Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cautionary Advice and Musical Superlatives for 2015

INTRODUCTORY THOUGHT:
Don't Mask Laziness With Blanket Judgments

More times than I care to admit in the past year, I’ve heard the oft-repeated comment that goes something like this, “There hasn’t been any good music since __(enter preferred year/decade here)___.”

What aggravates me about this comment is that it can generally be translated thusly: “I’m too f*&king lazy to actually seek out new music. I don’t have time to give it my attention. And I don’t like the predictable monotonous tripe that shows up on whatever radio station my friends or kids listen to. So I'll just say it all sucks. That takes me off the hook.”

If you don’t have the time or inclination to seek out good new music, I dig it. Life moves pretty fast*, and the older we get, the harder it is to find time to carve out for something most people think of as a good distraction while they’re ironing or driving. But please, pretty please do me a favor. If you don’t actively seek out new music, quit knocking it, because disguising your ignorance under the veneer of musical snobbery is lazy and insulting. It's childish. It's like when my children say they've lost something and can't find it, and they're crying or fighting back tears from having looked so hard, but it only takes a parent 20-30 seconds to find it. Because we know our kids, and we know where to look, and we don't give up. Sometimes they haven't quite learned how to look hard for something.

With music in the 21st Century, sometimes you gotta look really hard. It takes effort. The halcyon days of MTV Top 20 Countdown and SPIN magazine being “hip” are long gone. But trust me, if you want to find good music, it's out there, and it's awesome.

SUPERLATIVES: 
If my musical yearbook were to be published at the end of December, here would be my Sonic Superlatives for 2015. But first, an introductory thought.
Best Thief/Genius Piggyback Move:
Ryan Adams - 1989

Best Comeback:
Veruca Salt

Bastard Child of the Replacements + Sugar:
Beach Slang

Best at Treading Water:
TIE - Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves

People Who Can (at Times) Do the Isbell Thing As Well As Isbell:
Will Hoge, Josh Ritter
Most Buyer’s Remorse:
Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect

Solid Effort... Yet Still Disappointing:
Coheed & Cambria - The Color Before the Sun

Most Likely to Be Praised for Doing Absolutely Nothing Different Now Than in 1977:
Jeff Lynne

Freakiest Pop Chanteuse:
Florence (of + the Machine)

Freakiest Child of Florence Not Actually Born to Florence:
Ryn Weaver

Most Likely to Be Florence’s Mother:
Kate Bush

Best Canned Predictable Overproduced Pop Song:
Fight Song - Rachel Platten

Adele Before There Was Adele:
Lionel Richie

BEST ALBUMS OF 2015:
Chvrches - Open Every EyeThe band’s sophomore effort proves that their embrace of the synthesized pop and alternative music of the 1980s is genuine and more than mere fad. That lead singer Lauren Mayberry has proven herself to be an aggressively opinionated woman who doesn’t much care what it does to their “brand” makes me respect them even more… even if it also seems inevitable that their days as a band are numbered.

James Bay - Chaos and the CalmAlso my “Biggest Surprise of the Year,” Bay’s album received mixed critical reviews because it isn’t out there breaking new ground. But what if we’re not always looking for music that breaks new ground? What if we’re looking for something that can take the familiar but manage to take it on a few new twists and turns? Nothing wild. It’s like meeting someone you’ve never met who reminds you of your best friends, and you know you’ll get along just swell. Bay’s album is replete with up-tempo (“Get Out While You Can,” “Hold Back the River,” “Best Fake Smile”) and crooning hits (“Scars,” “Incomplete”) worth heavy repetition.

Josh Ritter - Sermon on the RocksTwo weeks after I bought this album, it was nowhere near my favorite album of the year. The lyrics, like most of Ritter’s music, are packed in. The words pour out at an almost rap-like pace, and it can be very difficult to find the time and attention necessary (see my initial comments) to appreciate what’s going on. And what’s going on is two things. First, it’s Ritter’s most up-tempo album ever. Second, it’s the closest thing I might ever find to The Perfect Christian Album. Which is to say it spends most of its time shining a harsh, critical, damning light on how we seem to be approaching our Bibles lately. But it’s also the kind of light one can only shine with a healthy history -- and love -- for the subject matter and the people in question. Many Christian types will find his songs offensive, insulting. Perhaps they should. But those who truly listen will hear someone who shares our frustrations and wonders where we went wrong and how the frick we might be able to get back on track.


* -- Life moves so fast that 2016 will be the 30th Anniversary of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Re-Meet The Beatles, Part 2

If it is true, as my students and I were discussing at the end of last semester, that books hit you in different ways at different times in your life--that you understand Holden Caufield as the adult creation of a teenage mind more when you are an adult or that the frustrated, disenchanted Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises seems more tragic and less a novelty to snicker about--then the same is true for music, especially popular music that has been with us as long as The Beatles have.

It is worth noting, in a detail lost to time for many of us, that the Beatles we first met were not the same Beatles they met across the pond, or at least not in the same order.  For reasons I no longer remember, the American Beatle albums were senseless scramblings of their intended British counterparts, and so, we bought records like Meet The Beatles or The Beatles '65 which mishmashed the coherence of the records I listened to on Spotify.  Indeed, less than half of my Beatle listening years have been spent with the superior British albums.

All of which serves a windy introduction to my remaining comments after a complete dose of Beatles yesterday. Context matters. But so does sound.  And so do trained ears.

As a result of playing in a haphazard band the past few years, I hear the Beatles a bit differently than I once did, particularly a bit more of the instrumentation, voice, and even recording strategy than I once would have.  Some of that is also a benefit of the remastering.

One myth easily shattered is about Ringo.  For whatever reason, it was always important for Ringo to be the least-talented, lesser, newest Beatle, both back when they started getting popular and then again when pompous rock criticism of the 70's started weighing in.  It was always said that Ringo was a lousy drummer.  In fact, I'd argue that Ringo is quite a good drummer whose parts always fit the songs.  A virtuoso?  Maybe not.  A Clarence Clemons of the drums who was told what to play rather than to create?  Perhaps.  But Ringo delivers again and again and again, regardless of the type of songscape he is dropped into.  From the propulsive drumming of "Rain" to the theme-fitting patterns of "I'm Only Sleeping" or "I'm So Tired," Ringo is right on point, never stepping out but always serving the song.

I was also surprised, in listening more carefully and completely, how important the 12- string guitar is to the Beatle sound.  Though I enjoy playing it, I've always thought it was a kind of fringe instrument that would play a restricted role.  For the Beatles, it's here, there, and everywhere as both a lead and rhythm instrument.  And maybe I understand why the Byrds are 12-string driven.

 Other than the quality of an overwhelming number of songs, I am most impressed with the vocals.  Forget Simon and Garfunkel or the Everlys or the Indigos or Emmylou and anyone--John and Paul (and sometimes George) are the great harmonists of rock and roll.  Their voices together are rich, organic, complimentary, willing to take innovative and emotional risks with their voices in ways the aforementioned don't.  I used to get the same kind feeling from listening to the original Jayhawks--road warriors whose voices blended together almost naturally.

But beyond the harmonies, just the quality, range, and versatility of John and Paul's voices--from a whisper to a scream and serious, comic, sentimental, detached, cynical, nostalgic--they are able to convey whatever they need to.

I've often wondered why there weren't a lot of leftover Beatle tracks, songs that didn't make the cut or were only half-finished, toss offs and jams.  But I suppose they didn't work that way, given the demands of those 7-8 years in the spotlight when they released 14 albums (counting the White Album as two).  They had to be focused and efficient and make everything good enough to be released.  And you can hear that, too, when you listen to all of it at once.  "Mr. Moonlight" may not be my favorite track on The Beatles For Sale, but I can't call the performance of it lackluster.  They sound like they are giving it their all.

That may also explain why so many of the songs are so thematically similar--early George tends to write about how he doesn't have enough time for all of the girls who want him, John mines the various responses to being broken-hearted or in other emotional pain, Paul works that territory plus the joys and challenges of being in love.  What is interesting to me is how many of the songs speak not to the lover, found or lost, but to some third person, perhaps the listener whom they are acutely aware is hungry for the next song.  And then, in later years, perhaps, they discover that it doesn't really matter what that next song is.  Mix in drugs and that detachment may explain the silliness of some of the later songs.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Re-Meet The Beatles, Part 1

One of my many compulsive patterns is that a drive to Florida necessitates the listening to of a single artist for the entire ride down.  (The ride back means vacation is over and so anything that can help to keep me a little chipper is fair game.). Today's drive coincides with the recent release of the entire Beatles catalog on Spotify and other listening apps, and so, at my leisure, I  listened just about every song they put out as a band.

The only thing that didn't call my name was the highly-overrated drudgery of the first side of Abbey Road.  Which leads to my post; I have, perhaps, fresh thoughts on listening to the Beatles 52 years after I first started listening to them.  And if you are moved enough to respond, I would enjoy hearing some of your counter-perspectives.

1.  About that Abbey Road, hmmm...well, I'd have to say the whole thing is highly overrated.  Side One sinks under the pretensions of the ponderous "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", which goes on about five minutes too long, and the slight "Octopus' Garden."  Sorry, Paul, but one "Yellow Submarine" was enough.  "Something" was a beautiful ballad, but I am simply tired of it.

I know well and acknowledge that Side Two is innovative and stimulating with its combination of snippets of partial songs into a fairly-coherent final statement of the Beatles' majesty, but if you stop and listen to any of them and think about them, there is almost nothing to them.  Side Two is an overindulgence of the "dumb" songs that started around the time of Revolver.  It strikes me as the ultimate tribute of George Martin's production genius.

2. After a re-listening, the greatest of the Beatles' albums is A Hard Day's Night.  While more common "best" Beatle albums (and sometimes greatest albums of all time) include Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Revolver, or Rubber Soul, all of those are ultimately marred by a couple of weak or maudlin songs on each one.  Oh, yes, all contain some of the Beatles' most powerful songs, but nearly 50 years later, all seem inconsistent (and again held together by Martin's marvelous production values).

By contrast, A Hard Day's Night (not all of the songs appeared in the movie) is a tight collection of smart, quick pop songs all focused on love and relationships, all sounding distinctly different from the song before or after.  It is the same thing Elvis Costello achieves with Get Happy or Steely Dan with Pretzel Logic.

In addition to the title track, the other mega-hit is "Can't Buy Me Love," but other standout tracks include "I Should Have Known Better, " "Things We Said Today", "If I Fell," "Anytime At All," and "You Can't Do That."  A Hard Day's Night is the Beatles at their most infectious, and part of me wonders either a) if it came out today, could it revolutionize music once again or b) could there be an interesting rap/hip-hop reimagining of these songs waiting out there to bring these songs back in new, perhaps just referential, ways.

3.  My concentrated listening reinforced for me what I knew long ago and still believe--my favorite Beatle period, by far, is the span between 1964-1966, when they released a remarkable 5 albums (A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul. Revolver), as well as two movies and numerous side singles, like the incredible "Rain," "Day Tripper," and "We Can Work It Out."  While this feat of sheer output alone is impossible to imagine today (like Satchel Page pitching both games of a double-header), the quality of so many songs is simply stunning.

For me, the years before still cling too much to the early rock and roll of the 50's and early 60's, while the psychedelia and disenchantment of the later years serves John sometimes, and only sometimes, provides George space to find himself, but seems to have mired Paul in some kind of eternal vaudeville acid trip.

From 64-66, all three songwriters found their own voices, while still occasionally paying homage to their many influences.  It is a fruitful combination of voices, confident instrumentation, covers and originals, co-writes and solo songs, and light-years-ahead-of-it's-time production.  And for a listener, with the remastering a few years ago, the songs have never sounded better.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

From We to Me

A strange transition takes place within most of us between Christmas and New Year’s.

We spend the weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas generally celebrating togetherness. We think outwardly. We focus on giving. We travel or welcome in travelers to our homes. We gather round long tables, cram extra chairs into the corners, nudge elbow to elbow with second cousins and great-uncles, neighbors and longtime friends. We break bread together. We pray together. We open obscene amounts of gifts together.

To be certain, this isn’t everyone. Many spent this Christmas with an incurable ache of a lost loved one in their gut, the memory of voices and pictures gone from the earth bouncing in their heads. Many spent this Christmas alone, not always by choice, not always because of a tragic flaw in their heroic character.

But for most of us, we just completed the time of our year where we most outwardly seek connection and togetherness.

As the New Year approaches, the dial turns.

Although New Year’s Eve is a time many spend partying with friends and loved ones, we view the dawn of a new year as a time to reconsider ourselves. We become reflexive, inward-looking, evaluative.

What did we do right this year? What did we do wrong?

What about myself -- my looks, my attitude, my potential, my ambition -- can I and should I aim to improve by adding or increasing? Work out more. Read more. Sleep more. Journal. Go to more concerts.

Resolutions. We seek to resolve. Or we try and re-solve old problems.

What about myself -- my looks, my attitude, yada yada -- can I and should I aim to correct by reducing something, leaving something behind? Lose weight. Break off that toxic friendship. Stop whining so much. Say less and do more.

Dissolutions. We seek to dissolve. We attempt to improve by subtraction.

Even those of us who aren’t big on resolutions or avowed dissolutions -- and let’s be honest, we talk a much bigger game on resolutions than most of us ever actually put into practice -- certainly find ourselves pondering these things, reevaluating. We look in the mirror, or the “deep dark truthful mirror” that requires no walls, no physical reflections or selfies, and we nitpick and critique.

Is part of the reason so many of us need a night to get s#itfaced as the ball drops because we have overdosed, emotionally and mentally? First on weeks of feeling deeply for those we love or those we should love more than we do, and then on a week of feeling deeply, and often with unflinching harshness, about ourselves and our place in the world? And after all that feeling, and all that thinking -- which comes, not coincidentally for most of us, with an unusual amount of vacation and free time -- we are desperate to lose ourselves a little.

Or maybe it’s an attempt to clear the slate, clean the palate (and the stomach lining), ditch the baggage we don't want coming along with us into the promise of a better day and a better year.

Here's to the tabula rasa that we hope 2016 might bring. And here's to singing the same song, hopefully with the same desperate optimism and belief, in 2017!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Rain

If you are looking for a cheery post-Christmas post, you may need to look elsewhere.  Christmas was good, great, tasty, redemptive, renewing, bonding, overt, masterful, joyous, and most other positive adjective you can think of.  It was, in many ways, an exceptional Christmas, but this post is about rain.

Rain is a balance I seek in my life, and when rain exceeds that balance, everything else is out of whack.  And so, rain has taken over Christmas this year.  It rained pretty hard two days ago, when all of the South and beyond was in rain, thunder, lightning, tornado turmoil and worry, and then yesterday, the rain was light. A reprieve.  What felt like the end of things.

But when I got up this Christmas morning, went to the bathroom, and then came back to bed to be with my wife, the accumulation of rain started coming into the basement.  Soon after 7 AM, we were both suddenly up, trying to prepare our basement for what looked like more than a day's worth of an onslaught of rain.  And there, right at the start, our defenses had already given way.

That leads to a number of interesting choices.  Of course, you get everything you own off the floor ( save for the books your cat will knock into the water later in the day).  But do you tell your mother-in-law who is visiting, do you tell your father who will be arriving in ten minutes that your basement is no longer tenable?  For one 89 year old, that flood will be a source of worry for the rest of the day and beyond, and for the other one, that flooded basement will lead to an endless conversation of "things you need to do" that will overwhelm the rest of the day.  So you put down towels, blankets to try to staunch the flow and turn off the basement lights just get through it.

Fifteen and a half hours later, the rain has not quit, at least 3 inches have come down ( the total for the day was nearly 4 inches) and your basement has begun to ripen, ever so slightly.

That is rain.  Two days ago, commiseration with those who had survived tornadoes and what not was the name of the game.  Tonight, however, I am feeling sorry for myself, which is pathetic in light of other tragedies, because all of the rain in the country is centered over my house and apparently disinclined to go anywhere else.

I don't want to go in the direction of global warming with a 75 degree, rain-soaked Christmas, but I do want to say that for those who deny, this is a glimpse of what all of our futures probably look like--temperatures way too high for the region and the time of year with the resultant weather conditions.

For me, Christmas 2015 is as bad or worse than when a hurricane blew through here some years ago.  That one had more concentrated rain that required my driving to Home Depot in a monsoon to get a pump, while this one has a far longer stretch of hours where we watch helplessly as water runs through our basement in living rivulets that show no sign of stopping.  I have never seen the ground as saturated as it is today in my front yard as it waits to sink down into my basement, or in my neighbor's yard, where it pools at the bottom of every slope, waiting for entrĂ©e.

Rain in steady doses makes everything in my yard better; rain in mega-doses is the bane of my existence.

And as I listen to the sirens in the distance, where I know power lines have failed, cars have crashed, motorists are trapped, traffic sits, drains overflow, and water runs across streets, I know that I am not alone on this rain-drenched Christmas, that everywhere people helplessly wait for it to end, for the drying to begin and the super-saturated yards to become walkable.

The Beatles kind of had it right.  It isn't so much that people hide their heads anymore, at least not me, it's what that incessant water is doing underground that leaves me lying awake and wondering what strategies might best bring us back to normal quickly if and when it ceases.  I hope you are not having a soggy, soggy Christmas.  Chances are, if you don't live near me, you aren't.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Paper

I can't help it anymore.  Whenever I think of Christmas, even when I am in the throes of it, reveling in it, loving it, I think about the paper.  Christmas is a most wonderful holiday, but far too much of it involves paper.

I'm not talking so much about wrapping paper, that product which is said to be far too toxic to burn in the fireplace.  That is its own issue.

No, I'm thinking not about the packages instead of the packaging. Christmas shopping involves bags, receipts, return slips, promos, boxes, and that's just if you are shopping in stores.  If you go online, then you are adding all of the larger boxes, corrugated papers, inserts, and various types of product cushioning that goes with gift transportation.

And in all of this, we are out of control.  If you are getting, for example, an Apple phone for Christmas, then you are receiving the most beautiful and unnecessary packaging going these days.  Your phone will come in a protective shipping box, then inside of that, a beautiful white outer box, and inside of that various trays and compartments and cubbyholes that make you say, "Wow, this is the most beautiful, stylish, space-efficient packaging that I have ever seen," as you admire the beautiful packaging and then set it aside, never to be used again.

But Apple is the symptom, not the disease.  We have so many products that contain an extra layer of packaging or more, unnecessarily tying up natural resources for the sake of style.  Even the more environmentally-conscious coffee pods that fit the Keurig (using a mesh screen instead of a plastic cup) have a dozen coffee pods in a plastic foil pouch inside of a cardboard box.  The box is totally unnecessary, except that I'm sure it helps with the stacking/ arrangement on a grocery store shelf.

In much of Europe, I'm pretty sure, such a product would be just in the plastic and not in the box.  But in our mega-groceries, we are slaves to ease of display, and so we concede to what looks best on a shelf.

If a toy truck came just with a price tag sticker, if a box of Christmas lights only needed a cellophane bag, what do we really lose?  For those of us who have recycling options, our bin is less full, for those of us who don't, we would have fewer boxes.  And less paper used.

In so many ways, from VRBO's to cellphone buy backs, we are discovering that there are ways to use resources and products more fully.  But this notion seems not to have reached our basic product decisions-- pasta boxes, cereal, dishwasher pods.  We lose nothing if items come in thin, strong plastic bags instead of paper-hungry boxes.

With CDs, it took a few forward-thinking artists who refused the large, cardboard boxes for CDs to beak the whole industry of its actions.

Who will do the same for the products we buy every week?

There is so much joy associated with Christmas that I hate thinking of waste as the first aspect of the holiday.  But I can't help it.  The world is running out.  Anything that takes a preponderance of air, earth, or water deserves some scrutiny.  And all of the thrown away/ tossed away/ maybe recycled detritus of Christmas weighs heavily upon me, on all of us, even if we aren't paying attention.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Egg And I

Non-cooks may have little interest in this post.  Or maybe there is something illuminating....

Here goes.  Anytime there is a holiday coming up, the star of the show is always.......( wait for it, but not really, since it is in the title)......eggs.  If there is one thing every family seems to need for the holidays, and I mean any holidays, it is eggs.  Or maybe, they aren't the star; they are just the power behind the throne.

Think about it.  Everyone is home.  You've got to put on a lot more meals, not the least of which is breakfast, and what you are looking for the most is eggs.

I feel like Bubba, in the movie Forrest Gump, because I am about to illuminate the many ways that eggs come into play:

You need eggs for breakfast, plus eggs for something special like pancakes or French toast or, for Christmas morning, something like Eggs Benedict or one of the many overnight French toast recipes or some kind of other breakfast casserole.  You need eggs for your Christmas cookies, your pecan pie or just about any other pie that you can imagine, plus any cake or other fancy dessert that you can think of.  There will likely be eggs in your stuffing/dressing, eggs in your asparagus casserole or maybe your sweet potatoes, in your giblet gravy or your popovers or bread.  They'll be in your potato salad or standing alone as deviled eggs, in your homemade ice cream or your eggnog or your leftover ham salad.  If you are not celebrating Christmas, they will be in the Chinese fried rice you get as carry out.

It is ironic, if not humorous, that various nutritional studies gave eggs a bad rap for so many years before exonerating them, funny because though we might have tried to minimize the number of eggs we ordered in a given week, that couldn't countermand the eggs that insinuate themselves into our most basic daily eating activities.

I have at least one friend who doesn't like eggs.  That doesn't mean he isn't eating them out the vying-yang; it just means that, for whatever reason, he won't acknowledge them in isolation.

Me, I love the stark egg-- the over-easy or medium, the poached, the lightly-dressed egg salad, the hard-boiled, the rolled omelet or oven-baked frittata or quiche.  If the egg is the star of the dish, I am probably both comfortable and excited.

Eggs are weird.  No doubt about that.  The Coneheads' characterization of them as "fried chicken embryos" is almost too real to consider while eating.  But for those of us who are carnivores, and for vegetarians who eat eggs, their taste and versatility is unparalleled.  There are so many other ingredients we might lose if we had to, but eggs?  They are that odd food that can be the basis of so many complex dishes, sauces, maneuvers, embellishments, and yet on their own, with just a little salt, they can sate almost anyone.

The egg has 80 calories.  And a fair amount of cholesterol of some dispute in terms of its danger. And fat.  And protein.  And sheer nourishment.  In this Christmas season, and in the thanksgiving one that preceded it, the egg's humble qualities make it the ubiquitous presence this holiday season.  At least at my table.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bob's Best Of 2015

Best Comeback Into My Life:  L.L. Bean.  For awhile, the rugged clothing giant of my grad school years seems to lose its way, to move outside of fashion.  Or maybe I did.  But Bean is back.  I'm in love with striped shirts, Bean boots, pullovers, and other stuff that will do me no good in this hot, Southern winter.  But last January, I was all Bean.

Best Book:  I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.  In which a screenwriter unleashes everything he has learned on a mega- first novel thriller that transcends, expands, and blows away all conventions of the genre.  If you are one who disparages the exciting book, fine, but I still challenge you to find a more interesting, complex, conflicted narrator this year or beyond who knows when to give away truth as "spoilers" in a more intriguing way.  And the book uses 9/11 in a way you'd never think of.

Best Tech:  the rise of Siri and her competing counterparts.  This was the year when we began to build actual, tentative relationships with Artificial Intelligence.  I've seen and read enough to know that this could go badly wrong, but for now, our various devices never felt more like reliable companions.

Best Artist Of The Year:  Ryan Adams.  Hey, it is a personal list, right?  So this is the year I finally got to see him in concert ( at Jazzfest) in the kind of whirlwind hits and favs show that we dream of from so many artists.  And coupled with that, his reimagining of Taylor Swift's 1989, which some will claim gave her cred she didn't need, but which will make even more agree that our emotional lives are better seen through the Adams lense

Best Personal Trend: The FitBit.  It's got me walking, it's got me wanting to walk, it's got me forcing myself to walk, it's got me feeling proud about walking, it's got me keeping track of my walking, it's got me sharing my walking, it's got me planning my walking.  A friend of mine said it would be gone in six months.  Well, he was wrong.  Instead, I am wearing continual motivation on my wrist.  And I don't care if the NSA knows it.

Best Financial News:  the price of gasoline.  Gas is cheaper than pre-Obama levels, and it was often used as a doomsday measure of his presidency.  Instead, where I live, it hovers right now at $1.65/gallon, which allows for an easy and generous fill-up.

Best Local Food Trend:  where I live, the national food trends may be a year or ten away, but locally, I simply enjoy the fact that so many entrepreneurs are opening new places that can expand our food horizons in the sometimes-provincial city.  How nice to have increasing options to take out of town guests and have them say, "Wow, that was really good."

Best Beer Trend: many of the people I know have shaken off the relentless pursuit of the latest, greatest craft beer and have returned to the normalcy of drinking beer as a combination of taste and lower price, with price sometimes carrying the day.  Some even acknowledge that those special beers can make your stomach burn when you don't want it to, like late at night.

Best Movie:  I gotta say, it's Mad Max: Fury Road.  I thought Spotlight was fantastic--powerful, well-acted, socially-relevant, Oscar-worthy.  But for me, the great movie always needs something of the swashbuckle, the journey, the world that never was, and this reboot of the Mad Max franchise with new actors and themes was as rich and satisfying as anything I saw, probably more so.  I have yet to see the new edition of Star Wars, but it never captured me mythically like the post-apocalyptic Road Warrior. And that an action film is the feminist movie of the year is just icing.

Best Hope For The Future Of Mankind:  that Springsteen is back out on the road in early 2016.  If you don't understand hope, then I will tell you: I have seen the future of hope and his name is Bruce Springsteen.  Don't ignore him while he is here for us.





Monday, December 21, 2015

A Test Of Electable Citizenship

With all of the debates, rallies, campaign stops, and speeches being covered, aired or soundbitten by the media for our presumed edification, there is, of course, much talk about the qualifications for president, who has the most relevant background, experience and insight.  That may be important and it may not.  It's hard to know on the front end, I think, what experiences might emerge as most important for the problems of the day or what growth in the job and adaptability to circumstance might emerge.

So I'd like to go back a step.

To be a candidate for national (maybe all) political office, a candidate needs to pass a basic test of citizenship.  Yes, I'm talking about a sit-down exam, but not one designed to trap or surprise anyone who has taken the trouble to prepare for it.  Such a test wouldn't be a chance for a "gotcha" moment, but if "you know nothing, John Snow," it will reveal that and you will be disqualified.

Make it available in any language.  Make it open-ended in terms of time restrictions.  Serve drinks, if necessary.  Maybe even allow unsupervised use of smart phones during the exam!  But for gosh sakes, anyone who is going to walk away from that exam with a passing score is going to write down with his or her own hand the basic realities of American history and American government.

Now, those of you who are sensitive about your weak candidate are going to think that this post is a surreptitious attack on Dr. Ben Carson.  May I reassure you that his level of cluelessness about history and government is so pervasive as to be unfixable in this context.  And his willful ignorance would never allow him to sit for such an exam anyway.

Still, I'd be lying if I said that his beliefs that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and that the Star of David is on the dollar bill didn't get me thinking along these lines.  But so did the candidate who celebrated the Minutemen at Concord, only it was the wrong Concord! Or the female vice-presidential candidate who thought John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father.  Or those who confuse The Declaration of Independence with the laws of the land.

My test might contain the following:

1. A knowledge of the basic documents of government, particularly the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.
2. A history of the Founding Fathers and their various roles and actions.
3. A history of the lead up to the Civil War, the war itself, and he Reconstruction.
4. The later amendments to the Constitution.
5. Key speeches by Washington and Lincoln.
6. The "dark spots" on our past--slavery, the Trail of Tears and Indian resettlement, the internment of Japanese-American citizens
7. Patterns of immigration and migration.
8. Civil rights.
9. The roles and limits of the branches of government.

In other words, a basic high school American History course.

You may have other topics that I've missed.  Perhaps some of mine are unnecessary.  I would not contest any of that, but I would hope that we can agree that, for example, a presidential hopeful who doesn't know what has happened or how things are supposed to work cannot effectively speak about the office he or she seeks.

The person who does not know history may be doomed to repeat it, but there is an even larger irresponsibility for the person with such untutored ignorance who wants to lead.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

For No Good Reason

All things happen for a reason.  Some of us believe that.  Even I believe that on my own terms.

And so, tonight, at the place where I work, we have lost one of our angels.  For no good reason.  For the randomness of cancer.  Maybe for genetics.  Maybe for environmental circumstances beyond her control or awareness.

And today, for no particular reason, on Spotify, where I would normally, in December, look for Christmas songs and holiday cheer, I didn't.  There was something else in my head.  And that something was Bruce Springsteen.

It is December, but, driving down the road, for no good reason, I didn't go for Sufjan or Guaraldi or the Chieftans.  I had a different song in my head.  I wanted to hear "Death To My Hometown."  Because it felt kind of like my band, in over-dramatized fashion.  I wondered if we were looking at "death" in a melodramatic way, because we were unconnected, diffuse, seeing things in different ways.  Just plain lost in our purpose.

And that one Springsteen song led me back to thinking about the CD.  And the CD led me back to my favorite songs from it, the greatest of which is the title track, "Wrecking Ball." That song is one of the more clever allegories on record-- a paean to the Meadowlands stadium about to be torn down when the song was written and a rumination on the singer's own mortality.

I was listening to it on the way to meet a friend for lunch.  And (spoiler alert) when I listen to a song that is really powerful to me, I tear up.  Sometimes I cry openly.  The right song can do that to me again and again and again.  Even years later.  And so "Wrecking Ball" with all of its great lyrics, had me teared up on one of the main thoroughfares in the city, so much so that I looked in the rear view to see if my eyes were becoming swollen, which they were.

When Springsteen captures the moment of imminent destruction by declaring, "'Cause tonight all the dead are here/ So bring on your wrecking ball," that's when I lose it.  Because I have my own dead, many more of them than I would like to have.  And the reminder of them in the immediate present (which he does again later on "We Are Alive") somehow always seems to populate the day with all of my lost ones.

For some of us, like me, we seem to feel those lost ones the most around Christmas, that season when life seems more worth living and memories of past times are more vivid.

Tonight I think of that work friend, a cheerful woman who had the simple, essential, but often overlooked job of delivering our mail, and I think that the world is a lesser place with her gone.  She liked to remind us, at this time of year, that students had left gifts for us, that the mailroom was overflowing, that we mattered in our jobs, in our attempts to reach nearly-grown men.  Since she has had to step away, what has taken her place has been more void than being.

As in so many aspects of life, Springsteen had it right:

Yeah, we know that come tomorrow,
None of this will be here,
So hold tight to your anger,
Hold tight to your anger, 
Hold tight to your anger,
And don't fall to your fear.

Yeah, Life, take your best shot, let me see what you've got.  Bring on your wrecking ball.  But don't expect to win easily.  She fought.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"They Were Radicalized"

Why do so many reports claim that the San Bernadino shooters "were radicalized," or that they "have been radicalized"?

Why the passive voice?

As if a process of radicalization happened TO them.

As if these people were just hanging around, innocently minding their own business, and then this virus of radicalization infected them.

The two shooters in San Bernadino were not innocent, unwitting victims of some religious tsunami of zealotry that flooded through their brains and left them zombie-like, unthinking and eager to do the bidding of some Sith Lord of extremism.

These two adults, one of whom was raised on "our" soil, aren't child soldiers of Boko Haram, reprogrammed through horror and unthinkable brainwashing at early ages. These two people radicalized because something in them sought out radicalization. They didn't accidentally stumble on a hypnotic trick online landmine. They sought it out. They shopped around their dissatisfaction and sold it to the bidder of Islamic extremism. They found nourishment in it. 

I cannot for the life of me understand is why we, in our current culture, are so eager and desperate to remove as much personal responsibility from individual actions as possible. They are no more unwitting victims than Neo-Nazis or converts to Westboro Baptist Church, yet in this case we say they "were radicalized." Radicalization happened to them.

If these words are sounding uncomfortably Republican to you, dear reader, please know this isn't my aim. I'm fully appreciative of the complexities of the interaction between forces, of the influence of an environment, a history, an upbringing. I've seen children raised in horrible conditions, or born addicted to drugs, struggle and fail to escape what felt like an unjust and unfair fate, and you wonder if they were literally f*#ked at birth. And it aggravates me when people like me, "born on third base and thinking they hit a triple," look away because we've brainwashed ourselves into thinking mere gumption and grit can overcome a Berlin Wall of environmental crap karma.

But there is surely a middle ground in this. Surely there is room for us to acknowledge the hurdles and potholes of our surroundings while giving us plenty of room for empowerment over our own lives.

Side note:
As so many have acknowledged,
it's a strange thing we've done when it comes
to people in America shooting other people: 

Shooter is African-American = gangbanger!
Shooter is Muslim = terrorist!
Shooter is white = mental illness!

It's generally Pro-Gun conservatives who use that last one.
They're as guilty as anyone of seeking outside
(or at least uncontrollable psychological) forces
that can push the blame away from the weapon,
the accessibility, the human choices we are permitted
to make when we have freedom.

Why don't we acknowledge and accept that any human being who intentionally and willingly ends the lives of other human beings has defective wiring? Anyone who murders in America, no matter their rationale or lack thereof, is on some level mentally ill. The rest is just a question of degree and situational details. Actions that result in the deaths or serious harm of others should not be cushioned with too much excusing or apology-making.

An December 10 article in Quartz highlights research that "most violence in the world is motivated by personal morality. It suggests that mental illness isn't at all the core of the problem, but rather a morality system that places the lives of others at a lower value point than some other principle, be it the defense of unborn babies or the defense of their particular vision of Allah. A particularly telling quote:
The general pattern we saw in the cases we studied was that violence was intended to regulate social relationships and sustain a moral order. The perpetrators are in control of their actions—they know they are hurting fellow human beings, and that is exactly what they intend to do.
To bastardize the Radiohead song, They did this to themselves, and that's what really hurts.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"Spotlight": Take 2

Consider this a sort of addendum slash second take on what will undoubtedly be a front-runner for 2015 Best PIcture, “Spotlight.” Please first read Bob’s thoughts, as they are potent and an important first acknowledgement.

Bob’s attention went to the dangers of intermingling church and state, because that ultimately is the crime at the heart of the movie, an observation of how protection of the infallible church had become so ingrained in a people that they find themselves quietly endorsing actions that go against everything they claim to espouse as Catholics (or just as decent, moral human beings).

For me, however, the movie served a second invaluable reminder: in our impatient, instant gratification, money-grabbing modern world, real and deep investigative reporting is an endangered species on the verge of extinction.

Nothing in “Spotlight” comes as a surprise to the viewer. The outcome is not unlike “Titanic,” in that we know where it’s going, and we know how it ends, yet the journey getting there is so mesmerizing -- and yes, shocking despite every effort in the movie to avoid melodrama -- that when the statistics appear on screen to close out the movie -- the total number of accused priests, the number of cities in which scandals and wrongdoing have been uncovered -- it still boggles the mind and burdens the heart.

Without question, there should be shame in how it required an outsider of both Boston and Christianity to spark the work that resulted in the series of exposes that actually managed to create real change (we hope… or we cross our fingers and pray) inside an ancient organization. Executive Editor Marty Baron lights the spark, but the gritty, lengthy, persistent work requires three reporters and an editor who know the city, who have experience asking difficult questions and where to go when all roads appear closed.

That is, the work required an outsider to start the ball rolling, but it required insiders to get the investigation across the proverbial goal line. And that goal line was a long, loooong drive full of drives that were "3 yards and a cloud of dust." It took more than a year of their lives!

So yes, while the movie reminds us that so many remained silent, including a newspaper full of people, it’s equally important to note that by breaking that streak, these reporters and editors saved untold hundreds, possibly thousands, possibly thousands upon thousands, of children from the hands of some horrifying, life-altering experiences.

Now more than ever, I would argue that no profession -- not a single one -- requires a greater calling or conviction than that of a newspaper reporter or editor. I was talking to a reporter who recently left the profession, and he and I agreed that Marty Baron, the top dog of the Boston Globe’s newsroom during these events, might have made between $100,000-150,000. Max. That means the highest-paid person on one of the country’s 20 most influential newspapers in a very expensive-to-live city barely makes enough to live all that well. And trust me, the salaries sink quickly from there. Most reporters in even the larger cities are lucky to see $40,000 a year.

No one is a newspaper reporter for the money. Or the free time. The hours are brutal and all over the place, and if a contact calls you at midnight wanting to go on record, you grab your pen and you get to work. Divorce is rampant. Alcoholism is rampant. (But not drug use, because that s*it is expensive.) It’s difficult to keep friends because eventually you write something they don’t like, or expose a truth they prefer hidden. In short, it’s a nasty and brutish profession that requires the combination of numerous unappealing personal qualities, a unique sort of interpersonal skill, and a real commitment to a very small number of ethics and guidelines.

1 Corinthians Chapter 12 talks about gifts. It talks about the parts of the body. The chapter is the favorite of many Christians, because it reminds us of the vital importance of difference, of diversity, not just along racial or religious lines, but along talents, professions, hobbies and personality profiles. In every way, we are a better humanity the more ways we can all bring something slightly unique to the table.

So, in a way, I believe the best reporters are, albeit unwittingly, the foot of the body of Christ, the lowliest part that gets no respect, no real reward, and very little love. And I believe God called those reporters, those feet, to rise up and kick the ever-loving s*it out of the head of that body. To concuss it so severely that healing required a trip to the hospital and a time of recovery.

And I worry what will happen to our collective body if we conclude, wrongly, that we have no need of those feet.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Separation Of Priests And City

Any American foolish enough to argue for a connection between church and state, for a faith role in politics, for a belief that our nation's founders intended for us to blend the two in any way, need only attend a showing of Spotlight.

The story is somewhat well-known by now--in early 2002, reporters from The Boston Globe exposed not only the extent of child abuse among Catholic priests in that city, but also the Church's complicity in hiding or minimizing that abuse.  That the story is known by many people now is something of a miracle in itself.

Just imagine for a moment the sheer temerity of Catholic reporters at a largely Catholic newspaper in a Catholic city uncovering a scandal of Catholic priests, going against Catholic lawyers, Catholic judges, Catholic school alums, low-level Catholic bureaucrats, their own Catholic families and friends in order to pursue evidence that must come from Catholics themselves.

Many of those Catholics see their priests as intermediaries between them and God.  For a poor boy from a broken home or without a father for some other reason to receive attention from one of these godly men is dazzling.  Never mind that the priests have specifically targeted boys with this profile as potential recipients of sexual abuse.

But "Catholic" is only the specific here, just as it would be easy to tag the Jewish background of the new eiditor at the Globe who pushes the story.  The general issue is the intermingling of religion and public institutions and how that leads to traditional ways of handling things, smoothing over things, making decisions outside the legal system about what serves the greater good.  Similarly, the new editor from Miami is most significant because he is an outsider.  By nature, from that perspective, he challenges the self-selective ways that the Globe pursues their journalistic obligations.

In other words, a newspaper can tell itself that it covered something, when it did, but it also buried that story deep in the paper or in a different section.  When no one wants to offend the church, it is easy for the Fifth Estate to do its job without really doing it.

But the most telling impact of the entangled church web is on the individuals.  Near the end of the film, there is a moment when it becomes clear that the leader of the Spotlight unit (played by Michael Keaton) is actually the one who has slowed or underplayed the priest investigation for years.

And when the "spotlight" shines on him for an explanation of why he dragged his feet, he cannot come up with an answer.  One does not get the sense that he is obfuscating or stalling;  instead, it becomes the moment for him, however inarticulate, when he realizes, along with the viewer, just how strong the church-controlled dynamic of Boston has been on him.  He has convinced himself that he needed to steer his crackerjack investigative team away from the story of their careers.

Spotlight shows us that when church and state come together, there can be no freedom of thought or action.  We censor ourselves to protect the powerful.  We allow things to happen for the good of the institution that holds our souls in the balance.  And even if we want to speak, our mothers, our elders, our leaders will try to silence us for the good of the city.  And the church.

And like that theocracy close by in Salem some 400 years earlier, it is far too easy for specious ends to justify the unsavory means.

Great movie.  See it.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Most Durable Album

Soon, critics and amateurs like me (though not me) will be filling the cyber-airwaves with their "Best Of" lists for the year in music.  I won't be partaking, simply because I haven't "bought" much music this year, having transitioned in May to Spotify, and I continue to believe in the paradigm that one can't make a claim to his or her best music of the year without "owning" it.  It's too easy to dismiss or embrace lightly that which we have no investment in.  That may change for me.  And soon.  But not now.

Instead, here's a quick look at the long game, the most durable album of all time.  Note immediately that "durable" and "greatest" do not necessarily intersect.  There are numerous albums/CDs that are universally acknowledged as some of the most essential in modern music that I cannot stand to listen to anymore.  I've grown tired of them, and I enjoy their pleasures only after long absences from them.

"Durable," on the other hand, is my term for that music which can stand up to repeated playings, whether year after year, even day after day, or some other sustained period of listening.  Contenders on my short list include The Allman's Brothers' Live At The Fillmore East, the Steely Dan catalog, Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle, and most of the early albums of Van Morrison.  All have weathered four decades of listening well.

But the album that stands up year after year for a sustained month of sometimes hour-after-hour listening is A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.  You all know it, you've all heard it, though perhaps not as much as I have.

For the past thirty years, this vinyl album, then CD, then Spotify album, has been the mainstay, the most-played music of my family's December.  We start right after Thanksgiving, maybe even in the car on the early next morning trip to "Black Friday" outlet malls in Georgia and continue onward day after day, separately or collectively, until it provides the soundtrack for our Christmas morning (along with the Chieftans' The Bells Of Dublin and, in more recent years, Sufjan Stevens).  And then it's done.  Once Christmas has passed, the songs hold little value for eleven months.  But how many listenings during those four weeks of late November/early December?  And why?

The reasons are myriad.  First, there is without doubt a heavy dose of nostalgia contained in those Christmas tunes.  There is childhood, there is memory, there is the cartoon itself for which the music is soundtrack, a television special that once seemed both longer and better than it does now, but which continues to amaze with how much story it manages to tell in about 20 minutes or so.

But A Charlie Brown Christmas is no simple comfort food for the ears.  Consisting of only piano, bass, and drums (and occasional vocals), the performances have primitive but effective production values that allow the songs to feel honest, authentic and heartfelt in ways that few subsequent offerings in the barrage of Christmas CDs by everyone but your mother can achieve.  Seemingly recorded with little more than a mic on each instrument, and maybe some natural reverb in the room, the trio's rendering of Christmas songs both traditional and original have too much sadness beneath them to ever make us yearn too completely for what once was.

Part of that is because of the ticks and quirks in the performances.  Once you've heard Guaraldi's mistake on the piano as he starts "Linus and Lucy" the second time through, you almost can't help but listen for it.  A flaw?  Hardly.  A reminder of real musicians recording on the cheap with just a couple of chances to get the song right?  Absolutely.

The other quirk, for me, is the use of children singing.  More often than not a cheap recording trick, to my ears only Guaraldi and Pink Floyd use children's voices to properly serve the song.  That there are two versions of the original "Christmastime Is Here" shows how different the "feel" of the song is when voices are added.  As an instrumental, the song is almost melancholy; when the children sing the lyrics, it becomes an innocent, perhaps naive, statement of  the holiday's non-religious qualities.  It is not surprising that is has become a standard, even for the most commercial.

And, finally, much of the record's lasting durability may be because the songs were written and recorded to serve the Peanuts story, not to become a best-selling manipulation of a holy season.  To hear the songs out of context is still to remember them in context, the sweet story where, for once, everything turns out okay for Charlie Brown.

For me, it's also because those three musically-wise musicans, their instruments clear, full, and distinct, present each song as a distinct gift over time and distance to fulfill the promise of  the season again and again and again.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

It's Just A Meal

You know I love Thanksgiving.  You know I love all holidays.  But this notion that Thanksgiving, almost by definition, is a stressful endeavor is simply not true.  It is just a meal.

And yet, if you cruise around the Internet, you would think that Thanksgiving was the culinary equivalent of testifying in a trial where you are the defendant.  You'd better have your facts right.  You'd better have everything in order.  You'd better have your story straight.  Because one slip up, and you are guilty of culinary turkicide.

That is bullshit.

The reality is more like this:  if you bought any turkey out there, fresh or frozen, organic or fed its own young, and tossed it in the oven with absolutely no seasoning or preparation at all, not even salt and pepper or the massaging of butter under its skin, it would still taste pretty much the same, assuming you didn't cook it into a Sahara state of overdoneness.  Whether you brined it or didn't, air-dried it or didn't, basted it or didn't, it's still going to be just a humble, not that special turkey.  Oh, I know there are ways to make it taste better, but most most people are going to get a couple of slices of it, pour some hopefully-decent gravy on it and be satisfied.  So where's the stress?

And the sides?  Really, how hard is it to make mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes or stuffing/ dressing or open a can of cranberry sauce or some Mac and cheese or some green beans or some roasted Brussels sprouts or a pumpkin pie or a pecan pie?  If you just want to cover the bases, which is just fine, this is an easy holiday.  Even easier, and only slightly more expensive, you can buy all of this stuff already made from a reputable place, and still have a great meal.  Maybe no one will even know.

Plus, who has what else to do on Thanksgiving?  It's a freaking holiday!  If the food comes out late, if the asparagus casserole takes a little more time than expected, who cares?  Give them some cheese and send them back in to watch some more football.

But in our declining civilization, this feeling persists that we need to make some big deal out of the Thanksgiving meal.  The culinary world would have us believe that we need to embrace the latest Thanksgiving trends, when most of us like to do things the way our parents or grandparents did it on Thanksgiving, for the most part.  That's why they call it comfort food, for gosh sakes.

I've never had a member of my family say, "Bob (or Dad), what innovations do you have planned for the meal this year?  Could we have quinoa instead of mashed potatoes?  Where is your turkey's farm located?  Are the oysters in the dressing sustainable?  Is there any chance that you could get us some corn locally-sourced from the fields where the Pilgrims originally planted and Squanto tossed in fish?"

Cruise the Internet, though, and you would think that the basic meal you have in mind is either all wrong or fraught with peril.  Has there really ever been a Thanksgiving guest who said, "You know, this turkey is too dry.  I'm outta here.  I'm headed to Cracker Barrel. I prefer their atmosphere."  I think not.  But the Internet is swamped, not only with ideas for Asian-infused turkeys or creative uses for herbs in desserts, but also with posts that feed neuroses that don't need feeding.  Guests need feeding, not neuroses.  And feeding guests on Thanksgiving is not that hard.

Sure, I plan to put on a spectacular, well-timed meal, but if it isn't, I doubt I'll be disowned or socially-shunned because of it.

So why are there articles about "Thanksgiving Jitters" and what to do about them or "The Introvert's Guide To Thanksgiving"?  Do we really need a Thanksgiving Day series of "game plans" year after year after year?  Serve the beer or wine early and the dessert and coffee late, and it will all be fine.

Relax, have fun, eat when you feel like it, and, whatever you do, don't talk about the Syrian refugees with your Conservative relations.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Shooting In My Church?

Who might be the first one shot? Where would the gunfire come from? How long would I have to react if I wanted to try and keep my children safe?
It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting in my usual spot in the choir loft in my usual Protestant church in the usual South. These are not typical thoughts in my head at a time and place like this. I’m not much for Bloody Sunday thoughts, even if I really love U2.

But this Sunday was different. On the previous Thursday and Friday afternoon, my church received a string of detailed and threatening phone calls. They came from a single man using a small collection of phone numbers. He threatened to visit employees’ homes, including the pastor’s. He named members of our church. He threatened to shoot people outside the building. He threatened to kill the children in our daycare.

On one of his calls Friday afternoon, he said, “I’ll see you Sunday morning.”

The police got involved a couple of hours into the calls on Thursday afternoon. They “negotiated” with the man as they attempted to figure out his location and, perhaps, motivations. They kept at least one officer in the parking lot or on close patrol the entire weekend, and both entrances to the church lot were guarded by police cars on Sunday morning.

While the church leadership and police had to take the situation seriously, everyone involved knew deep down the threats were bluffs. Crazy people don’t give fair warning like this. They just show up, and unsuspecting innocent people just die.

Still, the staff sent an email to the congregation informing them of the threats and the ramped up security presence planned for Sunday. The unwritten message: “You will be protected, but there is no guarantee of your safety.”

My wife and I never once discussed not going to church on Sunday morning. It wasn’t an option. We would never let fear trump faith. This doesn’t make us heroes. The odds of that man showing up were less than the odds of me getting hit twice by lightning in the same week. Our bravery was at best a logical recognition of microscopic odds.

But as I sat up in that choir loft, and as the service began, and as I looked down at my family seated in the very front row, logic wavered.

If that man did come, if he came with an automatic weapon, if he entered the sanctuary from that particular side, my family would be the first or second group in the line of fire. If he came from any other entry point, I could get to them.

I could even possibly use the building’s pillars and structure to get to the assailant…

That last thought wasn’t about heroism, either. It’s the recognition that contemporary recommended strategy in the face of a single armed assailant is to bum rush him or flee. To hide or to cower is almost certain and inevitable death in such a relatively closed space. You either get to safety swiftly, or you risk your life to end the threat.

These were my Sunday morning church thoughts.

As the service reached a midpoint, as the odds of an assault drifted from the tenths of a percentage to the hundredths, my thoughts drifted to the conservative Christians in America who work so hard to find ways they are insulted, who insist they are being disenfranchised and persecuted at the hands of callous corporations and a relativistic, even hostile, government. And I chuckled in my choir seat.

Bless their hearts.

But I get it, I do. I can’t remember the last time I felt more religious than I did that Sunday. Feeling even the teensiest bit threatened revs up the adrenaline. It’s like Jesus Steroids. Life got more vivid. Love got stronger and more appreciated. Life felt… alive. This crazy man’s stupid, baseless threats were the best thing to happen to my faith in a good while.

After all my thoughts of being the Master Protector of Innocent Christian Souls and other random thoughts of assault and violence, my mind eventually went to the Christians and Muslims who have been beheaded in the Middle East. I thought of the devoutly religious, past and present, who have gathered in buildings or homes knowing the threat of death was real, was present, was in the high 90s rather than the fractions of a percent. I thought of how strong it must make their faith, to be willing, constantly, every single minute, to die for the right to own those beliefs.

As the preacher stood to send us back out into the world, I was flooded with gratitude. I was not grateful for our safety from a crazy gunman. Rather, I was grateful for the gift of seeing the possibilities we rarely have to consider, a pinprick hole of exposure to a danger that others experience as an almost-blinding, rarely-ceasing light.

We are blessed. All of us. All the time. Unto our last breath.

The more I remember that and believe that, the happier I am.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Debate this!

With Kennedy/Nixon, it came down to a couple of things: 1) that Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow was not appealing on black and white television and, 2) that Kennedy's "youthfulness" or whatever it was, created the impression that he had "won" the debate, whether he did or didn't.

I am here to say that the notion of a televised debate as a way of determining which candidate would make the best president is wrong.  And that watching debates is a complete waste of time.

Oh, I certainly get the importance of the Lincoln/Douglass debates way back when.  The stakes.  The level of oratory.  The time frame and how it allowed for the full development of positions.  The audience?  Well, maybe, because if those in attendance could hang in for that, they certainly have a patience, a commitment, and a fortitude that we do not possess today.

A SIMPLE REALITY:  The debate format in no way mirrors the behaviors that will be expected of a president or a vice-president.  Being able to think quickly on one's feet may be a virtue in some jobs, say, a police officer or a stock trader, but a president doesn't have to do it.  In fact, we don't want her or him to do it.

Instead, we want our president to make a reasoned judgment after a thorough presentation of all of the facts available from as many sources as are relevant.

The "winner" of a debate has not, by virtue of "winning", demonstrated presidential behavior.  Sorry.

Add to that a couple of other realities.  First, the debates that we have the opportunity to observe now have their winners and losers determined by polls, by phone call questions, by small moments and not by major policy clarifications.  Sure, perception matters, but perception based on what?  The sound byte?  The bluster?  The ability to get the audience to laugh or boo?  The "Gotcha"?

Now, I'm not a big believer in the negativity of the Gotcha question.  It seems these days that what qualifies as a Gotcha is a question that asks a candidate to come to terms with, to own or to try to explain away something that he or she previously said.  Hey, it's the Information Age!  We can access everything that anyone of any public status ever said.  So he or she should have to explain.

But that doesn't validate the debate concept.  People do misspeak.  People do make Freudian slips.  People do lose their cools, especially when they are constantly grilled by media.

The second reality is that, if the debate structure has any validity at all, then that is only true if there are two, or maybe three, people participating in the debate.  I feel sorry for the Republican candidates trying to brand themselves in 8-10 minutes of speaking time during a 2-3 hour debate.  And 11 debates?  Really?  Will there be anything left to say for that many debates?  Heck, a season of Game Of Thrones only has 10 episodes and those are only an hour and sometimes they cover 800 pages of a novel and 7 kingdoms!

Those Lincoln/Douglas Debate viewers would be looking at over 24 hours of vapid Republicans, not because they are Republicans, but because they have so little time to say anything.  Those Lincoln/Douglas debate attendees would be exhausted, despite the fortitude of their times.

My friend says that if we didn't have debates, then how would we get to know the candidates, but isn't that a false argument?  We would get to know the candidates in whatever other ways there were besides debates, just as we do now, at least those of us who not watch debates.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Devouring The Song

It started last night.  I was at a high school dance, chaperoning, of course.  When it came time for the last song, the slow one, the romantic one, the "belly rubber," the DJ busted out Adele's recent but already mega hit, "Hello."

I had heard the song before, in a room with a bunch of high school guys who were supposed to be studying, but instead were going crazy over Adele's latest.  They asked me what I thought of it, and I kind of shrugged my shoulders.

But when I left the dance last night, "Hello" was kind of in my head, and, as I had noticed, most everyone at the dance, student and chaperone, but me, knew every word to the song.  After it only being out a couple of weeks.

So I jumped in.  I went for it.  I embraced my inner pop listener.  I, for once, joined and became part of the phenomenon. I binged.

And at nearly the end of 24 hours, I have probably heard the song 15 to 20 times.  I listened to it all the way home, from the dance venue to the didn't-have-any-supper Sonic stop and the long line there approaching midnight.  I played it out to Cracker Barrel this morning, over to Publix.  I introduced it to my wife a couple of times when we went to get her glasses fixed.  I sang it in my head, thought about it, waited in the car for her and broke down the lyrics.  I let the song get inside me.

I would never do any of this for any of "my" songs, tending to think that most songs have a shelf life, and if they are great songs, why rush them toward their expiration dates?  But I know little of Adele, missed the last craze, can't claim to be a fan or not, and so the song, catchy as it is (and odd as it is as a dance closer), is disposable to me.

"Hello" is an unusual song, a song out of time.  Built around an Em-G-D-C ( perhaps in a different key) verse and the same chords in different order (Em-C-G-D) for the chorus, the premise of the song is fantastical, at least in a romantic way.  The speaker calls an old lover from many, many years ago to see if he'd "like to meet to go over everything."  Um. No. I wouldn't. You wouldn't. He wouldn't. Who would?  Reopen old wounds wounds?  Not hardly.

But it's difficult to ignore that kind of pain, maybe more difficult to pretend you never had it.

The other bizarre detail is that the speaker claims to have called a thousand times, but the former lover she is trying to reach is "never home."  The song lives in a universe where cell phones don't exist, where that many unanswered calls would be a clear, unambiguous message.  And unable to shake her self-obsession (I guess she is talking to an answering machine?), she takes solace in the facts that a) she called to apologize and b) at least she tried all these years later.

The chorus, the oh-so-catchy chorus, shifts each time between "Hello from the other side" and "Hello from the outside", both very interesting distinctions.  The first seems to echo a kind of war/conflict that won't end, while the second reinforces a Springsteenish idea in the song that she got out of "that town where nothing happened" while maybe he didn't.  Or I'm wrong.

My daughter was singing the chorus around the house today, independently of my project.  It's ubiquitous, it's that engaging and maybe, if you listen, that unnerving.  But as for me, I have gorged on it, and now, if it will let me, I will move on.  I'd like to think that I have devoured the song, that there is nothing left but a carcass of skin and bones, but I don't know.  I find myself plunking it on the guitar, mapping out my own take.  I just don't know if I'm finished with it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Can It At Least Be Subject to Debate...?

To say I have found myself flummoxed and frustrated by what is transpiring right now on college campuses across America, highlighted by events at Mizzou and Yale, would be a gross understatement. I'm almost obsessed with trying to understand it while constantly fighting a kind of frightened revulsion.

A friend sent a link to a New Yorker piece that leans strongly in support of the activism I'm struggling to support even as I (as a moderate liberal) agree with some of the concerns and larger issues at play.

For example, I believe #BlackLivesMatter. Yes yes, All Lives and Cops Lives matter. But these are not exclusive notions. And Black Lives Matter. It can stand alone, and it needs to stand alone, without exceptions or "but but buts" from those who feel like they got left out of the circle.

And I believe the incarceration problem in this country is a problem of systemic racism. "The New Jim Crow" is a painful book to read and better ignored than digested by anyone who wants to believe we have moved beyond issues of race and prejudice in this country.

Below is a very slightly adjusted version of my email reply to her. It is full of questions. I don't pretend to have many answers.

First thought:
Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” (from the New Yorker piece)
How "long in coming" can anger and resentment at Yale or Mizzou be from a sophomore? Now, a sophomore or junior may have long-simmering concerns about racism in general, in society in general. But resentment aimed at their specific institution? They've only been there a year. Or two years. It's not fair to pile a lifetime of experience with racism at the feet of an institution that only began its relationship with you one-tenth of your life ago.

And this is a big concern for me. Colleges are being expected to create an environment that is not possible to be created, a space free of drunk rednecks (who might or might not be students), a place free of people who draw penises and swastikas on bathroom stalls (you can't even escape that at Tremont Tavern).

So, what really is the bigger concern here? That an anonymous person uses the N-word on YikYak, or that we have decided that reading the N-word on YikYak can have the capacity to render a student incapable of feeling safe on their college campus, of attending class or eating properly?

Second thought:
The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. (from the New Yorker piece)
This is a dangerous arrangement of logic upon which to agree. Who defines "the powerful"? Who defines the "relatively disempowered"? Am I powerful*? Is Hillary Clinton disempowered or powerful? Is Ben Carson powerful or disempowered? Is the female gay Chinese student who, at one of these rallies, said "black people can be racists" and was booed and hushed... is she part of the powerful, or part of the disempowered? Is her perspective permitted? Or does it "hurt the brand" as we the powerful marketers like to say.

Is the house master of a Yale section the "powerful"? Who gets to decide that? Because when I see that interaction, I see an outraged young woman who is being supported by a group of others, standing in the face of a single human being, unarmed and trying to stay calm. Who has the power there?

Third Thought:
On NPR and in several other places, the word "empathy" has been used. The disempowered and disenfranchised are demanding empathy. But again, who gets to determine whether someone is attempting to empathize? Who gets to judge that? Increasingly we're being set up to believe that only the disenfranchised or disempowered has the right to determine whether another is empathizing properly or sufficiently.

I can't help but believe it would behoove many people in this moment to reread or rewatch "The Crucible."

Toward the end, as the accusations have piled up, as the veracity of accusations verge on the ludicrous, the self-certain and self-righteous Deputy Governor Danforth explains his method of "trying" these cases. He uses the logic that witchcraft is a crime with only two witnesses, the witch and the victim, because it is an invisible event and cannot have bystander witnesses. Further, the witch cannot be trusted, so the witch's testimony is rendered moot. What is left, singularly, is the testimony of the "victims." This is the logic of the Salem Witch Trials. Those did not end well. It is the logic of the Red Scare. That did not end well. And, increasingly, it looks like the kind of logic being cultivated on college campuses in matters of sexual assault and prejudice. It is difficult for me to see how this ends any better than those previous examples where such logic was the driving force.

How are we as a society -- and particularly the young generation currently growing up before us -- going to define "safety"? How will we define "pain" and "threat"? Who gets to determine what is safe, what causes pain? (It would seem, at least in part, that President Obama might agree with this concern.)

More distressingly for me, when did a college become more responsible for creating an antiseptic Disney theme park free of pain and completely safe than for creating a space for learning, for a kind of education that can be difficult, and combative, and challenging? When did it become admirable for us -- on all sides of these issues, mind you -- to demand agreement rather than negotiating and working toward better mutual understandings?

This friend also passed along another helpful article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Helpful, I claim, because it seeks to aid in understanding.

On the other hand, there is the almost satirical list of demands at Amherst. Demands. As in, hostage negotiations. I honestly thought these were a joke. That they are not speaks to the level of hysteria and loss of sense of proportion happening in a lot of theoretically intelligent young minds.

* - I agree that I am the beneficiary of white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. So, arguably, is my unemployed drug addicted racist second cousin in smalltown Tennessee. Does this privilege make either of us "powerful"? I'm not so sure I can make that leap.

[NOTE: The above was written Friday afternoon, hours before learning of the attacks in Paris. I am cyncial but hopeful that these events might give us all a moment to pause when it comes to terms like "safe space" and "pain" and "justice." But I doubt it.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Have All the Firestarters Gone?

IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: You men are tresspassin’. Show me a warrant or get off my land.AGENT: We don't need a warrant.IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: You do unless I woke up in Russia this morning!

(later)
IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: Norma, those men came here without any warrants at all. Tried to take them off our land. One of them shot me. What do you want me to do? Sit here and turn them over to the secret police, if they ever get their peckers up enough to come back? Be a good Nazi?
This might be a controversial, or just flat-out crazy statement, but here goes: “Firestarter” is a seriously underrated movie.

Yes, the 1984 Drew Barrymore movie, her follow-up to “E.T.” Yes, based on a Stephen King novel, even though we have been taught to believe that all movies based on Stephen King books are painfully awkward and flawed. Yes, with a syrupy synthesized soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Yes, with some questionable special effects.

Dammit, it’s a decent movie. It’s almost even Very Good!

There was a time in our collective American popular culture where our distrust of government was not about how they spent our money. There was a time when we were much more Zen about the undeniable reality that a government the size and scope of ours could never be a perfectly streamlined and efficient beast.

There was a time when we cast a suspicious eye on Washington, D.C., not because we distrusted their fiscal responsibility, but because we distrusted the lengths they would go to exercise control, to gain an advantage over their citizens. We worried about the ethics and morals they were willing to ignore in the name of power, and we shuddered when they used a word like “security” as their explanation.

There were soldiers. They fought wars. They fought in uniforms. They were out there, in the public eye, defending us. There was a time when we didn’t even love these folks unconditionally or collectively. Many thought of them as suspect, as unthinking operatives for conniving power mongers. But even in our distrust and condescension, we never despised or distrusted soldiers like we did The Others. Those who fought in plainclothes. Those who engaged in espionage, who assassinated, who slept with the enemy to gain intelligence. Those who fought with silencers, stiletto knives and sniper rifles.

There was a time when we were far more concerned about whether the government valued any of our individual lives and liberties rather than whether they valued our tax dollars. Movies like “Marathon Man” and “Blow Out,” “Serpico” and “Soylent Green,” “The Conversation” and “Logan’s Run.” These movies called into question the motives of those expected to keep us safe.

King wrote “Firestarter,” it would seem, during the denouement of this vibe, in 1979 and 1980. I guess I’m just wondering what happened to make us trust our government so much when it comes to our safety and well-being? Why are we now so much more worried about them plundering our wallets than trampling our bodies when both are defended/excused by an interest in The Greater Good?

That the government wants my money for The Greater Good, to me, doesn't feel nearly as unsettling as the notion that they aren't particularly concerned about my safety or well-being so long as they can hide behind The Greater Good.

So, thanks Irv Manders, the Kind Old Man, for knowing "what's right with America."

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dia de los Muertos

My father’s picture from his Naval Aviator days of the early 1950s rested at the edge of the dinner table. In it, his hand rests atop the ladder to the jet cockpit. He’s halfway up, left leg ready to take that next step, and he’s looking upward, in the parlance of fighter pilots, at 10 o’clock. His eyes are right above the horizon, and they’re on fire with pride and excitement. He was fully aware of the privilege he was granted, to soar above the earth with expert precision and speed. The sky was his foster home for that time in his life.

On a small serving plate at the foot of this picture sat a dill pickle, a small serving of pork tenderloin, and three Snickers bars. A small cup of water sat next to the plate.

My 7-year-old son learned about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos at school last week. It’s the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” He’s got a big healthy dose of OCD in him, so he was instantly hooked.

He came home last Wednesday and announced that Sunday night, we would celebrate Dia de los Muertos as a family, and we would celebrate his grandfather, my father. This was not up for discussion. By the time we realized how serious he was about this plan, it was too late for us to object or turn back. We were booked.

My son arranged everything. I mean, he didn’t cook the food or pick the menu, but he insisted that the meal be something “Poppy” would love, and he was the one who chose the food and drink items to be placed next to Poppy’s picture, a picture he selected after a weekend of contemplation walking around in my mother’s living space.

Did it matter whether Poppy loved dill pickles that much? Nope. Did it matter that Poppy would much more likely be drinking Jim Beam than water without ice? Of course not. What mattered is that my son, named in part after this man, wanted things this way.

And then he insisted that everyone around the table share a cherished memory of the man. (No, he didn’t say “cherished memory.” He said “Now, talk about Poppy.”)

You see, my son was born six weeks after Poppy died. He’s the only child of ours who will never know the relative for whom he has been named. And he hungers for knowledge. Who was this man? What qualities of his might I today, or one day, possess?

As someone named after my own biological father, also a man I never had the privilege of meeting before his death, I understand this hunger. And I also understand the frustration of wanting to know about a dead person but being surrounded by adults who insist such knowledge causes pain, and sadness. I understand being shooshed.

So around the table we went, telling a story, sharing a memory. My eldest remembered his pipe. My second daughter recalled his gruff voice and how friendly he was to people at church. I told of his love of grilling on the deck, always with charcoal until his last decade or so. My mother spoke of how so much of his happiness centered around his grandchildren… and Auburn football.

“Live together, die alone.”

But... must we grieve death alone?

So much of my experience with mourning, of wrestling with the grief of loss, is done in isolation. It’s the way most of us have learned to handle death. Sure, we have a funeral with lots of people, and then we all retreat into our separate hearts, and when the crushing sorrow revisits us unawares weeks or months or years later -- and the crushing sorrow always revisits us -- we are alone, or we seek isolation, like a panicked wounded animal. The crushing sorrow is our burden. It is both cruel and selfish to share it, or to expect anyone else to shoulder that load with us. So we hide. We bury. We obfuscate.

Why are we this way? WTF is wrong with us?

After our family Dia de los Muertos last week, I’ve decided we will, as a family, strive to once each month recognize someone we have lost. Most of these losses might affect one of us more than the others. Most of these will affect the adults more than the children. But we need to show them what it is like to wrestle with a crushing sorrow and seek meaning and value in the process.

We need to show them that death is an inextricable thread of life. We can either strive to embrace it, or we can ignore it until it crushes us.

NOTE: Inspired by my son and my own increasing encounters with friends and loved ones facing age and terminal illness, I began today reading Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Holiday on the rise

Well, last month didn't go so well, so here we go again:

I gotta say, Halloween has risen in my estimation.  Always kind of an also-ran holiday in comparison to the big ones (you never what day it will happen on, you don't even get a day off of work, community leaders tend to dictate its parameters), the holiday seems to consist of nothing but candy, costumes, and kids.  Personally, I've always been a big fan, because I like the rituals of pumpkins and stockpiling all of that candy and trying not to eat it and indulging in creepy movies and the scary vibe.  Plus, the after party is sometimes a wingding, to quote Sheryl Crow.

This year, Halloween came into its own, at least in my world.  As much as anything, that is because it fell on a Saturday, which was a general command to the social people of the world to start planning. And my children are adults, so we all experienced a children's holiday through adult eyes, which any aware adult will tell you, is one of the ways you keep going, as long as you don't get "creepy" about it.

Friday night, we put on a concert, a kind of Halloween concert, where some attendees wore costumes, where the house was decorated, where some other band members, unbeknownst to me, whipped up a credible "Thriller."  And we rocked the show in our earnest, somewhat sloppy way, good enough to keep the crowd interested and the vibe charged.  It was a great way to kick off a holiday weekend.

Saturday, despite a threat of rain, we had more children come to our door (320, by my count) than we have ever had before.  They were a polite, gracious swarm of visitors to our neighborhood, the kind of group that makes one feel like an asshole for griping about spending $60 on Halloween candy.  And even in our own neighborhood, the younger families are on the rise, and we saw plenty of neighbors that we don't otherwise know.

But there was more to Halloween than that.  There were my daughters headed to a party in Nashville in self-crafted costumes representing characters from BoJack Horseman and Disney.  Adults take costumes more seriously now than ever before.  My dad tried to trick or treat from the cute, young cashier at Whole Foods in a cat costume.  You could drive around on Saturday afternoon and see costumes everywhere.  People, wanted, needed Halloween.

There was my Spotify playlist, which I worked and grew throughout the week, until I didn't want to hear "Witchy Woman" anymore, if I ever wanted to hear it at all.

There was the suave, young male vampire at my door, who told me, "Imma eat your blood. Imma eat your dog's blood."  He was all in, even if he didn't quite understand what he was.

And, yes, there was that after party, the annual debrief of neighborhood happenings, plus s few guests.

There is all of the leftover candy my father gave me that will have student " treating" in my office for several days, especially now that a certain candy-hogging faculty member has moved on.

Probably, like most things, Halloween has been like this, but I'm just noticing it because of a confluence of age and timing.  America, in the 21st century, is all about making a big deal out of everything, and as long as Rome isn't burning ( and it isn't always easy to tell), I'm in favor of that.  It is well documented on these pages that I love holidays, that I think they deserve our celebratory focus.

Finally, on a cloudy, rainy Sunday, there is that sense, that metaphorical hangover, if you will, that says that no one quite wants to let go of this weekend.  I felt it ins stores, in restaurants, in the long nap I fell into in the early afternoon, waking only in time to see the last drive of a Steelers' loss. The weekend was that good that I didn't even Care.  I hope yours was, too.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rogaine Rock Z'Nuff

Do you remember Enuff Z’Nuff?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

Longtime reader “troutking” was kind enough to share a Rolling Stone article breaking down the “Best Hair Metal Albums” of a long-gone era, which is to say the hair and glam metal days of the mid- to late 1980s.

What happened? Has any section of music suffered more from hair loss than hair metal? Some “Incredible Shrinking Woman” toxic combination of Axl and Kurt, Grunge and reality, blew the hair metal train to hell and back.

Sure, the most notable songs of the era are still a part of our lives. In fact, hair metal and some of its poppier offshoots continue to populate a hefty portion of karaoke lists and New Orleans cover band setlists, mostly because these are the kinds of bars populated by idiots my age who forgot to grow up and sophisticate themselves (I include myself in this).

In short, we love reminiscing with the occasional hair metal hit, but nobody outside of biker bars or some Wooderson-type character from "Dazed and Confused" are scratching and clawing for it to make a comeback.

My recent understanding is that late ‘80s hair metal was run much the same way current country music is run, the way most of our collective pop music culture is run throughout history. The story of Alice Cooper's album "Trash," 17 years after he peaked with "School's Out" but remained beloved and busy, is the story of man who invented a hefty portion of what we connect with "heavy metal" looks and stage acts, hiring bigtime producer/songwriter Desmond Child to make Cooper relevant again. And it worked pretty darn well. Because that trick worked a lot back then and even today. Highly controlled by music producers and secret songwriters, far more about image and A&R than about the band or their aim.

Enuff Z’Nuff is the band who got swallowed by the machine in the last gasp days of the genre. They’re like that last brilliant smartphone before people started using chip implants in their skulls. (Except hair metal was never described by anyone ever as “brilliant.”)

In 1989, their eponymous debut album arrived with a surprising level of critical applause and a single that wanted desperately to be loved on MTV… but they never quite broke through, which appealed to my love of outsiders. I bought it in a discount bin in 1990, and then I bought their follow-up album, “Strength,” a year later.

What’s painfully obvious in hindsight is that Enuff is cut straight from the Beatles/Big Star/Cheap Trick mold. Mostly Cheap Trick. Except they signed at the worst time, and producers forced their power pop square into the round hole of hair metal.

I enjoyed “Strength” more because, while still polished and produced with thick layers of varnish, at least gets past an obsession with out-of-nowhere guitar solos and into the vibe of Cheap Trick v. 2.0.

Should you go hunting for “Strength” so you, too, can experience the brilliance that was Enuff Z’Nuff at their finest? Meh. Probably not. They were never a band that was gonna change your world. They were just really good with a hook and a riff. In 1989.

But Spotify doesn’t have it. Just a few songs pushed over to a Greatest Hits. Instead I’ve included a link to some of the songs from “Strength” currently available on YouTube, in my own order of quality from better to not so better (but still generally better than most of the crap coming from this genre in the late ‘80s):
The music isn't enough to grow your hair back. Once it's lost, no amount of Rogaine can bring back what was never meant to remain on your head.