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100 Things About Me
The Bull's Testicles Project
Russia Trip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
Best of 2003: Movies.
Best of 2004: Movies, Books.
Best of 2005: Theater, Books.
Best of 2006: Theater, Books, Television.


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Monday, September 30, 2002

Today's column was a lot of fun to compile. Such a rich vein of material!
I don't think Peter Preston would think much of blogging, or at least not the kind of personal blogging I most enjoy reading. His observations about journal-keepers--"a ludicrous tribe" he calls them--pertain just as well to perbloggers.
There is the black spot of the congenital diarist. There's the obsession with self and justification which flows instantaneously. There's the therapy of a solitary nocturnal monologue co-joined with the belief that this political life has such moment that it's worth the chronicling in the midst of battle. ...

Such things set the diarist apart.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Saw Eight Women this afternoon. Wow! The Women meets The Mousetrap meets Murder on the Orient Express meets Sapphism for Beginners (OK, I made that last one up).

Before this, director François Ozon has been strictly art-house, and although I think this film probably wouldn’t have been so effective without his arty nods and winks, it works as straight-up entertainment. As a musical, 8W was awesome: Virtually no attempt at naturalism, or to give all the actresses “perfect” voices. In fact some of the most effective songs, like Chanel’s (Firmine Richard) and Augustine’s (Isabelle Huppert) were all the more engaging for their imperfections. In some ways, Eight Women may be Ozon’s equivalent of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother: a European gay male director’s take on a Hollywood classic.

I spent the first 10 minutes fixated on Catherine Deneuve, convinced that it was physically impossible to be sexier. Then along came Fanny Ardant, who was just so outrageously hot that even Deneuve faded from view. Catherine Deneuve, the second-sexiest woman in the movies! Ardant has a lovely line in knowing, sexy looks. She used them to good force in Sin Noticias de Dios (she played God, flirting outrageously and extremely convincingly with the devil played by Gael García Bernal, who’s 29 years younger than her), but even more so in this movie.

Fun Eight Women trivia:
Yesterday, while shopping for a bon voyage gift for some pals heading down to Silicon Valley (we got them Radio Tarifa’s Rumba Argelina, which features one of my favorite tunes, “La Canal”), I did the ultimate impulse purchase thing and added one of the CDs sitting on the counter to my order, even as the clerk* was processing my payment. It was Norah JonesCome Away With Me, which I’d seen mentioned in several blogs of late.

When I bought it, I didn’t know anything about her—not the slightly bemusing fact that she’s Ravi Shankar’s daughter, raised quietly in Texas. I’m not impressed. She’s obviously capable of writing decent songs and of finding good collaborators, but the album ultimately felt weak and bland. Only three songs stood out for me: “Come Away With Me,” “One Flight Down,” and the very catchy “I’ve Got To See You Again,” but even then her apparent reluctance to move out of the breathy, laid-back voice and, as Emeril might say, kick it up a notch disappointed me. Same with the song choices—too samey, so that it’s hard for it to rise above the level of background noise.

I’m surprised Blue Note signed her. Jones’ anemic version of “The Nearness of You” would disappoint me coming from someone crooning in an Italian restaurant, much less from someone endorsed by a classic jazz label. Even though they’ve moved a long way from the old notion of “Blue Note jazz” in recent years (sometimes that’s great—I really like Cassandra Wilson and Don Byron, and Blue Note’s chillout compilation was decent; sometimes not so hot, like their championing of Patricia Barber, who I just don’t “get”). RealPlayer suggests that folks who like Norah might also enjoy Joni Mitchell and Ricki Lee Jones—yeah, until they kick off, which they almost always do; they wouldn’t stay breathy the whole damned album. Real also suggested Julie London, which probably is appropriate. Hey, but given Come Away With Me’s success, it sure paid off for Blue Note.

*In the interests of showing how screwed up I can be, I admit it’s possible that I made the extra purchase to prove to the clerk (who I would be happy never to see again) that I was the better person. Radio Tarifa were nowhere to be found in the U. Bookstore’s increasingly decent world music section, but since they’re often misfiled (they’re definitely Spanish, but since their original concept is that they’re playing the sounds of an imaginary “Moorish” radio station drifting over from Morocco to southern Spain, they’re often placed in African sections). Since we were in a bit of a hurry, we asked the dude to help us—hoping that he’d look in the computer and see where some hopeless bastard had filed it; instead he treats us like idiots who don’t know how to look through the tiny Spanish section and lectures us on how really, really good they are at filing. So we give up and go looking for something by Cesaria Evora, and what’s next to Cape Verde but North Africa (who knows why), and in that section are two Radio Tarifa CDs. We could’ve thrust them in the little oik’s face and told him not to assume that two women over 35 in a music section need to be condescended to. Instead I bought both and the Norah Jones disc.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Today’s Morning Edition had a brief feature about the BBC Shipping Forecast, one of those quaint and goofy Anglicisms Americans are fascinated by. I must say, I find the shipping forecast pretty damned fascinating myself. How can something so meaningless (to all but a few mariners, who surely have other ways of getting the information more efficiently these days) be so soothing?

(Funnily enough, NPR did what sounds like a very similar story four years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Although you can find old NPR stories online, I think listeners are glad to get a second chance to hear about interesting topics, and I guess the met report counts as “interesting.”)

Two cool literary appearances of the shipping forecast:

The shipping forecast is one of the world’s most efficient sleep aids. These days I often drift to sleep listening to the radio (with an earplug; I’m a considerate sort), but my choices are usually either sports radio or KUOW’s late-night offerings. I’ve noticed that shows I’m actually interested in (Sunday night’s Alternative Radio or The Diane Rehm Show on Friday nights) put me to sleep quicker than programs that I’m using as mere background noise. If I start on a Diane Rehm Show I want to stick with it to the finish so I can hear my pal Karen, who’s one of the show’s board ops, get a shout-out, but I can hardly remember managing that.
My voice is always giving me away. Ironically, after years of ribbing about my Northern accent (I remember returning to Britain after teaching English in Spain for a year to be asked by more than one person, "But didn't you warn them about your accent?" as if somehow having Mancunian vowel sounds prevented me from giving language lessons), the residual Englishness in my voice seems to mark me as a person of intelligence and refinement for many Americans. If only they knew.

I've spent very little of my adult life in the old country—I left when I was 21, and other than about 18 months in London, I've been far, far away for the last 20 years. Even when I wasn't that distant geographically—the two years I spent in Madrid, for example—I avoided the company of Brits. Perhaps that's why I prefer Madrid to Barcelona: It's harder to ignore the young Brits in Gaudítown.

I’m sure there’s a very simple psychological explanation, and I’m also sure it’s unlikely to be a kind one: deep-seated self-loathing, a desire to be “special,” garden-variety misanthropy. (And in my own defense, I didn’t just stay there hating it. I am now a proud U.S. citizen, and as everyone knows, converts are always more pious.) Anyway, despite my studied indifference to all things British, I spend a lot of my life thinking about England or trying to explain British institutions to my new compatriots, les Yanks.

The column that I write at Slate, “International Papers” is about the whole damned world, but for reasons of convenience and quality, it’s often dominated by the British press. And I’m often called upon to explain British institutions to colleagues and friends.

Last week, for example, I was asked to explain the English A-level scandal to someone. You’d think that would be a straightforward task, but it’s not just the minutiae of set books and examining boards that needs explaining, there’s also the matter of the English character. “Why aren’t they just happy if test scores improve?” he asked me. You have to admit, it’s a good question. Surely it’s good news?

I’m sure there’s a class element in the mainstream British reaction that higher scores mean the exams must’ve been dumbed down (yes, Brits are probably too obsessed with class, but Americans are tragically unconscious of it): Now that more working-class kids are staying at school until 18 and going on the college, the traditional university-attending class are convinced it’s sadly devalued. But generalizing from my own reaction, there’s also a gut feeling that in my day A-levels were bloody hard, so there’s no way the youth of today could so dramatically outperform my cohort. Therefore the standards must have dropped. (1979-style A-levels were too bloody hard for me; I mentally checked out for most of the sixth form, succumbing to a rare disease I self-diagnosed as “World in Action complex,” whereby even the most boring television show was way more fascinating than my homework. I also had a bad case of “I Didn’t Even Bother,” an absurd, inexplicable refusal to do even the most basic tasks—reading the set books, for example—so that whatever result I managed to scrape owed more to fortune than to intelligence. Wouldn’t want to show how well I could really do, just in case I didn’t display the brilliance I was all too convinced I possessed. I really would do it differently now; but even seven or eight years ago I lacked the discipline for the kind of study that’s truly rewarding.)

But I’m wandering. The challenge of explaining something as basic as the U.K. university entrance system to an American; the pain of finding so many errors borne of cultural misunderstanding in a Washington Post story, written by a good and reliable reporter, on the subject; and my recent discovery of some great English and Scottish Weblogs (especially my new favorite personal Web site, Troubled Diva) convinced me to have another bash at banging out a blog.

I’ve done it before—even before they were known as blogs. When they were online diaries I had one called “You Say Tomato,” but when I changed ISPs to get a cable modem it disappeared from the Onlinediaryosphere. Being a great lover of the Olympics, I also did a Weblog about the Sydney games, mostly offering thanks to Allah that I lived in Seattle and could watch the Canadian coverage rather than having to suffer through the shitty U.S. version. But it’s been a while, so it’s time for another McSite in the You Say Tomato franchise.