30 April 2011

DVD Talk Drive-In/Exploitation/B-Movie Challenge - Looking Back

I didn't realize until just now, but apparently I forgot to discuss this challenge at all here.  The premise of this theme is to explore cinema meant for a...less discerning...audience.  "The trashier, the better" is the rule here.  I haven't generally had much interest in the milieu, but I did have a few eligible titles sitting on my shelf that I'd been meaning to watch, and now that I can stream movies from Netflix I thought I'd make an effort to participate this year.  Here's my list page.


Don't let the guitar fool you.  Johnny Cash was ruthless.
I set out to basically watch three movies: a pair of movies starring Johnny Cash that I bought on a public domain disc for a buck about five years ago and still hadn't gotten to, and The Opium Connection, which was also a public domain, $1 purchase. I opened the challenge with the Cash double feature, but my player refused to read Opium so it remains unwatched.


In Bitch Slap, these three brutally beat the hell out of each other.
I hadn't planned on it, but I did wind up finally watching the 1949 serial, Batman and Robin, which I bought a few years ago and hadn't made time to watch until now. My wife and I both thoroughly loved it. I streamed several movies, including two that I'd been meaning to see for years: Histoire d'O and Emmanuel. It's always nice to either whittle down my Unwatched Pile or to make good use of my Netflix membership. Here, then, are my end-of-challenge awards:

Black Dynamite may be the baddest movie ever made.  Ever.
Favorite Movie Watched: Black Dynamite

Best/Most Brutal Catfight: Bitch Slap (runner up: Bitch Slap)
Most Gratuitous Nudity: Histoire d'O
Hottest Sex Scene: Emmanuel
Most Laughable Killing: The Gore Gore Girls
Most Outrageous/Squeamish Killing: Someone's Knocking at the Door
Best Use of Ordinary Objects in Combat: Pool balls (Zombie Strippers!)
Best Performance (tie): Johnny Cash (Five Minutes to Live), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite)
Best WTF Moment: Someone's Knocking at the Door


I don't remember how this Gore Gore Girl died, but I bet it was funny.
All of the movies I watched for this challenge were first-time viewings, so even though I wasn't terribly thrilled by all of them (I found Histoire d'O boring and Bad Girls from Mars kinda lame), it was nice to expose myself to new things I might otherwise have continued to neglect. There were several that had been on my To See list for a while, and it was nice to finally get to those.

29 April 2011

Free Comic Book Day 2011

The first Saturday in May is always the date for the Kentucky Derby.  Now, actually living in the area this is a big deal even if you don't care about horse racing.  My grandfather only has two enthusiasms in life: bettin' the ponies and drinking, and he's had to pretty much give up the latter.  I, on the other hand, count comic books as one of my life-long enthusiasms (though I freely admit he's stayed far more dedicated to his than I have to mine). In fact, I distinctly recall the day he took my brother and me to Churchill Downs, we stopped at a gas station and I bought a pair of comic books (Star Trek #26 and Star Trek: The Next Generation #25).  You'll understand then, why I find a sort of humorous, familial connection to the fact that the first Saturday in May has also become Free Comic Book Day.

The premise behind Free Comic Book Day isn't hard to understand.  Comic book publishers took a look at their sales and decided to borrow a page from the drug dealer's playbook.  They would give away an assortment of comic books, hoping to lure in new readers.  Maybe you'd pick up a free issue of a title you weren't already reading and become a paying regular.  Better still, maybe you'd pick up your first comic book ever and then begin buying all kinds of issues of a number of books.  Even if you just popped your head into your local comic book shop for the first time and looked around, maybe coming back later to buy stuff, it was a win.  Rather than earmark old issues for distribution, the publishers went ahead and printed special issues just for the occasion.  Many times these have been reprints, or preludes to forthcoming, ongoing titles.  Whatever they are, the point is to give new readers an introduction to the characters and series.

One little aside: this year's assortment is very heavy on licensed comics, so you'll see a lot of issues here based on TV, movie and video game characters.  It's sad, really, that FCBD 2011 is focused on non-comic book properties when there are countless comic book series deserving of an audience.  I suppose the theory makes sense (use something familiar to lure in browsers), but I fear that the majority of this year's titles will be dismissed as little more than a novelty by many of the people who pick up the issues.  "Oh, look, an Inspector Gadget comic!"  I doubt the same people who will pick up that issue have any intention of ever paying for the actual series, though.  They didn't ask me, though, and I'm sure people with a far greater stake in the outcome of all this have already voiced their concerns.

This year, FCBD is 7 May (next Saturday).  You can check here for a list of participating comic book shops to see where you can go locally.  These are this year's Free Comic Book Day titles:

2011 Gold Comics
  • Amazing Spider-Man
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Star Wars: The Clone Wars
  • Pep Comics featuring Betty & Veronica
  • Darkwing Duck/Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers
  • Green Lantern Special Edition featuring Green Lantern: Flashpoint Preview
  • Geronimo Stilton/The Smurfs
  • Kung Fu Panda/Richie Rich
  • Locke & Key
  • Mouse Guard/The Dark Crystal
  • Super Dinosaur Origin Special
2011 Silver Comics
  • 2000 A.D.
  • Darkness II: Confession
  • Atomic Robo
  • Baltimore/Criminal Macabre
  • Bongo Free-For-All 2011 (The Simpsons & Futurama)
  • Captain America/Thor: The Mighty Fighting Avengers!
  • Civil War Adventure
  • Top 10 Deadliest Sharks/Dinosaurs: Prehistoric Predators (Discovery Channel)
  • Elric: The Balance Lost
  • Ice
  • Inspector Gadget
  • The Intrepid EscapeGoat
  • Jake: The Dreaming
  • Witch & Wizard - ("a new manga series by James Patterson & Svetlana Chmakova")
  • John Stanley's Summer Fun
  • Path of the Planeswalker II (Magic: The Gathering)
  • The Mis-Adventures of Adam West
  • Overstreet Guide to Collecting Comics
  • Rated Free for Everyone! (Power Lunch/Sketch Monsters)
  • Silver Scorpion
  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Spontaneous
  • The Tick
  • Top Shelf Kids Club 2011
  • Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
  • Worlds of Aspen 2011
  • Young Justice/Batman: The Brave and the Bold Super Sampler
Additional Item
  • DC Heroclix 50 Set Green Lantern
If all goes well, I'll manage to make it to The Great Escape and at the very least, snag The Mis-Adventures of Adam West and The Tick.  Green Lantern Special Edition would be my third choice.  Which reminds me: each store has its own policy regarding the distribution of these free issues.  I've heard some stores only allow one free copy of a few issues per customer, whereas other stores allow you to grab a copy of as many different titles as you wish.  There's no official policy assigned to the comics, so don't get into any kind of petty squabble with your local store personnel.  They're trying to bring in as many customers as possible with this promotion, and they won't do anything to upset someone just to do it.

Also, I know that the Half Price Books where I shop will be running a 20% off sale on comic books all day Saturday and, I believe, Sunday as well.  You may find a similar effort by a local business to tie into FCBD, even if they're not an official participant.

On Katy Perry

If you had told me I would one day write a blog post in tribute of Katy Perry, I'd have thought you crazy.  Of course, I also would have balked at the notion that in 2011 we would see state governments overturn child labor laws from 1847 and overthrow locally-elected officials.  Here's the thing, though: I think Perry is a perfect microcosm for exploring some topical subjects.

How do you dislike anyone
willing to dress like Jessica Rabbit?
There is no more meritocratic career than art.  The only way to succeed is to hone one's craft until the formula of


talent + opportunity = audience.

Katy Perry grew up singing in church, learning about the physical and artistic skills of vocal performance.  This is not a referendum on what you may think of Perry's vocal skills; rather, the point is that she didn't just up and decide in a vacuum to begin singing for a living.  She had the opportunity as a member of her congregation to sing in public, the encouragement of her family to develop the self-confidence to pursue singing professionally and eventually found a record label willing to take a chance on her.

If Perry's family says to her, "It's one thing to sing in church, but you can't be serious about trying to go pro," maybe the world never hears her.  There are millions of talented people who were discouraged from ever pursuing their dreams and working with their natural talents.  I have a cousin who sings beautifully, and I fear that if she decided she wanted to do more singing than high school chorus someone in our family would scold her for having unrealistic fantasies.

Before adopting the stage name Katy Perry, she recorded an eponymous gospel album (as Katy Hudson) released by Red Hill Records shortly before it folded.  She wrote or co-wrote every one of the album's ten songs, a perfect example of how art is both a collaborative medium and one that relies on the individual talents of artists.  If you read this and shrug, "Big deal," I defy you to write ten songs--go ahead, even use your friends for help--and then sing all ten.  Now go back and do it until they're ten songs you honestly think someone else will want to hear, and that they'll want to hear you sing them.  Maybe you can do it.  I know I can't.

In 2008, of course, she had her breakthrough as a pop artist with her second single (and the first of hers to chart), "I Kissed a Girl."  When I first heard the song I admit I was a bit excited--I've long been a proponent of LGBT rights and hoped this would spark meaningful national discussion.  Then I found out it was basically a tease meant to titillate adolescent males turned on by girl-on-girl action, and I dismissed it.  But after a while, I gave in and used some of my My Coke Rewards points to buy the song from Rhapsody and I don't even know how many times I've played it in the last couple of years.  It's addictive and fun.  And even though I still see it as falling short of what I would have liked it to have been, I'm hopeful that somewhere out there is a teenage girl who feels better about her own sexual curiosities because of this song (though I hope she won't feel the need to make out with another girl just to get the attention of a boy).  It also opens the door for conversations between youth and their parents, and I applaud that.  Perry's detractors might dismiss her as a hypocrite, but I agree with her that there should be room on the pew for the LGBT community.

I read a delightful anecdote in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone about Perry calling on a friend of hers when the time came to make her second pop album (third release, counting her Katy Hudson gospel album). Perry met Bonnie McKee before she hit the big time, and called on her for songwriting assistance on "Part of Me."  McKee went on to co-write three of the songs on Teenage Dream ("Teenage Dream," "California Gurls" and "Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.]").  Now, McKee--who had released an album of her own that went ignored--has been signed by Dr. Luke's publishing company.  Everyone likes to think that if they hit the big time they'll remember the little people, but Perry actually did it.  McKee has a new opportunity to work with her talents, after languishing since her album flopped in 2004.

Bonnie McKee and Katy Perry.
Photo from iheartkatyperry.tumblr.com.
A side anecdote in the Rolling Stone piece I found interesting: The two went skinny-dipping in the Atlantic and Perry was swept away by a wave.  McKee "dived in after Perry and fished her out, Baywatch-stye," as Gavin Edwards put it.
Perry is a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers (ASCAP), meaning her work is protected by a union.  In addition to protecting the copyrights of its members and fighting for all due royalties, ASCAP provides benefits including health insurance.  Not every member hits the big time like Perry has, and it's understood that the protections and benefits of membership are good things to be preserved.  Everyone in the music business belongs to at least one such union, and while I've occasionally heard members say they wish their unions were more aggressive on their behalf, I've never once heard of anyone say that ASCAP is responsible for destroying the music industry or that the veteran artists in the twilight of their careers should be thrown to the wolves.  I suspect McKee and Perry both appreciated their membership even when it wasn't easy to pay their dues.  So think about this: Katy Perry has better protection as a worker than what teachers and emergency workers in Wisconsin are expected to have.  I don't know about you, but that upsets me...and it's not because I resent Perry for what she has.

Thanks to her success--for which she has undoubtedly worked very hard, in an extremely competitive industry, vying for the attention of the fickle public--Katy Perry is now a One Percenter.  How many girls in Afghanistan or Sudan will grow up to have a career like hers?  Their greatest concern is whether they'll be mutilated and raped before they eat dinner.  Again, I don't begrudge Perry in the least, and I suspect if you asked her she'd tell you she's damn grateful to have lived here where she's had the opportunity to become successful using her talents.

Make no mistake: I believe Katy Perry has earned every penny she has.  She has a talent as a songwriter and as a performer, and I think it's terrific that she or anyone would be able to tap into those talents like she has.  But I also don't see anything wrong with raising Katy Perry's taxes to help pay for the kinds of social programs that other Americans who haven't hit the big time need.  I believe that Americans should enjoy everything that ASCAP does for its members.  The A-listers pay into the system even when they're so successful they could do without it, because they know what it was like when they were at the bottom and how important ASCAP was then.

Here's just one example of how America and public spending has contributed to Katy Perry's success:  Perry is coming to Louisville 10 September, to perform at the newly built KFC Yum! Center.  The new venue, owned by the Louisville Arena Authority and operated by the Kentucky State Fair Board, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, and like nearly every other venue in America much of it came from public funds.  The seating capacity for an end-stage concert is 17,500 people; tickets are priced at $38 and $48 apiece.  I don't know the breakdown between how much Yum! gets, how much Perry gets, her promoter, band members, etc., but those are very modest ticket prices--I applaud Perry for her pricing scheme at a time in her career when she could have charged twice that--and the show is still guaranteed to make a sizable chunk of change.  And she should; Perry has built an audience willing to pay $38 and $48 to see her live show.


I know most people balk whenever the subject arises of using public funds to build these kinds of venues.  It may surprise you, but I'm not one of them.  I agree that we should address our needs first, and hopes second.  It's now estimated that Yum! will actually post a profit of $196,000 this year.  That's a healthy return.  I can already tell you that Yum! is having a positive economic impact on its neighborhood.  My wife and I went out one night a while back with her step-sister to go to the Old Spaghetti Factory across the street from Yum! on a game night.  The parking garage, typically $5 I think, was $15 that night...and it was at capacity.

It's a state-of-the-art facility, the kind of place that has already brought Lady Gaga to town, with Taylor Swift scheduled for July and Perry in September.  Previously, the only shows that came to Louisville were country and established classic rock acts.  And most of those scheduled their shows as part of the Kentucky State Fair in August, meaning that you had two weeks full of shows, but rarely anything noteworthy the rest of the year.  Up and comers still play free shows here and there, but A-listers in recent years have taken to booking their shows in Lexington, Cincinnati and Evansville.  It's good for the community of Louisville to be on the itinerary again.

Because Perry's family encouraged her, because Capitol Records took a chance on her and because the Louisville Arena  approved the construction of Yum!, there's a very good chance that a young woman in Louisville has heard a song that encouraged her to not be shamed by her sexual curiosity, and now she'll have the opportunity to pay $38 to go see Katy Perry in concert.  The state of Kentucky and Louisville Metro will make money from the show.  I consider every part of that formula a good thing.

Somewhere out there is a little girl singing in school or church, and her family has the opportunity to foster self-confidence in their daughter and encourage her if she feels drawn to pursue her talent.  I hope they do.  There's a record label executive being asked to take a chance on a young woman, and I hope he does.  There's a city council considering a proposal to finance a new venue, and I hope they do (you know, as long as it's not near Louisville).

27 April 2011

The All-American Kryptonian

This morning, as President Barack Obama made public his long form certificate of live birth, Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship.  No, really.  In a story written by David S. Goyer published in Action Comics #900 that went on sale today, the Man of Steel declares:

Superman was created by two Jewish boys who grew up amongst the Great Depression.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw Superman as an agent operating outside the law to combat injustice from underhanded businessmen exploiting the working class and poor to politicians whom the law would not touch.  This theme was continued in The Adventures of Superman radio show.  The show's liberal politics led Gerald L.K. Smith to declare, "Superman is a disgrace to America."  From 16 April until 20 May 1946 in a serialized story titled, "The Hate Mongers Organization," Superman took on the Ku Klux Klan.  The show's writers were armed with inside information provided by an investigative reporter named Stetson Kennedy, who had infiltrated the Klan.

Nazis, Neo-Nazis; Superman fought 'em all.
Interestingly, it was The Adventures of Superman radio show that first introduced the idea of Superman fighting for "truth, justice and the American way."  It may be difficult to imagine such a concept today, when it seems the liberals who huff and puff the loudest eventually disparage America as a backward realm of intolerance, but Superman rejected that cynicism.  Rather, the show's writers staked the claim that opposing injustice, corruption and evil-doers was defending America.  Their Superman was an agent of change, thwarting one nefarious plot after another.  The point of being Superman was to use his might to force us to live up to our own ideals, rather than to impose his will on us.


In the 1950s, amidst the McCarthy Senate hearings and anti-Communist paranoia, Superman was presented as more of a part of Americana.  The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves gave us a Superman who existed primarily to lend a helping hand and break up criminal plots by gangsters.  Rather than challenge the KKK and expose corrupt politicians, this was a Superman who paid a visit to Lucy and promoted the United States Treasury Department [see: Stamp Day for Superman].  Superman had effectively become a symbol of Americana and co-opted by conservatives as the defender of their ideals (despite the fact that Superman had opposed them in the beginning).  This earnest dedication to "traditional values" was the core of the live action Superman movie series begun in 1978's Superman.

Superman = America
In 1986's The Dark Knight Returns comic book mini-series, Frank Miller carried out this Americana Superman to an extreme.  Dark Knight depicts a future in which the federal government has cracked down on superheroes and forced them all into retirement...save Superman, who is simply too powerful to stop.  Instead, he is a fully authorized federal agent operating under orders direct from President Ronald Reagan, effectively making the Man of Steel an enforcer at the disposal of the White House.

President Reagan has the next best
thing to God on his side: Superman.
Twenty years later, "the American way" was omitted from dialog in Superman Returns, a film that explores how Superman would be received in our contemporary world after years of having been away.  When asked about that, director Bryan Singer said:
Americans are the first people to be weirdly simultaneously patriotic and self-criticizing. It's one of our rights as Americans. We can do that. With that notion, I didn't have a better way to take the edge off it so I did it that way. But, he is an American superhero. There's no denying that. He's the ultimate immigrant, raised on a farm in Kansas. He represents what we as Americans idealistic want to be. In that way I shy away from it, but I don't know how to. But, he's not just fighting for America. He's fighting for, you know, the world. He always was. So it's not shying away from it, it's just treating it in not a better way, but a different way. I couldn't measure up to how they treated it. 
The idea of Superman being a global character was nothing new; as his powers had evolved from being "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" to being able to fly into outer space without so much as an oxygen tank, it made little sense to confine Superman to the United States.  He was raised here, and infused with the most noble of our ideals, and in that he is American.


What Does Action Comics #900 Signify?


Firstly, we need to be clear.  Superman is not repudiating the United States.  Rather, he is arguing that he is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man non-governmental organization (NGO).  This renouncement of citizenship is to take a stand to guard against becoming the pawn that Miller projected in 1986.  This is a Superman who is declaring that his motivations and values are his own, that he does not wish to be perceived by the rest of the world as an agent of the U.S.


Secondly, it seems to me that this action is intended to restore Superman to his initial values as a character beholden to no law or political agenda, but rather one who operates outside official channels to champion the values instilled in him by a morally grounded, fair-minded pair of Kansan farmers.


What I fear, though, is that this is a misguided backlash against the distorted ideas of patriotism that have dominated our political discourse for the last decade.  It's as though Superman--or, rather, his writers and editors--have had enough of our litmus tests for who is a "real" American.  I personally identify strongly with that frustration, but I don't believe renouncing his citizenship is the appropriate course of action.  I personally would rather see the DC Comics editorial team adopt the values of the writers of the radio show, who insisted that their values were American.  In his attempt to rise above partisanship, it seems that Superman has allowed himself to become a victim of the "Love it or leave it" power play.  I would have much rather seen a Superman who stood up and fought for an America in which we either love it or work to improve it.


Going forward, it's worth noting that David S. Goyer, who wrote the renouncement story, is writing the next Superman film, The Man of Steel, to be directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan.

New Fiction! "Visit to Sean"

Back in November, I wrote "Catch," a small vignette about a guy playing catch with his brother and talking about a story he wanted to write.  I've just finished and posted the second chapter, in which our protagonist pays a visit to a friend of his whom he seeks to recruit to work as the artist on his Daniel Boone vs. Zombies comic book project.  The artist friend is a stoner hipster, and his speaking voice may become tiresome to readers but I feel that his frequent use of specific words and phrases is authentic.  I'm not setting out to depict a stereotype with Sean, which is why I wrote into his characterization some peculiar interest and traits.  Currently, this is just titled, "02 - Visit to Sean."  Hopefully I can get to chapter three before another five months pass.  As always, I welcome feedback and criticism.

Incidentally, I considered titling this chapter, "Julia Roberts and Merle Haggard," but decided against it on the grounds that this chapter is presented largely out of context and I didn't want someone to link to the story because of their names and feel misled.  If I ever complete this story and compile it, though, there's a pretty good chance I'll make that the title for a collected edition.

26 April 2011

I Am Selfishly Destroying America

I recently signed an online petition pleading for Congress to spare funding for medical research.  Unfortunately for me, I'm represented in the United States Senate by Rand Paul.  I just received the following e-mail, dated today (26 April 2011):

Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue.
As a subgroup of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH is the focal point for federal biological and behavioral health research. As a doctor, I care about medical research and know from experience the best way to improve care is for the government to step away from the problem and allow for private investment to flourish.  The size of the national debt has grown considerably over the past few years.  We have seen currencies and countries fall under their unsustainable debt. 
In order to get our fiscal house in order and prevent potential catastrophe in this country, everyone will have to be willing to make sacrifices in sacred programs.  All areas of the budget should be on the table for consideration, and while I am not willing to compromise on whether or not cuts should be made, I am willing to compromise on which cuts should be made. 
It is time for our nation to address its fiscal problems, and it is the duty of lawmakers to introduce responsible legislation that will rein in spending.  Just as American households must balance their checkbooks, the federal government should do the same.  Rest assured as this issue continues to be debated in the Senate, I will keep your thoughts in mind. 

Sincerely,





Rand Paul, MD
United States Senator
This came as no surprise, of course, but I do want to address two of the Senator's remarks.
 "As a doctor, I care about medical research and know from experience the best way to improve care is for the government to step away from the problem and allow for private investment to flourish."
Firstly, I'm a patient and I guarantee you I care even more about improving my care than any doctor I've ever had.  That's not meant to be a knock on physicians, either.  I've had several who were compassionate and appeared to genuinely be concerned with my well-being.  Empathy is important, for many reasons, but it cannot compensate for not being the one suffering.

Secondly, Senator Paul continues to worship at the altar of the free market and he should know better.  Breakthroughs don't happen daily.  They take years of highly skilled, dedicated people using elaborate, highly expensive equipment to find the tiniest new revelation, which can then take years to be fully understood.  Shareholders live and die by quarterly statements, and aren't convinced that such longterm research developments are "good business."  This is why the moment their scientists devise anything, they want to fast track it to production.  The Federal Drug Administration under President George W. Bush complied and became little more than a formality, and in consequence, we've seen countless drugs recalled because they were pushed onto the market before they were fully understood in an effort to make as quick a turnaround on the investment as possible.  Patience is mandatory for something like medical research, and unfortunately the investment world is rarely able to understand that it may not make a fortune off treating illnesses today or even tomorrow.  Government has a clear responsibility to promote the well-being of our people, and there is clearly a proper role for it to play in medical research. To act as though government spending is some kind of hindrance to private companies curing all disease is ludicrous.

Lastly, as millions of Americans can attest, if you have a health condition that isn't widespread and doesn't have countless celebrities raising awareness (and funds) for it, the "free market" declares there's not enough "demand" for the product/service to justify producing a supply.  Lance Armstrong will personally see to it that every human being he ever meets is made to feel enough guilt they donate their life savings to cancer research, but who's out there for me?  David Garrard, who made it seem like I just needed to take some meds and then I, too, could be playing pro ball?

Simply put, there is no free market-based answer to the issue of medical research.  We Crohnies may not be a large enough group that a business decides it's profitable to invest in finding a cure for us, but that doesn't mean we don't still need one.  In fact, evidence already suggests that shunning us altogether is in the interest of businesses, as we make costly--and unreliable--employees (remember the findings published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine from 2009?).  In short, we're a group that the free market doesn't want as laborers, nor are we a desirable customer to be wooed.  Leave us solely at the mercy of the free market, and we will surely never see any further progress on our behalf.

The second statement I wish to address is:
"In order to get our fiscal house in order and prevent potential catastrophe in this country, everyone will have to be willing to make sacrifices in sacred programs."
The implication here is that I'm a selfish narcissistic bastard for pleading that funding for medical research not be scrapped.  I wonder, if Senator Paul is serious about "getting our fiscal house in order" as he says, whether the tax cuts he's in love with are on the table.  Or subsidies to Big Oil.  I suspect not.  Those, after all, are so sacred that we dare not sacrifice those.  I mean, asking those who are obscenely well-off to pay slightly higher taxes than the lowest tax rate America since World War II would be criminal, and asking Big Oil to fend for itself in the free market would be government overreach.  Or something.  I don't know.

25 April 2011

Ninth Grade Insurrection

In "A Study in Scarlet," Dr. Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes.  The latter stuns the former by declaring a prideful ignorance of many key subjects, among them politics and history.  They mean literally nothing to the famed detective.  That's largely how I felt about science classes.  I understood they were important to other people, and I readily accepted that I had benefited from scientific endeavors undertaken by inquisitive people I would never meet.  The social sciences (history, political science, sociology); these made sense to me, because they were about people.  I couldn't care less which critter belonged to which phylum, nor did I care about the chemical composition of salt.  It was enough for me that other people knew these things and had a use for them.  Still, I soldiered on as best I could, feigning interest when addressed by my teachers and trying to go through the motions.

The third class of my day during my freshman year was Interdisciplinary Science.  One day near the middle of the school year (I recall wearing a heavy jacket), we had a test that included a lab assignment.  Only a few work stations were set up for us, meaning that we went in waves of small groups to the sinks.  Eventually, it was my turn.  I cannot tell you now what the specific requirements or objectives of the test were, but they involved using plastic pipettes to transfer X mL of liquids A and B.  Now, as it happens, my hands shake.  They have since as far back as I can recall.  There's a psychological component to it, which I know because the more conscious I am about needing my hands to be steady, the worse the shaking becomes.  I can do nothing about it.

It took little time for me to become demonstratively frustrated with my inability to transfer the specific, minuscule volume of liquids.  How did my teacher respond?  She accused me of putting on a show for my classmates and ordered me to clean my materials for someone else to use, and informed me I had failed the lab portion of the test.  I tried to appeal her summary judgment against me, but of course she was the teacher and I was now the unruly, disruptive student.  I saw it was hopeless and went about cleaning my materials as directed.  After a minute, though, I was further charged with drawing out the cleaning process as part of my alleged sideshow display.  I am by nature a thorough person, and I'm certain many of my former coworkers can attest to this.  I was habitually the last to leave each night because I was not content to gloss over my cleaning tasks.  I abandoned the incompletely cleaned materials altogether and took my seat, dejected and frustrated.

The bane of my shaking hands's existence.
The next day, our teacher began class with a random "book check," where we were required to verify that our textbooks were present.  I did not have my book with me, which came to light when she reached my place on our alphabetized roster.  Here is the exact dialog of our exchange.
Teacher: Travis, where is your book?
Me: I deliberately left it at home.
Teacher: "Deliberately?"
Me: Deliberately.
Teacher: May I ask why?
Me: I find this class to be excruciatingly dull.
Teacher: I'll see you outside.  Go now.

I've never seen the resemblance.
As on the previous day, I did as I was instructed.  I rose from my seat and exited the classroom.  How long I was in the hallway, I cannot say but I know it was long enough for me to count every ceiling tile within my field of vision from one end of the building to the next.  Eventually, my teacher emerged, along with two of my classmates.  One apparently endorsed my show of defiance and yelled, "Go, Beaker!"  (For whatever reason, he insisted I reminded him of the Muppet, and took to calling me by that name.)  To this day, I cannot tell you what the other classmate did to earn his ejection.

We were directed to the office of the vice principal.  He was a dour looking toad of a man, I thought.  I hadn't read LeCarre then, but if I had I may easily have thought he fit the description of George Smiley given in Call for the Dead.  I had never really spoken with him; this was, after all, still the middle of my freshman year and disciplinary issues were wholly unknown to me.  My turn came and I sat across his desk.  He politely asked me if I would tell him my side of the incident.  I started at the beginning--what I perceived to be the injustice of the previous day.  I conceded that my outburst may not have been the most helpful or appropriate reaction, but I pressed the point that my efforts to explain myself during the test had been dismissed out of hand.  If reason and fairness were not allowed in the classroom, I was left choosing between subservient acquiescence and an act of defiance.

The vice principal then asked me, "Are you religious?"  The query caught me unawares; I'd not anticipated matters of faith entering a conversation with a school official.  I replied that I was more spiritual than religious, that I had some beliefs but I wasn't a practicing member of any organized congregation.  "Well, let me ask you this: are you familiar with the Golden Rule?"  I replied that I was.  "Would you tell me what it is?"  I replied,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

He nodded.  "Right.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he repeated.  "Not, 'Do unto others as they have done unto you'."  I'm sure other people may have balked at this whole line of discussion, and may even now be irate reading about it here.  I, however, recognized it as an offering from him.  He recognized that I had a legitimate reason for my disdain, but of course he could not condone what I'd done with my energy.  I was intrigued by the philosophical nature of our interview, and I inquired how society would ever address the disrespectful if no one was ever treated with the rudeness they dispensed.  That, I was told, was where faith came into it.  You just have to trust that these things have a way of working themselves out.  I wasn't sold on it, but I could tell he was entirely earnest about his beliefs.  Even when I disagree with someone's values, I can respect them if they're sincerely felt and put to me in a reasonable manner.  I felt his had been, and I told him I would consider the point.

In consequence for my disruption of class, I was assigned one school day in Time Out.  I was to spend the entire day in silence with a few other students in a room the size of a motel shower.  I did it, without raising a single objection or making any attempt to test the conditions of the punishment.  It was how I would get square with things, I reasoned.  The day after my stint in Time Out, my science teacher approached me before class began.  She apologized to me for being so abrupt with me over the test and while I could tell she didn't want to have to say this to me, the fact was, she had done it.  There can be no doubt the apology had been ordered by the vice principal.  I appreciated that he had made that effort on my behalf; he could easily have taken her side entirely and ignored me as she had done.  I accepted her apology, feeling that I owed it to the vice principal to do so.  Whether I apologized for my actions, I cannot say.  I have the vague memory that my teacher made a remark that she considered the matter resolved since I'd spent the day in Time Out atoning for my protest.  Regardless, even though I no longer held any respect for her and I'm sure she was just grateful that we were nearing the end of the year and she would soon be rid of me, we did bury the hatchet.  Not an antagonistic word was exchanged between us the remainder of the year.

24 April 2011

"Batman and Robin" The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection

Batman and Robin - The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection
Starring: Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams, Lyle Talbot
Written for the Screen by George H. Plympton & Joseph E. Poland & Royal K. Cole
Produced by Sam Katzman
Directed by Spencer Bennet
DVD Release: 22 March 2005
List Price: $14.94
261 Minutes

Batman (Lowery) and Robin (Duncan) are plagued by The Wizard, a mysterious villain in control of a gang of criminals who do his bidding.  The Wizard takes possession of a powerful new weapon capable of controlling cars, trains and airplanes and begins using this weapon in a series of extortion schemes.  Complicating matters is radio broadcaster Barry Brown, who seems to broadcast inside information about events the moment they've happened; private investigator Dunne, who finds himself at all the right places at all the right times; Vicki Vale, who spends as much energy trying to find out Batman's real identity as she does being captured by the Wizard's thugs.

This is the second and final Batman serial, released in 1949 in the twilight of the serial format.  The budget was obviously low; sets, costumes, effects and stunts are all pretty crude.  Like many Batman screen adventures, this one doesn't seem to know whether to take itself seriously or bask in silliness.  The actors play it straight, but the plot is full of "WTF" moments.  It's easy to appreciate how Hugh Hefner screening this years later at the Playboy Mansion, along with the 1943 Batman serial, helped generate the interest in the character that led to William Dozier developing the 1966 TV series.  There's plenty of "Batman and Robin to the rescue!" action, and some laughs along the way.

I'd be lying if I said I was wholly satisfied with the serial.  I can overlook the poor budget and I'm fine with the tone.  But there are some developments in the final two chapters that arouse immediate attention with the viewer that are never addressed on-screen.  I'm not into spoilers, but I will say that one story element defies a point that is made repeatedly throughout the serial, and it is bothersome to see the flagrant ignorance of the protagonists, as the violation occurs right before their very eyes.

I've read a few early Batman comics, and it's my impression that Batman and Robin did a pretty good job capturing the actual feel of what Bob Kane and his collaborators (chiefly Bill Finger) had been producing in the pages of Batman and Detective Comics.  Younger viewers may become impatient or lose their interest; there's no colorful supervillain here like the Joker or Riddler.  For fans of the Golden Age, though, I think they'll find Batman and Robin a real treat.

As for the DVD presentation, the quality is as good as I suspect it will ever be for this.  There are some instances of white noise, but they're minimal and to be expected.  The sound was very clear; I don't recall anything distracting.  Disappointingly, there are no bonus features save a trio of previews (for DVD releases of Spider-Man 2, Hellboy and an assortment of 1970s police/detective TV shows).  The serials are generally glossed over in documentaries about Batman and his screen career, and it would have been nice to hear about the production and see Batman and Robin placed in its proper context.  Apparently, Columbia had enough hope in 2005 when they released this DVD collection that they could cash in on Batman Begins, but not enough confidence to invest in the project beyond remastering in in High Definition.

22 April 2011

Legends of the Gipper: At Windsor Castle

In lieu of the forthcoming royal wedding I thought it time to share an anecdote about an incident when President Ronald Reagan paid a visit to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (I trust my British readers to correct me should I have botched her formal title).  Credit for this one goes to Work Hard, Study...and Stay Out of Politics! Adventures and Lessons Learned from an Unexpected Public Life by James A. Baker, III.  Baker served as Mr. Reagan's Chief of Staff and later as Secretary of the Treasury, as well as Secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush.

Photo taken 8 June 1982 by Michael Evans, Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
The president was visiting Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.  Like him, she was an avid and accomplished rider, so the staffs arranged for a horseback tour of the grounds.  After the obligatory photo-op, the monarch and the president road away, the queen in front.  A few minutes later, however, Her Highness's poor steed--suffering perhaps from a bad batch of oats--began to expel gas in a remarkably rhythmic way with each step, step, step across the English countryside.
Elizabeth the Second--by the grace of God, the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and her other realms and territories, head of the commonwealth, and defender of the faith--was suitably mortified.  "Oh, dear, Mr. President," she said, "I'm so sorry."
"Quite all right, Your Majesty," the president replied.  "I thought it was the horse."
Kinda chips away at the image of austerity to which we're accustomed when it comes to the royal family, doesn't it?  You can read my review of Work Hard, Study...and Stay Out of Politics! for more thoughts on the former Secretary's recollections.  Also, if you would like to order a print of the above photograph from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library you can place your request by visiting the photo archive page here.  The order form asks for the photo catalog number and date; the photograph shown here is C8454-18 and was taken 6/8/82.

21 April 2011

The Value (and Cost) of a Free Press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  - United States Constitution, First Amendment
Why the guarantee of an unfettered press?  Simply put, without it we would live in a society forced to rely exclusively on the word of those in authority about anything that happens out of our own field of sight.  You cannot have a free society without a free press.  Not "aren't likely to" but cannot.  If you can't fully understand how this works, I invite you to study societies around the world and throughout history where the only circulated news has been controlled by the government.  Free press is the cornerstone of a free society, for it is our only guarantee that even if a cabal of like-minded people consolidate positions of authority in all government positions, there will be a non-government check on their activities.  When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of Watergate, they created a landmark event not only in journalism, but in democracy.  Their expose of the bungled burglary showed the American people the truth about the Nixon administration and several of its key members.  Without Woodward and Bernstein's dogged work, the cover-up may well have succeeded and we would have been denied the truth about our presidency.


The men who valued a free society so much they brought down a president.
As an aside, it's worth noting that ever since Watergate, it seems every beat reporter and news commentator has been on a quest for their own Watergate.  That passion is commendable and even desirable, but unfortunately it has led to the current generation of sensationalism-centric media coverage.  The suffix, "-gate" has become ubiquitous, attached to the buzzword title of any scandal.  Most egregiously, too many of our talking heads are so caught up "telling it like it is" (a phrase I despise) that they've forgotten to ask questions.  Say what you will about Jon Stewart being "merely" a comedian, but The Daily Show does more legwork and homework than most of our "legitimate" news channels, and Stewart--through satire and sometimes salty language--is one of the finest interviewers of this generation.  He has, time and again, sat across the desk from people from all ranges of the political spectrum and cordially put to them a battery of questions meant to help us at home make sense of, or see through, their rhetoric.  I don't deny that Stewart does his fair share of sermonizing, but he does something many of his peers forget to do: he asks questions.  We, the audience, are left to determine whether the answers he gets satisfy us.


Liberal or not, Jon Stewart isn't above busting the president's chops.
There's a whole other level of commitment to the freedom of the press than we see from Stewart or most of the folks that sit behind desks on camera for a living.  Some are so committed to finding out what's really happening in our world that they literally go where the story is, even if the story is in the most hazardous places on Earth.  Embedded reporters may at times be a nuisance to those they're covering and occasionally there are times when they've made public information that crosses into an area of safety and security concerns.  Despite those misgivings, there is no denying that the lion's share of our understanding of what is actually happening depends on their work.  Without these people on the front lines, we would be reliant upon sanitized press releases to tell us what's really taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.


Yesterday, 20 April 2011, we lost several of these courageous reporters in Libya.  Among them was Tim Hetherington, who collaborated with Sebastian Junger to film the recent documentary Restrepo.  That film followed a squadron of the U.S. military in the most volatile area of Afghanistan, showcasing the impossible nature of their mission, and the courage of the men in uniform charged with the responsibility of performing under unimaginable conditions.  Hetherington and Junger's footage is astounding, from the touching and candid on-camera interviews to the jaw-dropping coverage of being under attack.  That they managed to film at all under fire is impressive, but their cinematography rarely falters.  We are able to follow everything as it happens.  The brave soldiers there deserved to have their story told, and it is entirely thanks to Hetherington and Junger that it was.


Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington with the Restrepo squadron.
In the last day I have read some incredibly insensitive comments about Hetherington's death.  "Swim with sharks, you're gonna get bit," one online poster had to say.  I can understand that the average person doesn't value his principles so much he's willing to risk his life on a regular basis for them, but how have we reached the point that people would devalue someone whose convictions were that deep?  This isn't a cast member from Jackass maimed in a frivolous stunt gone wrong.  This is a man who so thoroughly valued not sensationalism or ratings, but the very nature of a free press--ergo, a free society--that he was willing to die to ensure that we had access to information we otherwise would not have had.  If you don't recognize Tim Hetherington as heroic, then you've taken a free society for granted.

20 April 2011

What Dreams May Come

"The future isn't what it used to be." - Yogi Berra

You don't come to blogs for breaking news; you come for the personal reflections.  It is with that understanding that I do not expect you to be shocked to learn that our economy is screwed up, and has been for the better part of the last decade.  There have been fewer jobs, and many of the ones still left don't pay what they once did.  Companies offer few, if any, benefits unless legally required to do so.  We've even created a new term, "99er" to denote those who have been unable to find gainful employment for ninety-nine consecutive weeks, just shy of two full years.  Go online and read about any media coverage of this and you'll inevitably encounter someone who insists that these people have been enjoying a high time on the Free Ride Express, and that if you cut off their unemployment benefits, they'd do what they should have already done: find a job.  It must be nice to have lived an entire life in such a bubble of security that you're that out of touch with the realities facing millions of Americans.

What hasn't gotten enough attention are the people who have resorted to taking jobs far beneath them.  People who used to own their own restaurants have been forced to look at entry level jobs at fast food chain restaurants, flipping burgers.  Middle management supervisors are trying to get jobs loading freight, competing with the people they once oversaw elsewhere.  The Huffington Post recently ran a piece showcasing some of these "downwardly mobile" workers.  Lalana Island, who once held a high-paying job as an executive assistant, has been reduced to temp work as a receptionist answering phones.  White collar workers are now competing with unskilled laborers for menial positions.  Ayn Rand would have you believe that these are lazy people who need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but that's condescending bunk.  Contrary to what many have been led to believe, most Americans aren't afraid of hard work.

He's already declared bankruptcy.  Flipping burgers isn't out of the question.
The big question going forward isn't just how do we find work for all these people (estimated last I saw to be around 30 million people out of work, and I haven't even seen a guess at how many are "under-employed" or working beneath their skill level).  Rather, what impact will all this have on our society's collective psyche?  Individuals have been discouraged and depressed.  It is humiliating to have to apply for a job position you outgrew years ago, and even worse to be rejected for it.  But let's say for the sake of argument that within the next couple of years things turn around and there actually are enough jobs to go around.  Let's say Lalana Island finds another executive assistant position comparable to the one she recently held.

How confident is she going to be about that position?  How many days is she going to report for work, her stomach churning every time her boss asks to see her for a moment, certain that she's about to be let go again?  What of her children, who grew up seeing Mommy put in years of hard work to get ahead, only to be reduced to a position typically held by high school graduates?  If the core philosophy of capitalism is that it rewards hard work and dedication, then how can our current situation be anything less than a failure of that philosophy?  What, Mrs. Island's children might ask, is the point of working hard to get ahead if you can be right back at Square One tomorrow to preserve a CEO's Christmas bonus?  They would be right to ask, and to be suspicious that any efforts they might make to advance themselves will ensure any kind of security.  Don't forget that CEO pay has skyrocketed amidst this widespread misery, further reinforcing the notion that the Have Nots will never become the Haves.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Island family.  They could move to Maine, where Republican legislators and their Governor Paul LeMagne are working to roll back the state's child labor laws.  Under the proposed laws (LD 516 and LD 1346), minors in Maine could:

  • Work more than 20 hours per week during the school year (extra-curricular activities are selfish luxuries and homework is for chumps)
  • Work until 11:00 PM on school nights (being awake in class the next day is such a waste anyway)
  • Work for a "training wage" $2 less than the state minimum wage ($5.25 vs. $7.50) for their first 180 days

Not only are the Mrs. Islands of the country fighting for jobs far beneath their skill level, but soon everyone in Maine will be fighting against minors who can be paid less and worked just as much.  It's like the GOP read Charles Dickens and thought, "You know, they really had it made back then."  You may recall Gov. LePage recently ordered the removal of a mural that commemorated workers from Maine's Department of Labor, arguing that it sent a message that Maine was hostile to rich people.  Strange that he's not concerned that these changes to the state's child labor laws--enacted in 1847--send the message that the state is willing to exploit children.

The Maine Department of Labor Murals by Judy Taylor
Panel 2: "Lost Childhood"
I'm not against teens taking part time jobs and earning some money for themselves.  On the contrary, I think it's a perfectly reasonable and productive use of their seemingly endless free time.  The problems are twofold. Firstly, there's the obvious push that many families will almost certainly have to make to get their teens to take these jobs, because meager as their earnings will be, they're needed in an economic environment in which Mom and Dad aren't able to bring in much more than that.  This is the very essence of exploitation, as many parents will regard their teens's employment as a necessity superseding any other interests.

Which brings us to the other, most obvious reason this is a horrible decision, and that's the impact this will have on the Maine education system.  Teachers have a hard enough time engaging well-rested students; it will soon become an exercise in futility for many teachers to even bother addressing their snoring students.  Furthermore, how can a teacher impress upon those students the importance of an education, when they're already flipping burgers and so are Mom and Dad?  How is anyone supposed to believe that education leads to prosperity if a teen in high school is already in an economic position comparable to his parents...without even finishing high school?

It's called, "The American Dream."  I fear that for at least 30 million Americans--very likely many more than that, once you factor in the under-employed and their dependents who have had to endure the effects of this meltdown--will consider success in America nothing more than a dream; a fanciful notion unlikely to ever be realized.  The effects of this blow to our collective confidence have yet to be properly manifest, and won't be well understood for years to come.

15 April 2011

Memo to Country Music: Drop Name-Dropping!

Country music has always paid homage to its trail blazers, from Hank Williams to Bob Wills, from Jimmie Rodgers to the Carter Family.  There have been countless cover versions of those original songs, and there's no shortage of songs written about those older artists.  Recently, though, homage has been reduced to crass name-dropping.  The most victimized artist of the last decade has to be Johnny Cash.  His collaborations with Rick Rubin (the American Recordings series) were critical darlings, but the country music industry itself ignored Cash's creative renaissance.  Grammy after Grammy, country radio continued to snub the Man in Black.  Then, in 2003, he left this world.  (I like to believe he's been on a non-stop, sold out tour in Heaven ever since.)  And even though radio still wouldn't play Cash's music, songs about Cash came out of the woodwork.


I don't think he built his legacy so lazy songwriters could exploit it.

I try not to be too cynical, and I'm sure many of those songs were well-intentioned.  I still think highly of "Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash's Redemption)," by Gary Allan.  Maybe I still dig it because it was an album cut and never released as a single for radio to bombard us.  I think, though, that I still like it because its tone and subject matter isn't base pandering; it's about a moment in Cash's life that he himself wrote and talked about.  Contrast that with "Johnny Cash" by Jason Aldean, which is little more than a rock song masquerading as a country song, shamelessly shoehorning Cash's name into its chorus.  In that song, Aldean sings of having a good time in his small town, "blasting out to Johnny Cash" in his car.  You know, because what every happenin' young cat in the country does is crank up "I Still Miss Someone" every Friday night.  Cash's legacy wasn't enriched by that song.  Rather, it shamelessly expects Cash's legacy to validate the song.

We hear all too often songs on country radio decrying the absence of Cash, Hank, Waylon and Willie, and audiences keep applauding the name-dropping.  It's one thing to mention Merle Haggard, but who's out there actually writing and singing about the things that made Hag's music so special?  I haven't heard one song on radio about inmates, Native Americans or the impact of climate change on our farmers, but I've heard a lot of songs about artists trying to claim the mantle of Hag's heir apparent.  And don't even get me started on how the aesthetics of these songs bear no resemblance to the styling of the veteran artists.  I don't expect a song about Willie to be built around a gut string guitar, but I also don't have any use for a song so far removed from Willie's music that I have to read the lyric sheet to find out that the song was supposed to have something to do with the Red Headed Stranger.

I'm sick of this shameless exploitation of country artist legacies.  You grew up listening to their music?  Terrific.  So did I.  And I'm very devoted to some of those folks, and I'm not falling for you co-opting their legacies for your radio play.  You want to impress me that you were "influenced" by Cash?  Sing about a social issue.  God knows there's no shortage of them.  Of course, you can't do that today.  No one in country music would have the guts to sing a song in defense of immigrants, bullied gay kids or how the "drill, baby, drill" crowd would decimate our environment.  In short, there's no one with the courage to stand up for marginalized segments of our population like Cash, Willie, Hag, et al built their legacies doing.

13 April 2011

Playlist: Middle School Years

The second in a series of playlists based on different eras of my life, The Middle School Years spans from 1990-1993.  It's a shorter period of time than The Childhood Years, but it was a distinct time of my life.  There were some really cool things for me in those years.  I've already addressed my early bouts with depression during those years, so I'm going to focus here on the memories captured by these songs.  I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks during this period, as you'll see.  One note: I really should have included the "Star Trek VI Suite" from Cliff Eidelman's score for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as I love the music and it was that movie that led to me becoming a Trekker.  It's kinda long, though, and I elected to instead include some other Star Trek soundtrack pieces for reasons described below.

"T-U-R-T-L-E Power" by Partners in Kryme - This is from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.  Technically, I think the movie opened just at the tail end of my fifth grade year, but I had the soundtrack on cassette and later the movie on VHS and I played both with regularity.  This was really the first time I recall making a point of letting the end credits for a movie play out, just so I could hear "T-U-R-T-L-E Power."

"U Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer - I love M.C. Hammer.  I've already written about how thrilled I was to cajole my dad into buying Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em for me on cassette for either my birthday or Christmas in 1990.  Driving home from visiting a friend a few nights ago, we had the radio on in the car and they played this song.  It was just as thrilling as it was 21 years ago.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen - Yes, this song was released before I went to middle school, but I was introduced to it in Wayne's World.  I still love to watch that movie and see their sing-along in the car.

"House Arrest" by Bryan Adams - Like many people of my generation, I owned Bryan Adams's Waking Up the Neighbours album (to this day, a favorite of mine).  This was always a fun song.  I don't know if it was ever a single, but I dig it.

"Market Street" Composed by Leonard Rosenman - From the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home soundtrack album.  I know a lot of Trekkers think lowly of Rosenman's score but I like the jazzy feel of this piece.  This was the first song I put on the chopping block when I tried to make room for "Star Trek VI Suite," but then I remembered hanging out with a neighbor (who ceased being a friend in high school) and how enthusiastically he talked about enjoying this composition, largely because unless you knew where it came from, it would be almost impossible to guess it was from a Star Trek score.

"Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice - Like the moment you saw "U Can't Touch This" you didn't immediately think of this song.  It was huge, then it became a punchline, and now it exists somewhere in the realm of nostalgia or "irony."  Whatever.  I can't imagine a playlist based on my middle school years that doesn't include "Ice Ice Baby."

"Dick Tracy" by Ice-T - I listened to a lot of soundtracks during my middle school years.  I loved the music for Dick Tracy, from Danny Elfman's score to the Madonna songs penned by Stephen Sondheim and the new recordings created as source music meant to recreate the 30s.  I could have picked any number of songs from the three soundtrack albums to the movie, but I went with this.

"Jimmy Olsen's Blues" by Spin Doctors - A friend of mine introduced me to the Spin Doctors's debut album, knowing that I'd begun reading Superman comics around that time.  (I won't lie: I started reading when I heard they were going to kill the Man of Steel.)  On that level, I loved this song.  On another level, Pocket Full of Kryptonite was a terrific album that I still love.  It makes me think of my friend as much as the enjoyment I got from Superman.

"Batman: The Animated Series" Main Title Composed by Danny Elfman - I can still remember how excited I was to learn that there would be a Batman cartoon in the fall of 1992.  This show was awesome, and I couldn't get enough of it.  I loved the character designs, and the writing blew me away.  I still remember talking about the show nonstop with classmates in art class.

"The Thunder Rolls (Live Version)" by Garth Brooks - I'll never forget the night that NBC aired This Is Garth Brooks!  It was a Friday night and my brother and I were at our dad's.  The three of us sat in the living room, watching that special.  It was one of the few times I could think of that we were all watching and enjoying the same thing.  I had quit liking country music altogether by this point, but Garth was an entertainer the likes of which I'd never before seen.  The extended version of "The Thunder Rolls" was jaw-dropping, and a standout moment in that concert.  This recording is from that special.  It was released on a CD single to radio stations (along with the live version of "Friends in Low Places") and about 10 years ago I snagged one of those CD singles off eBay.

"The Mountain" Composed by Jerry Goldsmith - From Goldsmith's score for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  I picked this because the post-title music is lovely, and because Star Trek V was the first CD I ever owned.  I got my first CD player for Christmas 1991.

"Face to Face" by Siouxsie & The Banshees - From Batman Returns.  It's got an eerie sound that I always enjoyed.

"Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice - I really could have just included this to represent both Vanilla Ice and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but both dominated 1991 for me.  This is really awful stuff, but I loved it.

"Hanky Panky (Bare Bones Single Mix)" by Madonna - Remember when I said I loved all the music from the Dick Tracy soundtracks?  I loved it so much I even bought the CD single of "Hanky Panky."  This is the epitome of "guilty pleasure."

"(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" by Bryan Adams - You didn't really think "House Arrest" was the only way Bryan Adams was going to be represented here, did you?  This song is the whole reason I ever bought Waking Up the Neighbours.  I loved Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (still do) and this song is killer.  I still get upset when I think about how "Beauty and the Beast" stole this song's Academy Award.

"Addams Groove" by M.C. Hammer - This song was really the last hit that M.C. Hammer had, coming shortly after "Too Legit to Quit."  I remember going to see The Addams Family at the Loews theater inside River Falls Mall.  Have I mentioned that I listened to a lot of soundtracks in middle school?

"Toot Toot Tootsie" by Brent Spiner - Yeah, like I could resist buying a CD of Data singing.  It turns out that Spiner ain't half bad.  I remember very clearly we went on a class field trip to Mammoth Cave in middle school and I took my Discman and this was one of the CDs I had with me to listen to on the way.  It was pretty nice, just sitting in the dark of night on a quiet bus with Spiner singing.  Not that it's relevant to the song, but the school had chartered buses so they were far more comfortable than regular school buses.  Also, we didn't get to actually go to Mammoth Cave.  Once we arrived, we learned it was closed to the public because it had flooded from rain the night before.

"Cool as Ice (Everybody Get Loose)" by Vanilla Ice featuring Naomi Campbell - Vanilla Ice starring in a movie?  You better believe I had to see that!  I remember going to see Cool as Ice at the J'Town Four theater; the first run theaters wouldn't touch this.  It's pretty awful, but even today I enjoy this specific song that opened the movie.

"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Main Title" Composed by Dennis McCarthy - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered in January of 1993, just as my 8th grade year was going into the home stretch.  I hated the pilot episode, "Emissary" (a friend of mine still recalls I even complained that I hated the color of the font used in the opening credits).  But I stuck with the show and quickly became hooked.  By the time GNP Crescendo released a soundtrack CD, I was in love with McCarthy's majestic main title.

"Theme from Jurassic Park" Composed by John Williams - Jurassic Park opened over the summer of 1993 and it was really the last major cool thing in my world before I began high school.  I went with a friend to see it at Showcase Cinemas and I'll never forget turning to him during the arrival at the island and telling him I absolutely had to have the soundtrack.  I bought it later that very day at Bigg's (I had to borrow a few dollars from my friend's mom, as it was full list price at Bigg's).  Just a couple days later, I saw it a second time for another friend's birthday, at the Kenwood Drive-In.  I'll never forget how awestruck I felt watching the scene where Grant and the kids are in the tree, feeding the brachiosaurus.  The sun had long set, and the screen there was flanked by trees, creating an atmosphere very similar to what was on the screen.  I still feel the magic whenever I here this score, which I still believe is the finest work of John Williams's illustrious career.