Archive for April, 2008

Once: Brilliance on the Small Scale

April 30, 2008

Once posterEvery once in a while, a movie haunts you to the extent that you find yourself thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and the DVD has been returned to Blockbuster. For me, that movie was Once, which I saw a couple of weeks ago and haven’t gotten out of my head since.

Why does this movie stay with me so? A large part of its staying power is its music. For those who either haven’t seen the movie or didn’t watch the Academy Awards this year, Once is about two musicians in Dublin who spur each other to stretch their talents over a single week. Its stars are Glen Hansard of The Frames and Marketa Irglova, two musicians who now tour together as The Swell Season. The music is unapologetically romantic and gorgeous, and all the songs in the movie were composed by Hansard and Irglova or Hansard alone. Like the movie itself, the lyrics paint a kind of tone poem, create a delicate mood, such as these from the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”:

I don’t know you
But I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me
And always fool me
And I can’t react
And games that never amount
To more than they’re meant
Will play themselves out

But as fabulous as the music is – and the music comprises more than half the film, mind you – Once‘s story, written by its director John Carney, is stunning in its simplicity. If you expect some big and horrific conflict to interrupt these characters’ lives, think again. No death, no violence, no sex. The only conflict is the very mild tension coming from the characters’ own heads and their unrequited attraction. It’s the visual movie equivalent of a tone poem, and it’s exquisite in its detail and lack of gimmickry.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go rent it right away. You’ll thank me.


Lehane is Le Handy with a Pen

April 28, 2008

Gone Baby GoneI just watched Gone Baby Gone last night. It was our weekend treat rental and it did not let us down. I’d read the book by Dennis Lehane long enough ago that I’d forgotten most of it. The screenplay by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard seemed to keep pretty close to the book, to the best of my knowledge, and Affleck did a terrific job of directing the action so it seemed real, with Boston as much of a character as the human ones. I can divulge very little of the story without it turning into spoiler city over here at WordHappy, so suffice it to say that the story, whether you read the book or watch the movie, deals in a billion shades of gray – no black and white conclusions for this writer. As I watched it, I was certain that as David Simon was dreaming up writers for THE WIRE, he’d read Lehane and thought, “We have to get that guy. He gets us.”

But after I finished watching the movie, I was left with a severe jonesing for some more Lehane. And while I’d loved the film, I was left thinking that as good as it was, it missed a lot of the humor that I seemed to remember the Lehane books having. So I went back to the last of the Patrick Kenzie-Angie Gennaro series, [Note to Dennis Lehane if you read this: WHEN is the next Kenzie book coming? You promised there would be another one. You promised.] Prayers for Rain, and just skimmed it for the style, tone, and humor:

Cody Falk drove a pearl-gray Audi Quattro, and at nine-thirty that night, we watched him exit the Mount Auburn Club, his hair freshly combed and still wet, the butt of a tennis racket sticking out of his gym bag. He wore a soft black leather jacket over a cream linen vest, a white shirt buttoned at the throat, and faded jeans. He was very tan. He moved like he expected things to get out of his way.

“I really hate this guy,” I said to Bubba. “And I don’t even know him.”

“Hate’s cool,” Bubba said. “Don’t cost nothing.”

I love that in the space of a paragraph, Lehane throws off just enough details to make us despise this Cody character, then has Patrick mirror that reaction, thereby making us love Patrick. Slick, that.

For anyone who hasn’t read Dennis Lehane, get thee to the library or bookstore immediately. I love the Patrick Kenzie series, so start at the beginning, with A Drink Before the War. Of course, don’t blame me if you ignore your loved ones and professional obligations while you plow through the series.

Animal Intelligence: Are You Smarter Than Your Pet?

April 21, 2008

CatAnyone who has ever owned a pet knows that the bond they share with that animal isn’t simply a projection of human qualities onto their pet, but part of the animal itself. Just like we brag about our children, we brag about our animals as well. My current cat will snuggle in front of the fireplace by burrowing under the area rug in front of the hearth, with just her nose peeking out. Considering she has no opposable thumbs with which to pick up a throw blanket and wrap it around herself, this solution seems like pretty smart problem-solving to me.

You can imagine my happiness, therefore, at picking up the March 2008 issue of the National Geographic magazine and reading Virginia Morell’s wonderful article “Minds of Their Own.” In this article, she profiles some of the latest research looking at the behaviors of many different species of animals. The expected brainiacs of the animal world are in profiled – dolphins, dogs, chimpanzees – but evidence of more complex cognition can also be found in animals such as sheep, not normally associated with being terribly bright. Not only is this information on the intelligence of animals really fascinating, but I found it enormously moving as well.

In one section, Morell describes the work Irene Pepperberg did for more than thirty years with Alex, an African gray parrot. Pepperberg theorized that if she could teach him to “learn” English by imitating its sounds, humans could gain a better understanding of avian cognition. As a result, Alex was able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of same and different, higher cognitive skills generally only ascribed to higher mammals. He also was able to assert his personality:

For the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes and materials (wool versus wood versus metal). . . And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird’s brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly,” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was also teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly.”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s just like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door, there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hallway into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

That passage made my eyes leak a little, I must confess. I am absolutely thrilled that the National Geographic website has posted this article online. But as wonderful as the story is, the photo portraits by Vincent J. Musi are equally amazing. Be sure to check out the photo gallery and accompanying video.

What’s your best pet brag?

Lucky Laundry: The Washington State Lotto Ad

April 16, 2008

LaundryI was driving along in my car, listening to the radio, zoning out and thinking deep thoughts as advertisements played. Suddenly, a woman’s voice crashed through to my consciousness, comparing her laundry’s rinse cycle to the cycle of life, only with a spring air scent:

Now comes my time. It’s just me, my washer and dryer, and five days worth of dirty laundry. Time to remember that life isn’t about meetings and deadlines. . . it’s about making whites whiter, and folding towels to perfection.

As I shoved my eyebrows back down from the ceiling, the announcer came on and said, “A weekend is not a vacation,” and proceeded to tie in the Washington State Lotto’s Weekend Getaway contest. You can listen to the commercial by going to the Washington’s Lottery website, and truly, you should. It is hilarious. I couldn’t find the persons responsible for this ad, although I suspect the culprits to be Publicis in the West, who’ve handled the advertising for Washington’s Lottery in the past. What I love about the ad is how it shows you the effects of a person having utterly snapped, then ties it in with a covert suggestion that a vacation might be in order.

I know the feeling.

You Go, Girl! The Songs and the Inspirations

April 12, 2008

Strumming guitarI don’t know what it is, but after months of silence, I’m craving music — all my old favorite songs. Maybe it’s the weather with its tease of sunshine and heat. Maybe it’s seeing people walk around dressed in jeans and t-shirts instead of disappearing under the Michelin Man folds of a down parka. But there is music bubbling up inside of me, so if I don’t give it an outlet of singing along to songs that I love, I will be like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, bursting into song and spinning around with no provocation.

This month, I read articles in two separate magazines that made me think I must not be the only one feeling this way. First, the April issue of Vanity Fair published an excerpt from Sheila Weller‘s new book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation (Atria Books, 2008). Then I read More magazine’s May issue, which carries an article about four women who’ve served as inspiration for some of the most iconic songs of the last 40 years. Between the two articles, I’m singing some great songs.

Weller’s excerpt of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King is fascinating reading; I’ll certainly be putting the book on reserve at the library to read the whole account. It’s the story of a different time and place for women singer-songwriters, when perhaps it was easier to be heard, particularly by the community of upcoming singer-songwriters. But from the article, it also seems like each of these women succeeded as much by the romantic entanglements and/or musical alliances she formed as by her sheer talent. Joni Mitchell was connected with members of the Blues Project, Leonard Cohen, and David Crosby; Carly Simon dated Cat Stevens and Kris Kristofferson before falling in love with her future husband James Taylor. Even Carole King, who seems the most rooted of the three during those times, co-wrote some of her seminal songs with her first husband, Gerry Goffin. It’s hard to imagine how these women, if placed in a time machine and transported to the future, would fare if trying to make it today. American Idol material, they’re not. I think the singer-songwriter who embodies their spirit most today is Seattle’s own Brandi Carlile.

The More article, “I Was the Girl in the Song,” was written by Peter Knobler and profiles Diane Lozito, the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen‘s “Rosalita”; Rikki Ducornet, who inspired Steely Dan‘s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”; Sharona Alperin, the muse for the Knack‘s “My Sharona”; and Judy Collins, who inspired Crosby Stills and Nash‘s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Hearing about the chance meetings between these women and the men who wrote the songs lends a powerful voice to how brief a moment needs to be for inspiration to spark.

Neither of these articles are up on the magazines’ websites yet, and may never be. Go look for them at your newsstand, or find Weller’s book, which was just released last week. Certainly, I’ve got my play list for the next several months.

What are the songs you’re listening to this spring?

An Interview with Justin Roberts: Way Out Wonderful

April 7, 2008

Justin Roberts in ConcertWhat’s a music lover to do when tickets for live shows of your favorite artists start at $25 a seat (and that’s for the cheap ones)? I’ll tell you what you do. You start listening to kids’ music. I’m serious. Some of the best music out there these days is found in the children’s section at the local Borders. This is stuff that crosses all musical genres and has some of the cleverest lyrics around. Now, it helps if you have your own short people to listen with you, but it is not a prerequisite.

One of the very best of the genre-bending kids’ music artists out there is Justin Roberts. Sounding a little like James Taylor and looking like John Denver’s younger brother — a kid once described him as “He’s so cute, I peed my pants” — Roberts is the real deal, a talented songwriter and musician who’s able to connect with his songs to kids and their parents. Who else would think to include a line in a song called “Meltdown,” “I’ll stop the world and meltdown with you.”

I urge you all to link immediately to Justin Roberts’ website and watch his YouTube video and listen to some of his songs (and obviously, then go buy them; he has a new CD, Pop Fly, being released in about a week). Among my particular favorites are “Just a Minute” from his Meltdown CD:

Sometimes I think about my baby brother
When he was just a minute old and he was so small
And my grandma, you know,
she is more than just a minute
She is many, many, many, many minutes
And we’re all just minutes
But then I kiss my mama on the cheek
And I feel like I’m more than just a minute
For that minute I’m more than just a minute

And “Willy Was a Whale,” from his Yellow Bus CD, an anthem for all those kids who can’t say their R’s:

Willy was a whale and he walked on the water
And he tried to be wough and he twied to be tough
But Willy wasn’t really wough, he wasn’t wough at all
He was a willy white whale and he walked on the water, oh yeah

Now, because I have connections that amaze even myself (and because I brazenly accosted the poor man after a concert), Justin Roberts has consented to be my latest victim/participant for a WordHappy interview:

WordHappy: Since this is a blog that celebrates all kinds of great writing, let’s begin there. Whose writing (books, songs, tv, movies, you name it) gives you goose pimples and makes your toes curl up, it’s that good?

Justin Roberts: Just some random selections off the top of my head –

Books: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – The Little Prince; Jean Toomer – Cane

Songs: Mountain Goats – Idylls of the Kings; Freedy Johnston – Perfect World; Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day; Joni Mitchell – Case of You

TV: Arrested Development; 30 Rock; Flight of the Conchords

Movies: Juno; The Lives of Others; Le Samourai

WH: Tell us about your songwriting process. Do you have a large focus group of children you work with? Or do you have a large memory bank of childhood incidents and traumas that you draw from?

JR: I definitely don’t have a focus group of kids and I’m always a little worried that the songs won’t reach my audience. Both my wife Chris and my producer Liam Davis are usually the first to hear the new songs as they are being developed. It’s always helpful to have people that I trust hear the songs. Many of the memories come from my childhood but they also come from ideas that friends or fans share about their childhood. That being said, writing songs is sort of a grueling process for me. I’m strangely happy when I’ve finished all the songs for a CD. Beginning from nothing is always a soul searching process that is not altogether comfortable. I think a lot of that songwriting anxiety, properly diverted, sometimes makes for a funny song. Pop Fly is probably a good example of that describing the worries of a failed little leaguer.

WH: You started out as a musician and leader of the indie-rock band Pimentos for Gus, which is an outstanding name, by the way. What kind of differences have you noticed writing songs geared toward adults versus more kid-themed songs? (Notice I did not call them songs geared toward kids, because I know MANY adults who are hooked on these songs as well.)

JR: I feel a lot of freedom writing songs for families. I can add silly grown-up references, make a completely mindless punk rock song about day camp, or write a melancholy ballad and they all sort of fit into the genre. It’s very liberating writing for families and getting feedback about the songs from 6 year-olds and 86 year olds.

WH: As a songwriter, are you a music first/lyrics second kind of guy or vice-versa? Or do they come simultaneously? And while I’m talking about your lyrics, HOW did you come up with the sheer brilliance of “Willy, the fact is/You’re a whale, not a cactus/?” That’s like finding a rhyme for “orange.” I smile every time I hear that line.

JR: I write the lyrics with the melody always. I never write the words first. Many of my songs begin as some kind of stream of consciousness singing which is later constructed and re-edited sometimes tediously by me. Willy was a whale is a good example of the stream of consciousness writing. I was trying to procrastinate from studying sanskrit in graduate school and I started writing a really silly alliteration song for no apparent reason. I think I just stumbled across that line you mentioned as I was singing.

WH: When you’re in writing mode, what or who inspires you? Is it other music, or literature, or just watching kids?

JR: I think I’m very inspired by the music that I listen to as an adult; whether it’s Elvis Costello or Loudon Wainwright or the Replacements or the Ramones or something else. Many of those songs have just seeped into my blood. As a kid I was really moved by Shel Silverstein and the poetry writing we did in school. I think that experience playing with words has really stuck with me.

WH: What is the “funnest” thing about performing for kids and their families?

JR: It sounds like a cliché but it never gets old watching families dancing and singing together at the concerts. We always feel like we have the best seat in the house because we get to watch the devoted dancers in the front rocking out and the mom are dad mouthing the words farther back in the audience. There’s always a lot of great things happening between kids and parents too that makes me almost break into laughter while we are performing.

WH: In concert, do children fling their Underroos at you, ala Tom Jones? (Hopefully, no one is throwing diapers.)

JR: I can’t say that that happens, thankfully. They do however, tell me that “Song X” is their favorite song and that always moves me. Kids can’t help but be entirely honest; whether they are jumping up to start a dance or walking away because they are bored. So, when you get a compliment, you know that it’s pure.

Justin Roberts, thank you for this amazing interview. Readers, check him out. He’s way out wonderful.

Project Virgle and Other Cheeky April Fools’ Jokes

April 1, 2008

Those people at Google are naughty, naughty, naughty. They are cheeky little monkeys, and if I did not derive so much pleasure from their April Fools’ collaborations, I should have to take them to task indeed.

For those who need another sensory element added to their book reading, try Google’s new scratch and sniff technology over at Google Books. Ever wanted to smell the Color Atlas of Dental Medicine: Periodentology? Now you can. [Hint: Keep hitting the Refresh button to continue to find wondrous new scratch and sniff offerings. And follow up, clicking the book and the scratch and sniff links]

For all of us time-challenged email addicts, fortunately, now we have Gmail Custom Time, an application that ensures we’ll never be late again:

Gmail Custom Time

Finally, the piece de resistance, Google has teamed up with British entrepreneur Richard Branson of Virgin to create the first human colony on Mars with Project Virgle. You can even apply to be a Virgle pioneer. The application includes pertinent multiple choice questions such as:

# 6. If I was unexpectedly confronted with the emergence of a bewilderingly alien and frighteningly advanced Martian life form which appeared bent on killing me if I failed to quickly and effectively communicate my peaceful intentions and potential value to its civilization, I would:

  • Die
  • Whip out my handy universal transcorder and start schmoozing my ass off.
  • Well, given that there’s no such thing as a transcorder that works for a Martian language that we haven’t even heard yet, I guess I’d just do my best to seem non-threatening while communicating my peaceful intentions with subtly universal hand gestures.
  • Run straight toward the Martian while screaming wildly and brandishing whatever weapon happens to be handy.


# 9. A multi-stage heavy lift rocket built using established solid and liquid propellant technology with solid boosters doubled for increased payload capability could start a burn for insertion into a lunar trajectory and then back toward Earth for final insertion into a modified Hohmann Transfer Orbit, increasing its final Earth-to-Mars transfer velocity through a periapsis delta-v burn performed at the closest lunar and subsequent Earth approach, with the additional delta v gained on account of the potential energy from the mass of expended propellant,

  • Actually, I would think fairly quickly and easily
  • Only with significant time and fuel expenditure
  • My SAT tutor said to always guess C if you aren’t sure
  • goo goo ga ga hee hee ha ha

So there you have it. Help save humanity with Virgle.virgle-mars.jpg

Now, Google, get back to work! You have next April 1 to start planning for.