Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tie me a river

Haven't said a damn thing on this site since this summer. A funny thing happened to my summer of unemployment -- I got a job on a political campaign.

Now that's over and I'm back to being unemployed and trying to develop a free-lance writing base while I think about what's next.

I don't have too many profound thoughts these days -- at least not much worthy of actually posting here.

But, here's something I've noticed that I've not read or heard much about elsewhere (not that I've actually looked): Striped ties are in, big time. To be more pacific, ties with diagonal stripes seem to be dominating, at least judging by all the people on TV who are wearing them.

A great way to test my hypotheses is to simply watch TV, particularly sports.

I just noticed this at the beginning of college hoops season. Remember how many games show up on TV early on, with all those tournaments and intraconference challenges and 23-hour marathons. Lots of games, with lots of announcers and sideline reporters (although those are mostly women) and of course, the talking heads in the studio -- usually two but sometimes three or four.

Striped ties have long been a staple. There's the ubiquitous type with those tight stripes of the same size. Ricky Pinto had a nice gray/black tie on the other night.

And those ties with wider stripes of the same size have been around forever. Just look in any LL Bean catalog. Tim Russert's gone, but those ties that he favored live on.

But now, it seems that we are seeing weird color pairings with thin diagonal stripes, set apart by wider blocks of color, plus all sorts of other odd iterations. Did GQ issue and edict that I missed in the campaign hubbub?

So, if I feel like it, I'll get on here whenever I'm watching a game and report on tie sightings. Just to test this idea out a bit more.

Keep an eye out when you're watching TV sports and see if you don't notice it.

I just wonder if it'll last till March. (CARY STEMLE)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Straight Outta Philly …

And not a moment too soon. I finally got back from the City of Brotherly Love (recently renamed the City of a Decidedly Unbrotherly Early Summer Heat Wave) late Monday night. My flight was delayed two hours, putting me on the ground about 1:30 Tuesday morning. The ground here never tasted so sweet.
I couldn’t find a strong enough (free) wireless signal to transmit any posts on Sunday/Monday, but since I started this blog by writing about the trip, I might as well wrap it up.

Closing afternoon of the AAN conference. I always hate that part — they start breaking down all the vendor tables and the attendees scatter, making it hard to properly bid adieu to friends old and new. There’s usually a wrap party, but some folks leave on Saturday and others are too exhausted or otherwise distracted to make it. We got together at the Constitution Center, and we had a nice treat when Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell showed up. Rendell, an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter, was impressive, actually answering questions and speaking candidly about the whole sordid mess that used to be called the Democratic Presidential primary. (I did have a weird vision of Kentucky’s governor standing in front of a room of alt journalists — and then I thought, uh-uh, not a good idea).

Rendell said Clinton supporters are entitled to several days to get over her loss, and then they need to get with the program and support Barack Obama. By contrast to John McCain, Rendell noted, Obama is a million times more palatable, and he also invoked the mantra that I’ve been hammering since 2000, when some of my knucklehead friends voted for Ralph Nader out of an admirable but ultimately misguided sense of protest. Because, you know, PRESIDENTS APPOINT SUPREME COURT JUSTICES (not to mention starting wars against sovereign nations), and the next one could well appoint THREE justices. So, as Rendell said, we can’t afford to wait.

The rest of the night was anticlimactic. Some of the gang headed out to Penn Landing to catch the last part of the Roots Picnic. Others jumped on a bus to Atlantic City. I just hung out at the hotel bar chatting with some folks, including a woman who works at Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. As anyone who lives there will tell you, they’re fighting hard down there against still nearly insurmountable odds.

SUNDAY: Headed out to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the route was more difficult because the Franklin Parkway and adjacent streets were closed for a huge bicycle race. You’ve probably seen that museum — Rocky runs up the steps. You’ll be glad to know I didn’t cop any poses, although I saw plenty of folks doing it. The museum is impressive — I particularly enjoyed the Duchamp room, including that urinal he turned on its side, starting a whole new movement in art.

Later I headed to World Café Live, which is adjacent to WXPN-FM, home of David Dye’s “World Café” radio show. World Café Live has a nice diner with a small stage upstairs, and also a much larger room downstairs. It’s kinda like dinner theater but with cool music — people arrive at 6, order off a menu, and finish up about the time the headliner (in this case, Dan Bern) hits the stage at 7:30.

Anyone who’s read much of my stuff over the years knows I’m a Bern fan. Strangely, I’ve had several frustrating experiences trying to hear him. Once at Phoenix Hill Tavern, he was in the Roof Garden, but he music from the Taproom was so loud that it overwhelmed Dan. Another time he was set to play Gerstle’s, but the Kentucky Wildcats had an NCAA game bumped to a later start, meaning the place was full of hoops fans, delaying the start of Bern’s show. But the Merry Pranksters were to go on at midnight, truncating Dan’s show and sending him out to the sidewalk on Frankfort, where he played requests for five bucks a pop.

This time, there were no obstacles. The sound was impeccable. Bern was in good voice, although he seemed a bit out of sorts playing for a pretty docile dinner crowd. “I’m not disturbing your dinner?” he asked at one point, and commented a few times about how the crowd wasn’t living up to Philly’s rowdy reputation.
Bern played several songs I didn’t know — he’s such a prolific writer that I can’t keep up with his output — many with his trademark odd juxtapositions. One song was about he world in 2013 — out of gas and screwed. Another was about the succeeding world wars, all the way up to, what, World War XV. Bern often includes geopolitical tidbits in his absurdist compositions, and one song had Israel moving to Antarctica to escape global warming, with the Palestinians moving into their old territory but Egypt and Syria telling them “not so fast,” and the Palestinians joining the Israelis in their new land.

Dan did some mid-career favorites like “New American Language, “Black Tornado,” “God Said No” and “I Need You,” then hit his more recent CD, Breathe, doing the title track and “Trudy” before turning to his Dewey Cox homage, “Dear Mr. President,” which Bern wrote for the film “Walk Hard.” It goes like this:

Dear Mr. President
I want you to know
I am deeper than you
Listen and Learn
My heart is a chapel
My head is a steeple
My arms are the people
And the people now yearn

I stand for the midget
I stand for the negro
I stand for the Injun
all hopped up on booze
I stand for the Jap
And I stand for the beaner
And I stand, yes I do
For the Christ-Killin' Jew

I stand for the dyke
And I stand for the retard
I stand for the chinaman
Washing my socks
I stand for the bum
And the pimp and the bugger
And the cripple who lives
On my street in a box

To Conclude, Mr. President
I'm not at all Hesitant
To tell you I think
The first ladies a fox
Her husband, the jerkoff
Is ruining my country
That's all for today
Sincerely, D. Cox

Then Bern invited me onstage to wield his vidcam while he cajoled the crowd to bunch up near the stage and shout him down while he played “Jerusalem.” The crowd obliged, booing and yelling “you suck” and worse. Dan loved it. Look for that one on YouTube one of these days.

Well, you might think that’s enough for a night, but no, I went upstairs, where my friend Art Howe, who used to own LEO, was watching some of his friends play gypsy jazz. I missed that but caught the headliner, Robin Nolan, who was billed as a gypsy jazz guy but who played mostly bebop and fusion. I thought it was impressive technically, but some of the purists in the room thought it was tedious and not a good representation of Nolan’s talent.

MONDAY: My buddy T.E. Lyons was passing through town on his way to Virginia, so we grabbed a cheese steak at Jim’s Steaks on South Street. We drove around a bit, sat by the Delaware River and then headed over the JFK Plaza to see Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture. It’s simple but elegant and handsome.
I wanted to go to the Mutter Museum, which is full of all sorts of weird anatomical oddities, but it’s closed on Monday. Ditto for the Edgar Allan Poe site, so I killed the rest of the day at the National Constitution Center, taking in lots of minutiae about the founding of our nation. Obviously, it is a fascinating story, and it’s inspiring to realize that in spite of our obvious problems today, our founding principles were and are profound. Here’s to reconnecting with them.

I chowed down (again) at the Reading Terminal Market, a delightful collection of food vendors in an old railroad terminal downtown. Then it was on to the airport and back to the Ville — not a moment too soon. --CARY STEMLE

Saturday, June 7, 2008

What time is it? It's almost time for a cheesesteak

As I wrote in the previous two posts, I'm in Philly for the AAN convention.

I've been holding off on getting one of the local sandwiches, but that's about to end.

But first, a brief update:

Yesterday's sessions were pretty flat, but the nightlife was good. My buddy Julia Goldberg, who edits the Sante Fe Reporter, scored tix to see The Roots in a small theater. The Roots are throwing what they call the Roots Picnic today (Gnarls Barkley, Sharon Jones and lots more) and last night was a last-minute bonus show for the Roots' homies here in Philly. Several local acts and artists, including Santo Gold, performed before the Roots went on at 1:15 and did a smoking 75-minutes set. I am no aficionado, but it's totally cool to see hip hop/jazz/funk etc. played with real instruments. And yeah, ?uestlove is a bad-ass.

I had optimistically signed up for a tour of the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall. The Philly tourism folks arranged for a private tour for AANers (AANites?), but the catch was that it had to be early. So, being a stickler for keeping commitments, I caught the bus at 7:30 a.m. It was totally worth it. The park that contains all of those sites offers the most historic bang for your buck of anywhere in the States. And, yeah, it's moving to contemplate the origins of our nation, how much was at stake, how radical an idea it was to seek liberty for every person. Everyone should see this stuff.

Then I made the first session, led by former AAN editor David Carr, who's now the media reporter for The New York Times. Besides being a hilarious person in general, with dry wit, he's full of insights and has a good grasp on the tenuous nature of contemporary journalism. Carr's talk was about the latest iterations of the intersection of print and multimedia, and he basically said where all this ends up (Is print dying, and WHEN?) is s still an open question and probably will be for a long time. He also noted that the Times has a huge audience, but with so many people reading it on the Web, it's struggling to make money. You can read Carr regularly in the Times, but you should check out his blog, which includes some pretty funny video from the Sundance Film Festival and the Oscars.

OK, sandwich time. Peace out. —CARY STEMLE

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sy Hersh on why journalism matters

When you hear Seymour Hersh speak, you kinda understand why a free society really needs good reporting.

Hersh, who made a huge impact nearly 40 years ago when he broke the story about American troops massacring women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, spoke at First Amendment luncheon during the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention in Philadelphia.

These are difficult time in journalism — mainstream media, hungry for big profits but losing advertisers and readers, while electronic media and social networking are ascendant — but that in no way negates the need for good reporting, Hersh said, whether that’s in a small community, a big city or for a national audience.

Hersh is a great storyteller. He spoke of how he tracked down a key figure in the massacre by calling directory assistance in state after state (in the days of payphones, when you could call and get phone listings, from a real person, for no charge). After several hours of trying, he found the right last name in Indiana, made the call and got the young man’s mother on the phone. He hopped on a plane and eventually found his way to the family’s decrepit chicken farm.

Hersh’s My Lai story is famous now, and one of the most significant examples of investigative reporting our nation has produced. It certainly provided the counter-story to the propagandized version of war that was commonly told in the old films of the 1940s, when our boys always looked good and acted properly.

Hersh also broke the story of the torture at Abu Ghraib. He spoke about that during the luncheon and how he tracked down a young female soldier who’d been assigned to the prison. After she came home, her stepmother, who’d supported the war, noticed something badly wrong and eventually discovered digital photos of the torture on the soldier’s laptop. The woman tried to reach the major newspapers, without luck, and eventually got in touch with Hersh by calling into and NPR news-talk program on a day he was a guest.

In both cases, he noted, the parents said something amazing and telling about the horrors of war. The farm boy’s mother said something to the effect of, “I sent them a good man and they sent me back a monster.” The young woman’s stepmother, noting that the soldier had gotten tattoos from head to toe, noted that it was “like she was trying to change her skin.”

Hersh has written extensively about U.S. plans to invade Iran before George Bush leaves office. He called Bush the most radical president ever, and noted that he is “uneducable” and therefore exceedingly dangerous because he can’t accept that there may be new or overlooked information that changes his own conclusions. Hersh has written a number of stories about Iran, with more on the way, but predicts it won’t matter, and that Bush will take action and act aggressively up until the day he leaves office.

Hersh also shared several anecdotes he’s picked up from his varied sources. One, a former Mossad agent, expressed extreme disbelief over the methods of torture inflicted on Arab men, because the Koran expressly forbids them from showing their genitalia The New Yorker published one photo showing a naked man with snarling Belgian shepherds on either side, restrained. Other unpublished photos showed that the dogs didn’t stay restrained and actually shredded the man’s sensitive parts. Hersh noted that American soldiers tried to use a needle and thread to sew the victim back together because they didn’t want to be found out.

On the presidential race, he spoke glowingly of Barack Obama while expressing deep frustration over Obama’s recent sucking up to AIPAC. He said Obama is tough and extremely disciplined and that he is smart enough to know how to play his campaign — for example, he didn’t smack Hillary Clinton too hard in the debates, despite the protestations of pundits, because he knew that a black man picking on a white woman on TV, where everything is even hotter, would make him look “uppity” — a lose-lose proposition.

He said McCain is strange and that we’ll “like him less the more we see of him.”

I’ve seen a number of these talks over the years, and this was among the best. The room full of editors largely agreed, and appreciated the pep talk about why these things still matter — that when we go to bed each night, we know we’ve tried to do something to counter the culture of lies that pass for normal in our country.

LAST NIGHT: The AAN bunch had a terrific party at the Amtrak station, featuring tasty samples from more than a dozen Philly restaurants, local brews and free TASTYKAKES. If you know anyone from Pennsylvania, they’ve surely boasted about these little homegrown treats.

After that I made my way to Lucky Strike, where the Philadelphia Weekly sprang for a couple hours of free open bowling. I watched Game 1 of the NBA finals until the Celtics wrapped it up. How about that Paul Pierce — he gets carried off the floor with an apparently severe injury but comes back to score 15 in the third quarter. Nice.

I did get to bowl a bit — 9 frames till they cut us off. Before that I watched my buddy Dan Bockrath, from Cincy CityBeat, roll a sweet 210. For God’s sake, he had his own bowling ball. He’s a lefty and I think he learned a few things from Earl Anthony.

THIS MORNING: We have an annual tradition of playing a pick-up basketball game, which always happens early in the morning so we can attend the sessions. We found a local park, picked up a local guy to help us get five-on-five (he never passed half-court!) and played one excruciating game. (We won.) On about the fourth play of the game, I was chasing a guy on a breakaway, got my big feet tangled and bit the asphalt. Nice strawberry on the knee and some good bruises on my left side.

TONIGHT: One of my buds scored tix to see the Roots at a small theater. The Roots have an all-day picnic here tomorrow, so this is like an appetizer. It sold out in five minutes, so we’re pretty lucky to get in. I guess you’re never too old to start learning about hip-hop. —CARY STEMLE

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Like a Bowa constrictor: Early thoughts on Philly

Greetings, people. These are my first words for public consumption since May 21, my last day at LEO. It's been an interesting couple of weeks — mostly good despite that disappointing change. I'm feeling a lot of relief, and curiosity about the future. I truly appreciate the support that's come my way in the interim. I had a good run at LEO for 10 years, and it's largely because of the community that supported us.

I’m in Philadelphia this week, site of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies 2008 annual convention. This is the 10th one of these I’ve attended, and quite possibly my last. I had planned to do it (I've paid my own way to these conventions for several years now), so I figured I might as well show up to visit old friends, network, learn new things, garner some sympathy and possibly find a job. Yeah, I need a job.

It’s always risky to generalize about a new place based on one day in a selected part of it. I can say confidently that the vibe here is much more open and friendly than I might’ve guessed. You hear stories about the east coasters being so gruff and whatnot, but so far, it seems people here are genuinely nice. By that, I mean, they speak to you easily without the aloof avoidance you find in some big metropolises.

It even kinda feels like Louisville, although the pace here is more forward looking. That seems to go with bigger cities, I suppose, because you can’t wait around for things when there’s so many people trying to get so many places.

I arrived at the airport, took a train downtown (more on trains shortly) and checked into the Marriott on Market Street. It was storming by the time I got back above ground, and the forecast called for possible severe weather that didn’t materialize.

The Phillies are in first place, and they were at home — against Louisville’s favorite MLB team, the Reds. I had to check it out, so I got directions on how to get to Citizens Bank Ballpark on the train (more on that later).

The game was sold out. I bought an upper level ticket — $22 face value — for $30. Not bad. The stadium sits near the former site of Veterans Stadium, where Mike Schmidt (not my high school classmate by the same name), Larry Bowa and Pete Rose and Co. had a nice run of World Series teams. I always thought of the snake when I heard Larry Bowa’s name.

It’s a beautiful park, spacious, open, easy to navigate and with real grass. The outfield fences are old-school — i.e. non-symmetrical in their dimensions. From my fourth-level seat (yep, top row on the highest level — Section 424), I was looking right at home plate and straight down the right-field line. The right-field fence has a scoreboard in it that shows other game scores — just as a ballpark should have. The bullpens are on two levels out in center field, just to the right of an area of trees and shrubs.

I knew my day was blessed when I went through the turnstiles and they were giving away free Jimmy Rollins bobblehead dolls (no relation to Sonny, we surmise). Jimmy is the Phils’ shortshop, a switch hitter who won the NL’s MVP award last year, when he hit 20 triples. Amazing.

Rollins couldn’t help his team last night — the Sleds didn’t get their first hit until the top of the sixth inning (Joey Votto’s RBI double) but squeezed out a 2-0 win on about three hits (Votto also doubled in the other run). The pitching was impressive for both teams all night long.

Other stadium observations:

* There’s something strangely appealing about the Phillies’ mix of pale blue and red, even though I don’t know what a Philly is.

* The prices weren’t much higher than they are at Slugger Field. They actually seemed a bit more modest than Great American Ballpark in Cincy. Example: large pop, $3.75, hot dogs $3.75, large bucket of fresh-cut fries, $5. Large beers went for $6.75.

* Philly groups all of its major stadiums in one area. The ballpark sits south of downtown, near the Wachovia Center and Spectrum and Eagles Lincoln Financial Field. It makes me realize that downtown arenas may be more iffy. I certainly think Louisville, while using its new arena because it must, will come to regret how it got shoehorned into a crowded area.

After the game, I took the train back downtown, then caught a cab to the North Star Bar to see the Waco Bros., featuring former Mekon Jon Langford. It was a hot set of straight-ahead roots rock with verve, humor and energy. For the encore, Langford riffed on Bo Diddley and the band did one of its Diddley-influenced songs before seguing into "Hey, Bo Diddley" and then "White Lightning."

This morning I headed over to WXPN-FM, home of the public radio music show "World Cafe." Dan Reed, who spent several years at Louisville's Public Radio Partnership (WFPK), is the ops director and programming director for XPN. Dan says hello to Louisville, a city he loves and misses greatly. He agrees that Louisville shares a vibe with Philly. Dan (that's him and Jimmy Rollins in the photo below — Dan's the larger of the two guys) gave me the nickel tour and we grabbed lunch at the World Cafe Live, an adjacent but separate business that hosts lives shows (I'll be seeing Dan Bern there this weekend).

Parting shot for now: About those trains — they simply help make life more manageable. They're fast, cheap and convenient. When you're in a place with so much traffic, you spend too much time and money on gas and parking, not to mention wasting your time and raising your blood pressure. Maybe Louisvile's economy of scale can never support a rail system, but I just can't escape the notion that we're just not making the right sorts of plans for the future. There's got to be a way to get past that.

That's about it for now. More to come. —CARY STEMLE