March 31, 2015

Metallica and High School Gymnastics (or: "The Routine And Its Subversion")

Intro - Thursday

Back in 10th grade, I took a gym class. At some point, the class had a gymnastics unit, where we learned a bunch of simple rolls and stretches and cartwheels. Now, the gymnastics unit was about three weeks long. Its capstone was to be a three-minute routine of rolls and stretches and cartwheels that we'd practice (in teams of 3 or 4) over the course of the final week, to a song that we'd chosen. We were to perform this routine on the final day, in front of a video camera and our classmates.

I swear, this is going somewhere.

As a generally-chill-if-somewhat-awkward little high school student (weren't we all?), I found my gymnastics team of 3 or 4 pretty naturally. We were a fun crowd of moderately-ill-proportioned male high school students who were all in the Close-Acquaintance-To-Real-Friend range. I liked them all and I thought they were cool people, not in the "popular" sense but in the "decent and authentic human beings" sense. This story is not really about them, but about every other group, as you'll see.

A slightly ominous note: My group was about as preppy as raw meat (un-prep-erred), and, the favorite musical genre of my group was collectively just a tad closer to Metallica than Yellowcard or, say, The Beatles. More on that later.

Because I was clumsy as hell in addition to being ill-proportioned, I saw it as important to the newly-formed team that I at least bring my musical taste to the table. Music was certainly up my alley, after all: I was a music nerd in high school, and always have been. Though clumsy and shy as a performer at the time, I certainly had a musical family and had inherited a musical ear. And I loved music. I played piano, guitar, and viola in the high school's orchestra and loved playing them all. I was in the midst of my first compositions and listened to plenty of classical music.

And, given that the events of this story take place circa 2005, I was also downloading music all the time, and my poor, terminal Sony Walkman (or whatever they were called back in 2001) was perennially stocked with all sorts of cool music. My tastes were relatively mainstream (except for the Mahler on my mp3 CDs), but I knew even then that I had an ear for quality. I was the designated music guy for our little gymnastics group and, as we were leaving gym class for the weekend, I promised to bring the best CDs I could find for next week.

And so it came to pass that I brought a few CDs to gym class on Monday that would determine the whole course of human history.

Day 1 - Monday 

I think I brought three CDs to gym class on Monday, though no one is really sure. I definitely brought at least two:

#1. The aptly-named-and-numbered "One" by the Beatles filled with all their #1 hits (27 songs, as I recall).
#2. Metallica's "Black Album".
#3. ??????? (no one is really sure)

As noted previously, my group, given this selection of music, certainly would (and did in fact) fall immediately into the "Metallica! Awesome, Dewey!" camp. I was more ambivalent about stylized dancing to Metallica, and most (all?) of the other groups were squarely in the Beatles' camp if I had to bet. So, when a few people asked to borrow the Beatles' CD to check it out, I naturally offered it to them without a thought and went back to helping us come up with the best gymnastics routine we possibly could. We set our routine to "Enter Sandman", as I recall.

It was a fun class. We did some fake wrestling on the mats and eventually came to some consensus on a general structure for our gymnastics routine. Good vibes all around. High school always benefited from a dose of enforced creativity, I found.

Day 2 - Wednesday 

The second day of practice was much like the first. We proceeded to screw around and eventually put together an entire routine, carefully pruning moves for difficulty and potential for embarrassment (we were collectively ill-proportioned enough to find certain moves impossible, and avoided these moves studiously). Again, a couple people from the other groups borrowed my Beatles CD to check out (I was surprised at the sudden interest, but quite happy to contribute to their musical development!).

It was all going fairly well. I was nervous about Friday -- we weren't perfect yet, and it was a little embarrassing to think that the cameras would be rolling. But in the grand scheme of things it was a bunch of high schoolers doing a gymnastics routine. It was just a lot of fun, you know? What could go wrong?

Day 3 - Friday 

On Friday I gainfully packed up my copy of "The Black Album", kept it in the Walkman so it wouldn't risk getting scratched on the bus ride, and for good measure left all my other CDs home. No sense risking those CDs and their jewel cases when I really only needed the one.

After a nervous chuckle with one of my team members in another class, I arrived to gym class in full spirits. It was the final day of practice, and it would culminate in a recording of all our routines. And I was prepared.

As I put the "Black Album" into our group's boombox, a kid from one of the other groups asked where my Beatles album was. I said "Oh, I didn't bring that today, haha, we're just doing Metallica, we decided."

The other kid asked, "What do you mean?"

"Oh, we didn't need the Beatles CD today. My group likes Metallica more, as you might expect, ha."

The kid was stunned. "No, Dewey,... Look, every other group was depending on you to bring the Beatles CD today. We've all built our routines around it and no one has any other CDs."


I didn't and still don't know how to respond to that kid. I apologized profusely to anyone that was feeling down about it. And yes, that was the right response, socially. But there was no right response speaking cosmically. I had sinned against the order of things, and I hadn't even known it. In my heart of hearts I still don't know how to process that information. It was a stunning violation of everything that had ever been possible to be right about that day. I had ruined everything about that gym class in a single moment of thoughtless inattention, and I'd been too oafish to even realize it.

But it's not my place to speak as judge of things. All I can do as a storyteller is recount what I saw and give you the ensuing facts.

It is quite possible - though not particularly likely, in the age of digitization - that there exists a VHS tape from 10 years ago of 24-some high school students doing stilted, awkward, unfamiliar gymnastics routines in groups of 3 or 4. And on this tape, every single one of the groups is performing to a song chosen with little notice from my copy of Metallica's "Black Album".

At least two of the groups separate from ours did "Enter Sandman". Going last, I think we quietly shifted to "Unforgiven" to prevent a farcical scene. At least one group did "Nothing Else Matters", and still another did "Wherever I May Roam". I can still hear the intros to some of those songs, burnt in my memory as an embarrassing reminder of my transgression. I was feeling a little weird about doing a routine to "Enter Sandman" and I hadn't been remotely preppy.  But to their credit, the other groups stuck with it, certainly did a better job with the gymnastics than I did, and 40 minutes later, we had all survived the onslaught of Metallica that I had unwittingly unleashed.

I tried to have some empathy. I really tried. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a popular girl whose routine now climaxed in James Hetfield sadistically growling "KEEP YOU FREE FROM SIN, TIL THE SANDMAN COMES" instead of a key change in "Penny Lane". But she saw me and told me those were her shoes, not mine. Yours are over there, I think. Oh. Yeah. Honest mistake. Sorry. And sorry you had to do "Enter Sandman" instead of "Penny Lane", also. I really screwed that one up, haha. Dewey, you're smart but you're such a spaz. I know.

Every day I pray to whatever gods may be that this film didn't survive the age of digitization.

All the stoicism the other groups showed in the face of adversity made an already-senselessly-funny thing all the more hysterical. Funny on a level that I couldn't process. So funny you couldn't even laugh if you'd wanted to at times, because true humor probably needs some kind of ironic distance and we were all right in front of one another as we performed the grave, interpretive gymnastic routines to heavy drums, bass, and James Hetfield's delivery of pontificating snarls.

All this to say that there were plenty of opportunities for laughter. Unfortunately, I couldn't openly take advantage, because such mirth might just be mistaken for ill-intent and malice aforethought. By that point, I had established sincerely that I Am Really Sorry Guys For Causing All These Problems, and therefore declined to laugh so as not to blow my cover, even though it had been an honest mistake from start to close.

Surprisingly, there wasn't much laughter among the other groups, all considering. Everyone was too embarrassed at their dilemma and seething at the kid who had let it happen. I think my group --being the same ones who had fatally chosen Metallica to start with-- really enjoyed it, though they didn't show it openly; there's a chance that they moderated their response to spare my feelings. Would that they could know how much I just wanted the scene to break down into collective, hysterical, relieving laughter. But it was not to be. I definitely couldn't laugh in those circumstances, though, if you're reading this, there's a good chance that you might see why - to me - it's right up there among the funniest things I'd ever seen, and the humor far outweighed the embarrassment from the first heavy-stepping routine I saw.

But I didn't laugh at the time, true to the form I'd chosen. Stone-faced, apologetic, and without any irony, I silently applauded the adaptability of the others' routines.

Alex Explains Some Jokes

Let's talk about this Andy Samberg roast of James Franco.

I love the concept and I love the brutal honesty (assuming it WAS partially-honest and not pure fiction), but I'm just not crazy about the execution. It all felt like needy, high-school-level self-deprecation. So I'm going to talk about it for several hundred words and at the end you're going to wish I hadn't.

First of all, anytime you diss some kind of abstract, indie, ironic, whatever comedy, you always have to add this disclaimer:

I get it. I actually get the joke.

I'm a huge Harris Wittels fan (RIP) and a huge fan of Paul Rust, Scott Aukerman, etc. This Andy Daly set is really, really funny to me, and the only thing I don't find funny is the audience rubbing it in that they immediately get it (settle down, man, they get it). I'm a freak for weird comedy (okay, that's probably overstating it). I'm a total comedy hipster (no, that's definitely too far, man). I love people who take conventions and completely overturn them (okay, fair), to the extent that they completely bend your expectations for all other sets going forward. So, to be perfectly clear, I get that Andy Samberg was doing an ironic roast here. While Samberg's set is original in its own right, it immediately evokes Norm MacDonald's infamous Saget roast (a seminal bit of comedy for me!). And Samberg's set is obviously in a similar vein as Norm's, being both mockeries of the stilted conventions of the comedy roast. It's the kind of set where people who don't find it funny get "roasted" by people that do for liking Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy, etc.

But I don't find it that funny, and I would like to explain why I'm such a boring person. Please indulge me.

What killed the bit for me is that not only was Samberg being ironic, but the character Samberg was playing was also being ironic, in-character, and so it made it more uncomfortable and awkward than funny. The character himself wasn't someone you could crack jokes at/with, or even smile at: Like most self-deprecating people, the character Samberg played wasn't really self-deprecating so much as neurotically self-absorbed and transparently desperate for respect and compliments. Great example: With Aziz, Samberg's character saying he had a "unique perspective" in lieu of a racist joke was likable and cute, but it was the kind of likable and cute compliment that desperately-lacking-in-self-confidence white 14-yr-olds offer up to a minority classmate to show they're cool & not racist like all the other roaster 8th-graders.

Which is alright. That's a real, authentic person he's wormed his way into, and that's cool. I may have been that guy a little bit. And don't get me wrong: I think Samberg NAILED that low-self-confidence, self-deprecating character exceptionally well. But for me, it just isn't comically fertile. It sort of felt like a "neat idea, I'll pass on the 15-minute version though" improv character from Comedy Bang Bang. Also, Samberg's set was surely unconventional, but in my view it was unconventional to a fault. To wit: There wasn't 
any convention, to the point where there wasn't any context, to the point where there was never even enough structure to serve as set-up. And without a good set-up it's hard to deliver punchlines. Yin and yang, figure and ground, etc. It's hard to fault the late-night-and-CBS-sitcom viewer who doesn't get what he's trying to do. And, if I do say so myself, it's hard for you to fault me for not finding it funny, at least if you're me, which you're not, unless you're me writing or proofreading this, but then you're not my intended audience and I shouldn't address you specifically, but I did, because I'm self-absorbed... well, not really self-absorbed; it's more like I'm self-aware and prone to lapses in self-control whose product (this sentence) I will later defend in a much more lucid and sober state.

Anyway, so: Also, Samberg hams it up to the extent that anyone who doesn't "get it" has never paid attention to comedy seriously (even as a novice). He says "Who's my next VICTIM?" so obviously and on-the-nose that anyone with any experience with auditoriums or lectures! knows exactly where he's going to the point where the rest of his set becomes obvious. So much for the subversive angle, YouTube commenters - this is no more subversive than a talk-show host acknowledging writers! 

And from a delivery angle, Samberg's set works as solid improv, and he's a capable comic actor. But this set doesn't work as self-contained improv, and shows why great improv usually has a straight man/woman/child/sentient-humorless-computer to play off of. Compare (again, they're different sets, but) with Norm's subtle, perfectly-sincere delivery of old chestnuts that would've been tame in the 1920s. It doesn't require a straight man because the absurdity is front and center, and so is the context! The figure and the ground are given and so we can adjust our focus properly.

Even if comedy is simply about refocusing our mind's eyes in absurd, impossible, or otherwise just-plain-clever ways, there ought to be something sharp in sight by the end, after we've been squinting for a few minutes. Otherwise, whether the comedy is funny becomes bound up in faith, mysticism, and, above all, the social guard rails of a million hipsters lined up along Highway 1 to prevent anyone's opinions from going too far out of bounds. Nah. For me, there has to be a "there" there, as they say. Otherwise we're all the Jimmys Fallon of our particular circle of favored entertainers and humor becomes simply the tautological province of assumed-funny people. Sets have to bomb sometimes so we can rebuild them. Well, then, shouldn't it be "sets have to be bombed so we can rebuild them"? Why isn't it "that set really was bombed [by the audience]"? And why do we park in driveways, anyway? And above all, sets need to be grounded in a clear vision, even if the vision is quite inconsistent, screwy, and even kinda stupid. Samberg's vision was smart but it was out-of-focus, blurry, and never fully communicated a great comedic image to the audience.

I loved "Hot Rod" and some Lonely Island stuff and generally I've seen stuff by Samberg that's great, but this set just bugs me, and I had to say something, something which is even less entertaining than I find the original set. I get it, but I can't get into it. Different strokes for different folks. And the dark roast/barista joke was solid, Andy.

Anyway, I'm off to unsuccessfully vivisect some frogs by explaining jokes to them until they die. It's my party trick. I'm not great at parties.

March 14, 2015

Boy, How About That Ronald Reagan?

Whenever I meet someone old enough to have lived through the Reagan years, I always say to them (before saying anything else), "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" I say this in a perfectly neutral tone which allows them to expound on what they liked (or, more likely, disliked) about the 40th American president.

Then I say "But that's a little before my time, I suppose," and skip into a mist of ether. That's when the hallucinations begin.

Here's where I have to admit: Most of the hallucinations are about Ronald Reagan, silhouetted at a distant podium both far and high away from me, speaking his words to an audience, saying nothing I can hear but saying it all with folksy cadence and apparently good intent.

I can't hear but a couple words every fifty, but I see the people responding to it, some protesting, some happy, some indifferent but otherwise moved. In strong cadences they talk among themselves, each in their own groups, saying "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?"

I wake up bounding through the unlimited forests of the night, apparently as a deer. I bound and bound ceaselessly, in a pattern which lulls even the mighty deer to sleep. I feel the rhythms of the deer I am and the pace I'm walking at much like an expecting mother feels its soon-to-be brood jabbing hypnotically in a rhythm with no thought of escape and only serenity. I drift into sleep before being jolted awake by the car, which slams into my left side.

Barely alive, I can see out of my left eye into the driver's side. Inside the car is a young Ronald Reagan c. 1960. Ronald Reagan has killed the deer I was. Saying a prayer to Satan, Ronald Reagan takes my soul, packs up my body with some bungee chords, and prepares to bring a feast home for his family, or Hollywood buddies, or political sponsors (no one is really sure). My view switches to Reagan's. I am Ronald Reagan. I mutter, "Better a deer than some damn drifter again. This is the third time this week..."

At the bar or diner or giant log cabin where young Reagan ends up after this dust-up, he is hoisting a large chunk of venison for everyone to see. Ronald Reagan addresses the crowd:

"Better a deer than some damn drifter again! This is the third time this week!"

Everyone laughs and shouts back, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" I notice an affective pattern over the weeks spent as young Ronald Reagan. Every time he kills a drifter with his car he spins it into a believable, sincerely-felt one-liner he can use for days. No one takes the death seriously except as the wit of a clever actor-turned-statesman. Eventually, as the weeks and months pass, he is no longer young. I try to escape but I'm sealed inside his body which acts without my ability to counteract. Every month the crowds grow larger. And he's running for president now.

I've avoided looking out there when he looks into the crowd all these years (although I can't stop his eyes from looking, I can choose to focus in or out), but as he makes his bid for the presidency, I start to notice something: Among the aged hippies who find themselves concerned about their children's futures and square, button-down professionals enforcing orthodoxy is a new strain of faces.

The drifters he'd killed on the road are accumulating among the faces in the crowd, forming a small-but-not-insignificant portion of the audience. Their flesh has rotted (and often rotted off) and their hearts have stopped. But they still show up. And every day there are more drifters dead at the hands of the manic campaigner Reagan.

During one speech, I happen to spot the deer I'd been in 1960, so many years ago, and now it's just a big old skeleton staring dumbly because as a deer it doesn't know why it's here, and wouldn't even if it were alive. A dumb deer in the dumb headlights. It seems to know when to clap but not much else. Some of the more-skeletal drifters climb aboard the deer and ride it like a horse. Pathetic. I start to be glad that they are dead or just ghosts and not really alive. I start to see the victims of the drug wars, of random foreign incursions, and the many victims of Reagan's policies that accumulate after he leaves office. And I feel nothing, or less than nothing. Every day more and more of the victims appear. They're probably not all even technically his fault -- I don't think God or whatever is using some sophisticated algorithm here. But the ghosts of deer and drifter alike just keep haunting him, even as he retires into his post-presidency and dementia and finally to his death. They just bound and stumble into his room and says nothing. I think I'm the only one who can see them or know that they're there. Maybe Reagan can somehow ignore them without breaking a sweat. I know if I saw a skeleton of a deer in my bedroom without having asked for one, I would at least acknowledge the transgression and feel a measure of fear. But I'm not a great man, I suppose.

Then, finally, as Reagan dies, my dream ends, I wake up in the present day - just an hour after going to sleep. Yes, it's me; I'm back: Your humble 20-year-old narrator with smirks and snark to bring the whole house down. I'm cheeky and charismatic and the Internet loves me and my friends think me an ethical man. Neither deer nor drifter haunts me, I live my life in peace, avoid the road, avoid politics, avoid at all costs making the kinds of choices that may haunt me when I'm older.

And fifty years later the only dead man haunting me is myself in the mirror, alive in name and heartbeat alone, looking always back at the life I could've lived. A man of seventy with no purpose nor legacy. And the few I meet still old enough to have met Reagan and still lucid enough to describe him still have strong opinions, albeit now tinged with nostalgia for the man himself or the people they used to be. I still say "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" to everyone I meet, to increasingly mystified stares. They think me insane. They think me senile. They think me demented. But it's not true. The man could give a speech, and the man could take another's life without hesitation. How about that? Isn't that worth a conversation, at least? I genuinely want to have that conversation, but no one knows the first thing about me nor cares about any of my Ronald Reagan theories. Well, respectfully, they can go to hell. And, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" is the one thing I leave behind as a pitiful substitute for a legacy, and yet I'm still quite proud of it. You know, it is a damn good catchphrase if I do say so myself: neutral, objective, non-judgmental, witty, clever, ironic, deconstructive of the whole concept of a catchphrase, the whole shebang. A perfect catchphrase encapsulating everything Reagan never could stand for and everything I could not but stand for, I look at the mirror again: Could I take the endless hauntings if I ever had the opportunity to seize greatness? I decided not to answer. My cheekiness a product of my youth, I comport myself now with great dignity and understated cleverness.

In a rare act of impulse, I guess I buy myself a car later that day. At the age of seventy this is no hardship for me. I've been cautious and meticulous with my savings and built a considerable fortune from several industries I'd monitored and seized upon not days before they hit their strides. I drove down Coastal California's famous Highway 1. You've probably seen it in movies, but those to whom I'm writing probably haven't seen or even heard of the hyper-car tollbooths and self-driven comfort stations. yet. I personally take the self-driven approach, on account of I drive myself! Just an old man, driving along the highway's iconic curves overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And I'm looking for drifters. And when I find them, I pick them up and ask them questions about the last 25 presidents. If they fail to answer enough questions, I give them a copy of my book about the topic. If they answer enough questions, I offer them a beautiful place to live and everything they could ever need, no questions asked. Now I see them on the road quizzing one another about the Eisenhower administration, desperately vying for a lottery ticket only I can provide. And while this is nice it isn't a real solution. So I build academies for them, I build roads for them. I build everything they'll ever need to succeed. And many of them take full advantage and, in fact, do succeed in life. I use my fortune to to help pass legislation to give the poor and the downtrodden and the ill they help they need to succeed. Reaganomics is out; people are in. That's my slogan, and I - backing down from the responsibility at every step! - become President at a stately and respectable age and serve for 6 years before stepping down at the height of my respect and power for reasons of health, handing my power to a trusted assistant, formerly a drifter, now an expert at the Presidency and its powers.

I prepare to die in bed, inside the skeleton of the deer I'd hit when I was 19 and had never gotten over. Even in death I won't get over it. Oh, don't worry, dear reader, I haven't lied to you; I'd only hit it because Reagan - in his final years, we now know - had done that poor deer in first, demanding that his personal driver do it. By coincidence, I'd been right behind Reagan when he did it, had cried out desperately and futilely for him to stop, had pulled over, and had tried to help the wounded doe to no avail as Reagan's limo was speeding back onto the highway. Once Reagan'd left, I ran over the flailing deer and its two remaining limbs, out of mercy, and lived my life in quiet mercy, and though I had to start a war and couldn't feed all the poor in my tenure at the top, I doubt these things will ever haunt me. These doe-eyed angels - dead of my war and fickle neglect - will still sing me to sleep on my own death bed from afar. The skeleton of that deer is cold and dead but I find comfort and warmth and a final vitality inside the skeleton, an ethical prison which paradoxically frees me. No one ever says my name in poignant cleverness. No one of me can ever say anything like, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?"

By my command, the sections about having been a deer and Ronald Reagan are added to my obituary as plain fact and the world mourns my loss doubly, though on this point, here writing from the comforts of the afterlife, I have only to presume.

July 27, 2014

Alt. Title: "Gawker? I 'ardly knew 'er!"

June 26, 2014

Van Gundy Power Rankings

T-1. Stan
T-1. Jeff
3. Albus
4. Argus
5. Gundy
6. "Dutchie" (Bill)
7. Magic
8. Dandy
9. Arbus
10. Fun
11. Gund
12. Ludwig
13. Rolf
14. Harrison
15. Engelbert
16. (unintelligible)
17. (blank first name)
18. BreakingBad
19. DepartmentOfTransportation
20. Ghostface von Wu-Tang
T-800. Paul
T-800. Jimmy

June 23, 2014

Viral Content

I'm going to teach you how to write, and everyone in the world is going to be hit by a plague in 72 hours. The lede* is my favorite 'graf*. This is my favorite lede* of all time.

When writing blogs, the second 'graf* is just as important as the lede*, which actually means "first paragraph" in Greek. This second 'graf* is especially important to fleshing out your outline: The second 'graf* is where you really begin to elaborate on the points you made in the lede*. The plague, thought by virologists to be the "end of days," is spreading as we speak, and there's little any of us can do to stop it. More after the jump*.

June 11, 2014

Behold Bobby Ramos.

Hey, Pearls-divers, what's up! Long time no dive.

Behold Bobby Ramos, God of Interviews. If he were any more commanding, he would be able to slap a world down with his bare hands. Despite that, what he's left with is substantial, a force of nature. A hundred feet tall, he powers through his enemies like a knife through butter.


Anyway, an 1100-page biography of Ramos, apparently written and published that very morning, surreptitiously dropped into my waiting arms from the sky. Given my atheism, I prefer to think a strategically timed airplane or helicopter were responsible; but, in light of Ramos' appearances above, I am questioning my faithless mien as we speak. Anyway, here are some excerpts, which I shared with the huddled masses on Twitter, of course to no avail.