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Mohammad Haidar, or Mo, or Big Mo is a polarizing, grand, and unforgettable personality at the University of Chicago. This piece profiles him not only in terms of what his personal background is, but profiles him in the context of the people who know him. The myriad stories or Mo-ments that people take away from interacting with him. Mohammad is like his namesake, a prophet. He brings a different message to each of his disciples – those who know him – but everyone leaves his presence feeling changed. I want to document this broader sense of community fostered by the biggest character I have met in my life: Mo.



For the past three weeks, I have been working on a short-form radio documentary. It is called Choice. You can stream it here, or shoot me an email and I'd be glad to email you the mp3. Listen & enjoy.


Bernie's Proposal

The following is a letter to Off-Off Campus, the improv troupe I have been a part of for almost three years now, which was founded in 1986 by the founder of the Second City, Bernie Sahlins.

Ladies & Gentlemen of Off-Off Campus,

The first time I spoke to Bernie Sahlins over the phone, I called him "Mister Sahlins" and spoke with total trepidation. I asked him what his "program idea" was for Off-Off Campus. Was it going to be a break up letter? ("Nuts to you kids, 24 years is enough. This is your last season.") Was he going to offer to direct the next Off Off revue? ("Alright, no more improv.") Was he going to ask what happened to Kit? ("You're much less attractive and competent than she was.") I didn't know then on the phone, and he told me that the only way he could tell me the idea was in person. He told me to name the time and place, and I did.

It was Ben's idea, really. Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli. Three Jews eating big corned beef sandwiches, talking about what comedy is, and discussing the merits of this mysterious "program idea." I was in love with the image, and Bernie himself said "it sounds like a song."

The last time I spoke to Bernie Sahlins over the phone, I called him "Bernie," but it must have sounded more like "Baerhnee" because he called me at six thirty in the morning. He couldn't do Manny's because he didn't have the car that day. He asked if I could give him a ride. I was then uncertain if Bernie was an octogenarian or a teenager. We rescheduled for today in the Reynold's Club, at three.

Bernie was fifteen minutes early, of course. Knowing he would attempt this double-fake, I was half an hour early. He was carrying only a plain manila envelope (The Breakup Letter, Director's Statement, or Glossy 8x10 of Kit Novotny) and shook my hand. "Now I can put a face to a name."

We got some coffee at the C-shop (his treat, what a date) and made some idle chit-chat while we waited for Ben to get out of class before we got down to the business of The Envelope. We talked about the iPad, at great length and technical detail (esp. re: 10 hour battery life, his own personal preference for the Kindle, and how he put a personal booklight on top of it so it does not bother his very English wife) for the fifteen minutes before Ben's arrival.

I am now certain that Bernie Sahlins is a teenager. He was hip to something that was hours old at the time. In fact, I am sure he was on Gizmodo watching the live updates.

Ben arrives and we get down to the brass of The Envelope. Inside are three identical two-page documents. The header:

Shakespeare Revue

All scenes should be available and funny to someone with no knowledge of Shakespeare.

Oh thank God it's not a breakup letter. It's...a pitch. It's a fucking show proposal form from Bernie Sahlins, the dude who invented OOC and The Second City. I am freaking out internally. While I'll spare you the full extent of his scene ideas, here are some highlights, with formatting preserved:

Romeo and Juliet Runner: In a fancy French Restaurant, At Wrigley Field, with Mayor Daley (video), etc.
Romeo and Juliet ten years into their marriage
Hamlet and Superman
discuss the need for action.
Any of the Bards Plays as Rewritten by David Mamet and the other way around
Shopping for cod pieces
Kabuki Macbeth
The odd couplet: Simon and Shakespeare

* (He described his thought process behind this scene as an earlier idea for Kabuki A Streetcar Named Desire: STERRRA)

Ben and I attempt to praise the good ideas without seeming sycophantic, and criticize the weaker ideas without seeming ungrateful to one of the men who, uh, wrote the book on Comedy. He didn't have kind words for some of his former cast members (Stavid Deinberg, Roan Jivers, and more) and we did not want to get on his shit list. In the end, we were left with the following totally incredible notes of big business:
  • Bernie has friends in high places at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater who would love to come see this Program if we produce it, with the eventual goal being to mount it at the CST.
  • He's totally interested in coming back to see a show this quarter (!) and being involved with our 25th anniversary celebrations Spring/Fall 2011 (!!!)
  • He really, really wants us to like his program and to see it realized on stage.
That last one really got at my heartstrings. I knew Bernie could be a sonuvabitch when talking about people he doesn't like, I knew Bernie has incredibly negative views about improv as art (with the exception of his Favorite Improviser in the World, Dave Pasquesi), but I didn't know he wanted to be approved like this. See, everyone, Bernie loves us in a way I could never understand. We are his children, or rather Grandchildren, and this is the sweetest proposal for a program I have ever seen in my life, with due respect to Kit Novotny's "Sex and the City: Babies!"

He loves you, and don't you forget it, OOC. I know Ben and I won't.

The conversation dried up, we shared our last few laughs, but before final parting handshakes, I asked Bernie if I could take a picture of us together.

"Of course."

Snap. Ben and I trade places.

"You know, I feel like a pony at a birthday party."
"And we feel like kids in a candy store, Bernie."



G. Meyer Rosby


This Year In Songs - 2009

We're gonna do this one a little bit differently this year. Having already presented what I think is the best thing I’ve listened to that came out in 2009 yesterday, this here list is a more accurate representation of my real listening habits. There’s a lot of music out there, and a whole lot of what I listened to that defined by experience of the year didn’t come out this year. So I submit for your approval, the ten best songs and albums I listened to in the last twelve months, along with the dates they were added to my iTunes collection.

Animal Collective – My Girls (1/20)

A song to remind us of the importance of the simple things. Global recession zeitgeist-y, maybe, but also a good point.

Andrew Jackson Jihad – Powerplant (2/8)

Oh Just Download The Dang Thing Right Here. This song has one of the best and most simple metaphors for that real kind of essential love: it generates this world. While AJJ are definitely just a couple of punks who use four chords to write simple jams from the Kurt Vonnegut songbook, this is perhaps where they shine the most. One of two songs on this list that has a personal connection to a very traumatic / wonderful / painful part of my life.

New Order – Age of Consent (2/14)

I did a lot of growing up in the year two thousand nine, and this song perhaps provided the primary soundtrack for one of the central events surrounding it - breaking up with my high school sweetheart. The lyrical sentiment of the song has nothing to do inherently with the situation. It's not a breaking-up-is-hard-to-do kind of thing. But this song very specifically takes me back to a time and place, and that alone makes it worth recognizing. Jim and I, at a houseparty, on the evening before it all happened, drinking beer in the back of the house. Then we both hear that unmistakable bass line, and it is the greatest thing we have ever heard. And for five minutes we both just danced. I wouldn't call my first time hearing this song a spiritual moment, but there was definitely a kind of transcendence that occurred.

Dirty Projectors – Cannibal Resource (6/9)

Like Animal Collective, this one isn't strongly tied to a moment or emotion of twenty aught nine, it's just a solid freaking beginning to the best album of the year.

Paul Simon – The Boy in the Bubble (6/28)

One from an album my parents raised me on, at least in part, because I recognize so many of the songs. But this one took a dang long while to actually get into my life. First there was my high school choir director who played us Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes to introduce us to great singing and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Then there was making Hamentaschen with my roommate Ben while listening to this record. But it wasn't really until Sarah was telling me how her mom would sing her this song as a lullaby that it truly bit me. Another song-of-the-summer for the record books.

Michael Jackson – P.Y.T. (6/28)

Dorothy Gambrell summarizes my feelings on the death of Michael Jackson here. In my lifetime at least, a freak and media circus while living, and while dead, a saint of pop music. Gives me some hope about how we're all remembered when we die. So yes, this song by the most famous person to die since at least JPII, was a major part of my summer. Then there was that awesome email that Bryan Duff sent around about his first day as a real adult at real work and this song got stuck in his head. Sold.

The Feelies – Invitation (7/15)

Not going to lie, I first heard this song when I saw this YouTube video by a girl I dated in grade school. And it has stuck with me. Then a few weeks ago I rented a Jeff Daniels movie where this band was playing the band at a high school reunion. Feelies! You are following my life in accidental and curious ways!

El Ten Eleven – Connie (9/9)

Proof positive that Pandora works. Guys, this twenty first century thing is pretty scary. I was in the admissions office, writing something while listening to a Pandora Radio, and this song came on. I can't lie, I thought it was freaking fantastic. So then I went out and bought their album. See, Record Industry? Sometimes the idea works. Now excuse me while I go throw a blanket over the .mp3s I have torrented in my lifetime. Nothing to see here.

Taylor Swift – You Belong With Me (11/1)

The best pop song about the most earnestly true feelings of high school. I mean, if I could bottle this song and pour it on peoples' heads, I think it would turn them back into high schoolers. Whatever, I know an anthem when I hear one. But this one is more than that. Anthems somehow always feel removed and above the action. But Taylor Swift, foal* that she is, seems incredibly close to those feelings. It's more genuine than an anthem. It's just a complete jam.
*Foal is my mom's personal term for a young girl who is all legs.

The Books – Classy Penguin (11/18)

I'm a huge fan of the Books, and how they seamlessly toss in just the right sound-byte to punctuate their classically trained but experimentally geared guitar and cello. This song of theirs, which is criminally only available on DVD and not in any other purely audible format (unless you extract the sound file from the YouTube video, word to the wise), doesn't have that extraneous found-sound information. And it still works, so well.


This Decade In Music

No need to specify which decade I'm referring to. By the time 2020 rolls around, I'm sure we'll by on mega-blogs directly implanted into your brain, and I will be a thirty year old grumpy man with no joy left in my heart. I'll see the kids running around saying "Hey old-man Rosby, where the lists at?" And I will just shake my fist at them and continue to not update this here Blogger, which is so Web 2.0.

However, as it stands, I'm in a pretty spectacular position to be doing decade in review at this age. If I were still in high school, how could I possibly wrap up my music tastes at age six? I didn't have any. Essentially, my entire musical development occurred in the last ten years, which is really frightening and exciting to think about. So what we're going to do here is take a quick look back at ten significant albums in my life from each of these ten years.

2000 - Kid AThere is probably nothing else to be said about the most critically acclaimed album of the decade from arguably the most important band of the decade. At least about their music, there isn't. But from a personal perspective, this album, which I first heard no sooner than 2003, represented a major departure in my tastes from your standard rock and roll drum and guitar and vocals instrumentation.

Apologies to: Sleater-Kinney - All Hands on the Bad One

2001 - Take Off Your Pants and Jacket
Here's probably the pick on the list most guilty of nostalgia-factor-over-excellence based decision making. But I still contend that the totally goofy pop and poop sensibility these three had is of critical merit. It also was the perfect backdrop for Jewish sleepaway camp at the peak of pubescence. And I'll really be an old man when I stop laughing at "he's always fucking shitting his pants."

Apologies to: The White Stripes - White Blood Cells, Andrew W.K. - I Get Wet, The Strokes - Is This It?

2002 - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I bought this record for my dad's fifty second birthday, but I am positive I got the most playtime out of it. This very quickly brought down my pop-punk leanings, and showed me that powerful lyrics can really drive forward the songs. And who doesn't still get chills from "I want to salute / the ashes of American flags." Again, awash in critical praise, so I'll spare you that, but a totally solid and unforgettable record.

Apologies to: Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things, Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights

2003 - The Lemon of Pink
One that really gained its importance in more recent years, but an incredible demonstration of the power of cello, guitar, bass, and found noise. And it really is spectacular found noise - a perfectly manufactured sonic landscape. And while we're talking about context appropriate, I think I've listened to this mostly late at night, writing papers, with headphones in. This has been my post midnight brain fuel for all of college.

Apologies to: The Rapture - Echoes

2004 - Seven Swans
If Christian music is garbage, how can music about Christianity be important, touching, and personal? Perhaps because the central message of Sufjan Stevens' best album is that religion is complicated, troubling, and difficult. It's also pretty, and achieves an economy of sound. It sounds enormous and ambitious while being relatively toned down compared to his more-is-more swirling achievements in the 50 states project.

Apologies to: Ted Leo / Rx - Shake The Sheets, Arcade Fire - Funeral

2005 - The Sunset Tree
I've had an attraction to things about dysfunctional and downright frightening family situations, I think, because I was raised in a totally loving home. This album, about J.D.'s abusive and downright scary father, is his best collection of songs. There is such satisfaction earned through a complete listen to the album cover to cover, especially when you arrive at that final sighing " she told me how you'd died at last, at last" in the final verse of Pale Green Things.

Apologies to: Animal Collective - Feels, Nujabes - Modal Soul

2006 - Ys
Don't this just say it all:
And though my wrists and my waist seem so easy to break,
Still my dear I would have walked you to the edge of the water.

And they will recognize all the lines of your face
In the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter.

And darling we will be fine but what was yours and mine
Appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes.
Apologies to: The Hold Steady - Boys & Girls in America, Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

2007 - Neon Bible
Yes, this is the best album they have done in their young careers. Funeral had its own moments of beauty, but this one captures the early 21st century Zeitgeist perfectly. Fear of religion, the future, the captivity of the self. And yet through it all, the briefest moment of hope "between the click of the light and the start of the dream."

Apologies to: Andrew Jackson Jihad - People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People in the World, Les Savy Fav - Let's Stay Friends

2008 - Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst is the most important songwriter in my life. Fevers and Mirrors was there when I needed catharsis, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was there when I needed a steady hand and understanding, and this, his best album, isn't tied to any particular time in my life. The lyrics are honest without being diary-page cloying, the songwriting is Mexican influenced without aping, it's just really solid songwriting.

Apologies to: Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

2009 - Bitte Orca
This is the thesis statement album Dave Longstreth's entire career has been leading up to. Seeing them play live this summer only reinforced this belief. They are the tightest, most unified band out there now, pushing music forward by looking backward and drawing on history itself. Their re-imagining of Black Flag in 2007 was good, but this record pushes their distinctive musical style to its fullest evolution here. It's no mistake that the back of this album features Dave staring down Nietzsche. Right, the music. Frenetic guitar play that borrows from Africa (who isn't doing that these days?) but also classic good-old-USA-American rock riffage. The female vocalists are incredible, I can tell what they mean by "Mariah Carey" influence as a positive adjective. Accessible while mysterious, familiar while strange, this album is just the best of 2009. Oh, and seeing it performed live really pushed it over the top.

Apologies to: Japandroids - Post Nothing, Dan Deacon - Bromst