.

Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs – Alone in This Together

In my last review of Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs I promised a follow up about how their album would have a living room sound to it–meaning intimate and minimal studio intervention in the music.  So I’ve been waiting to talk about that while the band fine-tuned their album before release for over a year.  Definitely worth the wait, the album, Alone in This Together, has been out for a couple of months, along with a video.  Meanwhile, the band has been busy with a west coast tour, planning an upcoming east coast tour and even some small portion Star’s boots and maybe some elbows and knees of other band members made an appearance in a Rolling Stone photo while they performed with Pearl Jam for PJ20.  Now that’s rock and roll.  Speaking of the living room, here is the band jamming on children’s instruments at Keith Ash’s (bass) house where the band was hanging out together for a barbeque.

Back to the album. I believe that had I listened to the album at the time of the first interview, talking about the living room flavor would have made a ton of sense. While it is, as promised, intimate and not at all overproduced, enough hard work and I assume, massively creative energy has influenced what this album has ultimately become.  What I hear when I listen closely, is a sophisticated layering effect that I usually find in great bluegrass.

Don’t get me wrong, the album sounds nothing like bluegrass.

But I draw the analogy because like great bluegrass, skilled musicians take us on a ride full of pleasant surprises, full of complex and unexpected arrangements.  However, unlike Bluegrass, the overall effect of this ride is subtle.  Noticeable, yet subtle.  And actually, I didn’t notice it at first.  Initially, I was swept up by the vocals and the lyrics as you might be–you’ll want to know more about what she is saying; you’ll sit still and imagine the situation that provoked those words to come together the way they did.  See what I mean in the track titled Gold and Silver:

Love could never live here
In a house that is so cold
The windows bolted down for good
The window panes are dull
The floor it creaks with every step
And echoes through the air
‘Til it’s swallowed up by silence
Through the cracks and down the stairs

-Alone in This Together, Star Anna & The Laughing Dogs

And have a listen to Star’s vocals, which are frankly just becoming indescribable for me.  Flipping through a thesaurus for hours wouldn’t give me the right words.  The effect of her vocals on her fans (if I may say so) is more of a gestalt experience—the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Back to the subtlety.   Now that you hear how down right awesome the title track is and recognize that  you are also, in fact, hearing is Mike McCready of Pearl Jam on guitar, the word subtle might be a confusing description.  Here’s what I mean:  you can sit on a plane and listen to this album four times in a row (yes, I did this) and sometimes you really notice how the guitar (Justin Davis) goes left while the keyboards (Ty Bailie) go right and something interesting is happening with the drums (Travis Yost), or you connect to the lyrics—your mind winding down a road you took once and the nostalgia it still evokes in you.   Still another time, you listen to the album while you read and it just works without you noticing much at all.  As Peter Griffin might say, it doesn’t insist upon itself.  But it is there for the taking.  I never have exactly the same experience when I listen to Alone in This Together.  I think that speaks to the depth of the album.  Star and the dogs are never self-conscious or affected personally or musically.  As I mentioned before, they are deep, genuine and just all around great people to meet.  And maybe that is what Justin Davis (guitar) meant when he described the album as having that living room sound.  Could be it…provided that your living room has Star’s unflinching and smoky vocals, a talented band that loves doing what they do together and guitar accompaniment by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam.  So yeah—I definitely need a living room upgrade.

Listening to Alone in This Together, or any recording of the band, for that matter,  leaves me with an intense craving to see them live.  The album is great.  Instantly a favorite.  I have two.  No shit.   I bought one, got one as a gift and I’m keeping them both. However, listening to this album just allows me to get a fix in between the few shows I can make in Seattle.  Much to their credit as musicians—this is a band that is best live.  Which brings me to their east coast tour.  If they are going to be anywhere near you—buy tickets.  Go see them.  Show the hell up.  Anyone who has seen them will back me on this.  You can not miss them if you are lucky enough to be anywhere within a 3 hour radius of them.  Even if they are planning to play children’s instruments (probably not).  Do it.

Here’s a little taste of them live with Mike McCready at PJ20.

Here are their tour dates.  Get out your calendar.

10/14/11 Great Falls MT- Machinery Row
10/15/11 Bozeman, MT – The Filling Station
10/16/11 Spearfish, SD – Back Porch
10/17/11 Sioux City, IA – Chesterfield Live
10/18/11 Des Moines, IA – Mars Cafe
10/19/11 TBA
10/20/11 Chicago, Il – The Hideout
10/21/11 Milwaukee, WI – Shank Hall
10/22/11 TBA
10/23/11 Cleveland, OH – Brother’s Lounge
10/24/11 Buffalo, NY – Mohawk Place
10/25/11 Albany, NY – Valentine’s
10/26/11 Allston, MA – O’Brien’s Pub
10/27/11 Brooklyn, NY – Southpaw
10/28/11 New York, NY – Piano’s
10/29/11 Hoboken, NJ – Maxwells
10/30/11 Philadelphia, PA – The Fire
10/31/11 Asbury Park NJ- The Saint
11/01/11 Washington DC – The Black Cat
11/02/11 Chapell Hill, NC – The Cave Tavern
11/03/11 Atlanta, GA – Smith’s Olde Bar
11/04/11 – TBA
11/05/11 Kansas City, MO – Czar Bar
11/06/11 Lincoln, NE – The Zoo Bar
11/07/11 TBA
11/08/11 TBA
11/09/11 Boise, ID – The Reef

Purchase their album and visit their site

Check out my work at and  I am a professional photographer and do freelance web design while I juggle a full schedule at the University of Washington as a Ph.D student in Education.  Photos of Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs copyright Keesha Davis, Simfotico, LLC.

The Fall to Earth

Ten years later the hallucinogenic events of September 11, 2001, remain enigmatic and nightmare-like. There is no shared, uniform view because our experiences of that day are so disparate. There weren’t four planes, there were 300 million of them, and they slammed into our minds, not just our collective psyche (if there is such a thing), but into each of us.

Whatever else 9/11 is, it is an extraordinarily personal trauma. It comes to consciousness within its own hall of mirrors, images and thoughts appearing un-summoned and then disappearing before they are neatly understood.

It is the day we fell to earth, and with that thought my mind leaps and I’m in a limo on a New Mexico highway with David Bowie’s alien in Nicolas Roeg’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I glance out the window at a white horse that seems winged as it glides beside our car. Like Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, I ride the horse into memory fields as the song from The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember,” whispers like the ghost of irony on the soundtrack.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember the time of September
When love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow, follow.

The Fantasticks? It’s a musical about two fathers who pretend to hate each other to trick their son and daughter into pursuing forbidden love, a conspiracy among modern Capulets and Montagues to marry Juliet and Romeo. Like I said, the thoughts come unbidden. Maybe I’m thinking about the destructive power of manipulation, about the arrogant and terrible fools who toy with the hearts of others out of their own ambitions.

Continue reading “The Fall to Earth”

Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.


It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at:

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at:



A Diamond Is Forever: One Woman Questions the Most Successful Ad Slogan of All Time


The A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign (launched in 1938 by Harry Oppenheimer and the president of N.W. Ayer & Son, Gerold M. Lauck) successfully brainwashed a nation into believing that a diamond represents lasting romantic love; and even that the gift of a diamond ring at the time of engagement will help such love to endure the inevitable trials of a couple’s married life.

Women have been trained by ubiquitous advertising–on billboards, in magazines, and on television–to long for a man to give her a diamond ring, an expensive symbol that his unswerving devotion will last a lifetime.

Newly engaged women show off their sparkling diamond rings to oohing and aahing friends. The ring speaks loudly for the woman who wears it, saying: I am loved; I have been chosen; I am not alone.

As aware as I am of the history of the A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign and its impact on our perception of diamond rings, I myself–a happily never-married woman–find that my first thought upon seeing a pretty diamond on a woman’s ring finger is: Someone loves her enough to have bought her that ring.

Now I am the first to rejoice for loving partnerships and happy marriages; I also admire the wedding aesthetics of white dresses, diamond rings and elegant bouquets. Yet I feel it’s important to be aware of the way the A Diamond is Forever ad campaign–the most successful ad campaign in history–has shaped our thinking about this symbol of romantic love, which has too often also become a symbol of class, status, “worth,” and heteronormativity.

So it was with delight that as I was going through the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day, I noticed that the young woman bagging my groceries wore a gigantic faux diamond on the middle finger of her right hand. The diamond dazzled; it was ostentatiously huge, clearly fake, and super duper pretty.

“I like your ring,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. And then she added, a little sheepishly, “I bought it for myself at the mall for seven bucks.”

“Wow,” I said. “It turns out none of us have to wait around for a man to buy us a gigantic diamond ring. We can just go get ourselves one at Claire’s.”

Both the young woman bagging groceries and the female cashier laughed as if they understood exactly what I meant, which was that we as women no longer need a man to marry us in order to feel validated, successful and worthy of approval. And yet we still, in some dark corner of our hearts, long for the sparkle and shine of the stone that speaks of everlasting love.

So if you have always secretly wanted a giant diamond, but:
1) don’t have a partner who wants to buy you one; and/or
2) don’t have a partner who can afford to buy you one; and/or
3) aren’t into funding the diamond trade,
take yourself to the mall, or hop on Amazon or Ebay and buy yourself an inexpensive and satisfyingly sparkly reminder that you are worthy, beautiful and loved.

After all, you can rest assured that even if that cheap piece of crap ring falls apart in two weeks, your relationship with yourself will certainly endure until you take your very last breath.

Animal Kingdom

I had never heard of the Australian gem and terror of a film Animal Kingdom until Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her sweetly diabolical role as “Smurf,” the mother of a family of bankrobbers. A fan of every Australian film I’ve stumbled across (Flirting and Somersalt leap to mind) I decided to give Animal Kingdom a view.

The film begins with 17 year-old J sitting next to his mother as she ODs on heroin. The paramedics arrive and go to work. Cut to J calling his grandmother “Smurf”, who he obviously barely knows, to tell her his mother is dead. His grandmother tells him she is on her way to fetch him.

The surprisingly lovely grandmother arrives and whisks J to live with her and her four sons, a tight clan of loose cannons. The viewer quickly realizes that this family of crooks is truly complicated and terrible when Smurf gives one of her boys a lingering kiss on the mouth in front of all of the others.

The viewer has the unsettling sense that even J, a quiet, awkward boy gifted at keeping his head down and his mouth shut, will not be able to safely navigate his new place in this madhouse family.

This gorgeous, poetic, and terrifying tale by first time screenwriter/director David Michôd will resonate with anyone who remembers the helplessness of late adolescence, the time when we are so close to adulthood, yet not yet able to chose our household.

The Mick Hits Two

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs. As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter. While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee.
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (right to left). image by Corbis.

Journalist  Jane  Leavy was an acquaintance of Mickey Mantle, having spent an Atlantic City  weekend with him (in separate hotel rooms) in 1983, during which time he propositioned her.  She says she declined.  If so, she may have been in the minority of the girls and women who received similar invitations from the Mick.  His many legendary home runs were not limited to the ball park.  Ms. Leavy, who says in the book’s preface that she fell in love with Mantle, did do something that none of those other women did.  She wrote a best-selling biography called The Last Boy  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s childhood. Of the numerous Mantle biographies, hers, published  in 2010, is by far the best.  She does a beautiful job of reconciling the man’s basic honesty and innocence with his philandering, boozing lifestyle and occasional streaks of meanness, while at the same time writing in vivid prose a riveting history of the Yankees’ greatest era.

This is not a review of that book, although I  recommend it to anyone, sports fan or not, who would enjoy reading a masterful biography about a fascinating  20th Century American icon.   Instead this is a brief account of one Mantle fan’s recollection of watching him play in one game during the summer of 1961.  Leavy’s account of that year’s season re-kindled the memory.

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs.   As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter.   Years later the season was chronicled by a writer named Ron Smith in a book Entitled 61* The Story of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and One Magical Summer. In that book, Smith wrote that “(Maris) stepped reluctantly into the New York spotlight in 1960, a naïve, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is small-town boy from Fargo, N.D.  (Mantle) had been auditioning for the role of New York icon for the better part of a decade, a handsome, fun-loving Oklahoma farm boy turned savvy sports star.”

In a forward to Smith’s book, Billy Crystal, a wildly enthusiastic, lifetime Yankee fan, declared that, “The summer of 1961 was the greatest of my life.”. . . “Maris started the season slowly; Mickey was on fire.  Then it happened.  Roger got going, Mantle matched him; Roger went ahead.  Mickey fought back.  We all started to take sides.  This was serious.  Someone was going to do it.  Two Yankees going after Ruth.  Perfect!”

While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee. We were nineteen, somewhat foolish, and short of funds. We would stop and work for a few days, make a few bucks, and again hit the highways and byways, travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia to Washington D.C. and eventually all the way to Montreal and back to Austin.  It was slow going because hitch-hiking was difficult at times, and we frequently had to stop and find work.

Along the way we would get a newspaper now and then to read about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the “M&M Boys” as they had become known.  Mantle was our hero and had been for years.  We knew little about Maris other than what he was doing that summer for the Yankees.

By the time we got to Washington, D. C. on the Fourth of July, Maris had hit 31 homers, Mantle had hit 28, and we were almost broke.  Gentry finagled a job as a copy boy for the Washington Post.  I settled for a stint as an all- night hamburger cook at a downtown White Castle restaurant that filled up with rowdy and hungry drunks when the bars shut down at 2 am.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 18, the Yankees came to town, following a series in Baltimore, to play two games against the Washington Senators at old Griffith Stadium.  By then, Maris had hit 35 homers and Mantle 33.  Gentry and I must have made a few bucks because an hour or two before start of the July 18 afternoon game, we were perched in the cheap seats at Griffith watching the players warm up.  This was the first major league baseball game for both of us.

We were rooting for New York over Washington and for Mantle over Maris.  Odds heavily favored the Yankees, in first place with a 58-30 record, against the Senators, (later to become the Texas Rangers)  in 7th place with a record of 40-50.  Attendance, including Gentry and me, was 17, 695.

Pre-game batting practice was spectacular.  Both sluggers repeatedly blasted balls far over the fence and each time, as they say, “the crowd went wild.”  Drinking- age was 18 in D.C. then so we even had a legal cold beer or two in public  as the teams warmed up.  That, like the game itself, was a first for us two teenagers from Texas where the drinking age was set, sensibly, at 21.

On the mound that day for the Senators was right-hander Joe McClain. It must have been a daunting experience for him, a mediocre pitcher, to have to face the Yankees when the M&M boys had been hitting homers for weeks with seeming impunity.  McClain had only broken in with the big leagues on April 18.  He finished 1961 with eight wins and eighteen losses, and  only played in the majors for one more year.

Maris didn’t get a hit against McClain that afternoon; his fireworks all came in batting practice.  But in the first inning with a man on first and two out, the Mick strode confidently to the plate, took a couple of high inside fast-balls, and  on the third pitch slammed a towering two-run homer high over the right field fence.  The crowd went even wilder. It seemed that even the Washington fans were rooting for Mantle and New York.

Now Maris with 35 homers only led Mantle by one.  Nothing else spectacular happened until the top of the 8th when Mantle, again with two out but with no one on base, smashed an inside fast-ball deep over the center field fence to leave the two slugging team-mates  tied at 35 home runs apiece.   The Yankees won the game 5 to 3.  Mantle’s three RBI’s were the difference.

Mantle had been playing for most of his career with a badly injured knee (and often with a hangover).  After an infection put him in the hospital late in the summer, he faded somewhat and ended the season with 54 home runs.  On October 1 Maris hit number 61 to break Ruth’s record.*

The record book contains an asterisk pursuant to a controversial ruling by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick that Ruth’s record had to be broken in 154 games because there were only 154 games played when Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927.  Maris hit his 61st in the 162nd. Game of the 163 game season.

Getting to see Mantle hit  two home runs in that phenomenal  1961 season is a memory I have always cherished.  The game ended in time for me to make it to my cooking job at the White Castle.  After the bars closed, the 2 a.m. drunks seemed rowdier than usual that night.  Maybe they were Washington Senator fans who had been celebrating Mickey Mantle.

Part 3: Documentaries that Change the Way We Think About Art

Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’ is a documentary that proves the maxim that no art project is ever dead.

The film tells the story of the album “Smile”, the most famous rock and roll album never released. The story begins with the Beach Boys’ ride to incredible fame on the wave of young Brian Wilson’s genius.

Wilson, whose fragile mental constitution was unable to handle the stress of touring, eventually stayed home to write the music that the Beach Boys played to adoring audiences around the world.

The film explores the interesting artistic competition between The Beatles and the Brian Wilson, who were both pushing to create a groundbreaking, innovative and important new album.

But while Brian Wilson wanted to fully engage in this competition by following up the Beach Boys’ “cutting edge, mega-hit” “Pet Sounds” with an even more unconventional album “Smile,” that would be Wilson’s masterpiece, the other members of the Beach Boys balked, wanting to stick closer to the surf sounds that had launched their career.

As a result, “Smile” was never released and Wilson—devastated both by the miscarriage of “Smile”  and the successful birth of  The Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”–spiraled down into a deep and legendary depression. (Many music lovers who came of of age in the early 90s can still sing all the lyrics to the Barenaked Ladies’ song “Bryan Wilson”).

After three decades of a terrible struggle with overeating, mental illness and drug use, Brian Wilson began to work through his stage fright and other problems and in 2004 he turned his energies back to his painful and beloved masterpiece “Smile.” The album was released 37 years after its conception and Brian Wilson played the album in its entirety at Carnegie Hall.

What brought about this healing and redemption? According to the documentary, it was purely and simply the love and support of his wife Melinda Ledbetter, who he married in 1995.

The film, which includes many present day interviews with Wilson, is both a fascinating portrait of artistic genius and an inspiring tale for anyone who has considered giving up on a beloved and devastating dream.

Lyrics to the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”

Drove downtown in the rain nine-thirty on a Tuesday night,
just to check out the late-night record shop.
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane;
but when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop.

It’s a matter of instinct, it’s a matter of conditioning,
It’s a matter of fact.
You can call me Pavlov’s dog
Ring a bell and I’ll salivate- how’d you like that?
Dr. Landy tell me you’re not just a pedagogue,
cause right now I’m

Lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did
Well I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.

So I’m lying here, just staring at the ceiling tiles.
and I’m thinking about what to think about.
Just listening and relistening to Smiley Smile,
and I’m wondering if this is some kind of creative drought
because I am


And if you want to find me I’ll be out in the sandbox,
wondering where the hell all the love has gone.
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun,
and singing “Fun, Fun, Fun.”


I had a dream that I was three hundred pounds
and though I was very heavy,
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me because I’m


Drove downtown in the rain nine-thirty on a Tuesday night.
Just to check out the late-night record shop.
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane;
but when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop.


Toddlers and Tiaras

photo from

Spray tans, heavy makeup, false eyelashes, hair pieces, choreographed dance routines, fake teeth, temper tantrums and entangled mother/child relationships characterize TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, an addictive reality show about child beauty pageants.

The show goes deep into the worst of what I affectionately call “My America,” revealing the hopes and dreams of middle-class moms who pour money, time, creative energy, and emotion into the long shot of having their child win the coveted pageant title of “Grand Supreme.”

Each episode follows three children as they prepare to compete with each other at a particular pageant. Though the children and their families differ, trends emerge. There seem to be three strains of pageant children:

1) brainwashed mamma’s girls who take to the pageants as a way to please their mothers;

2) savage little beasts, who, spoiled out of their minds, terrorize and dominate their parents until they step out onto the stage to masquerade as precious darlings; and

3) the shy children, who struggle against their own sweet and private natures in a doomed effort to please their mothers.

And in almost every episode you hear the pageant moms repeat the same tropes.

“We swore we would never get fake teeth, spray tans and hair pieces and here we are doin’ it.”

“As soon as [child’s name] says she doesn’t want to do pageants anymore, we’re done with it.” [This always followed by a shot of said child wailing in protest as the mother forces her into pageant attire].

And the pageant dads always say (as if they have a say):

“I don’t really like seeing [child’s name] wearing so much makeup.”

The pageants are generally held in a hotel conference or ballroom, with no spectators except the families of participating children. The single $1,000 cash prize is always talked up by the pageant director, but what isn’t mentioned is the exorbitant fees each family pays to enter their child in the pageant. The $1,000 prize awarded the Grand Supreme would often not even cover the cost of one pageant dress, much less hotel, travel and pageant fees. It’s easy to wince at the sight of middle class families shelling out thousands of dollars for their 6 year-old’s fake tan, pageant dresses, hair pieces, fake teeth and coaching lessons.

Though the mothers often mention the cost of the pageant, they seem to think it worth the chance to have their own longings fulfilled. For the showy, slender, made-up moms, it’s a chance to perhaps relive their own days in some long lost spotlight. For the obese moms it’s a chance to live vicariously through their 4 year old’s strutting in a bikini. For all the mothers, it’s an opportunity to have their children publicly recognized as exceptional.

What is never mentioned is the potential damage done to little girls who are taught early that their own natural beauty must be supplanted by eight pounds of makeup and fake everything, who are expected to “shake it” on-stage in midriff baring tops and swimsuits, who see their mothers’ happiness and approval staked on their own ability to perform onstage.

The show is funny, disturbing and often painful; and the more dysfunctional the dynamic of the featured pageant families, the more fascinating the episode.

Warning: This show is the television equivalent of junk food. Consuming more than one episode of Toddler and Tiaras will make you feel worse than eating a half pound bag of candy corn.

Toddlers and Tiaras is available to watch instantly on Netflix.

Musician Sam Baker Makes Visual Art Debut

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Poet Jardine Raven Lebair reads in front of Sam Baker's paintings.

Beloved Itasca-born songwriter Sam Baker made his visual arts debut last Thursday night at (Un)(In)hibited, a group art exhibit held at the Continental Club Gallery.

Baker showed two paintings, (pictured in the photo, left to right) Untitled, and Woman with Green Hair and Oil Blue Eyes.

(Un)(In)hibited also featured works by photographer Todd Wolfson and artist Bale Allen, as well as music by John Dee Graham.

Baker recently returned to the studio to record a single with accordion player Joel Guzman. Baker hopes that the song, about 14 Mexican nationals who died in the Arizona desert, will help draw attention to the plight of illegal immigrants and the need for workable immigration reform.