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So, last week, I went out for a short jog, and I had an idea. (Yeah, I had the idea a week ago… it just took a while for me to write the darn thing…) Anyway, the idea Running Musicwas this: why not write a blog entry on the songs randomly playing on my iPod during my run? Hey, it’s just as inane as 91% of all the other stuff on the Web, right? So, in a very much particular order:

“Runaway,” Bon Jovi: Even though this song is their first hit (in fact, it essentially pre-dates the band, in that Bon Jovi the guy was performing it before he assembled Bon Jovi the band), I just figured out the lyrics recently– as in, like, today.

To me, the song was always about a girl who turned to prostitution because her daddy never showed her love when she was a kid. The lyric at the beginning about the gaudily made-up women lays the groundwork for this interpretation, and the “Now she works the night away” line at the end cliches it.  But then there’s that part in the second verse, that begins “Now you sit home alone ’cause there’s nothing left for you to do.”  What’s that all about?

Then I realized I was falling victim to that ol’ poetic pitfall: ambiguous pronouns.  See, the song makes reference to a “you,” only sometimes the “you” is the girl, and sometimes, the “you” is the dad.  So in the second verse, the “you” is the dad sitting home, looking at pictures of his daughter, beating himself up for not being there for her when she was younger and thus sending her down this path of self-destruction. So, really, this song is about the importance of paternal love in shaping a child’s fate.

And thus, I have spent more time thinking about this song than perhaps anyone else in the world (with the possible exception of Bon Jovi himself).

“You Give Love a Bad Name,” Bon Jovi: Hey, whaddaya know?  Two Bon Jovi songs in a row, even though I had the iPod on shuffle!  What are the odds?  (Actually, I guess I could figure out the odds quite easily: 529 songs on the iPod, 10 of which are Bon Jovi. Of course, the same song is not going to play twice in a row, so that means… Ahh, screw it.  I lost interest.)

When I was out running, I almost skipped this one, not only because it came on the heels of another JBJ song, but because, after nearly twenty-eight years, I have perhaps grown a little weary of it. Heck, after twenty-eight years, even Bon Jovi himself is probably sick of it.

This got me thinking: Is “You Give Love a Bad Name” Bon Jovi’s “signature song”?  I mean, it’s one of his signature songs… but is it THE signature song? I’d probably give the honors to “Livin’ on a Prayer”… but it’s close. (And where does “Wanted Dead or Alive” fit in?  Is it a dark horse?)

“Doctor My Eyes,” Jackson Browne:  Juxtaposin’ Jackson gives us a great contrast here, with the upbeat piano coupled with sort of depressing lyrics.  And apparently, the first incarnation of the song was even grimmer. The central metaphor of the song has always been the same: a guy goes to see a doctor because he believes he’s having problems with his eyes– particularly, his tear ducts don’t seem to be working.  But the doctor can’t help him because the guy’s problem is not physical but metaphysical: the guy has soured on everything he’s seen in life and has “learned how not to cry.”

At the urging of some record company folks, Jackson removed some of the more pessimistic lyrics (e.g. a reference to an “Angel of Darkness”), sped up the piano, and added bongos. The result is Jackson Browne’s first big hit and a surprisingly great running song– yes, even better than “Running on Empty.”

“Bad,” U2: Another surprisingly great running song– and I say “surprising,” because it’s allegedly about heroin abuse. Even though never released as a single, this is the song that made U2 the Best! Band! in the World! back in 1985, thanks to Bono’s antics at Live Aid.  If you haven’t seen the Live Aid performance, check it out, especially the part where Bono jumps into the crowd and embraces two female fans, after the security plucks them out of the packed-like-sardines crowd.

The name “Bad” is actually fitting, since the Live Aid performance has a “Bad” news/ “Good” news thing going on:

“Bad” News:  the crowd interaction (plus some snippets from Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones, which Bono threw in) stretched “Bad” out to twelve minutes, which meant they didn’t have time for their third song (“Pride”).  As a result, the band was initially disappointed with their set; in a 1987 interview, guitarist Edge admitted, “We came offstage after Live Aid, and we thought we had really blown it.”

“Good” News: fans really appreciated Bono’s spontaneous persistence in getting to those fans, the song sounded great, and the whole thing put U2 on the mainstream map.

“Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon Not necessarily a great running song (with that funky, South African piano accordion), but a fascinating song nonetheless.   To me, the song is about advances in technology, both good and bad:  the “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” (good) juxtaposed with the “lasers in the jungle somewhere” (bad).  Allegedly, Paul Simon once said the song is about “hope and dread… but coming down on the side of hope,” and I guess the repetition of “these are the days of miracle and wonder” in the chorus underscores that sense of hope. (For a way more advanced analysis of this and apparently every other Paul Simon song, click here.)

By the way, is  “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” just about the best alliteration in pop music? At the very least, it’s tied with Warren Zevon’s “little old lady got mutilated late last night” from “Werewolves of London”…

“Here’s Where the Story Ends,” The SundaysAnd here is where the run ends, as it turns out. Great song, and I love the poetry of the line “a little souvenir of a terrible year.”  As for the rest of the lyrics?  In truth, I couldn’t understand all of them; even when I went back and finally read the lyrics, I didn’t understand them. (Who knew she was talking about a “shed” in the chorus?  What happened there?)  But I love the sound nonetheless, and I always thought it should have been more popular.

And there it is– the musical score for that day’s run.  I’ve heard some folks say that they don’t like to listen to music as they jog, but personally, I don’t know how you could run without music.  A good song can get your feet moving as well as your mind– and even give you the material for a blog post.

promposals“So, you’re saying skywriting’s out, then?”

“I’d say so.”

Scotty knew whom he wanted to ask to the junior prom: Jill, from AP Biology.  He just didn’t know how to ask her.  And as any sixteen-year-old Romeo-in-training can attest, the “how” is infinitely more important than the “whom.”

His peers—guys not just at school but across America, for the past five or six years—have set the bar almost impossibly high as far as promposals are concerned.  You have the Showstoppers, who make the whole school their stage, by asking their potential dates over the intercom or at an assembly.  Or the It-Takes-a-Villagers, who enlist the aid of friends, teachers, principals, even custodians in their quest for a dance partner.   (Example: teacher hands out a pop quiz, except one girl gets a special quiz with a single question: “Will you go to the prom with Joe?”)

And let’s not forget the Spellers, who inscribe “P-R-O-M?” on every imaginable surface:  on ceilings, in glow-in-the-dark stars; on car windshields, with a thousand sticky-notes; and, of course, on food items—donuts, cupcakes, and pizza (delivered to the date’s front door by an unsuspecting pizza-guy).

Scotty didn’t know how he could possibly top these Promposal Wizards.  He only knew that his attempt had to pass the C.U.B. Test: it had to be Creative, Unique, and Bold.

“Here’s a thought,” Scotty’s mother said one afternoon. “Why not just ask her—you know, with words?”

“Are you kidding?” Scotty scoffed. “No one does that anymore.”

“I don’t know. It seems like it’s all getting a little out of control…”

A little? Scotty thought to himself.  A little out of control?  It’s  ridiculously, outrageously, obscenely out of control.  All of it. He knew senior girls who spent over $700 on their proms.  If everything else about the night is over-the-top, why should the asking be any different?

“Maybe you should try something simple,” Mom continued. “Buy a single rose, go to where she works, and just ask her. Girls love that kind of stuff.”

“No, it has to be a Grand Gesture,” Scotty said. “Remember the three criteria: Creative, Unique, and Bold.”

“Wow. You’ve given this a lot of thought.  I didn’t think guys even cared about proms.”

“We don’t,” Scotty assured her. “But when one guy comes up with a clever idea, we all have to scramble to think of something better.”

“So, all this madness is the result of an over-developed, hyper-masculine sense of competition then?”

“Well, that… but it’s also about hedging our bets,” Scotty explained.  “It’s harder for a girl to turn you down when you make such a public display of the whole thing.”

“Or you can look at it another way,” Mom countered.  “You’re afraid that she might say no, so you want to make the whole asking process as impersonal as possible.”

Scotty considered what she said for a moment.  But only a moment. “This is how it’s done now, Mom,” he insisted. “So you want to help me or not?”

His mother shook her head.  “I just wonder what you guys plan on doing when you get older, and you want to ask someone to marry you.  If you’re going to such lengths for prom, what will you do for an actual marriage proposal?  Pay NASA to write ‘Marry Me?’ on the moon?”

“Now you’re being absurd. Focus.  I’ll throw some ideas out, and you tell me what you think. How about I’ll make an elaborate YouTube video, involving all of her friends and family, like that guy did to the Bruno Mars song a few years ago?”

“Sounds like a lot of work.”

“How organizing a flash mob?”

“Even more work.”

“How about a Flamingo Flocking kind of thing, where I go to her house in the middle of the night and spell out the word ‘PROM’ in pink flamingos on her front lawn?”

“Too… weird.”

“How about I buy her a kitten, and I attach a fake prom ticket to its collar?  And then afterwards she gets to keep the kitten!”

“No, no, no!  Scotty, you can’t involve a living creature in your crazy scheme– especially since the odds are pretty good you might not ever talk to this girl again after this one night!”

Scotty gave up. His mother clearly didn’t understand. But her words must have seeped through because later that night, Scotty thought of a brilliant promposal.

Was it Creative?  Well, not necessarily.  But it was definitely Unique, something no one at school would even consider.  And was it ever Bold.  In fact, it might be the boldest thing he had ever done.

The next morning, he was going to walk over to Jill while she was at her locker and say, “Would you like to go to the prom with me?”  In a million years, she’d never expect it.

He toyed around with his mom’s idea of buying her a single rose.  But then he thought, “Naahh.”  Just seemed too much.

Note from Mark:  Please keep the family and friends of Maren Sanchez– the young woman from Milford, CT who was fatally stabbed on  the day of her prom just over a week ago.   

Ultimate Ending

“Well, Vince asked me a couple years ago (to go into the WWE Hall of Fame)… and I said no.  I said they had to tell the right story. So we negotiated for two years to get to the place where I knew they’re going to tell the right story.”

Ultimate Warrior (during an exclusive interview on WWE.com, posted April 5, 2014)

Ultimate WarriorFor almost two decades, Ultimate Warrior’s story was one without an ending.  It had colorful, larger-than-life characters. It had stirring (albeit somewhat indecipherable) speeches.  Most of all, it had conflict– and not just the “between the ropes” kinds of conflicts, but the “multiple-terminations/ protracted lawsuits/disparaging DVDs” kinds of conflicts.   Yes, The Ultimate Warrior’s story had it all… just not an ending.

And honestly, it didn’t seem an ultimate ending was coming anytime soon, at least as far as Warrior’s relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment, the company that made him a star, was concerned.  There was just too much bad blood between the two.

And just how bad was the blood? Well, in 2005, the WWE released a DVD entitled The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, which alleged (among other things) that Warrior (a) couldn’t wrestle and was reckless with his opponents; (b) refused to go out for his SummerSlam 1991 match unless he got a raise; and (c) was a stand-offish jerk that none of the other wrestlers could stand.

Now, I admit: I bought the DVD and found it entertaining.  But I also acknowledge it was completely one-sided and pretty mean-spirited.  At the very least, it didn’t help mend any fences between Warrior and his former employer.

Then, several months ago, came the announcement wrestling fans thought they’d never hear: the Ultimate Warrior was being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.  Upon hearing the news, all members of the WWE Universe seemingly had the same reactions: (1) How cool is that? and (2) What is his acceptance speech going to be like?

Will he give a signature “speaking-in-tongues” promo, complete with a lot of snorts and bizarre imagery? Will he go off on an ultra-conservative political rant (as he was known to do in his “real” life)?  Will he tee off on everyone involved in the Self-Destruction DVD?  WWE promised they were going to give Warrior a live mic, so it was anyone’s guess.

As it turns out, on the night of the Hall of Fame, Warrior didn’t do any of those things.  Yeah, he addressed the DVD, said that it angered him and made him sad (without ever really conceding that he may have played a part in the contentious relationship he had with WWE).  But mostly he remained upbeat: he congratulated superstar John Cena for all the work he does with the Make-A-Wish Foundation; he suggested that the WWE use the Hall of Fame to honor not only the superstars on camera but the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes; he said he was excited to serve as an “ambassador” for the WWE; and most of all, he expressed his love for his wife and two daughters. (“The most awesome thing I will ever do,” he told his daughters from the podium, “is be your father.”)

That was Saturday night, April 5th.  On Sunday night, April 6th, Warrior made an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, in front of 75,000 fans in the New Orleans Superdome chanting his name.  And on Monday night, April 7th, for the first time in eighteen years, Warrior appeared on Monday Night Raw and delivered an old-school Ultimate Warrior promo– complete with rope-shaking.

And on Tuesday, April 7th, while walking to his car with his wife, Warrior died of a massive heart attack.

This isn’t the first time wrestling fans had to hear that one of their favorites dropped dead.  (Warrior was 54, which sadly is a little on the old side as far as wrestling deaths are concerned.)  But Warrior’s death is unusual for two main reasons.

First, his death comes right on the heels of his homecoming.  Many wrestlers have been on the outs with the WWE at the time of their death.  But Warrior came back– to the company, to the fans, to the limelight.  That makes a big difference.  Compare the attention Warrior’s death is getting to the meager testimonies given to Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who died back in May 2011 (also of a heart attack).  Back in the 80s and early 90s, Savage had been just as big a star as the Warrior (if not a bigger star), but when he died, he had been gone from the WWE for seventeen years.  Warrior came back, if for only a few days.  But he came back.

The second thing that makes Warrior’s death so unusual  is that we essentially got to hear his “last words”– not his actual last words, of course, but his character’s last words.  And man, are those words bizarrely fitting. Here’s what he said in his eerily prescient final promo on Raw, April 7th:

 No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized– by the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.

You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend-makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back, I see many potential legends, some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever!

When I think about that speech, that de facto eulogy, I keep returning to that line from Twelfth Night: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn in as an improbable fiction.” (Yep, I just quoted Shakespeare in an  Ultimate Warrior tribute.)  Truly, if this happened in a movie– the prodigal son returning home and then suddenly dying, not twenty-four hours after delivering a speech about beating hearts and eternal spirits– I’d dismiss it as hopelessly corny. But it actually happened.  In real life.

In terms of years, Ultimate Warrior’s career in the WWE was relatively short.  But he definitely made an impact.  You can say the same thing about his death.  It’s sort of like a pay-per-view event:  if your last match is memorable, you can sort of forgive some of the less impressive stuff on the undercard.  You need that great ending. And Warrior got that.  It’s a tragic ending, certainly, but it’s a great one.

In an online interview that aired just three days before his death, Warrior said he wanted to make sure that the WWE told the right “story” as far as the Ultimate Warrior’s character is concerned. As it turns out, they didn’t need to.  The Ultimate Warrior’s story– complete with its ultimate ending– tells itself.

 

 

 

It’s time, once again, to GO GREEN or Go Home.  It’s our 2nd annual, 17-question St. Patrick Literary Quiz. (To see last year’s quiz, click here.)  All questions have to do with Irish stuff– Irish writers, Irish-American writers, Irish characters, or even just random Irish literary references.  Answers follow. We wish you all the luck o’ the Irish!

1. For James Joyce aficionados, what is the significance of June 16,1904?

a. the birthday of Joyce’s daughter Lucia
b. the day Ulysses is set
c. the day that Michael Furey (from “The Dead”) died after waiting in the rain outside Gretta’s window

2. In the Harry Potter series, what is the name of the Irish-born Gryffindor student and best friend of Dean Thomas?Seamus_FinnigansG

a. Bartemius Crouch Jr.
b. Colin Creevey
c. Seamus Finnigan

3.  In The Secret of Roan Inish (based on the the book The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry) is inspired by Irish legend of skin-shedding seals who become human. What are these seals called?

a. corkles
b. cormorants
c. selkies

4. What is the full name of Oscar Wilde?

a.  Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
b.  Oscar Felix O’Connor Wilde
c.  Oscar Sullivan McConville Stuart Wilde

5. In Yeats’ poem “The Wild Swans at Coole,” how many swans does the narrator see during his earlier visit to Coole Park?

a.  46
b.  59
c.  99

6. Irish author Eoin Colfer is best known for penning which book series?

a. Artemis Fowl
b. Warriors
c. Cirque du Freak

Gulliver's challenge

7. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians are at war with a race of people over how to open eggs.  The Lilliputians prefer to open the little end.  Which race of people are also known as “Big-Enders”?

a.  Brobdignagians
b.  Blefescudians
c.  Laputans

8.  Why get off the topic of Gulliver so swiftly?  (Pun, pun…)  What is the name of the race of intelligent horses in the last part of GT?

a.  Houyhnhnms
b. Struyldbrugs
c. Yahoos

9. Which of the following is the name of a Marian Keyes novel?

a. Mango
b. Strawberry
c. Watermelon

10. Seamus Heaney died last year, on August 30, 2013. According to his son Michael, minutes before he died, he sent his last words to his wife via text message.  The message?  The Latin words “Noli timere.”  What does that mean in English?

a. “It’s time.”
b. “Don’t be afraid.”
c. “This is not the end.”

11. Which Irish-born author wrote The Country Girls Trilogy?

a. Edna O’Brien
b. Maeve Binchy
c. Emily Lawless

12. How does the ending to George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion differ from that of the musical/ film My Fair Lady?

a. Pygmalion: Professor Henry Higgins gets into a boating accident and dies; My Fair Lady, he survives the accident.
b. Pygmalion: Eliza Doolittle rejects Higgins; My Fair Lady: Higgins realizes he misses her, and she comes back to him.
c. Pygmalion: Eliza married Colonel Pickering; My Fair Lady: Eliza marries Freddy Eynsford-Hill

13.  In his song “Rave On,” Van Morrison alludes to which of the following poets?

a. John Donne
b. Walt Whitman
c. William Butler Yeats
d. All of the above

14. Which Irish-born mutant superhero had a brief tenure with the X-Men?

a. Banshee
b. Gambit
c. Havoc

15. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, who is the painter of the titular picture of Dorian Gray?

a. Alan Campbell
b. Lord Henry Wolton
c. Basil Hallward

16.  In Hamlet, which character swears “by Saint Patrick”?

a. Ophelia
b. Hamlet
c. Polonius

17. Complete this James Joyce quotation: “The demand I make of my reader is that he should devote ______________ to reading my books.”

a. “one hour a day”
b. “three days a week”
c. “his whole life”

Answers:

  1.  b. the day Ulysses is set
  2. c. Seamus Finnigan
  3. c. selkies
  4. a.  Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
  5. b. 59
  6. a. Artemis Fowl
  7. b.  Blefescudians
  8. a.  Houyhnhnms
  9. c. Watermelon
  10. b. Don’t be afraid
  11. a. Edna O’Brien
  12. b. In My Fair Lady, Eliza returns to Higgins, but in Shaw’s original version, she leaves him
  13. d. All of the above
  14. a. Banshee
  15. c. Basil Hallward
  16. b. Hamlet (Act I, sc. 5, while talking to Horatio)
  17. c. “his whole life”

How’d You Do?

15-17 Correct: Pot o’ Gold!

11-14 Correct: Shamrock-star!

6-10 Correct: Lucky Guesser

2-5 Correct: Green around the Gills

0-1 Correct: Potato Famine


the_lego_movie_2014-wideNote from Mark: The Oscars are this Sunday, and I probably won’t be watching– solely because I haven’t seen any of the movies up for any of the major awards.  But in honor of the Oscars, I thought I would re-post an article related to a movie I did see–
The Lego Movie (still #1 at the box office, by my last count).

This piece, whcih originally appeared in an online newspaper called The Faster Times way back in August 2011, is about the  “new” way of playing with Lego’s.  And what is the new way?  Basically, it involves following the instructions, building something cool… and never taking it apart again.

This bothered me on two levels. As a former Lego aficionado myself, this “one and done” seemed completely foreign and not particularly fun.  And as a parent, it seemed a huge waste of money.

Apparently, I am not the only one who wonders about this.  When I recently saw The Lego Movie with my son, I was intrigued to see that the filmmakers brilliantly worked the “following the instructions vs. following your imagination” debate INTO the film.    

Anyway, here’s the original post, from August 2011…

My 11-year-old son and I had reached an ideological impasse. Naturally, it involved Legos.

From the moment he wrapped his tiny, toddler fingers around a big red Duplo, Charlie has had a love affair with Legos—one that my wife and I wholeheartedly endorsed. Granted, i

t’s not the cheapest hobby out there. (I’m looking at you, $1800Ultimate Collector’s Millennium Falcon!) Nor is it the neatest; thanks to the crunch-coating of little bricks scattered all over the place, I haven’t seen our playroom carpet for seven years. But we can overlook the downsides of Lego-collecting, because the mini-figures are cute, and because playing with Legos fires the imagination and sparks creativity.

I mean… they do, right? At least, they did back in the 1970s, when I was first introduced to the infectious little bricks. Oh, sure, the Lego-folks would provide simple instructions, and I’d follow them—once. But I always found more satisfaction in creating something on my own—a boxy spaceship, say, or an asymmetrical, multicolored house. I didn’t always have the exact

right piece I needed, but I improvised. And finally, after hours of painstaking, hunched-over work, I beheld my completed masterpiece… for about three minutes, at which point I took the thing apart and started building something else.

My son Charlie, however, takes a different approach.

Charlie, you see, was born into the age of “sets”—pre-fab collections such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Atlantis, Power Miners, Ninjago. Of course, growing up, I had sets, too, but they were nowhere near as intricate and sophisticated as these bad boys. In fact, the vehicles and buildings contained in these modern sets are almost too intricate and sophisticated—to the point that you don’t want to take them apart. Ever.

And even if Charlie did feel inspired to take apart one of his creations, he may find himself faced with a curious problem: some of the pieces required to make the original contraption are so specific, so particular to that set, he may have trouble using them for anything else.

So, yes, Lego sets have evolved, but you have to wonder: have they evolved to the point where they actually discourage the imagination and creativity that they’re supposed to instill?

Basically, it comes down to a battle of wills: on one side, you have me, a product of the generation that believes that Lego creations aren’t meant to be models or monoliths, that the new sets tend to straitjacket creativity, and that building something once seems like an incredible waste of money. Then, across the divide, you have my son Charlie, who puts his sets together with an engineer’s precision, who has plenty of imagination, thank you very much, and who considers deliberately dismantling something you labored for hours on a waste of time. Besides, why would you take apart something as freakin’ cool as the Ninjago “Garmadon’s Dark Fortress”?

Hence, the ideological impasse.

And this isn’t just me being a crank—or if it is, at least I have some company. A September 5, 2009 New York Times article quotes child psychologist who has my back on this issue: “When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch,” says Dr. Jonathan Sinowitz. “When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they’re playing o

ut Hollywood’s imagination, not their own.”

And a gentleman known only as Seth who writes for the site MoxieBird puts it this way: “When you buy your kid a Lego set today, you’re buying 300 pieces that have no magic inside. They’re created to be used in very specific, singular ways. And by the time your kid is finished building with them, it’ll be attributed to his or her ability to follow instructions really, really well.”

Flanked by these experts and utterly convinced of my self-righteousness, I decided to give my son a patented “when-I-was-a-lad” lecture about the proper way to play with Legos. Before I did, though, I thought I’d look at things from Charlie’s point of view. And I mean, literally: I crouched down and really examined one of his newer sets, the “Portal of Atlantis.”

I survey the black-and-maroon temple, home to the evil, trident-wielding Portal Emperor and his Squid-Warrior goons, finally fixing my eyes on the ominous shark façade in the center.

I tug on the shark’s head as its jaws yawn open to reveal a set of stairs leading to the Portal, a circular doorway with eight crystal fangs that can only be unlocked by the turn of a special key, one of five keys spread throughout the ocean. Once opened, the intrepid divers can finally gain access to the mythical kingdom for which they’ve long been searching: the lost city of Atlantis.

And as I toured through this rich, textured world (and read up on the back-story provided by Lego.com), a realization washed over me: what a neat place to play.

See, I don’t really remember “playing” a lot with Legos as a kid. The creating was the playing. Not only that, but our end products weren’t necessarily worth playing with. Look at the sets available thirty years ago. A house. A police station. The occasional fire boat. And another house. Quaint and all, sure… but honestly, how far can you go with those?

On the other hand, this new generation of Lego enthusiasts actually plays with their

creations. Just the other day, for example, I overheard Charlie playing with his Lego Slave 1, the infinitely cool spaceship piloted by Boba Fett. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained, “Well, Bossk hijacked the Slave 1, so Boba Fett had to get into a police car to get him.”

The fact is, they do play, these kids. They do play with their Legos. It may be a different kind of play than I’m used to, but who am I to say it’s not

“play”? Who made me the Emperor of the Imagination Portal?

So have I softened on my “Legos Kill Creativity” stance? I was suspecting I might be, but then something happened recently that confirmed it. I was trying to unearth something in our perennially cluttered playroom, when I saw my son’s Slave 1 on the floor. The inner geek in me came to the surface (it didn’t have far to travel), and I picked up the hallowed vehicle to marvel at it. Naturally, in the process of handling it, part of the front hull crumbled apart.

Now, I could have left it partially disassembled, in the hopes that it would force Charlie into building something new, something different. But I didn’t. In truth, it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I immediately and instinctively picked up the fallen pieces and delicately put the ship back together. After all, this is the Slave 1, for crying out loud: How could I let it fall into disrepair? Besides, Charlie may have some unfinished playing to do.

Lego Slave 1

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my blog?/ It took me days to write, will you feed my dog?”  –“Paperback Writer,” the Beatles (slightly paraphrased)

Beatles

The recent hullabaloo about the Beatles’ 50th anniversary got me thinking: “How about a blog post about the Beatles songs which tell stories?”

It seemed like a great idea– and by “great,” I mean “easy to write.”  Not so, as it turns out.  The Fab Four don’t have as many “story-songs” as one might think.

Before I even started digging through their extensive discography, I determined that, in order to qualify as a “story,” a song needed to have three elements: characters, plot, and conflict.  (Obviously, other factors go into a story, but I settled on those three.)  With those criteria in mind, I was able to eliminate a whole bunch of songs. For example:

  • Songs That Don’t Have a Conflict: the happy love songs (“Love Me Do,” I Want to Hold Your Hand,” etc.); the “kiddie” songs (“Yellow Submarine,” “Octopus’ Garden”); the “life lesson” songs (“Let It Be,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Here Comes the Sun”)
  • Songs That Only Have Conflict: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Help!”
  • Songs That May Have Characters, Conflict, and Plot, But They Just Don’t Have Enough Information To Qualify as a “Story”: break-up songs (“Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” etc.)
  • Songs That Are More Nostalgic Musings Than Stories: “Penny Lane,””Strawberry Fields Forever”
  • Songs That Are More Poems Than Stories: “In My Life,” “Blackbird”
  • Songs That Are More Character Sketches Than Stories: “Paperback Writer,” “Get Back,” “Lovely Rita Metermaid”
  • Songs That Are Just Weird Psychedelic Trips: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus”
  • Songs That Lack Cohesion, Since They’re Actually Two Stories Mashed Together: “A Day in the Life”
  • Songs That, By John’s Own Admission, Are Just “Gobbledygook”: “Come Together”

You get the idea.  In the end, after much internal fussing and fighting, I unearthed five songs that fit my criteria of “story-songs.”  In no particular order:

“Rocky Raccoon”

  • Characters: cowboy Rocky Raccoon; his ex-girlfriend, Nancy “Lil” Magill; Nancy’s new boyfriend, Dan
  • Conflict: A jilted and jealous Rocky wants to shoot his romantic rival
  • Plot: A good ol’ gun-slingin’ Western, the song recounts how Rocky challenges Dan to a draw. Unfortunately, Dan’s not only better with the girls, he also has a quicker trigger-finger. Dan shoots Rocky first.  Rocky ends the song back in his room being treated by a seemingly less-than-competent doctor. (The doc is “stinking of gin.”)
  • Fun Fact: McCartney originally called the main character “Rocky Sassoon.”
  • My Take: Unlike many of the Beatles’ story-songs, this one is pretty straight-forward and easy to understand.  Yeah, no one will rank this as a favorite, but I do like the twist that the guy out for revenge is the one who got shot.

“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”

  • Characters: The narrator and his paramour du jour
  • Conflict: The narrator might be struggling internally with his infidelity (See “Fun Fact”)
  • Plot: An independent woman (with a job, an apartment, and clear sense of what/ who she wants) takes the narrator up to her room; they drink some wine and talk until two, and then… who knows?  After all, when she says, “It’s time for bed,” is that an invitation (“time for US to go to bed”) or a dismissal (“time for ME to go to bed”)? On the other hand, the song starts with the great line, “I once had a girl , or should I say, she once had me,” which is none too subtle.  Eventually, our narrator ends up sleeping in the bathtub. (Really?  I mean, you mentioned she didn’t have a chair, but… isn’t the tub a tad uncomfortable?)  When he awakes, she’s has left for work.
  • Fun Fact: Lennon allegedly wrote this song as a confession of sorts for all the affairs he had while he was married to his wife Cynthia (the mother of Julian).
  • My Take: Personally, I think it’s pretty straightforward: woman meets man; woman and man get to know each other biblically; in the morning, woman leaves for work, while man sits in front of the fireplace reflecting on the previous night’s escapades.  Some listeners, though, have a slightly different take: the girl has rebuked the narrator’s advances, and he resorts to arson as his way of getting back at her.  Yep: arson.  It all comes down to the “I lit a fire” line, which some interpret to mean he set her entire place ablaze, rather than he lit a fire, you know, in her fireplace.  An intriguing interpretation, sure, and one that’s not completely outside the realm of possibility… but I don’t buy it.  (After all, he says “I lit a fire” not “I lit the fire,” right?)

“Ticket to Ride”

  • Characters: Narrator and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend
  • Conflict: The girlfriend wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much say in the matter.)
  • Plot: The girlfriend wants to end things, not necessarily because the narrator did anything wrong, but because she doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone. (“She could never be free while I was around,” he explains.)  The narrator’s bummed out, but he’s also mad that she’s NOT bummed out.  (“I don’t know why she’s riding so high…” he fumes).  The song ends without saying for sure what happens with these two; still, the fact that she has a ticket to move somewhere else can’t be a good sign.
  • Fun Fact: Apparently, McCartney said the title is a pun: she has a ticket to a British seaside town named Ryde. Meanwhile, Lennon says the song is about prostitutes in Hamburg, Germany.  So take your pick.
  • My Take: Music has given us plenty of break-up songs, but “Ticket to Ride” is unique in that it’s a pre-break-up song.  Our narrator has not yet been dumped, but he’s pretty sure it’s imminent– maybe even “today.”  Anyone who’s been in that situation knows that feeling.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Life Goes On)”

  • Characters: Desmond, Molly, their kids
  • Conflict: Uh… gee… not sure there is one… things seem pretty swell for the Jones family, actually… sure, maybe Molly gets a little resentful sometimes that she’s out slaving away in the band while Desmond stays home putting on his pretty face, but other than that…
  • Plot: Desmond Jones, who has a cart in a marketplace, meets Molly, a singer in a band.  He proposes (with a twenty carat ring that seems considerably out of his price range); they marry, buy a house, and have a couple of kids.
  • Fun Fact: McCartney borrowed/ stole the chorus from his Jamaican friend Jimmy Scott, who used to say “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.”
  • My Take:  The lack of a conflict almost made me cut this from the list.  The song might be too “happy ever after”… which is weird, because isn’t “life goes on” a platitude you’d say after something unfortunate happens?  What does Desmond and Molly’s life have to go on from, exactly?  Come on, Paul: get some tension in there!  Maybe Molly buys a ticket to Ryde and ends up having an affair with the “Norwegian Wood” guy?

“Eleanor Rigby”

  • Characters: Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie, the narrator (who looks at all the lonely people)
  • Conflict: A sort of a “man’s inhumanity to man” kind of thing going on
  • Plot: In Act I, we meet Eleanor, a lonely spinster who wears a lot of cold cream to make herself appear younger.  Presumably an employee at a church, she is first seen picking up rice after a wedding; we get the sense she wasn’t at this wedding, nor at any wedding, ever– including her own. Act II introduces the equally lonely pastor, the sock-darning Father McKenzie, who is writing a sermon no one will hear.  (Why won’t they hear? Because no one comes to church?  Because no one actually listens to him? Because he won’t actually give these sermons, even though these are things he really wants to say?  All delicious possibilities.) Finally, in Act III, Eleanor has died and Father McKenizie presides over her funeral; in a Gatsby-esque sort of scene, no one else is at the funeral.
  • Fun Fact: McCartney had several names for the characters, including Miss Daisy Hawkins (for Eleanor) and Farther McCartney (for Father McKenzie).
  • My Take:  The best Beatles story-song– and one of the best Beatles songs, period.  The song has it all: great metaphors (“wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” and “buried along with her name”); a great mood, thanks to the string quartet;  and great (albeit pathetic and tragic) characters.  Plus, it leaves you wondering: How did Eleanor get so lonely?  Why didn’t anyone help her? Why doesn’t the narrator help her?  (Instead of just looking at all the lonely people, Mr. Narrator, why not say ‘Hi’ to her once in a while, so she wouldn’t be so damn lonely all the time?) And most importantly: who are the Eleanor Rigbys in our own lives?

Are there other Beatles songs that tell stories?  I’m sure.  But I need some assistance sussing them out.  So, to my audience: Won’t you please, please help me? Help me? Help meeeeeee?

SuperbowlSince today is the Super Bowl, and since football is the only pro-sports organization (to my knowledge)  that has a team named after a work of literature– i.e. the Baltimore Ravens, named after the Edgar Allan Poe poem– we thought we could re-post our “football in literature” quiz form last year… with a few additions. (We had fifteen questions last year, but now, we’ve added five more, plus a bonus.)

Feel free to bring these questions to whatever party you’re attending this evening and quiz your friends during one of the game’s slower moments.  And yes, we recognize it will have to be a pretty lame party if you have to resort to asking literary questions.  (I know we made that same joke last year.)

  1. What American novel features a neighbor named Roberta (formerly Robert) Muldoon, a transsexual former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles?
  2. In William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, a young schoolteacher named Labove plays college football to pay for his education, even though he’s not crazy about the game.  (Labove sends home cleats to the members of his family who can’t afford shoes, which is very sweet; on the other hand, he also falls in love with an eleven-year-old girl named Eula– definitely not sweet.)  For what university does Labove play football?
  3. In Death of a Salesman, what is the name of Willy Loman’s oldest son, the star football player who never graduated from high school?
  4. And where was this character supposed to go to college?  (He threw into the furnace his sneakers imprinted with the name of the school.)
  5. What novel takes place during World War II at the Devon School, where students invent a game named blitzball, a combination of rugby and football?
  6. This young-adult novel which features a character named Darry, the captain of his high school’s football team who could have gone to college on a football scholarship; however, after the death of his parents,  he gave up on his dream to take care of his brothers, one of whom is named Ponyboy. What is this novel?
  7. Who is the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Native American ex-football player who now pretends to be a deaf-mute?
  8. Which Tennessee Williams play features a former professional football player named Brick, whose possible romantic feelings for his former teammate Skipper may be the source of his current alcoholism?
  9.  What is the name of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction book about the Permian High School football team (from Odessa, Texas), which was the basis of a movie (2004) and a TV show (2006-2011)?
  10. In the 1986 novel and the 1994 film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest earns a scholarship to play football for what university?  (Big Hint: In 2002, Winston Groom– the author of the novel Forrest Gump– wrote a book about this school’s football program, entitled The Crimson Tide.)
  11. I am an American author who played high school football and, during World War I, drove an ambulance in Italy for the American Red Cross.   I later drew on these experiences when I created Nick Adams, a former football player and World War I soldier, who is the protagonist of more than twenty short stories.   Who am I?
  12.  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.” These two sentences begin which beloved American novel?
  13.  The film Stand By Me features John Cusack as Dennis, a star high school football player whose death haunts his younger brother Gordie.  On what Stephen King short story is Stand By Me based?
  14. What 1999 coming-of-age young adult novel features an introverted narrator named Charlie and a closeted gay football player named Patrick?
  15.  On the Road author Jack Kerouac had a scholarship to play football for an Ivy League university, but after cracking his tibia and squabbling constantly with the coach over his lack of playing time, he dropped out of college completely.  Which university was it—Brown, Columbia, or Princeton?
  16. In The Great Gatsby, what is the name of Daisy’s husband, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football” at Yale?
  17. I am the sixteen-year-old male narrator of a great American novel.  My story begins as I am standing all alone on Thomsen Hill, next to a Revolutionary War cannon, as my school Pencey Prep’s football team plays Saxon Hall.  I am just about the only one not at the game—except for the kid who lives next door to me, an acne-ridden senior named Ackley.  Who am I?
  18. What little-known (and rightly so) 1986 Robin Williams/ Kurt Russell film about a man who wants to replay an ill-fated football from high school takes its title from the first line of a Dickens novel?  (The question is asking for the name of the movie.)
  19. Which Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, famous for his “Rabbit” novels, has written a short story called “In Football Season”?
  20.  Which Robert Cormier young adult novel opens with high school freshman named Jerry Renault throwing up after trying out for the football team?Universoi
  21. BONUS:
    1. As a follow-up to Question #8, about the Tennessee Williams play:  what was the name of Brick and Skipper’s team? (Hint: it’s fictional.)

Answers

  1. John Irving’s The World According to Garp
  2. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
  3. Biff Loman
  4. University of Virginia
  5. A Separate Peace
  6. The Outsiders
  7. Chief Bromden
  8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  9. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
  10. University of Alabama
  11. Ernest Hemingway
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. “The Body”
  14. Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  15. Columbia
  16. Tom Buchanan
  17. Holden Caulfield
  18. The Best of Times
  19. John Updike
  20. The Chocolate War
  21. BONUS: Dixie Stars
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