Review: Manchester by the Sea

May 8th, 2021

I like movies a bunch. With this workaday world however I find I don’t have much time to see them. As a result, I keep a list of movies I hope to see. Sometimes I’ll see a movie quickly while some, like the original “Manchurian Candidate”, I still haven’t seen after nearly twenty years on the list. I thought I’d wanted to see “Manchester by the Sea”, but after viewing it I realized that it wasn’t on my list. The absence was a warning, I now realize.

“Manchester” is one of the newer movies in the growing line of crappy white Boston movies that are inexplicably well-regarded. You can find woofers like “Mystic River” and “Good Will Hunting” in this category. I happen to like Matt Damon, but found “Good Will Hunting” awful and self-indulgent. If you’ve seen “Hunting”, and somehow like it, how do you square your positive feelings with the “Do you like apples” scene? Robin Williams being good isn’t enough.

With the exception of “The Departed”, a fun but otherwise dumb movie, “Manchester” is the best of the lot. That’s not saying much. “Mystic River” bludgeons its viewers with cheap tragedies, hoping you’ll be too sad to notice terrible acting. “Good Will Hunting” has its pleasant, low-key moments but is fundamentally a conceited movie. Ooh Matt Damon is a janitor with super math powers! “Manchester” (produced by Matt Damon) has a protagonist that also happens to be a janitor. I’m not offended by low expectations of janitors in these movies but there’s a hollowness to punching down on such professions. You’re not a real person if you work in fast food, retail, or clean things.

Of Hollywood’s sins, fake accents are among the most unforgivable. It seems especially hard to fake Boston accents but that doesn’t stop movies like “The Departed” and of course “Manchester” from trying. My first trip to Boston was in 2003, and I was a touch surprised nobody sounded ridiculous. It’s safe to say if you’re trying to make a realistic movie you don’t need every single person to lay it on really thick. I’m from Virginia and live in Texas. The only time I have an accent is when I get pulled over. “I’m tarrably sorrah, sur. I suppose I may have bean going a touch fast.”

Casey Affleck is our janitor. Just in case you don’t look down on janitors, one of the Affleck’s clients confides to a friend that she thinks he’s cute. And he’s her janitor! How edgy! As our movie unfolds, we learn Affleck’s sorry state of affairs (again, just being a janitor) is due to tragedy, and now he has to make a choice of whether or not to take care of his late brother’s son Patrick. Patrick the cursed spawn, played by Lucas Hedges, is an unbearable, spoiled brat complete with a terrible accent. The movie cuts to scenes of young Patrick being well-loved and cared for by his extended family, yet he still manages to grow up to be a complete weenie.

There are two notable performances in this movie. Michelle Williams, barely in the film, steals the show. Her portrayal of tragedy and strained relationships is arresting. The other performance is Affleck’s. Yes he gets into stupid white Boston film fights, but there’s also real acting.

Other than two decent performances (among a slew of completely forgettable ones) there’s nothing to “Manchester”. People say the movie is depressing. No, it’s far worse. It’s pointless.

$Id: review_manchester_by_the_sea 607 2021-05-08 15:42:21Z x $


Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

February 15th, 2021

It’s 11:56am currently and 22.3 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Given that I grew up in Virginia, cold isn’t ordinarily a big deal. Now that I live in what’s described as a humid subtropical climate 22.3 degrees is rather dangerous. Ignoring the very real concerns of freezing problems with all of the dangerous infrastructure I live near, I also have fun new concerns about my own freezing pipes. My home concerns are compounded by the possibility of power outages and water shortages, which, as you might imagine, are all interconnected to everything I just mentioned in this paragraph.

It can be hard to sleep when you’re worried about whether you did enough to prepare your house. Should I have shut all of the water to the house as my neighbor suggested? Should I have filled a bathtub up for a water source if my main water is disconnected? How about letting the exterior faucets leak so they don’t freeze? While I did prepare my house, I didn’t do the previous suggestions. Fun things to wake up and ruminate about during the night, in addition to the 3am thunderstorm while it was sleeting.

Movies are a fun distraction, and I’d been wanting to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” since 2019. Pair good anecdotal testimonials with the fact that Marielle Heller is the director and I was sold. Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” from 2015 is one of the best movies I’d seen in years. While I’d like to suggest I’m bright enough to have seen such a movie by my own good taste, I’d been on travel in Lawrence Kansas and it was the best option at Lawrence’s arty Liberty Hall theater. I was the only person in the theater. Regardless, “Diary” is outstanding and it’s a shame nobody knows about it. While Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” (2017) has some similarities and well-deserved accolades, “Diary” is far better.

“Neighborhood” is the rare gem that lives up to its hype. I crave the lack of condescension that Heller’s direction provides. Both “Diary” and “Neighborhood” deal with some heavy issues, but they’re portrayed without cheap tear-jerking or what I call visual hyperbole. I’ll only reveal that the plot involves an outsider coming into the orbit of Fred Rogers, the mythical children’s television host. Tom Hanks is believable as Mr. Rogers, and Heller’s film manages to make Rogers both human and mythical. Like many amazing movies, the subject is illustrated more by his reflection on other characters. It’s a magnificent movie.

$Id: a_beautiful_day_in_the_neighborhood 599 2021-02-15 18:35:44Z x $


Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

February 15th, 2021

I’ve just reviewed the stunning “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, but I figure I’d take a few moments to review a far inferior waste of time, “The Broken Circle Breakdown”. “Broken Circle” is a 2012 Belgian film about something. That something is beyond me because the movie tries a few things that fail miserably. If the movie had any redeeming qualities, you could say this review contains spoilers.

“Broken Circle” is the latest in what’s becoming a pattern for me, watching awful but highly-regarded movies on makes it really easy for me to start and resume movies. I have another streaming service but logging in is a pain, and I tend to wait until I’m really committed to seeing a movie before using it. I still use a laptop and web browser to see movies. Yes, it would be easier if I used a tablet or a “smart” television, but I don’t swing that way.

When I mentioned that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” dealt with heavy issues but didn’t engage in tear-jerking or hyperbole, I was thinking of awful movies like “Broken Circle”. While I’m still uncertain about the point of “Broken Circle”, the story begins with harrowing hospital scenes of a child dying in a hospital. Don’t worry, the audience is exposed to the horrors of treatment and false hopes of recovery. Only after we’re shown quite well-acted misery, we’ll go ahead and cut back in time to the child’s parents meeting and falling in love. But since you know what’s coming, you never lose yourself in the courtship. Worst of all for those of us that are musicians, the couple is in a band. So now we have to see distracting live music scenes with pre-recorded audio. The music is fine if not good (and was performed by the actors), but there is no energy whatsoever. A hint for such movies, use as real an audience as possible and don’t overlay over-produced studio audio. Live music isn’t perfect. That’s part of what’s good about it.

Suffice to say the kid dies and the couple fights but continues playing in the band. “Broken Circle” doesn’t respect its audience enough for nuance. Distracting cuts substitute for characters, and cheap shots like dying kids are plot devices meant to provoke a response. Most ludicrous of all, the final scene is a deathbed where the band plays to another dying character. In a hospital. Complete with “yee haws!”

$Id: the_broken_circle_breakdown 602 2021-02-15 19:12:22Z x $


Review: Melancholia

December 13th, 2020

Despite having great movies that I could either watch again or see for the first time, I decided to watch “Melancholia” from 2011. I did so based solely on the advice of a podcast I was barely listening to while either eating dinner or doing dishes. “Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s too long exploitation of good actors and bad taste. One of the more fashionable movies that are either well-made garbage or of the “it keeps getting worse” genre. Pick two.

“Melancholia” stars Kirsten Dunst alongside other quite talented actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg and John Hurt in a wedding/apocalypse film. Charlotte Rampling makes an appearance as well, pointlessly cast as a bitter mother dispensing sad-trombones all over her daughter’s wedding. Rampling also starred in the equally ridiculous “Swimming Pool” from 2003, which I saw in Boston while on tour in a punk band. “Swimming Pool” was an exploitation film disguised as an annoying-kid-turned-murderer movie, while, just kidding, it was all a joke. My hosts in Boston said we should rather see “Whale Rider”, an outstanding movie I’d eventually see nearly two decades later.

So what’s the point of “Melancholia”? Great actors moping around. The film opens with some arty shots then cuts to pointless vignettes of Dunst’s wedding. Everyone is mean, Dunst is erratic and hopeless. The reception is gorgeous and expensive yet everyone finds ways to be condescending. That’s the hour of “part one”. “Part two” is a lead up to apocalypse, masterfully acted but poorly constrained by Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Gainsbourg’s husband and scold. Sutherland is filthy rich despite being some kind of astronomer. Swimming in cash, those.

Worst of all, “Melancholia” has a constant camera shake. I suppose the hope is that you’re too nauseous to realize how much of your life you’re wasting.

While accurately portraying depression, there’s no anchor in a movie of privileged misery. If there’s nothing to figure out, no character to sympathize with, what’s the point? Beautiful crap is still crap. A far better movie is Jeff Nicols’s “Take Shelter” from the same year.

Should you wish to subject yourself to “Melancholia”, it’s available currently at

$Id: melancholia 597 2020-12-13 22:42:32Z x $

essay humor

The House that Burned

January 1, 2009

The House That Burned

I lost my house when I was seven. May 15th 1986, during a sticky, humid night that might as well have been August. There was no power in the house, otherwise I would have had air conditioning to keep me from paying attention to the weather or remembering the date. Had there been power that night, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.

I had gone food shopping with my mother. Shopping with Mom was a treat. She was more lenient when putting things in the shopping cart, overlooking Fruit Roll-Ups here, Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream there. If Mom wasn’t piloting the shopping cart, we’d create shopping lists for my father who might, or more likely might not get any of the numerous goodies we’d ask for. My prize for this particular shopping trip was packages of generic pecan swirls.

No doubt there was concern putting groceries into the refrigerator, as there was no power in the house. The neighborhood was without power, inexplicably so on this storm-free night. My father was helping my sister Katie with homework and my mother was talking on the phone. The heat kept me from sleeping. I was feeling not just a hot Southern night but a raging fire just below my room. Only I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was that I was in my bedroom with my middle sister Jenni telling me her adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” called “The Velveteen Boy.” The original story is about a stuffed rabbit’s quest to become real, but it’s not clear how this version would work out.

I would never know the full story of the Velveteen Boy because it was interrupted by my mother screaming “Fire!” As bad as it sounds, none of us typically takes my mother seriously when she warns about imminent harm. I calmly walked toward the living room and before I could get a handle on the situation I was literally tossed out the front door. I was most decidedly underdressed for the occasion, standing with neighbors in front of my burning house wearing not a thread more than underwear, “Tighty Whities” at that.

With our house ablaze, my father tried to fix the situation. He stayed inside while the four of us were outside. (I was now clothing myself with my neighbor’s shrubbery.) There was no electricity to power the smoke detectors. My father saw smoke but couldn’t find a source. He looked at candles and the kitchen table. Eventually the source was discovered downstairs but sweeping flames were not impressed by my father’s fire extinguisher. After leaving the house to grab the garden hose, my father’s return was blocked by the metal storm door, now swollen tightly shut in the heat. I remember this storm door only because I enjoyed ramming it with logs years prior, always summoning the fury of my mother.

With my father now stuck outside with the rest of us nothing could be done but wait for the fire department. My father recalls that one neighbor accosted the fire fighters. “What took you so long?” So helpful was that Mustang-driving neighbor. They offered that the power outage had affected their trip, disabling the traffic signals. My mother was angry, thinking of recent improvements going to waste. “Well, there go my carpets. Yup, there go the new drapes.”

My next-door neighbor was kind enough to provide me with some clothing, while the neighbors across the street pitched in by filming us. Nothing is more helpful to a bad situation than voyeuristic neighbors filming it, asking “Should we call the fire department?” Such an unexplainable lack of moral fortitude didn’t sever our neighborly relationship. Twenty years later I would be the one to sever it, when the husband of the neighbors in question yelled a snide remark at me. I happened to be returning to my car after feeding my father’s cat Yoda and wasn’t in the mood to be bothered. I took the neighbor to task for this and other nastiness he’d displayed over the years, and now our families don’t speak. Too bad. The laughs we all could have had watching my house burning down, reliving the good times…

My sisters and I smelled like smoke in class the next day. But you know, other kids are always so understanding. I was likely less smoky because I was wearing my neighbor’s donated clothing, the lone benefit of being thrown out of a burning house wearing nothing other than underwear. My sister Katie’s classmate “Spit” (who hates that nickname) was envious Katie got to leave early. “My house burned down!” “So? You should still have to take the math test.” Later the school staff helped us out by giving us clothes. People really do pitch in during hard times. Our family stayed at a Comfort Inn, with board games and food from well-wishers.

Returning to this essay in 2020, I need to express my gratitude to our neighbors and community. My family keeps to itself which isn’t always a good thing. We’re not the people that remember your kid’s birthdays or bake you pies. I forget my sister Katie’s kids’ birthdays. Hopefully she’s not reading this. Sorry! Your kids are nominally important! Just kidding, fully important! Of course Katie has taken a complete 180 from how we grew up and is all about birthdays, anniversaries, helping at school, helping others, vacations…

Back to my 2020 point, I’ve now gone through a couple of hurricanes and am moved at how amazing neighbors are. Our immediate neighbors fixed our fence while putting up with my feeble attempts to help. Our neighbors across the street gave us advice regarding evacuations and security. Another neighbor, who built my house, gave us advice for dealing with windows and water entry. So thank you to everyone that helped us when my house burned down and when we got hurricanes in 2020, despite the fact that I’m not as good at being a neighbor.

Mystery of the cause

You are no doubt wondering how the fire started. At the time I was told by my parents that nobody knew. Bull. My entire family knew what caused this catastrophic event, and why this was kept from me I haven’t the foggiest. My sister Jenni had taken a trip to the basement, holding a candle because of the power outage. These facts are beyond dispute. How this seemingly innocuous journey caused the destruction of a house is rather unclear. The point of view from my family can be summed up as: Jenni. Candle. You do the math.

Jenni objects to this open-and-shut case. “We both had candles” she offers, referring to the fact that Katie had also journeyed downstairs. “I didn’t know until adulthood that I was blamed (without solid evidence) for causing the fire. It was assumed, apparently, that Katie would have been more–ahem–careful.” 22 years later over dinner at Mike’s American restaurant in nearby Springfield Virginia, Katie admits there may have been more than one trip downstairs. This was enough to cast reasonable doubt about the culprit in my father’s reflection of the event. Allowing license for sibling brattiness, my father is always giving Jenni an out.

Returning to view the house, we found the structure and exterior had survived but the inside was almost completely destroyed. Boards were placed over the floors covering large holes that now exposed the basement to the top floor. Pipes in the basement had melted like spaghetti. My room was directly over the source of the fire and was so badly damaged it was placed off limits. Had I been in the room only a few minutes longer during the fire I’d be dead.

My sister Katie had sneaked into her room and recovered a Madonna tape and a silver chain. Being seven years old, my only valuable was my collection of Garbage Pail Kids. To anyone not seven at the time, these were gross trading cards that made fun of the then massively popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. We had furious card trading sessions in school, everyone jockeying for Second Series cards. Anyone with First Series didn’t dare trade. I would hand my money over to cashiers at toy stores and ask for as many packs as I could get. Luckily my cards had survived because I had placed them at the foyer of the house. I don’t believe my mother was as happy with this salvage as I was.


While our family’s house was being rebuilt, we relocated our few possessions to the infamous Mount Vernon Square apartment complex. It is easily apparent the Internet doesn’t like these apartments. Living there was part of an adventure for my father. New place, new times devoid of legacy inanimate objects. Jenni became a neighborhood celebrity of sorts, organizing a gymnastics team. My mother hated living there. Her biggest issue was the daily parade of roaches. My mother is terrified of roaches, and the place gave her many a reason to be terrified. Roaches are tough little critters, and my mother would litter the floor with all manner of traps and boric acid. Years afterward my mother still feared these things, banning cardboard boxes and containers that didn’t originate from our home. “Get rid of that, it could have roaches!” “Don’t leave that out, you’ll attract roaches!”

Apartment life provided some of our most memorable family stories. Perhaps most notorious was a battle between my father and Katie. I don’t recall this event, but it’s relived year after year. Katie brings it up typically prefaced with: “Remember that time you wanted me to eat that disgusting Taylor’s Pork Roll?” Katie enjoys this story, granting particular emphasis on the vendor. The pork roll is a ham-like product that doesn’t seem to enjoy much popularity outside of New Jersey. Katie was not impressed by the pork roll, and refused my father’s insistence that she try it. Father and eldest daughter sat together in a stalemate at the kitchen table as the hours passed, neither budging an inch. Katie won. She would enjoy the spoils of a pork-free evening. To this day Katie upholds her bitter disgust for Taylor’s Pork Roll, boasting a palate devoid of even the slightest idea of what the product tastes like. “I just wanted you to try it”, my father says exasperated, perhaps hoping to evoke sympathy enough to win a pork roll convert decades later.

If the pork roll felt unloved, surely it felt better than the poor furniture. Jenni cultivated many interests during this time. Gymnastics, ice skating, playing the flute. Hobbies have a cost and my father felt stuck operating the vehicle that would connect daughter to hobby. My father was driving us to school one morning when Jenni opened her flute case discovering nary a flute. My father angrily sped the family’s ’85 Toyota Camry back to the apartment, slamming the manual transmission into third gear. This otherwise forgettable event was made legend once back at the apartment when my father kicked a chair and screamed an F-bomb. Nobody was laughing at the time. My sister and I now laugh hysterically at the story of our mostly reserved father beating up defenseless furnishings.

As the months wore on, we lived in our apartment and got used to our new normalcy. We watched TV on a donated black-and-white Zenith. We took trips to the house to watch its construction. I developed a new affinity for computer games, spending quarter after quarter making a digital plumber named Mario jump on things and spit fireballs as a sort of reaction to flowers. I was hooked on this game, enduring trips to the laundromat with my mother so I could go next door to the seedy 7-Eleven to play it. Later in life I would save for nearly a year to buy a Nintendo game console that included the game. Whenever my grades would suffer, both parents would threaten the device that brought the digital plumber into our home. My mother wanted me to know that the ’85 Camry could back over the Nintendo. Noted.

With the reconstruction of the house complete, the five of us hopped in the Camry and headed back to our old neighborhood. The house smelled like chemicals, and we all slept bedless on the floor of our rooms. It was a different house. There was now a clicking sound with one of the pipes that continues to this day. The kitchen had been converted into an open area with an island. As the years came and went, time was less marked before or after the fire, and we lived fairly normally. It would be our home for years to come, and also home at times to two cats, two rabbits, a pet mouse, and a wayward cat named “Pumpkin”… until such time as Pumpkin overstayed her welcome and was surreptitiously smuggled via laundry basket into the nearby Beacon Hill apartment complex.

Updated November 11th, 2020 for grammar, reduced youngest sibling brattiness, and more gratitude.

[0] Image:

$Id: the_house_that_burned 594 2020-11-11 16:07:20Z x $

essay humor

What It’s Like to Get Shot

March 12, 2006

Santa’s Got a Gun

If you’re male in American society, it is customary to injure yourself or others with an air rifle. “Air rifle” is a colloquialism for the classic fourteen-year-old male toy; a reservoir gun equipped with an air chamber capable of propelling small BB’s or pellets up to eight hundred feet per second. These guns are often given to children as gifts with the belief that they are modern equivalents to weaker, single-pump BB guns of days past. Unlike Grandpa’s pea shooter, modern guns can break glass, puncture tires, and allow fourteen-year-olds new and creative ways to spend more money on health care.

I was fourteen when my gun appeared under the Christmas tree. Santa had known that I would shoot surplus toys and, strangely enough, TUMS tablets at my friend’s house at Lake Anne. Because destroying toys and stomach medication was desirable, my very own multi-pump air rifle appeared under our tree. It’s never as much fun to shoot your own toys, so initially all I did with my air gun was calibrate the scope that came with it.

Sadly my gun claimed one victim, a seagull that had landed in my yard looking for food. People that say they have no regrets are very unethical or have no memory. It is unfortunately very common to shoot at squirrels and birds with air guns, and I took part. I fired on a seagull hitting it in the neck, critically harming but not killing it. A memory that haunts me is the look of that bird suffering and unable to move. I fired again out of mercy, and to this day am very nice to animals, even if they’re jerks.

Mustangs and Good ‘ol Boys

It wasn’t long after getting my gun that I had a falling out with my lake house friend. Middle school is a rough time for kids, and I was ever-sensitive about people “talking trash behind your back”. I considered my friend in this trash-talker category and severed ties. Later in life he would slash my family’s car tires and, idiotically enough, a police vehicle’s tires. This series of events kicked off a hornet’s nest of bad blood and visits by Joe Law. Fortunately I had another friend to do stupid things with, a troubled youth that grew up with every illicit BB gun, slingshot, and ninja star imaginable. This was the kid that had the original Body Count tape. This was the kid with all the firecrackers. Not sparklers or snakes, mind you.

My troubled friend was a loner. He wasn’t particularly bright or needed the time alone, he simply was left alone a lot. He was the youngest of four children born to a mother with an addiction to shopping and a father with an addiction to Ford Mustangs. This Mustang man was also known to be a bit crazy. This fact was proven when I was taken to the local 7-Eleven to see that his Mustang GT had created a new parking spot inside of the 7-Eleven. It should come as no surprise that the child of such parents would own an air rifle.

It is amazing what the average kid knows. Kids especially love arcane and taboo knowledge. It follows that something as stupid as the local KKK hotline number would spread like wildfire in children’s circles. We used to call this number not because we were racist, but because it was hilarious hearing the recorded voice. The voice had a thick, redneck drawl and spoke predictable divisive drivel. Often we would leave prank messages and childish remarks. We called it so many times that the recorded message changed and chastised children for “wearing out the tape and leaving prank messages”. My trouble started when my friend wanted to record the voice.

There were three of us in my troubled friend’s room. My friend put his tape recorder on his speakerphone and instructed all of us to be quiet. He dialed the number, the line rang eight or so times, then the voice came on. I immediately made fun of it, ruining the recording. He was mad, restarted the lengthy process, and once the redneck came on I ruined the recording again. At this point my troubled friend told me to get out of the room so he could record it without interruption. He loaded his air rifle and aimed it at me. I pushed it away and he aimed it at me again a few times, but because I was a dumb fourteen-year-old I eventually stopped pushing it away. This left a fully loaded weapon aimed point-blank at my stomach. My troubled friend then turned his head and fired.

“I Shot Dave!”

I immediately fell to the ground and assumed the fetal position. The other kid with us was silent. My shooter turned white, flew up against the wall, and ran out of the room crying. As soon as he left, I got up off the floor and laughed about scaring him. I had only a small pain in my stomach so clearly the pellet must have bounced off. The plan was to say “you shot me” when he returned, then kick the crap out of him. Unfortunately I had a problem. There was now a tiny hole in my shirt. I looked for the pellet on the floor hoping the bloody hole in my stomach was just a cut. Unfortunately no amount of denial helps when you have a lead pellet lodged in your abdomen.

Getting punctured by a lead pellet that traveled hundreds of feet per second hurts less than you’d think. What I lacked in pain I made up for with fear. Will they operate? What will have to happen to have the lead chunk that is inside me, be outside of me? The process at the hospital took about five hours. My doctor was a crotchety disabled man that had no business wielding medical instruments. He decided to remove the pellet after x-rays showed it was a shallow wound. The procedure was executed only with a local anesthetic and though I couldn’t feel the removal, I certainly could feel the blood running down my side. My friend apologized profusely, but as the police said to my parents, “Accident or not, the gun was aimed at your son.” My parents didn’t press charges and I was given the pellet as a memento.

“I Shot Ron!”

If my experience with the air rifle could have been worse, a neighborhood kid’s could have gone better. Ron was a year older, obnoxious, and was known as one of the kids that drew dirty pictures on our neighborhood playground slide. One fateful day Ron’s friends decided to hide in his family’s bushes to surprise him. The surprise plan consisted of shooting Ron with an air rifle. Surprise! “Oh God, I shot Ron!”, said Ron’s shooter. Ron’s reward for cultivating such good friendships was a collapsed lung and a very difficult time at the hospital. What an awful day it must be when your friends hide in your bushes and shoot you in the lung.

Needless to say, my friendship with my shooter didn’t go much further. We hung out a few more times but the event was always there. It can be hard to be friends with people that shoot you. Years later my father let him in the house when I was home from college. I was fresh out of bed, drenched in the groggy awkwardness of it all. I learned he was on his way to becoming a plumber. Though we hadn’t been friends for years, he wanted me to go to a strip club with him. I politely declined. Unfortunately for my plunger-wielding assailant, I don’t even go to strip clubs with people that don’t shoot me. Ron’s relationship with his shooter is much less clear. Perhaps he and his attacker are getting lap dances at this very moment.

Updated September 5th, 2020 for grammar.

$Id: what_its_like_to_get_shot.txt 591 2020-09-05 15:50:21Z x $

linux music recording

Linux for Guitarists: Part One

August 30th, 2020

Show at the Expanded House, 10/18/2003. Photo: J. Groves

I play D.I.Y. and punk music. Loud, social music. Shows are intense, cramped, and fun. There’s nothing comparable to a great show.

Now we all find ourselves in a pandemic with far fewer opportunities to congregate in tiny places. If you want to work with others during a pandemic, or even musicians that are just far away, you’ll need to adapt. One way to keep making music right now is to record it yourself. When you record your work, you can share instrument tracks with others, work together on ideas, and even produce a high quality release.

How My Guitar Stopped Hating my Laptop

I have some friends I’ve been making music with for more than twenty years. A few years ago I moved across the country and I didn’t want to let the band go. At first I’d fly back to Virginia every so often and we’d do as much as we could in a short amount of time. In 2017 I flew back for a week and we recorded a release. As with anything in life, you have to push yourself to do more. The next phase in our growth was to accomplish more before we used airplanes and hotel rooms.

The thought of self-recording on a computer struck me as painful and unnecessary. My drummer (living more than a thousand miles away) patiently encouraged me to learn how to record properly while he made due with my low-quality improvised recordings. I’d send him ideas captured on a phone or cheap mic, with lots of sloppy tempo changes. I didn’t record my ideas to a click track so my timing was terrible. My drummer encouraged me to get some equipment and start recording to a click. I resisted for quite a while but now have all the zeal of the converted.

We will take a detour for click tracks and the controversy they enjoy. A good amount of over-produced, commercial, soulless music is recorded with a click. Music produced with click tracks doesn’t have to be awful, and clicks are an important tool for writing music that’s properly synchronized. Learning to play to a click track is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. I write a lot of tempo and time signature changes, so I had to get used to the strictness of a click while also having to learn more about how to express time in the first place.

Linux and Recording

I’m quite fond of Linux however few studios use it for audio recording. This is almost entirely because the Pro Tools software suite isn’t available. The good news is that Linux is quite capable of handling the demands of low-latency audio production, with a large selection of good software. Linux allows you to tweak minute details of your hardware to squeeze out as much performance as possible. Latency is where this matters most.

Latency is the delay from when your signal is created to when you hear it played back to you. Effects and audio processing put more demands on hardware, requiring more buffering to keep up. Buffering increases latency, which will be felt as delays. Recording busy guitar parts with high latency is frustrating, so naturally your goal is to configure your system with the least amount of latency permissable to properly record.


Your computer probably has a sound card because it’s no longer 1996. Your onboard sound device, however, isn’t typically suitable for professional audio recording. Instead, you’ll need to acquire an audio interface. Audio interfaces are often USB-based and provide native instrument and microphone ports. Most importantly these devices offload work from your computer allowing you to achieve lower latency. I spent some time researching interfaces that worked well under Linux and chose the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen). Plug in a well-supported interface and it will be made available as a new audio output and capture device. Pretty easy.


Linux users will need to run the JACK sound daemon. Modern Linux desktops default to Pulseaudio as the sound daemon. When you plug in an HDMI cable or use wireless headphones, Pulseaudio is responsible for routing the sound. While Pulseaudio and JACK have the same job, JACK is necessary because Pulseaudio wasn’t designed with low-latency professional audio in mind. As a result, most Linux recording software supports JACK.

Standard Linux distributions will need configuration to allow JACK to run optimally. Fedora’s JACK package includes the following instructions under /usr/share/doc/jack-audio-connection-kit/README.Fedora:

    Add yourself to the jackuser group.
        usermod -a -G audio,jackuser "<your username>"

Also ensure you have a config file similar to the following:

    ~]$ egrep -v '^#|^$' /etc/security/limits.d/95-jack.conf 
    @jackuser - rtprio 94
    @jackuser - memlock unlimited
    @pulse-rt - rtprio 20
    @pulse-rt - nice -20

I use both Fedora and Debian when recording. Debian packages a real time kernel which I use when recording, while I do most of my editing on Fedora. Your distribution should have similar instructions for setting up JACK. If you ignore or forget to make these changes your software will usually complain.

QjackCtl is a JACK front end that makes configuration simple. First plug in your audio interface. Open QjackCtl and press “Setup”. Choose your interface under the “Advanced” tab, under the input and output device drop down menus. Click the “Parameters” tab. Your task is now to endlessly futz with “Sample Rate”, “Frames/Period”, and “Periods/Buffer” settings until you have low enough latency for your workload. With the exception of Sample Rate, lower settings provide lower latency. Keep in mind that adding effects and other compute-heavy tasks will require settings that increase latency.

These are my typical recording settings:

  • Sample Rate: 48000
  • Frames/Period: 128
  • Periods/Buffer: 3

I record with low latency settings and mix and render with higher latency settings. Linux lets you choose your desired latency, but it’s up to your hardware to support it. You’ll know if your latency settings are too aggressive if you get terrible popping and “xruns”. An xrun is a buffer over or underrun resulting in audio data loss. An occasional xrun is often inaudible and can be ignored. Floods of xruns will result in heinous distortion and will persist until you increase your latency.

With JACK running and configured to use your audio interface, you’ll want to try out some software. For guitarists, Guitarix provides an amplifier and effect stack suitable for recording and playing live. Starting Guitarix is usually enough to play and hear sound. If you don’t hear sound, you’ll likely need to tell JACK what to route. In QjackCtl, press “Graph” and connect noodles from system capture (which will be your audio interface) to your audio application, Guitarix gfx_head_amp and gfx_head_fx in this case, and finally from Guitarix to system output.

Routing to Guitarix

I imagine JACK routing throws a lot of newcomers. To hear audio, you must make sure an application has a connection to system output. If you want an application to listen for your instrument, ensure there’s a connection from system input to the application. JACK-aware applications can be configured quite flexibly. When recording, I route my system capture twice. The first path is directly from my interface to my audio recording software allowing me to record a dry signal. The other path is from my interface to Guitarix so I can record a wet signal. Keeping a dry signal means that I have the option to change or improve my guitar tone at some point in the future. Applications like Firefox aren’t JACK-aware and will hang if you try to play audio when JACK is running, though there are ways to work around this issue. This tends to bite me when I’m trying to look at YouTube videos for some recording trick.

While routing is explained above, applications themselves can usually start JACK for you if it isn’t already running. Applications like Guitarix and Ardour will start JACK for you, but you’ll still need to configure JACK for most tasks.

Guitarix is an outstanding application that has a learning curve. You’ll need to tweak Guitarix to get a good sound. The best Guitarix resource I’ve found is Libre Music Production’s guide. Guitarix provides presets you can download from the application itself which will be stored under “~/.config/guitarix/”. I suggest starting with some online presets and tweaking from there. I’ve also had good results using impulse response files with Guitarix[0].

This essay is long enough, so an exploration of recording software will wait for another time. Get a hold of a well-supported audio interface and give Guitarix a try. It’s great software.


Suggestions for whole-number JACK settings
Great site for Linux musicians, complete with quite exhaustive discussions about tuning, latency, and all manner of things:

[0]: Per the advice of my friend Ken Savich, I prefer the sound of impulse responses. I use the Catharsis impuse reponse files which I probably downloaded from a place like this.

$Id: linux_for_guitarists_part_one 588 2020-08-30 23:33:30Z x $


Review: The Virgin Suicides

August 2nd, 2020

I’m not trying to just write reviews. There are other things to write about but reviews are a way of silencing the inner critic, by being critical. So today the inner critic is silenced by “The Virgin Suicides” from 1999, a sometimes light drama about youth, Catholicism, and, well, suicide.

I recommend this movie. I prefer to know next to nothing about movies before I see them, so I don’t want to tell you much. You should know, however, how finely crafted the film is.

“The Virgin Suicides” was written and directed by Sophia Coppola, based on the novel of the same name. Kirsten Dunst stars alongside James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Dunst’s character occupies a mixture of both real and imagined qualities, with harsh reality handled skillfully by Woods and Turner. I’ve enjoyed Woods most often as a voice actor in “The Simpsons”, “Family Guy”, and even “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”. Here we see a slightly aloof father that further retreats into bookishness as life becomes more difficult. Turner embodies tragedy with what she doesn’t say, clinging to an idea of family that doesn’t exist.

I’ll take a detour to talk about Catholicism in the film. There’s a lot of privilege in Catholicism, both financially and a difficult to describe privilege of piety. You’re always wrong for something, and if you transgress it’s up to you to figure it out. You’ll be given the silent treatment until you do. 2017’s also excellent “Ladybird” touches on this as well. How do you imagine people react when they’re made to feel that they’re wrong or different?

Fans of 1998’s “Rushmore” will enjoy this film’s confident humor and strong acting. Movies involving young people can easily get insipid like “American Pie”, or far too heavy like 1986’s “Lucas”. What a horrid, horrid movie “Lucas” is. “Virgin Suicides” is crafted with a more mature and skillful hand, letting actors and dialogue exist without hyperbole or fancy edits. I haven’t told you much, but this is an outstanding movie you shouldn’t wait years to see.

As of today, “The Virgin Suicides” is available freely on

$Id: review_virgin_suicides 575 2020-08-02 15:38:12Z x $


Review: Street Smart

July 26th, 2020 maintains a list[0] of movies you can watch for free. Quite a few of them are awful, like “Dogtooth”. Others like “I Am Not Your Negro” are spectacular. “Dogtooth” was so wretchedly terrible and overrated that I plan to spend more time thinking and writing about it merely to have something positive result from so scarring an experience. If there is any doubt that evil exists in the world, keep in mind someone made “Dogtooth”. is a free, Linux-friendly site that offers a decent selection of shows and movies. You’ll find the repugnant “Dogtooth” here, but also some actual movies that don’t make you hate humanity. Tubi has “Street Smart” as part of their Spotlight category. I’d never heard of “Street Smart” but I’ve liked some Morgan Freeman movies, or at least “Shawshank”. There’s a global pandemic, so what the hey?

“Street Smart” was released in 1987 and stars Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman. There’s a time-capsule aspect to watching portrayals of stars, cities, and interiors from the late eighties. I was a kid when the movie was released, and it’s interesting to see old soft drink logos and cars. Who my age doesn’t remember Reeve as Superman and think about how hard he tried to have a dignified life after injury?

Reeve is a magazine writer back in the days when people read things. Magazines even. Reeve has committed to writing about a pimp but is completely incapable of finding one. He’s clearly not cut out for the world he hopes to cover. In other words, no street smarts. So he just makes something up. Fiction passed as truth would have seemed bad in the eighties but would hardly raise an eyebrow now. I don’t want to portray journalism as bad. It’s more important than ever. I’m sure we all miss the outrage over manufactured truth.

Reeve’s story is the talk of the town, because it was the eighties and people read things. Trouble begins when Reeve is questioned about his source and just how this Harvard-educated fella could have been given so much access? Worse still is that the phony story hews awfully close that of a real pimp played by Freeman. The local district attorney believes Reeve wrote about Freeman, while Freeman’s defense attorney senses an opportunity to have the case muddled enough to result in acquittal.

This movie has the ingredients of a zany comedy, where aw shucks, this is all just one goofy mix up. “Street Smart” is better, and quite serious. Reeve becomes more successful, landing a regular television spot where he provides a safe, voyeuristic view into small crimes like graffiti and taxi fraud. Taxis. Remember those? Reeve starts to lose his sense of self and falls further into both his lie and the world it steals from.

The genius of the movie is that Freeman quickly senses and capitalizes on Reeve’s naivete. The two meet, and it’s not long before Freeman shows what his world is really like. Violent, unforgiving, predatory. The movie does a good job of illustrating the kind of tourism the privileged can engage in with regard to the poor and minorities. Freeman knows this, and uses it to his advantage. The movie makes the point explicit, but not in a hyperbolic way. Why is Reeve picking on the poor?

“Street Smart” was Freeman’s breakout role, earning him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Freeman provides his villain with dignity of sorts, fluctuating between harsh violence and a type of paternalism for those he controls. We’re shown a human with both mercy and uncertainty, instead of cartoonish fantasy that patronizes the viewer.

The movie is effective social commentary that is more relevant today than it was in the eighties. Everyone including Reeve seems corrupt. Truth only matters when there’s not profit to worry about. The district attorney, Reeve’s long-suffering girlfriend, and a prostitute Reeve befriends are not corrupt and show how vulnerable the good can be in a terrible world. The movie is quite strong here and makes me wonder why more haven’t seen it.

I’m reminded of the 2001 movie that everyone has seen: “Training Day”. If you liked “Training Day” there’s something wrong with you, or you haven’t seen far superior movies like “Street Smart”. Denzel Washington is amazing in “Training Day” but the movie is quite poorly strung together. The borrowed premise is similar. A privileged, white outsider doesn’t belong in the world he finds himself in while showing the audience that this underworld is filled with real human beings trying to survive.

“Street Smart” is quite a good movie that misses its chance to be a great. Despite all the careful commentary and willingness to show the brutality of life, we get a far more typical Hollywood ending. In one sense the ending shows us what typically happens to those with fewer means. Reeve isn’t a hero and great movie would have haunted us with that.


$Id: review_street_smart 569 2020-07-26 14:26:01Z x $


Writing Again

July 25th, 2020

It’s strange to think I’ve barely left my home since the beginning of the great SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I’ve driven to surrounding areas a bit, a store here and there. The situation we find ourselves in reminds me of Shayamalan’s “The Happening” from 2008, a poorly-executed film dealing with unseen danger. In the film, you sniff some bad air and then decide you want to wreck your car or otherwise harm yourself. Unlike the film, it’s not angry trees that are causing harm in the world. No, I didn’t spoil anything for you.

The great pandemic has forced us all to adapt. If you’re lucky, your employer lets you work from home, greatly limiting your risk of getting yourself or others sick. Humans need contact, however, so you have to keep mindful of your own sanity. I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic working on music. I also felt this would be a good time to put my web site back online.

It’s no longer 1997 and I don’t have to build my own web sites. Why not use WordPress? Security, for one. You can use containers to add a modest amount of containment[0]. Containers provide lots of ways of doing something. Lots of often boneheaded ways. I want to have a site that I can administer, update, migrate, backup, and restore that hopefully offers a touch more security. Containers are a wonderful way of making all of that far more difficult than it needs to be.

I was quite happy to run on RHEL 7, having set up my server years ago. RHEL releases are supported for about ten years, reducing churn and upgrades that can break things. Docker is the dominant container technology, but but I chose Podman due to its ability to run rootless containers. RHEL 7.8’s version of Podman fails (at the time of this writing) when trying to run MariaDB rootless. Things work fine in RHEL 8, so I created a local RHEL 8 VM, transferred it to my cloud provider (which had changed lots of things in the years since I’d last logged in), and copied over my old configs.

Unfortunately some of my configs go back to 2008 or earlier. It’s not difficult to set up a mail server, but it does get a bit more interesting if you want to do things like integrate Dovecot and enable TLS in more areas. So after about twelve or so years, things in RHEL 8 had changed enough that I had to re-learn what some archaic configs meant once again. Dovecot’s config changes in RHEL 8[1] ensured I wouldn’t be up and running without lots of frustrating trial and error.

Somehow after I’d spent enough time suffering through all of the new tech changes I hadn’t kept up on, I had a working server again. My next concern was getting WordPress running. That’s not difficult using the official container, but you’re in for some fun if you want TLS or if you want WordPress served via location and not via a host name. You’ll notice you’re reading this via “” instead of “”. In short, I’ve given up on trying to make the WordPress container work via location. I got far enough that nearly everything worked, but what you’ll find is that WordPress will work, mostly, but then you’ll get things like improper redirection for login pages or, once you fix that, bad links for password resets for users. You win, container. it is.

I’ve spent a long time with all manner of new tech, just so I could write a few things. If there’s interest I’d be happy to share what I know. In the meantime, I’ll just say that all of the effort wasn’t strictly necessary. If you want to write things, just get an account at a site that’s already set up somewhere. Or you could spend a lot of time learning and tweaking.

[0] Containers don’t traditionally ‘contain’ as much as virtualization. Virt is better if you’re after more complete security.
[1] This post finally solved my Dovecot issues: