Monthly ArchiveMay 2011
I had my junior Advanced Placement students write analyses of books, movies or songs for their final exam. They did a great job. Because I believe in recycling everything, below is my sample analysis of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which seemed appropriate given the time of year.
What do you get when you mix four guys who can barely play their instruments, a raspy-voiced singer with a penchant for subversive lyrics, and a producer who knows how to wring the best performance possible from a young band?
In the case of “School’s Out,” the title track on the Alice Cooper album of the same name, you get a classic.
The song opens with a simple three-chord riff that has, since the time of its original release in 1972, become instantly recognizable to generations of listeners, an anthemic announcement of the end of another school year. When front man Cooper begins to sing, his is the voice of youthful anarchy, speaking out against drudgery imposed by parents, teachers, principals, and school boards:
Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
‘Cause they found new toys.
The lyrics are childlike, the rhymes and near-rhymes simple and predictable. In the next verse, which also starts with a repetitive “well,” he sings,
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
By combining “salute,” “flag” and “drag” with the idea of rude kids who don’t respect their elders’ authority, Cooper taps into the gooey center of the generation gap, both in his time and ours. Adults almost always see kids as lazy and disrespectful, but framed in the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the early ‘70s, this verse implies that kids are unpatriotic, as well. “Drag” creates a negative connotation with cigarettes and illegal substances, further winning over kids while alienating all the right adults, the ones who think that school should be year ’round and that kids should be nothing more than tiny adults.
For the band, it’s not enough that school is out for summer. It has to be out “forever” and “blow to pieces,” a vicious little sentiment that has taken on a more sinister meaning in this post-Columbine era. In contrast, the group next offers a kiddie choir intoning the classic schoolyard ditty: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.
Punning always plays a part in Cooper’s lyrics, and in “School’s Out,” he offers great examples, trading on dual meanings in the lines, “Well, we got no class/And we got no principles” before delivering the perfect follow-up, “and we got no innocence/We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Producer Bob Ezrin, who would go on to work with Pink Floyd on Another Brick in the Wall, keeps Glen Buxton’s guitar solo short and fuzz-ugly and adds a distinctive distortion effect to the climactic ringing bell before allowing it to wind down like a record on the wrong speed. At three-and-a-half minutes, the song is a polished little rock-and-roll gem that grows more lustrous with each passing school year.
Ultimately, Cooper and his original fans have grown older than the adults who were originally outraged by the group and its onstage antics. Instead of a source of outrage, “School’s Out” is now a piece of Americana, a throwback to the “good old days” of the ’70s.
There is irony in watching Cooper, now 60-plus years old, perform a song about reckless, youthful abandon, but he can still sell it. Maybe that’s because no matter how old and jaded we become, inside each of us is still that little kid sitting on the edge of his seat some fine, final school day in late May or early June, waiting on a bell that signals the start of grand summer adventures.
I’ve been modeling a new fashion style for the last few weeks — a big black boot on my left foot.
The boot, actually a walking cast, is because I was too stubborn to stop jogging and running when my leg started to hurt a few months ago. Instead, I kept pounding away on road, snow and ice, adding one mile or more at a time to my usual itinerary, not stretching or cooling down. I couldn’t have done more things wrong if I tried, and a stress fracture is the result.
In retrospect, I should have stopped when something hurt. Running in snow and ice means a change in gait to compensate, which can increase the likelihood of injury. Distance should be added incrementally, not in one- and two-mile gulps. And failing to warm up and cool down is like sending out an invitation to Injurious, god of bruises, breaks and bumps, to take up permanent residence in the body.
I can’t claim ignorance. In every instance — except the snow and ice part — I knew better. The best I can plead is a stubborn refusal to recognize that the body at age 42 (almost 43) is much different than the body at 22 or even 32. I thought I was invincible. I thought I could persevere.
I’m making the best of Frankenboot, however. After a week of students asking, and me not being practical enough to hang a sign around my neck that reads “stress fracture,” I’ve started to get more inventive.
Them: “Mr. Schillig, what happened to your foot?”
Them: “Yo, Schillig, what up with the leg?”
Me: “Malay man-catcher.”
Them: “OMG, Mr. S. Que pasa with that boot?”
Me: “Angry spouse with a butcher knife severed my Achilles tendon. By the way, who’s Achilles?” (A teachable moment.)
After a few days of lurching about like the Frankenstein monster, I adapted to ambulation with “das boot.” It’s somewhat like getting your sea legs, minus the boat, water and smooth-voiced captain who invites your wife to eat with him while he lowers you in the shark tank for a tour of the Pacific, because everything’s off kilter when you experience it with one leg 3 inches higher than the other.
One special challenge is mowing the lawn. To keep my boot presentable for more formal situations — like work and Sunday visits with Slick Uncle Willy in the county jail — I wrap it in a plastic shopping bag (I use Kohl’s instead of Walmart to add that extra touch of class) before firing up the mower. On wet days, which in northeast Ohio this spring is every day, I double wrap.
Plastic bags are slippery, to boot — pun intended. When I mow the hill in front of the house, I have to take care to anchor myself with the non-booted foot. Otherwise, I risk a Jack-and-Jill-style debacle.
I am fairly positive that I have lowered the property values on my block more than any other resident in the history of the neighborhood. Imagine the poor real estate agent who has to tell a prospective buyer how quiet and ordinary the neighborhood is, and across the street is an odd little man with his leg encased in a plastic grocery bag, screaming obscenities as he and a runaway lawnmower roll ass-over-tin-cup down an embankment.
If I’m not careful, I might end up with a matching set of boots.
Books 25 May 2011 04:30 pm
On Stranger Tides, the 1988 novel by Tim Powers that inspired the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, is a unique mix of piracy, adventure, voodoo and romance.
The book starts strong, with a likable main character, John Chandagnac, who is pressed into service by pirates. As the story progresses, Chandagnac, who soon becomes know by the high-seas sobriquet “Shandy,” is initiated into the ways of lawlessness, not to mention sorcery, which in Powers’ eighteenth century world, exists side by side with the more prosaic side of human nature.
It’s a heady and fun mix, but unfortunately, it all becomes too overwrought by the end. Powers offers one sorcerers’ duel, one swordfight, and one sea battle too many, which ruins the eerie vibe of the early chapters.
One standout section involves a jungle trek to the fabled Fountain of Youth, complete with creepy crawlies growing right out of the ground. It was very effective, like Treasure Island meets Night of the Living Dead. And Shandy isn’t the typical action-adventure hero. A puppeteer by trade, he’s as likely to cut and run from a fight as join in, and by the time he saves the heroine from the proverbial fate worse than death in the final pages (or maybe she’s the one who saves him), he’s operating more out an inevitable sense of duty than any real love for her. That’s refreshing.
I would read Powers again in the future, but I was more excited by the prospect when I was halfway through On Stranger Tides than when I reached the end. For buccaneer fans, though, this one’s a must-have.
Commentary 19 May 2011 06:37 am
This week’s world-ending column:
Just my luck — the world’s ending Saturday and I find out too late to do anything about it.
By “do anything about it,” I don’t mean that I’d try to stop it. If a learned biblical scholar has parsed his way through the Good Book and calculated from hidden messages that the planet is going bye-bye on Saturday — and 6 p.m. Saturday at that — there’s not much any one person can do to avert it, except maybe to wonder why the Bible doesn’t just say, “Hey, the world’s ending at 6 p.m. Saturday. Grab your ankles.” Seems that would be a much more straightforward way to communicate something so important.
After all, if I had something vital to say — like, “Caution Wet Floor” — I would put it in big, bold letters on a sign for all to see. I wouldn’t wrap it in riddles, bury it inside an ancient text and trust that some enterprising evangelical would tease out the solution before a whole bunch of people slipped and sued me.
So-called prophets are always like this, though. My favorite is Nostradamus, a mystic from the 16th century whose work has been used to foretell everything from atomic explosions to the coming of the Kennedy brothers. Nostradamus’s work is so vague that it can be applied to anything, which is a great way to keep readers interested for 400-plus years.
Take, for instance, these lines, translated from the French: “Through hunger the prey will make the wolf prisoner, the attacker then in great distress; the elder having the younger in front; the great man cannot escape in the middle of the crowd.” Nobody knows exactly what Nostradamus means, so my interpretations — that Osama bin Laden’s waterlogged body will be resurrected inside Target or that McDonald’s hamburgers are especially addictive — are as valid as anybody’s.
But back to this end of the world thing.
If I had been paying attention a few months earlier, I would have stopped paying bills and enjoyed free electricity and satellite TV before the end was nigh. Or maybe I would have quit my job and headed for a Vegas casino, where I could be in position to party on a rooftop with a sign that says “Welcome, Space Brothers.” (Because any self-respecting, end-of-the-world scenario should involve aliens.)
I wouldn’t have kept working for the man, shoveling the snow, mowing the yard, and shaving every day, that’s for sure. I want to go to the fiery finale with a face full of stubble. But it takes so long for me to grow a beard that I can’t get even a pencil moustache going between now and Saturday, which seems like a waste of a perfectly good Apocalypse.
I’m also in the middle of a really good book, and I hate to be snuffed out before I find out whodunit. Like the rest of America, if the world ends Saturday I’ll head into the Great Mystery without ever knowing who won “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.” The networks should have been more proactive.
This whole bang-bang theory makes me wonder, though: If you’re a person who fervently wants the world to end Saturday but believes that it won’t, are you a pessimist or an optimist?
Either way, I salute Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping for having the guts to call attention to his latest calculations. After all, he last predicted that the world would end in 1994. I wonder what he will say this Sunday morning.
At least the planet is closing up shop at a decent hour. The reason I don’t watch many astronomical phenomena is that they are almost always scheduled after midnight, and my mom once cautioned me that nothing good happens after 10 p.m. If the world was snuffed out at some weird hour, I’d hate to sleep through it and wake up dead.
And as it turns out, 6 p.m. Saturday might not be the end, anyway. An alternate theory posits that Saturday is only the rapture, and that we’ll have six more months to get our affairs in order before the world really and truly ends on Oct. 21.
Of course, the ancient Mayans predicted the world ending in 2012, which is even better. By then, I should have enough saved for that ticket to Sin City, especially if I stop paying bills now.
One thing’s for sure, though, I’ll definitely buy trip insurance, just in case I have to postpone things for a few months until the next big end-of-the-world scam … er, prediction comes along.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (before Satuday, just in case).
For the last few years, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Grant Morrison’s take on Batman, but I haven’t been inclined to check it out. But courtesy of my local library, a copy of Batman and Robin the Deluxe Version: Batman Reborn fell into my hands, so here are my thoughts.
Superhero comics generally have a certain rhythm and cadence that Morrison gleefully subverts throughout this book. On several occasions, I checked the table of contents because I thought that an issue felt like it was ending too soon or running too long. Instead of spending valuable pages at the opening explaining how Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne assumed the role of Batman and Robin, he assumes readers will figure it out as the story hurtles along. He also introduces several new villains to the rogues’ gallery (or at least they’re new to me) — Toad, Pig, and Flamingo chief among them. It’s a nice change from the usual Joker, Penguin and Two-Face, although Penguin does pop up briefly in one installment.
Artistically, Frank Quitely’s work is the highlight of the book. His manic version of Gotham is reminiscent of the best of Frank Miller, a skewed take on the characters that hearkens back to the Golden and Silver Age, but that is still very modern, as well. Unfortunately, Philip Tan has the unenviable task of following Quitely, and his work doesn’t have the same intensity.
The book’s first arc starts and ends strong.I had the feeling that anything could happen with this new Dynamic Duo, and I enjoyed their interplay and banter. I like Dick’s uncertainly as he steps into his mentor’s boots, the brash overconfidence of Robin (who is Bruce Wayne’s son — news to me), and the flying Batmobile. I especially like Morrison’s take-no-prisoners writing style, which reminds me of nobody so much as the late, great Steve Gerber. In a world of comic-book writers who have migrated over from movies or novels, Morrison is the real deal: A scribe who cut his teeth on the garish, four-color world of pulp paper and knows how to move a story along in his chosen medium.
Unfortunately, the second arc is just one bloody fistfight and a complete letdown. The Red Hood and Scarlet are funhouse-mirror reflections of Batman and Robin, and as such should be a whole lot more fun and interesting than they are. It was a bad way to end an otherwise fun book.
My library has the second volume of the series, which I plan to check out shortly.
Books 13 May 2011 09:00 pm
The only bad part of each Pearls Before Swine treasury is that too much time passes between volumes. Stephan Pastis is a friggin’ genius, and his characters — Pig, Rat, Goat, Zebra and the rest — are the funniest on the contemporary comics page. What makes each Pearls treasury especially fun are Pastis’s annotations, including self-deprecating comments about his lack of drawing ability, origins of various gags, and readers’ responses, usually outrage. Pearls Blows Up is a typical example of what makes the strip tick — outrageous humor and cynical observations. Recommended.
Here is this week’s column, fresh from the pages of The (Alliance) Review:
For young adults, going to college involves learning new expressions that parents don’t know, but it also involves assigning new meanings to ones they already do.
For example, students define “staying up all night to study” as spending an hour looking over notes while simultaneously listening to music, watching TV and perusing Facebook, and then the rest of the night playing beer pong. “I miss you” means “send money,” and “I’m coming home this weekend” means “all my laundry is dirty.”
Parents expect such neologisms to accompany any foray into higher education, and most are relatively harmless to everything except Mom and Dad’s bank account and supply of detergent.
Yet all parents should be especially wary of one expression uttered when youngsters have completed final exams and are preparing to come home for the summer: “I have everything packed.”
To the normal person, “having everything packed” conjures visions of neatly labeled boxes stacked in the corner of a room. Said normal person may also expect one additional laundry basket of sundry items collected during the school year, such as textbooks, a desk lamp and maybe a few last-minute clothing items that couldn’t fit in the aforementioned boxes.
Said normal person’s eyes will melt and his tongue will shriek in horror at what “having everything packed” means to the student, which is more like a scene from “Sanford and Son.”
Because the parent/student perspective on this hot-button topic is so drastically different, colleges and universities should immediately institute a course called Packing for Home 101. Ideally, students would learn that:
* Packing is not an activity that begins when parents knock. Instead, it starts several days before, with a conscientious collecting of items that have been strewn about the room for the last two semesters.
* Parents must be informed of items purchased during the school year that will require a dramatic increase in transportation space, such as futons, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, treadmills or a lifetime supply of Ramen noodles.
* Moving Day is not the time to sell back textbooks or go knocking on neighbors’ doors looking for sweatshirts loaned for the big bonfire in March. These activities should be accomplished long before Mom and Dad arrive.
* Disputes with roommates over who really owns the coffeepot, Dance Dance Revolution machine or any other items purchased jointly when the two of you actually liked each other should be resolved amicably before both sets of parents are playing tug of war with these possessions in the hallway.
* Beer cans, prophylactic wrappers, adult magazines and other objects that could cause parents to question exactly what they’re paying for should be quietly discarded before Moving Day.
* Frilly underwear and other sensitive items should under no circumstances be shoved into wastebaskets, clothes baskets or any other type of receptacle where they could accidentally fall out while your dad is carrying them in one hand and a pink floor lamp in the other.
* Your stuff is not going to be stored indefinitely in the living room of your parents’ home. As a matter of fact, your stuff isn’t going to be stored even temporarily there. Instead, it’s going directly to your bedroom, the attic, the basement or the garage, whichever is most convenient for a grumpy father.
* Moving Day is absolutely the wrong time to start gushing enthusiastically about everything you’re going to drag back to campus in just a few short months, especially if these plans involve the purchase and/or assembly of more cheap furniture by your parents. Give them a break, huh?
Such a class could be multidisciplinary, involving science (the physics of fitting 10 pounds of crap in a five-pound sack), literature (notice how Tom and Huck travel down the Mississippi with just the clothes on their backs? Why can’t you?), history (most people throughout recorded time have owned no more than two pairs of shoes at the same time — food for thought) and mathematics (if your father has to make 18 trips to and from the car to load all your stuff on campus, and 18 more trips to and from the car to unload your stuff at home, how many trips will he make before his head explodes?).
This is called a practical education for a practical world. And “practical education” is one of the few expressions that hasn’t changed its meaning at all.
Here is last week’s column from The Alliance Review:
I buried Floyd the cat on a cold, rainy day last week.
If you’re tempted to stop reading, thinking this will be some sort of paean to a family pet, don’t. I come to roast Floyd, not praise him. Most people believe death isn’t something to poke fun at, but since it’s one of only two experiences that everybody shares (the other is birth), I believe it’s fair game.
See, Floyd didn’t go out the way I thought he would, which was spectacularly. From the day we first adopted him at a wedding reception (the bride’s new husband was allergic, and my wife and I were softies) and brought him home, I knew the cat was destined for greatness. Greatness being defined as some show-stopping exit that would out-Herod Herod, a flame-out of epic proportions that would secure him a spot in the soon-to-be cat museum in downtown Alliance, right next to DC, a former cat of ours who puked a hair ball into a satellite receiver, causing it to emit an ear-piercing, high-pitched, electronic death knell before its solid-state shell shut down for good.
After that stunt, DC’s life could be measured in how many minutes remained before the vet’s office opened and an appointment with the needle could be made.
I assumed something similar would happen with Floyd, who spent the first four months with us hiding in the attic, sneaking out at night to make the three-story trek to the basement, where he used the litter box and ate. Sometimes, we’d catch glimpses of him moving like a white shadow through the darkness, his eyes reflecting the glow of street lights through the windows.
Eventually, when he realized he wasn’t going back home, he started coming around, usually while I was sleeping. He’d climb onto my prone body and knead my chest like a baker preparing dough before he plopped down and purred loudly in my face. I’d wake to his green eyes staring into mine and be thankful he had no claws.
He almost punched his own ticket the time he got trapped in the furnace. We could hear him tromping through the ventilation system, and could even watch from the basement as ducts sagged at his passing. When we finally coaxed him out, he was jet black — but very much alive.
Floyd hated our other cats, including his stepbrother, Frank, adopted at the same wedding reception. He’d beat them furiously with his front paws, like Rocky Balboa at the punching bag, hissing all the while.
The only pet he made up to was the family dog, Molly. He followed her like their positions were reversed — he the lost puppy, she the aloof feline. Eventually, she would give in to his affections and allow him to lick her face and sleep beside her at night. They were like a settled married couple, growing old and fat together.
And Floyd gained weight on our watch — a lot of it. In his prime, he weighed around 18 pounds, his belly practically dragging on the floor. On his last day, he weighed only 7, a shrunken remnant of the cat that would loll on his back like a sumo wrestler while waiting for a belly rub.
I didn’t dig Floyd’s grave; my stepfather, bless his heart, did that. But in the time it took for me to pick up the remains from the vet’s office and drive the half-mile to my parents’ house, the hole had filled with water. His service was more of a burial at sea, I guess, with his little Hefty Cinch Sack coffin bobbing back to the surface with each clod of dirt I shovelled.
It almost made me wish I’d repeated the services I held for DC, which involved lifting a trash can lid and making a deposit. (Unless this is a violation of some federal, state or local ordinance, in which case the statute of limitations has already passed and, if it hasn’t, I made that last part up).
By the time I was done with Floyd, I’d strained my back and ruined a pair of shoes, but I’d mostly managed to get him under ground. I’d also ruminated about how much we do for our pets, even when — and maybe because — they drive us crazy.
They’re like family that way.
So I suppose this is a paean to Floyd after all — just another crazy cat who’ll never make it into a museum for the way he lived or the way he died, but who did win over the heart of a dog and an adopted family, and who could beat the hell out of any other feline that came within striking distance.
We should all live a life so full.
Comic books 03 May 2011 04:19 pm
Seriously, I’m out of superlatives for American Vampire. If you’re not reading it already, issue 13 is the perfect point to jump on, with a two-page synopsis and the return of original artist Rafael Albuquerque to team with series creator Scott Snyder. This is as good as horror comics … make that comics … make that serial fiction … make that fiction gets.
Beneath a wonderful J.G. Jones cover for First Wave Special #1 is a fun idea for a team up among Doc Savage, the Batman, and the Avenger. Writer Jason Starr sets up a gritty mob-style plot and Phil Winslade provides his usual, stunning art. But the idea goes south about halfway through, right about the time when Savage and Batman join forces to keep the Avenger from bringing down an uber-evil mob boss because the alternative to his leadership is even worse. That sort of situational ethics might work with some characters, but not with Batman and Doc Savage. Still, Starr has come closer to capturing the spirit of what First Wave is supposed to be about than most any other creator, so I’d be willing to see him take another crack at the line.
Courtesy of a big bin of $5 CDs at Wal-Mart, I picked up two releases from the original Alice Cooper band: Love It to Death and School’s Out. I’ve had the first one on vinyl for years (and maybe on cassette, too). I’ve never had School’s Out in any format, although I certainly have the title track on any number of greatest hits compilations.
Of the two, 1971’s Love It to Death has the stronger material and rocks much harder, with two of my favorite songs, “I’m Eighteen” and “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” The latter is a homage to creepy character actor Dwight Frye (the band intentionally misspelled his name to avoid legal hassles), who appeared in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Dracula in the 1930s.
School’s Out, which came out just one year later, already shows the group (or at least lead singer AC) veering sharply toward a more Broadway, almost self-parodying sound. The title track is a thunderous anthem that holds up even after decades of heavy rotation (especially this time of year), threatening to eclipse the rest of the album. I also like “Luney Tune,” “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets,” and “Public Animal #9.”
The smallish dimensions of the CDs makes me nostalgic for the days of vinyl, especially in the case of School’s Out, with a carved-desk cover that has to look incredibly cool at full size.
I did some more bin diving at Wal-Mart, hoping to scare up copies of Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, and any other 70s-era Cooper material, but no such luck. Get ‘em while they’re cheap.