Monday, November 4, 2013

My Top 10 Favorite Album Closing Songs

Two weeks ago, Justin and I picked our Top 10 album opening songs. Quite understandably, we followed by turning our sights to our favorite album closers.

As Justin pointed out in his list of favorite album closing songs, closers tend to be longer, more experimental, and also sadder—oftentimes downright devastating in their depressing prowess, which is why I got a real kick out of drawing up this list. When it comes to art, I’ve always been drawn to depressing, fucked-up material, so, of course, my list is teeming with wrist-slashers and epic songs. (You’ve been warned.)

For me, a great album-closing song is one that is so powerful, so definitive in punctuation that you couldn’t imagine any song following it; that’s my ultimate litmus.

Honorable Mentions:
• “A Day in the Life” from The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (What a perfect closing song to such a classic album. I kept this one off my list only because Justin had it on his.)
• “Glory Box” from Portishead’s debut album
• “Third Eye” from Tool’s Aenima
• “Now You’re Gonna Pay” from The Zodiac Killers’ Have a Blast (A fucking great album from a San Francisco punk rock band no one’s heard of. If you’re a Clash or Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys fan, please don’t beat me up for not picking a closing song from one of their albums!)
“Empire of Light” from Tin Hat Trio’s Book of Silk (Book of Silk was written after frontman Mark Orton’s wife died at a young age. One of the more depressing, melancholy albums I’ve ever heard and this song is just absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful.)

10) The Ostrich from Steppenwolf’s debut album

I suspect most people haven’t heard this song, (am I trying to be hipster-like with this pick?) but it’s a devastating song that is still prescient. Before I paste the lyrics to illustrate, it’s more than worthwhile to mention that this song was written in 1968.

Here’s John Kay’s lyrics for the song's second verse:

The water's getting hard to drink
We've mangled up the countryside
The air will choke you when you breathe
We're all committing suicide
But it's alright
It's progress, folks, keep pushin' till your body rots
We’ll strip the earth of all its green
And then divide her into parking lots

Nearly fifty years later, most of humanity is still sticking their heads into the sand, pretending that all is grand, and hoping that everything will turn out okay. As a species, we’re all still committing mass suicide.

9) When the Music’s Over from The Doors Strange Days
I’ve written about The Doors before on this blog, but those boys sure knew how to close out an album! Their debut album came to a close with “The End”—which could easily have made this list (it made Justin’s); Waiting for the Sun ended with “Five to One,” and “Riders on the Storm” closed L.A. Woman. Lately, “When the Music’s Over” has been my favorite of those closers. Clocking in at 10:57 in duration, it’s a certifiable epic. And like my favorite closing songs, it easily passes that litmus of there’s-no-way-another-song-could-possibly-follow-it. After Jimbo roars, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore go apeshit-wild from 2:54-3:42 before settling into a calm which meanders and crests again after the 8-minute mark.

I’m no rock historian, but I doubt any other band in rock ‘n’ roll was cranking out songs like “The End” or “When the Music’s Over” back then. With their eclectic musical influences meshing into one cohesive unit, there really hasn’t been a band like The Doors since.

8) Threads from Portishead’s Third

Like The Doors, Portishead has a knack for writing superb closing songs. “Glory Box” from their debut album is an immaculately gorgeous and heavy song; like that song, Beth Gibbons’ lyrics for “Threads” are so succinct and clear (I'm worn/tired of my mind/I'm worn out/thinking of why I'm always so unsure) that it gives her emoting—the anguish, the anger—that much more punch in front of the eerie sonic backdrop. This song can hit like a mallet.

7) A Light in the Black from Rainbow’s Rainbow Rising

A few weeks ago, Dio’s Facebook page asked fans who was their favorite guitarist who paired with Ronnie James Dio. Though he sung alongside some outstanding guitarists, for me it’s a no-brainer: Ritchie Blackmore, because of songs like “A Light in the Black.”

At 8:12 in length, this song is yet another epic on my list. I would have had this as second on my list if it were “Stargazer,” the song that precedes “A Light in the Black” on Rainbow Rising, which I think is a bit mightier. As far as musical and emotional power, I think either song could have been a potent closer for the classic album, but since this is the one that bring downs the curtain, this is my pick.

6) Raining Blood from Slayer’s Reign in Blood
If “Threads” can pack the punch of a mallet, Slayer’s “Raining Blood” is like a merciless shelling of speed and power. How fucking bad is this song? A few months ago, I read Joel McIver’s The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists and Vader’s lead guitarist, Piotr Wiwczarek, came in at #68. According to McIver, his defining moment as a bad-ass shredder is Vader’s impeccable cover of “Raining Blood.” That’s how bad that song—played at an average of 210 beats per minute—is. Any thrash metal band that can pull it off is a force of nature. And I can’t imagine any other song on Reign in Blood closing out that classic album.

5) Street Spirit from Radiohead’s The Bends

I rarely ever listen to this album, and this song, along with “Fake Plastic Trees,” is one I have to be in a rare, rare mood to listen to. I don’t think I could listen to this song with another person in the same room without tearing up; I would feel way too naked.

“Street Spirit” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ll ever listen to. How could words even begin to try to describe this song? As I listen to it now, all I keep thinking is how direct and pure of emotion it is. Few songs have so plainly captured and conveyed the pain and hope of being alive.

Mi hermanita, Carmen, was the one who introduced me to Radiohead, years ago. (She also got me into The Beatles, bless her.) Back in our late high school years, she used to play The Bends over and over in her bedroom. Once I gave this tune a good, heartfelt listen, I became convinced that Thom Yorke must be a fallen angel. I’m still convinced he might be.

4) Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland

It could be argued that there was Rock ‘N’ Roll B.J. (Before Jimi), and Rock ‘N’ Roll After Jimi. Only a few songs need to be played as examples and evidence to support this argument: “All Along the Watchtower,” “Purple Haze,” “House Burning Down,” and “Voodoo Chile” come to mind for me, but, like Justin wrote in his list, this is arguably Hendrix’s “most impressive instrumental accomplishment.”

Let’s put it this way: if an alien crash-landed to earth and asked, “What was the deal with this Jimi Hendrix dude?” this is perhaps the one single song that you would need to play to best answer that question. Jimi’s wah-wah guitar playing doesn’t feel like it was of the earth; it doesn’t even feel like it was of the sun (if that makes any sense). His playing on “Voodoo Chile” feels like it was distilled and born screaming from the wildest hallucinogenic drugs that populate this planet.

On a related note, Bill Hicks hypothesized that God left marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms on our planet to accelerate our evolution. Jimi was tapped into those goodies, and subsequently evolved our music possibilities.

(If this isn’t an advertisement for doing hallucinogenic drugs, I don’t know what is.)

3) In the Backseat from Arcade Fire’s Funeral

We’re getting thick with wrist-slashers now. Can you sense it?

Like The Bends, Funeral is an album whose songs hardly ever make my rotation nowadays. (“Haiti” has been my favorite tune from the album the past few years because it’s so darn twinkly and pretty. How could anything bad ever happen while listening to that song!?) “In the Backseat” is a song that still rattles me pretty much every time I listen to it. It’s just so fucking gorgeous: the strings, the simple melody, but most especially Régine Chassagne’s voice. And the build-up of strings and drums to the electric guitars at the 2:37 mark: fuck. Even though I’ve heard the song enough times to know what’s coming, that part stills get me charged. And Chassagne’s wailing before the song’s outro still shakes me up with its raw emotion and power.

2) Paper Boats from Nada Surf’s Let Go

“Paper Boats” is a piercingly beautiful song. Another tune I can’t listen to in front of another person without feeling shook up and completely naked. The chorus: All I am is a body floating downwind—dear god, just fucking perfect; the singular essence of every human being’s trajectory summed up in eight words—and so gorgeously with the simple, lilting musical backdrop. What a way to close out this amazing album.

1) The Call of Ktulu from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning

So if you’ve read my blog before, you’ve probably already figured out how much I love Metallica. I think “The Call of Ktulu” is always going to be one of my favorites. Its eight minutes and fifty-four seconds of sheer instrumental ecstasy for me.

The late and classically trained Cliff Burton (along with Rachel Maddow, the best thing to ever come out of Castro Valley!) and Dave Mustaine left their undeniable marks on this track, which is truly like classical meets metal. For me, songs like “The Call of Ktulu” is what ultimately separates Metallica from other metal giants like Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax; Metallica had a broader musical and emotive range than the other members of thrash metal’s Big Four.

Fifteen years after it closed out Ride the Lightning, “The Call of Ktulu” got the classical treatment through Metallica’s collaboration with The San Francisco Symphony for their 1999 S&M album. Though the album—in my humble opinion—is hit or miss, mostly due to Hetfield’s vocals, their classical treatment of this song is simply astounding. If I was on my death bed and had ten minutes to listen to music blasted through speakers (I’m thinking of that final scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), either version of “The Call of Ktulu” would be a dandy way to blast off Planet Earth.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Self (or What Would a Buddhist Think?)

You are what you eat
You are what you read
You are what you watch
And you are what you listen to.

You are the company you keep
You are whom you revere;
You are what you love
You are what you stand for—
And you are the love you give yourself.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Top 10 Album Opening Songs

My boy, J-Oro and I, are at it again, coercing one another into drawing up yet another top 10 list. This time, we gave ourselves another difficult task: picking a mighty list of our favorite album openers. Check out his list here.

With over a century of recorded music to feasibly choose from, there is, inevitably, a galaxy of astounding songs I have never heard of—and never will—let alone songs that didn’t make my list. For this post, I found it helpful to think of it as a glimpse, a documentation of where I am at this point in my life—like those height chart markings cool parents make of their ever-growing kiddos.

In drawing up this list, I found myself biased toward opening ditties for great albums versus ones that are mixed bags, or otherwise lackluster. A great example of an outstanding opening song on a so-so album is Dokken’s “Unchain the Night” from Under Lock and Key. Great fucking song: George Lynch at the peak of his shredding might, strong vocals from Don Dokken, and a mindblowing solo. But the rest of the album, in my most humble opinion?: a shoulder-shrug egh. “Rusty Cage” from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is another example (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!)

I also found myself leaning toward openers that I could not imagine the album without. Some examples that didn’t make my list: The Doors “Strange Days,” “Planet Claire” from The B-52s debut album, or “A.I.R.” from Anthrax’s Spreading the Disease. In building my portfolio of top 10 opening songs (I am starting to sound like my work self), the ones that really rose to the top were songs that helped to define their album—songs that were an essential component of their sonic alchemy. For me, a great opener is like a perfect interlude (think “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground, or, to a lesser extent, “Airbag” from Radiohead’s classic OK Computer), the Rickey Henderson of a potent line-up.

All fluff and bluster, aside, let’s get to my Fall 2014 picks (in no particular order)!

1) London Calling from The Clash's London Calling

The title track for The Clash’s classic album. “London Calling " does everything an opening song should do: it sets the underlying emotional tone for the rest of the album; it gets shit going. The song is infused with a foreboding seriousness that other more playful songs like “Clampdown” or their cover of “Brand New Cadillac” lack. “London Calling” is a dystopian anthem. Along with “Lost in the Supermarket,” I think it is the heart of the sprawling, eclectic album. And over thirty years later, the opening song still seems prescient, capturing an ominous tone that our civilization, including metropolises like London, cannot shake. Beatlemania is long, long dead. All that’s left is to howl at our inevitable doom like Joe Strummer does in this gem.

2) Holy Wars…The Punishment Due from Megadeth’s Rust in Peace

It seems fair to begin the write-up for this scorcher by thanking crank and alcohol and god knows what other drugs Dave Mustaine was consuming during the recording of this thrash metal classic.

This 6:33 humdinger of an epic starts off motoring with the classic Megadeth line-up of Mustaine, Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza at play. Like the following song, “Hangar 18,” Mustaine’s lyrics isn’t exactly the meat the listener comes for (though the opening verse: “Brother will kill brother / Spilling blood across the land / Killing for religion /Something I don't understand” encapsulates the song). Instead, of course, listeners like myself get drawn in by the virtuosity of Mustaine’s playing. Backed by Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza, he grabs our throats and compels us to listen with his unorthodox songwriting, the emotional despair and bite in his snarl, grunts, and wails, and his guitar playing. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” almost always makes any list of top Megadeth songs (it’s usually #1) and one of the big reasons is his solo in this song. 4:56 – 5:40 is just—jesus fucking christ—jawdropping.

And from there, the final minute of the song just barely holds on. Like every astounding Megadeth song, “Holy Wars,” somehow or another, teeters on the edge of completely derailing from its manic, frenetic pace.

3) Fight Fire With Fire from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning

God I love this song for so many reasons: the lilting acoustic introduction, like a sunshiny day with not one cloud in the sky before 184 beats per minute of brute and doom destroys it. The intro is like Bambi Meets Godzilla, Metallica-style:

I dig “Fight Fire With Fire” because it is clear, from that song alone, that Metallica musically took leaps and bounds from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All to the classic Ride the Lightning a year later under Flemming Rasmussen’s producing. It is unimaginable to think of “Fight Fire With Fire” being a part of Kill ‘Em All, which is more raw and juvenile.

“Fight Fire With Fire” is a brutal, resoundingly mighty and grotesquely beautiful song which perfectly captures Metallica’s relentless power and precision; it’s a 4 minute and 45 second blitzkrieg of pounding double-bass notes, serious shredding, and grunting and shrilling. It’s Black Sabbath on high octane. I suspect it will always be a song that few can surpass in its savage, tightly-honed power.

4) Nutshell from Alice in Chains' MTV Unplugged album

“We Die Young” from their debut album, Facelift, could have made my list, but this song can really get to me.

Back when I was a squirt in high school, my favorite Seattle bands were in this order: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. In Life After Lymphoma, it’s now Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!), and Pearl Jam (please don’t kill me, Pearl Jammers!). Musically, I think, without question, Soundgarden was the superior band of the four but I think Alice in Chains was extraordinary because of Layne Staley (Jerry Cantrell’s no slouch either). From the get-go, when they were in their early twenties, Alice in Chains’ music revolved around death and self-destruction. Write it off to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I find Staley to have been an extraordinary vocalist both for the power his voice wielded in its vulnerability and the darkness their songs delved in. There will never be another singer who will sound like him.

Few songs more nakedly show this heart and vulnerability than their acoustic version of “Nutshell.” I listen to Staley sing the opening verse and chorus and I can’t help but sense that he already knew he was done for, that his time was quickly extinguishing and yet, there he sat, boldly singing in a front of a crowd in an intimate setting without cracking. I’m still unsure how a human can do that—how they can sing their pain so plainly and not cry or crumble. But Layne did it here, and on several other songs on this album, notably “Down In a Hole” and “Would?.” (I still get the chills when I watch their recorded performance and he stares back at the camera.)

After listening to “Nutshell,” that live audience must have known they were going to be in for an enthralling, emotional purging. It was an extraordinary performance.

5) The Golden Age from Beck’s Sea Change
Though I rarely ever listen to Sea Change, I couldn’t think of a more perfect song to open the album, a melancholic, acoustic-heavy one that chronicled Beck’s breakup with his then-fiancée, whom he had been with for nine years. After Beck sings the opening line, who isn’t ready to slash their wrists? “The Golden Age” captures that numb, debilitating fog of sadness that envelops us when our hearts are broken—and in a lilting, almost lullaby fashion.

6) De Cara a La Pared from Lhasa de Sela’s La Llorona

Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime singers, Lhasa de Sela is a voice we will never hear from again.

Like “Fight Fire With Fire,” “De Cara a La Pared” is one of those songs you can’t fucking believe exists when you listen to it the first time. It is a haunting, haunting song. Lhasa sounds more like a ghostly, not-of-this-world llorona than a human being in this song with the sheer beauty, grace, and emotional depth of her voice. I rarely listen to songs from her La Llorona or The Living Road albums, but when I do, sometimes I do wonder if she was not of this world. Maybe the breast cancer that took her at age 37 was some sick, humanly way of checking out of Planet Earth after she’d graced our species with her recordings, presence, and performances? When I listen to songs like “De Cara a La Pared,” “El Desierto,” y “Con Todo Palabra” I still question how a human could have such a beautiful, haunting voice.

7) Everything In Its Right Place from Radiohead’s Kid A

I still remember the evening I first listened to this song. I bought the Kid A CD (remember those?) at the Virgin Megastore (remember those?) that used to be on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. After I bought the CD, I popped it into my discman (remember those?), then walked down Market to the Embarcadero Center to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. I remember being swallowed by the opening electric piano notes, the digitized scratching of Yorke’s vocals, thinking holy shit, this is not OK Computer, then hearing him sing “Everythiiiiiing” four times and being floored by his third incantation of that single word. It was just one word, one goddamn word, but with that hypnotic, drowning background that felt like the sonic replica of Stanley Donwood’s cover artwork, my heart dropped. I probably blinked hard as I slithered past all the people walking along the sidewalk, thinking I can’t believe what I’m hearing just as I looked up to the dark, overcast sky above the downtown skyline and thought, my god, this is it, our future, caught and recorded for us all to hear.

And the rest of Kid A—which Thom Yorke explained was partly about "the generation that will inherit the earth when we've wiped everything out"—never relents. Like any great, great album, Kid A is a timeless artifact of our time on this planet. (And that night in the city was a brutally bleak one that I might never forget.)

8) Little Child Runnin’ Wild from Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack

In its own way, this song can slay me, too. Curtis Mayfield’s voice just kills me; his voice was exquisitely beautiful in its falsetto range, clarity, emotional control but most especially in its vulnerability and sense of honesty. (Back when I was in my early twenties, singing Motown and disco songs to myself in my car as I drove around suburbia, I used to wish I could sing like James Brown or Jimmy Ellis from The Trammps. But now, no question, I wish I could sing like my boy, Curtis, if I could come back as a full-fledged soul brother.) Mayfield’s lyrics, singing, and his funky-soulful backing tapestry is an immaculate intro to this classic album that seemed to capture and define the rhythm, sadness, despair, frustrations, and beauty of the inner city landscape in the 1970s.

And the last minute of the song starting at the 4:30 mark: wow. It’s overpowering with the beautiful interweaving of the saxophone solo with the outro strings. Textbook example of how an opening song sets the emotional tone for the rest of the album.

9) Welcome to the Jungle from Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction
What an iconic song, man: the opening guitar notes, Axl Rose’s seemingly neverending howl, and then the nasty-crunchy opening riff. With “Welcome to the Jungle” as the opening act, Guns N’ Roses sets the tone for the debauched glamour that few, if any other albums, more perfectly captured than Appetite for Destruction. After this album—which could simply not be the same without its opening song—Guns N’ Roses was, without a doubt, atop the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1986. Rose’s snarl, his don’t-give-a-fuckness, along with Slash’s sheer bad-assery, was the face of mainstream rock.

And who can forget the song’s breakdown starting at the 3:21 mark?: the driving bassline, the percussion, the crescendo of distorted guitar notes ala the song’s beginning building up to Axl Rose’s singing the classic, classic “Ya know where ya are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiieaaaaah!” (According to legend, a crazed stranger said this to Axl Rose on a schoolyard in Queens years before Guns N’ Roses existed.)

Ever since I discovered this album in its entirety back when I was 28, I have quietly advocated that “Welcome to the Jungle” be played at pediatric wards across the United States for every newborn infant to hear. Few songs could be more bitingly forthright about what awaits.

10) Mouth for War from Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power

Que puedo decir, I love me some metal. It was oh-so-tempting to put “Brown Sugar” or “War Pigs” or “Purple Haze” here (great pick, Goldman!), but this song does a better job of capturing what my spirit is drawn toward lately. This song’s so bad I don’t even give a fuck if Phil Anselmo is a racist bigot motherfucker from Texas; this album pretty much rules. “Mouth for War” is delicious slaughter. Vulgar Display of Power captured Dimebag Darrell (RIP, brotha) at his absolute peak, synthesizing his distinctive groove metal leanings with some absolutely decimating thrash riffs. For that, you need look no further than the 3:06 mark of this opening song, which can be summed up with two words: HOLY FUCK.

No scientific study has been conducted to prove this, but I shit you not, every single time that part of the song blares through my iPod headphones, my pedaling pace or Elliptical speed at the gym significantly spikes. In my head, I always want to roar with my entire being but since I’m signed up to the Social Contract, I keep it inside (though I often thrash my head to get some of my energy out).

Tough cuts:
-“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
-“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Charles Mingus (a bedazzling kaleidoscope of sound)
-“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
-“Bonded by Blood” by Exodus
-"Mysterions" by Portishead
-“Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin
-“The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica from their S & M album

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco: Kilowatt

So not everything that happened in San Francisco was sad or heartbreaking. Like when the Giants rolled through the postseason in 2010.

It was a Saturday night. October 23, 2010. The Giants were scheduled to square off against the Phillies for Game 6 in Philadelphia up 3-2 in the series. Like so many other Mission District residents, I got swept up in the series as every other night in October the bars became packed with fans watching the Giants' postseason games. That evening, I somehow forgot about Game 6 once I went over to my friend David’s house to have a dinner with him and his partner, Jimmy. A few months before, Davidcito’s cancer had returned. The outlook wasn’t bright. Having dinner with a friend who was withering away was far more important than a measly baseball game, especially since I didn’t consider myself a Giants fan.

After I ate with David and Jimmy, I walked home down Guerrero Street listening to my iPod. As I approached Valencia Street—the heart of Hipster-Gentrified-landia—I heard a collective roar from Elixir, the old bar on the corner of 16th and Guerrero. Oh shit, the game!. And just like that, the tranquil spirit forged from the dinner with my dying friend was jolted out of me from all the cheering Giants fans in the vicinity. I scurried down 16th to Kilowatt, a dive-ier joint than Elixir. Once I entered the crowded bar, I saw Brian Wilson walk to the plate against Brad Lidge, the Giants leading by one. A big wide grin came over me. I was beyond elated to have happened upon this most exquisite moment of the game—the Giants up one run on the road with three outs separating them from a World Series birth. Once Wilson chopped a ball down to first base, I clapped along with many of the fans at Kilowatt, shouting and murmuring phrases like “Three outs away!”

Amidst a crowd peppered in black and orange, I cheered with abandon as Wilson began the 9th by inducing a groundout to Freddy Sanchez. Like everyone at the bar, I became infused with a palpable sense of panic and tension as Wilson walked Jimmy Rollins to the delight of the Phillies fans on the TV. We cheered, ready to go bonkers (or rage) as Polanco grounded to third for a fielder’s choice, the Giants and Wilson’s Mighty Beard one out from the World Series. Then Utley walked on a 4-1 count, a classic embodiment of the Giants torturous-winning ways. Phillies slugger Ryan Howard came up to the plate with two men on, tying run on second.

All eyes were glued to the televisions behind the bar. (In moments like those, TVs might as well be phosphorescent oracles.) First pitch a wild swing and a miss on a 96-mph pitch outside. Then a ball up high followed by a ball inside to make it 2-1. Wilson countered with an 89 mph slider that painted the outside part of the strike zone. Howard and the Phillies were down to their last strike, Philly fans groaning as San Francisco fans inside Kilowatt roared. Howard stepped out of the batting box as Fox cut to shot after shot of Phillies fans covering their mouths or eyes. Three pitches later, the crazy-tense standoff between Wilson and Howard concluded with Howard watching a cut fastball called for strike three.

Bedlam ensued as Posey and the rest of the Giants trotted over to Wilson. A deafening roar erupted from all of us gathered inside the bar, inside bars and homes in the 415. Everyone was hooting and hollering, slapping hands with anyone around. It's like we all won the lottery. When Aubrey Hoff was interviewed after the game and Jose Uribe's 8th inning deciding home run was mentioned, the crowd inside Kilowatt erupted with a chant of OOOOOOOOOO, RIIIBE!!! It was beautiful.

The city was wild alive that night. Until the early morning hours, the Mission rang with a cacophony of celebratory car honks and random hoots that could only be Giants related. In the six and a half years I lived in San Pancho, I had never witnessed such a happening.

About a week later, the streets and forty-seven hills of San Francisco roared again as the Giants captured the World Series 4-1 against the Tuck Fexas Rangers. (A big fuck you, George W!) I attended the Giants victory parade in downtown, a delirious 45 minutes of Panda-monium and screaming and hooting and uninhibited collective elation. To this day, it’s still one of my fondest memories from living in San Francisco. One of my most astounding memories ever.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

My 2013 NFL season preview

With Labor Day weekend in full swing, the smell of burger patties, hot dogs, and other assorted dead animal parts frying on grills throughout America, the sound of pigskins spiraling through the air to commence the beginning of the 2013 NFL season is but a few days away. And I can feel whole again!, watching this “savage ballet,” as Lil’ Lisa Simpson called it.

And it’s also that time of the year when schmucks like myself assume armchair-quarterback roles on couches, bars, and gyms throughout this country while making predictions about how the season will shape out. My fellow blogsmith, Justin Goldman—who bequeathed me with his vintage Philadelphia Eagles Randall Cunningham jersey before migrating to La Grande Manzana—is no different. You can check out his NFL preview, including playoff predictions, here.

Onward with my predictions!

NFC East

Washington, 9-7
Like my homie, J-Oro, I think the NFC will be the stronger conference. (I have NFC teams winning 135 of 256 regular season games. But then again, the Baltimore Ravens, a team few people thought would win it all when they struggled to get past the Colts in last year’s Wild Card round, won the Super Bowl.) I think any of these four teams could take the division; it’s practically a coin flip (though you know a Jerry Jones/Jason Garrett/Tony Romo-led team will fuck it up somehow), so I’m hardly confident of this pick. I think RGIII will be back enough. Their running game will be good and their defense will be stout enough to win enough games to win this division.

New York Giants, 8-8:
I was big on this team last year but I think their pass rush will continue to be in hibernation compared to their Super Bowl-winning seasons. Above average offense (if Cruz can stay on the field), lukewarm defense, and I think it might be time for their management to consider moving past Coughlin; his coaching ethic and way of motivating his team just might be getting stale by this point.

Philadelphia, 8-8:
The one true wild card in this division. Their offense might be top 5 or 10, but their defense will probably be pisspoor. BUT, if they have a top 5 offense and a middle of the pack defense, I think they could grab the NFC East. Lot of things have to turn out quite well for that to happen, but after seeing how well their offense has played under Chip Kelly’s system in the preseason I think there’s reason for optimism if you’re an Eagles fan.

Dallas, 7-9:
Will the defense significantly improve with Monte “Mr. Tampa 2” Kiffin (and spawner of a mediocre-overrated coaching talent!) calling the shots? Will this be Jason Garrett’s last season coaching the Boys from Big D? I think it will be. This team lacks the inner resolve and tenacity to grind out victories on a consistent basis, which stems from top to the bottom.

NFC South

Atlanta, 11-5
I think their offensive firepower will be enough to keep them atop this division only because the Saints defense is worse. Osi Umenyiora won’t be able to make up for John Abraham’s departure, and their defense still lacks playmakers. With no fault to Matty Ice, I smell a loss in their first playoff game this year.

New Orleans: 10-6 (Wild Card)
With Sean Payton’s return, I think the Saints will compete with the Dirty Birds for the division title. Drew Brees’ numbers should be better than last year, and I think their defense will play with more tenacity under Payton’s leadership and Rob Ryan calling the shots versus the putz who was their Defensive Coordinator last year.

Tampa Bay: 8-8
Unlike my homeboy J-Oro, I am not on the Buccaneer bandwagon; yes, they have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, but they had a horrendous pass defense. Trading for Darrelle Revis should help to solve some of that, but that’s assuming he will have not lost much of a step since tearing his 28-year-old ACL. If Josh Freeman bounces back and has a strong season and the pass defense can significantly improve, this team could surprise and make the playoffs.

Carolina: 5-11
Unless that defense significantly improves and if Cam Newton has another so-so season, I think Ron Rivera is toast in Carolina. I just don’t think they have enough weapons in the passing game to bring the best out in Newton (and why don’t they design some run-option plays for Newton? He could be a beast in such an offense.)

NFC North

Green Bay, 12-4 (First Round bye)
I think the Packer offense will continue to roll without Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Despite coming in at #6 in the NFL’s Top 100 players of 2013, Aaron Rodgers is the machine at QB that makes their receiving corps look so good. If you ask me, he’s the best quarterback in the game right now (though Colin Kaepernick might unseat him by the end of this year). Unless Dom Capers’ schemes and motivational skills have burnt out in his stint in Cheesehead Land, I think the defense should be improved over last year; avoiding injuries and being healthy at the right time of the year will be key. I was wrong last year, picking Green Bay to roll through the playoffs and beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl (I believe I’m still ballsy in picking them, come playoff time, since I correctly picked them to win it all as a #6 seed when the 2011 playoffs began), but I think they should be a legit contender this year.

Detroit, 9-7
They should have a top 10 offense. Megatron will continue his dominion, and I think their defensive unit will bounce back enough from a disappointing 2012 campaign but fall short of a wild card birth.

Chicago, 6-10
I don’t believe in Jay Cutler; like Justin said in his upcoming NFL season preview, Cutler is the modern-day Jeff George—a guy with a laser arm, strong physical ability, but completely lacking when it comes to leadership. Having grown up in the Bay Area and seen Marc Trestman’s prolific 49er offenses (but he also had Steve Young in his prime), I think it will be interesting to see how he might improve Cutler’s abilities. The offense should be a bit better, but I’m not sure if he’s the answer for them at coach. I can see this team imploding, especially on defense, without strong leadership from Lovie Smith and Hall of Fame-bound middle linebacker, Brian Urlacher.

Minnesota, 6-10
With the exception of Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen and his mullet, I can see them being a boring, average team on both sides of the ball. Poor Peterson might be the NFL equivalent of Tracy McGrady.

NFC West

San Francisco 12-4 (First Round bye)
The best division in football! It’s gonna be a season-long brawl between the Niners and Seahawks for the title with the Rams stepping in, from time to time, to make it a donnybrock. Provided their Smiths—especially Justin—stay healthy, their defense should be lights out despite the departure of Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver’s season-ending injury. (This is assuming Patrick Willis will come back fine from his broken hand.) The big questions lie on offense: who will step up for Michael Crabtree’s absence? Will he be able to come back strong by the end of the season? Will defenses have caught up to their read-option and Pistol offense formations? How much improvement will the Turlock Tornado show? In the NFC—barring any disastrous injuries—I think it will be between the Niners, Packers, and Seahawks—and the Niners play both teams within the first two weeks of the season. I’m a Raiders fan but I am foaming at the mouth, Beast-Mode style, to see those two games.

Seattle, 11-5 (Wild Card)
The Niners and Seahawks are the two best teams in the NFL. Not sure which one is better; if healthy, I think the Niners offense has the edge (I think I’d take Greg Roman over just about any OC in the league), but Seattle made some defensive upgrades in the offseasaon—and Vic Fangio seemed like a boring, limited coordinator when Justin Smith went down late last year so Dan Quinn might have an edge at DC though we have no case history from last year to inspect. I’m eager to see how these moves panned out; we will definitely find out by the end of the season. And I think one of these two teams will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

St. Louis, 9-7
This is a make-or-break year for Sam Bradford. Except the loss of Steven Jackson, Bradford should have the best offensive weapons he’s ever had. As for their defense, Jeff Fisher has already made his mark on this team. They’re a disciplined, tenacious bunch; they will be tough to beat at home. I think they will be the toughest team to finish third in their division. An injury to Kaepernick or Russell Wilson opens this division up to the Rams.

Arizona, 5-11
Can’t say I’m well versed on the Cards, but I have a feeling their defense will sorely miss Ray Horton. The offense should be improved with some fresh blood (Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer; not sold on Mendenhall being a difference maker, though) but I think their defense is going to tank.

AFC East

New England, 11-5
The slow decline continues as Tom Brady gets older and older and that defense continues to stink. But still, it’s the AFC East, and the Patriots win this division with Tom Brady and Belichick running the show.

Miami, 7-9
I wouldn’t be surprised if they do better, even finish 9-7 for wild card contention. Tannehill needs to improve; Mike Wallace needs to be worth the money they’re paying him, and their defense needs to be solid for that to happen.

Buffalo, 6-10
I think Doug Marrone can be a good hire for the Bills, but their starting quarterback is still Kevin Kolb. I think the key will be their defense. They certainly have talent on that side of the ball, but can they play like a dynamic, cohesive unit?

New York Jets, 3-13
Geno Smith just got named their starting quarterback. I could almost feel sorry for Jets fans but I’ve been a Raiders fan ever since they moved back to Oakland so they can go fuck themselves. Rex Ryan’s defense will keep them in games, but that offense is going to be downright awful to watch. Our military prisons could play game tape of their offense as a new form of torture.

AFC South

Houston, 11-5 (First Round bye)
Their defense should be stout with the return of Brian Cushing and JJ Watt, who has become one of my favorite football players. The guy’s an animal! And he appears to be a hard-working, down-to-earth young man with heart. Their offense should be about as good as it was last year, which is the problem. They’re good but not elite; think the ceiling has been reached on their offensive personnel and Kubiak’s schemes.

Indianapolis, 7-9
I think Andrew Luck is legit; the addition of Ahmad Bradshaw and a stronger offensive line should keep them in games, but that defensive is still atrocious. They will come back down to artificial turf this year.

Tennessee, 5-11
A motivated Chris Johnson is about the only stupendous thing the Titans have going. I think Munchak will be canned after this season. And they will draft or chase a free agent QB to supplant Jake Locker.

Jacksonville, 3-13
The Jaguars will compete with the Jets and Raiders for worst team in the league. I think they might take it with Blaine Gabbert starting at quarterback. I can see their owner signing Tebow just to sell tickets because god knows no other team will sign him at QB.

AFC North

Pittsburgh, 10-6
With a healthy offensive line, Big Ben at quarterback, and Mike Tomlin at head coach I have a hard time imagining the Steelers missing the playoffs two years in a row. Polamalu’s health, as always, is the difference in their zone blitzing defensive scheme.

Cincinnati, 9-7 (Wild Card)
They should have a fierce pass rush with Geno Atkins leading the way. Their defense should be solid but that offense will still be lacking without any elite player to pair with A.J. Green. By the end of this year, their fan base will still be debating if the Red Rifle is the answer at quarterback—and I don’t think Dalton is.

Baltimore, 9-7
With Pitta out for the season and Boldin traded to the Niners, who will Flacco throw to on third downs? And though they’re younger and more athletic than their Ray-Ray led defense of last year, can their new-look defense meld together quickly to win this division? I think it’s possible but I think they’ll struggle early on and finish strong and be one of those teams other AFC playoff teams will be grateful not to meet in the playoffs.

Cleveland, 7-9
Barring significant injuries, I think Cleveland’s defense can be pretty good. The question is can their offense, led by Brandon Wheeden be competent enough to be average enough to squeak out close games?

AFC West

Denver, 12-4 (First Round bye)
Unless Peyton Manning gets injured, I think the Broncos will be the class of the AFC. The Von Miller suspension should hurt them, early on, and Champ Bailey isn’t getting any younger either (but they got Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). But still, they should have no trouble winning this feeble division.

Kansas City, 9-7 (Wild Card)
Though I’m an admirer of Alex Smith, I still think he’s an average quarterback with an above-average football mind. He’ll be a great offensive coordinator or quarterback coach someday but he’ll do enough to manage the KC offense against average to lackluster defenses but he’ll continue to struggle against stout defenses especially if Jamaal Charles doesn’t average around 100 yards rushing per game in Andy Reid’s offense.

San Diego, 7-9
I think the Bolts will flourish with Norv Turner finally fucking gone and a bright, adaptable head coach like Mike McCoy. I think their offense can improve; Gates needs a late career rebirth ala Tony Gonzalez; Le’Ron McClain needs to pave the way for Ryan Mathews, and Philip Rivers needs to revert back to elite form. I think it can happen. Not sure about their defense and special teams, though.

Oakland, 4-12
I’ll cover my pitiful team in more detail in another post. Boo hoo hoo! I will say this: I predict Dennis Allen will go with Matt Flynn as the starter for the season opener against Indianapolis. And once it becomes ever more painfully apparent that our offense lacks playmakers after about six games, Pryor’s number will be called more until he becomes the starter. And then we’ll draft a quarterback with our high pick. Mark it.

Super Bowl Prediction:
Fuck it, Niners over Steelers. What a ridiculous pick! Will Polamolu even stay upright for more than eight games this season? I have a hard time imagining the Patriots or Texans making it to the Super Bowl though Houston could if their defense is lights out and if they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And the Broncos, without an elite defense, will blow it in the playoffs, somehow.

That said, if the last few seasons has taught me anything it’s that two preseason favorites rarely if ever make it to The Big Dance, so some unexpected team needs to make it. At least, this is my faulty logic. I think either San Francisco or Seattle will represent the NFC which means the surprise team needs to come from the AFC (and Niners fans better hope the Ravens don’t make the playoffs this year!)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughts on Work (or Sometimes I Wish I Was Stoopid)

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“What good is freedom if the structure of work makes it so there is almost no time in which to be free, that is, no time to pursue your interests, have friends, enjoy a book or movie, or even a hobby…” – Karla Mantilla (writer)

This week, I started a 9-5, 40 hours (at least) per week job. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a regimented gig; five years, to be exact. Last time I had one, I experienced an existential crisis beneath the fluorescent lights of an office after only two weeks on the job. (True story, no hyperbole.) My way out of that existence was to flee toward graduate school.

Barely past Day One at my new gig in downtown San Francisco, I couldn’t help but get hung up on some numbers. You see, I love numbers. I love statistics. Numbers can be legitimate, irrefutable morsels of truth. So here’s the numbers I couldn’t help but bounce around my tinker while I cycled home to my apartment in Oakland last night after my first day at work:

In our Gregorian calendar system, there are:
• 168 total hours per week,
• If we sleep exactly eight hours per night, that amounts to 56 hours per week, which leaves us with 112 total waking hours,
• Each week, a full-time job such as mine stipulates a minimum of 40 hours of work, which amounts to 36% of our waking life per workweek.

But I woke up just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday to ready myself for work. I didn’t begin to work until 9:30 a.m., and since I took a half-hour break for lunch, I didn’t leave the office until 6 p.m. which is why I didn’t arrive home until 7 p.m. so it’s inaccurate to state that only 40 hours of our waking lives is devoted toward working. For me—and I don’t think I have a bad commute—I devote about 11 hours of my waking life, five out of seven days of the week, toward work. That adds up to 55 total waking hours, which leaves me with five hours per day for 5 out of 7 days every week to have to myself. With the weekend figured in, this means that about 49% of my waking hours per week are divided toward generating money (or what I often prefer to call, “earning bananas” to remind me of our place and where we’ve come from).

Is this what we were born for?

Is this what modern civilized life is supposed to be?

Is this why I allowed cytotoxins to be pumped into my veins? For thirty more years of this way of living?

For years, I have felt that a 40-hour workweek is inhumane. The past five years, either working part-time while attending school, or balancing two flexible jobs that amounted to 30-37.5 hours per week only strengthened these beliefs. And worse—not to sound like some fucking well-traveled individual—but everywhere I’ve gone on this vast planet: places like Mexico, Cambodia, Spain, Uruguay, or the Czech Republic—I have never met a person who disagreed with me when we somehow or another spoke about how dandy it would be if we humans didn’t work 40 or more hours per week. Never. And yet, in general, we all go along with it. Or much worse.

Lately, the overriding concept of a 40-hour workweek infuriates me more and more because the older I’ve gotten, the easier it is for me to comprehend how this simple variable pervades our lives, our culture, and political society. The more we bound our waking lives to work, the less time we have to read, to debate and jest with our friends, to inform ourselves on the vast intricacies of modern life, especially the ways in which we lower and middle-class folks are reamed every single day of our lives by the rich and powerful who are running this game: the people who own our television stations, our newspapers, and our political machinery. Our governments do not want us to be educated. They do not want us to figure this shit out. Instead, they want us to be in perpetual debt of some sort or another—to a mortgage, car payments, or student loans—so we will inevitably have to work a shit job(s) for the majority of our lives—mind you, the physically best years of our life—in order to pay off our debts. They want us to watch the news, find satisfaction and justification for our life choices via materialism. And they want us to read the tabloids and give a shit about reality show stars instead of reflect on the systems that contain us.

Our governments do not want us to be educated?
What kind of fucking bullshit is this, you might be asking. Well tell me this: if we’re told, ever since elementary-school age that we can be anything we want if we put our hearts and minds to it, why is higher education not free or reasonably affordable for all segments of society to attain without agreeing to accrue a significant to disproportionately large amount of debt? Why are there so many socio-economic barriers for children born in our ghettos and poor communities? Why is the federal minimum wage $7.25? And why have Republicans—the one major political party that overtly caters to the wealthy—opposed raising it, without fail, the past four years?


Friday, August 9, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco - Bus stop: Corner of 29th and Mission

What would a mental-emotional geography of my ghosts in San Francisco be without one borne of heartache and regret?

Let’s call the last girlfriend I had while I lived in San Pancho “Paola.” (She asked me to change her name for my memoir so I’ll try to be a good boy and keep it consistent aqui.) She was a bright, mildly nerdy mexicana who was a transplant to the Bay Area. When we were introduced by one of her former colleagues, Paola was also attending graduate school for creative writing. Before we began dating, we met at cafes in Bernal Heights and the Mission where we read books and wrote together. We often asked each other’s opinion on a line, paragraph, or word in the pieces we penned. Back then, I felt at peace sitting beside or across from her, immersed over our books and workshop manuscripts. In short time, once we began dating less than two months before I was diagnosed with lymphoma (the absolute worst time to begin a romantic relationship, let me tell you), I fell in love with this dream of us being a brainy, driven duo of writers—like a Latino version of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. (It also helped that she looked stunning in a red dress and heels when I saw her give a reading at her school.)

While we were together, I often spent the night at Paola’s home. During weekdays, she would awaken in the mornings and prim herself up for a day at the office. Oftentimes we would walk together, hand in hand, to the 24th Street BART station. If she was running late, she would walk a few blocks over to the bus stop by the corner of 29th Street and Mission to catch the 14 or 49 to the BART station.

With bicycle in tow (usually), I would wait with Paolita at this stop until the bus would arrive. In my life, there have been a handful of occasions when I have picked up my mom from the elementary school she worked at, and seeing Paola off on her bus felt like that for me. Giving her a goodbye peck, then cycling off to my home after her bus rode off was always a quiet, lovely way to start my day. Without fail (if I remember correctly).

In the end, Paola and I had a trying and often tormentous relationship that lasted—off but mostly on—for about a year and a half. When I think about her, or on the rare occasions when I browse at a particular picture of her smiling at me while I photographed her (the perils of writing a memoir is the past you have to re-dream), sometimes my lips tighten and I can feel tears forming from my eyes. After all this time since we finally parted and went our ways, I am still filled with sorrow and useless regret because I wish I could have been a better person to her then. This wouldn’t have salvaged our bad relationship, but those regrets are still there and probably always will be for me—like some emotional law akin to the conservation of matter.

After all this time, I still remember one morning we had in her bedroom. I remember laying in Paola’s bed, the morning sun trickling through the blinds behind me. I smiled as I watched her walk about the room in her pink bathrobe, a white towel wrapped in a bun over her wet hair as she dressed for work. When she stood in front of her mirror, dabbing make-up on her face, I rolled out of bed to come up behind her. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her cheeks. She smiled, turned her head to kiss me.

I thought every morning with her could be like that.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Final Round

An excerpt from my memoir:

On my calendar, December the 4th was marked: “Chemo #12 – the last one!”

That day had come.

As usual, I left the house with Metallica’s Of Wolf and Man blaring from my headphones. The morning sun had lifted above the Victorians on tranquil Fair Oaks Street. Birds chirped in the trees. Kids stepped out of their houses with their mothers following behind. While I walked up the hill to the bus stop on 24th Street, my feet didn’t have the determined bounce, the I’m-gonna-fuck-you-up, Hodgkins gusto that they had for the previous infusions. I was tired of that dance. I was going the full twelve rounds. I thought I had fought well. The day before I cycled to and from school, something I never thought my body would have been capable of before I began treatment. I never missed a class during the fall semester. But I was done. Done fighting. Done pushing myself. Done putting on a game face every two weeks, lacing up those imaginary gloves on my way to 4C where I would sit on a chair and rest my arm, clench my hand into a fist—hungry to live, ravenous for rebirth—and stare ahead as though I was toe to toe with Mr. Hodgkins.

Two hours later, I was zonked out from the Benedryl and Ativan. I sat on a reclining chair that faced the doors into the infusion room. An IV was pricked into my right forearm, the inflatable cuff of a blood pressure monitor strapped around my left bicep. Vilma gently nudged my arm. “Juan,” she said. I startled awake and saw her standing beside me.

“You have to sign off on the authorization,” she said with her Filipina accent. She held out a clipboard and pen. “Just sign right there.”

Barely able to keep my eyes half-open, I signed off on the release.

“Thank you,” she said, taking them back. A woozy glimmer of glee surfaced within me. It was the last authorization I would have to sign. No more infusions to schedule. As she scribbled something into my file, I jolted in my chair once I remembered the card I had brought.

“Vilma,” I said, “before I forget, I have a thank you card for you and the nurses.”

Turning her head to the side, she smiled in a you-shouldn’t-have way.

“Oh, thank you Juan,” she said as I handed her the card. She held the white envelope up and said, “Nurses! Nurses, we got a card.”

Vilma walked out of the infusion room toward the nurse’s lounge. I fell back asleep.

An hour and a half later, I woke to find Vilma sitting on the stool beside me. She wore a medical mask that covered her nose and mouth. The inflatable cuff over my left bicep inflated tightly as it automatically did throughout my infusion to ensure my blood pressure was not at a dangerous level. She was attaching one of the chemo push syringes into my IV.

“All right, Juan,” Vilma said. “Your last one.”

I peered down at the syringe, at the clear liquid being pushed into my bloodstream. I managed a grin because I felt I should for The Last One.

My parents were not standing against the wall like they had throughout my other infusions—including Round 11, in which I handed them my digital camera to take pictures of me during my infusion. (I wanted cancer mementos. Photographic documentation of a perilous juncture in my life, a place I did not wish to physically revisit.) They weren’t even in the same area code. At that moment, they were somewhere in Cabo San Lucas of all places. My mom—who didn’t even like to go out to eat because she thought it was too expensive—had found a budget deal for a four-day trip to Sammy-Hagar-Land. Before she bought the tickets in early November, she asked me if it was okay that they left. The deal was only valid during the weekend of my final infusion. I told her, “Of course. You guys should go! I’m going to be okay.” And I was genuinely excited for them. Throughout my life, they had never taken a getaway vacation. (Well at least until the year before when they took a similar package trip to Cancun.) I was pleased my mom was finally allowing herself to use her well-earned pay to indulge herself so she and my dad could see places they had never seen. (Throughout my life, she has worked to send much of her earnings to our grandma and family in Peru.)

The blood pressure monitor deflated as Vilma squeaked her stool closer to my arm.

“You know, I read your card,” she said, raising her head to look at me. “And it made me teary.”


“It’s hard—” she said, before she looked away, then stared down at the syringe. I murmured. I presumed she was referring to her job in response to what I had written.

Here’s what I wrote:

Doreen, Shannon, Vilma, Marva, Consuelo,
Dolores, Raquel, Faina, and anyone else at 4C I’ve
forgotten (forgive me, please)

Where to begin, when words like these will always fall short of what I want to express, namely the gratitude, the deep admiration I have for each of you. I am so grateful for the care, for the support and positivity you’ve given to me and the other patients at 4C. I have always, always known that I can expect this from you; you may shrug it off and think, “That’s my job,” but in this trying time of my life, it has been beyond comforting to know that I could always
count on you.

So this is my teeny-tiny way of saying thank you to each of you. I wish I could give you all a big, big hug. Each of you are sweet and caring in your own ways and I will always wish you much joy. I’m writing a memoir about this strange period in my life and I promise you that after I dedicate it to my parents, you all will be the ones I dedicate it to. I’m devoted to writing this book, getting it published someday so I can give you a copy and more thanks. I don’t think it’s an effect from the chemo (my fix!), but you’re angels to me. Thank you, with all my heart.

Very sincerely,
Juan Alvarado Valdivia

I glanced over at Vilma while she pushed the chemo into me, then turned away. It was always an intensely intimate act to witness—as though man were watching God give him life with a touch from his fingertip. I closed my eyes through The Last One.

Soon after, Connie walked by on her way to attend to one of her patients. She beamed at me, said I was “graduating.” I smiled and bowed my head in the oh-shucks way I had done since I was a boy. Though I felt a quiet woo-hoo inside of me, I didn’t think it was fitting to celebrate my final infusion in front of the other patients: the middle-aged Russian lady; the vigorous-looking Asian man in his mid-forties; the blue-collar guy who was joking with the nurses for his first infusion; or the old Chinese woman with the gray knit hat whom I had seen wheeled into the ward since I began my infusions. I couldn’t celebrate in front of them because I didn’t know how long they had to go with their treatment. Or if they would make it through okay. Though I believed I would survive, I could not be certain at that moment, either, so there wasn’t much to truly celebrate.

Vilma took off the inflatable cuff, the IV needle from my arm, and bandaged it.

“You’re done!” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, as I bent over to slip my shoes back on. I stood and teetered over to the bathroom a few feet ahead of me. Once inside the airplane-sized bathroom, I slid the folding curtain door behind me. I unzipped my fly. I felt a bad cough coming. My stomach felt sour as it always did right after treatment. But I could feel that it wouldn’t be a typical nauseous chemo cough. I bent over the toilet just as I heaved. Some of it splashed on the black slacks I was wearing. It was the one time I vomited right after an infusion. I tried to muffle my post-retch coughs since the other patients or nurses could easily hear through that thin door.

“Are you all right? Did you throw up?” I heard Vilma say.

“I’m okay,” I said, turning the faucet on to splash my face and gargle. Fuck. The new guy must have heard. Quite a welcome to ChemoLand. After I cleaned myself up as swiftly as I could, I looked in the mirror. My face was unhealthily pale. Bags under my eyes. I shook my head and made a faint grin, grateful this nasty-ass shit was over when it was beginning to take a toll.

Once I stepped out, I grabbed my shoulder bag. There were no nurses in sight. I opened the door into the infusion room and closed it behind me. (That was the one time the doors into the infusion room were shut.) In the hallway, I found myself hesitant to leave without saying goodbye to someone. Then Vilma stepped out from the nurse’s lounge at the end of the hall.

“Big hug?” she said.

I walked over to her. During my eleventh infusion—which she also administered—I had learned that Vilma had worked at San Francisco General for twenty years. I embraced her tightly, rested my chin on her shoulder. “Thank you,” I said, then left before I got teary.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tips for BART Union Workers Who Might Strike Again

Since I was raised in a working-class family and am cognizant of all the financial gains the top 1% in this country have made over the past 30 years at the expense of our poor and middle classes, I am naturally prejudiced toward favoring workers in a labor dispute. In a capitalistic system like ours, where there tends to be a lack of regulations to prevent the greedy rich from getting richer, labor unions are essential toward countering the power that management tends to have—and often abuses. Like my ex-girlfriend who works at the San Francisco Business Times wrote in a recent article, I have much respect for labor unions and their contributions to workers like myself. With another looming BART strike around the calendar corner, I figured now would be a good time to write up this post.

Before I provide my tips to BART union workers who might strike come Monday, let me share with you an overview of my experience as a BART rider. Ever since I graduated high school in 1997 (that was another century!), I have ridden BART—with the exception of a few years—on a near weekly basis; 2002-2004 was the only extended period of time in which I did not use BART on a daily or weekly basis to get to school, work, or to visit my family. Since September 2008 I have utilized BART to attend graduate school in Moraga, work in West Oakland and downtown San Francisco and to visit my parents. I ride BART so often that my life feels peculiar when a period of time—say, a week— passes without riding BART. The experience of being a rider has become as automatic as tying my shoes.

I mention all this to convey the breadth of my experience as a BART rider. There are only four BART stations I am not familiar with: El Cerrito Plaza, South San Francisco, North Concord and Pittsburg/Bay Point. So when I tell you that I know what I’m talking about when I speak about my experience as a BART rider, I have a substantial amount of experience to substantiate my opinions on this labor dispute.

Back in early July when BART’s two unions went on strike, I read most of the local newspaper articles covering the strike; I was mildly addicted to it, to be honest. I also caught my share of television news coverage of the strike with a particular interest in hearing from the striking workers. Since then, I have been keeping abreast of the continuing labor dispute since my girlfriend commutes into San Francisco. From these observations, I’ve come up with a couple of tips for BART union workers who might go on strike again if they have any hope of garnering sympathy from the general public:

1) Consider training your conductors and station agents on this term employers call “customer service.”

When BART is running, your train conductors and agents at the 44 stations are the public face of the SEIU Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Unions. Over the years I have run into my share of station agents who seem to almost pride themselves on being malcontent dickbags on the few occasions I have needed their assistance with a ticket/Clipper issue or when a machine was out of bus transfers. I have also ridden my share of trains where conductors take an unnecessarily harsh and booming tone with riders on the platform or in the train. This is unfortunate because many conductors and a few station agents (I’m thinking of the ones at the MacArthur, 19th Street/Oakland, and Fremont stations) have displayed patience and a helpful attitude to BART patrons who can be difficult to deal with. (I’m thinking of the drunkards who board the trains from the Mission and downtown San Francisco stations on weekend nights.) But they seem like the exceptions from my experience and from what I hear from most of my friends who ride BART on a daily to semi-regular basis.

The 2013 BART strike—like never before—brought to the public’s attention the paltry qualifications train conductors and BART station agents need in order to be hired. Every BART rider—400,000 of us on a workweek basis—probably know at least 1-2 people who work some of sort of customer service job in which it is imperative for them to interface in a positive manner with the general public if they wish to keep their jobs which pay far, far less than BART union workers. With an average BART worker salary of $79,800 with an average benefits package worth $50,800 in 2013 according to, why don’t you try telling your train conductors and station agents to be more helpful, tactful, and maybe even pleasant with the general public? You just might garner a wee bit more sympathy from the public the next time you decide to go on a strike that will impair commutes for many commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

2) If you go on strike, make sure you do a better job of getting union workers who are capable of being on point about the union’s contract disputes to participate in television news interviews.

Back in July, my girlfriend and I watched the local evening news on a daily basis when the BART unions decided to go on strike. (It’s worth mentioning that we rarely ever watch the news.) I saw one or two quick interviews with striking union workers in which they were asked what the key issues were in negotiations with BART management. After the second or third day of the strike, I noticed that employees were stressing “safety issues” for these television interviews. During an interview with Channel 2’s Julie Haener—who I would not consider a muckraking reporter—a BART union worker was given two opportunities to further explain what the key issues were for the unions. And twice this employee failed to elucidate exactly what these safety issues. I had to search online to see what these safety issues were.

I do feel the news media slanted their headlines and coverage in favor of BART management; this Alternet article makes some key points to illustrate this. However, if these safety concerns are a key issue separating both bargaining sides, you have to have union workers who are a smidge more eloquent and on point in explaining an issue like this that could help to garner more public sympathy.

3) If you’re going to claim employee safety as a key issue that BART management is unwilling to work on, then provide statistics and anecdotes to illustrate your need for additional safety.

Clearly, this suggestion is in conjunction with my previous one. Again, it is a call for specifics, not vague generalities. Judging from what I read in the Alternet article I mentioned before, I am very willing to sympathize with BART unions on this issue, so you need to do a better job of illustrating it.

4) Don’t make stupid picketing signs.

Below are pictures of a few signs that your union workers made for the early July strike:

“Safety First”? And “Workers and Riders Deserve Better”? Fucking really? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! You expect BART riders and Bay Area commuters affected by the transit strike to believe these sentiments? It’s insulting to our intelligence and knowledge about the labor negotiations to expect the public into being fooled into believing that these are truly the key issues behind your strike.

If the differences in negotiations with BART management is truly about “Safety First,” well whose safety are you talking about? For BART union employees only, or also for the public? That one is not nearly as bad as the “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” picket sign. Just how exactly is your transit strike supposed to be about riders deserving better? In the newspapers and in television interviews with BART union employees all I kept hearing and reading was how union workers wanted a 23% salary raise over the next four years; there was no mention of how this was going to improve the riding experience for BART’s 400,000 weekly riders.

Until these points are honestly addressed by BART unions, please don’t insult our intelligence by having ridiculous, misleading picket signs like these. Going on strike for a generous, generous raise over the next four years on top of
the generous salaries your union workers enjoy and then holding up picket signs that read “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” is about as hilarious as Orwell’s jingoes in 1984 such as “War is Peace” or “Freedom is Slavery.” It is on that same level. Do not deceive yourself about that. Please get your heads out of your asses when you proclaim such sentiments and expect the general public to sympathize with your cause.

Hope these suggestions were helpful. Questions and comments, as always, are welcome.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hey, hey, mama, here's my Top 10 Led Zeppelin songs

When Red Hot Chili Peppers’ virtuoso bassist Flea inducted Metallica into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, he said: “There are divine forces at work that make magic things happen, and in the rare instances—when that magic happens in a band—it’s not something that you can add up with regular math. It’s a cosmic chemistry and it is inexplicable.” Though I’m an atheist, I totally agree with him. Each generation has a moment when time and the elements align for a group of talented individuals to cross paths to pollinate and give communal birth to music offerings that will last as long as humankind will. Led Zeppelin is one of those cosmic happenings.

My homeboy, Justin Goldman, happens to be a big Zeppelin fan, too. (And we both revere Jimi.) Since we had so much fun coming up with a list of our ten favorite episodes from The Simpsons, we figured we’d keep the good times rollin’ by compiling a list of our ten favorite Zeppelin tunes. You can check out Justin's list here. And here’s mine:

1) Kashmir

Picking my ten favorite Zeppelin recordings is difficult enough, but it would be impossible to pick one favorite Zeppelin song. That said, if I had ten minutes of breath left and if I could listen to one last Zeppelin song, I’m fairly sure “Kashmir” would be my pick. This song with its simple D major melody—though Jimmy Page's DADGAD tuning is hardly elementary—is simply transcendent. Page’s fascination with Eastern and Middle Eastern melodies is evident on this track. As Page said in an interview, John Bonham’s drumming is the key to the song; his bass drum beats are simple but thundering; the notes he doesn't hit is what allows the song to work. Similarly, John Paul Jones’ triad bass notes are just enough to give the song a pulsating drive yet restrained enough to allow Robert Plant’s vocals and the Egyptian/Moroccan orchestra string and horn sections enough space to dance and float above the rhythm. The result—especially when Plant wails at the 4:14 mark—is godly. The song is immaculate. That’s why I would listen to “Kashmir” over any other Zeppelin tune—and over just about any other song ever recorded—if I were on the brink of kicking The Big Can. Why bother with the abstracts of a make-pretend heaven when you can just close your eyes and listen to this song and be there?

2) The Rain Song

This is the springtime of my loving/the second season I am to know

Inevitably, a list like this gets personal; this is where mine takes that turn.

Over three years ago, during my Life Before Lymphoma, Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy—though the disc sat in my spinning CD tower—barely made a blip on my musical rotation. “Dancing Days” and “The Ocean” were the only songs on that album that I was drawn to at that time.

Words alone could never explain what happened within me during Life After Lymphoma. An alchemic change (of sorts) took place; the ABVD cocktail of chemotherapy that was injected into my veins produced its share of curious side effects but feeling “The Rain Song” on an emotional level I did not before Life With Lymphoma could not have been an anticipated effect. With certainty, I can say two things happened to me after I regained my good health in the spring of 2010: a part of me softened (probably an affect of growing older, too), and I have a greater appreciation—every once in a while (because I’m dumb and get wrapped up in our text-message present like everyone else)—for the life beating within me.

“The Rain Song” starts as a lilting, tranquil acoustic song. Once Jones’ mellotron fully enters at the 1:38 mark, the song—at least to me, coupled with sliding notes from Page’s Danelectro—literally sounds like a symphony orchestrated by a quiet torrent of raindrops outside one’s window. It is a song I can close my eyes to and feel myself floating peacefully through the sky like a singsong leaf descending in the wind. Sometimes I listen to this song and wish my death will be like this.

It is a moody ballad that slowly builds to an emotional peak before the end of the song. And there is something about the song’s peak; it feels triumphant with Bonzo’s drums and Plant’s invigorated vocals. It feels like a cleansing—like Plant and the band have attained some sort of long-sought freedom. And that’s what making it through that trying time in my life and being alive feels like for me. Like one of the lyrics in the song, this part of my life—when I remember that I am healthy and alive—is “the summer of my smiles.”

And the ending, with Page’s guitar playing, is gorgeous. And perfect.

3) When the Levee Breaks
Like “The Rain Song,” I love this song because it is fucking epic. Bonham’s drums—especially the bass—sound mighty like few other rock recordings I can think of. (And thanks to my homie, Justin, for discussing this track and its recording in his blog where I learned how Page recorded Bonzo’s drums for this song.) Zeppelin’s mighty, bluesy power is on full display in this song: Plant’s otherworldly vocals, his wailing blues harp, Page’s understated but powerful guitar playing, Jones’ relentless droning bass line to accompany Bonham’s thundering drums and clanging cymbals.
This song feels timeless and sprawling in a way that few other songs ever have for me.

Whenever this song has played from my iPod or the CD player from my old car, I have never grown tired of telling whoever I’m riding with (usually mi amorcita, Maria): “Best part of the song’s comin’ right—” then lifting my hand and one finger up in the air before pointing at the music player at the 5:27 mark. Try it!

4) Since I’ve Been Loving You

A lot of what I wrote about “When the Levee Breaks” also applies to this blues number. Led Zeppelin’s potent, bluesy power is cranked to 11 in this song off their third album. But to that let me add this: if I ever had to convince a room full of Delta blues-playing black musicians that white boys like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page can sing and play the blues, without a doubt this is the song I’m playing to make my case. For his blues playing, this is a signature track for Jimmy Page. Throughout the seven minutes and twenty-four seconds of this epic song Page never fucking fails to hit the right note to pull at the heart. And this is a signature track for Robert Plant, too. Let me give you this scenario to more fully explain: if an alien ever crash-landed to Planet Earth and asked, “So who is this Robert Plant fella?” I could play one track—this one—and let his wailing, shattering vocals in this song answer that question.

And that outro peak that “Since I’ve Been Loving You” builds to, starting at the 5:33 mark, dear mother of god, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve listened to it throughout my life and felt this surge of energy ripple throughout my body to make the hairs on my arms stand in ecstasy. As long as I have a pulse I don’t think that feeling will ever go away when I really listen to that part. I have motored down the highway with my jaw agape and eyes watering because there is a part of me that cannot believe what I am listening to during that outro; there is a part of me that literally cannot comprehend how a human being can sing like that; how a collective group of four musicians—four measly human beings—can conjure that music, that power, those emotions. I still cry from awe just listening to it. I could re-do this list every year and this song will always be in my top 10 Zeppelin songs of all-time.

5) Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
If “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a signature song for Jimmy Page’s blues playing, “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is a song that perfectly displays his mastery of the acoustic geetar. Page carries the first 35 seconds by himself—and the way he plays it, he could probably carry the entire first minute if he wanted.

So how fucking rad was Led Zeppelin?: they could make people rock out to an acoustic song. The handclaps are a nifty touch that gives “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” a light, chipper touch. And the song has one of my favorite Plant lyrics—two lines of lyrics I used to enjoy asking myself when one of my past relationships inevitably teetered:

Can a love be so strong when so many loves go wrong
Will our love go on and on and on and on and on and on?

This song is a hoot; it carries none of the emotional torment I tend to favor in my music (and books—and movies. And well everything.) I’d probably go cuckoo-bonkers if I ever played it on a bar jukebox.

6) No Quarter
Like “The Rain Song” from the Houses of the Holy album, this song has grown on me in the past few years. This is where I’ll confess and tell you I’ve never really listened to Zeppelin’s last three albums; I do intend to change that. Though I deeply admire the musical range they covered from Led Zeppelin I to Coda, I’ve never gotten into their later, more progressive material. But “No Quarter” is a song I love for its progressive vibe. I love the peach-fuzz distortion of Page’s guitar; Plant’s ghostly-sounding vocals (from a frail-sounding tone to his extended, distorted wails); the unusual guitar effects captured in recording; Bonzo’s solid drumming as the song’s anchor; and Jones’ keyboard playing.

I love the breath and jazzy-patience the band allowed in this song. It gives this track an improvised vibe. From beginning to final note “No Quarter” has a strange vigor to it. It’s an unusual song that became a staple of their live performances including an excellent rendition for their The Song Remains the Same live album.

Like many of my favorite songs, “No Quarter” makes you feel like you’re on a pleasant high. It’s a musical journey that takes the listener somewhere. When I picture the perfect setting to play this song, I think of the time I cycled alone in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It seems like the perfect tune to listen to for a long, long ride into a mystic unknown.

7) In the Light
My second favorite song on Physical Graffiti. Like “Kashmir,” this is an epic—and one the band members are particularly fond of though they never played it live.

This is one of those rare exquisite musical compositions I could play for someone and with complete seriousness say, “The very best of mankind is in this song.” Jones’ clavinet notes, Plant’s lyrics, his searching vocals, Page’s complementary guitar playing and Bonham’s emotive drumming synthesize together to create this godly tapestry of a song.

And since this list—like any—is completely subjective, it would have been difficult to impossible to leave this song off mine. When I began my chemotherapy treatments in the summer of 2009, I listened to “In the Light” while I cycled around San Francisco on a few sun-filled days. One time, while I was cycling up Golden Gate Avenue toward USF I remember closing my eyes and feeling the sunlight fall on my arms while Plant singed Light, light, light/in the light. I imagined myself grasping that sunlight, imagined it to be like water seeping to my roots. I imagined myself becoming one with the sun’s light (which we are an extension of)—its warmth, its energy healing and nourishing me as I pedaled on. And I really believe it did. So understandably, this song and me are close.

8) The Rover
Like “In the Light,” I feel like this Zep song has a touch of the divine. I hear it in Page’s simple riff for the song’s chorus; the notes sound as though they are twinkling on beams of light. (I swear I have been sober while I have written the entirety of this blog post.) Being a former bassist, I love John Paul Jone’s playing on this song: the effective yet simple driving bass notes he thumps along with Bonham’s drums during the verses; the ascending scales he plays to busy up the chorus. Like he has done throughout his career, Jones always provides a bass line that the song needs, not one that shows off his chops. After all these years, he is still the bassist/musician I would aspire to be.

A final note on why I love this song: Plant’s lyrics are decidedly hippie: “If we can just join hands” and “Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry and I would dearly like to know/I've all this wonder of earthly plunder will it leave us anything to show.” I suspect the zombie hippie within me digs his lyrics? No se.

9) Immigrant Song (BBC Version)
“Immigrant Song” has always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs. The simple octave-driven riff. Plant’s Tarzan-like wails. The relentless thumping rhythm section. Altogether, it gives the song an exotic, frenetic quality to it. Zeppelin’s live BBC performance of the song only amplifies the wildness of this song. Driven by Page’s guitar playing, the band literally feels like a force of nature when they begin playing this song.

10) Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
Since I noted earlier that I gravitate towards emotionally tormentous artistic material, it should be no surprise that this song squeaked into my top 10 list. This 1969 rendition of Joan Baez’s cover of the song showcases Led Zeppelin’s raw power. Whether driving a car or riding a bike, I’ve headbanged beaucoup times to this song.

It’s hard to believe, but Robert Plant was only 21 years old during this recording; Page was 25 (at most). Jones and Bonham were kids, too. At 21 I had barely lost my cheap virginity yet Plant was singing with youthful sonic vigor coupled with a sense of maturity that belied his young age. I couldn’t fathom any young band in our generation pulling this song off like Zeppelin did. Not even fucking close.

That’s what made Led Zeppelin such an extraordinary band. They’re one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime pairings that manage to advance us as a species. Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham literally evolved our musical possibilities.

And really, if you were being swept off to sea, what other band could be worthy of being one’s last words like Otto in The Simpsons “Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood” episode?

Tough cuts:
· Bring It On Home
· Dazed and Confused
· Whole Lotta Love
· Heartbreaker
· Trampled Under Foot (live at Earl’s Court, 1975)

Monday, July 22, 2013

My Top 10 Simpsons Episodes Ever

Coming up with a top-ten list of The Simpsons episodes ever is, by far, the toughest and most agonizing list I have ever drawn up. At first, coming up with a list to accompany (and compete!) with my homeboy, J-Oro’s list seemed like a terrific, exciting endeavor. Ultimately, it still was, but by the end—after watching and carefully considering at least fourteen episodes for my final four spots—it wasn’t so fun. Coming up with a top 15 list would have been dandy, like a stroll through a verdant park with a pretty girl, but picking only ten best episodes from the entire Simpsons repertoire seemed like an unfair exercise. (And really, I only looked at Seasons 2 – 8.)

So before I get started with my list, let me be explicit about a couple of rules that Justin and I followed:

1) Treehouse of Horror episodes did not qualify (though, for my money, my favorite Halloween episodes are III and IV),
2) Simpsons clip episodes such as “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” and “Homer’s Triple Bypass” were not considered, and
3) Though I think it’s a hilarious episode, I did not consider The Simpsons “Behind the Laughter” because it is not a typical Simpsons episode.

And since I fancy myself a proponent of transparency (unlike certain current presidents who promise such overtures before being elected to office), let me share with you the simple methodology I used to attempt to help me complete my list. By the end, when I was struggling to pick my final four episodes for the top-ten cut, I graded the episodes I watched on a school-grade system of A+ to F. After scoring each episode segment between commercial breaks with a letter grade, I came up with a cumulative grade. The best ones made the cut.

Now that I have that out of the way, let’s get on to the fun ladies and gents! I offer, with humbleness and confidence, my top 10 Simpsons episodes of all-time:

1) Last Exit to Springfield – Season 4

On more than one occasion, I have told my fellow Simpsons lovers, Maria and Justin, that I could write a thesis about why I believe this is the greatest Simpsons episode ever. And I seriously could. There are so many classic gags from this episode that I can name off the top of my head: The Big Book of British Smiles; Lisa’s dentist (who, arguably, is one of the greatest Simpsons bit characters to ever appear on just one episode); Homer’s interior monologue of “Dental plan! Lisa needs braces.”; Homer’s explanations for the scars on his skull; Burns and Smithers attempting to run the nuclear power plant by themselves; Homer’s fantasy of being a corrupt union boss that is a parody of The Godfather II

I could go on and on—and it’s only one episode!

2) Cape Feare – Season 5
What would a top-10 list be without an episode starring Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob? And this episode, in my humble opinion, is by far his best Simpsons episode (with the “Black Widower” episode as his second best Sideshow performance) and my second favorite Simpsons episode of all-time. Like “Last Exit to Springfield” and every other astounding and immortal Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare” has at least one—or probably a few—gags that I would argue are Simpsons lore; “Bart the Daredevil” has Homer soaring over Springfield Gorge (and the Truckasaurus bit!); “Rosebud” has Smithers daydreaming of a naked Mr. Burns popping out of a cake to sing “Happy birthday” to him ala Marilyn Monroe; and “Marge vs. the Monorail” has quite possibly the greatest Simpsons episode intro with Homer’s exit of the power plant ala The Flintstones.

Cape Feare has so many such moments: all the blood-strewn threatening letters Bart gets while the ominous (now funny) Cape Fear theme plays; The Simpson family’s run-in with Sideshow Bob in the movie theatre; Homer’s inability to respond to "Mr. Thompson”; Sideshow Bob repeatedly stepping on rakes in Terror Lake; and, of course, Sideshow Bob singing the score of the H.M.S. Pinafore to Bart. And then there’s so many other laughs: Homer’s daydream of being John Elway; Sideshow Bob’s rough ride through the cactus patch while tied beneath The Simpsons’ car; and Bart tattooing “WIDE LOAD” on Homer’s butt while the entire family and an impeccably-timed Nelson laugh at him. Top to bottom one of the most entertaining episodes ever.

3) Homer at the Bat – Season 3
In re-watching so many of the golden-era Simpsons episodes, I can’t help but conclude that The Simpsons used to handle celebrity appearances in a more fluid and organic manner than they do now. Starting around the “Homerpalooza” episode near the tail-end of Season 7, I feel like celebrity appearances on The Simpsons became more forced; it’s hard to explain, but “Homer at the Bat” is a great example of how they used to include celebrity appearances with ease and fluidity. Mike Scoiscia’s turn as a wannabe blue-collar stiff is hilarious. Darryl Strawberry’s exchange with Homer over playing right field is funny, as is the way he constantly kisses up to his skipper, Mr. Burns. Even Ken Griffey Jr.’s first line of dialogue is in line with the chipper personality he conveyed during his playing career. Back in the glory days, The Simpsons creators seemed to create situations and dialogue that was in character with their celebrity guests instead of forcing them to say things that wasn’t so in line with their personas.

“Homer at the Bat” has a playful sense of innocence to it that helps it stick out over other terrific Simpsons episode. I think this tone is perfectly captured with the nostalgic jingle and montage that comprises the outro credit sequence (arguably one of the greatest The Simpsons ever produced). It’s a great episode with notable contributions from famous baseball players like Jose Canseco, Ozzie Smith, Ken Griffey Jr. (“It’s like there’s a party in my mouth—and everyone’s invited!), Steve “Saxy Boy” Sax, and Don Mattingly and regular Simpsons characters such as Mr. Burns, Homer, and Apu (who has one of his best lines when he says “Such a mighty wallop” after watching one of Homer’s Wonderbat-driven home runs soar over him).

After “Homer at the Bat,” my final top seven episodes are not meant to be in order of my favorites; it would be hard to impossible to somehow figure out which of these episodes are better than the others (though I suspect my homie, Mr. Goldman, could say a word or two to the contrary). They are simply listed to fill out my list:

4) I Love Lisa – Season 4
Like “Cape Feare” and “Last Exit to Springfield,” this episode is a goldmine of great gags and quotes: Ralph’s “I Choo-Choo-Choose You” Valentine’s card to Lisa; Bart rewinding footage of the Krusty special in slow-mo to show the very second when Lisa broke Ralph’s heart;

Chief Wiggum’s dating advice for Ralph; Ralph’s classic “My cat’s breath smells like catfood” line, and Homer’s advice to Lisa on how to ward off the little Wiggum: “Six simple words: I’m not gay, but I’ll learn.” It’s fucking hilarious.

I love having this episode in my top 10 because it features other characters besides Homer and Lisa (see remainder of my list), like Ralph and good ole’ Chief Wiggum. (“Nothing gets chocolate out, see!”) Plus, it has a tender ending that is cute and cool without being cheesy (though I can be quite the cheesy man).

5) The Last Temptation of Homer – Season 5
Noticing a trend yet with two top episodes from Season 4 & 5? What can I say; I feel like Seasons 2-7 were the golden years of The Simpsons with Seasons 3-5 being the creamy cream of the crop.

If The Dentist in “Last Exit to Springfield” is one of the greatest bit characters to ever have screen time on one of The Simpsons episodes, I think a decent argument could be made for Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Mindy in this episode as being one of the best feature characters to ever make one appearance. She is a delicious character to pair Homer with—a female version of him. All the things they happen to share in common—from hamburgers, drinking beer and watching TV, free shower curtains, and the way they both say “Can’t talk; eating”—is hilarious. Between them Homer and Mindy share some classic Simpsons moments: their awkward elevator conversation and—to a lesser degree—the conversation Homer instigates at the plant with writing on his hand.

Like most great Simpsons episodes, “The Last Temptation of Homer” has a hilarious subplot. In this episode, it is Bart’s turn toward dweebdom thanks to the corrective glasses, shoes, and salve he has to wear to school for two weeks. This subplot provides one of my favorite exchanges between Bart and Milhouse when the two chums are in school and Bart sees his reflection in Milhouse’s glasses and says, “Ugh, I’m a nerd,” then Milhouse sees himself reflected in Bart’s nerdy glasses and says, “Ugh, so am I!”

Other great strokes in this episode include the moments Homer and Mindy share in Capital City and, of course, the classic “Hubba Hubba” moment the hotel bellhop has not once but twice.

6) Lisa the Vegetarian – Season 7
This episode has a terrific beginning with the Simpsons visit to a petting zoo. It has a Simpsons classic with every piece of meat—including a live worm—speaking to Lisa in a little lamb’s voice. It has a classic Troy McClure promo with The Meat Council’s film on how meat is made; The Simpsons version of the food chain:

It also has Homer’s BBBQ invitation, a hilarious homage to Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover when Homer’s pig is seen flying past the nuclear power plant. And it has a cameo by Paul and Linda McCartney! To boot, the ending has a message of accepting one another when Homer and Lisa decide to put their differences aside. A great, great episode.

7) Duffless – Season 4
An excellent episode from beginning to end, one that centers on Homer, one of the greatest TV characters of all-time. The main plot involves Homer sneaking out of work to go to the Duff Brewery with Barney while the subplot revolves around Lisa using Bart for a fiendish science project after he ruins her plans to end world hunger by growing a ginormous tomato. It has so many classic moments: Homer’s interior monologue-gone-wrong about his Duff Brewery plans; the slow-motion sequence of Bart throwing Lisa’s giant tomato on Principal Skinner’s butt; and it has my absolute favorite Troy McClure promo when he narrates a grisly, fucked-up driver’s education film. It has a classic Simpsons moment with Homer singing his ode to beer:

and the sequence near the end when Homer is remorselessly tempted to drink beer.

“Duffless” ends on a sweet note with Homer picking a bike ride with Marge over going to Moe’s.

8) Burns’ Heir – Season 5
What would a top-10 Simpsons list be without an episode that features Montgomery Burns? Years ago I listened to a few Simpsons episode commentary and was a little surprised to hear the writers say that Mr. Burns was their favorite character to write dialogue for. But now that seems like such a “Well duh” moment because he has the most unique verbosity of all the Simpsons characters. Even Lisa can’t pull off using the word “rapscallion” like Monty can in this episode.

“Rosebud” and “A Star is Burns” are terrific episodes but I think this is overall the best one that features Mr. Burns. It has the classic auditions scene (“I specifically said no geeks!”) in the first third of the episode that graded as an A+ for me (the only other episode in which the beginning segment graded so high was the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode).

Though the episode centers on Bart’s evolving relationship with Mr. Burns, Homer has some of his best lines in any Simpsons episodes: his advice on never trying in life, his line to Bart in front of Mr. Burns: “Bart, get over to the mansion and open up all the windows. We want to get the old people smell out before we move in,” and his line about “lurking in the bushes outside Chef Boy-Ar-Dee's house.” Aaaaaah, I laugh just thinking about them.

Besides the auditions scene, “Burns’ Heir” has the scene where Bart drives a race car through Santa’s Village and a classic scene near the end of the episode where Mr. Burns has actors impersonate the Simpsons family. And the whole brainwashing of Hans Moleman into Bart is pretty funny, too.

9) Deep Space Homer – Season 5

For me, it was between this episode and another Homer-centric episode, “Mr. Plow,” but I picked this one because of the power of its classic scenes. “Deep Space Homer” has classic Simpsons lore with his whimsical potato chip-eating sequence to Strauss’ “Blue Danube”:

Kent Brockman’s ridiculously hilarious turn toward accepting Planet Earth’s “new insect overlords,” and it has a funny cameo from the usually gentle and boring James Taylor. Buzz Aldrin has a couple of zingers, too (“Second comes right after first!” and “Careful, they’re ruffled!”) And it has one of the nastiest Itchy & Scratchy episodes. The wit and genius of The Simpsons creators is on full display in this episode. And since I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, they get double brownie points for the usage of “The Blue Danube” and the parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s transition from a flying bone to a spaceship with the final seconds of the episode.

10) Krusty Gets Kancelled – Season 4

Since we’ve arrived to my final selection, let me preface by telling you who my favorite Simpsons characters are. They are (mostly in order): Homer, Mr. Burns, Lisa, Sideshow Bob, Bart, Moe Szyslak (I love asshole characters, what can I say), Martin (“Look fellas, the first snapdragon of the season.”), Nelson (his haha’s are almost always impeccably timed for laughs), and Krusty the Clown. This episode features Krusty while seamlessly incorporating several guest voices such as Bette Midler, (Sideshow) Luke Perry, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Carson. “Krusty Gets Kancelled” also has the one and only appearance of Gabbo which ensues in lots of gags: Krusty’s attempt at ventriloquism; the replacement of The Itchy & Scratchy Show for Worker & Parasite;

Gabbo’s prank call to Krusty, and Gabbo and Kent Brockman’s “S.O.B.” faux pas. From beginning to end, Krusty’s fall and comeback is a great watch.

Honorable Mentions:

Mr. Plow – Season 4
Rosebud – Season 5
And Maggie Makes Three – Season 6
Bart the Daredevil – Season 2
Mother Simpson – Season 7
Lisa’s Rival – Season 6
Marge vs. the Monorail – Season 4
Three Men and a Comic Book – Season 2
Saturdays of Thunder – Season 3

So what do you think of my list? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thank you!