No More Wraps

Some time in the 1990's, American chefs discovered wrapping stuff in a tortilla. 

Yes, there had been burritos for years, but this--this was something different! This was cold, and it was a wrap! 

When wraps started, I think there was this idea that they were somehow healthier than a regular sandwich. I guess because you could throw a bunch of lettuce into one and it wouldn't leak out the sides. Of course, then people typically drown said lettuce in dressing to make it taste like something, thereby negating any of the alleged healthy effects. Also, tortillas have just as much carbs and calories as regular bread.

So wraps are not healthier than a regular sandwich.  But the idea that they are somehow a healthy choice persists. I think this is because they are terrible. Because here's the thing: cold tortillas are gross. That's why they heat 'em up, either in a lovely little steamer or by filling them with piping hot rice and beans, at burrito places. But when you get a wrap, you can count on your tortilla being room temperature at best, and sometimes ice cold. I suppose the thinking is that anything this unpleasant must be good for you, because why else would anybody eat it?

Sometimes you can get a wrap served in a spinach tortilla. Again, I suppose this is supposed to connote health. But while cold tortillas are gross, cold spinach tortillas are next-level vile. They used to sell these in supermarkets, but you really can't find them anymore because everybody knows they are awful.

Everybody, it seems, except for institutional chefs, who at some point got ahold of the idea that a groovy vegetarian option would be a bunch of roasted vegetables, heavy on the summer squash, inside a spinach tortilla. Preferably served ice cold. 

Nobody wants to eat this. Put this horror show on a real menu and see how many people order it. Also: summer squash? Summer squash is zucchini's even more boring cousin. Becoming a vegetarian does not suddenly make you like bland, limp vegetables. In fact, it actually tends to make you a little more critical of vegetables because you're eating more of them, and you've had them prepared right. Except for summer squash, which cannot be prepared right because it is terrible. I dunno--I had some that was baked with some herbs and feta cheese or some shit once and it was edible because herbs and feta cheese. But mostly it sucks.

The freezing cold spinach tortilla stuffed with roasted summer squash is a cowardly middle finger to vegetarians. I'd much rather get a little card that says, "I am a professional chef, and if I can't put a pint of chicken stock in it, I don't actually think it's food. I'm not making you anything because I hate you." At least then we'd all be on the same page, and I wouldn't be staring at this thing going, "do they think this is a real food that anyone wants to eat?"

The invisible hand of the market has pretty well killed the wrap in most retail outlets. (true! Here in Boston we had a restaurant called "The Wrap," that changed its name to the incomprehensible "Boloco" because they realized years ago that wraps are an abomination and nobody who wants to stay in business should associate themselves with them.)

But the institutional chefs still cling to the wrap. They like it for some reason. Perhaps because tortillas take up less space than bread, and they're so bad when they're cold that nobody really notices if they've gone stale. And maybe they never get the feedback, so here it is: literally everybody hates wraps. Meat eaters, vegetarians, it doesn't matter. We would all prefer a real sandwich on real bread.

No more wraps. Ever. 

7 Most Appalling Songs About Underage Groupies

It was a different time.  A time when rock stars not only committed sex crimes on a regular basis, but also boasted about it in their work, and were never ever prosecuted for it. (Except for Chuck Berry, because racism).

It's kind of weird to me now that I grew up with this stuff on the radio all the time and just felt like it was normal. 

It wasn't normal! It was gross and appalling! So here are the worst of the gross and appalling songs about sleeping with underage fans. And may I add, shame on every artist below!

7."Sweet Little Sixteen"--Chuck Berry. 


Barely cracks the list because Chuck is not explicit about his desire for the titular girl, though I suppose we could argue that since all the cats wanna dance with her, and Chuck Berry qualifies as a cat, he at least wants to dance with her.  But given the fact that Chuck Berry spent time in jail for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for "prostitution, debauchery, or other immoral purposes" as the statute he violated has it (he said she was, "anything but innocent," which is a pretty common sexual predator thing to say), then got sued for secretly filming women in the bathroom of an establishment he owned, I think we can say he's a loathsome human being and his interest in sweet little sixteen probably extends beyond a dance. Also he was 32 when he wrote it. Gross.

6."Mellow Yellow"--Donovan. 


Tough call as to where to put this one. "I'm just mad about 14," earns Donovan the dubious distinction of having the youngest object of his...whatever of any artist on the list. But the song isn't really all about glorifying this. Given that it starts with being mad about Saffron, who I assume is a girl and not just The Most Expensive Way to Turn Rice Yellow, and then gives way to something about electrical banana, being mad about fourteen can really be seen as just a symptom of the drug-addled hippie decadence that infuses the whole song. Hell, it might just be a hallucination for all we know. Also he was only 20 when he wrote it, which is still gross, but somewhat less gross than a lot of the other folks on this list.

5."Edge of Seventeen"--Stevie Nicks.


So someone who's on the edge of seventeen is, legally speaking, still sixteen. When this song came out in 1981, Stevie Nicks was 33. And okay, the song takes place in the past tense, but still. Just because 16 year old boys are pleasuring themselves to your image in Rolling Stone (ahem) doesn't mean you get to actually sleep with them. Ick.

4."Hot Blooded"--Foreigner.


"Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?"  I mean, I suppose he's at least asking the question, so points for that, but the rest of the song makes it pretty clear he's not all that concerned with the answer.  And at the end he proclaims, "I'm so hot for you child," which, I mean, okay, I guess we could look at child as a term of endearment like "baby," but, mmmm.... not really. Gross. Why do I suspect that the "you know who" they have to get away from is this girl's parent? 

3."My Sharona"--The Knack.


Musically speaking, the best song on the list.  But "I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind" has to be one of the squickiest lyrics ever. And Wikipedia informs me that the song was inspired by a 25-year-old's affair with a 17-year-old.  (Also, peep the lead singer's facial expressions in the video. If you saw this guy on the street, you'd cross to the other side. Especially if you were a teenage girl.) Sharona now sells real estate to the stars and uses the domain name, so I guess she wasn't too scarred by the whole thing, but still. Gross. People who are 25 should not date high school students. Also: the Knack's famous dud of a second album was called "But the little girls understand," which is a reference to "Back Door Man," but in that song it's a little more like he's referring to grown women as "little girls," which is problematic, whereas the Knack seem to actually be talking about little girls.

2. "Christine Sixteen"--KISS.


Then-28-year-old Gene Simmons sings about a 16-year-old girl. Gross. Also the spoken word part is deeply creepy--"I don't usually say things like this to girls your age, but when I saw you comin' out of school that day, that day I knew, I knew I got to have ya. I got to have ya!" 

Jesus Christ, Gene. You're a rock star. Why are you perving on girls walking out of school? Also: you don't usually say things like this to high school students? But, you know, sometimes you do? So what you're saying is that this is not like a one-time deal. But sometimes you just happen, as a guy pushing 30, to hit on high school students. Blecch. 

Catchy as hell, though, and Tone Loc sampled it for "Funky Cold Medina," which I guess is also problematic but way better than this.

1."Young Girl"-- Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. 

So the song was  written by a 30-year-old, and the age of the young girl isn't specified, but she's "just a baby in disguise." I suppose one could argue that the guy knows the girl is too young for him, but, as with "Hot Blooded," I'm not at all convinced by his concern. Also, he's all, "better run, girl." Something wrong with your legs, Gary Puckett? (Gary did not write the song, but he chose to record it, so no mercy for him.) Why are you demanding that the young person correct the situation? Again, the  kind of putting the onus on the kid to stop the situation that is kind of typical of predatory adults. 

The hypocritical sanctimony is somehow even more grating than Gene Simmons' straightforward creepiness. Oh, you're so tormented by your sexual desire for someone you know is too young for you! You poor dear! If only she'd leave you alone! Also, whereas most of the other songs on the list have some kind of redeeming quality in terms of being catchy or rockin' out,  there is absolutely nothing redeeming about this song. The appalling lyrics are couched in a treacly arrangement and cheesy vocals. It is a piece of shit about a piece of shit. I did not embed a video because this song is trash and should never be listened to by anyone ever again, even to condemn its awfulness.



The Annotated Ramones: Leave Home

About a year ago, I annotated the first Ramones album. Tonight I feel like doing the second. At this rate I will get through the entire catalog by the time I retire! Maybe!

Here we go with Leave Home!

1. "Glad to See You Go"-- As delightful a song about murder as you'll ever find.  A just about perfect blend of the Joey and Dee Dee aesthetics. You can hear Joey break into Dee Dee's murder ballad at the "I need somebody good"part. Also a good example of how people don't get the Ramones. Apparently people were horrified at the Charles Manson reference, and the modern take is that the Ramones were these kind of idiot savants who had no idea what they were doing with that line.  But it's actually a decent critique of media culture: "In a moment of passion/get the glory like Charles Manson." Morrissey attempted the same thing 11 years later and wound up with this ham-handed, obvious verse: "In our lifetime those who kill/The news world hands them stardom." I'm not suggesting that we should look too deeply into Ramones songs, but I think they were far more clever than they usually get credit for.

2. "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment"-- A flippant exploration of mental illness that doesn't quite hit the high level of "Teenage Lobotomy."  I like the shock treatment sounds in the chorus though. Also: "heard about this treatment by a good friend of mine" is pretty funny.

3."I Remember You"-- Definitely second- or possibly third-tier lovelorn Joey. Lots of reverb on the vocals here. And Joey's vocals are double tracked on every song on the album. Interesting, kind of inexplicable choice. Not bad, just a little odd.

4. "Oh Oh I Love Her So"-- Now this is top-shelf Lovelorn Joey. It really sounds like it could be a forgotten pop gem from the 60's. Love the "oooo-weee-oooo" backing vocals during the Coney Island part, and this might be the first harmony on a Ramones song.  In any case, it's one of the very rare harmonies on an early Ramones song.  And that guitar strum at the end!  

5. "Carbona Not Glue"--Was taken off the album because the Carbona people objected, but I guess they don't care anymore, so it's now widely available. Doesn't really hang together, in my opinion. Great verses, meh chorus. Definitely should have been a B-side anyway.

6. "Suzy is a Headbanger" -- This might be the best song on the album. Pretty much perfect. I'm kind of interested in Suzy's mom--is she an actual bite-the-heads-off-chickens kind of geek?  

7. "Pinhead"--Did I say "Suzy is a Headbanger" was the best song on the album?  I mighta meant this one.  First we start with the Freaks reference, and then "I don't wanna be a pinhead no more," which is perhaps a little more tragic than we initially thought because if one is born with microcephaly, it's a permanent condition. Well, at least he met a nurse he could go for. They used to close shows with this, and a roadie in a pinhead mask would come out with a "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign.

8."Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy"--Eh. The same lyrical ground is going to be coverd in a much more interesting way on "I Just Wanna Have Something To Do." I guess it's a little bit plaintive, though, as it seems to embody Dee Dee's lifelong struggle. It also has this bit that sounds just like the D-U-M-B part in "Pinhead," but maybe they couldn't think of a chant to go there because it's just the drums. 

9."Swallow My Pride"--A really underrated gem, in my opinion. A great example of how the specific can be universal. "Winter is here and it's goin' on 2 years," Joey says. What the hell's he talking about?  Doesn't matter! The sad melody and the chorus belie the parts where he's trying to be hopeful. One of those songs that resonates more with me now than when I first discovered it. Because being an adult pretty much involves swallowing your pride on a regular basis.

10. "California Sun"--Just another example of how The Ramones could take any song and make it sound like they wrote it.  Having said that, I like the Dictators' version better. Question: are the girls in Frisco actually frisky? I've known many people who've lived and spent time there, and nobody's ever mentioned this.

11. "Commando"--This is some wonderfully irreverent stuff. Funny because Johnny seems to have taken all the military imagery pretty seriously, but this absurdist take on gettin' them ready for Viet Nam seems pretty satirical to me.  A couple of questions: is "eat kosher salamis" really a rule for commandos?  And isn't saying that "the laws of Germany" constitute one rule kind of cheating?

11."Babysitter"--I guess this replaced  "Carbona Not Glue" on some pressings before they put "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" into that spot.  I seem to remember it appeared on a Sire Records B-side compilation. But this deserves better than B-side status.  It's a completely genius pop song, and much more of a traditional pop song than most early Ramones songs. Verse chorus verse bridge (!) (How many Ramones songs have a bridge? Not many!) Key change (!) verse chorus verse. And, a pretty straightforward, clever take on frustrated teen horniness.

12. "What's Your Game"--Pretty forgettable. Back to back with "Babysitter," it sounds like a less-developed version of that song.  I mean, I guess the lyrical pot shot at the popular kids is fine, but overall this is a bit lacking. Should've been a B-side.

13."You're Gonna Kill That Girl"--You know what's great about the Ramones? Many things, but one of them is that they can make an amped-up 60's-style singalong with a beautiful ballad intro about a murder. Dee Dee's backing "kill kill kill kill that girl" at the end is great.  Also--sounds in the headphones like there are two people doing that part. Who's the other one?

14."You Should Never Have Opened That Door"--Kind of another attempt to make a 2 and a half-mintue horror movie, but unlike "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," this one falls flat.  Maybe it's Joey's delivery--I just don't buy him sacrificing someone on an altar. Wonder if this would work as a metal song. I think  it's a mistake to close the album with this, especially after the much stronger "You're Gonna Kill That Girl" which covers similar territory.

Well, there it is. See you next summer, or maybe sooner, for Rocket to Russia!

Hubway, Boston's Bike Sharing Service, Reviewed

A certain young person recently borrowed my bike and returned it in less-than-ideal condition. While it is in the shop getting repairs, I decided to try out Hubway, Boston's bike-sharing service.

Renting a Bike

Memberships are 6 bucks for a day, 12 bucks for 3 days, and 85 bucks for a year. (If your employer is a partner, you can get the annual membership for much cheaper. Look on the website.)  You get unlimited 30-minute or less rides during your membership period. 

Head up to the kiosk, press "rent a bike" on the touchscreen, and swipe your credit card. Then use the incredibly laggy, ponderous touchscreen to put your phone number and zip code in. This is the only part of the process that isn't awesome. Fortunately you only have to do it once. For every future ride during your membership period, you just swipe your card and get a code.

The kiosk will then give you a 5-digit code which you can memorize or get printed out. Pick out your bike, punch the code in the rack, and when the light turns green, pull your bike out and go. 

Returning a Bike

Drive up to any Hubway station, put your bike in the rack, making sure the triangular piece of metal above the front wheel locks in place, and when the light turns green, you're good to go.

The Bikes

These things are tanks. Think beach cruisers, but less zippy. I find them fun to ride, but not in the same way as my regular bike. These are big, solid bikes with step-through frames and chain guards, so you can ride in your work clothes without getting grease on 'em. The tires are wide enough that you can handle all the bumps and holes that our neglected road infrastructure throws at you with ease and comfort.

They're 3-speeds, and the internal hub gears work really well, so despite the considerable heft of these bikes, they aren't ever hard to pedal, even going uphill. What they don't do very well is go fast. You'll need to stand on the pedals and go like hell to get the bike up to high speed. My advice: don't bother. It's a comfortable, stately ride in an upright position.

When to Use It

Hubway bikes work really well for short hops. So, let's say you're visiting Boston and you want to go from the Common (not the Commons! Singular! Same with the Public Garden!) to the Aquarium. It's probably 20 minutes on foot or via the T, but that would be about a 5-minute Hubway ride. (I wouldn't fret about riding in downtown traffic. It's some of the slowest in Boston, and because there are so many pedestrians, drivers tend to be a bit more alert.) So if you're visiting Boston and want a really convenient way to get around all the downtown and Back Bay hotspots, I give this my highest recommendation.

But what about those of us who live here? Well, for me, commuting from Jamaica Plain, there are some pros and cons. The biggest con is probably the speed. It just slows down my commute. But this is mitigated a lot by the convenience. Not only is someone else maintaining the bikes, but when I get to work, I pop the bike in a rack and forget it. I don't have to worry about it tethered to a pole or a rack downtown. Better yet, if it starts to, oh, I don't know, hail or something, I can take the T home without having to worry about my bike. Or if it's raining in the morning, I can take the T and still bike home.

Also, let's be perfectly frank: the speed reduction may be good for me. I try to always ride cautiously, but because my hybrid bike is relatively fast and maneuverable, I sometimes get caught up in the moment and do something dumb on it. This never happens on Hubway bikes. When you see that light turn yellow, you know damn well you can't make it through, so you slow down and stop.

But, as I noted before, Hubway really excels for short hops. If you are trying to find ways to get more exercise, I think a Hubway membership is a great investment. (A better investment than a little computerized spy that is tracking your movements and heartbeats and sending the data to a central computer, in my opinion. Not to mention cheaper.) So here's my story: My house is 35 steps up from the street. I don't always haul my bike out for local errands because it feels like big deal. But last time I had to go to CVS, which is just over a mile away, I walked to one Hubway station near me and biked to one near CVS. I was able to add a little exercise into the errand running and didn't have to worry about parking. I also didn't have to devote as much time to the errands as I would have if I were walking.

But Hubway's best use for Boston residents, in my opinion, is replacing bus rides. If you routinely take a bus to get to a train and you have a Hubway station nearby, you can not only get a little exercise but also save yourself the frustration of waiting for and riding a bus.  So if you're taking the 22 from Egleston to Jackson Square, for example, the Hubway is a quicker and better option. There's a Hubway in Dudley Square, so you could zip over to Roxbury Crossing in just a couple of minutes and not have to deal with buses. Or , if you're headed downtown, you could just ride down Washington Street in the bike/bus lane and pass about five Silver Line buses. 

So there it is.  Overall it's a great service that works exactly the way it's supposed to and helps you to get around and to get active at a bargain price.


This post brought to you by me. If you like what you read, please consider signing up for my mailing list, above, or buying one of my books listed at the left, or signing up for my awesome new Young Adult writing class over at the right. And thanks!

On That Story About Querying With a Man's Name

So there's a story making the rounds about a woman who submitted her manuscript to agents under a man's name and got much better responses than she did submitting it as a woman. 

 I don't know how much of the story is true, but I'm pretty sure that this part isn't: after she supposedly sent out six queries under her male pseuonym--on a Saturday, yet--this "happened": I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. 

This is the part that marks this story as fiction.  I mean, yes. It's not unheard of to get a response within 24 hours. Usually a rejection. It's just rare. (I checked my list for the crime novel everybody hated even though my name is unmistakably male: I heard back from 3 agents out of 33 I queried within a day. I did not receive correspondence from any agents on the weekend.)

My experience querying agents under a male name suggests about 10% of agents respond to queries within a day and 0% respond on the weekends. But of course my sample size, though five times bigger than that of the original article, is probably still too small to draw big conclusions. If you, unlike me, understand statistics and want to take a stab at explaining this, please comment!

So: while technically not impossible, this story is incredibly improbable. It reads to me like there was probably a nugget of truth in there that got embellished. Because getting a better response under the male name is a good story. Getting a shockingly better response--on a weekend!--is a fantastic story.

(In the unlikely event that this did happen, it shows that she got lucky enough to contact a bunch of agents in that small group who typically respond within a day on the same day. Which really shows that we need a larger sample size if we're gonna draw any kind of conclusions at all.)

So: it's a good story, and it reveals something I, and a lot of other people, believe to be true: you'll get a better response for your "literary" novel if your name suggests that you're male. 

So why is it bugging me so much that people are repeating this completely uncritically? I guess I feel like if you're presenting something as factually true (as opposed to the kind of emotional truth you can get in a novel while using made-up events), it should actually be true. If you're going to draw conclusions about the way something in the real world works, you should get actual data and not somebody's too-good-to-be-true unsubstantiated anecdote.

 Most of us are pretty good at being skeptical of claims we inherently don't want to believe. But that's not how con artists work; they sell you something you don't need, or something that doesn't exist, because they tell you something you really want to believe.

That's why I think it's especially important to be skeptical of stories that confirm your opinions; it's how you avoid being taken. This is true on a personal level (wow! I can get an amazing body with very little effort if I just buy this device!) and on a public policy level: (Wow! All you had to do was get rid of those pesky teachers' unions and those amazing educational entrepreneurs who run charter schools were able to get great results!).

Now, I don't think the author of this piece is selling anything particularly harmful; she's done a good job of creating some name recognition that may help her when her novel comes out.  In a sense, I don't blame her. The frustration she talks about in her piece, the humiliation that comes with unending rejection of your creative work: yeah, I've been there. Maybe she wrote this embellished story to sell something to herself: the idea that there's an explanation for her difficulty, that the world (and the publishing world in particular) fundamentally makes sense.

The internet has given everyone a platform and a voice, and this is a good thing. But I'd like to suggest that this requires that we all ramp up our skepticism of everything we read (this is doubly true of anything that comes out of the listing ship that is Gawker media right now). Especially when it's something we'd really like to be true.


My Week at the Fine Arts Work Center

Sometimes I feel like my life is a Dickens novel. Usually it's because bad news keeps stacking on top of more bad news, but this summer it was because, like Pip, I had an anonymous benefactor!

I got an email back in November saying that someone (was it you? Thank you!) had requested that I teach a summer class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. It sounded just a wee bit too good to be true--teach writing for a week, get paid, and get put up in Provincetown, where it is ridonkulously expensive to stay?  

All true! So a few weeks back, I took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown and embarked on one of the best experiences of my creative career.  

My class consisted of a lot of writing and a lot of talking about how to write great young adult fiction. My students all brought extraordinary pieces of writing to share, and we had great conversations about how to write great young adult fiction.  This part was incredibly refreshing to me. I have writer friends who I value tremendously; but when we get together, we hardly ever talk about writing. We talk about the business and gossip about people we don't like--er, I mean, celebrate the wonderfully supportive YA community. So teaching this class was really the first opportunity I've had to spend a lot of time talking with perceptive and talented people about writing, and especially writing YA. 

So this was great on its own. But there were lots of other classes going on in addition to mine. So every day I was surrounded by people involved in an intense week of making art--either visual art, or written art, or in the case of the comics class, both.  Every night a writer and a visual artist would share their work,and the reading I did was the best one I've ever done. The room was full, and I got tons of nice compliments at the end, and because it wasn't at a bookstore, I wasn't bothered about how many copies I was selling and whether it would be enough for the store not to hate me.  Like my class, it was about the art rather than the business. I can't stress how rare and how cool this is.

The last presentation was all student work, and it was really thrilling to hear so much great work at the same time.

Now, don't get me wrong. Business is important.  (as my creditors remind me on a monthly basis, sometimes with red-tinged envelopes that say FINAL NOTICE, it's very important.) But art is important too. I mean, it's important not just for me as a writer to be able to talk about writing; art is important to my life. I'm listening to music as I write this.  Art --my art and other people's--has gotten me through the worst times in my life and has illuminated the good times. We all spend a lot of time chasing money, and that matters, but just making the art matters. Whether it sells or not. It makes us better people. It makes our lives better.

If you've got the time and money, I really recommend you check out a class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. You will have a wonderful experience.

Also, if you'd like to take a YA writing class with me, I'm teaching one online this fall.  (At a special introductory rate!) But it's a different kind of online class--it will actually meet on Tuesday nights, and we will all be able to see and hear each other at the same time, so it'll have most of the advantages of a face-to-face class without the disadvantage of having to leave the house. Please check it out, and tell anybody you think might be interested.  Thanks!

Thoughts on the Eve of Boston Comic Con: Down With Continuity

Heading  to Boston Comic Con on Saturday. If you see me, squeeze through the crowd and say hi! I'll be the one trying not to spend all my meager resources!

And now, in honor of said event, some deep thoughts about comics. 

I am proceeding from the POV that comics are an important and vital art form and a gateway drug for literacy and that comic stores are independent bookstores that also serve as de-facto community centers in a lot of places.  

I would like to see more people reading comics. In order for this to happen, though, Marvel and DC need to ditch continuity.

Continuity is something that is very appealing to the hardcore fans:  it is very appealing to feel like the story you like exists inside a universe of overlapping stories. It's also deeply pleasurable to master an entire mythology , to know all about the many faces of Hank Pym, to know why Robins are like Spinal Tap drummers...well, you get the idea.

But if we measure the modern era of comics from the first Marvel comics in the early 60's, we're now looking at almost 55 years of continuity to master.  Again, I get why it feels good to know all of this stuff, but it shuts new readers  out.  

It even shuts not-so-new readers out.  Most people I know specialize in either Marvel or DC, less because they have a distinct preference for one group of characters over the other than because trying to master two different universes of continuity is a bigger project than they're willing to take on.

And, ultimately, (see what I did there, true believers?), why does continuity matter?  If we accept that we have this group of characters, why can't we just have stories? Why can't we re-imagine something without having to explain why it's not like it used to be? 

Trying to shoehorn every idea  into the existing continuity, you wind up with corny plot twists and a universe that is necessarily written by committee, which, as anyone who's ever read a corporate mission statement knows, is a terrible way to write. 

The cynical annual "events" that both big publishers do, in which there's some mega-storyline that crosses through all kinds of different titles, probably help bring in some extra revenue from the hardcore fans as people buy all the Convergence of Crises issues or whatever, but this stuff also intimidates people who might otherwise be interested in picking up an issue of a comic they remember from a while back.

I guess what I'm asking is that Marvel and DC forego a little bit of short term revenue they might squeeze from the hardcore fans in order to build a bigger fanbase and make more money later.  They're probably as interested in that as any American business, but a guy can dream.

In the meantime, there are still lots of independent comics and small publishers to read, and there are many cool comics you can pick up without needing to master 50 years worth of background material. Ask the people at your local comic shop. With only a few exceptions, I have found them to be friendly and engaging and nothing short of delighted to help people find a comic that's right for them.  The Simpsons guy may have been an accurate stereotype in 1989; he's not anymore.  In Greater Boston, I can personally recommend JP Comics & Games, New England Comics in Brookline, and Comicopia. Further out in Bellingham, MA, Friendly Neighborhood Comics is probably the best comic store I've ever been to. Check 'em out, buy some comics, and enjoy!


Some Stuff I Like For a Change

Like a lot of people, I often feel moved to blog when something pisses me off.  Which is fine, but it has been pointed out to me on a few (thousand) occasions that I might be a bit too cranky. So I'd like to take a brief time out to talk about some stuff I like.  I have no monetary connection to anything I'm discussing here, except that I've spent money on all of it.  

My Chromebook:  Got this Acer Chromebook I'm writing on two years ago on a Groupon deal for 150 bucks.  It has been my primary computer ever since. And it has not slowed down at all. This as compared to the computer that the IT department at my job supplied me with at around the same time. That one, a Dell laptop, has grown almost unbearably sluggish in the two years I've had it. And I don't even have admin privileges, so I can't install anything.   The Chromebook won't really work for video editing or music creation, but I don't do any of those anyway. There are pretty robust, though not professional-quality, photo-editing tools available online, but I don't do a ton of photo editing anyway. I now do all my writing on Google Docs, which is pretty much the simple word processor I like that Microsoft Word hasn't been for decades.

Imagine No-Chicken Broth. Yeah, you can make your own vegetable stock, but ain't nobody got time for that.  This is great for all your vegetarian soup making needs and a lot of other uses as well--making really tasty rice, for example. 

Dorco Razors--O, I have thrown off the shackles of Gillette and gotten some great razors that work just as well at a fraction of the cost!  I curse the years I spent buying overpriced razor blades at CVS like a chump. 

Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Shaving Soap--I have searched for years for the perfect shaving cream. This is it. With a little water in your hand, it lathers up beautifully and really shields my embarrassingly sensitive skin from irritation. Plus it smells great.

Songza--Nearly everyone I know uses Pandora for their internet radio needs, and nearly everyone I know complains about the repetition and general shittiness of their Pandora stations and how they have to save up the skips and so wind up listening to songs they don't like.  Why, why do you suffer when Songza is available? Songza's playlists are assembled by actual humans rather than algorithms, so they're just much better. Imagine a playlist made by somebody who knows a shit ton about music; now imagine that for any kind of music you might be into.  They're really really good. They're so good that Google bought Songza for a ton of money just so they could have access to their playlists on Google Music. 

 Zojirushi Fuzzy Logic Rice Cooker  We eat a lot of rice since a member of our family was forced to go gluten free. We had one of those cheap rice cookers, and I just got used to uneven cooking and an occasional burned crust on the bottom.  I don't know what fuzzy logic is, and I don't care. I just know that I literally get perfect rice every time with this baby, and it does a great job on steel-cut oats as well.  



How Soccer Discriminates

One of my Twitter buddies (whom you should definitely not follow @nifmuhammad unless you like incisive and funny commentary on sports, music and culture) drew my attention to this piece about how the World Cup-winning US Women's Soccer team is pretty, um, white.

I've been thinking a lot about this. I know a lot of people--okay, okay, a lot of white people--believe that the USA is a meritocracy and that if you just work hard enough, you can do whatever you want.  Sports are often seen as a metaphor for this: put in the extra time to work hard, and you'll be rewarded with elite-level success! But soccer is a great example of how hard work isn't enough because systems have the effect of stacking the deck against certain kinds of people. So follow along as I explain why US soccer is so white.

In Boston, where I live, Black and Latino players, many of whom have roots in the Caribbean and Central and South America, are probably the most passionate and dedicated soccer players. At the high school level, there are a few schools that dominate: they are the school with the mostly-Central American roster, the school with the mostly-Haitian roster, and the school with the mostly-Cape Verdean roster.

So why aren't those kids winding up on our national teams? 

Because the best and most serious players don't play exclusively on their school teams (in fact, a lot of them don't play on school teams at all); they play on private club teams.

These teams cost a couple thousand dollars a season to play on (so that's a couple thousand bucks in the fall and again in the spring, plus extra to play on their futsal teams if you want to keep your skills sharp in the winter) and demand a pretty huge commitment on the part of both players and their parents.  

Since the clubs are regional rather than local, practices are usually at least a few towns away from most of the players on the team. So getting to practice requires not just a car, but also a free evening or two per week. Games, at least here in New England, are played all over Massachusetts and surrounding states.  These teams don't have buses, so you need a car and the willingness and ability to spend 6 to 8 hours on a Sunday driving to and from a game.

Club soccer players are the ones who get recruited for college teams and MLS academy teams and are therefore where US soccer's elite players come from. So getting to an elite level in soccer in the US requires an investment of many thousands of dollars and hours on the part of parents. Those first-generation American players who dominate Boston scholastic soccer tend to come from  low-income families. Please note that the hard work these families are putting in--working multiple jobs, pulling extra shifts, or working long hours at a small business, getting siblings to chip in with child care--are actually preventing their kids from becoming elite soccer players. 

Now, I have no idea why soccer works this way in this country; I kind of doubt it was done in a consciously racist (or classist, since poor white kids are excluded as well) way. But the effect of the policies is to favor people with extra money, extra time, and reliable transportation, and in this country, such people are more likely to be white.

Here's why this matters: because the sport that is accessible to everyone because of the minimal equipment requirements is not accessible at a high level to people who don't already have money. If the fairness issue doesn't bother you, maybe this will: USA soccer, especially on the men's side, is far weaker than it should be. We have tons of talented players who come from families with a deep and multi-generational love of soccer who aren't getting a shot to represent their country on the field. 

Do you believe me about this?  If so, perhaps you can also start to believe that soccer is nowhere near the only part of American life where the odds are against you if you happen to be born into a family without a lot of extra money and time. 

We'll have a better soccer team if we fix this problem in our soccer culture; we'll have a better country if we fix it everywhere else.


Shonen Knife, CJ Ramone, Petty Morals (Plus Free Stuff!)

Well, I was dragging a lot yesterday, and I don't feel too shit hot today, because I went out to a rock and roll show on Wednesday. Like the young folks do! Like I used to, when I was young! 

Of course, when I was young, I could go to a rock and roll show, get up early for work the next day, and not have every cell in my body screaming for a nap by 12:30 PM. But those days are gone.

I haven't been to a club show since 2003, when I saw Frank Black and the Catholics, with David Lovering's magic science show opening. But I've never seen Shonen Knife live, and, as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I have enormous love and respect for this band. 

Here's the thing I always drag out about Shonen Knife: they put out a string of top-notch records that I really think are the best of their career 25 years after their first record. Name me one other band that has three great records in a row that far into their career. I can't think of one.

It was bittersweet going to a gentrified Central Square for a show, since I used to go there for shows in the early 90's when the entire area had that dangerous, unpredictable vibe, like you might be on your way to a show at TTs and wake up in the cargo hold of a freighter two days later wondering what happened.  It's better not to be afraid walking from the T. But I did feel significantly less badass when I arrived at the door of the club than I used to. 

Once inside, I felt completely at home. The place was full of old punks. There's always something reassuring about connecting with a group of people you share something important with. Even though (of course) I didn't speak to anyone, it just felt comfortable being around a bunch of people with an inherent understanding of something important about me.

The opening band was a fantastic garage rock/pop band called Petty Morals. They had 2 lead singers and all their members were women and their songs were catchy and kickass and they closed with a Go-Go's cover, so I was an instant fan. If you like garage rock and you live in Greater Boston, I recommend putting this band on your list. My only critical note is that I would have enjoyed a little more showmanship (showwomanship?showpersonship?) from the non-singing members of the band--they were slaying, & I thought some swagger was called for.

CJ Ramone was next. I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong. I had CJ all wrong. He was never more than The Guy Who's Not Dee Dee to me. But what became clear through last night's show is that CJ deserves way more love because he's essentially one of us. Which is to say, he was a huge Ramones fan who actually got to be a Ramone. And so the love he has for the music came through in a way it didn't when I saw him with the Ramones. Johnny ran a very tight ship, and Ramones shows were always professional and very clean, and, when I saw them in 1990, a little bit rote. CJ on his own was fast and loose and fun. He opened with a bunch of his original material, which is actually quite good (I especially liked "Three Angels"), and closed with a bunch of Ramones songs, which he gets to play because he was a fucking Ramone. It was fantastic. 


Not, however, as fantastic as Shonen Knife. Here is how awesome the Shonen Knife show was: they played almost none of my favorite songs, and I loved every minute of it. 0624152210
I guess any time a band is artistically viable for 30 years, they can't possibly play every song you want to hear. I could make up a set as long as the one they played of songs I wanted to hear but didn't. And it didn't matter.  They were just ridiculously good, powering through a ton of songs, throwing up the metal horns while playing an obviously Sabbath-inspired song (Sadly, it wasn't "I Wanna Eat Cookies," which is my favorite of their metal-ish songs), doing tongue-in-cheek (I think) choreography, and generally bringing joyful melodic punk rock to the masses while dressed in matching Mondrian-style minidresses. 0624152213This band and their music has meant a lot to me over the years (See the Powerpuff chapter in It Takes a Worried Man), and it felt good to be able to support them with my ticket and t-shirt purchase.

But mostly it just felt good to be in the audience hearing them play. My face was sore from smiling for over an hour straight. (Really!). 

A note to you young folks, and some older folks as well: I can see the temptation to dismiss a bunch of people in their 40's and 50's in a dark basement club playing and listening to the music of their youth as pathetic. Perhaps this view is influenced by your having witnessed one of the Beach Boys' tepid State Fair performances in the 80's or 90's. But this wasn't about trying to reclaim our lost youth. It was a celebration of still being alive. 0624152229a

We're still here. Not everyone is. 

I wrote a novel about love and death and punk rock. It features a thinly fictionalized version of my first Ramones concert at the Jockey Club in Newport, KY, when I touched the hem of Dee Dee's garment. (Actually I touched the toe of his Chuck Taylors, lightly enough that he would not feel it and possibly kick me as he had kicked the guy who tried to twiddle the knobs on his bass). It has the best ending of any book I ever wrote. It is newly available as an audiobook,
and I've got some free download codes. First three commenters get 'em. LWB