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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year

I've been ridiculously negligent towards this blog this year. I'd make a New Year's resolution to rectify that, but I doubt I'd stick with it.
Anyway, I wish anyone who reads this a happy 2015.
2014 was, overall, a decent year for me. My running continued and, knock on wood, I feel in good health. I hope this continues, and I certainly wish the same for all my family and friends. Once one gets to my age (46 going on 47) good health is no longer something to take for granted.
I don't know what else to write at this point. I will try and get to this blog more often in 2015, but won't guarantee anything.  I did receive a tablet for Christmas, which I am determined my kids won't touch, so that may encourage me to blog more.
So anyway, have a great new year, and I hope you all celebrate New Year's Eve responsibly. I doubt anyone reading this blog is a party animal. I, for one, plan on simply having a few drinks at home and going to bed at about 12:15 am.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Post-millenial tension, ebola edition

Ebola is in the news these days.

We have two cases of Ebola in the United States, and the national media is on DefCon 1. Meanwhile, the real crisis is in West Africa. This is where the world's focus needs to be. Instead, our national media is in full sensationalistic mode, the point where the only place I want to get my news--and a more rational approach--is NPR.

Look, I know that a disease, in which one's survival is no better than a flip of the coin, is understandably frightening. And the way the missteps by the CDC and Texas Presbyterian Hospital (woefully unprepared for an Ebola patient) don't make things any less scary. But it does seem that both are making amends and doing their best to make up for their mistakes.

Panic, conspiracy theories, and the "blame game" don't get us very far, though. And there has been plenty of that to go around recently. Americans seem especially skilled at concocting conspiracy theories or blaming someone else [cough, Obama, cough] for anything that goes wrong. While it is troublesome that the world has had time to prepare for the possibility of an Ebola epidemic and seemingly procrastinated, hiding in corner in fear is not the best way to face the challenge NOW. NOW is the time to take action.

I'm concerned with what the increasing Ebola crisis will do in a region of the world, West Africa, that is already politically and economical unstable. It finally dawned on me, after feeling powerless to help in any way with this crisis, that the best thing I could do as an individual was donate money to an organization fighting Ebola on the front lines. So yesterday I gave $25 to Doctors Without Borders. It was a small gesture--probably enough money to buy a few boxes of Kleenex--but it was at least something. I want to at least feel like I'm doing something to help.

And I encourage anyone out there who happens to read this to contribute money to any organization that is on the front lines in the fight against Ebola.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Post-vacation post

Hey, everyone. Just a quick note to let you know that I'm still alive and well.
We went up the Upper Peninsula late last month for a end of summer vacation. It was great to get up there again after our prematurely aborted 2012 camping trip, in which black flies bit us mercilessly and certain members of the family (I won't mention names) complained about lack of WiFi in the remote area west of Grand Marais.
This year we stayed in motels with WiFi and swimming pools, so certain younger factions of our clan were kept satisfied. And though we were in Sault Ste. Marie in possibly the slowest day of the shipping season (thus, no boats, ships, or freighters passing through the locks), we did stop by my grandfather's old neighborhood on Amanda Street, and visited my great grandparents' graves in Pine Grove Cemetery. We actually made two trips to the Soo: our first stop on the trip and one last side trip to the cemetery on the way back towards the Mackinac Bridge and home.
Unfortunately, my great grandparents' house is no longer extant. Just my luck, it appears to be the only house on Amanda Street to be torn down--for reasons that are unclear to me. Maybe it burned down. If so, that would be the ultimate irony, since my great grandfather was the chief volunteer firefighter in Sault Ste. Marie for 30 years. In any case, I'm quite certain their house resembled the other modest two-story wood frame houses on this street.
What was once my great grandparents' house in Sault Ste. Marie is now a garage/shed.
We also had a mini-reunion with my aunt and two cousins at the Hilltop Restaurant in L'Anse. It was wonderful to see them.
I need to take a break now, because real life beckons. If I get a chance, I'll add to this later.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ele's Race 2014

I'll cut to the chase: my Ele's Race 5K gun time was 27:45, which is a considerable improvement over last year's 31:19 (though in fairness I did run whilst suffering from a sore leg).

Still, bum leg or no bum leg, today's run beat the hell out of my very first official 5K, run almost exactly one year ago. I won't lie and say it was easy. From about the 1.5 mile mark to about the 3 mile mark, my brain (or the Blerch, as the comic strip artist--and big-time runner--"Oatmeal" refers to that evil voice inside a runner's head) kept telling my body, "Why are you putting yourself through this? You're tired?! The legs hurt! The feet hurt! It's hot out here! It's humid! STOP! WALK!" But the body ignored the brain, or maybe I should say motivation and desire ignored the quitter. I kept running, kept gutting it out, and ended up with what I'm certain will be another personal best (once the bib times are finally posted). I estimate that my time, from starting line to finish line, will be closer to 27:35. (The official times were officially posted on Monday, July 28 and I finished at 27:27. A new personal best).

Now, I'm not under any illusion that I'm a blazing fast runner, because I'm certainly not. But I am stunned by how much my old-ass body has managed to improve in just 15 months. I don't know if I've hit my ceiling yet, but I'll try to continue to improve while at the same time keeping the big picture in mind. My health and well-being has improved considerably since I took up running in April 2013--and that is what is most important.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Podcasts...and Ele's Race

"The Fox announcing crew slathered every hosanna invented on retiring Yankee Derek Jeter. It was a glob of maudlin prolixity." --Mike Pesca, on the podcast The Gist (July 18, 2014)

I found this to be one of the funniest statements I heard all week, from one of my current favorite podcasts. (By the way, I happen to like Derek Jeter and think he's a first ballot Hall of Famer). I knew Mike Pesca from his articulate and erudite sports commentary on NPR, but recently a friend of mine turned me on to his Slate podcast The Gist, and I've been enjoying it for the last few weeks. Pesca is an intellectually curious guy, and his podcast allows him to explore many topics besides sports.

My job gives me an opportunity to listen to podcasts while I'm working, and I have a few other favorites. WTF with Marc Maron is at the top of my list. You may be familiar with Maron's story: struggling stand-up kicks drugs and self-destructive behavior and finds his niche interviewing people in his garage...and now he has his own show on IFC. WTF is a great podcast, though--and the part about Maron finding his niche isn't just blowing smoke. His interviews are in-depth and, for whatever reason, his guests open up for him and reveal themselves in ways they never would in a more conventional setting.

Another podcast I dig is The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show. Jeff Rubin is a contributor to the CollegeHumor web site (which you don't have to be in college to appreciate). In his podcast, he geeks out on his favorite topics, The Simpsons, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Batman (and other comics), video games, roller coasters, water slides, and his Degrassi guilty pleasure. Having many of the same interests (even though he's probably at least ten years younger than me), I enjoy his podcast a great deal.


Tomorrow is Ele's Race, the second official 5K race of the season for me. As I mentioned in a previous post, I knocked out the Capitol Memorial 5K in 27:41, not exactly lightning fast, but a personal best for my old middle-aged ass that has only been running regularly for 15 months. I'd love to top that 27:41 and plan on doing everything I can to do so. I'll be back here tomorrow to let you know how it went. My goal is somewhere south of 27:41, but I don't want to get down on myself if that doesn't happen. I should at the very least destroy the 31:19 I recorded at last year's Ele's Race.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Walter Pratt, Pedro Pratt's brother

Thanks to the wonderful "Portland, Michigan: Hometown History" Facebook page for posting this photograph of Walter Pratt on a Portland baseball team. Walter Pratt is the older brother of Don "Pedro" Pratt, a Portland, Michigan baseball legend whom I profiled in this blog a few years ago.

So, both Walter and Don Pratt played baseball--a fact that I did not know until just today. The plot thickens in the mystery of Pedro Pratt and the Pratt family. (See "Pedro Pratt" in the labels list if you're interested in the mystery of Pedro Pratt, "The Colored Wonder" of Portland).

Walter Pratt (sitting on the right in front of the player standing with his arms folded)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Running update (for anyone who cares)

Last week, I ran in my first 5K of the season, the Capitol Memorial Run along the River Trail in downtown Lansing. My goal headed in was to run it in under 30 minutes, a relatively modest goal. I was pretty certain I could do it because I'd run several training runs in under 30 minutes, with the fastest one somewhere around 28:45. Still, there's always that lingering, "Can I really do it?"

I'm happy to say that I DID do it, and my time was 27:41, which is the fastest 5K time I've ever run. Now, I'm not satisfied with this. I figure that if I've made it this far in one year, who's to say that I can't get the time under 25 minutes in the future. After all, there were five runners in my 45-49 age group and I was STILL only fourth of the five. The fastest of us knocked it out in 21 minutes and change. Second place was somewhere in the 23 minute range, with third place at 24 minutes. Then there was me at 27:41.

It's important as a runner to set goals. In the beginning, all I wanted to be able to do was run 20 solid minutes without stopping; then I wanted to run 30 minutes without stopping; and finally the goal was to run five kilometers with no regard to how long it took me to do it. I've accomplished all those, but still feel that I haven't "conquered" the 5K distance. For that reason, I'm shooting for a sub-25 minute time and maybe, just maybe, coming away with a medal in one of these races. It won't be the end of the world if I never win a medal, because there are so many excellent runners in my age group who have been running for much longer than I have, but I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility for me to achieve these goals.

You may be asking yourself, "So Mark, do you plan on ever running anything beyond the 5K?" The short answer is "No." I feel like five kilometers is the perfect distance to run--for now. I go out and run about 25 to 30 minutes and I'm done. I really don't currently have any desire to run more than about a half-hour per workout. Having said that, I won't rule out the possibility that I could eventually become bored with this distance and decide to shoot for 10K. Who knows?

Ultimately, I have to keep in mind that the reason I got into running in the first place was to get in better shape. I'm happy to say that has been successful. I haven't felt his good since at least my early 30s. I've lost weight, my body feels much more flexible, I sleep better, and I'm more confident about life in general.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pixies "Doolittle"

I listened to Pixies' Doolittle last week and am convinced it was the greatest album of the 1980s. The band was an acknowledged influence on Nirvana (and plenty of other bands) and this album holds up better than just about any other record I can think of from that decade. It just has the perfect combination of pop hooks ("Here Comes Your Man," "La La Love You," "Monkey Gone to Heaven") and bashing punkish attitude ("Debaser," "Gouge Away," "Tame") or both in the same song ("Wave of Mutilation"). At the same time, producer Gil Norton managed to avoid the glossy sheen that marred so many albums from this era--even allegedly "alternative" albums.

I don't know exactly what my point is with this post, just go and listen to this album NOW! I'm sure you can at least find that someone has uploaded it on YouTube.

Upon further reflection, maybe my point is this: I liked this album when it came out, but I don't know that I loved it. It took some time for me to catch up with it, because what Pixies were doing was a little ahead of their time back in 1989 and I don't know that I was ready for it or prepared for it. 25 years later, I see how much subsequent music this band influenced: from Nirvana to even some of the lo-fi stuff that was so big in the mid-'90s, and certainly the garage rock trend of the late '90s/early '00s.

Anyway, great album. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.

Friday, May 2, 2014

My instant technology gratification addiction

It's the last day of April and I need to get at least ONE post in during this month.
I must admit that I'm addicted to my phone. I'm on almost all the time to the detriment of doing other things that I should be doing, like yard work, reading books, listening to music, and writing in this blog.
There was a time not too long ago when I didn't have a computer, I certainly didn't have a small flat pocket-sized electronic rectangle with a screen that contains much of the world's information in one convenient place. I lived a perfectly fine existence.
As much as I enjoy my Droid Razr, I feel addicted to it to almost an unhealthy degree. And the more I use it, the emptier I feel in some ways. I don't find it to be too fulfilling, yet I am almost endlessly compelled to "see what's happening on Facebook" or surf the net on my little black electronic rectangle. It's not far removed from a drug addiction. It's an "instant technology gratification" addiction that never really leaves me very gratified.
Now, that's not to say my phone is completely useless and nothing more than an addictive, expensive toy. I do have a great MapMyRun GPS app that I use when running and it's probably the best thing on my phone.  Still, I spend way too much time checking Facebook, somehow expecting it to entertain or enlighten me more, but more often than not it just leaves me bored or irritated.
If all this instant technology, 24-hour social networking junk just disappeared, it would be okay (I say as I type this blog post from my phone--what a fucking hypocrite I am). Maybe I'd go through a week of withdrawal in which I'd be impulsively reaching for a smartphone that wasn't there, but eventually I'd go back to the days where I actually picked up a book more than 30 minutes a week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Beatles Yesterday and Today reissue

The infamous "butcher cover"

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' 1964 American invasion, and--let's face it--a good excuse to make a few more bucks, EMI/Apple have re-issued the Fab Four's Capitol Records 1964-1966 output. With the exception of the poorly conceived and executed box sets The Capitol Albums (vol. I & II), this is the first time these albums have ever appeared on compact disc.

I'm exactly the sucker that EMI/Apple is aiming for when they re-issue these Beatles albums. When I first heard that these albums were about to be re-issued, my immediate response was, "I already have most of these on vinyl, why do I need to get them again?" But then I heard that EMI/Apple had attached a few bells and whistles to these re-issues: with the exception of the 1970 hodge-podge Hey Jude album, all of the releases include both stereo and mono tracks.

Anyway, I'll spare you any blow-by-blow background of these releases because I'll probably get the details wrong and if you really want the details, there are plenty of folks much more obsessive than I on the web who have already written in detail about these Capitol re-issues. If you indeed are interested, here's a good place to start:

Beatles Capitol re-issues

So, in the end I caved in and bought my favorite of the Beatles' Capitol albums, Yesterday and Today, originally released in June 1966. It's an album that is best known for it's controversial "butcher" cover, (which, according to some, was the Beatles' commentary on how Capitol Records was "butchering" their music, and also the band's resentment towards having to do yet another photo shoot). As far as hodge-podge albums go, though, it's probably the best one ever made. It catches the Beatles in arguably their most creative periods, from summer 1965 to spring of 1966. The oldest songs on the collection are "Yesterday"and "Act Naturally," which appeared on the British version of Help!, but had yet to show up on an American album. There are both sides of the "Day Tripper/"We Can Work It Out" single from late '65, four songs that had been chopped from Rubber Soul when that album was released in the U.S. ("Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man," "If I Needed Someone," and "What Goes On?") and three songs from the Revolver sessions ("I'm Only Sleeping," "Dr. Robert," and "And Your Bird Can Sing"), which were still taking place when Yesterday and Today was released .

I now realize I'm relaying information that is easily obtainable from a simple Google search. Sorry!

Anyway, despite being pasted together from disparate recording sessions over the span of a full year, Yesterday and Today holds up extremely well as an album. Some may argue that it's a little "Lennon-heavy," but that's another reason why I like it so much. From '65 to '66, Lennon was writing some great material and many of his best songs from this period are represented on Yesterday and Today. The one George Harrison song on the album, "If I Needed Someone," is one of his first truly great tunes. "We Can Work It Out" is one of the best collaborative songs that Lennon and McCartney ever wrote and recorded. The only moderate clinkers, in my own personal opinion, are "Yesterday" (which I've always found just slightly too saccharine despite the song's massive popularity--and maybe that's the problem for me: I've heard "Yesterday" so many times it's hard for me to hear it with fresh ears anymore) and the two Ringo-sung cuts, "Act Naturally" and "What Goes On?". I respect the Beatles' catholic musical taste and their forays into country music at a time when it wasn't yet the cool thing to do, but I have never been overly fond of "Act Naturally" or "What Goes On?". Still, it's hard not to get a kick out of Ringo's hangdog persona and the Beatles' sense of humor in these tunes. And part of what made the Beatles so great was they were able to leaven their more serious side with a good dose of humor.

Another reason I like Yesterday and Today is that it's a great guitar-oriented record. From the Stax-Volt-inspired playing of "Drive My Car", the jagged and choppy sound of "Dr. Robert," the languid "sleepy" sound of "I'm Only Sleeping", the elegiac "Nowhere Man" (and George's shimmering solo played on a newly acquired Fender Stratocaster--a lovely solo I never tire of hearing), the Stones-y riff of "Day Tripper" and finally to the sublime "And Your Bird Can Sing" which has my absolute favorite Beatles guitar work. Besides featuring some the best songs the Beatles ever wrote, it can also be argued that Yesterday and Today contains the band's best and most inventive ensemble playing.

So was buying this re-release worth it? Yes. I enjoy having these great (and not-so-great) songs in mono because I have found that the Beatles' music sounds much better in mono than stereo. The Beatles always spent more time on the mono mixes, and the stereo mixes were an afterthought (read Geoff Emerick's outstanding book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles for more information about that). Unfortunately, unless one wants to spend loads of money, these mono versions are difficult to come by.

The packaging of the Capitol reissues is also fun. The CDs come in miniature reproductions of the original album sleeves, down to the same inserts that were included. The Yesterday and Today CD includes a decal of the "steamer trunk" cover that can be pasted on top of the "butcher" cover: a cute little in-joke for Beatles fans.

The less controversial "steamer trunk" cover

So there is a distinct possibility that the Rubber Soul and Revolver Capital re-issues are in my future. EMI and Apple, I am your captive!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Winter weariness

It's cold here.

Bitter cold, single-digit cold. don't-want-to-leave-the-house cold.

This is the craziest, snowiest, iciest, coldest winter I can remember. But then again, winters tend to blend together into one big winter and none of them ever really stand out after awhile. If you were to ask me what the winter of, say, 2006 was like, I couldn't tell you. I have no recollection of it.

Anyway, this winter has put a serious crimp on my running regimen. I haven't run since Sunday afternoon and I feel as if I'm already turning into a slug. I don't normally go more than two days without running and now it's been four days. It's just too damned cold to go outside and do anything, and the only time I can run during the weekdays is when the sun is down--and there's no may I'm running when it's dark and the temperature is in the single digits. I may have to wait until Friday afternoon to run again, as I'll have some time during sunlight hours to go out.

I don't know if any of this is the least bit interesting to any of you out there, but hey, it's my blog, and that's where I'm at right now. This horrible weather is bringing me down and I'm officially through with winter--and there's still two more months of it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Tragically Hip: The Tragically Hip EP (1987) review

(The first in my series of Tragically Hip album overviews, in which I investigate the discography of this criminally undervalued Canadian band).

A long time ago, I mentioned that I wanted, at some point, to write in detail about one of my favorite--or favourite--bands, The Tragically Hip (hereafter referred to merely as "The Hip").

The Hip, as I've already mentioned here, are practically a national institution in their native Canada, but have only achieved cult status in the States (if that's an accurate description for how the band is viewed here--I really don't know).

I should mention that I've only been a Hip fan since 2006, and am not as intimately familiar with the band's history as their more hardcore fans north of the border (or even some here in the States, for that matter). Also, since many of the Hip's lyrics relate to specific aspects of Canadian history and culture, I'll only engage in lyrical analysis if I feel comfortable in doing so. I don't want to run the risk of interpreting something completely wrong. Having said that, I think I've read enough about the Hip and have listened to them enough that I can at least approach most of their lyrics without too much fear. But if any Canadian Hip fans read these review and want to let me know that I'm full of shit about something, I'll welcome your comments.

I've decided to review all of the Hip's albums in chronological order (which means that at the rate I write in this blog, I'll probably get to the band's most recent album, 2012's Now For Plan A in...uh...the year 2024).

So, without any further adieu, let me start with the Hip's first release, 1987's eponymous EP, The Tragically Hip.

Before I leap into the review, here's a little backstory on the band: The Tragically Hip formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1983 and took their name from a skit in the Michael Nesmith film, Elephant Parts. The band paid its dues for three years, gigging at small clubs and bars throughout Ontario until they were signed by MCA in 1986 and began work on their debut.

This is a review that won't take up too much of your time, because The Tragically Hip EP is a somewhat inauspicious debut. It's not terrible by any stretch, just not particularly memorable--and definitely not a clear indication that the band was about to embark on a successful 26-year recording career. There is none of the impressionistic lyrical content that would mark lead singer (and principle wordsmith) Gord Downie's later work.

Like most debut albums (or eps, in this case), The Tragically Hip is a rough translation of the band's live repertoire onto tape. The Hip had honed their craft playing on the bar and club circuit over the preceding four years, and they are a tight, rocking band on their debut. The energy in the performances makes up for whatever blandness there is in some of the songwriting. In the Hip's early days, they were a rough-hewn bar band, and had yet to develop--for better or for worse depending on who you talk to--the subtlety and occasional artiness that would characterize their later work.

A few of the standout tracks on The Tragically Hip are the opener "Small Town Bringdown," which is essentially what the title implies: an expression of the boredom and drudgery a young person experiences with small town life. "Evelyn" is a jittery, frantic, new wave-ish tune with a catchy sing-along chorus. Try listening to it, and not having "Ev-uh-lin, Ev-uh-lin, where were you last night?" stuck in your head for at least the next hour or so.

The true gems of the album though, are "Last American Exit" and "Highway Girl." The former, penned by bassist Gord Sinclair (by the way, could anything be more purely Canadian than a band with, not one, but TWO members named "Gordon"?) seems to be a relationship breakup lament told from the perspective of a musician on the road, and contains yet another anthemic chorus that sticks in your brain for a long time. The latter song is a brawling, swaggering, bluesy blast with Gord Downie bellowing in a manner that would make the L.A. Woman-era Jim Morrison smile and nod in approval.

The rest of the EP is full of solid playing if unremarkable songwriting. As a whole, The Tragically Hip is a flawed but promising debut.