Categories
Books Film Music

My son’s media of the moment

A spinoff of an ongoing series

Library books galore. Between my work library and the two public libraries close to home, we’ve established a pretty regular rotation of titles old and new. Recent hits include The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak and Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine.

Bluey. The first-ever clip I saw of Bluey was the claw game and it made me literally LOL. The best kids TV show, period.

“Dem Bones”. He really got into spooky season this year. He’s especially obsessed with all things bones and skeletons, so this old traditional was and remains a hit.

Pixar movies. Approaching 3 years old, he’s enjoyed and (mostly) stuck with the Disney/Pixar movies we’ve tried with him so far. My guess at his ranking (starting with the most loved): WALL-E, Moana, Luca, Monsters Inc., Ratatouille, Coco. Still not sure how far back in the Disney canon I want to bring him even as he gets older. There’s a lot of good stuff—though I would say that as a Millennial, wouldn’t I?—but in general Pixar is higher quality and a lot less dicey.

The Okee Dokee Brothers. Specifically “Haul Away Joe” and “Jamboree” and a few other songs on seemingly infinite rotation. Good thing I love them too.

Categories
History Presidents

Presidential trivia pursuit

One of the chief pleasures of my presidential biography mission is the accumulation of historical trivia.

These factoids aren’t good for much except trivia nights and some Jeopardy! categories, but they fascinate me nevertheless—and illustrate that history is a lot richer than just a boring list of dates in a textbook.

A few tidbits I’ve gathered:

  • James Buchanan is the only bachelor president
  • Woodrow Wilson was the first president since John Adams to deliver his State of the Union address before Congress in person
  • Herbert Hoover was the first president to have a phone on his desk
  • Theodore Roosevelt chased down boat thieves for 36 hours straight in the Dakota Territory while also reading Anna Karenina
  • Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel
  • The only two 20th century presidents not to golf while in office: Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter (heroes)
  • Per Thomas Jefferson’s utopian vision of self-government, the University of Virginia (which Jefferson founded) had no president until 1904
  • To avoid attending the Republican National Convention in summer 1928, Calvin Coolidge stayed in northern Wisconsin and fished on the Brule River; Herbert Hoover visited and they fished together
  • James Polk’s first client as a lawyer in 1820 was his father for public fighting; he secured his release for a $1 fine
  • George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention but, perhaps unsurprisingly, spoke only once
  • James Madison technically had two birthdates due to the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar systems
  • As an 8 year old, John Quincy Adams personally witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill
  • John Tyler was in 1844 the first president to decline to seek a second term
  • William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes served in the same Ohio regiment during the Civil War
  • Hayes’ wife Lucy hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878 after Congress banned it at Capitol
  • Harry Truman was the first vice president to have Secret Service protection, and the first president to invite his successor (Eisenhower) to the White House post-election
Categories
Books History Politics Presidents

My favorite presidential biographies (so far)

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president.

This goal isn’t motivated by politics. If anything the legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays are usually the dullest parts of these books. I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the stories of the men who have wielded it—even if (and when) they don’t live up to our twenty-first century expectations.

Any biography I read will teach me something, regardless of the likeability of the subject or overall quality of the book. But the best of them combine compelling prose, insightful commentary, and strong storytelling that fairly recount the person’s life while contextualizing and sometimes criticizing their decisions or behavior.

With 19 down out of 45 currently, I’m nearing halfway through this literary mission, so I thought it would be a good time to check in with what I’ve read so far.

I’ve mostly stayed away from more recent presidents, preferring books that have at least a little historical distance from their subjects. (Outside of George Bush Sr., the most recent president I’ve tackled is Harry Truman.) I also endeavor to only read meaty, single-volume biographies that make this expedition feel substantive and worthwhile (if slightly masochistic).

All that said, here are a few titles that have stood out thus far, in no particular order. 

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President by Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream and one of my history crushes.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always seemed to forestall his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The standard photo-op of a new president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

Other favorites:

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2003

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

We’re now deep into an era that was, at least for me, dominated by DVDs. I seemed to get a new one or two every birthday and Christmas, and rented aplenty from Family Video or Blockbuster. My movie collection has changed a lot since then, but I’ve never stopped collecting physical media.

On top of more frequent moviegoing as a freshman going on sophomore, I also started paying more attention to the Oscars. Part of this was printing out a ballot to track the guesses of my friends and classmates. My claim to infamy: being the only person to predict an upset Best Picture win for Lost in Translation—this in the year of the 11-win sweep by Return of the King. I was glad to be wrong.

On to the list.

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

My friend and fellow LOTR nerd Tim and I were in the same high school chemistry class, and we spent the entire fall semester counting down the days until this movie premiered. All the haters who complain about the multiple endings are fools of a Took. See also: my Top 5 Lord of the Rings moments and other appreciations.

2. Finding Nemo

Not unlike the LOTR trilogy, this film—#6 in my Pixar rankings—is a journey. I haven’t watched it since becoming a father, so I wonder if and how my feelings about it will change with a rewatch.

3. School of Rock

Wrote about this a while back.

4. Matchstick Men

I don’t think I’d seen many con movies at the time, so this one made a strong impression. Nic Cage is the perfect balance of quirk and cool, and Sam Rockwell shines as usual in a wiry supporting role.

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Hard to decide whether I like Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 more, though the fact that Vol. 2 didn’t crack my 2004 list perhaps makes the case for me.

6. Ghosts of the Abyss

Sought out this documentary during my recent Titanic kick. It follows James Cameron and the crew of his deep-sea diving expedition in 2001 to explore the remains of the Titanic shipwreck. Haunting, beautiful stuff, in a way that’s different from Cameron’s other Titanic movie.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

A rollicking and only occasionally ridiculous adventure, and the rare adaptation success that Hollywood has been chasing and failing to reproduce ever since.

8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This seems to have acquired a reputation as an under-appreciated masterpiece. It’s quite good, and I’d definitely watch a sequel, but I’ll leave it at that.

9. A Mighty Wind

Third-rate Christopher Guest joint (literally—after Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show) with a five-star soundtrack.

10. Runaway Jury

The idea of a gun manufacturer being held criminally liable for a mass shooting seems quaint these days. Not quaint: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman going mano a mano. I miss Gene Hackman in movies.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Big Fish
  • Bruce Almighty
  • Capturing the Friedmans
  • The Italian Job
  • The Fog of War
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • Phone Booth
  • The Recruit
  • X2: X-Men United
Categories
Film

Top 5 autumn movies

I have a pretty good handle on my Christmas/winter movie canon. But fall? Not so much. That’s what inspired me to consider the movies I return to during autumn, or seek out when I want that Mr. Autumn Man feeling on screen regardless of the season.

To qualify, they have to take place primarily within, embody the spirit of, and have the look and feel of autumn. So my beloved Little Women (both the 1994 and 2019 renditions) don’t quite make the cut given their year-round plots. Nor do other movies that are widely considered fall movies but I either haven’t seen (Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic) or care enough about (When Harry Met Sally).

Here, listed alphabetically, is what I landed on, along with some of their appealingly autumnal attributes.

Coco

Dia de Los Muertos. The spookiness. The cemetery.

Knives Out

The foliage. The sweaters and coats. The gothic architecture.

October Sky

The title of the movie. The overcast. The mournful spirit. The gorgeous music. The light jackets and flannel. (This is really #1.)

Remember the Titans

The nighttime football. The new-school-year vibes.

The Village

The cloaks. The chilly nights. The aphyllus trees. The forest walks.

Categories
Etc.

Quotes of the moment

An ongoing series

“Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.” – Josh Ritter, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” – Paul Batalden

“From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. We don’t really die.” – The Dig

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” – Justice Robert Jackson

“There’s an eternity behind us and there’s an eternity ahead. This little speck right here at the center, that’s our lives.” – The Good Lord Bird (TV show)

“Help people to trust the compass, not the map.” – Susan David

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2004

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.

But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.

I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

On to the list…

1. Before Sunset

The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.

2. The Incredibles

This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.

4. The Village

The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.

5. Anchorman

Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”

6. Collateral

Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.

7. Miracle

Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.

8. Ocean’s Twelve

Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.

9. Friday Night Lights

The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.

10. I, Robot

This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.

Honorable mentions:

  • National Treasure
  • Team America: World Police
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Vera Drake
  • 50 First Dates
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • The Notebook
  • Shrek 2
  • Spanglish
  • Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Categories
Media

Podcasts of the moment

I won’t do this quite as often as Media of the Moment, but I think it’s interesting to check in every once in a while with my podcast lineup and habits, since they do change over time for various reasons.

What hasn’t changed since my last dispatch: I listen to too many podcasts, and/but I’m still quick to skip episodes as desired.

What has changed: I’ve transitioned to Spotify (free version), and I listen at 1.5x speed.

I’m not super happy about the first one, but once four of my regular listens went Spotify-exclusive I decided to bite the bullet for the sake of a unified podcast listening experience, however frustrating it can be. There’s still one holdout stranded in Apple Podcasts because Spotify doesn’t allow for adding podcasts by custom URL, but otherwise that’s where I live.

Anyway, here’s the current lineup:

Regular Listens

  • Armchair Expert
  • The Big Picture
  • Dare to Lead with Brene Brown
  • Filmspotting
  • Judge John Hodgman
  • The Office Deep Dive
  • Office Ladies
  • The Rewatchables
  • 10 Questions with Kyle Brandt
  • Unlocking Us with Brene Brown

Depends on the Subject/Guest

  • The Bill Simmons Podcast
  • Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend
  • The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan
  • The Dispatch Podcast
  • The Ezra Klein Show
  • On Being
  • Revisionist History
  • Slate Political Gabfest
  • SmartLess
  • Typology
Categories
Life

5 tips for planning a wedding

Wedding season has got me thinking about what I learned from my own experience putting together a wedding six years ago. Here’s what I got.

Pick four things to really care about.

Wedding planning is chock-full of choices, but you can’t care about everything equally unless you want to have a mental breakdown. Pick four things that really matter to you and invest some thought/time/money into making them happen. For my wife it was a good photographer (see below) and good flowers, and for me it was enjoying the time with our friends and having a fun reception. Everything else we tried to keep in perspective. (You will fail at this. Just try.)

Invest in a good photographer.

We considered and met with a few photographers before landing on the final choice, who also did our engagement shoot. Outside of the venue, this was probably the single biggest expense but what we got were exceptional photos that captured the whole experience beautifully and remain treasured artifacts from the day.

Do the receiving line leading into the reception.

Don’t go around to each table during the reception assuming you’ll get to talk to everyone. You’ll get stuck in chitchat, waste valuable party time, and won’t even talk to everyone. If your venue and schedule can swing it, do the receiving line leading into the reception so everyone gets face-time and then it’s out of the way.

Have a buffer day between wedding and honeymoon.

I do not understand the people who fly out the night of their wedding or even the next day. Not only did we have a bunch of stuff to bring back from the venue to our place, we also had to repack for the honeymoon and have some time to decompress and process the incredible day we’d had. You’ll appreciate that transition time before heading off onto the next adventure.

Pick the right spouse.

This will make everything easier and much more enjoyable.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2005

I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.

I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.

Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.

Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.

As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”

On to the list…

1. Brokeback Mountain

True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.

2. Good Night, And Good Luck

There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.

3. Grizzly Man

I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.

4. Batman Begins

Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.

5. A History of Violence

The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.

6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.

7. The New World

I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.

8. Walk the Line

At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.

9. Four Brothers

An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.

10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.

Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds