A Joyful Noise

This is not the first dog/soldier reunion video I’ve seen. It may not even be the best one (though they are all wonderful in their way). But it is probably the most perfect one.

Anyone who has loved a dog will appreciate –and recognize– the myriad emotions (ranging from happy to ecstatic) that are all playing out simultaneously.

The dog is obviously surprised, then delighted, then happy, then ecstatic, then confused, then giddy, then remembers he has his ball in his mouth and he’d love to let his guard down but business is business….and the sounds that ensue are the glorious gamut of canine communication: barks and yelps suppressed by the toy he is still munching on, and a paralysis of sorts: he is unable to jump up because he is still confused/excited, and he can’t bark properly because of the ball, he is crying from pleasure (when a dog actually cries from joy it is one of the more pure distillations of emotion any creature is capable of conveying), and he is looking/dashing around as if to say to the others: “Do you see who is home? Can you believe it?”

The noises (funny, touching, genius) this dog makes are some of the best noises I’ve heard in a long time.

The fact that the soldier is home safe is pretty awesome too.

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Dick Clark, R.I.P.

This is the face I remember, and the one I’ll recall most fondly. It’s nice to see the ones when he (impossibly) looked even younger or the ones where he (impossibly) looked so much older, but this is the face indelibly imprinted in my mind.

As a child of the ’70s, I got to know Dick Clark once he was already a legend, but before he became the ubiquitous go-to guy for everything from new music to New Year’s Eve. He was New Year’s Eve and for that alone, he will be remembered fondly. Plenty of other outlets will dutifully report his myriad, mind-boggling (in terms of variance and success) enterprises. Mostly he was famous for being who he was: Dick (motherfucking) Clark.

Here’s the thing: I’ve long since acknowledged that it’s only going to get more difficult for folks from my general generation to behold all the heroes (the super and the super-sized) dropping like flies as time marches unkindly on.

Still, there are a handful of larger than life archetypes who we could never imagine dying, and will probably never reconcile no longer having around. Clint Eastwood is one; Keith Richards is another. But both of those dudes, for very different reasons (aside, of course, from the beastly burden of time not being on any of our sides) have worn their age on their faces: it has lent character and augmented gravitas. It has reminded us that even our gods play by rules they could not create. But Dick Clark was different, if for no other reason that he looked pretty much the same for decades. He was a real-life Dorian Gray, and it almost made sense that he sold his soul: how else could you get that rich, seem that happy and make that much money unless darker forces were pulling the proverbial strings? Even worse (for the haters and cynics), his act was genuine; it wasn’t even an act. Check out some interviews: he had no illusions what he did and what he had done (i.e., he wasn’t kidding anyone about his lasting imprint on the cultural landscape, but of course that is usually something only people who write about the culture from the outside looking in bother to obsess about, or better yet, people who have not made the money or connections to have any real impact). He talked about bringing a modicum of escape and pleasure to the people: no more, no less. And it worked. People responded to him and his ideas for a reason: they worked. He worked: as a concept, as a celebrity.

It didn’t seem like he would ever age, much less die.

Then he had his stroke. That was tough enough (nobody wants to see anyone suffer, but it’s always harder to see the strong ones surrender to the illimitable forces of Nature who, as we all know, is a Bitch). But he kept on rocking New Year’s Eve. What was he supposed to do, sit at home and watch? No, he had to be Dick Clark because no one else could be. That was his legacy, this is what gave his life (our lives, at least for a few minutes every December 31) more meaning. Yes, it was painful to watch –and hear– him, however bravely, soldier through those countdowns (particularly with the oleaginous Ryan Seacrest breathing down his neck). But I’m glad he did, and I’m certain I’m not alone. The only thing that would have been more intolerable than seeing this once-impregnable institution showing the slings and arrows of outrageous –but no longer impossible– fortune would have been hearing that he was at home, in a chair, watching what only he could do.

No one else will do it like he did. No one else will do a lot of things like him. That is what we mean when we say someone was one-of-a-kind.

Dick Clark didn’t cure cancer or feed the foodless, and he never claimed he was trying to. He didn’t do anything other than make the world a bit less serious and a tad more enjoyable. How many people can we honestly say that about?

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Robert E. Simon, 98 Years Young

Robert E. Simon, the man who named the town I live in (R.E.S.ton, get it?) turns 98 today.

Here he is, in 2006, on the balcony outside his penthouse suite at Heron House, which overlooks Lake Anne (one of several man-made lakes in Reston) on Lake Anne Plaza, the first of many “village centers”. (Old school street cred question number one: Do you remember Hunters Woods Plaza? Old school street cred question number two: Do you miss it? The second question is rhetorical, otherwise you are not old school.)

(For a history of Reston, check this out. For a less official history –or love letter– from a kid who grew up and has lived most of his life here, check this out.)

Who took this picture, you may be asking yourself.

I did.

And how did I happen to have the opportunity to be kicking it with Robert Simon, you are perfectly entitled to inquire.

Well…long story short is that I wrote a novel that takes place in a town never named but bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Reston. In a sense, the town is the central character; it’s the typical coming-of-age novel, and a young-ish dude (who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the author) –as well as the town– are confronting the inevitable interstices of time and memory. It’s equal parts earnest, yearning and pretentious. Typical first novel. Anyway, my goal was to have the man who created this town (this character) see some relevant sections before one of us died (or it got published). Since it looked –and looks– like one of us will die before it ever does get published, I took matters into my own hands and did the courageous thing: I left it outside his door. Imagine my surprise when he called me and told me he loved it, and wanted to meet.

We eventually got together for lunch (I was hoping to do drinks and dinner), and of course we patronized one of the restaurants at the plaza. When I arrived, a few minutes after noon, he was already seated and had a glass of white wine in front of him. I’m a stickler for time, he said. (Takeaway: if this had been a job interview I would not have gotten the job.)

What followed was a fascinating, humbling hour where I was content to ask questions and listen to whatever he cared to tell me. (Some of the things are echoed in this nice, brief intereview with him, here. There’s another one here.)

I was struck –and impressed– with his candor and disdain he still felt for the people who (he felt) screwed up his vision. For instance: the Reston Towncenter was always part of the plan, but it was supposed to extend from where the Target is to where the Home Depot is (think about that!) and he remains disappointed that we resorted to strip malls instead of plazas, which integrate housing and commerce. He also remains a little bitter about the way he was forced out and unable to execute full control over his evolving vision (see history in link above). Between the glass of vino and the righteous indignation, it was easy to see how he had managed to make it well into his 90s. And that was six years ago!

In any event, it was quite gratifying to be able to convey to him how much it meant to me to grow up in a planned community that had soul and saved trees. That had bikepaths and encouraged cultural diversity. That expanded but never turned former farmland into a concrete clusterfuck. I told him I was speaking for dozens, probably thousands of other kids fortunate enough to grow up in the town he created.

(I scored my first soccer goal at Wainwright fields and still play basketball at Lake Anne Elementary –about 100 yards away. I learned how to ride a bike on Scandia Circle and learned how to navigate a stick-shift on Wiehle Drive. I caught my first fish in Carter Pond and skinny-dipped in Lake Audobon. I waited tables on Lake Anne Plaza and waited tables at Reston Towncenter. I rode my bike on the W&OD trail to Penguin Feathers and ride my bike on the W&OD trail past the still-verdant landscape between Reston and Vienna. I bought pop rocks at the 7-Eleven and bought my first beers at the 7-Eleven. I bought my first property and will never sell it. The place I called home is still the place I call home.)

There was a lot more I could have said and a lot more I wanted to hear.

What else could I have said; what more did I need to hear?

See you on the plaza at noon, this Saturday.

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3.14: Happy Pi Day

If you’ve never seen Pi, Darren Aronofsky’s first (and best) movie, I strongly encourage you to check it out.

(Hint: it’s not just a number; it’s a concept of existence. Or something. Even a math illiterate like myself can appreciate how numbers and pure calculations describe and define multiple aspects of what we call reality. That doesn’t mean I endorse being force-fed Algebra as a teenager.)

Pi is not just for math geeks, as both Aronofsky and Kate Bush (to take two notable examples) have proven.

(If Kate Bush had been my Geometry teacher I may have paid more attention in class. I may have learned something. I may have even come by after school in hopes of some tutoring. I may have wanted otehr things as well. I still do.)

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Tasting China The Way Peter Chang Intended (Revisited)


And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

Well, it felt that way as I drove alone, into the deep country dark of 29 North, heading for the place I used to call home. But I knew, as I put distance between where I was going and where I had been, the fulcrum that balanced my appetites, my bearings and possibly my sanity had been permanently put asunder. That a destination had been forever elevated to a point of depature, a siren song that would assail my ears and lure me back again and…

Well, not necessarily.

But having drunk deeply from the broth of the gods, and, filled with that savory and soul-affirming stuff, I could never possibly look at the world the same…

Okay, not exactly.

But I had eaten a meal from a menu designed by a man that some seem to worship, and others have treated like a holy pilgrimage, travelling great distances not unlike those three sojourners followed the brightest star, which guided them through the desert to a manger on that cold night over two centuries…

Well, you get the picture.

I had come to Charlottesville to visit my boy Jamey, the genius behind Barlow Brewing (and I don’t throw that word around lightly: this guy makes homebrews like nobody’s business; so much so that I want it to become his business and I can buy his beers, all the time, in support of his eventual, inevitable empire), and, in his blessed company, eat, drink and be merry. There was some drinking and merriment, but after we got around to eating, that was all she wrote. All that was left, after that meal, was surviving.

I’ve heard, and been guilty of using, the banal expression “food coma” before, and while I’ve stuffed myself beyond what I figured was a reasonable capacity on a couple of occasions, I’d never really had any firsthand experience with what some people must be talking about when they talk about food comas. For starters, I ate more than my fill; we all did. I ate the way an indulged golden retriever will scarf down snausages so long as an irresponsible owner continues making them available. (I don’t want to shoehorn, or belabor the implicit Pavlovian metaphor, but there is no question that, after only one meal, I am confident Chef Chang could make me salivate on command as soon as I smelled whatever he was tossing inside his magic wok.) You think I’m kidding? Get a load of this appetizer:

Oh, did I mention that I was eating at Taste of China?

Where? You may have heard of it. No, really. This place, and especially its enigmatic rock star chef Peter Chang, have been the subject of recent features in The Oxford American (by brilliant food critic Todd Kliman) as well as a slightly popular publication called The New Yorker (by Calvin Trillin).

I wish I could say I discerned an awkward tension in the air, a sense of urgency muted by ambivalence: a sort of preemptive resignation that the chef, the great man who had made these crowds flock to an unassuming strip mall on the first warm Saturday of the year (following the longest and most brutal winter most folks can recall ever having suffered through and who would, under any other circumstances, be grilling out or sunbathing or washing their cars or scooping dog shit in their backyards —anything so long as they were outside soaking in this sublime air) was about to do what he always does. Leave.

But the reality was that it looked like exactly what it was: an extremely busy restaurant during dinner service. No more and no less. But there was an electricity in the air; the type of heat that is generated when a particular event is lit by the combined buzz of hope and expectation. Everyone in the restaurant was aware of it: looking at each other, looking at the plates in front of them and especially on other tables, looking at the wait staff gliding and humming through the maze of tables like tuxedoed worker bees, looking toward the kitchen door at the back of the room to see if perhaps he would make an appearance. This was the kind of vibe that people in urban hot spots crave and people who can only read about them covet. This must be what it’s like to secure a reservation at a hot new club in New York City, except for the refreshing lack of hipsters, posers and the fat-walleted fuckwads who cash in their souls for cachet, all out of a sybaritic impulse to separate themselves from the hoi polloi.

Well, let’s keep it real: how many people (like myself) were here because they read about it and knew they had to come here? Certainly, there were more than a fair share of folks who just reckoned this was the hip (but not hipster!) place in which to add a notch to their culinary belts. But any venue, in any town, is going to inexorably attract the remoras who want to latch on to cultural shark. Bottom line: Taste of China is located in a fucking strip mall! That’s called keeping it real ’til it flatlines.

Back to that food coma. We ate, and ate, and we ate some more. If they had kept bringing food, we would have packed it in until we crumbled out of our chairs. And then we would have fallen on all fours and lapped it up like the aforementioned golden retriever. You’ll notice I’m not talking about the actual dishes or what they tasted like. For a sense of how good the food is, and the types of flavors and surprises it combines, check out the Kliman article: it’s a fantastic piece of journalism and Kliman is a more than capable food critic. I will say that while I’m unabashed about going deep as often as I can afford to (financially and gastronomically), most of my previous experiences ill-prepared me for the explosion of competing and, at first, discordant sensations this meal contained. That appetizer, pictured above, had a heat that numbed the lips, setting the tone for the spices to fight it out with the sweetly flavored slices of chicken: it was like lighting a match under an icicle. Suffice it to say, it was the type of (exceedingly rare) meal where you are already mentally recalling which items from the menu you will need to try next time, and the time after. But mostly you are transfixed by what is happening around you and inside you.

And then it’s over. You don’t linger; in part because you are able to see the line extending out the door, and mostly because once it looks like you’re done, the wait staff lets you know you’re done. They may have filled my water glass three times in an hour but they came back to see if we’d eaten our last bites five or six times. “We get the picture,” we would have said if our insensate tongues could form the words. Getting to the front door was a combination of concentrated effort (it was difficult to walk) and amusement (looking at all the eager faces of imminent diners who could read their futures in the strands of sweat dropping from my steaming dome). Getting to the car was a commitment. Thinking about following this meal with the beers we intended to drink was, inconceivably, inconceivable. And, being in a college town, we gave it the old college try. It wasn’t happening. Barlow The Brewer and I could barely finish our post-meal pints, and that has to be a first in our collective life stories. The only thing left was to call it a night and make the long, lonely drive back to the Chang-less city I call home.

Even as I sent the obligatory message, ruminating about available weekends for subsequent road trips, I had a feeling (based mostly on Chang’s notorious history, detailed in Kliman’s article) that he could not be long for C’Ville. A line out the door at 5:20 P.M. at an establishment without a bouncer means it has reached a tipping point. How long before Chang, compelled by his own internal mechanisms, or genuinely burnt out from a ceaseless crowd of insatiable clients, packed up his proverbial knives and went? How many more meals can I squeeze in, I wondered. Can we carry this dream through the end of summer?

Any questions?

Turns out my sense of urgency was well-warranted: Chang has left the building. We were there for his last shift.

This hurts. And, if you live in or around Charlottesville, it hurts you more than it does me. You missed your chance.

Or are you the lucky ones who will never have to wonder and worry if you’ll get another opportunity to have a meal that looks like this?

I am confident Chang and I will meet again.

Until then, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to taste China the way he intended.

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Nello Ferrara, R.I.P.

Nello Ferrara invented the Atomic Fireball, the Lemonhead, the Boston Baked Bean and the Black Forest Gummi Bear.

What, exactly, have you done with your life?

Check out this obituary, which amply describes a remarkable life, well-lived. (In other words, in addition to bringing countless little kids joy and their dentists second homes, he was by all accounts a happy, generous, friendly fellow. Do they make humans like this anymore?)

Having written, with neither irony nor (I hope) mawkish nostalgia, I’ve invoked the American Dream (itself mostly myth, but a genuine impetus for improvement and progress in a previous incarnation of our country), and if Don Cornelius and Ben Gazzara illustrate crucial aspects of this ideal –and they do– than Nello Ferrara is practically the dictionary definition of the 20th Century alchemy that turned opportunistic (and honest?) immigrants into wealthy, respectable and influential citizens:

Mr. Ferrara grew up around Halsted and Taylor Street. When he was 7 or 8, “They used to have tour buses that would go down Taylor Street and show the tourists the old Italian neighborhood,” his son said. “He would stand by the door of the bus and he would start to sing. Every day he would make a dollar or two. He would sing old Italian songs, ‘O Sole Mio.’ ”

He had to repeat first grade “because they said he didn’t speak English well enough,” his son said. But Mr. Ferrara went on to attend St. Ignatius College Prep and DePaul University law school.

After the war, he returned home and practiced law. “My mother was a legal secretary working for another lawyer,” said his daughter, Nella Davy. “One day he went over there to pick up a brief that she was typing and he just fell in love with her.” He and Marilyn were wed 63 years.

Mr. Ferrara joined the family business, where he developed Lemonheads in 1962. He joked he came up with the idea because his son was born with a head shaped like a lemon.

With sincere respect and appreciation, a significant chunk of my childhood (and an impressive portion of my allowance money) bows deeply to this amazing American.

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R.I.P., Steve Jobs

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence.

As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

I am less concerned about what further inventions and innovations we may not now see with him gone, and lament the more simple –and human– fact that he is yet another human being gone entirely too soon because of the awful disease called cancer. It seems very sad to me that once again we are reminded that death is inevitable (not always a terrible thing; carpe diem and all that) but that cancer does not give a shit how rich, powerful or brilliant you are. For some reason it stings a bit more to see people with all the money and connections in the world reduced, like rubble, by this awful ailment that is an equal-opportunity force of destruction. I worry much less about which new toys Apple will produce and the fact that his family has lost the husband and father at the disgustingly, offensively young age of 56.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, countercultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him. What else can be said but kudos on a life well and purposefully lived?

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Down With The King: Wherein the Mysteries of Easter are Contemplated (Revisited)

Right.

So what’s scarier: a grown man dressed in a bunny costume, an actual adult-sized Bunny, or whatever chemicals comprise these things?

Or, you know, this “bunny”.

Or Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary companion (which is more disturbing: that his friend is invisible or that he’s a bipedal rabbit?); did he eat too many Peeps, read the Bible too much (or not enough), and is this some deep allegory about faith (or the more mundane and secular realm of schizophrenia)?

Which begs the question: what is ultimately more difficult to comprehend: the plot of Donnie Darko or the concept of a man who wasn’t really a man; who was the son of God, but really God, who is nailed to a cross, dies and is resurrected to save us from eternal damnation because of the sins committed by two naked humans eating an apple in a magical garden? And that in order to redeem ourselves, we eat his body and drink his blood? I’d say it’s a push.

Then there is this, which always makes me so happy that it almost compensates for the Catholic upbringing.

For all those concerned about my immortal soul, two things: don’t worry about it and, I’m pretty certain that The Big Guy upstairs has as much empathy for sinners like myself as He has a sense of indignation about cretinous proponents of Creationism who insist the Bible (written by men) proves that Christ lived with the dinosaurs because, you know, the Earth is only six thousand years old.

On the other hand, I’m down with the King:

But enough about Run DMC.

I’m on board with concept of Christ, even as a fictional character. Seriously.

Assuming J.C. is just a top tier model of literary inspiration, it’s hard to find a better guy to follow. (And by follow I mean the example and not the whole drop everything and squeeze through the Eye of a Needle. I’ll leave that between God and the wizards of Wall Street.) Christ, aside from being the Endless Enigma, is (if considered a fictional creation) the most fecund source of fictional creations. Art, literature, music and movies. Especially movies. Some of the movies have actually been satisfactory.

Others, not so much:

But that is the problem when overly earnest believers foist their visions of Christ on others (in artistic venues and less artistic venues of performing arts, like churches): it is propaganda as opposed to honest product. Or worse, it’s an endeavor that reveals the mastermind’s honesty in stark, unavoidable strokes. In Mel Gibson’s case, his hate-mongering, anti-Semitic, bullying and backward conception of Jesus Christ is long on the sadism and short on the compassion. It’s a useful illustration of weak craftmanship backed by a strong wallet, resulting in a blatant advertisement (albeit an unintentional one) for an individual’s bigoted sensibility. It also begs the question of just how deeply repressed Gibson’s homoerotic impulses are. Based on his work on and off the screen, he is straining credulity.

And then there is this, original source here (link found here, well worth visiting just for the comments section):

Speaking of which, Christians would do well to embrace the reality that Christ (the man, the myth) was not a honky.

Put another way:

Put another way, Jesus looked a lot more like this guy:

And not a lot like this guy:

But we can probably all agree that this guy is the Antichrist.

Yet far be it from me to hate on this Holy weekend. The ’70s did not suck!

In conclusion, it is with considerable confidence that we can assert Jesus was black and he had game. In fact, He wore number 15:

Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (AKA “Black Jesus”). That’s some gospel I can get down to.

I’m not certain about any ultimate answers, but as always, I’m content to let Bill Hicks have the last word.

Happy Easter!

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Tucker For President

As the Beltway blowhards get their onanism on while the pitiful children in charge of government have their long-awaited tantrum (will the government shut down or not? To flee or not to flee, that is the question), any opportunity for distraction and levity is most welcome. Enter Tucker, my new hero.

Tucker, the singing schnoodle:

Review: first, the fact that it’s a schnoodle (schnauzer mix) had me at hello; second, look at that guy! Before a note was played, I was done the second he flew into the frame, and the ears flopped like popcorn-scented wings (if you have ever had, or loved, a miniature schnauzer, you’ll understand).

Tucker, round two:

Review: it couldn’t possibly get better, but it gets better. Tucker is not holding back here; with a barbaric yawp that would make Whitman blush he cries out to articulate the pain, profundity and joy of existence. At least that’s what I’m getting from it. But the best part is when he realizes he is being filmed (you can see the exact second his eyes connect with the camera) and he abruptly halts the performance. Then he expresses his displeasure with a brattiness that is well-known to anyone who has owned or loved a miniature schnauzer, and, as a non-poodle endorser, I have to give it up and concede that the poodle factor is only upping the cute ante here.

I am reluctant to admit how many times I’ve watched this in the last 24 hours, or how much bliss it has delivered. Has a dog ever been stalked before, on the Internet no less? I’m not saying it’s on but I would buy a baby grand for Tucker without a second thought.

And then just when you are thinking: that is a tad too precious (and I know if you are thinking that you are not fooling anyone), we hit the animal jackpot. No set-up or explanation necessary; just watch and savor (and then weep):

Finally, for old time’s sake, our good friend Myron (more on him here):

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Hello!

#Winning.

No, not Charlie Sheen; the Internet.

Once again, random acts of staggering genius elevates our common humanity.

And then there is Lionel Richie. If you didn’t –or don’t– appreciate this song (and video!) you have an icicle where you heart should be.

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