Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Greening of Music

Musical grade inflation is a real thing, and it's a real problem. The only real explanation: music critics in the 21st Century don't know what the hell they're doing.

Whenever I'm mulling between purchasing Album A and Album B, Metacritic is my favorite stop. Like Rotten Tomatoes except branching beyond movies to music, TV and video games, Metacritic compiles and approximates all critical reviews of a single entity into scores from 1-100. They also break down scores into Green ("Positive"), Yellow ("Mixed") and Red ("Negative").

You have to scroll down to the 101st album listed on Metacritic (37 most recent included in screenshot graphic below) to find the first album to receive mostly negative reviews. Only seven albums in that stretch earned "Mixed" ratings. The other 93 releases received positive reviews. Only 16 received scores of 81 or higher. Only one, The Complete Columbia Album Collection by Johnny Cash -- a friggin' career compilation from a friggin' legend -- scored above a 90.

What ails music in the 21st Century? This: Nothing is all that mind-blowingly great (except reissues), and far too little is (apparently) all that terrible.

Is that true?? Does 85% of everything in music fall somewhere in the "good but not great" category? More importantly, are music critics -- people who, by their name, oughtta be fairly friggin' critical -- that easily impressed? It's one thing to impress me, because I'm a pushover. It should be a different matter to impress critics.

This isn't Metacritic's fault. They're just compiling. But what a damning, depressing graphic, a sea of Meh Green, where everything in music falls inside 20 points of a 100-point scale, where almost every album is a B, where one act out of 101 fails the class.

Maybe music has been that pigeonholed into predictable categories and sounds. Maybe critics have gotten lazy. Maybe the Science Of Decent has been perfected. I don't know for sure. I only know that, until we see more yellow and red on this list, music fans will suffer with an onslaught of underwhelming, vanilla malaise.

Here's what's certain: Only artists and critics can rescue us from this grade-inflated mediocrity. Oh dear God in Heaven help us.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pulling "An A-Phair" To Remember

Tegan and Sara’s new album will be considered brilliant or the iceberg that sank a stable if underwhelming cruise ship. Titled Heartthrob, they aren’t even denying the purpose and mission of it: to enter the mainstream.

As the proud owner of four T&S albums, someone who discovered them after The Con and bought the album before (So Jealous) and and then Sainthood after, I love them for their utter awkwardness. Much of what makes their signature sound is their ability to harmonize in ways that often go against the instinctive musical grain.

Their place in the “indie” scene is very similar to The Cure almost 30 years ago. While the two bands have little in common sound-wise, they both occupied similar real estate on the musical grid. They wrote pop songs too quirky to be digested by the mainstream, but it was still, at its heart and in its intent, pop music.

Quirky. Awkward. Uncommon. These are not the words one uses to describe most of the pop music dominating the charts in 2013. Anything quirky or uncommon is the product of marketing research, “manufactured awkwardness,” if you will. Ke$ha and Lady GaGa are not genuinely odd anymore than Twiggy is capable of genuinely crying.

But Tegan and Sara’s awkwardness is legit. They’re Canadian and gay and identical twins -- can you get more uniquely unusual than that?? They’re the girls in high school who, while pixie-adorable, rightly freaked everyone out. Not because they were just weird, but because they were weird and clearly smarter than you, like Jordan in Real Genius who only sleeps a couple of hours each night and spends the rest of her time learning a bajillion times more than normal people.

Whether the adoring masses will accept this duo won’t be answered for a few weeks or months, but it’s clear the music critics want them to succeed. Is that the kiss of death? Usually, but this time, maybe not.

I believe pop music needs Tegan and Sara more than Tegan and Sara need pop’s warm money-coated superficial embrace.

Heartthrob is to previous Tegan and Sara what jumping into a swimming pool after 45 minutes in a hot tub feels like. It’s chasing a Giant Pixie Stick with a 6-pack of Red Bull after spending two weeks on Valium. To blanche against this sugary-sweet, change-of-temp rush to the sonic cortex is only understandable, but holy moley ohmyfugginggawd it’s exciting! These gals just totally risked every fiber of musical indie cred they ever built up! They pulled a Liz Phair... after knowing full well what happened to Liz Phair!

[Note to those who don’t know: Liz Phair emerged on the scene with one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the ‘90s, Exile on Guyville, a brilliant and low-fi not-quite song by song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. While the critics stroked themselves over its brilliance, it failed to garner much popular love because it wasn’t terribly catchy, because sometimes good art isn't. After several albums and the realization that there aren’t enough music critics to fill her concerts and pay her bills, she totally sold out and attempted to fly closer to the pop sun. Unfortunately, it worked well enough to offer her a brief glimpse at the glories of pop stardom but pissed off most of her fans in the process, and she quickly sunk, with her burnt wings, into musical denouement.]

Heartthrob still sounds like Tegan and Sara. But it sounds like Ladyhawke kidnapped them for a few months, and it sounds like Kelly Clarkson’s management team stole the demos and souped ‘em up reeeeal goooood.

“There’s nothing love can’t do,” they sing repeatedly in “Love They Say” toward the end of the album. If that’s true, can it go pop without bursting?

Come a little closer. Find out. They won't treat you like you're oh so typical.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Read My Lips

Read my lips: Damn you, stupid reporters. Damn you for moving me to expend the finger energy necessary to type these lines, and damn you for wasting so much of your "news" time covering that most important of topics, namely Beyonce and her pre-recorded "Star Spangled Banner" at Obama's second inauguration.

Even Morning Joe -- Morning #@*%^& Joe!! -- wasted precious time this week blathering on about this "scandal," even as it is an undisputed fact that Yo Yo Ma and his quartet of musicians pulled a similar mock-performance four years prior, even as we know that Whitney Houston lip-synched the most successful and famous rendition of the same song in 1991.

What apparently makes Beyonce's fakery so unforgivable is that Kelly Clarkson stepped onto the same stage under the same conditions -- and under the penetrating drooly stare of Bill Clinton -- and kicked her song's ass live and in real time. Some have also mentioned James Taylor. Which makes me laugh.

James Taylor is folk rock on several pounds of cannabis. In his entire CV, he has perhaps four notes that require any level of sustainability or reach. I do not criticize Mr. Taylor for this -- I hold his music in high regard -- but there's a reason you don't hear too many of his hits duplicated on American Idol.

The Kelly Clarkson comparison is, on the surface, a more fair one. But Kelly is a rock star of the Pat Benatar variety trapped in the preconceived demands of the venue that gave birth to her. That which provided her fame is that which entrenched her in a sugar-pop persona that she hasn't always appreciated.

Beyonce is a Diva. She is cut from the same cloth as Whitney and Mariah, and quite intentionally so. She is more beautiful and comes equipped with more jaw-dropping, um, assets, but her purpose on our planet is to be a Musical Diva, and those creatures are expected to be perfect and perfectionists. That's what they exist to be, culturally.

If Kelly Clarkson's voice cracks and turns gritty while she goes for that killer note, such a moment is a part of her style. Indisputably, the banshee-like power in her lungs is the very thing that makes her music better than it deserves to be. Kelly made her name on the ability to do live karaoke versions of other people's songs; to shy away from doing a live version of "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" would go against her greatest strength! That moment is her wheelhouse.

Let's put this another way: Just because Charlie Daniels might play his fiddle hot and live at an inauguration while Itzhak Pearlman would not does not mean that Charlie Daniels is the better fiddle player. Maybe, just maybe, they play a fiddle in different ways, to evoke different sounds at different levels of technical difficulty. Maybe Charlie D can wail away and miss a note sharp here or flat here because his is a sonic assault. Maybe Itzhak needs a bit more precision for his sound.

I refuse to give this scandal 500 words. I don't like Beyonce's music enough.

But I'll bet you a dollar to a dime that she sings the Super Bowl live.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reading Cooking, Cooking Writing

It takes a strange person, like me, to actually read cookbooks.  No plot, no story, no characters, just a series of directions, and then you turn the page and encounter a new series of directions that might build on, but just as possibly might be completely unrelated to, the previous series of directions.  Page after page after page of someone telling you what to do and how to do it.  Who would actually read such a thing, or, who would read such a thing cover to cover?

But there must be more of us out there, based on the fact that writers have made cookbooks so much more readable.  That may be convoluted logic, but then, reading cookbooks is pretty convoluted in and of itself.  It's like the cookbook authors suddenly realized that people might actually read a cookbook, as in read it.

Narcissistically, I would like to believe that I started the trend.  Six years and a half years ago, in advance of my 50th birthday, I started working on a cookbook that would become a door prize for that event.  As I spent night after night, after work, culling through the recipes of families and friends and myself, I started doing a strange thing:  I started telling the stories behind where the recipes had come from.  Each recipe had a short, italicized paragraph at the start that gave some context to the recipe, either where it had come from or why it had become important to us or why I had "created" it, created being a relative term, since I am an obedient learner but a cautious inventer, primarily due to a lack of funds, I like to think.

Every person who came to my 50th celebration was surprised, I hope, by a copy of a cookbook that pulled together both a life and a group of friends.  The book contained recipes that I had tricked friends into divulging and recipes that had occured at key social events like the Y2K party.  And if it had stopped there, with the attendees at my 50th birthday party, that would have been pretty cool.

But it didn't.  People heard about the cookbook and wanted copies.  I'm not talking hundreds or thousands of people, mind you.  I'm talking dozens.

The cool thing was, as the book got passed around, especially in my wife's hometown in rural western Kentucky, that people, while they may have enjoyed the recipes, talked about the stories.  They knew my wife and they enjoyed hearing about patterns in our early marriage or how I characterized them (the women from her church are, hands down, the finest batch of cooks I have ever encountered) or, amazingly, my laconic, ironic persona.

It has probably been the greatest writing achievement of my life.  At no other time and with no other piece of writing have I connected so completely with an audience who "got" what I was trying to do.  Not only that, it was a long-term writing project that I actually finished, with relatively-few mistakes and with a clear sense of vision.

It was after that that the connection between cooking and autobiography became so strong, I like to tell myself, in the national publishing world.  I have to change chronology and to revise history in order to make that claim, but nevertheless.  Little did I know that at the same time I was working on my project, The Lee Bros. (sounds more like hip-hop producers to me) of Charleston, South Carolina were doing the exact same thing--working with classic recipes and telling stories about them.  That I didn't hear about them until a couple of years later strengthens my narrative but ignores reality.

And, I must confess, the basic idea was inspired by a Marion Cunningham book called Lost Recipes, I think.

After that, it seemed like others figured it out.  I received, for example, New Orleans chef John Besh's My Family Table for Christmas, where, in addition to the great recipes, he takes the time to include family narratives about family meals, narratives that sound strikingly similar to my own, but only because stories of meals and of family members no longer living are bound to have a striking similarity.  Other New Orleans cookbook authors aka chefs took similar approaches, infusing their litany of recipes with tales of post-Katrina group meals and other powerful stories.

Not that any of them read my book, of course.  I do get that.  But I also celebrate the fact that cookbooks have changed—from recipes without context except that they come from a particular chef or restaurant, to recipes that have the meaning of human relationships and actual settings/meals.

So, yeah, I like to read cookbooks and it seems like maybe a lot of other people do, too.  We have become such a food culture that it isn’t surprising, is it?  As much as we obsess these days about the latest restaurant or the latest trend or a food scare or the next of many renamings of the same diet, why should I wonder that people want to know the stories behind their food, even if those stories are nostalgic and personal, rather than clinical?

Everything comes from somewhere, and very little of that has been invented out of nothing this year.  Food, in recipes and cookbooks, is one way of telling us where we have come from.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wabbit Season!

The Woodpile - Frightened Rabbit (YouTube)

“If you never feel bleak, life starts to lose its taste.”

On Tuesday, Frightened Rabbit will release their fourth full-length CD of new music. Pedestrian Verse is the name. I have not heard it, but I will like it, and I might well love it.

Frightened Rabbit is the closest thing going to my musical alter ego. Were I living a Tyler Durden kind of existence, where another part of myself was up and working while the surface version “slept,” I could be Frightened Rabbit. Granted, my alter ego would have to be amaaaazing at playing instruments and write actual lyrics, two things not in my surface personality’s repertoire, but you get the gist.

Frightened Rabbit owns a piece of my musical heart because they see the beauty of being dark, of wallowing in the misery of the human condition, without letting it break their spirit. The place they tap for most of their songs is the well Bruce Wayne fell in as a kid. It’s the jokes John McClain made into the walkie-talkie while he was in that bathroom picking shards of glass out of his feet.

Generally, I’m most possessed and ultimately proud of my writing when I find myself writing from that same place, the place where fear or anger or hurt must be managed tenderly and carefully, where having a sense of humor is a key to survival. This place, it’s difficult for me to find. I can’t seek it out, and I don’t have the address. I just have to stumble into it.

But Frightened Rabbit?  The opening line above, from "Skip the Youth," could serve as the band's entire mission statement.

It’s like they've established a timeshare at the corner of Despair Ave. and Giddy Circle, and they can go to this magical place any time they like. They just hop in a cool van, all their instruments in the back, and they drive there, never any traffic or roundabouts to stop them. They arrive, they don their musical gear, and they swim in this overwhelming mash-up of glee and hysteria. Rather than letting the emotions drown them, they know how to wrangle it, tame it, and force it into sonic waves and stirring words.

Frightened Rabbit is why I believe in God. Because I love this band to a degree that I can neither fully defend nor sufficiently explain. I just do. Because their music consistently taps into the very deepest parts of me, and when I emerge from the listening, I feel a kind of relief and lightness of heart that comes from a deep tissue massage or the dream of one close dance with an alluring stranger.

Their first album, Sing the Greys, is their most vanilla, but it’s a damn good vanilla. The next two albums, The Midnight Organ Fight and The Winter of Our Mixed Drinks, show the kind of growth that requires a growth of confidence, bigger budgets, more band members, better production. The turns of phrase get increasingly quirkier with each album, as Scott Hutchinson gets increasingly comfortable creating something like his own lyrical lexicon.

The band entered my life with “The Modern Leper,” still on my list of all-time favorite songs, but I didn’t love the whole album right away. It grew on me. I had to adjust, just as one’s eyes must when entering a dark empty house on an early spring afternoon. Their second one took even longer to truly love, but now I find myself wrestling with which is actually the superior album. Which is for me akin to Siamese twins sumo wrestling. Midnight pulls more heartstrings, but Mixed Drinks is a bolder cup of coffee.

State Hospital, released last September, is the perfect John the Baptist for their new album: good enough to enjoy, but flawed enough to know it’s just junior varsity Rabbit material.

It’s now Sunday night, and I’m like a lovesick puppy whimpering and scratching at the front door because I just heard my owner’s car pull into the driveway, and I can’t wait to jump up and drool and pant and pee all over the floor from the sheer excitement of welcoming Frightened Rabbit home where they belong.

OK, except I’m not really gonna piss myself. They house-broke me already.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Girls" and Dads

Free Movie Channel Weekend arrived last weekend, and I took full advantage, setting my DVR to record a Louis C.K. routine, four HD movies, and four episodes of the HBO series GIRLS.

If you don’t know GIRLS, it's “Sex & The City meets Reality Bites meets Caligula.” But mostly just Sex & The City with younger real-looking women. And by “real-looking,” I mean that most of them won’t be doing heavy rotations on the cover of Glamour.

And the first season just walked away with the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, so someone out there thinks it's pretty good.

I watched all four episodes last night in a fit of insomnia, a condition created by a septic system in four-alarm straits that required me to go outside every 150 minutes to manually pump out sewage and waste water from our home. I feel like I’m stuck in some demonic version of the second season of LOST, stuck in the hatch pushing a button to prevent a tidal wave of shit from destroying the world, or at least my small part of it.

But that’s a tale for another day. Today is about GIRLS. And about dads. Specifically, being one.

Were I single and in my 20s, I would love GIRLS. It’s nakedly amusing, in both its frequently and awkward sexual matters and in the frank way it both celebrates and excoriates the modern-day twentysomething.

Watching those episodes in January 2013, however, as my two tween daughters slept not 100 feet away from me in their respective bedrooms, the experience was far less pleasant.

Let’s be clear: people my age need absolutely no reminding that life doesn’t ever turn out quite the way you expected. Illusions get shattered, dreams get crushed, goals get reached only to discover the post-game celebration wasn’t nearly what it was cracked up to be. Along the way, fun also gets had, love gets made, bonds get formed, and many things get better or easier. But no matter what, it ain’t gonna pan out like you thought.

So, as a father, I realize my daughters will not have some fairy tale existence. Hell, I’ve already ruined that plot thread several times over.

Still, from my perspective at this moment in my life, what I would have called the show I watched for two hours would have been: GIRLS, or Everything I Don’t Want My Daughters To Become (in homage to Dr. Strangelove). This isn’t intended as some preachy morality bullshit about Hannah’s slutty desperations or the Phoebe-cluelessness of Shoshanna, because my concerns go deeper and are admittedly more foolish.

What I don’t want is for my girls to be hopelessly directionless. The four girls at the heart of GIRLS don’t seem capable of fighting for much, nor do they have much passion for anything lest it crimp their disaffected style. To be fair, purpose-driven young adults probably don’t make the best fodder for Golden Globe-winning comedies, but there’s every bit as much truth and honesty in that show as there is in any "reality show" on TLC, and it’s the honest parts that scare me the most.

What I want for my girls, on some scale, is the kind of confidence and direction and purpose exhibited by another heroine of the Golden Globes, Jodie Foster.

Ms. Foster’s speech has received criticism for her refusal to “just say IT,” and for her stubborn appreciation for a modicum of privacy, but I loved it. I’ve never met Ms. Foster, nor do I expect to be so fortunate, but I’m certain she is an amazing and powerful woman whose long (closeted) career can only be attributed to a particular brand of willpower and sharpness most of us including myself cannot easily comprehend.

Her speech meanderingly, awkwardly, intelligently covered all those things I want for my girls that aren’t a part of GIRLS: purpose, passion, confidence, and, above all else, an abundance of love and loved ones. And it was imperfect in the kind of way that makes me love people for our imperfections.

When it comes to girls and dads, perhaps a spoonful of ignorance is a necessary ingredient for bliss.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Isn't This World Enough?

Isn't This World Enough? - Admiral Fallow (mp3)

My daughters recently attended this Christian mega-concert with their youth group. They got in line and waited for over two hours for the chance to pay $10 to see five hours’ worth of music from bands they’d barely if ever heard.

When they later relayed their experience to me, their favorite moment wasn’t even a performance.

At about the halfway point, a hip young preacher offered a “ministry moment.” He played a bunch of video clips from hit pop songs teens and tweens adore. One Direction, Ke$ha, Maroon 5, basically a sampling of your predictable hottie-driven chart-toppers. His point in these clips were to point out the evil of this pop music, with its obsession on earthly things. This evil pop music corrupts the soul by pushing the flesh and the substances and by glorifying the immoral.

Unfortunately -- but amusingly for many in the audience including my girls -- he was having difficulty delivering his message over the sounds of an audience singing along with the videos. And he was utterly drowned out by girl-shrieks when One Direction was on the screen.

What aggravates me about a message like this man’s is how he expects all of us to find Jesus in the exact pill he prescribes, through clean songs with clean messages. As if the path to the discovery or ignition of faith is some pinhole.

Very few, in fact, find Jesus through Christian rock. Seems to me most people find their religion in trying times and in dark moments. And, once found, Christianity can occasionally be coddled or comforted through music suited to do so.

Because I'm a contrarian and unhealthily in love with discourse, where I and many others find faith’s greatest bulwark (or bungee cord, if you prefer) is by shoving it into the very earthly and immoral music that Converse-wearing hip preacher decried. Part of that is my contrarian nature, my desire to grow through exposure to ideas and philosophies so different from my natural inclinations.

My latest beloved confrontation has come through Admiral Fallow’s song, “Isn’t This World Enough,” which is a catchy song on a very strong album (Tree Bursts In Snow). It wears its atheism proudly on its sleeve, and I love the song for it.

Basically every secondary line is the title phrase. Like, in this couplet:

Searching for answers in clouds and under rocks
Isn’t this world enough?

If that’s not “anti-Jesus” enough for you, try the bridge lyrics:

So love this vessel while you're aboard
There will be no deposit back from a cosmic landlord
You don't need to hang your hat on belief in bumper stickers
There will be no love lost just pull on that ripcord

These sentiments do not anger me, or frustrate me, or sadden me. They certainly don’t scare me. In fact, a healthy chunk of me celebrates these sentiments. Does that make me contradictory or confused or hypocritical? Probably.

I listened to this song at least 20 times the week after the tragedy in Newtown, and many more times since. No line in this song talks of how this world should be enough for a 6-year-old who is murdered in their school. That line, I suspect, would be more difficult for the band to write and sing. Is this world enough for them? Dead at six?

Don’t misunderstand. The Newtown Massacre doesn’t prove there’s a God. If Admiral Fallow have no interest in a cosmic landlord, I respect it, and I still love the hell out of their album. But I found myself loving their question because I wasn’t answering it the way they wanted.

No. No. This world is not enough. Not for innocent children taken too early by a bullet or a malignancy or a parent who shook it too hard for too long. No, this world is not enough. Not for lost teenagers, not for hardened adults, not for Bettye White. No, this world is not enough.

When our hearts beat their last, and when that last exhale has passed our lips, it’s possible we’re done forever and nothing more awaits the 23 grams of our soul. But it will never be enough.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sitting With The Enemy

(I'm still committed to a month or more focused mainly on books, but real life does intervene sometimes, and it is hard to ignore it.)

If you've never testified in a courtroom before, and I hadn't, there are a number of surprises that await you.

You are disarmed almost immediately, in a figurative sense, because as soon as you enter the courthouse, you must take off all of your metal objects, including your belt, and the contents of your pockets and something else that you don't think of until you've tried to walk through the screener the first time.  Just like the airport, you think.  There, though, you put up with it because you are probably headed somewhere that you want to go.  Here, you do it because lives and fortunes and circumstances are at stake and people who don't have things go their way may well try to act on that against the people who changed them.

When you are putting on your belt and you realize that you don't know where you are going, then you have to ask where the courtroom is.

"Third floor," the guard says.  And you remember because you were there before for the initial hearing and you entered through the back and sat down and watched.

With some slight confidence, you skip the elevator and walk the steps and trust that you will find the judge's name outside the door and walk in and sit down and get settled.

But you don't.  At the top of the stairs someone says, "Hi, Bob" and it startles you and you look to you right and see your friend's ex-wife's mother-in-law sitting on the bench, a woman you know but have not seen in all of the years since the divorce.  In an instant, you realize that she is no longer dyeing her jet black hair and that it is short and gray and makes her look even more severe.  Her greeting shows no emotion, but even when you knew her and she liked you, her greeting showed no emotion.  And then the ex-wife's current husband sticks his hand out and introduces himself like he has been waiting to meet you and then his father-in-law does the same and you know that you have walked into the middle of the "enemy camp."

So you shake hands and ask clarifying questions until you see your friend's wife and you indicate to them that you are going to over there and sit with her.

Of course, it makes total sense in terms of the law and the keeping witnesses from having their testimony polluted from hearing other witnesses.

But from a simple social aspect, it makes no sense at all.  They know why you are here and you know why they are here, but unlike the two principals who sit on opposite sides of the courtroom and the case and who communicate through their lawyers, you are expected to engage civilly, to make small talk, to commiserate with the other side's witnesses.

So you sit over there with her and they sit about 15 feet away, around the column, around the corner, but in plain view and so the two of you sit and gauge them while they no doubt gauge you.  You notice how often the new husband heads down on the elevator for a smoke (does he leave all of his metal things up here?).  You notice how much interaction, or lack thereof, there is between them.  You wonder why the father-in-law and not the father?  What will the ex-wife's mother testify to?  How well do they know each other?  How committed are they?

But mostly, you wait.  That is the other surprise.  Whatever time they may have told you that you would likely go on the stand, you wait hours beyond that.  You make a lot of small talk with each other, focused on or off the case, but you also talk to the guy cleaning the bathroom, and the logistics of how he can find out if there's anyone in the Women's Room before he heads in there.  You nod to other other people involved in other trials.  You turned your phone off in preparation for heading into the courtroom, but that was hours ago, so now texts and emails and games beckon.

And, you talk to those witnesses for the other side.  You can't help it.  They smoke, they have to use the bathroom, and they are every bit as bored as you are.  But it is a special boredom, for while the minutes drag and you have not much to do to occupy those minutes, you still dread what awaits should time ever pass.  And so they tell you about their cleaning business or their 5 bypasses.  They tell you about plane flights they will miss or things they have to do.  Like you, but moreso, you'd like to think, they make the battle inside the courtroom about them, outside of the courtroom sitting on these hard benches and dreading even lunch, because eating it will mean that you have been here far too long and that you will have to come back here after you eat and that means that whatever you eat will go down uneasily and wait to digest at some less stressful time.

And when, much later, you finally get in there and answer the questions and are reminded of all the turmoil and seriousness and how bitter it is and how you might help by saying what you say,still when you walk back outside that courtroom, you don't say anything more to those people who have sat all day on the other bench waiting to testify for the other side with everything at stake and who will be disappointed with the outcome you hope for and who will likely speak as poorly of you and your side as you will of them and theirs,  except, "You're next."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pumping Life Back Into Papa

Bringing a literary icon to life decades after his or her death is one of the great artistic challenges.  Whether such a thing even needs to happen is another issue altogether.

Recent years have seen numerous attempts to bring Ernest Hemingway back to life, to show us what he was like as a living, breathing human being instead of as the creator of lean, taut, athletic prose, prose whose creation defined him, along with a wealth of biographies about the dysfunctions in his life and a batch of letters that nobody except those biographers have ever read.  The first assumption is that if he wrote that way, if he peppered his letters with various language codes and nicknames, then he must have talked that way, too, a potential logical fallacy, which, if applied to Faulkner, would have left the man gasping for breath on the floor before he ever finished a sentence.  The second assumption is alcohol, alcohol, and more alcohol.

As someone who has read all of the books and biographies (or most of them) and who has repeatedly declared over the years that Hemingway is his favorite writer, I have been fascinated by this renewed interest and the attempts to recreate him that have resulted.

(SIDE NOTE:  With the possible exception of Spencer Tracy in The Old Man And The Sea, no one has been able to produce a satisfactory film version of a Hemingway novel or story.  Tracy's character doesn't talk all that much, which may help.  Should we expect portrayals of Hemingway himself to be any more successful?)

The Hemingway of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris is all bluster and stereotype, a not-totally-unlikable person, but a person who function better as a flat cameo character than as a main figure.  This Hemingway is able to hit all of the high notes and to give Owen Wilson's character what he needs to appreciate the apparent magic and hyperlife of Paris in the 20's.  In other words, this Hemingway is just fine, he meets our pre-conceived expectations and doesn't challenge anything, spouting his own pithy prose as he advises another writer (Wilson).

The Hemingway of HBO's Hemingway and Gelhorn is altogether different.  As portrayed by Clive Owen, this Hemingway has moved way beyond the physical and mental wounds of WWI to become a hard-living daredevil of sorts, who pushes life to the limit in various settings of the Spanish Civil War and WWII.  We don't encounter him writing so much as we see him squandering his talents by trying to prove himself on the world stage.  If there's a war, he can't bear to miss it, especially if his just-as-ambitious journalist/writer/correspondent wife plans to go.  His loyal, hard-drinking but less ambitious pals acknowledge the spark between Hemingway and Gelhorn and her sensuality (she is quite beautiful as portrayed by Nicole Kidman), but they encourage him to follow his own path, not his marital path.  And he does.  And it costs him.  Owen's features, along with the bushy mustache he grows for the part and the glasses he wears, gives him an unfortunate closer resemblance to Grouch Marx than to the Hemingway of that time period, and, more unfortunately, his portrayal is even more of Hemingway the buffoon.  While that may be accurate to some extent, I've read enough biographies to know that there was deep pain and self-doubt beneath all of the bluster, especially as writing output and physical prowess begin to wane and the ultimate man's man assumes the more benign persona of "Papa," but the script and portrayal are both too superficial to get at this.  HBO wanted a sexy, modern love story with sexy, modern actors, and they probably accomplished that, but maybe not much more.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, and the one that most interests me, is the creation of Ernest Hemingway as Hadley Richardson's husband in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  This novel focuses on the courtship between Hemingway and his first wife, and then their struggles as a young, married couple in Paris, Toronto, and elsewhere, culminating in the dissolution of the marriage because a) she lost his manuscript on a train or b) he begins an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer or c) he is Hemingway and, not unlike Picasso, different women are different kinds of muses for him or he has too many ambitions and individual desires and interests to stay with one woman.

When we meet Hemingway in The Paris Wife, he is something of a regular guy--unsure of himself and his future, thoughtful and considerate and attentive to a woman, poor and willing to accept mentorship from other writers, and, most of all, not relegated to spouting out pithy statements reflective of his writing manifesto.  He is not yet fully formed, afraid of his overbearing mother, grateful for Hadley's virginity and how that takes pressure off of him.  And, therefore, the characterization is jarring, because we've never seen Hemingway in this way before and sometimes don't know how to process it.  It's unfair to say, but much as I can be bothered by the portrayal of Hemingway as a talking list of quotable aphorisms,  I also don't know what to do with him when he sounds like a person from 2013-- not idiomatically so, just strangely modern.

What links all of these portrayals is that they all approach Hemingway from the outside, through the eyes of another character.  The result is that they leave him somewhat unknowable (though who among us is ultimately knowable?).  But, frankly, The Paris Wife intends to illuminate Hadley more than Hemingway, anyway, and it probably does a masterful job of that.  I don't know much about her historical personage.  Her narrative reveals her as a complex woman, not at all desperate (as the age difference between them has always suggested), and not untalented herself.  If she has been portrayed in the past as a wife stuck in a small Paris flat while Hemingway mixed with the great artistic minds of the 20's in Paris, that is both accurate and inaccurate, true but not desired, fair but not complete.  At least according to this fictional, but seemingly well-researched account.

Personally, I'm not interested in having Hemingway brought back to life through image, word, or imagined dialogue.  It reminds me of the scene in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter when a vampire has sucked the life out of little Willie Lincoln and a desperate Mary Todd Lincoln begs Abe's vampire pal, Henry, to give Willie eternal life so that they will have him back.  Lincoln tells her no, if Willy did come back, he would be something different and no longer theirs.  I guess that's how I feel about the revived Hemingway.  He's not my Hemingway.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Easy Life of Superheroes

Hold Fast - MercyMe (mp3)

Journal Entry. Sunday, January 6. 11:26 a.m.

Superheroes have it pretty easy most of the time, if we’re being honest. (And, if we’re working under the pretense that superheroes actually exist.) They have these awesome kickass powers, and then they’re placed in situations where their Path To Heroism is fairly obvious.

Rescue cat from tree. Check.
Untie damsel from railroad tracks. Check.
Untie damsel from skyscraper flagpole. Check.
Defuse bomb, first removing possible victims to safe distance. Check check.
Vanquish or subdue monologuing evil bad guy. Discount double-check.

Rarely is a superhero’s challenge more complicated than this, and we in the real world know why.

I tried playing a superhero recently, at least in my own over-inflated skull. Returning to work from a coffee run, I passed a pitiful young homeless woman and her homeless dog. She was cold and wearing dingy layers of ripped and holey clothes and begging near an Interstate off-ramp. I passed her and was haunted at the thought of this being someone’s daughter, so I went to a nearby drugstore and bought her two boxes of granola bars and several large bottles of water.

I flew back to the scene of this Damsel In Distress on my Super-Scooter, handing over these items with my chest puffed out and my long cape flowing back in the gentle breeze, and a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and shone upon my awesomeness. This damsel said a quick thank you, and I tsk’d her gratitude away (“Think nothing of my awesomeness, ma’am! It’s not a big deal! Except that I secretly think of myself as being just about the best guy in the world right now!”), hopped back on my Super Scooter and soared back to work merely on the fuel of my own ego boost.

I was a Hero. I had Done Something Good. End of Issue #1!

A week or two later, I passed that same girl with her same dog and her same clothes, standing at the entrance to a shopping plaza in town. She was crying, and the tears had run tracks through the dirt on her cheeks. All proof of my Heroic Deed was long gone, long forgotten except by me.

This young woman, this damsel in distress, needs more than one moment, more than one act of love or kindness. She is a project, and she requires an investment of many things, among them time, money and energy. And probably know-how on how to manage and counsel young homeless women about getting back on their feet. If that’s what this young woman wants.

Superman and Spiderman do not save young woman like this. They swoop in, fix problems, and swoop away. They are the Quicker-Fixer-Upper, not gifted at long-term projects.

One particular tween boy at my church is a troubling and sad case. His mom is single and a bit off-kilter, her brittleness stretched thin by the challenges of profession, parenthood and life in general, and he carries himself as a beaten-down product of being dealt a crap hand. His sholders are always slumped. His overlong hair is always dangling in front of his face like Cousin It. His feet slide along the ground.

I know plenty of boys from single-parent homes who have turned out plenty fine. They usually have fairly stable, confident mothers, a solid circle of friends, and usually some degree of meaningful males in their lives. This particular tween boy had none of these benefits.

No Superhero Moment can save him. Sure, I could offer to swoop in and take him bowling one day. I could hang out with him, talk about school and music and listen to anything he had to say. Maybe it would even make the smallest ray of light shine down from the overcast heavens for him. But what good is that if all I’m doing is Swooping In? If I’m not willing to invest? What this boy needs is a regular presence, a reliable person to care about him not just in a moment, but over a longer stretch of time, possibly a lifetime.

Most comically, it’s my nature to thrust myself into this comparative as the hero. As if I’m not occasionally -- perhaps even daily -- the one in distress, in need of rescue. Or, even more disturbingly, perhaps I’m occasionally the villain in need of vanquishing. Perhaps all three of these forces -- hero, victim and villain -- are at war inside me every single day, and no Hero can rescue me from it.

The MercyMe song above is simultaneously addictive for me yet also laughable, as it seems to try turning Jesus into a Superhero in a perfect Superhero Rescue moment. When I hear this song, I think of the scene from Backdraft where Kurt Russell is all, like, “You go.... we... go...” and pulls the dude back up. And I get all misty because I’m a softy.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reading Redux

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through my mother-in-law's house....well, anyway, I was at my mother-in-law's house deep in rural Kentucky, and she said to me at one point, "Bob, I thought you would be reading.  I'm used to seeing you reading all the time."

"Yeah, I am," I lied, holding up this iPad, "I'm just reading on this now."

But I wasn't.  I was doing something else, I can't remember what, though I quickly shifted to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower in a pathetic attempt to legitimize myself.  And that's pretty much where I was with reading (outside of my classes) until that wake-up call.

I suppose I should have mentioned my reading initiative earlier in the month, like before my previous post.  But it's been more of a plan in the making than a fully-realized initiative.  All I know is that I used to read all the time, and then, I started reading digitally  and congratulating myself about that, and then simply not reading as much, especially on my iPad, which offered so many other things to do.

I had told myself that it would be like this and then I fell into the trap anyway.

But , thanks to my dad, I got a bunch of books for Christmas, and thanks to BookBlurb and GoodReads, I got some digital books, and so I've started reading again.

This month on the blog, I am dedicating my entries to the act of reading books, an act that, based on an ethnographic study involving only myself, seems to be less and less normal or intuitive.  I like to read, I want to read, but I find myself increasingly drawn to doing other things, especially on devices that are at least partially intended for reading.  And so the 5th book of A Song Of Fire And Ice has been started but then ignored.  And other books have not been started.

But I've kept up with a number of television series and started on some new ones and worked HBO Go, Netflix, Infinity, the PBS app, and other viewing sources.  I used to like to tease my students and tell them that I had read the Harry Potter movies, not the books.  And, then, all of a sudden, I wasn't reading anything at all once evening fell.

But I'm going back to that archaic habit, and, at least at the start of 2013, I will use this blog to keep me honest.  So I will use all of my posts in January to talk about books, and I must confess, I haven't read enough books to have something to talk about for all of those posts, so I will have to get to reading.

At the risk of calling others out, I don't hear my friends talking about books so much anymore either.  The conversation, when it happens, will tend to focus on a particular niche book or a book that was really calling someone, rather than the natural discussions of a regular pattern of reading.

Maybe we are just reading online, shorter stuff, pithier stuff, pieces that can be digested quickly like the piece I am churning out as we speak.  Or maybe that election just took too much out of us and we had to take a step back from reading anything at all.  Or maybe, like me, we just aren't reading much at all, and though we could probably talk a good game,we really couldn't back it up.  I got a bunch of books from my dad for Christmas, mostly historical stuff focused on the Revolutionary War, and I gave him several books as well.  What books are you reading from Christmas?

Anyway, my mission for the month is to re-instill a love of reading in all of us, whether you think you need it or not.  I certainly do.  I read so well in the summer, and then it all dissipates.  Consider this a New Year's Resolution, if you must.  Make it that stereotypical and predictable.  Nevertheless, please acknowledge that this habit, this mental exercise, like its physical counterpart, needs a plan, a schedule, an intentionality in order to succeed.

And if you don't have the stack of books staring you in the face on your nightstand, if you don't feel the weight of your potential digital library as you carry it around on a portable device, if you don't carry some words with you to a solo lunch or an in-law's house or a car while you are waiting for your family at the mall, then you won't get it done.  At least, I know I won't.  And I'm not that different from you.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Accurate? True?

Alison - Elvis Costello (YouTube)

When Elvis Costello sings “My aim is true,” what does he mean? Does he mean his intentions are honest? Does he mean his goals are on target? What is his aim, and what is true?

These are not Clintonian word games I play with this great song, but rather something far more sincere and earnest. That is to say, my questions are true.

My 11-year-old daughter -- a girl long fascinated more by fact than fiction, by history rather than fantasy -- sat next to me in the dark theater patiently working to comprehend the 2.5 hours of dialogue that is Lincoln.

She would occasionally ask me questions; occasionally I would offer her explanations unsolicited. It was a tough movie for her. Intense and lengthy dialogues and monologues, but she stayed focused and worked at it, and I was proud of her for it.

Certain scenes still sit with me weeks later. Lincoln sitting at the window with his son on his lap as he awaits news of the amendment. James Spader. The motivating passion behind Thaddeus Stevens' "full equality" beliefs. Boyd Crowder playing a wormy chickenheart. And all the way through, some amazing lines from an actor uniquely able to disappear into his characters.

Throughout the film, Spielberg’s aim with Lincoln was true. I could not attest to its accuracy, historically speaking, although I’m certain that, were Honest Abe himself to view the film, he would be aghast at the liberties taken with his life and times. There’s a great scene near the end of HBO’s John Adams series where the man, old and even more crotchety, sees Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and gets wicked pissed at its inaccuracy, coughing out all of the reasons the painting was a sham. Surely a similar reaction would befall this film.

In the service of art, sometimes accuracy gets in the way of truth.

Is this Rorschach...
or The Donald?
The frame-for-frame remake of Psycho sucked. Why? How? Because it lost the art and became a bad color photocopy. Zach Snyder’s fastidiously faithful movie version of Watchmen fell shy of expectation as well, because his focus on accuracy reined in the creative vision needed to translate the tale into a new medium.

On the other hand, when “art” is the excuse for intentional inaccuracy -- or let’s just call it what it is: Dishonesty -- then neither truth nor accuracy are being served.

I’m speaking specifically of “Reality TV,” that universally craptastic category of television that exploits and titillates but has interest neither in truth nor accuracy. Even those who create this crap -- and they create it, people, because you will apparently watch paint dry if they call it “Honey Boo Boo” -- hate it.

But they hide behind this illusion that they’re creating “art,” which is like Donald Trump hiding behind the illusion that he’s an intelligent self-made man rather than a spoon-fed brat borne from the coattails of his millionaire father.

To review:
  • Lincoln: True and great, if not completely accurate.
  • Watchmen: Accurate and OK, but not great.
  • Reality TV: Crap and not even real.
  • Donald Trump: His own best fictional creation.
UPDATE: 11:30AM 1/3:
An article in The Atlantic about Zero Dark Thirty and accuracy. Very fitting with this post.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books are like wine...

...and here's why (even though I am no connoisseur of wine):  it isn't necessarily that books appreciate with age, it's that, like wines, there is a right time to experience them.

Case in point: Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

I have read this book twice previously, once in grad school and once during an NEH Seminar For The Humanities on Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf at Tufts University in 1990.  But I didn't get the book either time.  Oh, I did my duty and read it.  I studied it.  I paid attention.  At the seminar, I was completely focused: I even participated in the creation of the t-shirt, which pulled out salient quotations from the book for humorous purposes.  But I didn't get the book.

Enter the app called GoodReads.  I don't remember how it came on my radar or why I downloaded it a week or so ago, but as soon as I did and started looking around at what books it offered (free=classic), there was Virginia Woolf's "masterpiece," only this time with reviews from readers.  And when I read those reviews, which gushed, I realized that I had probably missed something.  So, I added it to my library and started reading it.  

Right now, I'm about 52% through it.  Perhaps some of you will say that isn't conclusive.  But the fact remains that in my sometimes-literary opinion, it is one of the very few seminal works of the 20th Century, alongside the top works of Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others.  Why? Because it handles stream-of-consciousness masterfully, and I didn't realize that before.  I just thought that it was a book where nothing happened.  That criticism, of course, could be leveled at books by those other literary giants, as well.

What Woolf does so well is to move into the minds of a variety of characters who have gathered for vacation on an island off the British coast.  What does happen? Well, not much. The first third of the book involves the inner lives of a series of characters while the "main character" Mrs. Ramsay sits and reads a book to her child in the early evening before dinner.  What Woolf does so well is to provide us with the depth of thought in these characters as they navigate a mundane day--the doubts, jealousies, loves, admirations, aspirations, acceptances of these people, all of whom who have gathered around a family led by a once-brilliant philosopher and managed by his wife.

What is it that suddenly this book speaks to me when it never has before?  Why is it that the mention of this book makes others shudder when I mention it?  I know why.  It's because they had the same experience with it that I did.   Trust me, reader, I am no enlightened reader, no deep critic of literature.  I know how to work through a tough book sometimes, and that's about it.  No, my question is why I now feel in sync with the book, why I am now willing to embrace it, especially when it re-entered my life so randomly?

Which is not to say that book is changing my life or anything like that. I merely understand the small insights of the characters in ways that I didn't before.  And that cannot have been planned by me or by anyone else.  To The Lighthouse just showed up again at my door and, for whatever reason, I was ready to take it in.

Books are a great mystery, especially the how of why we meet them when we do.  I have read only one other book this break, The Perks Of  Being A Wallflower, and that only because it was "on sale" on a digital website.  I thought it was a pretty amazing book, but I can't explain my embrace of it as anything but passive at best, inexplicable more likely.  I had heard of the book.  I knew it was a failed movie.  I don't know why I started adding it.  But I did.

My guess is that the vast expanse of books, the whole notion of putting words to paper, is so special that even many of the worst of books have much to say to us if we encounter them at a time when we are open to their insights, Even though we have no idea when that might be, so that almost any book at that moment will give us something. Would it so happen that the book in question is a great work, well, then, the chances that we might get something semi-profound out of it are enhanced.

For me, with Virginia Woolf, the realization that other people, even fictional, have thought some of the same thoughts that I have, have attempted to manage social settings in the same way was quite reassuring.  We spend so much time (well, all of it) stuck in our own minds, that the continuous deep glimpses into the precarious, generous or self-serving, whimsical observations of the characters in To The Lighthouse allows me to step outside and look around into others a bit.  And, really, there isn't all that much else that the book is about.  It is, perhaps, the most masterful creation of the inner world that we have, without sensation or plot considerations to drive it.

If, indeed, a book is like a bottle of wine, then the simile works even better for me as an unschooled drinker of the grape.  On the occasions when I open a bottle, I never know whether it will taste good to me, whether or not it is "appropriate" to the setting of food or circumstance.  In fact, it's rare that I even recognize when I've opened the same wine previously.  More likely, I've purchased it because of a recommendation or an upcoming event or because it was a good buy and therefore I thought I couldn't pass it up, like Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.  And, to finish the comparison, I have no idea whether you would enjoy the book.  We all have our own preferences, and mine have changed, I know not why, since the last time I cracked it open.