Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year, New Bob

2013 was a transitional year.  To what, I'm not sure.  But on this blog, we agreed to step back, write less, give more time to other writing projects.  I'm not gonna lie-- that was tough for me.  Having to write less frequently sapped my will to keep up with the monthly grind.  I found it too easy to let long stretches go by before I'd think, 'Well, I guess I owe a blogpost.'  

Messing with a routine messed me up.

Then, in July, I started writing for a food blog, too, a gig that potentially offered nominal pay, larger readership, and, most of all, a focus to the writing.  Six months in, that remains a pretty positive experience, though when you sign on a crew member on someone else's ship, you give up command and control.  The food blog is a loose affiliation, but the loss of editorial control on things like titles and occasional scheduling issues can be somewhat challenging when one is used to complete creative control.  That is the trade off of business, though, right?

But the Internet is the real issue.  Even though this entity has offered so many opportunities for amateurs like Billy and me to get our half-baked thoughts out there, ultimately the Internet is not technology.  It is humanity.  And humanity on the Internet is about the same as much of humanity everywhere else--easily mean, susceptible to the mob, courageously anonymous, the equivalent of a bunch of teenagers driving around in a car with a dozen eggs, looking for targets.  If anything, these behaviors intensify online.

As an amateur, someone like me owns a good bit of this problem.  Sometimes I write off the cuff, sometimes don't do enough (if any) research, and, most of the time, enjoy the cocoon of a little blog where I think I know who most of the readers.  Part of being a professional is having a professional skin, and when it comes to blogging, I don't.

Add to that another uncomfortable reality: people's minds are not changed by what they read.  I may support Obama, Billy may challenge the lack of gun control, either of us may make what we consider to be a common sense approach to a national issue, but that doesn't mean a reader's reaction is going to be, 'You know, I believed the exact opposite, but you have changed my mind.'  It just doesn't work that way anymore, if it ever did.  All of us putting opinions out there are preaching to our own little choirs.

So here's what I'm going to try: Small Ball.  In baseball terms, this strategy focuses on getting runners on base any way possible, stringing together a bunch of base hits, hit and run, drawing walks, bunts and sacrifice flies.  There is no reliance on home runs, extra base hits, hitting for power.  A team just tries to scratch out wins.

In my writing terms, I'm searching for and hoping to write about the small epiphanies and casual observations of daily life, not the hot button, newspaper headline topics that everyone with a keyboard feels that he or she must weigh in on.  Maybe I've usually kind of done that anyway.  I don't know.  But I am now heading that way with complete intentionality.

An epiphany a day?  I should be so lucky.  But I kind of like the sound of a post called something like "Epiphany #52," my typically amateurish attempt to hearken back to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations or Krishnamurti's Think On These Things.  Not that I will attempt anything so cosmic.

But I've been known to observe a thing or two, figure out a pattern, solve a puzzle (to my own satisfaction), so we'll see.

Happy New Year!


My New Year's Wish

All of these young men were in the same Chattanooga bar
the week after Christmas 2014. And so were dozens of
others dressed exactly like them, with the same facial hair
and glasses.
My first wish for the new year is the death of hipsterdom.

On January 1, once their hipster hangovers have waned, once their hipster minds have cleared, once their hipster eyes have seen the 2014 sun for the first time, my wish for them is that they awaken to the fact that no amount of ironical knowingness can excuse their stoogery any longer.

(All due respect to women, but this is a male problem. Female hiptserism isn’t really a virus in my part of the South at present. Young women are too busy mixing and matching their Infinity Scarves.)

I wasn’t always this down on hipsters. In fact, for the past few years hipsters have seemed like Wilson on Home Improvement. Sure, they’re around, but they’re mostly obscured by the fence of their cigarette smoke and manufactured ability to create distance between themselves and the rest of humanity. Whatever they did in the confines of their own universe, it never breached my own person space too badly. Last week, however, things exploded.

Chattanooga gets massively younger during the holidays as a massive influx of undergrads and graduate students return home, and thousands of twentysomethings return from their places of cooler residence to visit family.

I met a college classmate at a local bar the day after Christmas, and I felt like I’d walked into a sitcom sketch.

With just the eyeglasses on display in this one bar, you could have equipped the entire Mission Control room cast from Apollo 13. There was so much plaid in the room that Lamar Alexander would have been able to walk around completely invisible. If you close your eyes and imagine what four random male hipsters look like, they were all in this bar. In triplicate.

Chattanooga is always several years behind the curve on fashion and pop. We found out about Public Enemy only after Kim Basinger protested Spike Lee getting dissed at the Oscars. We found out about Bjork only when she wore that dead swan as a dress. We discovered Little Miss Sunshine after it showed up in the Blockbuster bargain bin months after everyone else realized it wasn’t as transcendently awesome as the hype proclaimed. Napoleon Dynamite is just now hitting the Chattanooga theaters as a double-feature with Juno.

I kid, but not really. Because the hipster scene that was taking over bigger and cooler towns half a decade ago has now fully invaded Chattanooga (See: Hipster Olympics from 2007). I’d like to believe hipsters have long been on the Endangered Species list in larger urban areas like Portland and NYC, that places like Chattanooga are ironic final destinations before the end of a particularly ugly version of slackerdom dies.

The most shameful part about what I witnessed was that an entire collective of twentysomething Southern males had bought completely into something so outdated it could be in reruns on Nick at Night.

I'll go to my grave being a nerd and a bit of a socially-awkward goof, but I won't be easily labeled based on my fashion sense (or lack thereof) or my pop-culture preferences. It's a small goal to have for one's gravestone, but I sure do admire the others I meet who strive not to fad themselves to death.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


You know I like games, but not just competitive ones.  I also like slow-moving ones that work toward a common goal or at least a goal of some kind.  The one I'm playing on this iPad right now is called The Room Two.  As you might guess, it is the sequel to The Room.  

If you haven't played these kinds of games before, and they have existed at least since the days of the Apple IIe, they consist of you trying to get through a series of rooms, trying to figure out how the items in the room might work together, most likely, to help you to get out of the room and into the next. 

The Room, and now its sequel, are particularly elegant versions of this kind of game.  Not only is there a kind of Jules Verne-ish backstory, but each room contains all kinds of interrelated objects that require exploration, problem-solving, code-breaking, and, most of all, puzzles.

I love puzzles, especially jigsaw puzzles.  And of the jigsaw puzzles, I especially like ones that are paintings.  Famous paintings.  Right now, we are working the puzzle of The Girl With The Pearl Earring, the result of a trip to the exhibition in Atlanta last fall.

And, I must say, it's the toughest jigsaw puzzle we've tackled.  If you recall the painting, you will remember that her portrait is surrounded in black, meaning that most of the painting consists of darkness divided up into laser-or-computer guided pieces that only distinguish themselves (slightly) during the light of day.  It's a bitch.

People may laugh at me for claiming this, but when you do a jigsaw of a painting, you get to know the painting intimately.  It's like taking a self-guided Art History class.  In putting the painting together literally, you learn how the painting was put together.  Even in two dimensions of mass-produced, stamped-out cardboard, you learn things about Vermeer's masterpiece that you cannot learn by looking at it in a gallery.

Don't believe me?  Well, ponder this: at best, in a museum, you can get about six feet away.  Yes, from that distance, you can appreciate the beauty and skill of the "Dutch Mona Lisa," but you can't see how it was put together.

When you build the painting as a puzzle, you really put your nose right up to it, into it.  You have to.  You follow cracks in the paint, trying to match up tiny lines.  You grasp (some of) the full blend of colors that go into creating a shaded nose or the folds in a headscarf or the "white" of an eye.  You see the red mixed into a region that has no apparent red in it.  You see that what you thought was a uniform black is black and brown and dark red and even a gauze of white.  When you put a jigsaw puzzle together in two dimensions, you learn the layers that lie within a flat, shiny surface.

It is rewarding.  I am convinced of that.  As I was working on the puzzle with two children who are Art History majors, I remarked that "I feel like I get to know a painting intimately when I put it together as a puzzle."  My older child thought that I was being sarcastic.  I assured her that I was not.

Jigsaw puzzles, any puzzles really, force us to stop and to examine how something was put together, whether it's a word in a crossword or a pair of painted (and then painted) lips.  That analysis, I would argue, leads to appreciation.  When I saw a Picasso painting in a museum after putting it together as a puzzle, I thought, "I know that painting."

I didn't mean that I recognized it.  Even though I did.  I meant that I could grasp how the apparent imperfections of each of its sections coalesced into an overall genius.  And I could do that in my own way--in the same way that the artist must have searched for exactly the right colors, for the match of lines, for the way the brush moved from clear stroke to fading blur, I did the same thing.  Not in the same way, of course, but in the ways that made me the ultimate aficionado of those decisions.  I, too, had agonized over them.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

License to Kill

This is the world Gun Rights activists want. We are on the road to their version of paradise.

In the past few weeks, the areas around Chattanooga have seen a handful of tragic and (debatably) unnecessary deaths at the hands of licensed firearms owners.

In Estill Springs, Tenn., a 65-year-old man saw some kids rolling his neighbor's house, so he whipped out his legally-owned shotgun and fired at them, hitting and injuring one.

In late November, a Northwest Georgia man shot and killed a 72-year-old victim of Alzheimer's who first rang Joe Hendrix's doorbell and then wandered around Hendrix's backyard at 4 a.m. Hendrix, 34, killed him in what our culture now calls self-defense.

Less than two weeks earlier, homeowner Fred Steven Youngblood, age 69, shot and killed a 17-year-old who was on his property, apparently taking scrap metal.

On Tuesday, December 18, a 62-year-old man shot and killed a 39-year-old man in an apparent road rage incident. Police claim it's the first road rage fatality in Chattanooga history.

This is the world Gun Rights activists want. We are on the road to their version of paradise.

In all but the house rolling incident, the men who shot (and killed) someone were licensed handgun owners and had at least a mildly valid excuse for whipping out their weapon and ending another human being's life. Gun Rights Activists will proudly smile and support these actions, because that's apparently what our country was founded on: the right to kill anyone who has even a 5% chance of being a threat to us or our property in any way.

Killing someone who steals your scrap metal, who knocks on your door at 4 a.m., or who gets out of his car to yell at you about your crappy driving are all, in Gun Paradise, acceptable excuses. The idiots shouldn't have taken your metal, confusedly chosen your doorbell, or gotten out of their car. Therefore, they deserve death. Sucks for them.

The aim of Gun Rights activists is to move us culturally from a place where killing someone is necessary to a place where killing someone is justifiable. They don’t want a land of justice. They want a land where a few unnecessary or tragic deaths are collateral damage in defense of our right to self-defense.

Lest you think I’m purely anti-gun, I’ll take a moment to praise the new Glock commercial that Gun Rights activists think will upset or bother people like me.

In truth, this commercial is the best and most idealistic portrayal of everything that’s right about guns and gun rights, and it’s a perfect example of why I’m not in favor of eradicating gun rights altogether.

You have a capable but physically inferior woman living alone (or at least home alone, but what manly man would allow their living room to look like that?). You have a mysterious knock on the door not once but twice. She doesn’t overreact, nor are her decisions rash. On the second suspicious knock, she calmly retrieves her gun from a fingerprint-identifying gun safe and sits back down. She doesn’t go out into the evening air ready to blaze away; she just sits back down and tries to watch her TV show.

Once it’s clear someone is trying to break into her front door, she pulls away from the door, draws her weapon, and aims it, but she keeps her finger off the trigger. She doesn’t have to shoot him because the dude passes out first, bedazzled by the male fantasy of a hot ginger in her underwear who knows her way around a kickass Glock.

Unfortunately for right-wing gun activists, the reality is that too many licensed gun owners don’t go by the book. Unfortunately for an increasing number of innocent victims -- or at the very least people who don’t deserve to die for their misdeeds of dementia, TP’ing, scrap metal theft or a roadside rant -- the more Gun Rights activists get their way, the more of these debates about what is or isn’t “justifiable homicide” we’ll be forced into having.

This is the world Gun Rights activists want. We are on the road to their version of paradise.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bob's Best Of 2013: Entertainment Edition

You may not agree with my choices, but I f I didn't experience it, how can it be one of my best?

Best Concerts (in no particular order):

1. Steve Earle
2. Holly Williams
3. Trombone Shorty
4. Frightened Rabbit

Best Movies (in no particular order):

1. Skyfall
2. The Way, Way Back
3.  Gravity
4.  Catching Fire

Best trips:

1. Montauk, NY.
2. New Orleans, LA
3. New York City, NY
4. Venice, FL

Best App, Game:  The Room Two

Best App, Travel:  Waze

Best App, Music:  Concert Vault

Best App, Timekiller: Plants Vs. Zombies 2

Best App, Food:  How To Cook (by Mark Bittman)

Best App, Unexpected:  The Sonnet Project (filmed, contextual recitations of Shakespeare in NYC)

Best Online Magazine:  The Atlantic Monthly

Best Television Series (in no particular):

1. The Top Of The Lake
2. House Of Cards
3. The Killing
4. Luther
5. Sherlock Holmes
6. The Fall
7. The Lying Game (guilty pleasure)

Best Documentaries:

1. The Mind Of A Chef
2. Auschwitz
3. 3 Stars
4. TWA Flight 800
5. Magic Trip
6. Deep Water

Best Books (read in 2013, not necessarily written in 2013):

1.  Not In Your Lifetime  (clear-headed analysis on the 50th anniversary of The Kennedy Assassination)
2. Hemingway's Boat
3. Quiet (a look at introversion)
4. The Third Bullet
5. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Ten Commandments of Marriage

"Don't piss me off, Art." -- Clark Griswold

Your marriage is better off if
you burn this piece of paper.
Or break the stones. Whichever.
Last night when I returned from another room where I had been playing a game with my son, my mother and wife handed me a section of the paper. "Read this!" they said, with glimmers in their beady eyes.

It was an article entitled "What Every Husband Should Know," and it was a single paragraph encouraging all husbands to follow "The Ten Commandments of Marriage" as depicted in the graphic at right.

For shits and giggles, I'll type them out for you:
  1. The kids come first. If there are no kids, your wife comes first.
  2. Be kind. A cruel word, once said, cannot be unsaid.
  3. Your wife is always the most beautiful woman you've ever seen.
  4. Your wife is always the best sex you've ever had.
  5. Everything is your fault. Learn to embrace this.
  6. When your wife says, "Fine," it means she is not happy.
  7. Don't seek to change each other; seek to accept each other.
  8. Let the past stay in the past. Your marriage is about today and tomorrow.
  9. Most important holidays of the year: your wedding anniversary and your wife's birthday.
  10. Laugh. A lot. Laugh with her. Laugh at yourself.
I'm a big believer in #10. Laughter is just about the most important thing we have. Laughter heals wounds, bridges emotional distances, maintains perspective. Laughter bonds and bandages, and it lightens burdens. Part of me knows that my wife and mother (two separate people; this needs to be noted in the South) showed me this list because they thought it was funny, not because it is True.

Bless their beautiful hearts inside their beautiful bodies, this list just pissed me off.

Bugger the negative and damning stereotypes these "commandments" reinforce about men, because men are big boys and can put on their big boy underwear and get over it. But what should bother anyone with a mother, a wife, or daughters is what this list suggests about women.

Here is the overall story being told in these commandments: You, as a husband, must constantly and vigilantly fight to protect and shield your weak wife from her own issues of self-doubt. Her self-esteem is a fragile flower, and the husband must wear his knightly Yes-Dear You're-Always-Right armor and slay the dragons of The Past and The Serious in order to keep the princess happy in her castle.

Oh, and also, abide by Commandment #7 and don't try and change her. Yes yes, a stupid list of commandments like this is totally an attempt to change you, the stupid male at the root of all marital problems, because you're never right. So sit there, accept that you're a miserable f*ckstick who needs to be a better person (duh) and you can't be the better husband needed to keep the marriage thriving without changing (double duh), so obviously this commandment was not about you. It's not always about you, you stupid man.

TIME recently ran one of Camille Paglia's introductory comments from a panel debate on gender that feels especially relevant in light of crap like these "commandments."
It was always the proper mission of feminism to attack and reconstruct the ossified social practices that had led to wide-ranging discrimination against women. But surely it was and is possible for a progressive reform movement to achieve that without stereotyping, belittling or demonizing men.
Or this:
Is it any wonder that so many high-achieving young women, despite all the happy talk about their academic success, find themselves in the early stages of their careers in chronic uncertainty or anxiety about their prospects for an emotionally fulfilled private life? When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, then women will be perpetually stuck with boys, who have no incentive to mature or to honor their commitments.
This is actually better and less damaging advice
than any of the "commandments" above.
In other words, The Ten Commandments of Marriage are vastly more destructive to healthy relationships than they are helpful. They enforce the kind of "men can't win" stereotypes that encourage men not to even try in the first place. Women should hope for and desire men who can be capable and strong without being narcissistic assholes. I should hope such a thing is possible.

Marriage is a dance. It's a non-stop, lifelong, marathon dance requiring two willing partners, with moments where bodies get tangled up and tightly connected, and others where there is space for individual movement. It uses the whole damn dance floor. It takes multiple levels of good communication and no small amount of luck and stubbornness. If one partner is always right, or if one partner is seen as More Important than the other, it's no longer particularly healthy or sustainable. Or, at least, it's not the kind of dance I'm interested in.

In other words, take these two tablets and shove 'em.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Best Music of 2013

“The Civil Wars” by The Civil Wars

Much like Bob and Jason Isbell, my love of this album was an almost-foregone conclusion. I was in love with the idea of the album before it even hit the shelves. It’s about relational disaster and the zombie nature of lifelong love, made by two people tearing apart professionally if not amorously. It’s appreciably more diverse in sound than their first go-round. This album is the beautiful bastard child of “Rumors” and “Shoot Out The Lights,” classics about breaking up by people who are breaking up (and possibly breaking apart). The last two songs are disposable and forgettable, but the same is true of “Achtung Baby,” which was and remains my favorite album of the 1990s. The rest of the album swims in the swamp of Southern Gothic downfall with a religious tinge. It’s a downer with light at the end of the tunnel, a train wreck with critical injuries but no deaths. It’s brilliant and beautiful and heartbreaking.

“Chasing the Sun” by Sara Bareilles
“Rumble and Sway” by Jamie N Commons
“Same Old Same Old” by The Civil Wars
“The End” by Fitz & the Tantrums
“Another Story” by The Head and the Heart
“No, Never” by Jimmy Eat World
“Shake” by Lori McKenna
“Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” by Sam Phillips
“Love They Say” by Tegan & Sara
“Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” by Matt Nathanson
“The Woodpile” by Frightened Rabbit
“Beautiful War” by Kings of Leon
“Waitress” by Boy
“Already Home” by Hanson
“Worship You” by Vampire Weekend
“That Kind of Lonely” by Patty Griffin

“The Bones of What You Believe” by Chvrches
When “The Walking Dead” brought zombies into TV pop culture, they accidentally resurrected our cultural obsession with the synth-pop ‘80s (Fret not rockers, grunge is due for its second birth in the next 5 years). Names like Depeche Mode and New Order that had rusted and lost their shimmer were again being bandied about as the inspirations for a new generation of melodramatic introverts. Chvrches is the pinnacle of this wave. You cannot find a band that does synth-pop, 2013-style, better than this Scottish duo.

“Pedestrian Verse” by Frightened Rabbit
The Frabbits’ concert in Atlanta last spring is one of the concert highlights of my entire life. Although more beloved songs can be found on their second and third albums, “Pedestrian Verse” is their most complete effort. From the album’s opening line (“I’m the dickhead in the kitchen”) to the last note (“We’ve still got hope, so I think we’ll be fine / In these disastrous times”), they prove themselves the best at holding onto light while being expert observers of the darkness of modern life.

“Heartthrob” by Tegan and Sara
Tegan & Sara are the living breathing musical metaphor of our increasing cultural comfortability with homosexuality. They began their careers as outcasts and alternative outsiders, but each successive album has snuck in closer to the mainstream. But “Heartthrob” wasn’t a nudge; it was an aggressive leap into the Taylor Swift and P!nk zip code of YA-oriented dance pop. Their supercool video for “Closer,” which would have been downright scandalous 15 years ago, is downright tender. Discovering and accepting one's sexuality is a part of maturation... no matter where that path may lead. “Love They Say” is an exquisite pop song amidst an entire pool of gems.

“More Than Just a Dream” by Fitz & the Tantrums --
This album is so yummy it made me forget just how little I enjoyed the Hall & Pages concert last spring. Their previous album is supposed to be better, but whatever. “...Dream” was my first impression, and I’m in love.

“The Highway” by Holly Williams -- An album written by someone who doesn't know how not to be a musician. She can no more escape her fate than Luke Skywalker.

“Days Are Gone” by Haim -- I'm not generally a fan of California-inspired pop. Too little bombast inside the ditties. Too much mellow in the rock. This one wasn’t love at first listen, but bit by bit it won me over.

“Modern Vampires of the City” by Vampire Weekend and “AM” by Arctic Monkeys -- There’s a difference between appreciating an album and loving it. I appreciate what’s going on in both, but I don’t love it.

“American Kid” by Patty Griffin -- A wonderful rebound from her weakest album.

“The Worse Things Get…” by Neko Case -- I’ll never love Neko alone as much as I love her as part of The New Pornographers, but I’m in the minority amongst critics.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jingle Bell Apology

I owe my blog partner an apology. Almost every year, Bob comes out with some impassioned defense of Christmas music and drops names like "Sufjan" and "Pogues." He once claimed all top 50 of his favorite songs are Christmas songs, which is one helluva claim for a music lover when you ponder it.

Meanwhile, every year I grow weary of Christmas music by around noon on Black Friday. What some call tradition sounds trite. What should be reverent revolts. Same songs over and over ad infinitum.

While remaking TV and movie holiday classics is a guaranteed nuclear disaster, everyone remakes Christmas songs. We own 11 versions of “Silent Night” and 10 of “O Holy Night.” No sane person should desire to listen to 11 variations on “Silent Night.” This isn’t a Wallace Stevens exercise; it’s insanity.

It took a few years and patience, but some key messages in Bob’s Christmas Music apologias began to sink in this year. A critic recently referenced “Joseph, Who Understood” by The New Pornographers. I checked it out and instantly adored it, and my Grinch heart grew three sizes.

So I began hunting down oddball Christmas songs. Mostly newer stuff, but always unusual. Anti-classic. And I’ve kept my ears and my mind and my heart open. And I’ve begun to enjoy Christmas music.

“Joseph, Who Understood” covers my favorite (Biblical) Christmas subject: the forgotten hero also known as The Willing Step-Dad. As a boy raised by a loving step-father, a man willing to take on all the responsibilities with a fraction of the credit, I’ve always been fascinated by Joseph’s vague part in things. (It's also why my favorite part of the Superman myth is Jonathan Kent.)

But my best discovery this week has been The Killers’ song “A Great Big Sled.” It’s upbeat, doesn’t mind having a little fun with itself, and has a message that goes to the core of most of my favorite non-hymnal Christmas songs: I wish things could be like they used to be.

The cold, the pending end of a year, the memories of cherished holidays past, all collide to make us sentimentally wistful. Some Christmas songs lament a lost love, be it the death of a body or a death of the heart, but songs like “A Great Big Sled” lament the death of our innocence. The worst of these songs yearn for the outside world to be like it used to be; the best of them yearn for what we’ve lost inside ourselves.

The song opens acknowledging that "the boys have action toys for brains," but by the second verse, “the boys are all grown up and working their fingers to the bone.” And something is different, and not for the better...

I’ve been racking my brain
with thoughts of peace and love
How on earth did we get so mixed up?
I pray to God it don’t last a long time

The chorus offers the best of Christmas wishes, one we frequently forget from the first cash register ding on Black Friday (or even earlier) to the last unwrapped present on Christmas morning:

I wanna roll around like a kid in the snow
I wanna relearn what I already know.

He concludes with a valid frustration oft-expressed, but usually annoyingly so by the likes of Sarah Palin, who use it as a bludgeon of imaginary injustice rather than something merely sad and unfortunate:

I wanna wish you Merry Christmas
(Can’t do that.)

To hell with it. I wanna wish you Merry Christmas, so I'm gonna. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, enjoy the songs below (at least until the lawyers tell me to take 'em down).

Billy’s Christmas Song Rediscovery List
Joseph, Who Understood - The New Pornographers
A Great Big Sled - The Killers
Wish List - Lori McKenna
Deeper Than You Know - Marc Scibila and Leigh Nash
White Skies and Moonlight - Kelly Sweet
Tiny Tree Christmas - Guster
Only You Can Bring Me Cheer - Alison Krauss

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Favorite CD This Year

A glance at the latest Rolling Stone confirms what I have known for some years.  I am out of touch, musically.  I can no longer keep up, or no longer choose to.  The reality is somewhere in between.  I purchased Daft Punk, sampled Paul McCartney, dismissed Arcade Fire after reading a dismissive review, own some old Vampire Weekend but haven’t heard the new CD.  John Fogerty singing Wal-Mart duets of classic Creedence songs doesn’t have a chance.  Sorry.  And I won’t catch up on any rap or hip-hip until my children get home for Christmas and we start driving places.  So, Kanye, hang on.  I’m not disrespecting you.  Still, I’ve had a “Best CD Of The Year” in mind for many months, and even though I expected it to be somewhere near the top of Rolling Stone’s top 50 CDs, it actually appeared nowhere on the list.

My choice (which will shock no reader of these pages, since I pre-emptively offered my “song of the year” here many months ago) is Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Since I’m so far out of the loop, I supposed I’d better offer my criteria for a Best Of The Year CD:
1.  It should elevate the genre.
2.  It should both please and surprise.
3.  It should hold up.

Southeastern, seen as a chronicle of his battle with addicting demons, has all of these qualities.  A work of harrowing beauty, Southeastern’s songs explore his topics with everything from unflinching honesty to self-deprecating humor.  And even though the songs have no business appearing on country radio stations, this is clearly the Country CD of the Year, too.  Isbell uses the same song structures, but takes the songs into dark places that illusory modern country doesn’t even know exist—in other words, real, not manufactured, life.

Some highlights:
“Elephant” is a painful portrayal of a relationship in decline for many reasons, not the least of which is that the woman is dying of cancer, sick from chemo, but she and the narrator still “try to ignore [that] elephant somehow.”  “If I fucked her before she got sick/ I’d never hear the end of it” gives us the graphic logistics of love in the time of cancer, though it’s hard to tell if the sickness is the result of cancer treatments or forget-everything drinking and smoking.

“Stockholm” is one of the prettiest, peppiest little love songs I’ve heard this year, slicked up with both a potent slide and sweet strings.  With lines like “Once a wise man to the ways of the world/now I've traded those lessons for faith in a girl,” this song both reminds of the life that was and the chance at a redemption through love.  Similarly, the small, light “Different Days,” with its acoustic, “Friend Of The Devil” chord progression feels like some of the weight of past addictions have lifted.  Somewhat.  One of its many insights (“Jesus loves a sinner/But the highway loves a sin”) surpasses an entire year of packaged country lyrics.

“Super 8” takes the partying lifestyle and turns it into a mock-serious country-rocker which both makes fun of the debauchery and hints at the toll it can take:  “Don’t wanna die in Super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evenin’ didn’t go so well” is the couplet that reverberates in the listener’s head.

“Songs That She Sang in the Shower” addresses the loneliness of living with past failures and refuses to acknowledge any easy solutions: “And the church bells are ringing for those who are easy to please/And the frost on the ground probably envies the frost on the tree.”

On other days, other songs are favorites, especially slower, contemplative, what-the-heck-is-going-on-here numbers like “Yvette” or “Cover Me Up.”  “Relatively Easy,” as I have argued before, is one of the great album closers.  It lingers.  It invites immediate relistening.  Really, the whole CD does.

Critics of Southeastern might claim that it is too slow, doesn’t rock often enough, doesn’t really have a circumstance when we might find ourselves playing it.  I disagree.  The songs have a lot to say, and the music in those songs gives plenty of space and time to the voice.  I listen to this one at night, especially late at night, or in the car when I’m alone.  Sometimes alone needs alone to go with it, and this CD is perfect for that situation, when loss and hope fight for one’s soul and neither one ever quite wins, though both land plenty of punches—on the listener.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tiny Revelations

Inspired by the events loosely described herein, I decided to take a run at a playlet, or a skit, or a one-scene play. It is a brainstorm exercise and as thus has not been read through or edited in almost any significant way. As such, it likely won't make sense in places, but I'm trying to get past a particularly nasty fit of rewrite-oholism which has prevented me from posting for the past week


Characters: (NOTE: all characters are works of 80% fiction)

  • Bob, Billy and Jeff - Three men of dashing attractiveness in their 30s. They are educators, wearing slacks with button-down shirt and tie. 
  • Waitress - a waitress. Or server. Or whatever you choose to call her. Or him.
Setting: A Chinese restaurant, present-day.

Scene One

At rise: Bob, Billy and Jeff sit at a table just left of center stage. One sits in the middle directly facing the audience, and the other two sit facing one another in profile.

BOB: I really prefer booths. Food just tastes better in a booth.

JEFF: Jerry always sat in booths. (Beat, while BOB and BILLY look quizzical.) Seinfeld. On the show. Almost always. Wait. Let me think... A few times he had to sit at a table, but never in Tom's.

BOB: Did you know Sam refuses to sit at a table? If he and his wife or family go into a restaurant (interruption) and there's no booths --

BILLY: Sam the math teacher?

BOB: Yeah. If he goes into a restaurant and there's no booth available, he'll just walk out.

JEFF: Under all circumstances?

BOB: Pretty much, yeah. One time Rebs and I met Sam and Tammy for dinner at that gourmet burger place downtown, and the place was pretty packed --

BILLY: Vortex?

BOB: No no, it was --

BILLY: Bama's Best Burgers?

BOB: No.

BILLY: The Angus? (Beat. BOB and JEFF look at BILLY.) Sorry. I guess you could just tell us.

BOB: At the Broad Street Tavern downtown.

BILLY: But it went out of business.

BOB: Yes. Yes we're all aware. This was a few years back. So. (Beat. Looks at BILLY as if expecting an interruption.) So, we got there, and there’s only a handful of booths in the place, right? And they’re full, but there’s some tables open, and the waitress says follow her, and Sam wigs out.

JEFF: Exactly how doth he wig?

BOB: Well first he’s all red-faced and fidgety and says, “Ma’am, this isn’t a booth. I definitely asked for a booth.” And she’s like, because she doesn’t quite get it yet, “Well sir, as you can see, all our booths are taken.” And Sam says, “Well then, ma’am, we’ll just sit and wait for a booth to open up. Since that’s specifically what I requested in the first fucking place.”

JEFF: He cussed? At the waitress?

BOB: Yeah. Right? Weird, since he’s not a frequenter of the foul mouth.

BILLY: A few meals with us would cure him of that. Of not cussing, I mean.

B OB: Totally out of nowhere. Zero to 60 flare-up of anger. We all walk back to the front and wait 20 minutes for one of the booths to open up. And Sam’s trying not to stay pissed in front of me and Reb, but Tammy has seen this before, so she’s all embarrassed and everything's awkward and nobody is talking. I swear all of those booth people must have sat down right before we got there or something, because it was the longest half-hour wait of our lives. Reb hadn’t eaten lunch that day, so she kept looking at the empty tables with this longing, like a nomad staring at a desert oasis just beyond reach.

BILLY: Y’all go out with Sam and Tammy a lot?

BOB: Not so much, nope. Definitely not after that. Rebecca said she’d be damned if she ever let herself get stuck in a moment like that again. Life’s too short to wait on people's inexplicable psychological hangups. Sheila in the business office dropped a hint a while back that Sam had to be put on some kind of anti-depressant. Or to combat OCD. Something like that. Who knows. We have no idea what’s happening to most of us in the privacy of our personal lives.

JEFF: The tip and the iceberg.

BOB: Exactly.

BILLY: Sam’s doing the drama thing.

JEFF: The drama thing?

BILLY: Yeah, you know, the thing that new drama teacher is doing?

JEFF: Did I miss that email?

BOB: Probably. Students have written these short plays in his drama class, and he thought it might be cool to invite the teachers to act in them. Sort of reverse the roles.

JEFF: And teachers volunteered?

BILLY: I totally did.

JEFF: Of course you did.

BILLY: There’s like nine of us, dude. I think it’s gonna be fun.

JEFF: Of course you do.

BOB: So is Sam any good?

BILLY: He’s OK, yeah. Drama has always appealed to the mentally unstable, right? Explains why I jumped at it…. But… That’s been the coolest part of the whole thing. I knew the plays would be hit and miss, because it’s a bunch of teens writing their first shots at plays, and the plays couldn’t be more than five minutes long… Is there a name for that? Short story versions of plays?

BOB: One acts. Or sometimes playlets.

JEFF: Like Playtex.

BILLY: That’s something I’d say.

JEFF: Ooh. God. You’re right.

BILLY: Anyway, I was late getting there, so everyone else was already sitting down, and I looked around at the people and was like, “This is gonna be a nuclear disaster.”

BOB: John told me the names. Pretty random group.

BILLY: Totally random. Like, I would never have predicted half the people in there. Maybe more than half.

JEFF: So are you gonna regret this?

BILLY: No no, not at all. I mean, the plays are rough. Or playlets, or skits, or whatever. But being in there was… special. There’s this room with a bunch of random teachers, doing dry reads of student scripts, and… you can sense the talent potential in some of them. Like, people you’d never ever predict.

JEFF: Were there any awful ones?

BOB: Of course there were awful ones. I would be awful.

JEFF: No you wouldn’t. You just need the right part. You’d make a wicked Don Henley.

BOB: Ouch. That’s low. I think I could do Bowie.

JEFF: I’d like to see you do Nugent.

BOB: Sweaty Teddy? I’d love to rip out some “Cat Scratch Fever.” But I’d want to play it in a way that complimented the song but also told Nugent he’s an asshat douchebag.

BILLY: I walked out of that room reminded of how much potential and talent we all leave on the table when we choose a career. We're young, and we have all this potential, and who knows all of the things we could be really amazing at. Or maybe not amazing but just good. And we have to just choose one. Or life chooses it for us. And I wondered how many other people walking around here could do just as good a job but didn’t volunteer. I wondered how many of us could have packed our bags and honed this craft and made a career of it. Maybe none. Maybe one. Maybe who knows. But we're at a school. That's our career path.

BOB: I could play a kickass Nugent. In the riveting Damn Yankees biopic.

JEFF: Is it a biopic if it’s a musical on Broadway? Or does it have to be a movie to be a biopic.

BILLY: Is “Rock of Ages” a biopic?

BOB: No it’s just crap.

JEFF: So it was fun? The rehearsal?

BILLY: You really could do a good Steve Perry, Jeff. But yeah. It was surprisingly fun. It’s just refreshing. You get so used to seeing people in a certain light, you know? Working with them as they do this same kind of job and fulfill the same kind of expectations every day, every week, every year. And here they were, brave enough to stretch themselves in front of their coworkers. I’m really excited about it. Even if we suck. Which, I mean, let’s be honest, maybe we will.

BOB: It’ll be great. Everyone eats stuff like this up.

JEFF: If that’s true, why don’t we do it more often?

(as lights begin to dim, WAITRESS begins to walk over with plates of food)

WAITRESS: Your food’s ready, guys. Does everything look right?

Fade to black. End scene.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

You Weren't There

Like most people, I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Facebook.  Right now, it's feeling pretty "off."  Why?  Well, how can I tell you?  You weren't there.

You weren't there at the event that I attended that I attended because I was invited and it really wasn't a big deal, maybe no more than a piece of pie or the moral equivalent, and yet I was there for it and you weren't and I thought the whole thing was innocent and it was, except that the host(s) took pictures and posted them and now it looks like I was really there big time, spent my whole evening there like it was some big deal because there is a photo of a large group of people and they are all smiling as if it was the most meaningful of moments because now it is captured forever.  That moment is captured while your whole meaningless evening sailed past you.

Isn't that so much of Facebook?  You weren't there with my team, for my son's accomplishment, for my daughter's cuteness, for the game we all went to, for the reunion we had that you didn't make (or weren't invited to).  I wasn't there for your trip to ________, the romantic dinner you had with your wife.  In fact, I have no way to verify that on your husband's birthday it was confirmed that he is indeed the perfect mate for you, perhaps even the greatest husband of all time.

And it has even reached the point, mentioned above, where you or I attended something that we didn't necessarily want to publicize our presence at, not because we wanted to even keep it a secret, but maybe something as mundane as the picture you posted made us look fat or drunk or stupid or, worst of all, not how we see ourselves?

Our society is becoming increasingly aware that we are losing our privacy.  The mistake in our thinking, perhaps, is that we are blaming governments and corporations for that circumstance when the reality is that there is probably nothing, no fact, statistic, or bank account password that matters much to them at all.

We flatter ourselves, don't we, if we think that  any great entity wants all of our personal information, as if it were the equivalent of insider-trading stock tips or something?

No, instead, we are taking each other's privacy away.  We assume that because you were there and I was there that we both have an equal desire to share the experience with everyone else whom we know (on Facebook).  Or which hardly needs to be said, that anyone else even wants to know about the event in the first place.  Sure, they'll "like" it in the same way you cruise through all of those Facebook posts late at night, returning all those click favors.

We are taking each other's privacy away because we have accepted so many "friends" that we don't really remember who can see our Facebook posts or what impact that might have on them.  Some of us, let's be honest, have such a strong need to be legitimized on Facebook that we wouldn't give that circumstance a second thought, even if we had a self-reflective moment about how we are spreading the details of our lives too thin.

And we are taking each other's privacy away because someone with no interest in our lives, save a profit, has convince us that it is somehow requisite in this modern life that we share mundanity with each other.  Of course, it isn't mundane to us, I'm not suggesting that, but if we really thought about what we think we want other people to know, we probably tell them.

Or we are taking each other's privacy because maybe this is the new commerce.  There is now a huge swatch of our society where a few dollars more or less don't really make that much of a difference in our lot, our station, but to know and to be known, now that is something we can cash and spend.  To be in the know and in the flow, well, isn't that the source of all prestige and adulation, the reason for derision and scorn, particularly for those sorry saps who missed that ubiquitous Facebook post or just what's going on with you or me?  

"It was on Facebook," we say dismissively to those who aren't.  Who weren't there.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Evil of Nature

Many of us comfortable lazy cityfolk types forget the evil of nature. Maybe we never knew nature could be evil to begin with, if we were sheltered enough, naive enough, clueless enough.

The evil of nature is not so much in the natural disasters that shake our faiths, that force us to ask questions like, “If there’s a God, why did he allow that tsunami/earthquake/tornado?” The evil of nature is in the everyday living creatures which form the circle of life. The spider in Robert Frost’s poetry. Wilson Rawls’ mountain lion. The cat that screws with a mouse until it gives up trying to run yet has killed for no reason pertaining to hunger. The whales that play soccer with baby seals for sport.

That’s not evil, you say. That’s nature. That’s the basic instinct of animals. They don't know any better.

Why, in this age when people expect household pets to be treated with almost the same dignity and respect as people, are we so willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt? Why are we so eager to insist that humans who exhibit the ability to close off their souls or conscience to commit unspeakable acts are Evil instead of “naturally inclined towards predatory behavior”?

The book Serena by Ron Rash aims to serve as a wake-up call for us, a reminder that nature can be downright ornery when it’s not busy being indifferent. At the book’s dark heart is the titular character, a woman whose singularity of focus and purpose is so bald and free of conscience as to distract readers from the bigger messages the novel attempts to tackle.

While we pontificate on the nature of things, on what or who is evil and good, nature itself plays a game free of morality or ethics, a game of predators, of accidents, of apathy.

The plot itself is savory enough for the modern reader, we who have dined with shifty-eyed glee on antihero meals like Walter White or Tony Soprano. It’s the story of a beautiful and sultry orphan girl who seduces her way into the lap of power. Serena marries a man whose aim is to level the whole earth of its timber, but first he must raze the Appalachians, and she wants to watch the destruction happen.

(NOTE: If my plot/review here skirts on the border of Spoiler Alerts, I apologize, but the fate coming to most of the characters in the novel hardly requires Sherlock Holmes, yet this knowledge didn’t stop me for a second from devouring the book.)

The main characters are Serena and Pemberton, the ruthless timber barons; the young girl knocked up by Pemberton before he was seduced into marriage in Boston and her endangered son; the wealthy movers and shakers on both sides of the fight to destroy or protect the land; and the men desperate for scarce Depression-era work, even if their lives are at risk and the wages are pathetic.

The working men are worth less than the trees, just another part of nature the Pembertons want to sap.

Although not a horror book, the Pembertons manage to kill more people than Jason Voorhees. Some of them they plot and devise to kill. Others they merely unleash on an indifferent and harsh nature. And Serena overlooks it all with a trained hawk on her arm, a hawk gifted at out-predatoring all other predators.

The symbolism is rarely subtle, nor are the working men’s pseudo-philosophical conversations. But I’ve come to believe that some books are better by not being subtle. Some parts of life are obvious but still more than worthy of exploration.

We in our comfy air-conditioned multi-thousand-square-foot homes judge the Pembertons and their cronies for raping the land. How dare they. We would never. We judge them for treating their employees like dirt. How dare they. We would never. We judge everyone for seeing the evil in a person and doing nothing about it. How dare they. We would never.

Well, Serena doesn’t give a good galdern what you think. You ner nobody else neither. Her past is mysterious. Burned houses. Dead lumber baron parents. Enough knowledge of sawyering, books and foreign languages to require two or three deals with the Devil himself. Neither knowing what she is, nor turning a blind eye, nor remaining gleefully ignorant will protect you.

You are the baby seal, and she is the killer whale. And it’s perfectly natural. Right?