Monday, September 30, 2013


An oft-repeated truism is that young people don’t believe they will die. Most teens and twentysomethings will object to this. Not only do they know (so I’ve been told), but they are more age conscious than any other cadre in the population. I won’t argue with the age consciousness, but that is not the same thing. True enough, the big three zero does loom ahead scarily for them, but, unlike in the 70s scifi movie Logan’s Run, 30 is not really the end. The truism refers to something deeper. Of course 20-year-olds know intellectually they are mortal, but, by and large, they don’t feel it in their bones. The fact doesn’t impinge upon their moment to moment world view or decisions. (This is one reason they make good soldiers.) I know it didn’t impinge on mine. Young people laugh at horror movies. (Some older folks do, too, but there is more sourness to the laugh.)

Though some event in one’s life (not necessarily anything dramatic) can shift one’s perspective ahead of schedule, usually the transition to an integrated sense of mortality occurs in middle age sometime. The change often is very audible in the recordings of musicians. When young artists write or sing about mortality, they typically do so playfully (Jim Morrison) or indulgently (Jagger/Richards Paint it Black). At 50, the references become retrospective and thoughtful, not playful. Frank Sinatra released the album September of My Years (a blatant title if there ever was one) in 1965, the year he turned 50. Among the tracks on the album were How Old Am I, Don’t Wait Too Long, Last Night When We Were Young, and It Was a Very Good Year. In 1969 at age 49, Peggy Lee had her last big hit with Is That All There Is? At age 56, Bob Dylan, while perpetually irked at being called “the voice of a generation” (not even his own: born in 1941, Bob is not a Boomer), voiced that generation’s aging pains with Time Out of Mind. Time wasn’t very far out of his mind in 1997. Two songs from the album also were released as singles. One was Not Dark Yet, with the melancholic refrain, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” The second, which he sang at the 1998 Grammy Awards, was the weary been-there done-that I’m-too-old-for-this-crap Love Sick: “I'm sick of love, I hear the clock tick...I'm sick of love, I wish I'd never met you.”

What brings all this to mind is the latest Joan Jett and the Blackhearts album, released today, with whatever degree of irony, on the last day of September. I was aware of Joan back in her 70s Runaways days, and started adding her vinyl to my own shelves during her 80s heyday. I remained enough of a fan to order her Greatest Hits CD a few years ago. Amazon never forgets, so last week the site recommended Unvarnished for pre-order; the samples of the album tracks sounded promising, so I clicked “Add to Cart.” The CD showed up in the mail a few hours ago. Joan always has favored simple, no-frills, back-to-basics, hard rock-and-roll; her albums are never brilliant, but they are reliably good. Who fairly can demand more? Unvarnished is very very good, if only because there isn’t a bad track on it, a rare feat for any artist. (Even the Greatest Hits collection has several that are dreary.) Yet, running through the lyrics of the 55-y.o. rocker are a reflective tone and a consciousness of time, most glaringly in Hard to Grow Up. “I think about my own mortality” is actually a lyric in the track Fragile. The album ends with the whisper “Life and death/the change to rearrange/life and death.”

My remarks probably make the album sound like a real downer, but it isn’t. On the contrary, Joan’s current perspective adds richness, just as it did for Frank, Peggy, and Bob before her. As for the music itself, it rocks. If you’ve ever liked Joan Jett, you’ll almost surely like this album, too. Recommended.

Joan Jett Hard to Grow Up (Live: studio version not yet available for post)

Peggy Lee Is That All There Is

Friday, September 27, 2013

On Sense and Pretense

As the Richard’s Pretension title of this blog site suggests, I enjoy intellectual affectation as much as the next fellow. It is much less strenuous than sporting the real thing. So, my eyes instantly were drawn to a book on a “recommended for you” list (Amazon knows me) titled How to Become an Intellectual: 100 Mandatory Maxims to Metamorphose the Most Learned Thinkers by Nick Kolakowski. It’s an enjoyable work, with a couple pages of explanation attached to each maxim. Fair warning: if you follow all 100 – hell, if you follow 50 – you will not be posing as an intellectual; you will be one. Be sure you want to be one of those. There are drawbacks – or so I’m told: I comply with scarcely more than 40, so I might be unqualified to say.

A fair minority of the maxims are about presentation rather than substance, it is true. In case you are almost an intellectual and want to pass, they may help. Promisingly for my own efforts at dissemblance, I have several of these nailed. For example, #46 tells us that it is pedestrian to care about owning a fancy automobile. “Remember: your car’s not crappy – it’s bohemian.” I regret to say that my purpose in driving a jeep with 178,000 miles on the odometer is not to show the world I care more about my mind than my wheels; I merely care more about my wallet than my wheels. Nevertheless, the old steel beast apparently subtly delivers the first message, too. Cool. #11–“Enjoy popular culture.” In the bag. #78–“Abstain from using Google in front of other people,” is easy enough for me, since I may be one of the few people left in the world without an internet-connected iPhone, which fits nicely with #48: “Resist the temptation to show off your phone.” #3–“Cultivate a few choice idiosyncrasies.” Done. Never mind. If you meet me you’ll notice them. #4–“Learn some truly enormous words.” I’ve always tended to floccinaucinilipilificate sesquipedalianism, but maybe I should tergiversate on that one.  #9–“Tell jokes only 0.05% of people will understand.” I frequently obey this one, but I suspect the reason my jokes often evoke puzzled frowns has little to do with them smacking of intelligence. #17–“Become comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know.’” With age, I’ve gotten better at this one.

Given the list so far, I know what you’re thinking: posing as an intellectual is a snap. Unfortunately, the largely atmospheric maxims above are the easiest. The substantive meat-and-potatoes maxims are tougher. By luck, I conform to some of these, too. #88–“Familiarize yourself with the ancient Greeks.” My degree is in history and classical humanities, so a few baubles of information linger about those fellows. #19–“Passionately hate one classic author.” This relates to #88 again: Plato, but one has to love him before one can hate him properly. #81–“Know these books.” Every list of “must read” books is idiosyncratic, and Kolakowski’s is no exception. While my top ten list would be nine different from his, all of the books on his are certainly good: Ulysses, Lolita, The Stranger, Democracy, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Anna Karenina, The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man. (I’ll even grant him Nabokov, who still is a controversial pick.) Kolakowski loses me on many (OK, most) of the other maxims, though. #14–“Play at least one classical instrument.” Sorry, I barely can keep a beat when slapping my thigh. #12–“Know your Monet from your Manet.” Hey, they were contemporary impressionists who both painted fuzzy pictures, sometimes in the same park. Cut me some slack here. I know one tended more to landscapes and the other more to people, but I’d have to look up which vowel corresponds to what subject – which would violate that “no Google” rule. Then I’d probably forget again, to the amusement of any art historian at the table. #49–“Remember the names of certain designers.” I do know most of the names he lists, but further reading reveals that I should know something about what each did, too.  Mostly I don’t. (There are similar maxims involving directors, philosophers, and opera composers, among others.) #74–“Cultivate rivalries with other intellectuals.” I’d rather not.

There is much more. Once again, my score is in the 40s. A few more of the “atmospherics” maxims might tip me over the halfway mark though. #89 looks simple enough: “Mix these historically famous drinks.” I can learn to do this – and learn to recite why they are famous. #76–“Lose a debate graciously.” I try, dudes, I try. #98–“Learn one new thing from everyone.” Good advice, actually, though it’s even better (with a nod to Lewis Carroll) if it’s an impossible thing. The final maxim #100 is “Know when to say nothing.” Very sensible. I’m still working on that one.

Clip from My Dinner with Andre, the quintessential intellectual conversation that means so much less than it seems

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hurricane in Morristown: Bout Recap

For the first time since June, the Corporal Punishers, oldest of Morristown’s four derby teams, returned for a bout on their home track. Last night, in an exciting interleague bout, they faced the Hurricane Janes, traveling up from Sewell in South Jersey. With several of their veteran skaters sidelined for various reasons, the Punishers were relying heavily on their newer talent, who proved up to the challenge.

The Janes picked up an early lead. Both teams were strong on defense, but the Janes were particularly good at exploiting the no-pack rule by lingering back at key moments – this is a method of breaking “the pack” which forces opposing blockers to let a jammer through. A power jam by Lil MO Peep added 15 points for the Punishers, however, and tightened the score to within a few points. Veteran skater and team captain Doom Hilda skated consistently well as blocker or jammer; Pretty Khaotic and Brass Muscles also both jammed impressively for the Punishers. El Pony Picante, Twisted Tink, and (especially) Curly Suicide did the same for the Janes, and maintained their team’s small lead through the bulk of the first half. Anna Nicole Smithereens for the Janes and Raven Rage for the Punishers were notably hard hitters as blockers. Curly Suicide (#22) of the Janes was knocked down hard at one point and stayed down for some minutes, stopping the clock temporarily. The bout resumed. The Janes expanded their lead in a power jam just before the halftime whistle, and led 110-73 a halftime, still very much in competitive territory.

In the second half, the Punishers worked to close the point gap. Brass Muscles was especially good at powering her way through blocking walls of much larger girls. Jam by jam they ate away at the Janes’ lead. Both teams continued to accumulate points. Curly Suicide returned to the track, apparently unfazed, and continued to score. The Punishers whittled down the Janes’ lead to 15 points. In the final 10 minutes, the Janes were able to re-expand their margin, with Miss Phat Booty exploiting a power jam successfully. At the 5-minute mark, the Janes were up to a 50 point lead. Despite a hard push by the Punishers, the Janes defended their lead to the end, winning with a final score of 205-138.

MVP were #911 Brass Muscles for the Punishers and #22 Curly Suicide for the Janes.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Champagne Tastes

My 20s are barely discernible in the rear view mirror and I have no kids of my own, but, if only for anthropological reasons, I like to keep up with the latest round of “what’s the matter with kids today” worries. (I’ll refrain from posting a video of the Bye Bye Birdie tune of the same name.) While such worries are constant, the particular contents change with each decade. Sometimes they even are well founded. (My worrisome Boomer generation largely succeeded in spite of itself, thanks to the solid economic foundations built by our parents.)

This time around, the concern has much to do with the shaky foundations beneath the feet of Millennials, especially those in or nearing their 20s. The mother-daughter team of Robin Henig and Samantha Henig address this in their book Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? Part of their answer is in the title: it’s more that they seem stuck rather than that they are. The authors tell us the educational requirements of modern life (and the need to pay for them) simply take longer to get past than was formerly the case, but that the rewards come in due time. I don’t entirely agree. True, a sizable minority of twentysomethings move on from college and, before too long, do quite well for themselves; that is always the case in every generation, and the Henigs, both of whom are successful writers for The New York Times, understandably know a lot of them. But this is not the typical experience – certainly not among the Millennials of my acquaintance. More typical is a 24-year-old with a business degree and $100,000 debt who lives with her parents, got a temporary job at the Boston Market after college because the right permanent job didn’t present itself, and who now realizes she has been in the temporary job for two years. Young men are unlikely even to have the degree, since they now make up only a third of college graduates. (Perhaps one reason that female bisexuality is trendier than at any time since the 1970s is that women are better prospects.)

There is more to it than just graduating into a sluggish economy, however. Part of the Millennial mood has to do with dashed expectations. (The Henigs nail this one.) We’d all like to have lives “less ordinary,” but members of this generation have been told all their lives how special they are, and often regard such a life as a realistic prospect. It isn’t. Oh, one still can live an adventurer’s life, seeing the world as a seaman, for example, but that entails hard work and living hand-to-mouth; seeing the world from the window of your Gulfstream is more the idea, but those window seats are very hard to come by. So, even a prosperous life can seem unsatisfying.

A film recently in theaters and now on DVD catches this sense of things. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is based on a real gaggle of Los Angeles teens who robbed the homes of celebrities back in 2009. They used internet entertainment sites and fan sites to learn when the celebrities were out of town. They got caught only because they openly bragged about their activities to their friends and even posted pictures of themselves inside the celebs’ houses on facebook. Bizarrely, some of the movie is shot inside the actual house of Paris Hilton, one of the victims. The teens were not poor or deprived. They were upper middle class kids – by global standards, rather than First World standards, members of the upper 1% – who nevertheless couldn’t afford “the lifestyle that everybody kinda wants,” which is the truly fabulous lifestyle of the upper 0.001%. So, they helped themselves to it.

Sofia Coppola caught some criticism in the reviews of this film (including from The New York Times) for being “impartial.” The film neither sympathizes with the kids nor takes a moral tone against them. But that, I think, is the point. She just lets the characters talk and act. The juxtaposition of their PC comments about wanting to run charities and help "the planet" with their utterly vacuous personal narcissism speaks for itself and is devastating.

These kids were an extreme case, and I doubt that Millennials as group are any more or less dishonest than any other generation. But the Bling Ring members’ sense that their lifestyle wasn’t adequate compared to “the lifestyle” is a common one.

Time passes, and generations always get their footing eventually, if only because they have no choice. This one will, too. Much of it already has. Yet there is a certain irony to a cadre raised with such overblown expectations being the first since the Great Depression to face a lower lifetime standard of living than that of their parents.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Watching the Wheels Go Round and Round

Women’s roller derby returned to Morristown last night with a bout between The New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) and the visiting Southern Delaware Roller Girls (SDRG). Back on July 27, the NJRD defeated SDRD on its home track, and Delaware was eager to return the favor.

Delaware jumped ahead to an early but tiny lead with Gorelee Girl pushing through for points. Maulin Rouge and Shannani-Gunz kept on the pressure with their usual effectiveness through stiff resistance by Delaware (special mention to Betty Clock-her for aggressive blocking.) Pixie Bust for NJRD also added points to close the gap.

The two teams clearly were closely matched, but Delaware got and exploited the break it needed to secure a more defensible lead when Street Treats racked up points in multiple passes on a power jam. (A power jam is when an opposing jammer is in the penalty box, and so unable to score). The point totals for both teams rose slowly, and the first half ended with Delaware leading 71-51, still very much in competitive territory.

Halftime activities included a demonstration bout by the Junior Roller Girls between The Betty Bashers and the Dangerous Divas. Since the 50-50 and Tricky Tray events were happening simultaneously with the junior bout, I must admit to losing track of “who, what, and when.” If a coach, team member, or parent wishes to expand on this event in the comments, please feel free to do so. The team in black prevailed 93-27. I noticed capable skating by numbers 13, 3, 6, 116, 31, and 17, but without a program to match names to numbers, I’ll have to leave it at that.

In the second half of the bout, NJRD increased the pressure. Maulin Rouge showed truly impressive speed and Shannani-Gunz was excellent at powering through walls of blockers. Miss USA-Hole was also reliably proficient in jammer position. NJRD chipped away slowly at the Delaware lead, playing a smart and risk-limiting game of taking points and calling jams. Aided by a triple pass through the pack by Mega-Mortis, however, SDRG was able to re-secure its edge. With minutes left in the bout, Delaware played a hard defensive game, protecting its 25 point advantage. The end whistle blew with final score of 150-123 in favor of Delaware.

Once again, the teams were essentially equivalent. The game turned on the timing of penalties and one or two power jams. Of course, penalties and power jams are opportunities only – skaters have to be able to exploit them. Both teams have developed a depth of skaters able to do just that. The 2014 rematch ought to be fun.

John Lennon Watching the Wheels

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Conversation Stoppers

As a follow-up to last week’s encomium of random information, below are a dozen tidbits I either learned or rediscovered (i.e., once knew but long since had forgotten) in the past week. Are any of them useful? Yes, I’ve already brought conversations to a complete halt with a couple of them, evoking puzzled frowns instead. Depending on the conversation, that can be a good thing.

When he fell ill at age 81, circus magnate PT Barnum paid a New York newspaper to print his obituary in advance so he could enjoy it. “This way to the egress,” indeed.

Victoria Woodhull is well known as a suffragist, as a successful stock broker (protégé of Cornelius Vanderbilt), as an advocate of free love, and for her 1872 candidacy for President of the United States. Less well known are her background as a psychic (her parents were fortune tellers), her interest in eugenics, and the $5000 prize she offered for the first transatlantic flight.

Cows are milked from the right side because most people are right-handed, and your right hand has more room that way. Cows initially don’t care, but as they grow accustomed to being milked on the right, they get upset and will kick if you switch sides. With mechanical milkers, it’s a moot point.

Bubonic plague-infected California squirrels have been in the news lately, but African gerbils are known to carry it too. I haven’t encountered any African gerbils lately, but I’ll file that info away just in case.

The symbolism of a handshake is to show that your weapon-hand is weapon-free. Like pitchers in baseball, leftie ambushers would seem to have an advantage with this custom. The ever-practical ancient Romans thought of this. They opted for the dual arm-clasp instead.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch gets no respect. Of course, he’d probably like that. He is to sadomasochism what Roebuck is to Sears Roebuck. The Marquis de Sade gets all the glory. Masoch was an Austrian novelist, in case you’ve forgotten. I did. Ever read one of his books? Me neither.

According to the Britannica, Hollywood was founded by a prohibitionist named Horace Wilcox “who envisioned it a community based on his sober religious principles.” Best laid plans and all that… At least he didn’t found Las Vegas. That really would have been embarrassing. Las Vegas was founded in 1905 by Mormons.

Clocks run clockwise because they copy the faces of sundials, on which shadows (in the northern hemisphere) move in this way.

Exchange from the Marx brothers movie Duck Soup:
Mrs. Teasdale: This is a gala day for you.
Rufus (Groucho Marx): Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.
Jahangir, the fourth Mogul Emperor (ruled 1605 to 1627), disagreed with Groucho. He had 300 wives, 5000 mistresses, and 1000 young men to serve his erotic needs. Presumably his 12,000 elephants, 10,000 oxen, 2000 camels, 3,000 deer, 4,000 dogs, 100 lions, 500 buffalo, and 10,000 pigeons were just working animals and pets.

You can express the number “1” by using all ten digits: 148/296 + 35/70 = 1. Three Dog Night sang One is the Loneliest Number back in the 70s. Maybe they were wrong

Heroin was derived from opium by Felix Hoffman, a chemist for Bayer. Between 1898 and 1910, Bayer sold heroin as a cure for morphine addiction and as a cough suppressant. Well, it did get people’s minds off morphine. Did it suppress coughs? Who cares?   

Several companies make animal crackers, but the classic product with the stringed box that you can hang as a tree ornament is Barnum’s Animal Crackers. It was introduced in 1902 by Nabisco and is still in production. The animals change from time to time for marketing reasons. There have been 37 in all. The current list: bear, camel, crocodile, elephant, giraffe, monkey, horse, lion, seal, tiger, and zebra.

Melanie Safka Animal Crackers

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Pumpkin is a Berry. Who Knew?

Not so very long ago (unless you were born after 1990, in which case it was very long ago) people commonly kept an amazing clutter of information in their heads: telephone numbers, directions, appointments, and the multiplication table up to 12 x 12. As cloud-connected electronic aids – aka phones, although this legacy word describes a minor function – have become ubiquitous, much of this clutter has emptied out of once-full mental closets. This is understandable: there is no need to memorize all that when our phones can do it more reliably – so long as we don’t misplace the devices, in which case we are lost.

Constant internet connections also have given us a vast store of virtual knowledge. Suppose someone asks you if a strawberry is a berry. I can’t imagine anyone asking that outside of the Cash Cab, but it could happen in principle. You instantly can check Wikipedia (unless you’re in the Cash Cab) and discover that it is not. Neither is a blackberry nor a raspberry; they are aggregate fruits. However, on the plus side, bananas and pumpkins are berries. What country mines the most bauxite? At the moment it’s Australia. I can imagine bauxite coming up in conversation a little more easily than the question about berries. A little.

The point is that we quickly can discover these answers and, say, the name of Amanda Seyfried’s dog (Finn). We can find that the term “hat-trick” in hockey (scoring three successive goals) was borrowed from a feat in cricket (a bowler taking three wickets on successive balls) for which some teams awarded a new hat. Few people, other than trivia game show contestants, try to store such information in their heads. In those olden days of mental clutter, some folks (I admit to having been one of them) read annual almanacs with statistics on national populations, GDP, and the like, but no one can memorize everything. I’d have been stumped by the berry question. True, I could have looked up the answer in the encyclopedia when I got home, but by then I probably would have forgotten the question.

Still, there is something to be said for stashing even obscure and seemingly useless information in one’s own noggin. It allows one to make connections between this piece of information and that in a way that simulates intelligence. Intelligence is something I like to pretend to have.

About a decade ago, A.J. Jacobs, writer for Entertainment Weekly, had a similar thought. He undertook to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from a-ak to zywiec (33,000 pages, 65,000 articles, 44,000,000 words), writing about the endeavor as he went.“I’m not so deluded that I think I’ll gain one IQ point for every thousand pages,” he said. “But I also believe that there is some link between knowledge and intelligence…I don’t know the exact relation. But I’m sure the Britannica, somewhere in those 44 million words, will help me figure it out.” His resulting book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to be the Smartest Person in the World, is worth a read – and will take much less time than reading the Britannica.

I don’t have a set of the Britannica on my shelves, but my (much less prestigious) World Book set does stare at me from time to time. I haven’t opened a volume in years; the internet is much faster to access. But now I’m tempted to pick up A, even if much of the information has aged. Jacobs’ conclusion after closing the final volume:

“I know that opossums have thirteen nipples... I know that oysters can change their sex and Turkey’s avant-garde magazine is called Varlik. I know you should always say yes to adventures or you’ll lead a very dull life. I know that intelligence and knowledge are not the same thing – but they do live in the same neighborhood.”

As Mr. Rogers once said, “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.”

Cash Cab