This post means I completed NaBloPoMo: December edition!  Was it worth it?  I really don’t know! But it was fun.  I’m going out of town for a few days so will be breaking my blogging streak immediately.  However, I would like to continue posting regularly (though daily is a stretch, particularly in January, which is busy).  We’ll see how this pans out.

For the last post of the month/year, I thought I would recap 2010.  It was something of an eventful year.  The highlights:

  • Got married.  Holy whoa.  K is awesome and I’m a lucky dude.
    • 2011 follow-up: finish eating cake.  Make sure K continues to like me.
  • Bought a house. It was expensive!  But at least I’ll only have to toil for thirty more years to have it paid off in 2040.  Assuming civilization hasn’t ended.  Although in that case I probably can just have the house and not have to make payments anymore.  Of course, in that case I will have to defend it with a shotgun from hordes of bandits and/or zombies, and it may no longer have power or workable plumbing.
    • 2011 follow-up: do best to remain employed in case of necessity of continued payment-making. Consider obtaining shotgun.
  • New cat: Bea.  That means two cats, and will probably complete the set.
    • 2011 follow-up: possible dog.  Continue to feed and care for cats in order to butter them up for possible dog.
  • Did not fly one time!  I wish that was true every year.
    • 2011 follow-up: ugh, at least two trips requiring flying.  Maybe more.
  • Finally figured out the nuances of my waffle iron and became good at making waffles
    • 2011: make waffles, eat waffles.

Have a good 2011, internet! Come over for some waffles sometime.

I’ve been trying to identify this particular niche of pop culture interest that I am (for now) dubbing the Stray Cats Zone (or, SCZ).  The origination of this concept comes from a theory I have that no one would ever cite the Stray Cats as their favorite band.  Sure, many people are at least passingly familiar with them, and many people like what they’ve heard just fine, but if asked to name their favorite music, the Stray Cats wouldn’t come to mind.  So similar artists will match similar criteria.

It will further help to define counterexamples:

  • The Rolling Stones are not in the SCZ because plenty of people would identify them as a favorite band right off the top of their head.
  • Dexy’s Midnight Runners are not in the SCZ because a one-hit wonder doesn’t really have the staying power to be widely familiar.  You wouldn’t expect anyone to cite a one-hit wonder as an all-time favorite.
  • Someone pretty obscure (i.e., not even a one-hit wonder) that would not be widely recognized does not qualify.

The Stray Cats happen to occupy this particular niche, to my mind.  They are plenty popular, of course.  They have lots of hits and a few platinum albums.  They were the posterkids for a short-lived rockabilly revival fad.  But for some reason, I have trouble picturing someone who latched onto them and decided that was their favorite band.  Maybe for a short time, but wouldn’t such a person move on to something else pretty soon?  If rockabilly was really your thing, wouldn’t you go back to the actual stuff and get into Elvis or Johnny Cash?  And wouldn’t you eventually like them better?  It seems to me that: yes, you would.  I could be wrong, but a cursory internet search for Stray Cats fan sites didn’t turn up much – a couple of abandoned (and hilariously haphazard) MySpace pages and a few more general rockabilly sites.

So I guess what this comes down to is a short list of artists that manage to maintain a steady but unspectacular popularity.  And it’s been hard to identify others.  I think they have to be things that ultimately didn’t seem too unique in retrospect.  They’re like a great compromise: a little something for everyone but no one is ultimately entirely pleased.  I have been discussing this with K endlessly, because that’s the kind of thing we do.  We can think of only a few others so far:

  • Huey Lewis and the News – I like Huey Lewis.  You like Huey Lewis.  Lots of people liked Sports.  When “Heart of Rock & Roll” comes on, people are happy.  But what happened?  Why don’t people wear ironic t-shirts with the Sports album cover on it?  I think there just isn’t much for people to latch onto that they can’t find in a lot of other places.
  • The Gin Blossoms – a quintessential pleasing but frankly unremarkable 90s band.  I like them.  K really likes a few of their songs.  But aren’t there like a million others like them?  Does anyone wish they’d have put out more records?  Once you’ve got all of them, you don’t go: “What now?  There’s nothing else like this.”  You go: “Well, got all of those.  Hey, here are some more Paul Westerberg albums I don’t have.”
  • Soundgarden – I used to be a grunge nut.  Every time I heard a Soundgarden song I reminded myself to go pick up Superunknown.  Well, I never actually did.  I think maybe Soundgarden fits that compromising criteria particularly well.  You might like their sound but Chris Cornell’s voice bugs you after a while.  You might dig that voice, but then you’d probably just end up liking Nirvana or Metallica more.

(Here is where a dozen Stray Cats lovers write to comment about how wrong I am…)

Here are two things.

First, I have been listening to some Cream lately and continue to enjoy the inclusion of this advertising gem in their complete set:

Pity the video doesn’t have the intro the disc version does, where a serious announcer guy says: “Falstaff, the clear beer from St. Louis, brings you Cream, from London.” Mostly it kills me because of the over-reliance on the concept of “slaking” (and further, thirst-slaking reminds me of soul-taking).  But really, it’s just kind of bad and embarrassing for one of the greatest bands ever. Enjoy!

Second, entirely unrelated, here is a picture a friend posted on Facebook the other day that for some reason just totally killed me:

Baking advice from insane wolf

Do the thing with your fingers42. Obsession. Sometimes I think the show’s writers challenged themselves to steer William Shatner through as many different extreme emotional states as possible over the course of an episode.  The plot can be straightforward, you just let Shatner go and stand back.  Here, a landing party is victimized by a killer cloud-like creature Kirk has encountered before, early in his career.  In fact, Kirk blames himself for a failure to act in time to have stopped the creature from killing much of his fellow crew.  With another chance to face it and set things right, Kirk becomes obsessed with figuring out its weakness and destroying it once and for all.  This one is a Shatner showcase, no doubt, as the story is really about some of what drives Kirk and his occasional overflowing humanity.  Lots of emoting: guilt, anger, frustration.  The delicate command path that Kirk follows to feed his obsession while other pressures are put on him (setting a good example for a young officer; dealing with an approaching deadline to meet another ship) is mostly well-done.  (There is one plot hole: the Enterprise needs to rendezvous with another ship to pick up some perishable medical supplies, but then they don’t, and it ultimately doesn’t matter.  And it even takes a while to establish that there is any reason they can’t just come back for the creature after dealing with the other problem.  Anyway.)  Like “The Deadly Years” this episode gives the crew a forum to be concerned about Kirk’s fitness for command, only this time it’s much more delicate and believable.  Killer Spock line: (after he manages to retrieve Kirk and another officer from a dicey transporter situation, and Scotty exclaims, “Thank God!”) “Mr. Scott, there was no deity involved.  It was my cross-circuiting to B that recovered them.”  This was a strong episode with a lot going for it: good ideas and suspense. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Anonymous redshirt killed (five times!) (2)
  • Shatner showcase (2)
  • Highly experimental plan with low probability of success somehow works anyway (3)

43. Wolf in the Fold. The Next Generation had a lot of solid mystery episodes, but TOS tends to focus on other things (like diplomacy, or fistfights).  Here though, we get a good one (and since it’s a mystery my discussing it will naturally be extra spoiler-y).  Kirk and McCoy take Scotty to some sort of cabaret planet to relax him after a recent accident.  We get some sort of backstory about how Scotty has no respect for women, so maybe if he sleeps with one anonymously that will help.  I guess?  I’m actually not sure, there’s a lot of double entendre and saying just enough to make a point without being too explicit for 1960s TV.  Anyway, Scotty leaves with a woman and shortly afterward is found with a bloody knife in his hands and his companion murdered.  Scotty doesn’t remember anything.  Local law enforcement corrals him, but while trying to wrangle the story out of him through mystical and technological means, two more girls are killed and Scotty again seems guilty.  But the facts don’t add up so they return to the Enterprise to subject Scotty to a futuristic lie detector, and his innocent story checks out.  Through some brilliant computer queries Spock and Kirk deduce what has happened, and the planetary administrator helps them out by acting way too weird and giving away the truth: that he is possessed by the evil spirit of Jack the Ripper!  Things get a little crazy at this point as the entity jumps from person to person to computer.  It’s genuinely scary, actually, as it inhabits the ship and tries to freak everyone out.  Knowing that it feeds on fear, Kirk, McCoy, and Spock have everyone on the ship take a mild tranquilizer to keep things mellow.  So we get a fair stretch of goofy ’60s style drug humor, too, until Kirk and Spock are able to get the thing back into the killer’s body and transport him out into deep space.  Spock’s killer line: no great lines but I like when he shoves the drugged-up transporter officer out of the way to get the killer beamed out. Overall it ends up being an interesting science-fictional turn on a traditional mystery, if you can forgive some sketchy computer magic (e.g., that future computers can make brilliant deductions AND be inhabited by killer entities).  2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (1)
  • In the future, computers are magic, but still make teletype sounds (1)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (2)

Do the thing with your fingers40. Friday’s Child. Trek is pretty good at showing alternative societies and using an episode’s framework as a discussion of such a society’s good and bad points.  In this case, the Enterprise crew visits the Capellans, a warlike tribe with ownership of some valuable mining commodities. Complicating matters is the involvement of the Klingons (Klingons!) who also want in on the mine.  The episode centers on the internal politics of the Capellans, whose violent nature gives them some affinity for the Klingon lifestyle.  The show takes an interesting turn when a coup results in a new tribal leader.  The former leader’s pregnant wife is sentenced to death rather than carry the ousted leader’s offspring.  The Prime Directive would say: sorry, lady.  In true Kirk fashion, Kirk decides otherwise and rescues her, mucking up things for the new leader.  Mostly this ends up being a character episode.  We see Kirk’s excellent negotiating skills in action in turning the tables on the Klingons and their Capellan stooge, including plenty of fistfights and running around. We see McCoy’s skill as an old country doctor in handling the pregnant woman who’d rather not have any help.  Spock’s killer line: “Fortunately this bark has suitable tensile cohesion.” Kirk: “You mean it makes good bowstring.” Spock: “I believe I said that.” A thing McCoy is not: an escalator. Overall, a good episode, important to the canon and characters, but not too worried about plot in favor of a lot of action. 3 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Anonymous redshirt killed (1)
  • Violation of Prime Directive (1)
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (2)

41. The Deadly Years. I think this will be the kind of episode that seems more memorable than it actually is.  Checking out a planetary research station, the crew discovers everyone on the surface has unnaturally aged and the few remaining survivors are close to death.  Returning to the ship to figure out what’s going on, all the members of the landing party save for Chekov start showing signs of rapid aging as well.  Over the course of the show, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, and Kirk all grow painfully old and hope to figure out the cause before it’s too late!  (They do.  Whew!)  So here was my problem with this episode: all the drama is mis-aimed.  Most of the time is devoted to Kirk’s waning ability to command, and the hearing that is held to determine his competency.  For some reason there is a totally ineffectual Starfleet administrator on board who, even though he outranks Kirk and is healthy, cannot assume command, and convinces Spock to hold this hearing.  Of course Old Kirk steadfastly argues he’s fine and there is an earnest attempt to derive some drama out of this.  But what was the point?  Of course he’s not competent.  He’s suffering from an aging disease!  As are several other principals.  All sorts of time is wasted on this procedure instead of trying to figure out what’s causing it.  Then at the end they are hanging out in sick bay with time running out, and suddenly it occurs to them why Chekov wasn’t afflicted and they are, and it’s frankly a little sketchy, but OK.  So they are cured, and Kirk boots the Starfleet dude out of his chair and does some serious commanding.  Spock’s killer line: not really anything.  He spent most of the episode moping around being old and tired. Overall, a disappointment.  Memorable in the sense that it will be “the one where they all get old” but the episode itself is largely a misfire.  It’s fun to see them get old, true, but there is a lot of misdirected time here. 2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Kirk meets up with an old flame (1)
  • Highly experimental plan with low probability of success somehow works anyway (2)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (1)
  • Shatner showcase (1)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Probably the quintessential Christmas classic.  Rankin/Bass hitting on all cylinders here: memorable characters, songs, animation, a moral, and a story that actually makes some sense in the end.  If you watch it objectively it truly is weird, but it’s agreeably weird.  The difference between this and some of the other Rankin/Bass specials that aren’t good is subtle.  It seems like their strategy was to have a kind of silly adventure story where a strange character eventually finds acceptance and redemption.  They throw a lot of crazy ideas and situations in the protagonist’s way, and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s just odd.  I think the difference between when it works and when it doesn’t is simple: humor and good characters.  Rudolph’s friends are:

  • Hermie the Elf, who doesn’t want to make toys but wants to be a dentist (further: they meet when Rudolph sits on a snowbank that Hermie is apparently just hanging out in)
  • Yukon Cornelius, a prospector with a sled team comprised of random dog breeds like poodles and dachsunds, and who determines if there are valuable minerals around by licking his pickaxe, and who never actually finds any minerals (he is apparently outwitted by a squirrel for the only gold nugget shown)
  • A bunch of misfit toys like a Charlie in the Box.

Somehow it’s all funny and amusing.  Some other Rankin/Bass entries like Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey aren’t funny.  Rankin/Bass are actually quite funny but not so effective at drama.  I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know how things would turn out for Rudolph.  So it’s that factor, or it’s just whatever you see as a kid you will like and everything else is bad.  Overall: you don’t need me to tell you this is one of the best Christmas specials ever.

Jack Frost

Compare another Rankin/Bass entry, Jack Frost.  I’d never seen this one, and I never quite bought into it.  Possibly because it’s not funny enough.  Because unlike Rudolph, we don’t know where this is going.  So: Jack Frost is the invisible personification of a magical elf that starts winter, and it turns out he’s part of a whole frosty crew.  There is Father Winter, who is the boss, and Snip the snowflake maker and a host of other laborers who produce winter, ostensibly by hand.  It’s amazingly inefficient and you wonder how winter ever happens.  Anyway, the story revolves around an Eastern European village where a beautiful girl enchants Jack by saying how much she loves winter and Jack Frost, but more the concept than the actual dude.  (Understandable: I have had more than one ex-girlfriend with the same feelings towards me.)  Jack takes this literally and asks Father Winter to make him human so he can meet her.  For some reason Father Winter OKs this provided Jack obtain a wife, a house, a horse, and a bag of gold to make his being human official.  These rules are not explained more but I went along with it.  In the end the story actually comes around in an interesting way.  I liked it, actually.  It didn’t end as I expected and there are some lessons about relationships that make sense.  Though I did have an issue with Father Winter’s powers.  At one point Jack gets trapped and things aren’t looking good.  So, he just bails on the whole human thing and asks Father Winter to let him come back, which is done.  Then a bit later he has a good opportunity to be human again, so Father Winter lets him right back down there with the same conditions as before.  I think this is a classic example of drama having no stakes.  It’s like Jack has a reset button that brings him back to a convenient save point.  Two other thoughts: there is a sort of unnecessary framing story about Pardon-Me Pete, the Groundhog charged with overseeing whether winter comes.  It’s a little tacked on but I liked it anyway.  And: there were a lot of characters in this with goofy voices, namely Jack.  I know goofy voices are fun, but not all animated characters need squeaky goofy voices, please.  Overall: Fun, worth a watch.  Not a classic but worth the time.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This is my all-time favorite Christmas special.  It’s got everything: muppets, good songs, humor, a good story.  It’s about Emmet and his Ma, a couple of poor river animals working to get by in the wake of the passing of Pa, still an inspiration to both of them.  Unbeknownst to each other, they both enter a town talent contest in an effort to win some money to buy each other Christmas presents.  Further, they both risk a lot to make it happen, giving up some of their few valuable possessions to make their entry work.  I won’t give away the ending but things work out because they are good souls, in true muppet fashion.  The characters are really memorable, such as The Nightmare, the hard rock band from River Bottom, who steal the show in the talent contest.  I kind of wish they weren’t so awesome because they’re actually total punks.  Hmph.  Typical celebrity attitude, I guess.  I also like the mysterious Pa.  We know only that he died and was a snake oil salesman.  But Emmet and Ma constantly use his example to seize the day.  They clearly miss his presence, although we must wonder if his recklessness is the reason he’s not around anymore.  To be objective, it doesn’t sound like Pa always made altogether great decisions.  Anyway, this special ultimately really works because it creates a completely believable fictional world the animals live in, but it has some of the same problems as ours: the rich, privileged, and uncaring generally get what they want and the poor and humble do not.  But it’s not all sad, it’s funny and there are fantastic songs.  Overall: my favorite Christmas show, and a yearly watch.

I was playing around with Isle of Tune (links play music, sort of):

Give ’em a thumbs up, won’t you?  That is, if they meet your rigorous standards for quality of music made by little cars driving past musical landmarks.  Or thumbs down if that’s how you feel.  It’s anonymous and I can take it.

This is a lot of fun to play with, but time consuming.  You also can’t exactly make a song like you want it, there is a very definite set of notes and effects and you’re constrained to three tracks that need to loop appropriately to keep things going.

Not much time today, so I will just share a few recent favorites from the SI Vault:

Billings’ own Brent Musburger wearing a goofy old-school Falcons cap goofily

Stephen Jackson wears old-school Eric Dickerson goggles during the Rams’ throwback game

1980s Jim Valvano doing an interview at NC State

&

Another Jim Valvano and NC State (I wish NCSU basketball was that much fun again…)

A couple of Hartford Whalers missing a high five

A wonderful Dolphins fan