May 31, 2012

Happy Dance Music

This man had two working fingers on his fretting hand. Don't underestimate the stubbornness and tenacity and adaptibility of jazz folk.

A Good Weekend To Be A Pittsburgher

It's also a good couple of days to take the bus Downtown if you can... but get yourself there however you have to. The JazzLive International Festival is this weekend, and you are covered whether your taste runs to traditional or modern, soloists or bands, vocalists or instrumentalists or somewhere in between or all of the above.

Sean Jones with the Mark Lucas Band helm a kickoff party from 5 to 7 tonight at Macy's.

This is a city where you can stumble into a free Sean Jones concert at Macy's. I FRIGGING LOVE MY TOWN.

Friday night's going to be utterly nuts, in the best possible way. The JazzLive Crawl will feature live jazz at TWENTY-ONE different venues.

Most of the weekend's events are free--but check the official Pittsburgh JazzLive International website for details on ticket sales where applicable.

Seriously, how hard should you kick yourself if you don't go? REAL HARD.

Notorious S.H.R.I.M.P.

As anyone who knows me or has read this blog for any length of time knows, I just will not shut up about my grandmother. She was graceful, tough, smart, adaptable, and just about the best female role model a little girl could possibly have been lucky enough to have.

One thing she couldn't do--and really, this is a pretty harmless tradeoff--is cook.

This was passing strange, considering the fact that her parents were in the restaurant business and her mother was an exceptional cook. I guess some traditions skip a generation. (I, for instance, never picked up my mother's skill at all things textile related... I can't sew, and my short-lived attempt at getting good at needlepoint was needlepointless. AND I can't operate a spool of curling ribbon to save my life.)

My mother makes an amazing sticky bun. My great-grandmother made a gorgeous pie. Grandma made a fantastic dinner reservation.

One time, the cleaning lady opened up Grandma's oven, and moths flew out*.

Grandma did, however, love entertaining. There were a few go-to recipes in her arsenal, mostly weaponized forms of cream cheese. One of them was a brick of cream cheese with some brown goo poured over it. Mom and I have speculated through the years as to the nature of the brown goo. It wasn't quite like soy sauce, but it was definitely umami-heavy, not that any of us thought in terms of umami back then. We think it might have been Marmite, but we are too frightened of Marmite to test this theory.

Grandma's signature appetizer was shrimp dip.

You might think that preparation of this dish would involve shrimp.

You underestimate the ingenuity of the Poppy Cannon era.

Shrimp dip was assembled from pickled artichoke hearts, cream cheese, and undiluted Campbell's Cream of Shrimp soup. (RELATED: There is such a thing as Campbell's Cream of Shrimp soup.) Preparation: Mash. Serve cold.

There was usually a dish of salted almonds as well. They were very popular.

Nobody, I am certain, went to Grandma's parties for the gustatory delight of it. But when I look back on those days, I remember the sound of a roomful of people having a wonderful time. I remember warmth and laughter (some of it, quietly, about the shrimp dip).

Like I said, it was a pretty good tradeoff.

*Really. People always think that this story is one of those Erma Bombeckian / Phyllis Dilleresque comedic exaggerations. On the upside, between underuse and the aforementioned cleaning lady, Grandma's kitchen was always spotless... at least until I got my grubby mitts on it.

May 29, 2012

I Haven't Been This Excited Since Zippy Visited The Summit Diner

Today's Bizarro, a well-executed gag based on a real-life Western PA landmark, is a collaboration between Dan Piraro and Pittsburgh-based Wayno. You must immediately hie yourself to WaynoBlog to take a peek at the creative process. (I'm kind of relieved that someone else thinks the inspiration for this cartoon is as funny as I always have...)

May 28, 2012

The Accidental Typist

I am a 100% certified hunt-and-peck typist.

(The funny thing is, I can actually touch-type pretty well if I'm tired and stressed. You should have seen me during pledge drives, my friend. I scared even myself with my groggy efficiency.)

One of the few typing rules I learned in school--this from the beleaguered high school English teacher who was transitioning us from handwritten essays to typed*--was to leave two spaces after every period. In the last few months, I became aware that this is not only not The Done Thing anymore, but apparently falls into some (extremely understimulated) people's list of pet peeves. This led to a series of small revelations, including the source of some really odd formatting issues on Blogger. (Aha! That's where all of those mysterious &nbsp HTML tags were coming from!)

So I've been trying to untrain myself of the lone bit of formal typing instruction that stuck. Not exactly an inspiring thought, but exactly the sort of thing you run into in real life.

Much wise counsel, of course, stays useful.

Sometime in elementary school, we had a craft project homework assignment, the precise nature of which has been long forgotten. The hip bone connected to the leg bone? A cheerily waving Pilgrim? ("Woohoo, I didn't freeze to death this winter! Also, odds are good that you will work for my descendants, little plebian heathen of the future!) Don't know exactly. It was some flat paper object requiring a joint, which I ended up constructing with a flattened paper clip. I made some note of apology for my makeshift hardware when I turned in the project. And I always thought my teacher's response was among the best life lessons I have received: "Life is full of making substitutions for brass fasteners."

OK, it's maybe a little specific, as sage advice goes. I can't actually remember wishing for a brass fastener in the ensuing years, not even once. But that's part of the reason it stuck with me all these years. You can either get hung up on looking for an esoteric little gewgaw, or you can figure out something that'll work and run with it.

*Yes, on a typewriter. Related: I do so miss the dinosaurs--awful table manners, but such joie de vivre.

May 27, 2012

Pittsburgh's Chuck Austin Remembered

While it's true that YouTube comments are one of the leading causes of depleted faith in humanity, sometimes, they are perfectly pithy in every way.

It is completely correct that "that growlin horn section cranks!"

Among the horns on that recording was the trumpet of Pittsburgh's Chuck Austin, whose long and fascinating life came to a close this weekend.

Looking at this morning's remembrances online, I'm struck by how universally he is described as "gentle;" to be fondly remembered for not just our works but our treatment of others is just about the best way we can hope to leave this word.

And Mr. Austin left us a lot to remember him by.

Here's a wonderful 2009 performance with Opek. (Yes, I know, it's kind of long for a blog video, but it's worth the ten minutes of your time.) I'm as guilty as anyone of overusing the term "epic," but this is indeed an epic trumpet solo.

Founder and President of the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, an executive board member of the Pittsburgh Musician's Union, and a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame, Chuck Austin was a versatile musician as well as a strong advocate for the preservation of jazz history. He was even honored by The City of Pittsburgh when February 8, 2011 was proclaimed to be Chuck Austin Day. And, happily, he was included in the oral history project at Manchester Craftsman's Guild--here's an excerpt:

Chuck Austin is the third trumpeter in this 1945 Teenie Harris photo. (via, of course! Logically! The Daily Mail. Go read this article now.) 

May 25, 2012

Today In Cute Overload

Beautiful blue skies, warm weather, and a new Simon's Cat... the holiday weekend is off to a great start!

Happy Towel Day 2012

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
--Douglas Adams

Happy Towel Day, my fellow B-Ark descendants.

May 21, 2012

Then Again, Ol' Lyndon Did Get Around...

I genuinely do feel sympathy for the person who composed the graduation program for the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Because, yes, it was that typo. (via Jim Romanesko)

On the upside, I bet people found commencement much more entertaining than usual.

I'm telling all y'all... use the SMLTS spellchecking hack.

Every Scratch, Every Click, Every Heartbeat

For all the joking, I don't usually feel "older" after a birthday. I remember being terribly upset about turning 8 because I liked being lucky 7. (I am now completely over such silly superstition. Anyone you see in my kitchen throwing salt over her shoulder is clearly my long-lost identical twin.)

Probably because of a rush of massive life changes, I did feel distinctly older at 18. Older, and kind of ticked off that I'd missed the primary election by about a month. But, nevertheless, voter registration card in one hand and high school diploma in the other, I was a certified adult. And, headed off to Pitt in the fall, I knew that I was just one more tortuously isolated summer away from escaping rural Pennsylvania.

So, here I am, a few years later. This birthday did indeed come with a sense of generational graduation.  Little things remind me of the passage of time... I saw a clip a few weeks ago of the night Dan Rather got in a tussle with George Bush (the elder), which I watched as it happened. And it looked so old. The video itself, a grainy and foreign relic of the era of physical media, its age lines showing on an HDTV screen. The men, so much younger; Bush's unmistakably '80s eyeglasses. It was just another evening news broadcast--if a contentious one--when I first saw it on the old console TV.

There's a small but thriving genre of "age test" humor online... do you recognize an adapter for a 45? Do you understand the relationship between a cassette tape and a pencil? There was a rather good one of a photo of a film canister; the (possibly apocryphal) caption suggested that today's youngsters would be puzzled by the need for such tiny Tupperware.

And we laugh. Well, I laugh--I can't answer for you.

Sometimes, the blasts from the past are oddly comforting. On the theory that I may actually get back to the beach some time in my adult life, I signed up for email blasts from the Ocean City, NJ tourism people. They've been highlighting a "business of the week" for some time--usually something that wasn't there the last time I visited. But last week, I opened the email to find the absolutely wonderful little used bookshop from whence came my classic large-format Doonesbury collections. (Whether by familial indulgence or unfamiliarity with the Trudeau oeuvre, my right-of-Attilla grandfather picked up the bill.) Yes, the Bookateria is still there, still marked by the same black-on-yellow sign that seemed charmingly weathered twenty years ago and is by that standard all the more charming now.

You might think that going back to grad school, reminded every day that there are rather a lot of full-fledged adults who are significantly younger than I am, would leave me feeling a bit past it. But, for the most part, it's a corrective to the woe-is-me school of aging. I have experience. I have stories. People ask me stuff. I'm kind of the Cool Aunt. Well, the Eccentric Aunt.

There's a headiness to youth, to being poised at the brink of an undefined future. But we head along our paths, ready or not, trading potential for kinesis and blank slates for etched stones. We live to become fully ourselves.

While not a reference to the specific birthday in question...  Mr. McManus' reflections on the little landmarks of our personal histories seem worth considering...

May 17, 2012

I, For One, Welcome Our New Furry Overlords

This blog has had two hits in the last day for the search term "chainmaille for cats."

I can only assume that this means the feline population has finally developed sufficient offensive weaponry to mobilize. (And, you know, language skills and a basic grasp of the internet.) Be warned, humans! We are about to be laid siege by the cutest widdle throng of merciwess killers in the whole wide world, yes we are! Yes we are!

May 15, 2012

A Few Good Laughs

  • Adventures in waste management. (Great story. Not exactly work-safe, though not really prurient in and of itself. Save it 'til you get home.) 
  • I know we're supposed to be over variations on "Sh*t My (Noun) (Verb)s," but this one will make you weep with tears of mirth for our collective future.  
  • Reading a blog/Can be kind of a slog/But there once was a norm/Of light verse in short form/Burma-Shave
  • The only thing better than Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Some news to lighten hearts (via Pajiba):

The Loot Of The World

One of the great compensations of the passage of time is the opportunity to revisit music and books and movies we've loved through the sharpened filter of life experience.

The other night--I guess early morning, technically--I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in several years. (The first time I saw it, it seemed impossibly late at night; it was probably about 11 and so was I. For me, Kane's journey into darkness is still best viewed surrounded by selfsame material.)

Have time and events lent a bit more poignancy to the spectacle of a wealthy man-child swooping up media outlets like so many blocks to play with, then presiding over their ultimate collapse? Inevitably.

Maybe because I've been sorting through my own detritus as of late, what really stuck with me this time was the snowglobe-- the one that Kane drops as he dies. You see it first in Susan's shabby apartment. Someone, I found myself thinking, would have been delegated to pack up her belongings when all hell broke loose--I can't imagine Susan being allowed to return to the "love nest" once it was plastered all over the (competing) newspapers. This silly dust-catcher would likely have been wrapped and carefully conveyed to the Kane household. And in those strange transitional days, I bet she clung to it like a holy relic.

And then, when she storms out, she leaves it.

Kane trashes her bedroom, stopping at the snowglobe. Unable to construct his own normality, he'll cling to the abandoned flotsam of someone else's.

Most of us go through life carting worthless, priceless little mementoes from home to home, from office to office. We all must know that, someday, the little trinkets that mean the world to us will be separated from all larger significance, reduced to junk as we are reduced to dust. But while we live, keeping little bits of our pasts is a small way of remembering to remember. (Even if Jed Leland says that memory is "the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race," is there a colder and more profound fear than that of losing it?)

Our stuff is a bulwark against our mortality. It never works, mind, but we try. That said, there comes a time when it's wise to clean out the basement. Sheesh.
Dammit, the snow shovel's in here somewhere...

Somewhere in my own collection of stuff, I still have unused tickets to a White Stripes concert. (I rather keenly remember getting hit by a car that morning.)  Here's one of the cleverer pastiches of Citizen Kane going.

May 13, 2012

At Rest

There is no substitute for quiet.

Circumstances sometimes dictate that you make do with the next-best thing. You learn to tune out environmental noise, like someone else's television. You perhaps acquire a jar of disposable earplugs with which to block out wet, gasping, cacophonous snores. You might find that your ability to work in a library or a student lounge improves with an iPod and a good set of isolating headphones.

But sometimes, if only for a little while, the world allows you to function without some level of avoidance. Quiet. Not anything so unsettling as silence. Some rain, a distant car, a cooing pigeon.

It won't last. It is precious.

May 12, 2012


Ragweed, great spikes of it, and sheaves of goldenrod, grew in the field beside my childhood home. Aside from the odd sneeze, it didn't bother me a bit.

Today, in what one would expect to be the less perilous lands of the arguably-misnamed Bloomfield, my sinuses are in the process of trying to kill me. Their primary tactic is dehydration; they hope to desiccate me slowly through post-nasal drip. I fight back with determination and generic Zyrtec (available very economically from that evil big box retailer that nobody admits to shopping at). It works pretty well, except for how it basically renders me unconscious. And frankly, who wants to be fully alert during a sinus headache?

May 8, 2012

Mischief Of One Kind And Then Another

To me, it was always a part of the universe--though in childish narcissism I assumed it was written for my generation--but I can't imagine how breathtakingly odd Where The Wild Things Are must have seemed on its release in 1963. I am reminded of the sweet naivete of children's books that came into my life after my mother and aunt had grown up with them, like Manners For Moppets, an etiquette guide for the knee-socks set. ("It gives me great pleasure to pass you the salt" is still a bit of a family punchline.)

There is sweetness in Sendak's work, but it is rich and complex and distilled from rougher stuff; it is molasses in a sea of aspartame tablets. There are glories in the art and the text; few of them rise from what you might think of as comfort. The world and its possibilities; adventure, yes, but danger and separation and darkness... we "sail off through night and day and in and out of weeks," armed with curiosity and love, clad in a funny suit with which to blend in with the bewildering creatures we encounter.

Maurice Sendak perceived and expressed, in the most singular way, the complexity of our strange and crosshatched world.

In a less navel-gazing vein, here's Sendak's appearance on The Colbert Report a few months back. He was extremely Sendakian to the very end.

Dimmed Bulbs

So, here I was, happily cooking dinner, when the ceiling fan and overhead light and the clothes dryer all stopped. Taking a moment to mentally take inventory, I reassured myself that yes the bill was most definitely paid, and therefore whatever the heck was going on was not my fault. I then felt very smug indeed as I realized I was cooking on a gas range. Ha, take THAT, blown transformer.

Within a few seconds, I started to do the mental calculus of when, exactly, Mom and I could justify going on a wild ice cream binge in the name of thrift.

I finished cooking; we ate dinner in the bizarre quiet. (Well, relative quiet. I don't think traffic noises count.) The irony did not escape us that if the power wasn't back by ten, we'd miss that NatGeo show about the Amish.  

Time passed--oh, not much time, not really. Enough to make me wonder how on Earth I might deal with the cache of carefully vacuum-bagged pork chops I have stashed in the freezer. Dear Readers, I probably would have been forced to track each of you down to personally deliver a generous portion of pepper pork as thanks for your loyalty.

Moments after I laughed at myself for reflexively hitting a light switch, the house came back to life. My imminent ice-cream-and-perfectly-good-excuse sundae evaporated before my eyes. But, you know, there was light and it was good.

May 7, 2012

Monday Linkdump: Lovely Soft Breezes Edition

Well, here we are in a roarin' new week--exciting, right? There will be fun and sunshine and probably a whole bucketload of pollen deposited by nature directly into your personal sinuses just because Momma Nature loves you, sweetie.

So, let's catch up a bit and orient ourselves on this Monday...

  • We all saw this unfortunate choice of typeface in last week's Trib, right? Or, as everyone I showed it to said immediately (and I quote): "MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
  • I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, thus likely becoming the next horse to not win the Triple Crown because I totally jinxed it with my birth. SMLTS favoritest jockey in the whole wide world Calvin Borel came in an ouchworthy next-to-last on the injured Take Charge Indy, who is likely to recover nicely from upcoming surgery to remove a bone chip from his left front pastern. 
  • Because the horse will be OK, I feel morally cleared for having made several "He is named after the dog?" jokes before the race. And in the course of looking for the relevant clip, I stumbled across the fact that the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is impossibly wonderful when dubbed in Italian. 

  • Would you like to see pianist and jazz Zelig Marian McPartland recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors? Sign here.
  • According to an email from Comcast--sorry, "XFinity*"--Desperate Housewives is apparently still on the air, and, uh, about not to be. I seriously thought it had been cancelled, like, three years ago. Am clueless about trash TV that isn't a reality show featuring Gordon Ramsay or Joan and Melissa Rivers. (Or... all three! I'm thinking an adventure roadtrip sort of thing. OMG WE MUST MAKE THIS HAPPEN, PPL!)
  • If you're in the market for perceptive, eloquent, and insanely prompt** Mad Men recaps, check in with The AV Club every Monday. (Spoileriffic, of course.) Yes, some of the best cultural criticism being produced today is coming from a spinoff of The Onion
  • And finally, some silliness apropos of absolutely nothing at all... 

*Was I the only person at the dawn of that rebranding effort who wondered if they wanted it pronounced "Transfinity"? And on the topic of dubious pronunciations, have you noticed that Marriott has stopped trying to make us rhyme their name with "chariot"?  
**Seriously, they don't get advance screeners. This was written overnight, guys.

May 2, 2012

You Can See Major Major When He's In...

I have an appointment to register for Fall term on Friday. The very nice young man at the Pitt help desk got my computer account reinstated for me yesterday--and wished me an early happy birthday, bonus points--and so I planned to spend part of this morning sifting through course descriptions.

So, I logged back in to myPitt today, and got that dreaded PeopleSoft crash screen that is so familiar to those of us who regularly brave the websites of large institutions. (I did, however, have unfettered access to last semester's webmail, a helpful resource for future historians in need of a recounting of every guest lecture and cocktail party held in late 2011 Oakland.)

I called the help desk again--reached a different person this time--and determined the following:
1). I can't get in to course information, because I haven't registered yet.
2). But I can see the course information after I've registered.
3). No, really.

On the upside, I'll have a good bureaucracy story to share with my advisor...

May 1, 2012

The Day All Cat Owners Fear

This will haunt me tonight, as Sophie prepares to extort her nightly cat treats...

Today In Electronic Brains


"All help desk analysts are currently helping other individuals. You can report your problem through the World Wide Web or continue to hold for the next analyst. If you would like instructions on how to submit a problem via the World Wide Web, press 2 now."

*deceptively peaceful pause*



Thing I used to do:
Set my alarm clock to go off with the morning news on DUQ.
Why I stopped:
Obviously not even an option now, but I started to doubt the wisdom of this practice the time that I woke to hear that the drill bit had broken in the Quecreek Mine rescue. I cautiously continued until the morning that the very first thing I heard was Alex Chaklos telling me that Mister Rogers had died, which was statistically speaking the most depressing possible way to start a morning.

Like everyone else, I use my cell phone alarm now anyway.

Thing I used to do:
Put milk in my coffee.
Why I stopped:
I like very hot coffee. And I get "dark and bitter."

Thing I used to do:
Buy cheap garbage bags. When I was an undergrad and had impossibly large amounts of no money, the cheap bags on a roll seemed like a great deal.
Why I stopped:
You double-bag enough full, leaking sacks of trash, you learn.

Thing I used to do:
Worry about how it's supposedly Not Done to wear stockings anymore.
Why I stopped:
It occurred to me that this dictate was probably coming from the sort of girls who date men who wear shorts and a down parka in the middle of winter.

Thing I used to do:
Feel bad about eating at Chik-Fil-A.
Why I stopped:
OK, I didn't exactly stop feeling bad, but I almost always end up going there at the behest of a gay friend, which I guess means that if I'm not exactly following my principles I am at least selectively ignoring them in good company. We then proceed to enjoy leaving secular humanist cooties all over the store.

Thing I used to do:
Travel by Greyhound.
Why I stopped:
If life is all about the journey, then Greyhound is proof of the ultimate futility of existence.

Thing I used to do:
Worry that maybe I should learn how to drive after all. (I had a learner's permit in high school, but never took the driving test.)
Why I stopped:
Throw together a stunningly--possibly clinically--bad sense of direction, a general tendency to be more concerned with not hitting anything than to notice or obey STOP signs, plus the fact that occasionally I get a crazy migraine that leaves me disoriented, numb in the extremities, and partially blind... and I think you'd be hard-pressed to say I'm a loss to American driving culture.

Thing I used to do:
Watch all the Sunday news shows.
Why I stopped:
I'm not even sure why this bit of kabuki theater has survived into the modern age. The expectation is that interviews will go something like this:

ANCHOR: "Senator. Thank you for joining us this morning. Now, your critics say that your hobby of strangling puppies with your bare hands while defecating in front of the Washington Monument while singing "Happy Birthday To You" could be interpreted as a hostile gesture to the animal rights lobby, as well as copyright infringement."

GUEST: "Well, Phil, that's an interesting question, but the real issue here* is how to bring Liberty and Freedom back to the Amurrrcan people, who are being enslaved by tax policy and Obamacare." (PAUSE.) "And let me assure you, I have an ASCAP license."

*This is an actual media training technique called "bridging," which looks a lot like "ignoring the question and saying precisely what you want to say," because that's what it is.