You Slay Me

I am a big fan of musical theater and an even bigger fan of unintentionally campy entertainment. You can understand how I became such a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, although these days I’m more apt to defend it against accusations of being campy entertainment. I may have lived with it too long!

I trace my camp sensibility to Bad Movies We Love, an offshoot of the old Movieline column that scoured old Hollywood for classic examples of unintentionally funny hamfests. Reading that, then subsequently watching Valley of the Dolls and A Summer Place in college prepped me for the misguided glories of ShowgirlsGlitter, and Battlefield Earth.

While still in college, my budding interest in theater merged with my affection for flops when I came across Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie. Bookended by the story of the ill-fated musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, the book describes noteworthy flop Broadway musicals from 1950 to 1990. There are bombs from famous stars like Lucille Ball and Yul Brenner and from famous composers like Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. There are weird little over-plotted oddities, like the puppet-driven Flahooley. And there are grandiose over-budget disasters like Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge. Not Since Carrie covers over 200 shows and explores how they all went awry.

Unlike Bad Movies We Love, which revels in its cattiness, Not Since Carrie is fairly even-handed. Not to say that Mandelbaum can’t be a bit harsh from time to time: he describes the rock musicals Dude and Via Galactica as “the two most salient horrors” of the post-Hair era and writes that Peter Allen is “a star with a passionate following” but “lacks hits records and is not really all that famous.” You can’t savor camp without a little bit of a zing, right?

But Mandelbaum doesn’t celebrate these shows’ failures. He tries to figure out what went wrong, and even offers up advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes.

His analysis really helped me arrive at the way I write about Eurovision now. The early days of Eurovision Lemurs are marked by snarky commentary, boarding on being mean-spirited. Later, my wife challenged the both of us to write more thoughtfully and more analytically. Since taking on that challenge, our work gradually began to resemble the work Mandelbaum did in Not Since Carrie.

Of course, we still have our moments of comedic depreciation (we do have a page on our website about camp classics, after all). So I guess without trying to do so, we created the Bad Movies We Love meets Not Since Carrie for the Eurovision Song Contest. If what we do is half as good as either of those books, I’ll be pretty happy.

Libraries Gave Us Power

I’ve been letting a lot of my professional association memberships lapse because I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with them. I’ve always felt that I needed to maintain my dues based on past opportunities these associations had provided. Now I have come to terms with the fact that I have been paying for something that I didn’t really use much any more.

Coincidentally, Kendra K Levine articulated some of my dissatisfaction in her recent Library Attack post “Professional Associations: Maybe We Should Start From Scratch?” She starts off by pointing out how she is a member of three different associations in the midst of existential crises.

In one specific case, that existential crisis has existed for as long as I had been a member and, like Kendra, I used to have strong opinions about it. But the repetition of the debate wore on me to the point where I asked myself, “Does this association exist only to debate its own purpose?”

Similarly, Kendra asks (and I can’t emphasize enough how much I echo this sentiment):

Do the associations exist so that they exist? (Then what’s the point?) Or do they exist for the members? And then what do members want? I want to connect with others doing similar work. I want to learn what they’re doing. I want to share what I’m doing. I want to advocate for a democratic information ecosystem. I want to support others in the profession.

Kendra K Levine, “Professional Associations: Maybe We Should Start From Scratch?” in Library Attack

To that point, I found it increasingly difficult to make the connections I needed through the electronic communications channels available. The general channels would be swamped with the aforementioned debates. The specific topical channels where I would likely have found those connections had gone fallow because the members stopped having active discussions.

I take responsibility for the fact that I stopped going to conferences and meet-ups. Personal circumstances partially dictated that, but it’s not like I couldn’t have worked around that if I really made the effort. That’s on me, not on any of the associations.

In either case, my network has become insular: I work with the people both in D.C. and in the field that understand the questions I need answer. That’s all well and good, and we often come up with creative solutions internally. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is value in working with people coming from different backgrounds, but facing similar issues.

When I first started my current job, I had a supervisor who was really good at identifying institutions and organizations that had similar scopes to ours. Not just other governmental foreign offices maintaining cultural centers, but non-profits with global reaches, universities with dispersed campuses, and corporations with multinational operations.

One of my next steps will be to re-identify those institutions and reach out to them to establish new connections that can be mutually beneficial. (Good thing my aforementioned supervisor is on another Washington tour.)

The other step is to re-engage in a professional organization that offers local meet-ups and conferences and work to make those connections in person. Instead of waiting for organizations to understand what its members need, I have to create the experience I need.

A Valentine Out of Season (although technically it is in season…)

I have a professional Facebook account and when I’m not publicly linking to brilliant stuff like spreadsheet horror stories or progressive metal bands from Bangladesh, I’m usually gushing about the people I work with both in my office in D.C. and at U.S. missions and partner spaces around the world.  I’m surrounded by good people who help make the job a joy.

One of the things that has impressed me the most is the fact that we support each other so much through thick and thin, and that it doesn’t take long for new colleagues to get that support.

Normally, I publish stuff like that only to my connections, many of whom are obviously those colleagues I’m praising.  But every now and then I get the urge to shout this from the mountains. I’m always grateful that I work where I do.

The Morning Fog

My bureau is using Gallup‘s CliftonStrengths right now, a personality-based team building tool. The idea is that each participant will uncover and build on their core set of talents. By focusing on strengths instead of trying to improve weaknesses, individuals can become better team players by working with others who compliment their skills.

How much you buy into that depends on how much you buy into any sort of corporate team building exercise, obviously. I tend to be skeptical, although that doesn’t usually stop me from playing along. I kinda love the mechanics of the whole process. I took a big old personality test, and got back a 25-page report that ranked 34 copyrighted buzzwords purporting to reveal my top 10 talents and the 24 other skills that I need to work around so I don’t trip myself up.

I’d like to scoff, but when my report tells me that I comprehend what I read better when I read in short bursts, that I prefer books with short chapters, and I tend to seek out publications and websites offering useful tips for organizing things… well, I’m a little more inclined to buy in.

Of course, a lot of this confirms what I already know about myself. What I found most useful both in the report and the accompanying workshop was the list of pitfalls to each of the personality traits. Maybe it’s a little obvious that someone who is overly empathetic will feel worn down by taking other people’s energy levels. But for someone who deals with confidence issues and imposter syndrome and the like, it’s nice to have a little guide to myself that I can use to navigate though those negative moments.

A Chance That I’d Been Given

Many years ago, my wife discovered that there was a tiny little brewery in our town called Baying Hound. It was a scant 25 minute walk from our house and we hadn’t realized it. I quickly became a regular, but in March 2016 Baying Hound closed up shop for good.

Flash forward a year and a half later and we found out that a new brewery was opening up an even scanter 20 minute walk from our house. Saints Row Brewing threw open its doors in September 2017 and I was so excited I walked there in 15 minutes.

You see, I aspire to be a fake Englishman. Being a fake Englishman mostly involves walking my dog along a stream through a field and some woods to the local pub to have a pint, then going home to watch panel shows and complaining that no one votes for our Eurovision songs anymore.

I got the dog and the neighborhood pub  within weeks of each other, and I could even walk through a field and along a stream to get to Saints Row. Unfortunately, my dog Buddy hates literally every dog in the universe, and we have since discovered that every house in our neighborhood owns 2.5 dogs. So I cannot completely live the life I want to lead.

But, my dog’s neuroses aside, it’s still nice to have a place where everybody knows my name in the neighborhood. It’s not like I am there every night, like some sort of amiable accountant or trivia-obsessed postal worker. But I’ve established my presence enough that I can walk in and co-founder and head brewer Tony can say, “You’re going to like this one, it’s in your vibe.” And he’s usually right.

For example, they recently tapped an English brown ale called The Cabin. It’s a cozy, comfy beer, full of apple and black currant flavors with a strong, malty finish. It’s a beer you drink while curled up by the fire. The cask version adds a bit of citrus, cinnamon, and clove notes to the mix. The base recipe has a lot of room for versatility.

Not that I’m entirely predictable in my love of bitters, brown ales, and Pilsners. They also produced Careless Whispers, which in theory is a New England IPA. But the beer is finished with toasted coconut and vanilla beans, so the taste has subtle hints of cream soda and… well, coconut.

It’s a playful beer that makes me even happier that Saints Row is in my neighborhood. The fact that it is almost always packed when I stop by shows me that I’m not the only one here who feels this way. Although I am annoyed that everyone else in my neighborhood can bring their dogs without fear of canine panic attacks.

“Paul’s Boutique” Lyrics That Can Double As Librarian Twitter Bios

I published this years ago on my old blog, but I can’t resist reposting it here because I’m reading Beastie Boys Book right now.

And if you don’t believe us you should question your belief, Keith.
(“Shake Your Rump”)

Humpty Dumpty was a big fat egg.
(“Eggman”)

Cash flow getting low so I had to pull a job.
(“High Plains Drifter”)

I’ve been dropping the new science and kicking the new knowledge.
(“Sounds of Science”)

If your life needs correction don’t follow my direction.
(“3 Minute Rule”)

While I’m reading On the Road by my man Jack Kerouac.
(“3 Minute Rule”)

The dirty thoughts for dirty minds we contribute to.
(“Shadrach”)

If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.
(“Shadrach”)

I mix business with pleasure way too much.
(“Shadrach”)

I’ve got money like Charles Dickens.
(“Shadrach”)

One half science and the other half soul.
(“B-Boy Bouillabaisse: Get On The Mic”)

Speak my knowledge to the crowd and the ed is special.
(“B-Boy Bouillabaisse: Year and a Day”)

Do I Believe In Me?

I really like Prince, so I have enthusiastically gobbled up the archival material his estate has been putting out in the past few years. But I have a question in the back of my head and the New York Times podcast Popcast asked it out loud: “Would Prince Have Wanted His Rough Drafts Made Public?

The general consensus among the Popcast panelists was that fans were already sharing bootleg versions of much this material, and the estate has generally done a good job of curating and releasing material in a way that remained respectful of Prince’s career. Even if that isn’t entirely in the spirit of Prince as a control freak.

I still can’t shake the feeling, though, that there is a need to generate revenue here too. Maybe I’m being harsh, but in the introduction to the book The Beautiful Ones, co-author Dan Piepenbring writes:

And one of [Bremer Trust’s] first priorities [to run Prince’s estate], given the sizable tax bill the estate was facing, was to monetize Prince’s assets however they could. As it happened, the book had been one of the last projects he’d finalized with a contract. With that in mind, representatives from Bremer got in touch with Random House: Was there any way the book was still possible?

Dan Piepenbring on page 43 of The Beautiful Ones

So maybe my concerns are legit.

Prince had just begun sketching out his ideas for The Beautiful Ones when he died in 2016. He wanted the book to be part autobiography, part biography by Piepenbring, part handbook on how to create and how to control what you create, and part treatise on race relations in the United States.

There was no way that book was going to live up to those expectations, but Part I of The Beautiful Ones is an aching glimpse into the possibilities. It is transcribed directly from Prince’s notepad, right down to his use of abbreviations: 2 for two, R for are, and  a drawing of an eye for I. It’s a first draft, as indicated by the liner notes in the margins that describe ways to fill it out. But Prince’s sense of humor, his philosophical nature, and his contradictions are all on display. Regardless of what the end result would have been, it wouldn’t have been boring.

But that’s just 40 pages of a 279-page book. Piepenbring’s introduction makes up another 43 pages. At first this section grated on me, as he only seems to be confirming the popular image of Prince on display in his cameo on New Girl or in Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Story on Chappelle’s Show. But eventually I found his story to be kind of sweet in a melancholic way. He had this amazing opportunity to work with Prince, but fate conspired against him. It’s heartbreaking, but at least he can appreciate that he got to experience something most people never would.

The rest of the book is filled out with interesting items found in the vault: photos, storyboard drawings and sketches, drafts of lyrics, quotes from interviews, even an outline for the script to Purple Rain. There are extensive notes describing all of the material, and this is where The Beautiful Ones becomes a museum catalog more than a book.

So on the one hand, it’s nice to have these snapshots into Prince’s life. On the other hand, Prince never got the chance to write about his creative process, and that’s gutting to me. While there are other sources available to provide insight (see below), it sucks that we didn’t get a chance to hear from the man himself. And, fairly or unfairly, that makes The Beautiful Ones most disappointing to me.

May We All Have Our Hopes, Our Will to Try

Happy New Year!

For my New Year’s resolution, I have set myself a suitably ambitious plan for this blog. My goal is to write four posts a month: two career-minded pieces, one beer review, and one book review.

I’m not entirely sure I can pull that off, what with my full-time job and my other full-time job raising a kid who needs all the support he can get and my other other full-time job covering the Eurovision Song Contest for my other blog. But you don’t get anywhere if you start off by deciding that you won’t make it.

And, as this post should prove, I don’t have to make every single thing I write deeply profound. Just keep writing and get what you want to say out there.

To Raise the Ghost of An Idea

I am not a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but I do love A Christmas Carol. It’s a story told with great economy: Dickens wastes no time in establishing how awful Ebenezer Scrooge is. And the trope of spirits showing Scrooge shadows of his life and the London around him is ingenious. It allows Dickens to neatly combine the biographical details that made Scrooge the miserable bastard he became with the compulsion he needs to reform himself and wrap the whole thing up in about 100 pages. (I have an edition without illustrations that totals 68 pages.)

Dickens wrote the book in roughly two months, and he financed the publication himself. Impressive, but I get the impression that no one, least of all Dickens, cast a critical eye over the final manuscript before it went to press. How else to explain the random tangent Dickens goes on in just the second paragraph:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Funny? Sure, but if I were editing A Christmas Carol, I’d cross that out straight away.

This is not an isolated example; for such a short story, there are a number of digressions and asides to pad out the book. In many cases, I’m willing to give them a pass, because it usually adds colorful detail to the picture of English Christmastime that Dickens is painting.

But sometimes, he goes off the rails in utterly ridiculous ways. For example, there is no scene creepier in this ghost story than the part where Dickens the narrator ogles Scrooge’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter:

The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to one of them. Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

That’s what a stalker says! A stalker says that. Perhaps Dickens ultimately realized it, since he cut that part out of his edited text for public readings.

Although I’ve read A Christmas Carol dozens of times, I think it was years before I read it closely enough to pick up on a lot of the details Dickens packs into the book. Part of the reason why is because I have seen so many of the various adaptations that I had a tendency to gloss over scenes that weren’t universally included in them. Certainly it took a long time for it to dawn on me exactly what was going on in this passage:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a version of A Christmas Carol that depicts that.

Dickens can be rightfully accused of making Tiny Tim ridiculously angelic, but then Scrooge is awful to an exaggerated level as well. Dickens uses Tim’s death to make the point that even the greatest good can be destroyed by unchecked evils like avarice, ignorance, and want.

The final Stave of the book features some of Dickens’ most expressive and joyful writing. When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he says, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby.” Dickens describes Scrooge embracing all the trappings of the Victorian-era English Christmas with a child-like exuberance that is a lot of fun to read. And that’s really the reason why I’ve read A Christmas Carol so many times: as Dickens catalogs and defines in lush detail the joys of the holiday season, he gets me into the Christmas spirit every year.

Note: I wrote this post six years ago for an old blog and am republishing it because there are plenty of Scrooges out there right now who need to be visited by Spirits.

Let’s Hope the Next Beats the Last

2019 was a tough year for my family and me, and I am happy to see the end of it. Even though I don’t necessarily think 2020 is going to be a cake walk for us, I can at least see a horizon I didn’t think I would get to see.

I spent a lot of time scared that things would happen that could upset the path I thought I should be on. Only at the end of this year did I realize that even when those fears came to pass, I still had different paths to take. At worst I would still arrive in the same destination. Otherwise I would just end up in a more interesting place with better stories.

I will celebrate my 10th anniversary at my job next year. I’m still a contractor and my dad keeps telling me that it feels like it’s a temp job. Goodness knows I’ve had a few  opportunities to change that. But I realized a long time ago that I would rather work at a job I love that contains a bit of uncertainty then work at a job that bores me to tears, but gives me an illusion of stability.

So with everything going on at home and at work, I found myself re-reading the Cult of Done Manifesto once again. I had remind myself, “There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.”

Next year is a scary place, but this year laid the groundwork for me to tackle it head on.