My favorite things

Bathrobes, Canadians and plastic chairs: These were the things that made my year.

Topics: Music, South Park,

Best Bathrobe: Tony Soprano, “The Sopranos” (HBO)

With the possible exception of Hugh Hefner (who somehow pulls off looking rather regal in PJs), there’s nothing more vulnerable than a man, not to mention a mobster, in bed clothes. And Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the New Jersey family man/wise guy, suffers not only from depression, but perpetual bed head. He’s weary. He’s funny and charming and deadly too, but the fact that he spends so much on-screen time bursting out of his bathrobe while his relatively rested wife and kids have already gotten cracking on the day gives him a reluctant air. Like, he’s willing to kill and be killed if it comes to that, but five more minutes, Mom.

Funniest Song: Le Tigre, “What’s Yr Take on Casavetes?” (Mr Lady Records)
The misspelled name is the first laugh, and after that Kathleen Hanna’s latest band presents a question about how one feels about that pompous dullard of a filmmaker (that’s my take by the by) as a multiple choice. Your options: “Genius! Misogynist!” and “Alcoholic! Messiah!”

Best Chair: Mario Bellini, “Bellini Chair”
I just want to say one word to you: plastics. It was the iMac year, the year of shiny happy, candy-colored, nonbiodegradable adult toys. The year of the new translucence — not to be confused with the old shallowness. Even though these Fisher Price-for-grownups computers got all the attention, Italian designer Mario Bellini made a quieter splash in the plastics pond. His chair — simple, beautiful, comfortable, stackable and 80 bucks — accomplished what Michael Graves’ overblown product line for superstore Target failed to do: provide affordable, elegant design to the masses.

Most Deliriously Byzantine, Gratuitous Argument Against the Mississippi River: Ben Metcalf, “American Heartworm,” in “Best American Essays, 1999″ edited by Edward Hoagland and Robert Atwan
This manifesto against the Big Muddy (from the Baffler) takes on America’s most beloved, most mythologized body of water with a venom that is so gleeful and ticklish and mean you hope they drain the whole swampy mess and pave it over:
“I used to consider it odd that the word most often called upon by those compelled to describe their feelings for a river that had just washed away
their crops, or their homes, or their livestock, or their neighbors, was ‘respect,’ because to my mind a river worthy of respect put up a fight
against the rain, and made some show of absorbing what fell, and did not run its banks at the first sign of darkening clouds and heat lightening.” Corroborated by the Modern Library’s new edition of historian Francis Parkman’s 1869 book “La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West,” in which Indians warn Marquette and Joliet that “there was a demon in a certain part of the river, whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt” and that “its waters were full of frightful monsters, who would devour them and their canoe.”

Top Four Canadian Jokes
1. Celine Dion (winner and still champ).
2. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” College boys sitting around the cafeteria wonder how a girl like Buffy Summers could be so hot and yet so peculiar. One posits, “Maybe she’s Canadian.”
3. “Blame Canada,” a song from the Canuck-baiting “South Park” movie musical.
“With all their hockey hullabaloo/And that bitch Anne Murray too.”
4. Used book, $1, the Strand bookstore, New York City: “The Canadian Address Book: Who’s Where and How to Reach Them” by Zicky Hammud. In this 1994 contact info list for everyone from Alanis (back before she got a last name in ’95) to Carlos Costa, the “first person with a disability to swim across Lake Ontario,” the best part is the author’s inscription on the title page in ballpoint pen: “For Peter Jennings: With all best wishes.”

Best Breakup: Carrie and Big, “Sex and the City” (HBO)
The second season of this Darren Starr comedy simmered in pathos. Sarah Jessica Parker was never lovelier. And after months and months of Mr. Big (Christopher Noth) breaking Carrie Bradshaw’s (Parker) heart one artery at a time, there was The Lunch, in which the callous, suave and dapper Big informs our heroine he’s marrying someone else, a “sweet” and simple 25-year-old whom Carrie has nicknamed the “idiot stick figure with no soul.” The second Big’s news registers on Carrie’s face, she turns into the most human of pinballs, leaping out of her chair, which she knocks over grasping for her purse, snipping at him and tripping down some stairs. The waiters, of course, drop their trays. Interior disaster translated into the cruelest, most embarrassing slapstick.

Best Detective: Lionel Essrog, in Jonathan Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn”
Lionel, an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome who turns detective when his father-figure gets killed, is a new kind of private eye, one that calls all the old ones into question. The thing about our favorite P.I. characters — Chandler’s Marlowe, Hammett’s Sam Spade and the Continental Op — is that even when they were falling apart, they were falling apart cool. There is something resoundingly uncool about Lionel, and this is his charm. Even though his favorite singer is Prince (his funniest, most perfect riff is his Tourettic compulsion to pronounce The Artist’s unpronounceable glyph), there’s something oh so Jonathan Richman about Lionel, an essential postwar goofiness the prewar noir guys never had.

Best Metaphor for America, or Something: Rob Lowe, “The West Wing” (NBC)
It was mysteriously heartwarming to watch Rob Lowe engaged in a fierce and erudite debate about the Constitution with a Bill of Rights-hating possible Supreme Court nominee. He won, too.

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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