Friday, October 31, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Calling all smarties

Anyone got a clue how to solve this?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Uno mas

Continuing with the Spanish-headlined culture postmortems and Flavorpill plugs:

1. Sandra Bernhard kicked all kinds of ass tonight at Steppenwolf, both generally and Sarah Palin's, Gwyneth Paltrow's, the Magnolia Bakery's and that of some unfortunate mope in the third row in particular. She's an acquired taste, but for those of us who've drunk the Kool-Aid, the woman could read the side of a cereal box and we'd enjoy it.

Her wry, world-weary, ultimately triumphant storytelling is what I love about her, that and the way she's become a showbiz success entirely on her own terms. But her earnest musical numbers (a Madonna medley segueing into "Little Red Corvette" with a splash of Whitesnake; an impassioned "Can't Fight This Feeling") are hard not to like.

2. Tomorrow night at 7, satirist John Hodgman (he plays the PC to Justin Long's Mac in Errol Morris' Apple ads) takes the Second City e.t.c. stage to read from his new completely made-up reference book, More Information Than You Require.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

3. There is no 3, but you're not supposed to have a list with just two items. Can we get a journalism professor up in here?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hola, amigos

I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but things have been heavy around here, ya know? I blew the tranny on my Camaro and I can't fix it until that dick Ron pays me back the $300 he owes me, so I been walking two miles to my dishwashing job at the Beer Barrel. Right when it starts getting cold out too. Major bummer, dudes.

Sorry, thought I was Jim Anchower for a minute there.

But it has in fact been four days since I last wrote, longer than I usually go between posts; sorry, both of you. Time that might have been spent blogging has been occupied with a rare weekend workday yesterday and an adventure helping a friend sell a car today; that's about as Anchowerish as my life actually gets.

And last night, I caught "This Country's F$cked," the big sold-out election spectacular at the Lakeshore Theater from my buds in the comedy troupes Schadenfreude and GayCo Productions. High-quality ha-ha from Chicago's most lovably hard-hitting cutups, plus they brought in a wide-ranging slew of guest performers such as beatbox artist Yuri Lane, standup comedian Ken Barnard, over-the-top cheerleading troupe The Power of Cheer, silly musical duo Mike & Duane, improv favorite Susan Messing and punk-rock choristers Blue Ribbon Glee Club.

It was very much in the old Andy Hardy "let's put on a show" spirit with nutty props, smart writing and good vibes all over the place, built on the foundation of confident old pros with a few million successful comedy shows under their belts.

All of the performers did a terrific job and the capacity crowds at both performances ate it up. I caught parts of both shows because I was one of a number of friends doing topical bits in the lobby before each show. After the nightcap, top local DJ Jesse de la Pena spun records until the wee hours, turning the Lakeshore stage into a drunken dance party. It was a great ride. If you missed it, blame yourself; I advised my literally tens of readers a couple weeks ago to check it out.

Those of you still in the market for seasonal in-your-face fabulosity have another intriguing option tomorrow evening: A Sandra Bernhard Halloween at the Steppenwolf Theatre. The title says it all. One diva, two shows.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Origin stories

I've always gotten a kick out of origin stories. They're most commonly associated with comic book superheroes, the graphic novel Batman: Year One and the film it inspired, Batman Begins, being two good examples. M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is a more subtle expression of the form.

More generally, I like learning about where commonplace things got their start. Take, for example, the musical category "rhythm and blues," a phrase so ingrained in our pop culture that it seems like it's always existed.

Not so, of course; someone thought it up one day. That man was legendary music producer Jerry Wexler, who died recently at age 91.

From his New York Times obituary:
By 1949 he was back in New York, married and working as a cub reporter for Billboard. At the time the black popular-music charts in the magazine were gathered under the rubric Race Records.

“We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday,” Mr. Wexler recalled in an interview last fall with the Web site “One Friday the editor got us together and said, ‘Listen, let’s change this from Race Records.’ A lot of people were beginning to find it inappropriate. ‘Come back with some ideas on Tuesday.’

“There were four guys on the staff,” he continued. “One guy said this and one guy said that, and I said, ‘Rhythm and blues,’ and they said: ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. Let’s do that.’ In the next issue, that section came out as Rhythm and Blues instead of Race.”
The name he gave black popular music is in the first paragraph of his NYT obit, but Wexler enjoyed a long, influential career as an Atlantic Records executive with a deep connection to musicians.

He presided over seminal recording sessions by Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin as they pioneered the soul sound. He also helped shape the careers of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Linda Ronstadt.

On the rock-and-roll side, Wexler produced records by Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana and Dire Straits and signed some band called Led Zeppelin.

Although none of us can be reduced to a sound bite, there are worse things than to be remembered as the guy who gave R&B its name. What's most interesting to me is the fact that someone did.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Attention voters

Illinois ones, anyway.

From my neighbor Nancy S., a retired college professor who knows everything:
I don’t usually do this, but circumstances compel me to remind you that there will be a referendum on the November 4th ballot asking whether the State of Illinois legislature should hold a CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, to change the state’s constitution.

A political scientist I know, in fact several poli. scis plus some economists in this state, say it is NOT a good idea for the following reasons:

1. A constitutional convention would cost an estimated $100,000, which the state doesn’t have.

2. The constitution can be amended as is, without having to have an entire convention or new constitution.

3. There are rumored to be special interests on BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE that want the convention, and it is doubtful that their wishes are in the best interests of the public at large.

4. Consider who would be in charge of the convention. It would be the same folks who couldn’t get their act together to provide a budget, and can’t get along with each other.

I’m just passing this information on to you. Vote as you wish.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Memo to Oliver Stone

Once was enough, thank you.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chance meetings

My recent trip to NYC was made more enjoyable by a number of chance meetings.

When I go somewhere like New York, where I know a fair number of people from previous eras of my life, I never know whom to contact in advance. There's not nearly time enough to see all the people I'd like to, and in many cases I'm not currently in touch. Plus I'm usually going there with some sort of agenda (plans, tickets, events, etc.), making it that much harder to make the rounds.

The unfortunate result is that I usually end up skulking into and out of town without seeing anyone I'm not actually meeting there. I think about the others, go into paralysis by analysis, and for lack of ability to see everyone, I end up not seeing anyone.

This time was different. When I got there, I Facebook-posted that I'd just flown over the old and new Meadowlands. This more or less announced, "I'm in NYC," leading to a pleasant lunch with a friend I've known since we were in Miss Wilson's third grade class at South School in Glencoe, Illinois.

We later spent a summer together in La Rochelle, France on a high school trip, which we reminisced about over an appropriately continental déjeuner in a French cafe adjacent to Lincoln Center near her current job as a producer for ABC News. Not exactly a chance meeting but still pretty impromptu, occasioned by my choice of Facebook post.

Incidentally, having sat out the Friendster and MySpace revolutions, I only joined Facebook to play Scrabble across the nation, but after they killed the Scrabulous application, I found myself catching up with a lot of long-lost people. It's a nice, unobtrusive way to stay slightly in touch. As I learned last week, it can also be a useful tool to announce a trip somewhere and invite any interested locals to find a time to get together. I'm going to post something before my next visit and round out my calendar.

Next, chance meetings at the Conan O'Brien show. Thanks to the generosity of a Late Night comedy writer friend, I was lucky enough to stop by for a visit.

Guests of the show check in at the NBC Visitors Center in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When I did so the other day, the guy behind me in line was someone else I know from South School days. He's been working in the music business since college and manages Death Cab For Cutie, who were playing that night on the show. He introduced me to the A&R rep who'd signed the band to Atlantic Records, who in another coincidence went to college with my brother.

In the hallway that serves as the Conan backstage area, I had a brief conversation with the screenwriter J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Felicity and Alias. This wasn't a chance meeting in that I don't know the guy and he was booked on the show, but it was satisfying in that I got a little closure.

A year or two ago, when Abrams was a guest on the Howard Stern radio show, he was partway through telling the interesting story of how he got into show business when Stern abruptly interrupted him and changed the subject. Stern is a generally solid interviewer but with one major shortcoming: he's so afraid of boring his audience that he'll regularly cut off even a fascinating anecdote from an interviewee to jump to a new topic. This leaves the audience with a frustrated sense of incompletion, ironically annoying the listeners for fear of annoying them.

In J.J.'s case, he was more than holding up his end of the interview with some great stories, but Stern would rarely let him finish a thought before he'd interrupt. It was lively but disjointed, and in particular left one tale unfinished.

So with J.J. Abrams hanging around Conan's hallway waiting for his interview segment, I said a quick hello and asked him to finish the story he'd started on the air, which he happily did. I found him funny and engaging, much as he would be on the Conan show minutes later. He's also a fellow Stern listener, and as we discussed the Stern show across the street from its Sirius studio, guests were assembling a block away at Le Cirque for Howard's wedding.

The final chance meeting of the weekend took place at the New Yorker Festival Headquarters in Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street. After enjoying "The Campaign Trail," a panel discussion in which New Yorker writers Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza and George Packer broke down the presidential race, I sat down on a couch to get my bearings.

The woman next to me said, "Ben Bass?" It was yet another childhood friend, a talented artist when we were in high school, now a professional illustrator and Parsons School of Design art professor living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She was there to see a joint appearance by fellow artists Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. We were chummy in high school but fell out of touch since; thanks to the chance meeting, we got together a few days later to catch up.

Good times all around.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Community service

12-Year-Old Boy Scouts Volunteer To Give Women Breast Exams

Are you funny?

That is a question we must all answer for ourselves, or more accurately, others must answer for us.

Thanks to the Cartoon Caption Game at the 2008 New Yorker Festival, I recently had the chance to sway the opinions of those around me.  

Confused?  So am I.  Perhaps this story I wrote will explain what I mean.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Like a real reptile

One more Flavorpill plug real quick. I also chipped in a preview of this past weekend's North American Reptile Breeders Conference & Trade Show.

I don't know the first thing about reptiles, but when presented with the opportunity, I had to write about something called the North American Reptile Breeders Conference & Trade Show. Check it out here.

Sorry I forgot to mention it earlier if you'd have liked to go.

If you did go, enjoy your new iguana.

This country's what?

The SNL crew has found new life sending up America's prospective flight attendant-in-chief, but there's more acidic glee being produced on a local level.

If you're looking for an election-season diversion, there's a nice option courtesy of my buds in the comedy troupes Schadenfreude and GayCo Productions.  They're taking the stage at the Lakeshore Theater this Saturday and next with a little something they're calling "This Country's F$cked."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


As the Chicago Cubs entered the playoffs last year, I put my fandom on hold and went to New York City for the New Yorker Festival. It takes place in the first week of October, when Cubs fans are generally free to make other plans, but the 2007 Cubs surprised the baseball world by winning their division.

I had a great time at the 2007 Festival, but the baseball gods punished me for leaving town when it mattered the most. The Cubs were swept out of the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This year, same deal: I returned to New York for the Festival as the Cubs were again swept, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers. You know, the same Dodgers who were five games under .500 on the morning of August 30? Those ones. Swept the 97-game-winning, no-hitter-throwing Cubs.

Adding insult to injury, the Chicago White Sox also got steamrolled by the admittedly superior Tampa Bay Rays, winning just one game as Tampa cruised. What do I have to do, skip next year's Festival so we can get back to a League Championship Series?

Unlike many Cubs fans, I like the White Sox just fine. I worked at both ballparks for eight years and see no reason not to enjoy the fact that ours is one of just four metropolitan areas in the nation (Chi, LA, NY, SF-Oak; OK, five if you count Wash DC-Balt) to have two baseball teams.

I subscribe to the Jerry Reinsdorf view: we're all Bears and Bulls fans here and there's no reason we can't pull for Chicago on the baseball field. Save your hate for the Cardinals, Twins, increasingly the Brewers, etc. As Reinsdorf says, he grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan but didn't root against the New York Giants, or even the Yankees unless they faced the Dodgers in the World Series.

In any event, Chicago's now back where we usually are, watching other cities contend for postseason glory. Quite a comedown from a week ago when the city was talking excitedly about a Cubs-Sox battle royal, or "Red Line Series" if you're trying to sell newspapers.

It reminds me of 2003, when the Cubs and the then-still-yearning Boston Red Sox both made it to their respective League Championship Series. As the Cubs took a 3-1 series lead against the Florida Marlins and Boston kept battling the Yankees late into the night in a seven-game classic, it looked for a few days as if one and maybe both of baseball's two most fabled losers would make the World Series. If that happened then one of them, at least in theory, would have to win. It would have been baseball nirvana and a possible sign of the apocalypse.

As you may remember, a funny thing happened on the way to the quorum and neither team got the job done. The Series was a relatively vanilla set-to between the upstart Marlins and the (yawn) New York Yankees. At least a young Florida hurler named Josh Beckett did a solid for his future employers by pitching the lights out and denying the Yankees their 27th World Series title.

This year's White Sox barely squeaked into the postseason but it was a rude awakening for the Cubs, the best team in the National League during the regular season, to be bounced from the playoffs so early and so decisively.

Why'd they get swept? Forget curses. As manager Lou Piniella bemoaned, they scored just 12 runs total in their six playoff games under his watch. That's not enough, especially when your pitchers serve up home run balls like Jeeves the butler and your defense falls apart (in one of this year's playoff games, which I mercifully had to miss, every Cubs infielder committed an error).

The 2008 North Siders had a magical ride an even 100 years after their previous championship and looked more like a team of destiny than any Cubs team I can remember. Their bumbling performance against L.A. in a short series doesn't mean they didn't accomplish a great deal this year, restoring hope and excitement much like another Chicagoan you may have heard about lately. The Cubs remain loaded and with a little luck they should contend for the next few years.

Can someone please call Si Newhouse, or at least David Remnick, and get this Festival deal moved to November?

p.s. No, I don't really think my travel plans had anything to do with these outcomes, but something's gotta fill all this white space, so for the sake of an angle I'll extend the vanity that named this blog after myself and take the rap for the results of ten baseball games I had nothing to do with.

What the heck, I'll also apologize for the high price of gasoline, the Wall Street meltdown and global warming, but I'm not taking the blame for Sarah Palin. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tasting the flavor

Yesterday I mentioned Flavorpill, the popular culture guide (ambiguity intentional) for which I write event previews.

Right now I'm in Flavorpill's SoHo headquarters at Broadway and Houston, next to the Puma store, across the street from the Puma store, down the street from that store that sells all the Pumas.

Flavorpill is a big deal here in NYC, where getting an event listed is something of a coup. It's lower-profile but also respected in Chicago, where my fellow writers and I are holding up the midwestern end of things.

If you're in NYC, Chi, LA, London, SF or Miami and looking for something fun to do, check it out.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I'm in New York City. Spent the weekend at the New Yorker Festival, the magazine's annual culture celebration (by "the magazine," of course, I mean Cat Fancy).

It's an annual treat with a different event lineup every year, plus a chance to catch up with Festival friends, track down long-lost high school buddies and renew ties with another great city.

But Chicago is always close to my heart. If you're there and looking for something to do around town, check out the solid new revival of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, now playing at the Water Tower Drury Lane Theatre on Michigan Avenue.

I attended the opening night for Flavorpill and enjoyed it; you will too, especially if like me you're into the music of the beloved Texas rock 'n roll pioneer. You know, Jessica Simpson.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Who killed the electric car?

Not my man and fellow Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert.

For this week's edition of Friday Live, in honor of his Emmy win and appearance at this weekend's New Yorker Festival (which I'm attending, and I hope you are too), the signature intelligent buffoonery of a Second City alum:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Historic homers

The Chicago White Sox have recently contributed a few choice nuggets to that beloved chapter of the baseball record book covering home run trivia.

On Monday, the Sox played Detroit in a rain-delayed 162nd and final regular season game. It was a must-win as they trailed the Minnesota Twins by a half game in the division standings with a playoff spot at stake. All-world rookie Alexei Ramirez delivered yet again, breaking a tense 2-2 tie with a grand slam that put the Sox into a first-place tie as the season ended.

Not only did the blast ensure that Ramirez won't have to pick up a dinner check in Chicago for the next few years, it made a little history. Ramirez (endearingly nicknamed the "Cuban Missile") set the major league record for grand slams by a rookie, with four. Four! It also tied the club record for individual grand slams in a season (Albert Belle, 1997) and set a new club record for team grand slams in a season (12).

The four grand slams put an exclamation point on Alexei's outstanding rookie year (.290, 21 HR, 77 RBI), plus the kid can field his position like a rock star, specifically a rock star who is an excellent baseball player. Skinny, fast, slick fielder, quick wrists, home run power, Caribbean, he's pretty much a young Alfonso Soriano with better leather and speed. I don't know who's the favorite in the American League rookie of the year race, but you could do a lot worse than Alexei Ramirez.

Back to home runs. By beating the Tigers, the White Sox finished the season tied for their division lead, earning a one-game playoff with Minnesota. Teams contending for playoff spots and titles will often informally pick a respected veteran or two who've never won a championship, and dedicate their playoff campaigns to those senior members.

This year's Sox have two such guys, and they know a thing or two about home runs with 1152 between them. Jim Thome and the recently acquired Ken Griffey Jr. are future Hall of Famers who can afford to buy out Tiffany & Co.'s jewelry case, but World Series rings must be earned. They've both played on good teams but never won it all, and as they enter their late 30s this could be their last chance.

Two of the 2008 White Sox who are playing for Thome and Griffey, are Thome and Griffey. It was Thome who put the team on his enormous back in the one-game tiebreaker and clubbed a mammoth solo home run to straightaway center field; Griffey followed with a near miss off the outfield wall. Thome's cannon shot broke a scoreless tie for the game's only run, winning the pitchers' duel and putting the Sox into the playoffs. Veteran sluggers are doing it for themselves.

I was really happy for Thome, a guy who's given everything to good teams and bad, but despite many individual accolades, a player still looking for something more career-defining than his 500th home run. He's just missed winning a ring a few times, signing with these White Sox a few weeks after they won the 2005 World Series. His Cleveland teams of the 1990s were de facto All-Star teams that deserved a title or two, but let the World Series slip away in 1997 against the upstart expansion Florida Marlins.

As Thome strode to the plate in the seventh for his fateful home run, it occurred to me for the first time all day that it would be nice to see him hit one out. His shot was gratifying; you can't help but admire and pull for a guy like that. He's a somewhat local kid made good (raised in Peoria, college at Illinois Central) and by all accounts one of the most humble, considerate people ever to put on a uniform. A few years ago the Tribune Company surveyed all major leaguers to determine the game's Best Teammate. Thome not only won, he earned nearly three times as many votes as the second-place finisher.

Alexei Ramirez and Jim Thome recently hit memorable home runs when the White Sox became just the sixth team in major league history to hit four consecutive home runs in one game. Thome, Paul Konerko, Ramirez and Juan Uribe went deep back-to-back-to-back-to-back on August 14 against the Kansas City Royals.

Singular events like this occur infrequently but regularly in baseball, and for casual observers like me they're a big part of the enjoyment of being a fan. They capture the imagination, invoke the sport's history, make for compelling reading and cement the bond between fellow enthusiasts.

Take this one record, for consecutive home runs by a team. As interesting as the remarkable feat itself is the fact that six teams have done it, but no team has hit five straight homers. Why is that? Who knows?

What we do know is that certain records seem to have a threshold that can be matched more easily than exceeded. Off the top of my head I can recite the players who have homered in a record eight straight games (Dale Long, Don Mattingly, Griffey Jr.) and those who have thrown a record 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game (Roger Clemens twice and Kerry Wood; Randy Johnson did it in an extra-inning game). To this day, no one's homered in nine straight games or fanned 21 batters in nine innings. That these records keep getting tied but not broken is fascinating to me.

There are other interesting minutiae strewn around these records. For example, here are the six teams to pull off the home run fourpeat:

Braves, June 8, 1961
(Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Frank Thomas)

Indians, July 31, 1963
(Woodie Held, Pedro Ramos, Tito Francona, Larry Brown)

Twins, May 2, 1964
(Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew)

Dodgers, Sept. 18, 2006
(Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin, Marlon Anderson)

Red Sox, April 22, 2007
(Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek)

White Sox, August 14, 2008
(Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, Juan Uribe)

Aside from all the current and future Hall of Famers among these hitters, plus Terry Francona's dad, note that J.D. Drew appeared in two of these six quartets, playing for two different teams in consecutive months of regular season play. Admittedly, Drew has played on some stacked lineups, but the odds of his repeating in consecutive-homer foursomes have to be minuscule. He did it though.

Note also the erratic timing of the rare feat ("homer quads," as my poker buddies might call it). It didn't happen once in the first four decades after the dead ball era. Then it happened three times in three years. Then it went dormant again like some statistical cicada for four more decades, even sleeping through the steroid era. And now it's happened three more times in two years. That is so weird.

Parenthetically, horse racing's Triple Crown has a similarly uneven distribution, with seven Triple Crown winners in the 1930s and 1940s, then a 25-year lull, then three more between 1973 and 1978, then none for the last 30 years.

Other baseball records look unbeatable for reasons having to do with the structure of the sport itself. Take, for example, one of the all-time baseball trivia questions, the two grand slams that St. Louis Cardinal Fernando Tatis hit in one inning on April 23, 1999 at Dodger Stadium.

How many players even get to bat twice in an inning with the bases loaded both times? That alone is exceedingly rare. Tatis not only got that chance, he caught lightning in a bottle by homering in both such at-bats, a feat that may never be duplicated and is a virtual certainty never to be bested.

More Tatisiana from this handy source:
  • Tatis also set the big-league record for RBI in an inning, with eight (big surprise).
  • Incredibly, he hit both his grand slams off the same pitcher, Chan Ho Park. How do you leave that guy on the mound after he gives up a grand slam and lets the opposition bat around? And let him face the guy who hit the first one out? I could see it maybe if you were trying to save your bullpen during a pennant race, but it happened in April. Apparently the Dodgers' pen was already worn out a few weeks into the season.
  • Tatis became the second National League player to hit two grand slams in one game; Tony Cloninger did it for the Atlanta Braves. And he was a pitcher! Carlos Zambrano, eat your heart out.
  • Park became the second pitcher to give up two grand slams in the same inning. Pittsburgh's Bill Phillips also earned the dubious distinction 109 years earlier, on August 16, 1890. But Phillips gave them up to different batters.
  • Guess who else homered for the Cardinals on the day Tatis made history? Yep, the omnipresent J.D. Drew.