Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Memories: David Bowie, "Life On Mars?"

Despite being a huge music nerd as a kid, I can only say I liked David Bowie back then, as opposed to being a fan. I knew most of the hits and when the album “Let’s Dance” came out along with its music videos on heavy rotation on MTV, I liked that a lot. I was also aware of Bowie’s influence on most of the music I liked as a teenager (David Gahan’s performance of Bowie’s “Heroes” was what convinced Depeche Mode to make Gahan their lead singer).

But that respect and enjoyment didn’t translate into complete fandom. I didn’t own any David Bowie records and didn’t obsess over the various personas Bowie took on at various points in his career.

That all changed when I was 33. I had gotten a Border’s gift card for Christmas and I used it to buy a “Best of Bowie” CD because it was a little embarrassing that I owned none of his music. About a week later, I started a solo drive from Los Angeles to Washington DC, so I had some time to listen to a lot of music.

I got around to listening to the Bowie CD just outside of Memphis. It started with “Space Oddity” (everyone knows that one), then “The Man Who Sold The World” (oh, that’s right, that Nirvana song was a cover), then “Changes” (great to sing along to if there’s nobody else in the car).

Then came track four, “Life on Mars?” I was caught completely off guard. I’ll admit, my mind was drifting a bit when the song started, but by the time it ended I was entranced. I hit the “back” button on the CD player and listened again, trying to make sense of the inscrutable lyrics and epic scope of the arrangement.

I’ve no doubt there are online message boards where people argue endlessly about what exactly the song means. But like many great works of art, you can see whatever you want in it. For me, it was pretty straightforward. “Life on Mars?” is about alienation. It’s about looking around you in disgust and wondering if there’s anything better anywhere else and fearing you won’t ever have access to it. It’s exactly how I felt as a teenager growing up in Rochester, New York.

I hit the “back” button on the CD player and listen again. I think, “How could I have gone 33 years without hearing this song? Where were you during puberty? I really could have used you during puberty.” Despite this, my teenage years all of the sudden seemed retroactively less lonely. After all, someone else wrote a song about the same thing when I was just a few months old, this sort of feeling must be pretty common.

I hit the “back” button again.

The experience of listening to the song is similar to riding a rollercoaster. In fact, if you close your eyes, you can even see the dips and turns. It starts off quiet and slow, like you’re rolling out of the loading area. Then you slowly creep up the hill. When Bowie belts out “Sailors…” that’s your first plunge. It takes your breath away in the same way. By the time he sings “oh man”, you’ve bottomed out and the momentum is carrying you up the next hill. Then he sings “take a look at the LAW MAN…” and you’re down the second hill. By the time you hit, “Is there life on Mars?” you’re rounding a banked turn. After more twists and turns, you’re returned safely to the place where you started, dizzy, out of breath, and ready to take the ride again.

I hit the “back” button again, and again, and again.

After about an hour, I pause the music and call my go-to guy for all things Bowie: Sam. I ask him about the song, why he’d never played it for me before (I think the answer was something like, “you’ve really never heard that song before?”).

I stop for lunch outside Knoxville. Then I get back in the car, and turn on the song again. When it ends, I hit the “back” button. I repeat this process for another 9 hours as I drive towards Washington. I feel like I need to make up for the last 20 years of not listening to this song.

After that, I went back and dove more deeply into the rest of the catalog and really started to appreciate the staggering influence Bowie had on much of the music I loved and how much great stuff he himself put out. And now, all these years later, I still come back to “Life on Mars?” on a regular basis, whenever I need it.

So now, when the unexpected news of Bowie’s death is in the news, it’s his own song and his voice that’s helping to soothe the sadness. That’s quite a gift to give a stranger. Thank you.

Friday, June 06, 2014

A Letter to Nate

This week, Nate and Will have been having a pretend camp experience at school, complete with tents and shirts that have been worn all week and are starting to smell. As part of that, we had to write the kids letters as if they were away at camp. The letter to Nate went a little like this...

June 3, 2014

Dear Nathan,
Oh, what sorrow we felt when you left us to attend Camp Learned-A-Lot. In our grief, we threw away all of our furniture, painted our house black, and dressed Eliza up in your clothes so we could pretend she was you. (This did not work well, just ask Eliza.)

We simply didn’t know what to do without you around. I had taken to going to the brown chair in the living room and shouting, “Nate, stop sitting on the arm of the chair,” despite the fact that you weren’t there… and the fact that the chair wasn’t there either because I had thrown it away with all the rest of our furniture. This behavior concerned your mom greatly and she advised I take up a hobby to occupy my spare time.

So now I’m happy to announce I’ve turned most of our (mostly empty) house into a dog kennel. A dog kennel is basically a hotel for dogs, except there’s no swimming pool and we don’t put tiny chocolate mints on the dog’s pillows at night. Also, you’re allowed to use the bathroom in the yard, which is generally forbidden at hotels that humans use. Staying with us right now, we have a Scottish terrier named Tiki, a boxer named Cha Cha, a poodle who answers to the name of Congressman Jonesboro, a collie named Briefcase, and another collie named Briefcase 2, Electric Boogaloo. We also have a sixth dog named Eric. We don’t know what kind of dog he is and we suspect he may be a man dressed in a dog costume. We’re not veterinarians, so we can’t tell for sure and we’d hate to kick him out because Eric is, by far, the best behaved animal in the kennel. So we’ve decided not to pursue the matter further.

Eliza misses you very much and she expresses it by saying things like, “I get to use the iPad all by myself” and “let’s watch another episode of ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.’” Sometimes Eliza will express her longing for her big brother by singing songs. One goes a little like this:

“I miss my brother Nate, I miss my brother Nate, I miss my brother Nate, where is my princess doll?”

Right about this part of the song, Briefcase 2 will start licking Eliza and she’ll run away screaming, “leave me alone, Briefcase 2!”

Needless to say, we are all anxious for you to return and to hear stories of camp and to discover what you’ve learned. We have missed having your sweet personality in our home and we love you very much.

With Much Love,


P.S. We will make sure we get rid of all the dogs before you come home, including Eric.

P.P. S. What is 133+465? I’m just wondering.

Unlike his brother, Nate instinctively got it when he read the letter. Nate's reply included an order to "GET RID OF THOSE DOGS AT ONCE" and the P.S. was the answer to the math problem, followed by his own mathematical question. 

A Letter To Will

It's the second-to-last day of school here in The Beav, and the kids are doing a special "Camp Learned-a-Lot" activity. Basically, they pretend they're at camp. There are tents in the classroom, and they all wear the same shirt. That sort of thing. As part of that activity, parents were supposed to write a letter to their kids as if they were at camp. Julie was too busy to write, so it was all up to me. And when it's all up to me, this is what happens...

June 3, 2014

Dear William,
It seems like just yesterday you were sitting in our living room, scattering Legos everywhere, and asking if you could use the iPad. Those were good times for us, and many happy memories remain.

But alas, you’ve run off to Camp Learned-A-Lot and it sounds as if you have been having a great time. While you’ve been gone, we’ve been occupying our time by making giant replicas of you and Nathan. We’ve constructed them out of rolled up newspapers and articles of clothing you didn’t pack off with you. Newspaper Nathan and William are not very good at eating their breakfast in the morning. Our table now has piles of uneaten eggs and honey toast that are starting to attract ants. However, Eliza likes the fact that Newspaper Nathan and William are good at sharing and always want to play princess and watch “Olivia.” So the experiment is not a complete failure.

In your absence, we have decided to rent your room out to a nice family from Latvia. There is a father named Edgars, and a mother named Inga. They have five children, three boys named Ivars, Juris, and little Edgars Jr, and girls named Rita and Scratchy. The rent they pay has made us rich beyond our wildest dreams, but there have been some considerable drawbacks.

First off, our new Latvian friends consume an enormous amount of grey peas and bacon. I’m told it’s Latvia’s national dish, but it looks quite disgusting and grey peas are almost impossible to find in Oregon. Also, they leave caraway cheese around the house. It’s this traditional yellow cheese with little seeds inside. It has a strong smell and I fear our whole house will smell like this cheese by the time you return. They’ve also taken to singing the Latvian national anthem during the early morning hours. While I’m sure their national anthem is a song they’re very proud of, I can assure you it’s not the sort of tune you want waking you up at 3 in the morning.

Needless to say, we miss you dearly and can’t wait for your return from camp. We’re interested to hear about the things you’ve been learning and hope you’ve been having good experiences there. We are proud to call you our son.

With Much Love,


P.S. Don’t forget to write.
P.P.S. Please take at least one shower while at camp.
P.P.P.S. Why is there air?

Will's reaction to this letter was... well... not all that positive, Both in writing, and in person, Will said the letter was "confusing" and handed it back to me, even when I said it was for him and he should keep it.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Phil Hoffman, RIP

Phil Hoffman, circa 1982

I woke up Sunday morning to the news Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, and the news hurt more than a normal celebrity passing would. I grew up with Phil. We weren’t friends, really. He was two years older than me, in my sister’s grade. But we rode the same school bus from elementary school on, and knew a lot of the same people.

Phil Hoffman (that’s how he was known in school, I didn’t know his middle name* until I saw it on the big screen) was friendly, outgoing, and athletic. In the interactions we had, I was struck by his kindness. In short, he was kind to me.

I was not a terribly popular kid in junior high. I had basically no friends. To remedy that, a social worker suggested I become the equipment manager for the freshman football team. My duties involved checking out equipment and then ducking off to Wegmans to buy doughnuts that I would then resell at an obscene profit. Phil would buy my doughnuts. And he was nice to me. At that stage in my life, that was really important to me. Phil’s younger sister, Emily, was also always unfailingly nice to me despite the fact I had absolutely no status in the school caste system. My impression was that the Hoffmans where raised to be kind people.

In high school, Phil’s talent as an actor started to emerge and you didn’t have to be all that perceptive to figure out that he was immensely talented. The school’s drama teacher, Ms. Marshall, quickly realized Phil was special. The school staged one drama and one musical every year, but in 1985 they added a third play: “Death of a Salesman.” It was staged as a special assembly for the seniors and it also ran at night for a week or so. I didn’t go. But the people who did said they saw something really special.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Phil went to New York City after high school. Rumor had it Ms. Marshall, who had a background in the NYC theater scene, had taken him down to the city and had introduced him to several casting directors and agents.

In a seemingly short period of time, he was in the movies. My sisters and I rented “Scent of a Woman” just to see his relatively small role as a smug prep-school guy. I still remember the first time I actually saw him on the big screen. I was with a friend watching “Boogie Nights” in a theater in Los Angeles when Phil appeared in a scene, with an odd red bob and his gut hanging out of a tank top. I leaned over to my friend and said, “Oh my gosh, I went to high school with that guy.” She chuckled and said, “Yeah, I think we all did.” To which I replied, “No, I mean, that guy, that guy up there, he went to Fairport High School!”

I think most people from Fairport had that moment of shock and delight and pride when they first saw Phil on the big screen. It’s not like Fairport was some no-hope dead end kind of town, it was a relatively insignificant middle class suburb southeast of a relatively insignificant mid-sized city in upstate New York. The idea that someone from your town could be in a movie with Tom Cruise or some other big star was amazing.  And the fact that he was holding his own against a-list talent was even more remarkable.

The fact is, Phil could have been a crap actor and we all still would have loved him. Rochester and its suburbs don’t have many hometown boys who made it big. Irondequoit had Lou Grahm, the lead singer of Foreigner. Flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione was born in Rochester, and we never let him forget how proud we were that he wrote the theme to the 1980 Winter Olympics. Comedian Foster Brooks worked in radio in Rochester for a short time early in his career and we immediately adopted him as our own. The newspaper once even did a big write-up for the guy who played a supporting role in the teen sexploitation film “Hardbodies.” (Update: This paragraph wasn't all that fair. If you want examples of Fairport and Rochester locals who made good, check out the comments section.)

But Phil wasn’t crap, instead, he was probably the best actor of his generation. I’ve not seen every film he’s made, but he was the best thing in every film I ever saw him in. And as he grew in fame, we could still recognize him as one of ours. In a “60 Minutes” profile on Phil in 2006, he’s seen walking down the street in Manhattan wearing an ill-fitting brown plaid shirt and sweat pants (we Rochesterians, we’re not a fashionable people). He still returned to Fairport High to lecture and teach drama to students.

And because he never fully abandoned Rochester (full disclosure, I haven’t been back since 2004), we all counted Phil’s success as partly our own. We beamed with pride when he won the Best Actor Oscar for “Capote.” It was like everyone from Fairport was suddenly his grandmother, “My grandson Phil is doing very well in the movies these days. Did you hear he won an Oscar?”

Now that he’s died, this young, and in this way, it’s crushing. From a standpoint of his art, Phil certainly had much more great work in him that would have made many people happy for many years. And from a personal side, we can put faces to the names of those of his family members who mourn him tonight.

But to learn that he died of a drug overdose opens the door to a darker reality all of us hometown boosters now must confront. Somewhere, in a place most of us didn’t know about, there was a struggle or a pain or something Phil was treating with heroin. We were all willing to bask in the reflected glow of his accomplishments, but were we willing to help take on this other burden?

That’s not really a fair question, I know. How were any of us to know about this in the first place? And even if we did, what exactly would we have done to help out? You can’t really pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Phil. I used to sell you doughnuts in junior high and you were friendly with my sister. I think it’s time you got some help.” But still…

Whatever the case, we mourn the loss of a great actor tonight, and somebody who made us proud to be from a dinky little suburb nobody would have cared about otherwise. And we can thank him for sharing his gifts with us for as many years as he did.

(*UPDATE: Phil's middle name wasn't "Seymour" it was just a name he chose on a lark. I had actually thought it was a reference to a production of the Miracle Worker we appeared in when I was in the sixth grade. We were supposed to come up with a scene for the blind kids at Ann Sullivan's school and, as a joke, we all chose sight related names. I was "Luke" and when my name was called, everyone looked in different directions and said, "where?" My sister was "Iris," and the jokes went on from there. Someone in that sketch was named "Seymour," and I assumed it was Phil. However, I found the program for that production and Phil's name isn't anywhere in it. So I'm left to assume I've mis-remembered who was in that play. In case you're wondering, we never performed our little sketch. Ms. Marshal was in a bad mood the day we were going to do it and we decided to go with the serious scene we had written instead.)

(UPDATE UPDATE: My sister found the program from that production of The Miracle Worker and Phil Hoffman was, in fact, in it. However, it's unlikely he saw the skit as he didn't portray one of the blind kids.)

Friday, May 20, 2011


I heard Jon Stewart say something funny today and I thought it would make a good ringtone. So here it is:


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Contractual Obligation

You win, Grandparents (and Patti), we had an Easter egg hunt, and we made a video of it, and now you're posting it here. I don't know how long it's interesting to watch a video of children looking for plastic eggs, but I'm pretty sure it's not nearly as long as this video. So for the rest of you, you're excused from watching this. If you're a grandparent, here's your red meat...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


A month or two ago, I was waxing nostalgic for an old George Michael tune. Apparently, Iron And Wine were, too. Here's what they did with it...

Iron And Wine covers George Michael

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Back in the ‘90s, I used to perform with a sketch troupe and we had a regular gig at the Comedy Store on Sunset. During that time, we saw a lot of bad comedy. Some of the worst came from an improv troupe called “At the Drop of a Hat.” They were a bunch of middle aged people who did unfunny improv while accompanied by an on-stage cellist. (To his credit, the cellist was actually pretty good.)

One week, they got the call to perform at the Comedy Store’s La Jolla venue. It was kind of a big deal to get invited to La Jolla. You got a free meal and could stay the night in Mitzi Shore’s condo on the ocean at Pacific Beach. Naturally, my troupe was wildly jealous and wished “At the Drop of a Hat” ill as they headed south on the 405 freeway.

We got our wish.

A few minutes into their performance, someone on stage made some crack about SDSU that didn’t go over well with the crowd. So someone out there in the darkness just said, in a dispassionate tone, “boo.” He didn’t yell it or draw out the “o” so he was actually booing the group, he just said “boo.”

A few seconds later, someone else said it. “Boo.”

More and more people started in, and before long, people were actually booing “At the Drop of a Hat.” It started in the middle of the room, and spread out the edges. Pretty soon, it was loud, “booooooooooo!”

It was at this point that someone in “At the Drop of a Hat” actually thought he could retake the situation. He smiled and laughed and said, “Ok, I get it. ‘Boo.’ Now, someone give me a location where two strangers might meet…”


It wasn’t going to work. The audience had gotten a taste of their own power, and they wouldn’t be satisfied until “At the Drop of a Hat” walked off the stage in shame.

About four minutes later, the battle was over. The humiliated comedians walked off the stage, through the hostile crowd, and out the door, to the thunderous cheers of the audience. (The La Jolla Comedy Store has no back exit, making their walk of shame all the more terrible.)

So this afternoon I’m watching the news from Egypt on Al Jazeera English (fine, put me on the “do not fly” list, those guys have covered this story better than anyone else) and I thought of “At the Drop of a Hat.”

On one side of the screen was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, addressing his nation. On the other side, a live shot of protesters in Ciaro. At first, the protesters were silent, watching the speech on TVs set up around the square.

Mubarak starts by telling people how great he is and how much good he has done for Egypt. But after a few minutes, it becomes clear that he’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to resign. Instead, he’s talking about a constitutional committee he’s set up to produce reforms and talking about how he was wild and impetuous as a young man.

Somewhere among the protesters in Ciaro, someone took off his shoe and held it over his head, a sign of great disrespect. Pretty soon, others were doing the same. By the time Mubarak repeated that he would not step down before his term ended in September, the people in the crowd were shaking their fists and chanting something like, “he must go now.”

Is it possible the president of Egypt has even less skill in reading crowds than the worst improv comedy group in LA? Apparently so. To an outside observer, it’s hard to believe just how wrong he got this.

But make no mistake, the audience has gotten sense of their own power, and they won’t be satisfied until the performer leaves the stage.

(Note to Mubarak… who certainly reads this blog and is frustrated that I don’t post here enough: get onto Wikipedia and look up Nicolae Ceauşescu. These things don’t end well for people in your situation. Get your luxury flat in Dubai and get the hell out. The alternative for you is much, much worse.)

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