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 entrée.

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.