i blame the music

Nostalgia for Woodstock always leaves me cold. Born in 1960, I was nine at the time. Now in 2018, however, although there won’t be an outdoor music festival to commemorate, there will be the fortieth anniversary of me turning eighteen.

I think we are shaped as people by three things—our genetic makeup, the environment in which were raised, and the pop music of our adolescence. Granted, I can’t prove the last part of the theory, but in retrospect, I probably learned most of what I know about life, and love, from the songs that were popular as I was taking my tentative first steps into manhood. In further retrospect, I probably should have dated more in high school.

The musical landscape in 1978, like at any time, was a reaction to the zeitgeist. It was the year of Ted Bundy and the Hillside Strangler and the year Son of Sam was sentenced. The year of Jonestown, and John Wayne Gacy. Rhodesia attacked Zambia, and Vietnam attacked Cambodia. It was the year Garfield debuted. As a reaction to all of these horrific events, record buyers wanted something comfortable, something they understood in a world turned topsy-turvy.

Popular music in 1978 was, for the most part, soft and mushy, because the real world was hard. Sure, you had the Camp David accord (which worked out really well—thank God that led to lasting peace.) But all in all, things were kinda scary. And the last thing Americans wanted was angry music. We wanted songs about love. (Note: I did not live in a cave—I’m aware that punk music existed, but the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever sold fifteen million copies…I’m just sayin’.)

When I turned 18, five of the top ten songs on the charts were either performed, written or produced by some combination of Bee Gees. Whether it was Barry, Maurice, Robin, or Andy, fully half of the top ten songs in the country were sung in a quavery falsetto. To this day, I can’t walk down a street in Brooklyn carrying a paint can without hearing the faint harmonies of the brothers Gibb and the incessant mind-numbing rhythm of 103 beats per minute. It’s a damned good thing I don’t live in Brooklyn, or paint.

I’ve figured out that my lack of romantic success is directly related to  the soundtrack to my coming of age. Without any siblings to consult for advice, I had to rely on the radio to understand dating, and I took the lyrics of the songs to heart. Except the lyrics to Steely Dan songs. I still have no idea what the fuck they were talking about.

In the following story, I reunite with an old flame after reconnecting on Facebook. But there’s a catch! Everything I say to her includes the title of a song that was on Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 chart in 1978, in order, starting with number one.

 “All I know is that too much Shadow Dancing will lead to Night Fever. You Light Up My Life, but I’m just barely Stayin’ Alive. I’d like to Kiss You All Over, just to find out How Deep Is Your Love. Wait! Baby Come Back. I know I said Love Is Thicker Than Water, but maybe we could just, I don’t know, Boogie Oogie Oogie? No? Oh I get it – you’re too good for that now that you’re Three Times A Lady.”

 “When I try to figure out why Grease is the word, I Go Crazy. But You’re The One That I Want—and I say that with a lot of Emotion. Now…Lay Down, Sally. I’m kidding! Of course I know you’re name isn’t Sally. I just Miss You, and I want you to know I love you Just The Way You Are.”

 “I was thinking that With A Little Luck we could work it out, but If I Can’t Have You, I guess I’ll just Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah). That’s it—Feels So Good. Maybe I should ask that girl to dance…she looks like a Hot Child In The City. I just have to remember—Love Is Like Oxygen, and It’s A Heartache. But me–along with my buddies here—you know, We Are The Champions. We Will Rock You.”

 “Of course, when I walk along Baker Street, I realize I Can’t Smile Without You, but I suppose it’s Too Much, Too Little, Too Late. How about you just Dance With Me? C’mon, Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad. My friends Jack And Jill both think you should Take A Chance On Me, but I’m not so sure, because Sometimes When We Touch, it feels like our Last Dance.”

 “I gotta tell you, I am Hopelessly Devoted To You. I’m Hot Blooded (check it and see)…You’re In My Heart, and The Closer I Get To You, I realize that all we are is Dust In The Wind. Or we’re like a Magnet and Steel or…something.”

 “By the way, I have nothing against Short People. In fact, a short person Use Ta Be My Girl. I know I’m not making sense herer, it’s just—Our Love…well, let’s just say Love Will Find A Way. And I’m talking about An Everlasting Love, especially since Love Is In The Air. I could be wrong, though—don’t leave–oh, well—Goodbye Girl.”

 I had felt her Slip Slidin’ Away for some time, so maybe I just need to get into the Groove Line, whatever that is. Or take a trip to Thunder Island with an Imaginary Lover. Realistically though, it’s Still The Same situation—me thinking about My Angel Baby. Frankly, I could walk past a Disco Inferno right there On Broadway, and if she were to ask me to Come Sail Away I would be Back In Love Again.

 This Time I’m In It For Love, and I ‘ll just come right out and tell her “You Belong To Me.” Oh my god—I can’t believe it—”Here You Come Again! I thought you were moving to Blue Bayou, Peg (that’s her name—it’s Peg, not Sally!), but apparently You Needed Me. Yeah, sometimes I feel a little Shame when I start Reminiscing, especially since I said you could Count On Me. Baby Hold On—”

 “Hey, Deanie—I wanted to ask you about those Summer Nights.  I’m sorry—What’s Your Name? Sorry, thought it was Deanie. Anyway, I’m here with Sally—er, Peg, so I gotta go.  Talk to you later.”

 “Hey—watch this—this is cool–when I start to think about you, Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue? Don’t it? Because The Night does strange things to a man.” You’re leaving again. Well, fine. I guess it takes Every Kinda People. “Well, at least we’ll have the CopacabanaAlways And Forever, You And I. And, of course, the tragic memories of that Serpentine Fire. I know you remember that, because you always were a Sentimental Lady.”

 “I will not be Falling again any time soon. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood—I am Bluer than Blue, but I’ve been Running On Empty here, and it seems like Whenever I Call You ‘Friend‘, you just say “You’re a Fool (If You Think It’s Over). That really doesn’t help– I just want to Get Off with a Sweet Talkin’ Woman. How am I doing? Well, Life’s Been Good, and you know me, I Love The Nightlife, but–hey, you’re changing the subject–You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle of Turning Me On).”

 “It’s So Easy for you. You’re a Native New Yorker. You should probably go, but…here, take this Flashlight, and whatever you do, Don’t Look Back. I’m serious—you’ll Turn To Stone. Take my umbrella, too, because I Can’t Stand The Rain. Now go…don’t look at me with those Ebony Eyes. Don’t cry—leaving is The Name Of The Game. We’re All Alone now. Just remember those Hollywood Nights.” They call Alabama the Crimson Tide—call me Deacon Blues.

 Questions for Discussion

  1. Did the serpentine fire CAUSE the disco inferno?
  2. If love is thicker than water, how can it also be like oxygen?
  3. If you’re ‘bluer than blue,’ doesn’t that make you…indigo?
  4. If you date someone who is ‘three times a lady,’ are you actually cheating on two of them?
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book learnin’

I found a screw on the floor today. Thing is, I don’t think anything I own that’s held together by screws is missing any of its screws. So what could this mean? Is it a clue—some sort of omen? What kind of ‘Lost’-inspired sign is this? Of course, if my life were being scripted by the people who created ‘Lost,’ the clue wouldn’t be explained for six years and then it would just be  part of a fairly heavy-handed quasi-christian allegory, and it would turn out I’ve actually been dead the entire time.

I like to believe that if there were a rip in the cosmological fabric, Alternate Me would be more successful, and be having more sex. You know, a world in which the most admired and highly-paid profession is ‘comedy writer.’ In that world, cops would come to your door to give you pot, and the Oscars would have a category for Best Barely Started Screenplay Idea. And I would fly into the Kodak Theater with my jet-pack to receive my award.

The idea of an alternate universe has always fascinated me. A place that looks like our world but because of some glitch in the time-space continuum is actually a frightening bizarro world filled with people who sort of look like us but ultimately are discovered to be aliens bent on our destruction. For example, Texas.

If I understand this, the Texas Board of Education approved changes to the social studies and history curriculae (-li? –lums? damn, I hate when I forget my Latin declensions!). Anyhoo, that means changes to textbooks in Texas, which means changes to textbooks everywhere because Texas buys a lot of textbooks.

I suppose the changes are meant to bring about a nostalgic return to an era uncluttered by voting rights, or religious rights, or civil rights. Whatever the motivation, the new curriculum will put a distinctly rightward spin on what used to be called ‘facts.’

Apparently the new guidelines require that students be taught that the Founding Fathers were actually very religious, and that the whole church and state thing was meant to be a just a trial separation. I’m guessing the people who voted for these changes also believe that fossil evidence for evolution was manufactured by the liberal media to lead the country down the path to socialized…archaeology, or something.

Although I’m a card-carrying liberal (it’s actually an NPR membership card, but it counts as ID in Arizona), I’m not all that concerned about what ninth-graders in Texas are studying. It’s not that I don’t care about what they read…it’s that I don’t believe many of them will actually remember what they read.

For example—the new textbooks will now imply that free-market economies are better for society than…whatever other kinds of economies there are. See, my point is, I don’t remember, because I learned that stuff from a textbook—meaning, the information stayed in my brain until the test was over. Then—poof! It was as if I never learned it.

I think for most people, what we learned as kids simply served as a placeholders until we learned important things, like things related to our jobs, and how to get laid. I took calculus in high school, and I don’t even remember what calculus is, let alone how to use it.

So I’m not too worried about the next generation being manipulated by their textbooks. I’ve always said that if you want kids to read Shakespeare, ban everything he wrote. Seriously, if high school kids aren’t allowed to read ‘Hamlet,’ they’ll be quoting Polonius in the hallway.

A school in Tennessee actually banned some textbooks a while back. Called them ‘anti-religious.’ And again, I don’t get the problem. You could put a whole section on Satanic rituals in ‘America: Pathways to the Present’ and if it isn’t mentioned in the chapter summary, most students will never see it!

You know, if school boards are gonna revise the curriculum, they should have the balls to go all the way. Why not make history books entirely fictional? Include chapters explaining how the South didn’t lose the Civil War, it’s just laying low and regrouping. Have kids learn that the Underground Railroad was a just another leftist public transit boondoggle. And for god’s sake, bring back home economics classes. Just for girls, of course. They need to have role models, too.

But if high school kids in Texas are required to learn this more…creative version of our history, one more change needs to be mandated. The federal government should require diplomas issued by Texas to have a big Texas-sized asterisk on them so that the rest of us know who we’re dealing with.

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i like my listening easy

Jokes might be my stock in trade, but music is my passion. In fact, if I’d realized how much music means to me years ago, I might have tried to make a living at it (because if the comedy business has been inconsistent, unfair and unpredictable, leading to a struggling, hand-to-mouth existence, at least music would have been—wait…never mind).

My musical experience is as eclectic as it is unspectacular. Played clarinet for eight years—made All-State Honor Band (33rd chair, but hey, California’s a big state!). Been in a couple of musicals in which I didn’t dance because…I can’t dance. Done a bit of cabaret singing (you’d particularly enjoy my intimate arrangement of Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”). Can read music and find middle C on a piano.

Growing up, my musical touchstones were vigorously bland. Mom was a HUGE Andy Williams fan—I remember sitting with her at the kitchen table with the radio covering RFK’s funeral, and Andy Williams singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And at Christmas—my god, how many Christmas songs are there? He sang all of them—for years I thought he wrote ‘O Holy Night’ because it was the only version I’d ever heard.

Me, I was discovering a whole new generation of music—forget Andy, it was now the early seventies, and I was digging…the Carpenters. Mock them if you will, even though Richard is one of the greatest vocal arrangers in history and Karen had the voice of a bittersweet angel. Yes, they recorded a lot of tracks that were the audio equivalent of oatmeal, but watch some of their vids on youtube. They were sincere. And I’ll take sincere schmaltz over feigned rage any day.

First record I bought—Carole King, ‘So Far Away.’ Which became one of the biggest hits at my junior high-school radio station, KPRV. In eighth grade, our school started a five-watt radio station, and I was the on-air talent (yes kids, there was a time when schools had money, and that money went to the arts, and…). We also played the shit out of “Just You ‘N Me’ by Chicago. And strangely enough, the B-side of Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ a song called ‘Young Man’s Blues’ which was distinguished by the lyric ‘screw you.’ Repeated a lot. We were such rebels.

When I got to college, I started going to church. Now to recap, I converted to Judaism years ago, after  the Jesus thing. But I recently realized that when I was going to church, it wasn’t out of any religious discipline, but because of church choir. I got to sing every week! And it’s pretty hard to get kicked out of a church choir. So I’ve done your ‘Ave Maria’s, even your ‘O Holy Night ’s (sorry, Andy). After converting, I discovered I wasn’t the only Jew who loved gospel music. Seriously, Jewish composers—try a major key!

Lately I’ve been dabbling in cabaret, which is an interesting genre. With a few exceptions, the venues are essentially piano bars, where at an open mic night, you sign up for two songs and someone plays piano for you.  Now, take great songs with witty lyrics, add simple acoustic accompaniment, and put them in a tiny space filled with drunk tourists sitting five feet away and seventeen other singers who want your stage time.

I actually started singing show tunes at these open mics before I ever got my queer card. Before I identified as ‘bisexual,’ I used to be a regular at the piano bar at the Gay 90s in Minneapolis, believing that I just REALLY liked the music of Stephen Sondheim.

As much as I love music, I haven’t seen many concerts, because I never seem to have a hundred bucks to see either 1) a band who’s only done two songs I’ve heard and the rest of the concert consists of their J.R.R. Tolkein-inspired concept rock opera in its entirety or 2) a band that I loved as a kid performing less-authentic-than-karaoke cover versions of the songs I loved as a kid. With different guys.

Saw Jackson Browne at the State Fair, and during his sound check, these burly goons were sitting on the lip of the stage staring down the crowd. Lookin’ for someone to start shit. Seiously? At a Jackson Browne concert?! What, were they afraid a rowdy global warming rally would break out? Really harshed everyone’s vibe.

I peed next to jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. Middle of one tune, I have to go, and figure I’ll just discretely scoot up the aisle. And then Dizzy Gillespie stops his band. In the middle of the song. He points me out and embarrasses me into sitting back down until intermission. Finally able to relieve myself, I notice that to my right was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters in history. Can’t really ask for an autograph in that situation.

Best concert experience ever—the Ramones, 1978. Now to set the scene, in 1978 I had yet to shed my nerd chrysalis. But—I knew that I should be into punk music. It’s like when I pulled my only prank in high school, not organically, out of a deep-seated resentment of authority, but because I thought I should pull a prank in high school.

Anyway, I didn’t have any punk clothing per se, so I wrapped my bicycle lock around my waist as a belt. In your face, people who wear normal belts! So I get to the concert venue, and the bouncer tells me I have to take off my bicycle-chain-belt. Apparently worried I would stage-dive and injure someone by hitting them with my belly.

Well, in the spirit of punk, I decided to take a stand right there. If he wasn’t going to let me in, I was damn well gonna go back to my dorm room, get the key, take off the chain, walk back to the concert and ask the nice man to let me in. And it was a great concert—all visceral and palpable, nothing but two-and-a-half minute songs followed by “1 – 2 – 3 – 4!” Kinda scared me. Did it change me? Maybe—when I got back to my room I put on a Dan Fogelberg album, but I skipped the ballads.

I have 3,382 songs on my computer, and not all of them are what you would call ‘lite rock.’ In fact, there are recordings I love in every style from opera to gangsta rap (sadly, I know of no ‘gangsta opera,’ but that would be cool!). I will say, I still have a taste for music that’s not so…angry. I admit it–I like happy songs. I like pretty songs. In a world of environmental devastation, crushing poverty, and genocide, sometimes I want my music to offer a little contrast. Something happy…and pretty. With harmonies.And maybe a little gospel feel.

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you can’t teach that

For the first time in a while, I’ll be teaching again this weekend. Before you start congratulating me for re-entering this most noble of professions, it’s not like I’ll be teaching about the towering figures in modern literature, or advances in higher mathematics, or, really anything with practical value. I teach stand-up comedy.

There are some problems with this as a way to make money. First, I’m not sure why anyone would take a stand-up comedy class, since the stand-up ‘boom’ ended in the early 1990s. It seems rather like studying to be an apothecary, or a blacksmith. Yeah, there are still comedy clubs, and a few hundred dive bars that might have a ‘comedy night’ in which they move the karaoke machine out of the way for an hour and a half (“You guys have to be done by 9:30, because the Metallica tribute band needs to set up”).

But it’s not like it was in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system offered a place to perform in front of a faux brick wall to an audience of drunk twenty-somethings. Sadly, the golden days of stand-up ended when it got over-exposed on TV and—sorry, I almost turned into an old vaudevillian bemoaning how radio killed his career.

More to the point, although I’ve taught comedy classes in the past (even taught ‘advanced stand-up’—and what the hell is that? Really complicated jokes? Longer…segues?), I’ve never been convinced you can actually teach stand-up comedy.

I think you can teach someone how to hold a microphone, and you can teach some tricks about putting jokes in a certain order (‘Don’t end your set with a joke about abortion,’ or ‘Don’t open by mentioning the Holocaust’), but you cannot teach someone to be funny. You need to bring funny with you to the first class.

However, I guess there will always be people lured by the prospect of a fifty-dollar Thursday gig in Dickinson, North Dakota, and for these brave souls, I offer four two-hour sessions, culminating in a three-minute performance at one of the local chuckle joints. The real problem is that if you want to be a comic, you should be at a comedy club, not in a classroom. You should be showing up at open mics trying out your shit in front of an audience (I’m really not selling my class very well—must learn how to market myself better.)

See, comedy’s different than other forms of ‘art,’ say, violin playing. You would never hear a violinist at Orchestra Hall say “This is something I’m just kinda trying out—it’s new–not sure if it’s gonna be any good.” But with standup, the ONLY way to know if something is funny is to say it in front of an audience—you can’t practice it in front of a mirror or say it into a tape recorder (are there still tape recorders? must update references…).

So the demographic that would sit at home and think “I want a more theoretical approach to the whole comedy thing, and I want to learn in an environment that’s entirely unlike any place comedy might actually happen” are people who, by and large, aren’t toting a lot of funny around with them. They’re taking my class for the same reason they might take a class in bungee jumping, or macramé—something they always thought about trying, because it could be fun.

In my experience, there are certain types of people who take Introduction to Stand-up Comedy.

The Frat Boy Type: believes he’s funny because he can make his ‘bros’ laugh at a kegger by doing a drunk impression of his boss followed by armpit farts—sadly, this doesn’t always translate in front of a real crowd

The Cubicle Guy: wants to try something different to shake up his nine-to-five life, but prior performing experience limited to emceeing the raffle at the company picnic, during which he attempted part of a Bill Cosby routine

The Hipster: watches too much Comedy Central, thinks he could do comedy because ‘they’re just saying a bunch of random shit anyway’

The Saucy Mom: has read a lot of Erma Bombeck, and now that kids have moved out, finally is trying what she ‘always wanted to do,’ but mostly wants to say inappropriate things and swear a lot

The Comedy Writer: has none of the personality required to be a performer, but has a chapbook filled with wacky ideas, most of which are only funny to him

The Toastmaster: Unclear on the distinction between public speaking and stand-up; would ideally prefer to read from note cards at a podium (tells people what he’s going to tell them, then tells them, then tells them what he’s told them)

Another challenge in teaching the ‘rules’ of comedy is that almost by definition, comedy is about seeming like you’re breaking the rules—saying those very things that you’ve been trained to suppress since fourth grade when you were sent home with a note saying ‘cuts up in class—always disrupting lessons with jokes.’

Of course, there will always be the stand-up student who simply wants to be like whoever the hot comic is at the moment, and I essentially have to beat that out of them so they find their own comic voice, and so the world isn’t overrun with clones of Dane Cook. But every so often, I come across students with a spark, that ineffable flair that makes you want to listen to whatever they feel like talking about.

It’s what my beatnik friend Eugene used to call ‘the thang.’ And though I try my damndest to give every student the tools they need to pull a few laughs out of increasingly jaded audiences, it’s that one in twenty, the one who has that ‘thang,’ who makes me want to teach comedy. Just don’t expect me to teach you to be funny.

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fifty is the new forty-five

When did I become that guy?  Seems I was this…other guy for a lotta years. But now I’m that guy. And it’s not like I miss being that other guy, the guy I was in my thirties and forties, it’s that I don’t even recognize him—it’s hard to realize I ever was that guy. There are things I did when I was younger that I can’t imagine doing now, not because they’re all that wild, but because just remembering doing them makes me tired.

So I’m that guy now. I’m the guy who…

says he’s been “sitting too long”—How is that even possible? Sitting is not an activity—you can’t do it ‘too long’!

hears a song on the radio and says “but you can’t understand what they’re singing”!

has so many body parts that pop and crack that when I get out of bed it sounds like an Afro-Caribbean percussion section

goes to a restaurant and says “I need to order something bland”—Seriously? I used to go to a Sri Lankan restaurant in Minneapolis and order level four spiciness , dammit! Level four, do you hear me people?! Now, what,  I have to make sure the mashed potatoes don’t have any…basil because that might not agree with me?

Somehow, I’ve acquired a bunch of twenty-something and thirty-something friends, which definitely makes me feel younger. Although I don’t think they find me cool or hip so much as–intriguing. “He’s really talented…but kinda troubled too…wonder if he’ll snap some night when we’re just hanging out…”

I’ll party with the kids, but it’s different now. I can drink as much as I used to, but I don’t recover as quickly. And I forget this when I go out—maybe bars should require you to check your own ID so that you realize how old you are before you start drinking.

So, the night of my birthday, a group of the ‘kids’ threw me a party at a local Thai restaurant attached to a mall (I know—I’m out of control—pad thai level one all around!). And I was home by the age-appropriate hour of 11:30. Turned on the iTunes, opened a box of cabernet, and realized that I was sitting in a one-room apartment drinking cheap wine and listening to merle haggard, and that I had in fact turned into a country song.

Don’t misunderstand here—I can still rock…I’m just choosing not to. Some cable channel I’d never heard of and didn’t know I had was airing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies from a couple years ago. The highlight had to be Iggy Pop, who was introduced by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (quick aside to Billie Joe—if you can write a three minute song, maybe you could write a three-minute speech? I swear he mentioned every band that ever recorded an album as being influenced by Iggy). Anyway, Iggy comes out, still visceral, raw and shirtless at 63. I’m only 50, and I catch a terrible chill if I don’t wear my AARP hoodie—meanwhile Mr. Pop is rolling around on stage without a shirt—that’s a good way to catch a cold, mister!

Not sure why, but the other significant act in this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class was Abba. Iggy and Abba. Headlining for eternity at the Opposites Club. Now, as creators of the kind of sterile pop fluff that sticks to the brain like Cheetos dust sticks to your fingers, I love me some Abba, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? That’s like giving Jerry Bruckheimer a Lifetime Achievement honor at the Independent Film Awards. The drop-off in rock and roll credibility from Iggy Pop to Abba was vertigo-inducing. But at least the members of Abba kept their shirts on.

I haven’t been to many live concerts, and now I suppose I’m relegated to seeing age-appropriate music acts. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Fleet Foxes or Vampire Weekend, but it might feel a little weird to go to one of their shows. Somehow I feel like I’d be harshing everyone’s buzz, like they’d all be looking at me as if I were a chaperone, or a faculty advisor. “You kids get this gym cleaned up if you want to have any more dances.”

A couple years ago I went to see Foghat at the State Fair, and it was none of the same people—I’m pretty sure it was just four guys who happened to own Foghat albums. Last year I actually saw Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Survivor. I haven’t seen that many paunchy white guys in the same venue since the last Republican convention. And that was just on the stage! Thank you–good night! Sorry…I had a little standup flashback there.

So, I’m that guy now. When did I become the sitting-too-long, bland-food-eating, comfortable-music-listening-to guy? I’ll tell you when–a few days ago, when I looked at my ID and remembered that somehow, despite my best self-destructive efforts, I had passed fifty. I actually made it. Sure, I don’t get around like I used to, but on the other hand, I feel like now I’ve got a license to dispense unsolicited advice to everyone I see, because, well, I’m fifty. I may not do a lot anymore, but I damn sure know a lot. And for what I don’t know, I can always just quote Styx lyrics–their stuff was deep.

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madness

I’ve lived through times when my situation was kinda precarious.  Maybe not Jack Bauer precarious, but certainly at least MacGyver precarious. Sometimes I felt like like one of those plate-spinners you would see on the Ed Sullivan Show–juggling job-hunting, payment arrangements on my bills, calls to the landlord, emailing potential leads, working on my resume, managing my anxiety and depression…what I’m saying is, that’s a lot of plates.

During one of my worst times, my escape was the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. First of all, the nickname is great: ‘March Madness. ‘ Sort of implies you might actually see something really insane, like a player belting out a show tune after a dunk, or an entire team putting on big floppy hats in the last two minutes of the game.

But from a marketing perspective, the name March Madness could be a lesson for other sports. People who wouldn’t normally watch the World Series as the ‘Fall Classic’ just might tune in if it were called, say, the ‘Fall Fandango.’ Or imagine if the NBA Finals were called Tall-a-palooza. Americans might even watch more soccer if the World Cup were called…nah, Americans will never watch more soccer.

That’s because we’re conditioned to expect that during a sporting event, something will…happen. Anything. For god’s sake, I watched a soccer match between–i don’t really remember–some European colonial power and one of the countries it used to subjugate, and the final score was 1 to 0. My leisure time is too valuable to spend three hours and watch only one thing happen.

There are sixty-five teams chosen each year, which means there are a lot of players wearing ridiculous-looking ‘but-they’re-not-really-short’ shorts to watch. But now I hear there’s support for the idea of expanding the tournament to…what, maybe…524 teams? I could be exaggerating, but my point is, sixty-four is probably plenty.

If the tournament expands, here are some suggestions:

  • allow the worst NBA team to go ‘back to school’ and compete in the tournament
  • have the final twelve American Idol contestants field a team–monster crossover marketing potential, plus Simon Cowell might be the next Bobby Knight
  • let trade schools enter–think of the excitement if the DeVry Institute could somehow beat Kentucky (Game times would have to be flexible, allowing for the DeVry players’ work schedules)
  • set the first round in the playgrounds of New York, and require lower-seeded teams to stand around the court and call ‘next’
  • first round–everybody plays ‘H-O-R-S-E’ to see who advances
  • include a public option in the health care system and stop propping up insurance companies who are only interested in profits–wait–sorry, that has nothing to do with basketball

Every year there are surprise teams that make you think, ” I didn’t know that place had a basketball program” or, “I didn’t know that place had…schools.” And you get to learn all the team mascots. Except for Marquette, which, according to a typo in the ESPN online bracket has a team but no nickname. Being a Marquette cheerleader must suck–“Go…..You Guys!”

There are usually at least three Tigers and three Aggies, which doesn’t seem right–you should have to choose your own name. Granted, it might be like signing up for a new email address today with all the good ones taken (“that name is already in use–try michaeldanecomedywriter3885653“).

There are Bulldogs and Gators and the less fearsome-sounding Miners (I think UTEP players should have to wear the miner hat with the flashlight on it), and of course, nobody could forget the Northern Iowa…uh…Northern Iowans?

This year the oddest team name I ever saw in the tournament was the St. Mary’s Gaels. ‘Gaels,’ it turns out, were Irish warriors. Good thing they didn’t play the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, or it would have escalated to car bombs.Wake Forest must offer a degree in oxymorons, since they’re the Demon Deacons. Cornell, the rare Ivy League school to have success in sports, rallies behind the oddly blue-collar sounding Big Red.

Sam Houston College roots for the rarely-seen and incorrectly-spelled Bearkats, but the most obscure mascot might be the Catamounts of Vermont (sounds like a rich couple being introduced at dinner). Apparently, they chose ‘catamount’ because mountain lion, mountain cat, puma, panther, and cougar were taken, because they’re all the same freakin’ animal.

I’m sure this trivia has been compelling, but let’s get to the important stuff. Even though I only follow basketball for two weeks out of the year, I will now give you some insight into how I pick winners in the tournament with hypothetical examples:

  • Normally, I root against religious-affiliated schools–somehow seems unfair to bring God on the team bus with you to the game. Unfortunately if both of these teams have God connections,  as in Baylor vs. St. Mary’s, well, Baylor doesn’t tell you it’s religious (Baptist), whereas with St. Mary’s is up front about it (the ‘Saint’ part), so I would go with the St. Mary’s Gaels.

  • If a team from a well-respected liberal-arts university (say, Xavier) goes against a team from a state wone of the most backwards school boards in the country (for instance, Kansas), root for the smart team.

  • One year, Butler played Syracuse, and here’s how I broke down the matchup–Indianapolis, home of Butler University, and Syracuse, New York, are two of the dullest cities in the country, so they’re evenly matched. But Jim Jones of the People’s Temple went to Butler, and to my knowledge, no murderous deranged messianic cult leaders ever graduated from Syracuse, so I give the edge to Syracuse.

  • Duke vs. Purdue: Purdue Boilermakers–well, that’s a drink, and I like to drink. Also, I’ve always had an inexplicable hatred for Duke. So…Purdue.

  • Kentucky vs. Cornell: Let’s see. Cornell has produced forty-one Nobel laureates and 28 Rhodes Scholars. Kentucky produces moonshine. I realize I maybe oversimplifying here, but I like Cornell.

  • Washington vs. West Virginia: I’ve been to Washington, and I’ve never been to West Virginia. For this and so many other reasons, Iwould go with Washington.

  • Tennessee vs. Ohio State: Follow the logic here–Al Gore is from Tennessee, and voter fraud in Ohio may have cost John Kerry the White House. So, if you factor in the fact that Tennessee hosted the Tea Party convention and Ohio’s Democratic Blue Dogs (who might be in the tournament next year), look for Ohio State to win after a long recount.

So, there you have it–the complex algorithms you need to fill out your brackets and win that office pool.  Now, to be honest, the year the above matchups happened, I was wrong on every single game. Gotta love all those upsets.

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