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April 1, 2010

Target Field's Unsung Hero

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Tomorrow will be the official opening of Target Field as the Twins play an exhibition game against Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. I'll be there.

As is typical with any opening of a new ballpark there will be a pre-game ceremony honoring those responsible for making it all happen, including Twins officials and various elected officials. Some are very deserving such as Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat who came up with the financial strategy to pay for the ballpark and Representative Brad Finstad who, a lowly backbencher from the minority party, introduced the bill at the Legislature and saw that it got passed -- even though it wasn't always popular with other more senior legislators (and the Governor), or his constituents back home. Those two men richly deserve to be saluted.

However there is one person who won't be down on the field getting accolades but should be. That person is Shane from the web site Greet Machine. Many people don't realize how instrumental Greet Machine was in getting the ballpark bill passed. The most important thing he did was put together a legislative scorecard of who was supporting the ballpark and who wasn't. Through Shane's work it came to light that most legislators actually supported the ballpark legislation. He listed their names and where they had signaled their support.

Now you wouldn't think this is a big deal but it was huge, and something that lobbyists charge tens of thousands of dollars to produce. But here it was for free for anyone to see. And more importantly it was accurate. If I recall correctly not one legislature denied their place on the list either for the ballpark or against it. It is well documented that this scorecard was used in legislative meetings regarding the ballpark bill and all legislative leaders knew of it.

Not only did Shane develop the legislative scorecard, Greet Machine became THE place on-line to discuss the ins-and-outs of the ballpark legislation, who supported it, the politics, etc. It was a nice place for joe-citizen ballpark supporters to get together and discuss the various ballpark scenarios - this during a time when most of the media was focused on those loud and shrill voices opposed to a ballpark. But more importantly, it became such an important site to the ballpark approval process that elected officials, lawyers, and the landowners started privately feeding Shane information to put on his blog. Many people read Greet Machine during this period: from rubes like me, to politicians, city officials, print/TV journalists, and the surrounding land owners. I truly believe, and I am not alone, that without Greet Machine and Shane's efforts a new Twins ballpark would have never happened when it did.

So when you see the celebration of those responsible for Target Field, remember that one person is missing. Now I'm not surprised, I am sure these days public officials are too embarrassed to admit that a mere blogger played such a key role in getting a $500M ballpark approved -- no way could they acknowledge that now. And Shane is way too modest to demand such recognition or even ask for a t-shirt for his efforts. However to those us who watched the ballpark come together, we know. And I for one will be tipping my hat off to Shane tomorrow afternoon as I will have the distinct pleasure of sitting next to him as the first Twins home baseball game in over 28 years is played outdoors.

Thanks Shane!!

Other Accolades are coming in!

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March 31, 2010

Confirmed! Matt's Has Best Jucy Lucy

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About a year ago I talked about how I thought Matt's Bar Jucy Lucy was the best and only Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis. Some still claim that the 5-8 Club has a better Jucy Lucy. In my mind it really comes down to style. Matt's is old school. There is only one version of a Jucy Lucy and you can order with or without onions, either raw or cooked. So basically you have three versions of the Jucy Lucy. The 5-8 Club has all kinds of Juicy Lucies, with different cheeses and different add-ons. Now this may appeal to some folks, but it isn't a true Jucy Lucy.

Finally the debate has been settled. Last night on the Travel Channel's Food Wars show, Matt's went head to head with the 5-8 Club and after a blind test taste, Matt's won. So there you have it. A reality show on a lower tier cable channel proves that Matt's Jucy Lucy is the best. Can we now end this debate.

September 21, 2009

Favorite Things -- Loretta Lynn's Women's Prison

Death has long been a topic of Country Music. Death predominates Country music so much (or at least it did before Country started marketing itself to teenage girls) that a sub-genre known as the Country Death Song has established itself as an anchor of Country Music history. Although most death songs deal with murdering a cheating lover and/or his/her cheater, other Country Death Songs have dealt with suicide, executions, and even sickness -- especially dying of a broken heart. Heck Columbia Records released a whole album of Johnny Cash death songs called Murder.

One of the greatest Country Death Songs is Women's Prison by Loretta Lynn with Jack White from the 2004 album Van Lear Rose. It's got it all: a woman/narrator finding her lover with a former friend and killing him, the execution of the woman/narrator, an angry prison mob, a crying mother. The opening lines really tell the story and bring you right to the present:


I'm in a women's prison with bars all around
I caught my darlin cheatin thats when I shot him down
I caught him in a honky-tonk with a girl I used to know
The door to my cell is open wide and a voice cries out oh no

On the album what really sucks you into this song is right before it is the treacly God Makes No Mistakes, which tells us that Gods ways are mysterious and we shouldn't question them. The end of that song moves right into Women's Prison and its quite difficult to tell where one song ends the other begins. But the themes are jarring: From accepting God's lot to sitting on Death Row within a few notes.

Obviously killing someone in a Honky-Tonk is quite public and the murder and her execution have obviously stirred public passions as we learn in the chorus:

The crowd outside is screamin' let the murderer die! But above all their voices I can hear my mama cry.

The music is quite jarring too. During the verses, Loretta Lynn is accompanied by some basic country guitar licks -- slow and somber. However during the chorus, Jack White really revs up the guitars to a fever pitch, matching the emotion of the crowd.

Finally after dragged from her knees from death row by an unsympathetic warden and a cold priest, the Woman is strapped into the electric chair and is electrocuted:

Now they've strapped me in the chair And covered up my eyes And the last voice I hear on Earth Is my mama's cry

What's really amazing is that an organ starts playing in the background as Lynn sings these last words and is it grows louder, Jack White mumbles Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound.... Then the guitars rev up again to their fever pitch and brings the song to an end after about a minute of some pretty frenzied guitar work.

An amazing song and amazing performance and one of the greatest examples of a Country Death Song out there. Below is a video someone, not associated with Loretta Lynn, did of the song.


June 29, 2009

Favorite Things -- The Wire

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For about 16 months I have been pretty religious about going on the exercise bike at least 2-4 times a week. My secret is that I have set up a portable DVD player and watch DVDs of TV series that I missed during their first runs. I have picked shows that are more serial in nature so that I am motivated to keep watching. My first show was Battlestar Galactica. Last week I finished five seasons of The Wire.

The Wire played on HBO and was an extremely gritty portrayal of Baltimore, its drug trade and police and government reaction to the drug trade. The show was very cynical as it demonstrated that our institutions are just as corrupt as the drug runners they are responding to. What was really interesting is that each season the show focused on one institution as it responded to the urban ills of the early part of this decade. Season One concentrated on the Police; Two looked at the Unions and dock workers; Three examined City Politics; Season 4 took on the Schools; and 5 focused on the Newspaper industry. All was interwoven with the drug trade in Baltimore, the guys who controlled the drugs and the thugs who sold and controlled the street.

One was drawn into the series because of the characters. Characters, whether Police, drug thug, or politician were shown warts and all and you could be sympathetic to a character even though he was a ruthless murderer, a stats-juking bureaucrat, or a cynical politician. Also there were no sacred cows. Favorite and key characters would be killed off or shown cheating on their spouse. Characters were shown as complex people with conflicting motivations who sometimes made mistakes. Just like people in real life.

Season 4 was especially devastating. It concentrated on the schools, specifically four 8th grade boys as they tried to go to a school that is underfunded and sitting literally sitting in a war zone of the drug trade. My own kid was also in 8th grade as I watched that season and believe me his life is completely different than those kids. These four were also followed in season 5 and only one made it through as anything considered safe. But one became so attached to these kids that it was a kick in the gut to see how they turned out. In fact I even uttered a sad "oh Michael" when one of the kids made his first killing (shooting a street thug who had been on the show from the beginning).

As I mentioned above, The Wire is extremely cynical and dark. Its message really is that our Cities are failing, our institutions are failing, and that we are in an endless loop. We can eliminate some drug thugs, but others are ready to rise up and take their place. We can eliminate our urban slums but the things that make those places slums, just move to someplace else. Good people may try to fix things but The System beats them down and corrupts them so that in the end nothing happens. It sound pretty sad and grim and in a sense it is. But the stories are so rich, the characters so real that I heartedly recommend anyone to seek out The Wire and dive in.

Up next for the Exercise Bike? The Sopranos

April 13, 2009

My Favorite Things -- Crazy Republicans

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There nothing like two consecutive election loses and a black president with a Muslim sounding funny name to bring out the crazies in the Republican Party. From Minnesota's own Michelle Bachman espousing armed rebellion to Fox News' Glenn Beck channeling Howard Beale to GOP leader Michael Steele trying to bring "hip-hop" sensibility to an ├╝ber-white political party with its base of support in the rural south, it appears that the Republican's are having a nervous breakdown right in our living rooms, all in glorious HD television.

In the last month, Republicans have offered alternative federal budgets with no actual numbers, elevated Rush Limbaugh to national spokesman, and come out against volcano monitoring funding literally days before a volcano began ominous rumblings in Alaska. Republicans were against the stimulus, except for those project that benefited their own districts and states and against helping out the car makers in Detroit because the foreign manufacturers in their states wouldn't benefit.

The nadir was probably this weekend when on the Sunday talk shows Republicans like Newt Gringrich were practically rooting on the Somalian pirates, blaming President Obama for the ultimate death of the kidnapped captain. Of course it was only a few hours later when Special Forces snipers, on orders from the President, ended the kidnapping and killed three pirates.

Now of course it's a lot of fun watching Republicans and conservatives fall on their face, rely on the same old tired ideas that have been discredited and rejected, and be spoofed tirelessly on television (see video above). Unfortunately there is a dark side to their wackiness. By all accounts the gunman in Pittsburgh who killed three cops was driven to his murderous behavior by the rantings on the right, worried that his guns were going to be taken away. Three families no longer have a father and husband because someone was led astray by lunatics on the right. Who's next, when will someone actually take Michelle Bachman seriously and try armed resistance? So we can laugh at the crazies but let's keep on our toes. Point out the hypocrisy, the nuttiness. The republicans are digging their own graves, let's make sure we keep handing them shovels.

March 30, 2009

My Favorite Things -- Barbara Lukermann

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If you been involved in urban planning in the Twin Cities over the past 25 years you undoubtedly came across Barbara Lukermann. As a Senior Fellow and teacher at the Humphrey Institute, Barbara Lukermann was one of those teachers who greatly cared for her students and was truly interested in how they did inside and outside the classroom. Not only was she a great teacher she was a pretty damn good urban planner and provided years of service to the Twin Cities area as it tackled many issues of regional governance.

One of my great regrets in not finishing my Master Degree was that I disappointed Barbara Lukermann. Even up to a couple of years ago, she would see me and say "it's not too late, we can always figure something out." Now I left the Master program in 1990 so we're talking almost 20 years here. But that's how she was, she didn't forget any of her students and wanted what was best for them.

Barbara Lukermann died last week of cancer at the age of 79. A memorial service will be held at the Humphrey Institute on Tuesday at 4:00. She will be greatly missed.

March 23, 2009

My Favorite Things -- March Madness

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What could be better than 48 college basketball games in the span of 80 hours, all televised or available for viewing on your internet connection? How about the fact that everyone has a bracket, predicting the results so that everyone is invested in the outcome? They don't call it March Madness for nothing, and this year's version has been just a good as advertised.

I'm not a big rube for upsets as I would rather have the top seeds win and then play each other. I do recognize that upsets do happen and nothing warms my heart like seeing a Cleveland State take it to an over-confident Wake Forest, even if it caused a tremor in my bracket. I do like that all the Sweet 16 includes all the 1s, 2s, and 3s, and two of the 4 seeds.

The best part of March Madness isn't the upsets, it's when two good teams go at each other like a couple of heavyweights, each landing thundering punches but unable to knock the other out. The Michigan State-USC game was like that yesterday with each team going after each other and neither backing down until Michigan State pulls slightly ahead at the end. But what makes March Madness that much greater is that at the same time, Missouri and Marquette are going at as well and it comes down to a Marquette player accidentally stepping over the line on an inbounds pass with 5.5 seconds left. There were numerous games where it came down to the last few seconds, not a lot of buzzer beaters, but plenty of games that were in doubt until the very end.

I have 15 teams remaining in the Sweet 16 and am sitting pretty for a good run. When Gonzaga beats NC and 'Nova beats Duke, not only will the haughty ACC have no teams left, most brackets will be blown up and I will be sitting pretty with Memphis well on its way to a National Championship. That's why March Madness is one of my favorite things.

How's your bracket doing?

March 16, 2009

My Favorite Things -- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Sure Jon Stewart and the Daily Show got lots of press last week for his "feud" with CNBC, culminating in the interview with Jim Cramer last Thursday, but Jon Stewart has been a 10:00p fixture on my television for over 9 years and besides sports and movies, the only reason I watch television these days.

Thursday's compelling interview is why the Daily Show is so good. Jon Stewart went right at Jim Cramer, using his own words against him, not allowing Cramer to make a statement unchallenged. The last eight years of the Bush Administration have been good for Jon Stewart -- the incompetency of George Bush was easy pickin's for a comedian as deft as Stewart. However, Jon Stewart has been at his best when skewering the media and its approach to politicians than when he has been attacking the latest goof ball offerings of an elected official.

The first 10 minutes of the show is usually the best. That's when Stewart and his team of "news correspondents" react to the daily news and point out the bullshit of what is being said. As with the Cramer interview, there is heavy use of footage from the past that puts into question what is being said today. Again, politicians take the hit, but beneath the surface, it's really the media that is being attacked.

The interview section is usually hit or miss. Sometimes there is a real interesting author or a politician who really engages with Stewart. And Stewart is smart, the interviewee better be prepared, especially if it's a subject that is dear to Jon Stewart's heart. An interview similar to Jim Cramer's was with Douglas Feith, one of the "architects" of the Bush Iraq war policy. There's a reason why Stewart has won Peabody Awards for news reporting on a show that ostensibly is a comedy show.

Many people thought, "oh now with Obama as President, the Daily Show would become irrelevant." One the Cramer interview proved that wrong, two, as mentioned above, The Daily Show is more about the media than politicians (Now if Fox News ever went belly up, Jon Stewart would be hurting), and three, Stewart has gone after Obama a couple of times already and I have a feeling there are no sacred cows for Jon Stewart.

So if you don't watch the Daily Show, I strongly encourage you to do so. It's much more entertaining than an old comedy re-run or the crap they pass off as local news. Also the Daily Show has ALL of it's episodes on the web, you can sort by day, subject, or person. The Daily Show has demonstrated that you can have a point of view, be entertaining, and provide actual news analysis and will be reason why you will always find me in front of the television at 10:00p Monday through Thursday.

March 9, 2009

Favorite Things -- Watchmen

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After much anticipation, I saw Watchmen this weekend. As mentioned last week I decided to see it on the I-max screen to get the full visual effect. Reviews have blown hot and cold all weekend as it seems that either the reviewer loved it or hated it. Put me down in the enjoyed (not loved) it camp.

I've been debating to myself if you need to read the book to "get" the movie and I don't think you do. Obviously it would help with some of the continuity but I think the film makers did a good job of telling the story to newcomers. If you've read the book I think the movie experience will be that much richer as there are literal panel-by-panel re-creations straight from the book seen on the screen. Another controversy is that the film tweaks the ending. The basic idea of the ending is the same, it's how it was implemented that was changed. To me I think the movie ending is better. For one it makes more sense and two it seem quite plausible and is loyal to the story attempting to be told.

Visually the movie is stunning but still "looks" like the real world. I was a little worried as Director Zach Snyder's work sometimes borders on the unworldly (300, ahem). I also liked the use of music, especially the opening credits as Dylan's Times They are a Changin' is playing, we get to see the creation of the Minutemen, their downfall and rise and downfall of the Watchmen. A lot of backstory was presented in a few minutes, with the Dylan providing the backdrop. A brutal murder while Nat King Cole's Unforgettable was playing was also a nice touch. I could have, however, done without the sex scene with Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as the background music, that was a little too much (not the sex scene mind you, just the choice of song).

The movie is insanely brutal and earns every inch of it's R rating. There were a couple of scenes where I had to turn my head. But other than that Watchmen was a fun movie experience, what I wanted to see on the screen some 20 years after I first picked up the graphic novel. Watchmen presents a world that easily could be imagined as "might have been" and gives us characters we care for and sympathize with, even if they are psychopathic vigilantes.

What did you think of Watchmen?

March 2, 2009

My Favorite Things -- Matt's Bar

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Matt's Bar - Home of the Jucy Lucy. There's a long-standing debate in Minneapolis over what restaurant has the best Jucy Lucy: Matt's or the 5.8 Club. I fall squarely in Matt's Bar camp. For a variety of reasons. One Matt's is an authentic neighborhood bar whereas the 5.8 is more of a restaurant. Also there is only one Jucy Lucy at Matt's and you can order with or without fried onions. The 5.8 has a variety of Jucy Lucy's, with different cheeses etc. Also Matt's fries are awesome and the wait staff, bartender and cook have been the same for years. Matt's even has a decent jukebox, although it isn't used very often.

Matt's plain and simple is a Minneapolis institution. It's home to drunks, hipster dudes, frat boys, Abbott Northwestern nurses, and South Minneapolis families. The Grain Belt Premium flows freely and you can buy a pitcher of Coke for the kids. Prices are right too. A Jucy Lucy is still under $5.00. But the reason you go the Matt's is the Jucy Lucy, there is nothing like piping hot goo of cheese squirting out of your burger and burning your lips as you grab your beer to cool off your mouth. Fried onions and coagulating cheese drip on the fries and the wait staff is that perfect combination of world weary and wise-crackin'. The regulars don't mind that the new-to-the-scene are honing in on their turf and for the most part the rookies are respectful to those who have gone forever.

The best thing about Matt's however is that it is timeless. I have a feeling that it's pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago. In these days where everything has be to New and Improved! (and especially in Minneapolis where everything old seems to have been replaced) its comforting to know that there are still places that are cozy, where it's o.k. to have a burger with oozing cheese washed down with a cold beer. There are too few of those places left in this City and we should celebrate and embrace those that still exist.

February 23, 2009

My favorite Things -- Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, is by far my favorite ballpark. Everyone knows its charms: the ivy-strewn walls, the hand-operated scoreboard, its intimacy, the 100 years of Cubs ineptitude, etc.

I especially love the way the ballpark is settled into the urban fabric of Chicago's northside. It doesn't overwhelm the neighborhood but is part of it. Although it owns its name as a "field" it is truly an urban ballpark, with downtown Chicago peeking over the right field fence and apartment buildings providing vantage points over centerfield. The el rumbles by during the game and fans fill the bars and restaurants of Wrigley-ville before and after the game. Rural meets city, men play a boys game, and the fan isn't assaulted with crazy fireworks, loud video commercials or post-modern theme park entertainment features. I have a friend who lived in Wrigleyville and his kitchen window was situated so that he could see the ballpark clock from his table and that is what he used as his kitchen clock. That is the definition of an urban ballpark.

I've gone to occasional games at Wrigley since the early 80's, before they became trendy. The first game I went to we bought tickets the day of the game in the lower level along the 3rd base line. For about 10 bucks if I remember. It was a glorious May afternoon and the sun was shining and the Cubs, of course, were losing. I remember ordering my first beer and the beer guy doesn't pull out a $8.00 beer in a plastic bottle. No he pulls out an ice cold 16 ounce can of Budweiser, cracks it open right in front of me and pours it into a paper cup and hands it to me. "That'll be $2.50." I was smitten.

Now that was over 25 years ago and there are lights at Wrigley, those tickets I sat in are probably $75.00 and you have to buy them months in advance. But the park retains its charms. The ivy is still bare in the spring and green in the summer. Kids scramble up down Waveland to catch a home run ball, and there still is hardly a bad seat in the house.

The Twins play the Cubs in Wrigley this summer and I am planning to go. Hopefully someday I will have the same feelings for Target Field.

February 15, 2009

Favorite Things -- Counting Crows on Letterman

I've never been a big Counting Crows fan. Their first album was good and I listen to it every so often but I don't think I could even recognize a song they've released in the 15 years since their debut came out.

However I've always loved this performance of 'Round Here from the David Letterman show. You have to remember that this is the infamous Madonna show on Letterman where basically she swore throughout the interview, was difficult, wouldn't leave, said Charles Barkley was huge where it counts, etc. Like most train wrecks, it was hard to look away and clearly Dave was uncomfortable while also knowing that this was pretty compelling TV. Anyway Madonna finally leaves and The Counting Crows get to wrap up the show and they sing 'Round Here which was their second single after Mr. Jones.

The song is about a guy leaving everything behind and by doing so, that which is left behind is taken away from him. The reason I love this version is because Adam Duritz sings with such emotion it really draws you in. He's really believes in the words, has lived its sentiment. It's much more than a performance than an inhabitation of the song. Maybe it's the contrast with Madonna who is all about the performance and nothing is real. Maybe it's because the band really rocks out at the end. Maybe because it's a real good song with a real good performance. Whatever it was, it has haunted me ever since and it's one of my favorite performances of a single song I have ever witnessed.

February 9, 2009

My Favorite Things -- Rock and Roll High School

I want to take Mondays to regularly look back and review some of my favorite movies, books, albums, vacations, concerts, etc. I will generally stay away from my 30 best loved albums, since I discussed those in depth already. What a better way to kick this off then by talking about Rock and Roll High School.

Rock and Roll High School came out in 1979 and was filmed basically to become a cult classic. The story is pretty simple as a new hard-ass principle comes to the school and wants to exercise her authority by banning rock and roll. Riff Radley, a girl who loves the Ramones, rallies the students and takes over the school and in every high schooler's fantasy, blow it up.

The movie takes place in January 1980 which would have been my Junior year. Looking back 30 years brings back a lot of high school memories: Smoking in the boys restroom, the stacked chick with the feathered hair, tripped-out conversion vans, standing in line for concert tickets.

Of course the reason why the movies is so cool is the Ramones. The Ramones have one of the Greatest. Movie. Entrances. Ever. when they pull up in a convertible playing Tonight and then march down the street still playing their instruments as they walk past the concert goers standing in line for tickets. Another set piece in Riff's bedroom as Joey croons "I want you ah-ro-und" is another classic.

The movie also has a great actual concert footage with the Ramones playing about 5 songs. No intercutting the songs here, they are all filmed and showed in total. After the concert we get to go backstage with the Ramones and it gets really goofy. Joey has a couple of lines that he is obviously reading. The lines are rushed and it so bad that it is endearingly funny. Finally the Ramones show up at the high school and have a blast while the kids destroy the school.

The movie was done on the cheap and the acting is pretty bad, the dialogue is lame, etc. But you're not watching Rock and Roll High School for its cinematic qualities. You're watching Rock and Roll High School for the Ramones and they deliver the goods. Highly recommended.