Mental Floss

Working from home can make you go a little mental.  You see your spouse at the beginning and end of the day, but human interactions are few and far between.  People email you, mostly because they know you don’t like being interrupted mid sentence by a telephone call, but you’re pretty much on your own.  So, you need amusement and distraction to avoid becoming a total recluse and I realized I’d acquired a few distractions as of late that I wanted to share.

If you’ve seen the film Velvet Goldmine, you’re one of a select few.  It’s essentially a heavily fictionalized biography of David Bowie and his relationship with Iggy Pop at the height of the Glam rock era. Written and Directed by Todd Haynes (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I’m Not There), it starred Jonathan Rhys Meyers as David Bowie/Brian Slade, and Ewen MacGregor as Iggy Pop/Kurt Wild. They couldn’t call them Dave or Iggy because Bowie refused to give his blessing or permission for a bio-pic, and he also declined the use of any of his music (which is kind of important in a biopic about a musician).  So, what does one do?  Well in Haynes’ case, you hire Brian Eno and a bunch of his friends and write original music for Brian Slade, Kurt Wild and a host of others.  You record these songs and cut an album.  And you know what?  Said soundtrack album is pretty damn great.

I saw the move several years back, but caught it again on TCM shortly before we decided to cut our cable and go online for our film and TV content, and I ended up getting Placebo’s blistering version of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” stuck in my head.  So, I did what I always do when that happens; seek the album out.  And let me tell you it’s great.  really great.  great as in “you should really grab yourself a cop like, this minute.  But you can check outs some clips here, here and here.


We all seek refuge in memory and any way we can recapture or at least re-experience a time when life seemed simpler definitely explains the nostalgia industry of reunion tours, classic rock radio, and TV box sets.

But the decision to start buying The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics was more of an educational decision than a nostalgic one.  The goal is to reprint every comic strip in the Peanuts run, starting with 1951 (they’re up to 1980 right now), including the many hundreds never seen outside of their initial appearance in newspapers. Like any person of any age, you’ve experienced Charles M. Schulz’ work, in print and on television; despite his passing eleven years ago, the Peanuts characters remain ubiquitous, though not as much as they used to be.  There’s no shortage of critics who’ll say that the characters aren’t relevant to today’s teens and twenty-somethings, but to be blunt, teens and twenty-somethings aren’t as relevant as they like to think they are either (and I know, having been both at one point).

But reading the series chronologically has been a real eye-opener and effecting on a few levels. The first is to witness the growth of Schulz as an artist, to see him hit his stride in the late 1950s.  The 60s were probably the best period, where the strip became more surreal, Snoopy became the WW1 flying ace, Linus’ blanked became sentient (in a horror movie’ spoof that has to be seen to be believed, and Lucy evolved into a full-fledged sociopath.  What is also amazing is to see how tuned in Schulz was to the issues of the day; references to Viet Nam and the protest movement are ubiquitous – very much so for a “kid’s cartoon strip”.  But re-reading a strip or more ambitious weeks long arc again after 30 odd years have passed is a transporting experience.  You see, I remember being gifted with a box of Peanuts paperbacks from a couple cousins, remember tearing through them, and remember, for a time, hitting a variety of used bookstores where my parents would buy me an armful of paperbacks. I still have these originals, but hadn’t looked at them until Fantagraphics came along, and re-experiencing them means to re-experience memories of the first time I read them.  Moving into the 1970s strips, I have a context for the strips that appeared in my lifetime, and now have an appreciation for how ingrained the Peanuts characters were in popular culture by that point.  The other thing that strikes me about Peanuts is not so much the mains – Lucy,Linus, Snoopy and of course Charlie Brown – but the lesser ones who never caught on, or were marginalized as the series went on. Characters like Shermy, Violet, Patty, Roy, Franklin – supporting players in the main event.  If the iconic Peanuts characters were the kids seated at the popular table, the lesser ones were left on the outside looking in.  Like all childhood friendships, these formerly tightly knit characters drifted apart, as they do in life.

Shameless celebrity encounter story; back in 2004 my wife was publicist on John Sayles’ short story collection Dillinger in Hollywood, and coordinated an event for the legendary writer and director.  This led to him flying up for a day of media appearances, followed by “An Evening with John Sayles”  followed by a signing.  The boyfriend of the publicist gets certain fringe benefits, and in this case the fringe benefit was being one of a select few to have dinner with Mr. Sayles (and have a post event drink with him as well).  So I got to spend the evening with John Sayles, talking movies and politics and just jawing’.  My roommate attended with his car and was drafted into driving John (I hope I can call you that, John) to his hotel.  My now wife took in to get squared away and after an evening of drinks and talk, said roommate gave me a look I’ve never forgotten; a “Holy Crap I Just Spent the Evening with John Sayles” look.

If you haven’t seen any of John Sayles films, your loss is great;  Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Lone Star, Passion Fish – they’re all essential (heck, Sayles also wrote Alligator, Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars and The Howling).  But as we’re heading into the summer season, I can’t mention the amazing Mr. Sayles without urging everyone who reads this to click on this link and order your copy of A Moment In The Sun, his near 1000 page novel of life in America at the turn of the previous century.  Spanning 1898-2003, it’s a multi-character multi story opus that spans the Spanish American War, race riots, the Alaska gold rush, Presidential assassins, Yellow Journalism and so much more.

It’s also the best book I’ve read in memory.

In point of fact it could be one of the best I’ve ever read, and I’m only a third through it.  Sayles strength has always been character and this novel is a master class on voice that has served as a kick in the pants as I struggle to complete my own novel.  He’s set the bar ridiculously high, and I commend him for that, as well as for reminding us why he is one of the pre-eminent voices in American film and literature working today.  If you’re looking for that perfect summer read I can’t recommend it enough.

A tempest in a teacup developed here in NYC a month or so ago when a way too overpriced  and overrated Manhattan restaurant (one of several thousand) charged a patron five bucks for a Coca Cola.  The excuse was that it was a “Mexican” Coca Cola, and therefore more expensive than the conventional syrup and seltzer mix bars and restaurants usually serve.  No, this Mexican Coke was special (not because it contained actual cocaine), because it costs more to import, because it’s Mexican.

Now, the big diff between Mexican Coca Cola and American is that the former sweetens itself with pure cane sugar, not corn syrup.  Apparently it makes the flavor more genuine.  So naturally I was curious to try it.  But, I didn’t want to pay 5 bucks to some overpriced restaurant because he had to import the bottle from Chiapas or wherever and pay the bartender a premium to actually open the bottle (the glass bottle I might add) with a bottle opener.  I mean, for five clams a pop this stuff has to be pretty rare, right?

Turns out the market across the street sells Mexican Coca Cola for a buck fifty a bottle.  I bought one, popped it in the freezer to chill it down (this was a hot day if you must know), popped the cap and drank.  It was good.  It tasted like Coca Cola.  Well worth the buck fifty.  Five is definitely stretching it.

[Addendum; the “expensive imported Mexican Coca Cola said restauranteur procured with great difficulty?  Available by the case from the Costco at 118th Street for 20 bucks.]

Yes, It’s Degrassi and yeah, you may mock, but let me explain.

Mixtape, my 90s alternative rock comic is hitting finer comic shops everywhere this fall, thanks to the good folks at Ardden Entertainment.  This has of course required a lot of research as we’re talking about an era that’s already hit the 20 years mark.  This research means books and music and what archival concert performances I’ve been able to track down. So it was to my surprise one day in January when I logged into to clear some shows out of my cue when on the main page, they had a link to their recently acquired library of Degrassi High, seasons one and two.

Most of you are probably familiar, but for the uninitiated here’s a brief rundown.  Degrassi was a teen series produced and set in Canada.  Three series (The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, and Degrassi High) that  spanned the early 80s to the early 90s, more or less following the same cast of characters from childhood, through junior high, and graduating high school.   Two decades removed, Degrassi has become probably the best  time capsule of Gen X angst. The fashions were hideous, the “Canajan” accents thick, but I didn’t care.  But watching it 20 plus years removed from the experience has been an eye opener.  I’ve come to appreciate it in all its cheesy charm — the hair, the fashions, the “acting” – and because it has become a time capsule of a city and era receding into history, much like the hairlines of Generation X.

Watching Degrassi 20 years removed I now know how my parents felt in the late 80s, watching old tv and music clips from the late 60s and wondering how so many years could have passed so quickly.  Life means change, but you can still visit your childhood, and can watch full eps of Degrassi Junior High on Youtube.