Sunday, December 31, 2006

Year in highlights is so easy this year

What was the highlight of my year?
That's too easy.
On June 9, we began a western vacation that meant much more to me than a simple getaway.
For about two weeks, I was finally able to share aspects of my Bay Area upbringing with my family.

We spent time in San Francisco and Reno, with a memorable side trip to Lake Tahoe. We ate at the finest restaurants -- here's to you, Clay Oven in San Francisco and Bella Sera in Reno -- and dined on SF-style burritos on the beach. We spent a wonderful time with my sister, mom and step-dad.

We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and the girls enjoyed their first Major League Baseball game (Pirates 7-5 over the Giants, but at least the garlic fries still rock). We fully explored Japantown, spent a morning relishing the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building with the best-possible guide -- my worldly sister Inger -- attended a Reno magic show and drove my godfather's boat past the gazillion-dollar homes lining Lake Tahoe at Incline ("Income") Village.
But most of all, we experienced the West together. It's always been the most important place on Earth for me. This year, I was finally able to show my family *WHY* it is so important.
Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Swords and soccer balls

After watching Chelsea draw with Fulham, 2-2, in the Premiership this morning on television, I dropped Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" into the computer's DVD drive.
Kitano, also the actor-director of "Sonatine," took a gamble when he decided to make a "Zatoichi" film.
Shintaro Katsu made Japanese cinematic history by starring as the blind masseur/master swordsman in a number of films, starting with "Zatoichi Monogatari" in 1962.
Kitano's 2003 version of the classic tale was highly entertaining, however, in part because it was styled like Kitano's best films.
As in "Sonatine," there are bits which make you laugh out loud... immediately followed by scenes of astounding and sudden violence.
This juxtaposition might not be for everyone, but I consider Kitano one of the best of the current filmmakers, and "Zatoichi" yet another example of the varied nature of Japanese film.

I listened to BBC Radio Five Live online following the film.
Today was a remarkable day for Sheffield's football clubs, and several people from the Steel City called in to the popular 606 program.
My club, Sheffield Wednesday, traveled to South Yorkshire neighbors Barnsley and won, 3-0, to climb to ninth place in the second-tier Championship.
There was good news at Bramall Lane as well, as Christian Nade scored as Sheffield United defeated Arsenal, 1-0. The Blades won despite playing a half hour with midfielder Phil Jagielka serving as emergency goalkeeper.

Friday, December 29, 2006

What you read today might spark interest in a film for tomorrow

Vacations have left us short-staffed at work, which means an additional work load for everybody who is in the newspaper office.
With much to do and (seemingly) not enough time to accomplish it, I have curtailed my usual "lunch hour" to a "lunch half-hour" this week. That gives me just enough time to munch on a sandwich, read about four pages of my book and get back to the daily grind.
It's not the optimum approach to a work break, but at least I have something good to read!
I received Chris D.'s "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" for Christmas.
Chris Desjardins is a programmer at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, which places him in the upper echelon of the world's film snobs. He has also seen thousands of Japanese films, and he shares his experiences in the book, which also combines interviews with many maverick directors.
Desjardins profiles Kihachi Okamoto, Masahiro Shinoda and Seijun Suzuki -- directors whose films we have in our collection -- as well as many directors I have only heard about.
As a result, reading this book intrigues me. I read the book and then I want to see films such as Kinji Fukasaku's "Black Lizard," Yasuharu Hasebe's "Black Tight Killers" and Junya Sato's "True Account of Ginza's Secret Enforcers."
Tracking down some of these films, as difficult as it might become, will give me something to do in the New Year. I resolve to become a more well-versed Japanese film fanatic!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ninjas for breakfast

I watched the first half of Masahiro Shinoda's stunning "Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy)" last night, until sleep overtook me and I struggled to follow the complicated plot.
That's why I woke up early today: So I could complete watching this classic 1965 example of the Japanese New Wave while sipping my morning coffee.
Koji Takahashi stars as Sarutobi Sasuke, a neutral spy who finds himself immersed in deadly political machinations of 17th century Japan.
Sasuke is smart and he's got ninja skills, both attributes that come in handy throughout the film.
Multiple double- and triple-crosses help create a labyrinthine plot that feels more like a dream than a film. Some people might not appreciate such twists and turns.
Shinoda's direction helps fuel the feeling of unreality. Shinoda sets his extraordinary fight scenes in heavy fog, then shoots the stylized clashes through weeds or with a high crane.
The unexpected camera work can increase the plot-weary viewer's sense of confusion, so I just sat back and marveled at Shinoda's style.
I will try to figure out the film's multiple meanings -- some label it a cold-war parable -- during subsequent viewings. This film, I know, will be one I will need to see again and again.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Make 'im 'it it to SILLY POINT!!!

I don't know a whole lot about cricket, but EVEN I KNOW that England have been playing like C-R-A-P in the Ashes Series in Australia. I am listening to cricket live online.
England have already lost the series, trailing 3-0 in the five-match series and have not played all that well in the current match in Melbourne.
England haven't batted well -- they were bowled out for 159 in their first innings.
England haven't bowled well, either -- Australia toyed with the English bowlers, reaching 419 in their first innings. England's Sajid Mahmood (pictured) was the team's most effective bowler, taking four wickets. Too bad Australia scored 100 runs off of Sajid.
I am listening to the English second innings right now.
The teams have reached lunch with England on 28-0. England trail by 232 runs.
I must have a masochistic streak.
Why else would I follow a brutal, TWO-STORY day at the newspaper by listening to England fritter away the remainder of their cricketing pride?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Movie Christmas

The festive season comes to a close for me today, as I return to work.
It was a big year for DVD movies as gifts this Christmas, as I received:
* Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." We already had this classic film on VHS as well as owning "The Citizen Kane Book," so receiving the DVD was wholly appropriate, if not a little overdue.
* John Ford's "The Searchers." This film is among the greatest, most emotionally complex Westerns ever made.
* John MacKenzie's "The Long Good Friday." This quintessential British gangster flick stars Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Turner Movie Classics plans to air it at 12:05 a.m. (CST) on Friday, Dec. 29, in case you are interested.
* Takeshi Kitano's "Sonatine." I watched this 1993 yakuza film (pictured) yesterday afternoon. Director-writer-star Kitano blends painterly beautiful scenes of gangsters pulling pranks in Okinawa with startling moments of violence. This wonderful film is full of surprises.
I also received Chris D.'s examination on maverick Japanese cinema -- "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film." It will be my first book read of the new year. After all, you can never learn too much about Japanese cinema.

Monday, December 25, 2006

"He was dramatic to the end, dying on Christmas Day"

Jill is registering the girls' Firefly mini-cell phones and other family members are investigating the varied gifts received for Christmas.
I'm sitting here listening to "Cold Sweat, Parts 1 & 2" and thinking about all the great times I have had associated with the music of James Brown.
"The Godfather of Soul" has died age 73.
I always felt a certain affinity for Brown because he was born on May 3 -- that's my birthday, too!
I never saw him on stage, where his electrifying presence became part of the legend. Electrifying as well were recorded performances such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)."
Brown seems to jump out of the speakers during these songs, his voice soaring through the emotions -- from everything from elation to despair.
Today, in the wake of Brown's death, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said it best: "He was dramatic to the end, dying on Christmas Day."
His latter days were punctuated by assaults and other unseemly crimes marked by ludicrously hideous police mug shots. To me, though, those troubles never threatened to overshadow his great, funky work -- songs that will never age.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, in particular, nobody could touch James Brown.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Route1's Holiday Viewing Guide

Route1 has been enjoying some fine holiday viewing in between holiday preparations, thanks to YouTube and an early Christmas present DVD.
Here are some video chestnuts guaranteed to brighten any holiday season:
"A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)."
No Christmas is complete without Charles M. Schulz's ode to the true meaning of Christmas. I haven't been able to see it on TV this holiday season, but I have watched it several times on YouTube. Look for part one of three, located here.

We love music during the holiday season. Some of us just can't handle 24 hours of Christmas music, that's all.
YouTube provides a nice respite from traditional holiday tunes.
Check out Weezer's excellent "Keep Fishin'" video on YouTube, located here.
Weezer always craft wildly original videos to accompany their impossibly catchy songs. Add the Muppets, and you have four-plus minutes of welcome respite from the non-stop sonic wall of caroling and "O Tannenbaum."

If the blaring Christmas music on the five-disc CD player were a monster (and by hour No. 14, it *IS* a monster, believe me), then I would want to be Ultraman.
We opened a few gifts the other night, during a gift exchange between just the four of us Hogstroms.
Annika, bless her, got me Series One, Volume 2 of the 1966 classic Japanese television show, "Ultraman," on DVD. You can learn about the series (which I worshiped as an 11-year-old growing up in Concord, Calif.) here.
Ultraman could grow to 200-feet tall, fired energy bursts from his hand and used martial arts to destroy all types of monsters.
Right about now, I would love to see what he could do against Garth Brooks crooning "White Christmas."
Happy holidays everyone!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ingredients for a Dairyland Xmas

Annika and I just returned from a trip across state lines for some holiday provisions.
Our destination? Cuba City, Wis. to acquire the ingredients for a Christmas Eve snack platter.
We went to Gile Cheese Shop in Cuba City (learn about it here) and we purchased:
* Weber's Meats summer sausage and beef stix.
* Gile cheese curds.
* Bucky Badger Sweet-N-Hot mustard.
Throw in a cold glass of beer, and you have got yourself the quintessential snack from America's Dairyland.
It only takes us 20 minutes or so to drive to Cuba City, but the folks who are visiting us this holiday live much farther from Wisconsin, so this cheese and meat should be a treat.
Apart from Wisconsin excursions, we've been readying the house for its inaugural Christmas as host domicile. For me, that meant a pre-dawn trip to the grocery store.
Leaving home in the dark, I returned in the daylight in time for live English football on Fox Soccer Channel.
Liverpool defeated Watford, 2-0, thanks to goals by Craig Bellamy and Xabi Alonso.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Finally in the Christmas spirit

I listened to BBC Radio 5 Live online this morning.
After discussing the future of the English cricket captaincy, the presenters discussed what makes a Christmas song "great."
They touched on everything from "Fairytale in New York" by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl to centuries-old carols unique to certain English villages.
Suitably inspired, I crafted a 15-song Christmas playlist for the iPod this morning. We listened to it while Jill wrapped the final holiday gifts.
I included some Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Gene Autry (no one has ever bettered the original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), as well as more modern productions -- by the Darkness, Queen, Slade and others.
I have got some pre-Christmas errands to run this afternoon, so now I have the perfect soundtrack to accompany my travels.

Stranded in limbo

I spent yesterday like the airline passengers at Heathrow or Denver: Stranded in a limbo, living through a lost day.
I was sick all day. Longer, really, as I woke up three times Wednesday night for stomach-emptying trips to the bathroom.
I battled fever throughout the day yesterday, sleeping hours on end and only venturing out once -- to take Kerstin to a 1-1/2 hour orthodontist appointment.
I managed to keep down two pieces of toast and drank two liters of 7up.
In what turned out to be a blessing in disguise, I slept through BYU's 38-8 humbling of my BELOVED OREGON DUCKS in the Las Vegas Bowl last night.
I suffered through my own FEVER DREAMS yesterday -- I didn't need to suffer through Oregon's as well.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Black ice in the Bay Area

I am working a slightly later shift today, so that I can let the carpet cleaner into the house.
We have been feverishly preparing our place for an influx of Christmas visitors, and the carpet is next on the extensive "to do" list.
So... I have been listening to KGO AM-810 live online. It's got the most comprehensive Bay Area news, and I often listen whenever I feel a pang of homesickness.
Today, the news focuses on a rare cold snap, with low temperatures threatening to dip to record levels and black ice snarling traffic during the morning commute.
My family visited last Christmas, but is unable to come this holiday season, so my homesickness will probably grow as Dec. 25 nears.
I'll probably be listening to more KGO.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Goodbye to half of a great team

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Joseph Barbera.
As half of the Hanna-Barbera animation team, he helped create some lasting icons of youth.
They produced "Tom and Jerry," "Yogi Bear," "The Flintstones" and so many more.
Barbera was 95. His longtime partner, Bill Hanna, passed away in 2001.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

I *AM* big, it's the *PICTURES* that got small

I have to work today, so yesterday I tried to pack two weekend days' worth of fun into a single day.
That meant watching loads of English football -- including Wigan 0-1 Sheffield United (booo! I adore United's eternal rivals, Sheffield Wednesday) and Aston Villa 0-1 Bolton -- listening to some cricket (England are doomed against Australia) and playing chess with Annika.
I also celebrated my one day off by watching a movie. Not just any movie, mind you, but one of the absolute, all-time greats.
I watched Billy Wilder's 1950 gem "Sunset Blvd.," for the first time in years.
Much is made of Gloria Swanson and her over-the-top performance at the end of the film, as her faded starlet Norma Desmond goes off the deep end and proclaims:
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
She is rightly remembered for the scene, but it only really works because Swanson is so effective throughout the rest of the film. For example, I love when Norma lashes out at Joe Gillis (William Holden) for being a writer. She feels "talkies" ushered her out of films, so she says:
"Well, you'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! But there'll be a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!"
Norma might be heading toward madness, but she provided a lucidly succinct critique of the Hollywood system with that line.
I also love the notion that Joe could so easily fall into the wealthy cocoon provided by Norma, while hating himself for his inertia.
Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson): "Don't you sometimes hate yourself?"
Joe Gillis: "Constantly."
There is so much to love about that film. If you only have a one-day weekend to enjoy, watch "Sunset Blvd." It seems like multiple great films packed into a single package.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

61 years before "Toy Story"

Toys live a secret life away from a child's view.
You might think "Toy Story,", but lately I have been watching "F├ętiche (The Mascot)," a 1934 animated short by pioneering puppet animator Wladyslaw Starewicz that ushered in the toys' secret life premise a half-dozen decades earlier.
In Starewicz's masterpiece, a toy, stuffed dog seeks an orange for a poor child.
The dog negotiates a series of adventures while finding an orange, but before he brings it home for the child, the dog must survive frightening times in a macabre underworld of discarded toys.
Starewicz's film always enthralls, and you should be able to see it on YouTube, look here.

Friday, December 15, 2006

There's no thing like tome for the holidays

Last-minute shoppers rejoice!
This week, ROUTE 1 asks readers the following, shopping advisory FRIDAY QUESTION:
"What book would you recommend for holiday shoppers?"
Laura C. -- Well, I know what I'm going to buy myself for Christmas:

"The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History" (see it here).
And, if I'm really good, Santa may bring me:
"The World of Ornament" (Taschen's latest back-breakingly humongous tome) (see it here).
And, of course everyone needs a copy of:
"The Secret Language of Sleep: A Couple's Guide to the 39 Positions" (see it here) by the charming and talented (and oddly double-jointed) Evany Thomas...
Mary N.-P. -- "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls -- the most outrageous memoir ever. She never loses her sense of humor/irony or her parents through the childhood from hell. Nearly everyone I've given it to has read it in one sitting.
Scout S. -- "The Circus of Dr. Lao," by Charles G. Finney (1935).
Brian C. -- Some people might expect me to reply with a shameless plug for "Red Faber: A Biography of the Hall of Fame Spitball Pitcher" (paperback, published by McFarland & Co., available online or at River Lights). But I wouldn't take advantage of the blog that way. So I'll recommend a baseball classic, "Glory of their Times," by Lawrence Ritter (see it here). It tells the story of two dozen of the early stars of the game. (My only regret is that Ritter didn't talk with Faber or the subject of my next project, Hall of Famer Ray Schalk.)
Mike D. -- The Bass Pro catalog, for all those who are shopping for me! And, upon further consideration, "Do They Know It's Christmas" is the greatest (secular) holiday song. You can't help but imitate the all-star cast as you sing along.
Ellen B. -- "Polar Express."
Sandye V. -- "The Devil in the White City," by Erik Larson. Their fates were linked by the magical Chicago World's Fair of 1893, nicknamed the "White City" for its majestic beauty. Architect Daniel Burnham built it; serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes used it to lure victims to his World's Fair Hotel, designed for murder. Both men left behind them a powerful legacy, one of brilliance and energy, the of sorrow and darkness.
Tom J. -- "Until I Find You," John Irving.
Kerstin H. -- "Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio" by Peg Kehret.
Mike M. -- For holiday shoppers, I recommend "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping" by Judith Levine, 2006. What does it take to simply stop shopping for 12 months? Levine took the plunge, and chronicles her findings in this almost-weekly diary of her year of non-purchasing.
Erik H. -- "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" by Peter Biskind (see it here). It provides the most insightful look at how a group of creative directors dragged the "Old Hollywood" system into the modern era we have today.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sick kid, celebrating Sikh spinner and Boyle remembered

I am home with a sick child today -- Annika.
In the past week-and-a-half all four of us in the family have fallen prey to a winter virus. Today it seems to be the littlest one's turn.
Last night I juggled a movie and cricket.
I watched Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," in honor of Peter Boyle. Boyle passed away yesterday age 71 and I always thought he was among the most underrated of actors. He also had such great range.
He provided a rare voice of reason as cabbie Wizard in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and of course he played the curmudgeonly dad in television's "Everybody Loves Raymond."
I loved his work in "Young Frankenstein." I appreciate actors who can convey emotion with their eyes, and Boyle was able to do just that in "Young Frankenstein." You have to look past the broad physical comedy, but the emotion is there, particularly in the scenes depicting the monster as society's outcast.
Throughout the course of the film, I would click "PAUSE" frequently to check the status of the first day of the third Ashes cricket Test in Perth, Australia.
Mudhsuden Signh "Monty" Panesar is a cult hero in England, and a role model for Britain's Asian population.
Born in Luton to Punjabi parents, he is the first Sikh to play Test cricket for England. He is devout Sikh, wearing a black patka -- a small version of a full Sikh turban -- while playing.
Panesar is also among England's best spinners (the cricket equivalent to a curve-ball pitcher), and many fans blamed the team's poor showing in the Brisbane and Adelaide Test matches on Monty's exclusion from the side.
Last night (this afternoon in Australia), Panesar was included in the England team and made a dream Ashes debut. He became the first England spinner to take five wickets at Perth's WACA cricket ground as Australia were bowled out for 244.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Not too much Dandy in books

Presumably like a lot of researchers, I have been spending time browsing the vast collection of materials on Google Book Search. You can learn about it here.
However, instead of searching the millions of scanned pages for "economic theory," "common themes in Elizabethan comedy" or "home brewing ales" like the rest of the researchers, I have been searching for topics such as "Sheffield Wednesday," "Seijun Suzuki" and "UK reggae music."
It was in pursuit of information in the latter category that I recently searched for "Dandy Livingstone."
From the hundreds of thousands of volumes on display, my search resulted in a mere five books. Only five books contained any mention of Dandy Livingstone!
Is this apparent oversight a big deal?
One of the five books, "Writing Black Britain, 1948-1998: An Interdisciplinary Anthology," explains why it might seem an unfair lack of published information.
The book describes Livingstone as "the first British reggae star to gain national recognition."
So, why so few references in books?
Born Robert Thompson in Jamaica, Livingstone moved to the UK when he was 15 and by the early 1970s was creating a much-admired body of work:
* The Specials paid homage, covering his classic "Rudy, A Message to You."
* The Bodysnatchers covered his "Let's Do Rock Steady."
* UB40 covered his elegant take on the deejay phenomenon, "Version Girl" (Livingstone released it under the guise of Boy Friday).
Apart from well-respected songs given new life by others, Livingstone also scored a pair of Top-30 singles in the UK:
* "Suzanne Beware of the Devil" reached No. 14 in September 1972.
* "Big City" reached No. 26 in January 1973.
So, if Livingstone was so well-respected and successful, with enduring songs that left a lasting impression on succeeding generations of British musicians, why are there so few books about him?
Maybe I should take a year's sabbatical in London, research his life and career, and write my own book about Dandy Livingstone!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blue Beat for a Grey Day

Grey. Overcast. Foggy. Drizzly. Misty. Rainy.
I am describing today's weather in Dubuque, but I could just as easily be describing a day in London in the mid-1960s.
Because my mind often works in rather tenuous associations, I decided to listen to Trojan's "Mod Reggae" box set as I walked to an assignment for work this morning.
Mods were a disaffected, white-youth subculture in early 1960s Britain who adored soul music and reggae.
In his "Reggae and Caribbean Music: Third Ear, the Essential Listening Companion," Dave Thompson quotes a journalist (inventively?) called Johnny Copasetic, who in 1972 wrote that blue beat (early slang for reggae, stemming from a UK record label name) was so popular with Mods because the music defied convention:
"The records were issued in excessive numbers and were often badly made," Copasetic wrote. "The music was pretty wildly unacceptable. The heavy offbeat made it sound like a parody or the crudest rock and roll, the words were often unintelligible. To the populace as a whole, it was rather revolting."
Johnny Copasetic might be on to something (besides the GREATEST PSEUDONYM EVER).
Perhaps I love reggae so much because it sits outside the mainstream (and "mainstream," in my house, means cookie-cutter contemporary country).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Kick starting Monday... with The Heptones!

Sometimes, you need to kick start Mondays with a bang!
The 1966 classic "Gunmen Coming to Town" by The Heptones provided that BANG! for me this morning.
It was the third song I heard while walking on the treadmill and it made me quicken my pace for the remainder of the morning.
Fronted by notable vocalist and session bassist Leroy Sibbles, The Heptones enjoyed a lengthy career as one of Jamaica's top vocal groups. Their recorded output encompasses ska through roots reggae, and "Gunmen Coming to Town" kicked it all off.
A rollicking ska number fashioned out of "The William Tell Overture," "Gunmen..." is one of those songs that seem so unique to Jamaica: Effortlessly wedding uplifting music to downright harrowing lyrical narrative.
"Some had the ratchet knife, they were trying to take my life," Sibbles croons, "they were gunmen, gunmen coming to town."
The song serves as a glimpse at a life outside the walls of the island tourist resorts -- a life of dread and homegrown terrorism rooted in religious animosity and poverty.
Again, unique to Jamaica, the song can also fill a dance floor: British mods of the mid-60s claimed this tune as one of their unlikely anthems.
Today, I did as well.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Deck the halls with mad GODZILLA

It's a holiday tradition spanning nearly a decade.
About a week after Jill completes our interior Christmas decorations, the girls and I place Godzilla in the Christmas Village, overturn the vehicles, cause the villagers to flee and affix cardboard flames.
Jill plays along, feigning SURPRISE and OUTRAGE.
The girls really believe she means it, which is half the fun at least.
We were adding Scotch tape to flames yesterday and I told the girls:
"We better put the tape back where we found it when we are done, or we are going to be in trouble."
Kerstin (age 11) said:
"We're already in trouble."
Me:
"What do you mean we're -- oh yeah. Yeah, we're in trouble."
We aren't, really. It's a tradition!
We set up this year's version of the village in kaiju despair at noon yesterday.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was so feverish I went to bed and -- apart from 10 minutes to sip some juice -- I didn't get up for 15 HOURS.

I felt so sick! I am not sure what I had, except that it only lasted 24 hours or so.
I feel better today.
We drove over to Galena, Ill. to shop for "stocking stuffers." We found loads of cool things at a shop called Atomic Toys.
Now I am listening to what might be the GREATEST RADIO STATION IN THE WORLD -- KALX 90.7 FM Berkeley. I'm listening through the wonders of the Internet.
It's a college station of the University of California, and the DJs are so willfully amateur they transcend BADNESS to GREATNESS.
"The next song is from... uh... a compilation called 'Million Dollar Sellers' and I... uh... can't find the... um... track name right now, but... I'll get back to you."
That is ACTUAL DJ CHATTER and it is priceless.
The musical choices are all over the map -- African percussion, jazz, vintage punk (The Misfits), surf music, and experimental electronic music featuring samples of running water. Oh, and the DJ reads off a Bay Area entertainment calendar and mispronounces the names of half the bands.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Good day for all, well, not for Charlton

It's always a good day when it starts with soccer on television.
This morning I enjoyed watching Tottenham Hotspur run riot over crisis-club Charlton Athletic, 5-1. Dimitar Berbatov (pictured) scored a brace for Spurs. After six successive seasons in the top-flight, Charlton are in real trouble during this seventh season in the Premiership. The Addicks sit second from bottom in the table, and really look likely to drop.
After 90 minutes of watching Spurs romp, now I am helping to clean the house, aided by a soundtrack of vintage UK punk and post-punk rock on the iPod.
I'm listening to songs such as "I Don't Want to Eat (With the Family)," the wonderful B-side to the debut single by Worcester's Dangerous Girls.
The song details a decidedly PUNK attitude: No more eating Sunday roast with the family. How's that for taking aim at a British institution?
The Dangerous Girls weren't girls at all. Michael Robert Cooper sang, Rob Peters played drums, Rob Rampton played bass and Chris Ames played guitar.
"Chris?" Couldn't they have got in another Robert?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Have yourself a merry FRIDAY QUESTION

Annika H. is in the holiday spirit.
The young ROUTE 1 intern posed this week's FRIDAY QUESTION:
"What is your favorite Christmas song?"
Ellen B. -- I actually have two classics that I love: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman."
Mike D. --
My favorite Christmas songs are "O Holy Night" (religious) and "Christmas is the Time to Say 'I Love You,'" by Billy Squier (secular).
Scout S. -- At the risk of spoiling it by sharing with too many people, I draw
attention to "It's A Marshmallow World," a jazzy, wintry tune recorded by many artists, including the Oscar Peterson Trio and Darlene Love (on the Phil Spector christmas album). But my favorite version has to be the live version by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, where you can practically hear ice cubes clinking in highball glasses as Deano slurs his way through lines like "The sun is red like a pumpkin head." Gets me in a festive mood like nobody's business, regardless of whether or not it's December. Runner up: "Just Like Christmas" by Low.
Dave B. -- "Gabriel's Message" by Sting.
Kerstin H. -- "Do They Know It's Christmas."
Rick T. -- Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Also, Little Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock." Bing's song makes you think of Christmas when you were young. Bobby's song gets you into the spirit. It just makes you feel good.
Diane H. -- Probably "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which strikes a good balance of nostalgia, melancholy and anticipation.
Tom J. -- "Silent Night."
Roseanne H. -- I like all Christmas music... except for one. "I Saw Grandmother Run Over By a Reindeer."
Mike M. -- Schubert's "Ave Maria." Shout out to all da Mormon-Tabernacle-Choir freaks in da house, yo!
Brian C. -- "I'll Be Home for Christmas." I don't know why; I haven't been "away" for long periods, or away from "home" at Christmas. I just like the sentiment, I guess.
Bob H. -- Oh, there are sooo many! The first that comes to mind is "The Christmas Song" by Johnny Mathis. But then there's Barbra's "Ave Maria," that makes the hairs on my arms stand up and tingle. Peter, Paul & Mary's album "A Holiday Celebration" has a number of my favorites, especially "I Wonder as I Wander," "A Soalin'" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." "We want some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer."
Rob K. -- "Do You Know What I Know," "Fum, Fum, Fum" and "Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer." Why? I don't know.
Erik H. -- I think my favorite times at Christmas are when my entire family can get together. The fun of all of the people mixing at the holidays seems embodied in the Slade song "Merry Xmas Everybody." That song never loses its charm.
Annika H. -- "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Snowbirds, Please take me with you!!!

For once, the realization did not hit me like a blast of cold air in the face.
Instead, the realization came while cold air actually blasted me in the face this morning.
It's 8 degrees, windy, bitterly cold, and I WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL IN PHOENIX, ARIZONA.
What am I doing here in COLDER-THAN-ICE IOWA?!?!
Arizona!
Palm trees and cacti, little lizards scurrying about near the pool and -- more pertinent to today's realization -- temperatures dipping into the 60s during the "DEAD OF WINTER!"
Stepping out into today's chill, I suddenly realized why all those "Snowbirds" keep descending on the Valley of the Sun.
WARMTH!
This morning, my car finally warmed up as I pulled into the parking lot at work. As I drove, white puffs of breath filled the car and I remembered how we used to mock the Snowbirds -- those Midwesterners who arrived from the north with their strange driving habits.
Disc Jockey Jonathon Brandmeier, then of KZZP Radio in Phoenix, even put together a song mocking the Snowbirds, and I kept the 45 to remind myself of their sometimes confused antics.
I joined in the mocking: "Goofy Snowbirds, go back to Iowa/Illinois/Wisconsin/(fill in Midwestern locale here) and learn to drive!"
Now, as I shiver and cuss the cold, I want to BECOME A SNOWBIRD. Take me with you! I'll even help drive!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Luca Brasi swims with the fishes, acts with the blackening makeup

Here are five interesting things I have learned from watching "The Godfather" with Francis Ford Coppola's audio commentary:
1) Coppola discovered Abe Vigoda through an open casting call. Vigoda had only made a handful of television appearances before landing the role of Salvatore "Sally" Tessio. He later lasting gained fame, of course, as Fish on television's "Barney Miller."
2) Some scenes of Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton) talking at the opening wedding (including: "That's my family, Kay, that's not me.") were shot at night because of the tight shooting schedule. The scenes were heavily lit, posing a burdensome challenge to cinematographer Gordon Willis.
3) Makeup artists applied a special powder to the face of Lenny Montana, so when spraying a fine mist his face would blacken during the scene where his character Luca Brasi was choked to death (pictured).
4) Future director/producer/icon George Lucas shot inserts of newspaper headlines for the scene where Michael learns of the attempt on his father's life.
Here's a parallel I love:
Lucas also helped his mentor Coppola shoot a montage scene of gangland warfare following Sollozzo's murder, then went on to make the "Star Wars" films.
Ishiro Honda helped his mentor Akira Kurosawa shoot the montage scenes in "Nora Inu (Stray Dog)," then went on to make the "Gojira (Godzilla)" films.
5) Coppola held a two-week rehearsal period prior to filming, so the cast could get to know one another. The period was characterized by Marlon Brando's practical jokes and Robert Duvall's Marlon Brando impressions.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It must be me

I listened to England v. Australia in cricket last night, thanks to an Internet site. I also followed day five of the Adelaide Test match live on the Guardian newspaper's Over by Over text commentary. I even submitted my own comments. Check this link here, and scroll down for over 58.
I went to bed at the tea break (Australian time, that is) with England all out after a paltry second innings total 129 (after reaching 551 in their first innings).
England couldn't win the match, but in all likelihood they could draw the match, as Australia had to score 168 runs from about 36 overs (an "over" is six balls bowled in succession).
So, this morning I wake up to learn Australia scored 168 runs from just under 33 overs.
England crash to a spectacular defeat, and I am left to ask myself: "Is it me?"
Whenever I watch or listen to one of my favorite teams, they invariably lose.
I have seen the SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS play in person dozens of times, but I can count the times I have actually seen them win on one-and-a-half hands.
I have watched the OREGON DUCKS college football live and on television in countless games and they always seem to lose in the "BIG game" (for reference, see the 1995 Rose Bowl game result versus Penn State).
Don't even ask about SHEFFIELD effing WEDNESDAY, currently under-performing in English football's second tier.
The exception to the rule, the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS won a handful of Super Bowls with me watching intently. Of course, karma has since swung in the other direction for the Red and Gold.
So, either I am a perpetual jinx to my favorite teams, or I need to choose some different teams. Lyon have won FIVE FRENCH FOOTBALL TITLES IN A ROW? Hmmm... Je les aime!

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Leave the gun, take the cannoli"

Ten Academy Awards nominations and the winner of three Oscars -- Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay, the top-grossing film of the year and a $134 million box-office hit.
"The Godfather" is certainly one of those films whose reputation -- staggeringly massive reputation -- precedes it. That reputation can cloud the viewing of "The Godfather," much as knowing about "Citizen Kane" can influence the viewing of Orson Welles' film.
We watched "The Godfather" last night on DVD, and I tried to see it in a fresh light. I tried to imagine I was watching the film for the first time.
A few observations:
* It is an entertaining film.
Much like "Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)," the film's story moves along at such a clip that the movie's great length seems to slip away.
* Where did they get all of those great Italian-American actors?
Of course, the primary cast of this film is top-notch. How about the lesser roles?
Would this film seem so well-made if not for Al Lettieri playing Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, or John Martino playing Paulie Gatto, or Tony Giorgio playing Bruno Tattaglia? My favorite of the more minor cast members might be Lettieri as Sollozzo: He seems so menacing.
* Francis Ford Coppola was a purposeful director who let the camera do much of the work.
There are some great uses of framing in this film, particularly when Michael Corleone takes the initiative to kill Sollozzo (and the great Sterling Hayden as McCluskey) and after Michael returns from Sicily. Coppola frames Michael in such a way that the viewer sees him in the center of this world. It reflects the position Al Pacino's character is assuming during the course of the film.
I am thinking of spending my lunch hours this week watching "The Godfather" with Coppola's audio commentary. I will watch 45 minutes or so each lunch hour. I bet my appreciation for the film will continue to grow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Burrell, Brooks, Smith, Cook, Jordan, Blakey

I just walked on the treadmill. Eyes closed and listening to Kenny Burrell's "Blue Lights, Vol. 1," I concentrated on the soloists on Duke Jordan's composition, "Scotch Blues."
First, there's guitarist Burrell. Tenor saxophonist Harold Floyd "Tina" Brooks follows, as do trumpeter Louis Smith, tenor saxophonist Junior Cook, pianist Jordan and drummer Art Blakey.
Why, I wonder, does winter bring out the jazz aficionado in me?
Could it be the dark and cold, the urge to hibernate?
Born and raised in California, I have always treated the Midwestern winter as an "interior" season. I would rather read or play chess than cross-country ski.
Perhaps that's why I have stripped so many rock and country tunes off of my iPod in recent weeks, replacing them with jazz tracks.
There's something cozy about a Tina Brooks sax solo -- something that warms me when I need it. Something I need in winter.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Stuck in my head

I worked today, driving to a local ski area to interview skiers and snowboarders on the inaugural day of the season.
The massive snowstorm that blanketed some parts of the Midwest with as much as 18 inches of snow missed us, but the local ski area was able to open thanks to man made snow.
I listened to the "Trojan UK HITS Box Set" as I drove the 49 miles to and from the ski area.
The box-set tracks -- mostly pop-oriented reggae from the late 1960s and early 1970s -- represent some of the catchiest tunes in history.
They must be among the catchiest: I was singing along to them continually and they're all still stuck in my head.
The set includes works by Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Toots & the Maytals, Roland Alphonso (the riveting opener, "Guns of Navarone"), the Pioneers and more.
The wonderful songs on this set would serve as an effective primer for the reggae neophyte (a person, for example, who has only heard Bob Marley). For a reggae obsessive such as myself, these songs serve as a reminder why I love this music so much.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Songs to sing in, on or around the car

It was asked before, but ROUTE 1 will ask it again for this week's CLASSIC FRIDAY QUESTION:
"What was the last song you sang in the car?"
Diane H. -- I just bought the new Scissor Sisters CD and have listened incessantly to "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" as I drive to and from work. If you don't find that song insanely catchy, you might not have a pulse.
Rick T. -- "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. Now that's a classic!
Mike D. -- On Sunday, I helped out Steve Perry on vocals on "Any Way You Want It" (by Journey). A few days earlier, I heard "Livin' On A Prayer" by BonJovi TWICE in one day while driving. I was obligated to belt out that one on both occasions.
Inger H. -- "I WANNA ROCK AND ROLL ALL NIGHT!!!" There is nothing better than a lonely four-hour car ride to bring out the inner KISS in all of us.
Mike M. -- My 3-year-old daughter and I sang "Jingle Bells" while enjoying the light displays on a drive through Murphy Park. We made up the words to the verses that we didn't know.
Erik H. -- It's the B-side to a song I have never heard that came out in 1968 and sank into obscurity shortly thereafter, but when I hear Peter Austin's "Time is Getting Harder" on the "Safe Travel" compilation of Phil Pratt-produced rock steady, I sing along EVERY TIME.
"Time is getting harder, you got to think a little smarter!"