Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why Mediocre Is Worse Than Bad

The Who--"Naked Eye" (mp3)

Let's say you're in Florida, on vacation, you don't feel like cooking, the kids want Italian, so you think about this little place you've driven or walked past numerous times, always intrigued because the menu offers some things different from the standard Italian fare. So, you check it out on the Internet, read some reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp and what have you, just to reassure yourself about this new place, because you do have stand-bys and old favorites, but the kids don't want to go there.

So, off you go, drive downtown. You walk in on a Thursday night. It isn't too crowded, but there's energy, a vibe. You are seated. Your waitress has an intriguing accent. You are charmed. You like the vibe.

The menu prices are probably 1 1/2 times what you expect to pay at an Italian place, but you shrug that off, expecting a special meal and pleased that you have pleased your girls. You look for something mid-range and find something intriguing: Chicken Scallopini with Tomatoes and Smoked Mozzarella. The girls order a variation of their usual pasta. You attempt to confirm the waitress' Russian accent, only to find out that she is Brazilian, with a German father. Not what you expected.

You and the girls work through a small loaf of homemade bread while you wait.

When the food comes, you don't think it's for your table, because one of the entrees is a stacked tower and you know that no one ordered that. But, it is placed down in front of you, layers of cheese, and tomatoes, and chicken, skewered by a sprig of rosemary and surrounding by julienned vegetables and a light sauce. Wow, you think.

Your first reaction is to take a picture of it. This, you think, is going to be something. And you pick up your knife and fork with pride.

But that's where it ends. As you cut into it, you discover that it is cheese, layer of tomato, another layer of tomato, smallish piece of chicken, layer of tomato, slightly larger piece of chicken, layer of tomato, julienned vegetables. Ah, you figure, so maybe they should have named it Tomatoes and Smoked Mozzarella with Scallops of Chicken. Or scallop-sized. But, what the heck, you like tomatoes, it will be fine. The girls are enjoying their pasta. But when you finally put the tomato in your mouth, you think, wait a second, this tomato is barely ripe. In fact, as you deconstruct your tower, you realize that all of the tomatoes are no better than a washed-out pink. In the middle of the summer in the Sunshine State, a state where you bragged about the tomatoes just days before.

And, at that point, you are stuck with a mediocre meal. See, the problem is that if it were truly bad, you would be motivated to do something about it. If the chicken wasn't cooked through, if the taste was off, you'd call the waitress over and send it back. But not as much chicken as you'd expect, tomatoes not as ripe as what you are used to, what are you going to do? The restaurants of America are full of unripe tomatoes. We take them for granted.

You think, hey, if you're making to make tomatoes the star of your dish, they better be damn good tomatoes! Right? Well, maybe not. That's your vision. You know that great chefs search out the best ingredients they can find. But you are in Venice, Florida, where the thinking may be to get the biggest tomatoes they can find so that they can build their tower.

Because here's the problem: mediocre is somebody's vision of good or good enough or acceptable.

Believe it. I saw the owner or chef out in the room chatting with other customers that he knew, relaxed, comfortable about his place. There's no way he originally set up shop thinking 'I'm going start a mediocre upscale Italian restaurant.' It just ended up that way. The girls' pasta--perfectly fine, but uninspired. Maybe the best the place or the current chef can conceive. Maybe it's what the "locals" like to eat. Maybe because he's a local himself, he gets enough compliments about his food that he believes it.

If you find yourself sitting in the middle of it, you begin to question yourself. Am I a snob? Everyone around me seems perfectly satisfied with their food. Even though you know, just from the decisions made about the food at your table that it's decent at best. But you do question yourself.

And that's why mediocre is worse than bad. Bad demands action; mediocre inspires complacency. Maybe no one acts on the bad, but at least they know it exists. The mediocre, though, well, they just blend in. Here's my theory: if you ever want to bring down an empire, a country, an institution, a team, or even a restaurant, get its loyal people to accept mediocrity. They will lose their standards. They will lose their way. They will pay and leave and forget about it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Fear Of Fish

YACHT--"Dystopia (The World Is On Fire)" (mp3)

The pervasive fear (or dislike--we hate what we fear) of fish is not all that hard to understand for someone of my generation. Raised on an only-occasional fish diet of casseroles or loafs that contained either canned tuna or canned salmon, a child didn't have too many encounters with fish, and, likely, none of them pleasant. Only my mother, among the people and restaurants I knew, had the ability or, really, patience to get the fishy taste out of a can of tuna.

On the rare occasions that an actual piece of "fresh" fish appeared on the dinner table, we all knew that we were doomed to an evening of conflict. My dad loved fish and doesn't have a good sense of smell and so every once in awhile we had to indulge his desire. But the problem with children is that they aren't going to willingly eat something that doesn't taste good to them. And they definitely aren't going to eat something that tastes dead. And, in those "clean your plate" years, their parents are going to try to make them do it anyway.

But kids are so full of life. Why would they want to eat something that was so clearly, noticeably, advertisingly dead?

That's what we're talking about, isn't it? That fishy smell? It smells dead. It smells like living creatures that have been out of the water too long and have started to turn. One experience with that smell and taste combo and you're pretty much done with fish. Maybe forever. My wife continues not to like salmon for that very reason. Of all of the fish you can get your hands on, salmon is the one most likely to taste fishy.

Each year, my daughter comes down to this condo in Florida with a friend. Inevitably, given the plethora of waterfront restaurants around here, the talk turns to fish. This year's friend was the most blunt of all:

ME: Ame, do you eat fish?
HER: I'm afraid of fish. They scare me. I don't really have anything to do with them. I don't get near them.

I don't think there will be any waterfront dining in the near future.

But, you know, you get into any group of people, especially adults, and it is almost a certainty that that one or more of them won't like fish. The phobia is pervasive, probably justified, and hard to counter. It can really shut down your options when you're in a place like New Orleans or Florida. It can really undermine suggestions that a healthy diet should be based around fish as a primary protein.

The end-around is seafood. Plenty of people who didn't like fish will, like me, find their way back to sea through 2 related paths: 1) shellfish, and 2) frying. Especially if you put the two together. My parents convinced me to try fried shrimp, which back in the 60's, was a legitimate entree in an upscale restaurant, and then crab cakes and then grilled shrimp, and, of course, lobster. Fry something or dip it in enough butter, and, it will taste good. Plus, McDonald's, for all their flaws, made the fish sandwich a pervasive fast food offering. Which makes the 3rd related path: cheese. Let's not just fry fish. Let's put cheese on it. And tartar sauce.

Once you realize you can eat fish, you can order dishes that have crab piled on top of them, probably with some kind of buttery sauce. But the great irony is that to get people to like fish, it has to not taste like fish. Which isn't really true. It has to not taste like what they think fish tastes like. Which is fishy. And, to this day, people like me take the first bite of their beautifully-prepared fish tentatively. Is it really fresh?

Had I not moved south nearly 30 years ago, I doubt I would have become a lover of fish. The shocking discovery that catfish and tilapia, whether fried or not, didn't taste like fish opened the door. From there, getting to taste other fresh offerings--the redfish or drum in New Orleans, the grouper in Florida, whatever was on the menu at the Bonefish Grill (best chain in America?)--gets one to the point where they will order a piece of fish for its own sake, for its own taste. For fresh fish, like most great foods, is at its absolute best when prepared simply, not when hidden under sauce.

Still, I know people in my Southern neighborhood, older than I am, who gave up on fish 50 years ago. Certainly, they have not let it touch their lips willingly in the interim. I doubt anything can change that at this point. Which seems a shame in our increasingly-global American cuisine.

The funny thing is that my daughter and her fish-hating friends do eat fish. Sushi, after all, is the new fried shrimp, the new gateway to the sea. Put small pieces of fish in a roll with some cucumber and some cream cheese, maybe with some soy, ginger, and wasabi, and, hey, that's not too bad. Plus, call it sushi and maybe people will forget it's fish. So, I doubt we'll be having grouper on the wharf this week, but I can guarantee you that we'll be eating rolls at Bushido.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Elvis has left the building.

Eddie Money--"Wanna Be A Rock 'N Roll Star" (mp3)

After a baseball player hits a home run, everyone on his team touches him, in hopes of getting some small piece of his mojo and being like him in their next at-bats.

If you don't remember Steve Forbert, a musician who came up in the late 70's, from his hit "Romeo's Tune," let me tell you a little bit of the circumstances of his rise to semi-stardom. Forbert was simultaneously dubbed "the new Dylan" and "the new Springsteen" by various critics. A gifted lyricist, Forbert was capable of the kind of wordplay that Dylan (and Springsteen) had demonstrated. But he also had the youthful exuberance and charisma of the young versions of both, and probably because he couldn't afford a touring band, was traveling around playing his songs with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica around his neck. Hence, the additional comparison.

One irony: when Forbert's first album came out, it was only three years since Springsteen had graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek, whatever that might mean, since Springsteen had been compared to Dylan when he burst on the scene. Of course, Springsteen had also been dubbed the "future of rock and roll."

It may be no accident that Forbert went electric and white-boy soul as soon as possible. But, dammit, he still had those sax solos, those horns. Just like Bruce.

Last week, a friend of mine sent me video from his Iphone that he had shot at a concert in Colorado. It was proof, he claimed, that he had found "the next Stevie Ray Vaughn." This is a mock-serious search that three of us have been engaged in for many years, my one friend being especially susceptible to the blues player who has complete command of the fretboard and can shred with the same authority as Stevie Ray. This has led him even to go see a 14-year-old kid in concert who was rumored to have Vaughn's chops. I burned him a CD this summer by a woman whom I dubbed, again with some humor, "the next British female Stevie Ray Vaughn."

It took my friend's wife, no particular aficionado of music, to point out that, wait a second, this kid may be fast and technically-skilled, but he wasn't the next anything. He didn't have any soul. He was just a kid. Only Ralph Macchio could be a bluesman at that age. My friend conceded that fact, in fact, has conceded it over and over during the search, but he remains more serious about his search than the rest of us.

Through a variety of phone texts that we exchanged, he and I had this exchange:

ME: I think the world only needs one.
HIM: One what?
ME: One Stevie Ray Vaughn.
HIM: We're just looking for a #2. Wouldn't there ever be another Boss?
ME: I hope not.

Just for the record, I'm not looking for the next Woody Guthrie, the next Elvis, the next Dylan, the next Janis Joplin, the next Jimi Hendrix, the next Springsteen, the next Jerry Garcia or anyone else. I don't need the new Beatles or the reconstituted Lynryd Skynyrd. I'm not interested in the reunion of Buffalo Springfield or the "half-Who." I don't care who's getting back together, who still has one original member and calls themselves the Beach Boys. I saw the Beach Boys in 1974. It was a reunion tour then. I'm not kidding.

I don't seek a president who is the reincarnation of JFK; I'm certainly not pining for the next Ronald Reagan. As I stated in a post earlier this week, I don't think that J.D. Salinger is the next J.D. Salinger. I don't think that there is another The Catcher In The Rye sitting there among his unpublished writing.

Elvis, my friends, has left the building. We shall not see his like again. The circumstances which allowed him to emerge, to create himself, to destroy himself, no longer exist, at least not in the same ways. We do not need the "new" or the "next" of anyone. But we like to enjoy the possibility that it could happen.

I think we're probably after two things here. The first is that we can't help but to enjoy familiarity, and we'd like to extend that comfort as long as possible. If Radiohead would put out variations of The Bends for the rest of their career, or if some unknown band would pick up that mantle, some of us would be very satisfied. While we might criticize R.E.M. for having too many songs that sound the same, the reality is that if we like that sound, we aren't going to complain too much.

The other thing we're after, is our own pasts, or pasts that existed before us. If only the Beatles could have reunited, then maybe we could also recapture a bit of ourselves as we were when they were around. Or what we heard it was like, because we were too young. Or, next best thing, if "the new Beatles" come along, then we can bask in that phenomenon. As it happens. Ourselves.

But, you know, nostalgia ultimately equals sadness. Much as we might want to repeat the past, eventually we realize that those bits of the past that we are able to recapture make us sad. Admittedly, it can be a kind of sweet sadness. What would really be sad, though, is if there were no record of our musical pasts. Luckily, we have ample Elvis, Beatles, Dead, Stevie Ray and the rest to nourish us whenever we need it, which allows us to move forward to the new. At least it should.

For better or for worse, Steve Forbert never became the next anything. He's still, 33 years down the road, the current Steve Forbert. And hasn't played any casinos or cruise ships that I know of.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It Happens.

Pillar of Davidson - Live (mp3)
Message In a Bottle (cover) - 30 Seconds to Mars (mp3)

The rough estimate is something like this: One in every six men were sexually abused as children.

For some, the abuse is an ongoing endless nightmare from a trusted mentor, loved one, relative. For others, it is a lightning flash nightmare that happens so briefly in the history of their lives that it’s almost easier to convince yourself it never happened.

The subject has become slightly less verboten of late.

The scandal of the Catholic church started to open this door. Lately, a handful of celebrities have emerged to admit their own history of victimization. Sugar Ray Leonard, Tyler Perry, CNN anchor Don Lemon -- all African-American, but more of a coincidence than anything of statistical relevance -- have all come out recently to share their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of another older man.

Tyler Perry joined 199 other men who stood together on an episode of Oprah last fall in the hopes of making it clear that the problem is all too frequent and too easily swept under rugs.

I don’t remember how old I was when I finally told my mother I’d been sexually abused. Maybe 28. Maybe 30. I think I’d already become a father. We were in a hospital cafeteria, I think waiting for my father in ICU. But I couldn’t tell you the year or the season.

What I do recall was the feeling in my body. That this horrible volcano of truth was about to come out of me and rock her world in ways that would be altogether different from the way it rocked my own.

I’d told probably a dozen people by that point, including my wife only a few months into our relationship, but telling my mom was the toughest of all, and there wasn’t a close second.

The experience of being sexually abused is not a story anyone is excited to tell to anyone -- much less a parent who had no way of knowing, no way of preventing, no way of protecting. It’s a story that was bound to leave my mother conflicted with haunting thoughts of her own and, therefore, a story that for the longest time I thought best never to share.

I was hardly a defenseless toddler when it happened. I was 16. But in matters of sex and intimacy, I might as well have been 9, because I was completely inexperienced and naive beyond belief.

It happened at a summer church camp where I was a first-time counselor. I was as much an odd bird then as now, but far less comfortable in my skin. The other counselors, some of whom were classmates of mine, all came from two other churches in town. They were mostly the cool and attractive kids, and I was just me, desperate to fit in, over-eager to please, eager to be some flashlight device shining The Light of Jesus on kids.

Translation: I was easy pickins.

The most charismatic man at camp took me under his wing. His name was David, and everyone thought he was this amazing mixture of cool and warm. He carried himself with such ease and grace, yet he also was able to make you feel like he genuinely cared about every person who crossed his path. The first few times we spoke, it was daylight. They were Jesus talks. About my faith and my life. And we’d be walking down a sidewalk, passing all these kids, and all of them treated David like a rock star.

Then one night he asked me to walk the grounds with him after lights out, when the counselors were a little more free, and we talked more. I felt special that he’d singled me out for this honor. I remember him sitting on a stairwell. It was on the outside of a building, but covered and lighted, and I stood leaning back with my arm extended and hand on the rail, swaying back and forth while we talked about the miseries of teenage-dom.

I remember him concluding our talk by hugging me. I remember thinking of that hug over the years, realizing that I had, with the allowance of a simple hug, invited him like some vampire into some other realm of my existence.

All the counselors slept in a single room, on sleeping bags on the floor. And this is the part that is the most surreal. We got back from that walk, and everyone was asleep, and I went to my sleeping bag. I was on the verge of sleep when he crawled next to me. Was it an hour? Twenty minutes? Half the night? I have no idea. I only know we were in a very dark room with perhaps eight, 10 other teenagers sleeping all around me.

Did any of them wake up? Did they just not say anything? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I fight? Did it go on all night, or just a few hours? How many Bible verses could I recite from memory, over and over, in the hopes of pretending I was somewhere else, pretending this wasn’t happening?

The next morning was a fog, as were the mornings after that. The rest of camp became two sharply-divided stories. The first story was daylight, a time when I zombie-walked past people, trying to figure out what was happening while not giving away my fears, my experiences, my attempts to somehow connect all of it to my faith. In the daylight, there were several days when I truly thought it might not have happened, that it might actually be some weird recurring dream. And I was freaked out by how easily I could separate what was happening to me from the daily act of living.

Every day, this man would stand up in front of hundreds of children and talk about the love of Jesus, and his words held sway. He was, I truly believed, girding the faith of a lot of kids, possibly even getting them to rededicating themselves to their faith. Surely he wasn’t doing these things to me. Surely it was a dream.

Night, however, was a time of paralytic fear, where I felt almost like a prisoner incapable of realizing the only bars and restraints were ones I permitted, were ones in my own innocent and frightened mind. I’m pretty sure it happened four nights. Maybe three. Maybe five.

The fact that I can’t remember details is, oddly, what makes me all the more accepting of the reality. If I remembered everything, I’d somehow worry that I’d crafted the entire tale.

The story has an oddly almost-happy ending.

The last day of camp, as everyone was packing and preparing to return home, David dragged me away to a place I suspect he had scouted and picked for just this moment. David asked if he could drive me home, and we could stay here and help clean up the camp before heading back. It was clear what he was asking, and I remember my entire body almost convulsing with fear.

Although I had allowed it to go on for several nights, somehow in this instant I found the courage to say no, to push him away, to find some deep and intense resolution to stand ground. Had David gotten truly violent, I would not have succeeded in walking away that day, but he didn’t, because he was ultimately a coward. And I managed to get this sense that I'd ended the experience with some miniscule sense of control and power.

I’m not writing this pushing for a book deal, nor am I writing it to create in my friends or acquaintances who read BOTG a sense of awkwardness or guilt. Most of the folks who read this and know me have known me long enough now to, I think, get beyond that kind of reaction, at least eventually.

I’m writing this because a lot of semi-famous and brave people have recently added their names to the long list of men who were, at some point in their lives, taken advantage of. I’m writing this because surely for every man who carries these experiences with him into adulthood, at least two women can match him.

In college, I told four female friends about my abuse, and three of the four had been raped or molested, and they told me their stories in return, and I remember feeling so humbled by their experience.

A hundred million bottles, lost upon the shore...
A hundred million castaways, looking for a home...

I just finished the disturbing book ROOM this week. At one point in the book (SPOILER ALERT) the abducted woman at the book’s center is being interviewed on national television, and she says: “I wish people would stop treating us like we’re the only ones who ever lived through something terrible.”

This was precisely the feeling (except my experience was by comparison a drop in the wasabi bucket). You don’t want people thinking you feel special or unique in your suffering. You don’t want sympathy when a tsunami can wipe out entire areas of Japan.

Over the years, I’ve tried providing my information to key people in the hopes this man could be tracked down. I’ve never worried about wanting punishment for his crimes against me, but I occasionally still worry about others he might have abused because I didn’t step up and report or accuse. My Google searches and my reports to several web sites and my sharing information with several people in law enforcement led almost nowhere. Too little, too late, too bad, so sad.

Oh yeah, and David was black. Which added, you know, a whole ‘nother layer of confusion and challenge to the experience.

Anyway, I can’t stop him. He could be arrested or dead by now for all I know, or he could still be working in a religious setting with children, still seeking out the vulnerable and lost sheep.

But at least I can write out some of the basics. At least I can add my name to the long and disturbing list of men who carry this with them. At least I can, hopefully, serve as an example to others who go through it that you can lead a fairly normal adult life, that it’s possible to heal and recover and carry on.

Sure, you have moments when it’s there. Certain things trigger the experience in one way or another. For example, everytime I hear “Pillar of Davidson,” for some reason I think back on it, even though the song wasn’t out until I was in college.

Funny how you can spend two months trying to write this, and you can take 1,700 words, and you still can’t get it organized, you still can’t get it all to come together. Maybe because all of that would be a great excuse to continue delaying the act of getting it out there.

So I’m not delaying anymore.

I was sexually molested as a teenager. I survived. The experience and the memory is as messy and disorganized as this attempt at explaining it.

But it happened. And it happens every day to boys all over this country, all over the world. And we really ought to start figuring out a way to make it less shameful for the victims to come out and admit it, even if I don’t have the first clue where to start on doing that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book-Of-The-Day Club

Sun Kil Moon--"Lost Verses" (mp3)

For the past three days, I have read a book each day. Nelson DeMille's The Lion on the first day, Kenneth Slawenski's J.D. Salinger the second day, and E.L. Doctorow's Sweet Land Stories the third day. I will probably read another book again today.

This is not intended to be any kind of commentary, any kind of braggadocio. My circumstances are unique--I am alone in the family's Florida condo for another two days before my children come. I have the luxury of picking up or putting a book down whenever I feel like it. I can take it with me wherever in place of conversation. I have an incredible library to draw inspiration from. And it is certainly not a reflection on either my reading prowess or my loneliness. While I'm pretty good in the first and not yet affected by the second, it does need to be said that I am not reading a book each day either to show off or to pass the hours.

I am simply reading these books because I can. They are there and I am there to read them and reading is a habit I carry with me.

What I want to tell you about is the effect that it is having on me. I am already a regular reader; I'm sure you are, too. I read at night before I go to sleep. I occasionally go to lunch by myself and take a book (or Kindle) with me. I sometimes read at work in the when there is nothing else to do. But, most dayssummer , I don't have the easiest time carving out much reading time.

Reading before going to sleep is very ineffective. Since I am reading before I fall asleep, it stands to reason that some portion of the last pages I read each night are lost to that netherworld that exists between wakefulness and sleep. I recently read most of a very large fantasy novel, A Game Of Thrones, during those minutes before sleep. I can't tell you how often I had to go back a few pages until I could find something that I remembered reading. It is not an efficient way to read.

But reading an entire book in a day, well, that has its own set of challenges. In the cases of my past three days, that has involved a) on day one, hanging with a smartass N.Y. cop as he chases down and settles a score with a Libyan terrorist, b) on day two, following the entire writing career of Salinger, from his noodlings at Valley Forge Military Academy to his last, failed publication at the New Yorker, and c) on day three, a somewhat random story-by-story journey through some seedier aspects of American life. In each case, the circumstances have gotten so deeply into my head that they have been hard to shake. Not surprisingly, I guess, they have colored each entire day, even dreams.

I remember the first book (of an adult nature and length) that I read straight through. It was Word Of Honor by the above-mentioned Mr. DeMille. I read it straight through because I literally could not put it down. I can still picture sitting in that chair in that living room with that book as the day slid past me.

Poe claimed that he wrote his stories to be read in one sitting, which would allow them to achieve their single "effect" on the reader. His stories' typical length would seem to bear out this theory, or at least make it possible. Wonder what he would have thought about the idea of reading an entire book of some 400 or 500 pages straight through. I think he would have discovered, as I did, that even a long book, despite its many plot twists or its coverage of the 91 years of a person's life, still creates an effect.

Try spending the day with J.D. Salinger sometime. I promise you, not unlike in the music documentaries Billy discussed the other day, that you will not come away thinking, what a weirdo or pedophile or anything else negative. Instead, you will get enough of the cumulative incidents and circumstances that made him who he is. You may be surprised, as I was, by the intensity of his military service during WWII (D-Day, St. Lo, Cherbourg, Hurtgen Forest, Battle of the Bulge, liberation of concentration camps) and the impact that it so clearly had on him, when that was never clear before, except in "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." You may discover that religion, especially Eastern religion was central to the last 60 years of his life. You may see how, either as a result of their best intentions or their own agendas, the editors he worked with from beginning to end all let him down. Or at least he thought so. You may understand that he did not take a quick path from hero to hermit, that he lived for years in small town New Hampshire as a member of the community, traveling often to New York, but that when a man like Salinger only wants his privacy respected, it becomes the one thing that people are unable to do. Lastly, you may conclude that you have no interest in the reams of writing that he continued to amass through his entire life, even though he last published in 1965. It seems likely, at least to me, that J.D. Salinger is not "the next J.D. Salinger."

So, yes, the effect is understanding more than judgment. But spending your own day with such a singular focus has its own broader results as well. As you chronicle Salinger's writing career, you can't help but reflect on your own (lack of one). As you realize the fame and financial support that Salinger gained from short fiction (for years, the New Yorker paid him $30,000/year for the right to the first look at anything he wrote, whether they published it or not), you may wonder what happened to the United States. How and why did our support of the arts and artist wither away? Or, perhaps most of all, how can we judge anyone when we have incomplete knowledge about how they got to where they are?

And the same is true if you're simply spending the day reading a fairly well-written post-9/11 thriller. Again, you can't help but revisit memories, ponder the current global situations, think about a book you're teaching in the fall, hear a Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle song in your head, shake your head at Americans' inability to tell where people from other cultures are actually from, wonder if the weaknesses that this fictional terrorist exploits in the novel are, indeed, real weaknesses, lessons we have not learned.

It is so rare these days that we get to focus at length on anything, that it almost doesn't matter what it is. The depth of thought it creates has great value regardless. Reading a book in one day becomes a kind of meditation, the quiet time that some of my friends like to carve out in the morning, the chance to slow life down, however briefly, to the pace that we are comfortable with. That's not a gift I'm going to turn down.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Finest Meal Of The Summer

R.E.M.--"Crush With Eyeliner" (mp3)

Usually, while in Florida, there is a fruit and vegetable stand where I go to get whatever they have. It is a local place with local sources, so everything is very fresh, and they tend to have more “gourmet” items than our place back home in East Ridge.

So I set out yesterday morning to stock up, get some of their salad dressing, see what they had that I might can, but when I pulled into the empty parking lot with a sinking feeling, I saw the sign that read “Closed For The Season. Re-Open In October.”

I figured that left me with nothing but the same grocery store produce I could get back up in Tennessee, varieties of fruits and vegetables that have been engineered to withstand long journeys and a good shelf life. In other words, produce with thick skins that favored longevity over taste.

But then, as I was cruising past Target on my way home, I saw what looked like a produce stand. There was a pick-up truck and an umbrella and a gentleman who looked like an older version of Mario from Mario Cart. He had gray hair, a thick mustache, a pot belly, and, as I discovered when I got out of the car, a thick Italian accent. He really didn’t have much command of English at all.

When I got out of my car, I discovered that he had tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, watermelon, onions, limes, red bell peppers. All from somewhere down here. I could practically smell the tomatoes when I got out of the car, but there was a woman in front of me, an older woman, older than me, and to entice her, he brought out a bowl with chunks of his tomatoes and chunks of his cucumbers. He gave us each a taste. I died.

Outside of this truck in this nowhere town in Florida, is anyone letting tomatoes ripen on the vine long enough anymore? I tasted a tomato that I had not tasted since my youth. A cucumber that tasted of the sun. Adorned with nothing but salt.

I bought ample supplies of both and took them back to the condo and recreated that very meal. It was a strange hour, somewhere between lunch and supper, but when I took out the tomatoes and the cucumbers and they were still warm, I knew that I had to utilize them.

I sliced chunks of them in a bowl, chunks of ripe, red tomatoes and chunks of those sweet cucumbers. These days, I fear that when I cut into a cucumber, I will get a bitter one. I did not fear that in these cucumbers. Their skin was as dark green as a Texas watermelon. Their seeds were small and tender. I put them in a bowl with the tomatoes. I ground salt over them, and some pepper. I let the salt dissolve. And then I stood over the sink with a fork and ate the entire bowl of tomatoes and cucumbers. When they were gone, I tipped the bowl toward my mouth and drank the remaining juice. It was as red as a ruby, as red as blood. It was sweet, salty, earthy, primal. It was God.

Where did these tomatoes go? When I was young, my father would pull them from the gigantic vines in his garden. Have the needs of industry and grocery stores and the concession to time killed the flavor that should matter more than anything? Do we just accept the tomatoes that even in our local produce stands have been plucked when they are no more than 3/4ths ripe? I am guessing that most of you have never tasted the tomato that I have just eaten, even from your own garden. Up there, we don’t have the sun or the patience.

But I will tell you one thing. It was the finest meal of the summer.

So why the R.E.M.? Well, "she's a sad tomato." What can I say?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Triumph of the Tune

If You Can't Beat Them - Queen (mp3)

Musical documentaries focused on a single band or artist have one ultimate goal: Make us more heroic, more awesome. Make us More.

Many of these attempts come across as unflinching and honest, and they frequently offer the viewer some added insight to painful truths about the band or person, but the true goal never changes. Fans should walk away feeling even more proud of their fanaticism, and relative newbies should walk away compelled to be bigger fans. Otherwise, the film has failed.

Take the one Bob mentioned yesterday: The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bob described it as “unvarnished,” but it didn’t hurt his opinion or impression of The Boss or his band or their music. The band is the protagonist. The band is the good guy.

I wrote about my experience seeing Beyond the Lighted Stage, the documentary on Rush, last summer. It’s clear I left that theater more amped up on Rush Luv than I’d been in a long time. I spent several weeks following that movie listening to my entire collection on shuffle and going to the local used CD store to purchase four old Rush CDs I’d never quite gotten around to acquiring.

Truth or Dare (Madonna). Rattle & Hum (U2). Shut Up and Sing (Dixie Chicks). Runnin’ Down a Dream (Tom Petty). These are just off the top of my head. All attempt various levels of “honesty,” but all ultimately aim to elevate their subjects and make them the protagonists of a noble tale.

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is ultimately just a concert, but packed with guests and interviews with The Band members, and it has to be considered one of, if not The, best at elevating its subject from one level to another on the musical heirarchy.

Sure, The Band always had its fans and its followers, but this movie pushed them into another category on its own. If you mention The Band to most casual or feverish music fans, they’re far more likely to mention this documentary than any of their albums. They probably won’t even realize the song isn’t actually called “Take a Load Off, Fannie.”

I most recently watched Days of Our Lives, a documentary covering the musical life of Queen, created as a two-part documentary for the BBC that aired this spring.

In one sense, the film succeeded in its true mission. By the end of the week, I’d purchased $15 worth of Queen songs on Amazon.com, songs that rounded out the “Best of Queen” mixtape I wore the hell out in high school, a collection made by my pal Andy, inspired by his freshman year in college in 1988. And I certainly didn’t walk away from the film less impressed with the band’s music.

But in another sense, the documentary failed, because what I didn’t feel was closer to the band.

Over two hours, the film explores the band’s highlight moments, such as the desperate studio work that ultimately led to A Night at the Opera and the 5 million tracks needed to create “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You are constantly reminded that no one could create a stadium-rocking, audience-participatory anthem quite as regularly as Queen.

But the band always feels distant, removed from the fans and the film. The themes that run through the underbelly of this documentary are less than complimentary. After waking up from the success of their first two albums only to realize they weren’t seeing any of the money, the band somewhat understandably became obsessed with getting their due. Although the film doesn’t scream it, what became clear is that Queen was very much about the money for most of their careers.

This isn’t a unique problem for bands, but for this one, it seemed excessive. As every musician on the planet banned Sun City due to South Africa’s policy of Apartheid, Queen took the money and played. In interviews, Brian May claims the trip did far more good than harm, that they did good things, but Roger Taylor admits he wishes he’d never heard of the place. That they seemed surprised at the shitstorm they stirred by going to Sun City reeked of a unique kind of cluelessness. How didn't they see that coming? Why didn't anyone around them not say anything?

The other challenge was Freddie Mercury. He’s not around to defend himself, and the band love him. He’s easily one of the most-recognizable and charismatic frontmen in the history of rock, but you can’t help but see, through this film, how hard they had to try and keep The Real Life Freddie carefully polished in this film and throughout their careers. Freddie wasn't just gay. He was apparently the unleashed id Freud warned your mother about.

You also get the impression he was hell to work with. In a band full of precociousness, Freddie was... well, the queen of precocious. “Under Pressure” is easily one of my favorite songs of all friggin’ time, but it didn’t bring Bowie and Queen closer to each other. They finished their experience apparently swearing to never again work together creatively. Whereas the Rush documentary constantly had other musicians singing the band’s praises, Queen has no colleagues to call them heroes or idols.

Days of Our Lives wasn’t a bad film, but two hours to cover Queen? Like, the band’s entire career? I walked away feeling like too much was left hidden, too much was left unexplained. Art should almost always be judged separately from the artist, so this failing hasn't hurt my opinion of the music, but when you have that feeling, the feeling that things are intentionally being left out and unexplained, you can’t help but assume there must be good reasons, and that those reasons wouldn’t help with the ultimate purpose of all musical documentaries:

Make Us More.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Because I Don't Have Any Internet In Florida, I Had To Go To Panera And Push Some Old Guy Out Of His Seat To Post This

The Kills--"Passion Is Accurate" (mp3)

My daughter, the other night, lamenting the status of her current relationship, commented:

I guess it's better to have a real no one
Than a fake someone.
(line breaks and italics mine)

We all paused and looked at each other. It blew us away. There are songwriters all over the world, sitting in corporate offices in Nashville or working with a legal pad and a cup of coffee or strumming their way through some chords who would love to have a clean and true couplet like that to build a song around.

My daughter simply uttered it in a moment of despair.

I think of my children and all of things that they have said as they have been growing up, classic statements, observations that made us laugh out loud, phrases that have become part of family legend. But most of them I can't even remember.

I think about songwriters and how they actually get those songs written. One of the great pleasures of the recent re-release of Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, along with crisper versions of songs I love and a slate of new-to-me unreleased (which would make an incredible summer soundtrack, by the way), was getting together with some friends to watch the movie of the making of that incredible album.

You'd expect a homemade film like that to be superficial and self-serving, but it wasn't. It was an unvarnished look at a lengthy recording process with thousands of missteps and false starts. The record that came out after all of those months in the shed was nothing like what anyone, including Springsteen himself, would have expected when they went in.

But the foundation of all of it was the notebook. Springsteen kept/keeps an incredible notebook full of all of the words that come to him. And he goes back to that notebook again and again for those words, putting them in and out of all kinds of different songs. I remember when Nebraska came out and people were critical that he had used the same line, “I got debts that no honest man can pay,” in two different songs, “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99.” They cited it as a kind of creative failure or shortcut. But, we realize now, because Nebraska is essentially demos and because this artist is constantly trying out the same and different phrases in different songs, that we were merely encountering those songs midway through the process.

Thinking of Springsteen and my daughters, I realize, as I have realized over and over, that I should be writing things down, every day and all the time. With a smart phone in my pocket, there’s really no excuse. Not that I’m saving up lyrics for my once and future CD necessarily, but so many of the words and phrases that we hear and say each day are gems. When we lose those gems, we lose crucial parts of the past and of ourselves, because much of what we remember is either bland or generalized.

*****************
As I drove down to Florida yesterday, I listened to that mix that I posted on Monday. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It doesn’t matter. What does matter, for my purposes here, is that those songs may be the only songs that I ever hear by those particular artists, times and music-listening behaviors being what they are.

Some of these folks may be “one hit wonders” in the worst possible sense. They didn’t even have a hit. They just had some 54 year-old guy get into one of their songs and play it over and over, maybe even for some friends, for a couple of weeks or months, before he moves on to something new.

But as I was listening, I started thinking about the whole idea of the one hit wonder. The whole idea of them, whether you’re talking about the Archies and their hit “Sugar, Sugar” or Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, is treated in disparaging terms. There’s a kind of hey, where’s your other book if you really wrote that one or why can’t you create any more hits mentality that diminishes the accomplishment.

Driving down the road listening to good, original songs by people I know nothing about and may never hear from again, I realized that, in fact, they have done something amazing. They have gotten through to someone, perhaps a bunch of someones, with one song. Even if there is ever only one.

I mean, let’s face, whether you’re talking about a Nobel-Prize winning scientist or an economist or a novelist or a chef, most people only have one big idea in their lives anyway, something that, with any luck, they can adapt and spin off from and franchise and play out, perhaps, for an entire career.

The trick, I guess, is figuring out what that one idea is and staying with it long enough to develop it. That’s why you keep a notebook, right?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We Don't Need No Thought Control

Another Brick in the Wall - Richard Cheese (mp3)

This week, California passed a law that requires the LGBT community be positively represented in future history textbooks in public schools. It also, according to news reports, “bans materials that reflect negatively on gays.”

Hurm.

I remember adults in the late 1980s talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t remember which adults, but I know they were white, and I know they were members of my church and friends of my parents and neighbors, and I know they were less than exhilarated about the man getting his own federal holiday.

“He was a serial adulterer,” they’d say.
“He was a Commie,” they’d say. “A real member of the Communist party!”
“He had bastard children and wouldn’t acknowledge or support them,” they’d say.

As a sheltered, naive Southern teenager, I can’t say for sure what I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., or his significance, or what he did for our country. In hindsight, I must acknowledge a failure to grasp the gravitas of his place in our nation’s history. I knew he was important, but not, like, THAT important.

A lot of white people felt threatened by the holiday. Like acknowledging MLK’s greatness was just another way of telling them they were bad people, their parents were bad people. Their reaction was defensive. Not an excuse, but an explanation. In hindsight, I wish I had somehow realized the truth sooner.

It’s taken decades of experience and wisdom to get beyond the racism I witnessed or overheard as a kid. Most of it was relatively mild, lingering in my experiences like cigarette smoke in a hotel room. One could reasonably argue that I'll spend the rest of my life without ever fully getting past it all. I wonder if any laws could have prevented or further restricted this pollution from my mind, this reminder of who we are and who we aren’t, of black and white and different and better.

Somehow the racist mutterings around me never quite penetrated my circle of closest friends. Having a circle that included representation by several minorities didn't hurt.... but none of my friends were gay. Or, at least, I didn’t know it if they were.

Homosexuality wasn’t obvious to me in the '80s. I didn’t have a “gay-dar” as a kid. The first time I ever remember fully realizing there were actual gay people walking and living around me -- not just singing rock songs or taking homoerotic photographs, but actually going to school with us and stuff -- was 1985.

At the same time I was introduced to Lamar Latrell on the big screen, Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and it totally freaked out my mom and her friends, because suddenly this cat over whom they had drooled in their younger years is discovered to be, as the nomenclature went, “a sissy.” But that year was just the first big brick. Plenty of bricks had to fall, and the fell gradually through high school and into college.

The more comfortable I became with my own sexuality, the less homosexuality frightened me, the less it felt like some problem. The more I saw friends from childhood and high school come out, the more I felt convinced it wasn’t some fashion statement or attempt at rebellion and instead a long-overdue disclosure of their real being.

As a kid, homophobia was the Godzooky to racism’s Godzilla. Gay culture was still very hushed and hidden around me, and I don’t know if people felt threatened by it the way they were in the 90s and this past decade.

I provide my past experience and weaknesses to this because it seems only fair to do so. That I believe gays should have the right to marry, that I believe Gay Is The New Black in American prejudicial fashion, that I believe an overwhelming majority of gay Americans are expressing their natural inclination and not a lifestyle choice, none of these clears me from a lifetime of living in relative cluelessness and surrounded by -- sometimes sharing in -- prejudicial notions.

This California law, requiring positive examples of LGBT people in history and forbidding negative ones, is a frightening attempt at thought control, and there’s no other way of putting it.

I recently wrote about Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, an absolutely fabulous book for high school kids to read, for both its historical information and its compelling story. If our state had passed a law similar to California’s, and if this law was about the Japanese rather than homosexuals, would we be able to read this book, a book that is frank and fair about Japanese both good and bad, both soldier and citizen, a book that identifies many horrific acts yet also acknowledges their culture and humanity?

I would find such a law horrifying if it protected and promoted Christians, or the Japanese, or penguins. It is no less bad or dangerous for having the LGBT community at heart.

Or, to put it another way, as a friend quoted on Facebook: “Propoganda must not investigate the truth objectively... it must present only that aspect of truth which is favorable to its own side.”

When your actions reflect the words of some dude named Adolf, it’s probably a bad idea.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Breeze Makes Me Feel Fine, Going To The Jasmine In My Mind

As I finally contemplate a summer road trip, last week I started searching around the blogs on hypem.com for some new things to listen to. It's a fun activity, if you haven't tried it, scavenging through the latest postings of the latest blogs that have posted music, and it gives you a quick, albeit likely skewed snapshot of the state of modern music.

Hypem.com is kind of like TJ Maxx; it's never the same "store" twice. As you look through the latest postings, it is completely dependent on the passing whims of amateurs and what they are listening to for whatever reason. Oh, you might stumble onto an upcoming release by someone that you like and maybe didn't know had something coming or, and you will definitely encounter more remixes than you could possibly want, but most of the stuff you will hear (and can add to your playlist) is relatively unknown, bands looking for yet another way to get heard. If they can reach the bloggers and if the bloggers will listen, all of the sudden, those bands will have "hypem credibility." Not sure what that means, but getting that degree of separation from "hey, I'm a musician and I'm posting my music myself" when you're a new artist has to count for something.

So here's some of my little playlist. I think it has a summery feel to it. I don't have much familiarity with these songs, just a sample hear or a background listen there, but I'll look forward to getting to know them a little bit better a little farther down the road.

The Head And The Heart--"Lost In My Mind" (mp3)

Middle Brother--"Me, Me, Me" (mp3)

James McMorrow--"If I Had A Boat" (mp3)

Noah And The Whale--"L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N." (mp3)

Army Navy--"The Long Goodbye" (mp3)

Jamaica--"Jericho" (mp3)

The War On Drugs--"Comin' Through" (mp3)

Bobby Long--"Who Have You Been Loving" (mp3)

The Belle Brigade--"Losers" (mp3)

Wye Oak--"Civilian" (mp3)

Rebekah Higgs--"Gosh Darn Damn" (mp3)

Devon William--"Your Sympathy" (mp3)

Bright Eyes--"Shell Game" (mp3)

Eleanor Friedberger--"My Mistakes" (mp3)

Other Lives--"For 12" (mp3)

Jon McKiel & Jay Crocker--"Daylight Katy" (mp3)

Mathieu Santos--"I Can Hear The Trains Coming" (mp3)

Vetiver--"Worse For Wear" (mp3)

Carter Tanton--"Murderous Joy" (mp3)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rent, Buy or Steal?

What Would Bob Do? - Colin Hay (mp3)

Blockbuster closed again. This is the third store in our area to shut down in the last year or so, and this one was close to our house.

When the previous one closed down, I asked the manager at this one how long she thought they’d survive, and she said, “Oh, there’s no plans to downsize us. We’re doing fairly well all things considered. We’ll be here a while.”

Apparently “a while” equals about half a year.

The two streams of commerce and popular culture continue to collide in strange and unprecedented ways as we try and figure out this concept called CONTENT.

When I buy the latest Matt Nathanson album on mp3, what do I own? What did I pay for?
When I buy a Kindle book, what do I own?
When I buy Season 1 of Archer on Amazon, what did I pay for?

Why do we, collectively, seem more comfortable owning books, renting movies, and stealing music?

When they have increasingly all just become slightly different versions of pop culture content? Rent, Buy or Steal?

These aren't new questions, but it fascinates me that I still don't quite know how to answer them, and I consider myself well past the midway point on the TechnoBell Curve.

Almost everyone I know who likes but doesn't love music spends 80% of their music time on Pandora. They don't have to buy anything, and they get to listen to something akin to the radio, and they don't have to make but a few decisions to do it.

People of all religions and income levels, with all levels of music love, steal music. They even call it "stealing music" and seem minimally bothered by it, apparently because it's not as blatantly wrong as walking into John Cusack's music store and physically having to enact the Five-Finger Discount. "Data Transfer" just doesn't sound as criminal.

This happens with movies, too, of course, but the film industry seems to have done a better job of getting ahead of the curve by giving consumers who prefer being honorable (and I think most consumers are like this) options to watch movies via the Internet without excessive cost.

At least three of every four friends of mine is on Netflix... for now. The ability to watch digital streams of unlimited movies and TV shows through the computer totally tipped the scales. Music has these options: Rhapsody, Napster, and the new kid to the US party, Spotify. But people don't seem quite as willing to pay rent for music rights.

Maybe it's about digestion. The longer it takes you to get through the content experience, the more obligated we feel, culturally, to own it. Books take the longest, so we still feel like it's only right to buy them. Songs mostly run five minutes or less, the equivalent of a few pages in a novel, so we don't feel so badly about just stealing them or trading them with friends like baseball cards. Movies, falling somewhere in the middle and not frequently re-experienced by the average fan, get rented.

I only know I feel like I'm somehow falling behind. One of my favorite pasttimes was to walk into Blockbuster, rifle through their Previously Viewed aisles looking for their best "2 for $20" or "4 for $20" offerings, and biting off a few fingernails while wondering if the DVDs I had picked out were really worth my 20 bucks. Two-thirds of the time, I'd walk back out with nothing and feel like I'd earned some small, meaningless moral victory of fiscal responsibility.

But those times when I do buy, the movies go home with me, and they get added to my ebbing and flowing bookshelf row of Movies To Watch, and I lovingly stack them and plan for my next late night viewing experience.

I was so distraught over Blockbuster's closure that I drove straight to Best Buy and bought the first two seasons of The West Wing, a show I've never seen, for $14.99 each. That's, like, $0.75 an episode, and I'd totally pay $1 to cut the 20 minutes of advertising out of any TV show I watched and to be able to watch it whenever I felt like it. This is a universally true statement.

I took home 45 episodes. They're mine. I own them. I'm an owner. I like owning things despite the flaws in the approach. My collection of some 200 DVD movies and some 20 boxes of TV shows loses value every day even as I cherish my ability to obsess over something as meager and laughable as DVDs, something that will one day be mentioned in the same breath as VHS.

But I've never been comfortable with renting. No matter how practical, it just doesn't feel right to me. Something about knowing it's mine, and that I acquired it legally and properly, and that it will always be there until I choose to get rid of it, that all just feels better to me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

So Long, Cursive! See Ya!

Stephen Malkmus--"Pencil Rot(live)" (mp3)

When I was young, there was a commercial on TV for a deodorant call Mitchum. As you might guess from the name, it was a man's deodorant. In the commercial, a hunky guy with a hairy chest who hasn't quite gotten out of bed yet looks you in the eye and says something like, "I didn't use my deodorant today and I may not tomorrow....because I feel really dry."

That wouldn't cut it today. Forget the fact that it sounds like the guy must have spread ceiling paint under his arms with a roller brush to get that kind of perspiration seal, there is also the small matter of taking a shower once in a while. I've never heard anyone brag about the mileage that they got out of their deodorant stick. "Yeah, I've been nursing this baby for going on two years now."

It reminds me of the original Wendy's Hamburgers commercial where they went on and on about all of the extra napkins that you would need while eating one because they were so "hot and juicy." Juice being grease, of course.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to another idea which seemed vital, to someone, at the time but whose time has now apparently passed--cursive writing.

You had to have seen it coming. I know I did. It dawned on me about fifteen years ago that, you know, I don't use cursive writing for anything but my signature, and that has deteriorated to where it's nearly unreadable. Nope, I don't think my own personal use of cursive made it past college. By grad school, and certainly by the time I started grading papers as a profession, I had reverted back to what I consider to be man's natural state--printing. Though how long that will last is anyone's guess at this point.

Cursive's imminent death is somewhat more official. Now that the state of Indiana's Department of Education has taken cursive off of "mandatory" status in favor of keyboard proficiency, the dominoes are likely to fall at a rapid pace. Goodbye, it seems, to the loops and flourishes of the grand writing style of old.

Me, I'm for it. I can't speak for the generations that followed, but I spent far too much time in school practicing cursive script. Anytime I see those writing tablets with rows of two thick lines spread about an inch apart with a dotted line running between them in the middle, I get anti-nostalgic. Those were not the good old days. And I had good handwriting. I got good grades in penmanship. But the thought now that students were drilled and graded on handwriting makes me shake my head in wonder. The thought of an "F" on a report card in handwriting disgusts me.

Of course, there are critics of the Indiana handwriting decision, mostly notably arguments in conservative circles that handwriting builds character. I think that's bullshit. I mean, I get the point about individuality and all of that, but that can be handled in so many other school ways, like art class.

No, anecdotally speaking, I've not had students in my 29 years of teaching brag about their handwriting or talk about how they wouldn't be wouldn't be who they are today had they not had mandatory cursive training during elementary school. Instead, what I've had over the years are a wealth of students apologizing for their handwriting, telling me I probably can't read it, oozing low self-esteem for their lack of proper penmanship.

I think back to my own elementary years and all of the hours upon hours that we spent working on cursive. If you drew a picture, you had to write a cursive "story" about it, or vice-versa. If you sat at your desk practicing cursive, the teacher would walk around and correct your lines in loops, using a red pen to show you the proper way to draw the letters. In memory, it was during the periods of writing drill instruction that the most agitated kids would really lose it. What was the motivation? What was the reward? What was the kid who couldn't reach the lines or stay inside of them supposed to do? There was only one answer: practice, practice, practice some more.

For years, I read AP English exams. During a week of that, you see every possible kind of handwriting known to man or woman. The good thing, from my standpoint, was that I learned that I could read almost any handwriting. The bad thing, from cursive's perspective, was that all of those years of cursive training made little difference in how 18-year-olds write. Taken as a whole, today's high school writers use a mishmash of all of the printing and cursive writing they did and didn't learn. They use what they need to communicate. I doubt any of them can write a capital "Q" or a capital "Z" in cursive.

Pedagogically, that brief elementary training makes no sense. Hey, kids, we're going to practice something for a few years when you're young, punish you academically if you aren't good at it, regardless of where you are in your fine motor skill development, and then leave you to let your skills deteriorate for the rest of your lives, so that you have one more academic deficiency to apologize for when you get older.

My handwriting used to be just fine. Back then. But, no, I will not be writing any eulogies for cursive. I celebrate its imminent demise and welcome whatever takes its place. One complaint among the defenders of cursive is that students will no longer learn how to write a signature. Yeah, maybe. But how many times do we really sign our name in a given year anyway? How many checks are we writing? Won't a printed signature work? Or a holographic symbol? Or an eye scan? I don't understand why so many critics of dropping cursive are acting as if printing does not exist.

Sorry, cursive, I won't miss you one bit. I'll just miss all of the time I wasted on you. Consider this some dirt kicked on your grave.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Only In America

Firewoman - The Cult (mp3)
I Think It's Gonna Happen - Army Navy (mp3)

The USA Women’s soccer team is the paragon of American team sport.

They exemplify more aspects of what makes our country so amazing than any other group. They are a walking, running, sports bra-clad icon of American pride.

The only possible competitor for this historical and symbolic spot would be the USA men’s basketball team, where a group of men, generally from lower-income levels of society, generally African-American, have united after they have achieved the American Sports Dream of striking it rich and famous. They attempt to place country before celebrity and, with clearly superior talent in a sport born in the USA, take the itty bitty world by storm.

But soccer is the world’s sport. We didn’t invent it, and our average sports fan doesn’t much care for it. The US men’s soccer team has never won the World Cup, and they won’t in the 21st Century, either. We are far from proving ourselves ready for the world stage as men.

But the women? They’ve taken the world’s game and reminded everyone what is unique about us: Even if we don’t respect women to the degree we should, and even if they aren’t yet given every chance to be equal, we try much harder and are much more committed to the idea than every other country in the world.

For all the flaws in Title 9 -- a law that naively or stubbornly insists on a fantasy world where just as many women as men want to play sports -- the US women’s soccer team is an example of what it did right and of why the law exists.

When they played Brazil on Sunday, the best player -- and probably the three of the four most-talented players -- all wore yellow. But what Brazil and all of South America gains in raw and devoted talent, they lack in financial and social support. South America simply doesn’t care about women being equal, and certainly not in sports. Same is true for big chunk of Europe.

Of course I’m using gross stereotypes here. Plenty of American men are pigs and chauvinists. But what’s truly beautiful about America is that, despite pigs and chauvanists, despite hundreds of thousands of Americans who think women’s sports aren’t worth a fraction of the effort or money they require, something about our ideals and values require that we support them.

Italy, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Croatia. All great men’s teams, but totally marginal on the women’s side. Am I supposed to believe this isn’t cultural, that there isn’t something about the cultures of these countries that simply don’t appreciate, value, prioritize or reward female athletes?

Guess which country won the last two Women's World Cups? Germany. They have a kickass female chancellor. Pardon me if I don't think this is mere happenstance. Yet, by comparison, our women's team says more about our country than Germany's does about theirs.

Don’t take my word for it; take their coach's. Pia Sundhage is a Swede, and they’re not exactly known for their oppressive misogyny, but even she feels something uniquely powerful about the Way of the USA:
“I come from Sweden, and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing the best out performance of each other, that's contagious. I'm very proud and very happy to be the coach of the U.S. team."
Or take 5-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, Marta, the most-talented crybaby this side of John McEnroe:
(Marta) pointed to her head, leading me to think she meant the Americans were strong in the air. "No, no," she explained. "It's the mentality." (from ESPN.com)
There’s this documentary called PELADA. Fascinating little flick. Young man and woman, floating uncertainly after their college soccer careers have ended, take some grant money and travel the world to experience pick-up soccer games in one country after another. They go through South America, Europe, Asia and even the Middle East and play game after game.... with men.

Best I can recall, they only play two pick-up games with women. One is on some salt flats, and the other is in Iran. Two female pick-up games out of, like, hundreds. And one of those is in I-friggin’-RAN!!

This isn’t my “you really oughtta give women’s soccer a shot” blog. Truth is, there ain’t nothing about women’s soccer that, if you haven’t found it in you to try it, and if you haven’t ever found soccer interesting, is gonna magically win your heart.

It doesn't matter whether you like it, or whether you watch it, because here’s what you can say about our women’s soccer team, and it’s something that proud Americans like saying:

ONLY IN AMERICA.

Those words mean more for this particular team than any other team for any other sport at this juncture in our collective American sports history.

The US women play France in the semifinals tomorrow (Wednesday). Kickoff is at noon EST on ESPN. BOTG's authors will be sitting at Tremont Tavern to cheer on the Red White & Blue, and we welcome others to join us! 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Fingerpickin' Good

Sean Siegfried--"Sam's Brewery" (mp3)
Sean Siegfried--"Passionate Rag" (mp3)


You will think this is about playing guitar, but it's really more about listening to music. If there was mandatory training for guitarists, especially for those who expected to be in situations where they must accompany themselves with no one else to help, then fingerpicking should be at the top of that skill list.

Strumming, unless there is something unique about it, is boring. Oh, the singer can get away with it for a song or two. If he or she has interesting chord changes, like Joni Mitchell, or a dramatic, percussive attack, like the Edge or Billy Bragg, then strumming can be pretty interesting to listen to. But song after song after song that is simply strummed, regardless of how interesting the melodies might be, creates a flat, redundant presence. If you're listening to it, or at least if I am, you can't help but wonder, 'Couldn't you spend a little more time learning how to play the guitar?' or 'Don't some songs benefit from the different kinds of rhythms you can get by picking individual notes or pairs?' The answer to both questions should be yes.

And that's where fingerpicking comes in. While there are all kinds of patterns to fingerpicking, the basic technique involves alternating bass and treble strings. Put simply, it makes the guitar sound more like a piano.

The first song I learned to fingerpick was Paul Simon's "The Boxer." It's a fairly basic version of what I've just described, with a few little tricks like descending bass runs and some strumming on the chorus for sheer volume, but when I got it down, I knew that I had made a big leap in my guitar-playing abilities. Suddenly, any song that I had been strumming I could alter dramatically by putting it to (even a basic) fingerpicked pattern instead. From there,

But this isn't about me so much as it's about fingerpicking, the beauty of it, the joys of hearing it. As I've mentioned before on these pages, I first got a taste of it in the 1970's. The "gateway drug" of fingerpicked guitar for me was Jorma Kaukonen's Quah, a collection of stunning acoustic songs that built on his study of the Reverend Gary Davis and other solo blues players. From there, the journey went sideways, backwards, and forwards all at once--Leo Kottke back to John Fahey and over to Peter Lang, instructional stuff from Stephan Grossman, a splash of Leon Redbone, a journey out to the West Coast and Bob Hadley, a guy who I think was a street musician. How he got recorded and how I got his records, I don't really remember. Eventually, I travelled all the way over to Windham Hill, that record label with George Winston and all of that kind of light, airy, a little out there jazzy stuff. The guitar players were particularly ethereal and probably somewhat to blame for the "New Age" stuff that followed.

Fingerpicking itself, though, is guitar for guitar's sake. Somewhere along the way, the singing either became secondary or dropped out all together, and I realized that I was seeking out songs just to hear the picking. Largely, though, fingerpicking has either fallen more to the side, has been pushed to the fringe, is an esoteric pursuit. Too bad. There are so many life situations where there is no better soundtrack that a fingerstyle guitar piece.

The journey does continue. A few years ago, I came across The Art Of Fingerstyle Guitar, a collection of pieces by different performers, mostly British, I think. It may be that I play this CD more than any one that I own. It is a Sunday morning CD, a working-casually-in-the-office CD, a conversation with friends CD (where they get to talk, and I get to listen...to the CD!).

And, finally, a month or so ago, we received through our BOTG mailbox, an offering from a British guy named Sean Siegfried. They have their own brand of fingerpickers over there--Bert Jansch (a major Neil Young influence), Dave Evans, and others. When I played Mr. Siegfried's stuff, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, among the glut of somewhere-between-almost-and-not-quite-there musical submissions we receive, here was an accomplished musician whose playing skills seemed to exceed his years and whose songs drew from an old, deep river. I exchanged a few emails with him, and I was so uplifted to discover that fingerpicking is alive and well and in good hands. Literally.

Sean Siegfried's EP is available at his website here.