Time to Make the Cookies

Christmas Cookies In the Making“I don’t want to give cookies that look like they were made by a five-year-old,” Renate complains early in our cookie-frosting expedition. I’m paying scant attention to the final appearance of my cookies, and it’s exasperating.

She spends five minutes on a snowman.

“See?” She presents the smooth, unblemished result.

“People don’t care what they look like,” I tell her. “People only care what they taste like.”

I give a soldier a red jumpsuit and Don King hair.

“That looks terrible,” Renate says. “Be serious.”

My mother’s to blame for this marital strife. Last week she asked us to bring additional holiday cookies to supplement the mounting Christmas stock. Dinkel’s charges $2 per decorated cookie, which set Renate on a mission.

“I’ll show them two dollars a cookie,” she says as we begin frosting this afternoon. Earlier in the day, she mused aloud that we could give the snowmen scarves and the Christmas trees garlands.

But after completing a star and a tree, morale begins to wane. “This takes forever,” she sighs. I sense opportunity.

“If you do it my way, we’re done in ten minutes,” I say, carelessly smearing a star one-half red, one-half green. I get a look.

“Just let me do it,” she says, the perfectionist instinct kicking back in.

Thirty minutes later she’s done, resulting in a tray of colorfully decorated cookies. My Don King soldier stands alone on the cooling stand, his head gone, bitten off, a warning.



2006 MixA few months after my sister shipped out for Miami University of Ohio in the fall of 1993, she mailed me a cassette tape covered in handwritten track and band names. She’d been listening to “When it’s Raining” (The Samples), “Woman in the Wall” (Beautiful South) and about twenty other tracks she deemed worthy of sharing.

The tape has long since warped into oblivion after years of baking in the glove compartments of former cars, but I’ve been hooked on receiving and creating mixes ever since. I’m most proud of the work I did a few years back with Dave and Ting: our ‘More Cowbell’ mix brought vital attention to songs that feature the now famous percussive instrument (“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson among them). Ting has a Will Farrell story about the CD which is hard to believe, but it’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a friend like Ting.

For the past three years, I’ve compiled a mix of songs that caught my attention during the previous twelve months and shipped the disc off to friends who’ll appreciate the effort. After thinking and rethinking track selection and order, I’ve completed 2006. Co-workies: the mix is already on my iTunes. Everyone else: copies can be made available upon request. Where available, links to iTunes are included below.


  1. “See”, The Kleptones. Co-worker Kenny introduced me to these mash-up masters. See kicks off “A Night at the Hip Hopera”, an album that blends Queen with hip-hop. Great way to start any disc.
  2. “Rough Justice”, The Rolling Stones. Mick and the boys still have it.
  3. “From the Ritz to the Rubble”, The Arctic Monkeys. This song just rocks.
  4. “My Prerogative”, Bobby Brown. You know you like this song. You also get the added benefit of listening to Bobby Brown complain about receiving too much public attention, which is kind of cute now.
  5. “United States of Whatever”, Liam Lynch. It’s like, whatever.
  6. “Suspicious Minds”, Elvis Presley. I’m not a big Elvis fan, but this song gets me. I love the way it builds throughout.
  7. “Your Love”, the Outfield. Possibly one of the best songs to come out of the ’80s.
  8. “Cold, Cold Ground”, Tom Waits. His voice and the accordion make me feel like I’m in a 1940s pub while a snowstorm rages outside.
  9. “These Apples”, Barenaked Ladies. (live version) I’ve known this song for a long time, but for some reason, 2006 was its year.
  10. “These Are Ghosts”, A Band of Bees. For me, 2006 was the year of the Bees. Hat tip to co-worker Kenny for introducing me to this chameleon-like band. Try to define their sound. It’s impossible.
  11. “Before the Last Teardrop Falls”, Freddy Fender. I don’t remember where I heard this song, but it’s just pretty.
  12. “Comfortably Numb”, Scissor Sisters. Not a cover of the Pink Floyd song. Haunting techno.
  13. “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”, Jeff Buckley. Gorgeous.
  14. “Mr. Ambulance Driver”, The Flaming Lips. Thanks to co-worker Spacetacular for this one. Simple and sad plus sirens.
  15. “Marching Bands of Manhattan”, Death Cab for Cutie. Another Spacetacular recommendation.
  16. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, Bob Dylan. Can’t go wrong with Dylan.
  17. “Breakfast in America”, Supertramp. Dave and I have been amused by this song for years. I finally tracked it down and got it on a disc.
  18. “Chicken Payback”, A Band of Bees. This one wins song of the year. I will never grow tired of it, not even during the island challenge.

I Have What It Takes

I Have What It TakesI’m growing a beard and right now it itches. I grew a goatee several years ago, but just when people got used to it I shaved it off because it itched too much.

Don’t let itching deter you. Your skin will eventually adjust to the new situation. Itching should be only a temporary phase.

So far Renate has been supportive, but today she told me the beard was “scratchy.” I told her should be only a temporary phase, and that eventually her skin will adjust to the new situation.

If you experience itching, keep your skin clean by daily shampooing (with a gentle shampoo) and optionally using a conditioner.

This bit of advice made the situation worse. Renate bought me some face lotion, and that helped.

Growing a beard requires a commitment. The experience can even be a test of character as well as a surprising process of self-discovery. Do you have what it takes?

“What exactly are your plans for this beard?” Renate asked yesterday. I told her I’m on a process of self-discovery. My mom told me it looked like I had dirt on my face.

The decision to grow, and subsequently keep, your beard is yours. The only opinion that really matters is yours… If you like it, keep it. If not, then shave it off.

Tally ho! Every World Beard competitor starts with a dream and an itchy face. I don’t have a dream yet. Otherwise I’m halfway there.

Cutting the Cord

What We Don't NeedAfter much deliberation, we effectively told Comcast to kiss off on Saturday. We are now the proud owners of a TV antenna that returns five channels.

It felt liberating and absurd, twisting the antennae around and stepping back to assess the reception. But now it feels like we’ve struck a blow for simplicity.

At the height of my media gluttony, my roommates and I enjoyed hundreds of channels along with TiVo and the DirecTV all-season sports pass. Now Renate and I convince ourselves that the fuzz onscreen during “How I Met Your Mother” isn’t all that noticeable. I love it.

Ditching cable is step one. Next we’ll combine our cell phone plans and cancel long distance on the landline. Annual savings: a respectable $720.

But now I’ve got the itch, and I think it’s making Renate nervous (although she would throw out the dishwasher if it weren’t bolted to the floor). I’m still hankering to ditch the cell phone altogether, but I’m too chicken. I see myself sprawled on the side of a lonely highway, lost, hungry and repentant. “If… I’d… only kept… the cell phone…” I gasp with my last breath beneath the heartless stars.

Maybe I’ll go through the closet instead.

That’s Just Funny

snow_sm.jpgWe’re getting walloped with snow. I’d rather set up camp on the couch and watch movies in my sweatpants, but Chicago has the snow removal thing down cold. I arrived at work soggy, wishing we had a radiator on which to dry my hat and gloves.

Snow days. If I was at home, I’d get up around eight-thirty and make some eggs for breakfast. I’d tinker with a few extracurricular web design projects and watch a movie (Andy Garcia’s The Lost City is cooling its heels on the TV stand). I’d dive back into the screenplay for the bulk of the afternoon, as the ideas have been churning again and there’s nothing like writing while the world is quietly coming to a stop outside.

National Novel Writing Month ended yesterday, and I know one survivor. Fifty-thousand words in thirty days. I’m amazed at that kind of output.

I tore out an article about George Clooney from the November issue of Vanity Fair because the author said something about writing — about storytelling, really — that has stuck with me.

After significant gushing — the author says things like “Clooney is always Clooney the way Gable was always Gable” — the article explores the influence of Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivans Travels on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which starred Clooney).

In Sullivan’s Travels, a film producer who has made it big on light-hearted comedies wants to make a serious film about hardship, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The studio honchos shoot him down, telling him he knows nothing of suffering. Determined, he chucks his cushy life and lives as a hobo, getting arrested and thrown into a chain gang.

The prisoners are taken to a church where they watch a Disney cartoon (this scene appears in the Coen Brothers film as well). The hardened convicts begin laughing with glee, and Sullivan stares at them, amazed.

In the end, after the director has been magically restored and is back with the studio bosses, one of the men says, O.K., now you know about suffering – now you can make O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Sullivan refuses. “There is a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

I’ve wrestled with this pull between comedy and drama. I think Woody Allen felt the same thing when he wrote Melinda & Melinda. Looking back on what I’ve written, and what others have just finished writing, I wonder how and when we make this decision. Maybe it’s made as we write. Good Will Hunting started out as a thriller and became a character-driven drama.

Standing on the verge of rewrite, I could see my story going in several directions. I wouldn’t mind a snow-packed afternoon to figure out where it’s headed, but it’ll snow again soon, hopefully on a Saturday.

Pick Your Poison

island_sm.jpgTraveling can lead to periods of reflection. It can also lead to long stretches of boredom. While driving through the brown landscape of northwestern Indiana for the holiday weekend, I pondered the following scenario:

You are stuck on a deserted island. Once a day, a song plays over an unseen loudspeaker. Somehow you have the ability to determine which song will play, but only once. That is, the song you choose plays each day, every day.

What song will you choose?

I see two basic strategies to employ here. Obviously you’ll grow sick of the song. Given that reality, you can either pick a song you like and hope you don’t get sick of it right away, or pick a song you already hate and hope the anger that stirs in your soul will motivate you to build a raft and get off the island.

Whatever you choose, you’ve also got to think about length. Perhaps you need the shortest song possible so it’s over quickly. Conversely, you could pick an hourlong classical piece which would at least provide some musical variety. Of course, when you’re sick of it, you’ll be subjected to an hour of a song you hate.

Having mulled the options this weekend while a memorable Thanksgiving dinner settled, I’m going with They Might Be Giant’s “Particle Man.” The song is humorous enough to remind me of the absurdity of the situation, and short enough to get things over and done with. A close second: “Chicken Payback” by A Band of Bees (for the same reasons). Third place: Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” At least it’s quiet.

Other options?