Wednesday, November 15, 2017

night cometh

I bought the materials for this very personal clock a few weeks ago, following through on something I've wanted to do for some time now.

Last night, it was time. With screwdrivers, glue, cardstock, and patience, I put it all together, mounted the phrase, and got the thing on the wall. Only afterward did I realize this was on the day my friend Randy Thomas died.

To the unsuspecting eye, it looks like a standard "the end is near," which is odd enough to have on a clock. (One friend, unnamed here, thought it was something from "Game of Thrones.") But it's really a reference to something Jesus of Nazareth said, and it matters when and how.

On encountering a blind man, He said, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." Then He went to the great lengths of spitting on the ground to make clay (spit-clay!), put it on the man's eyes, then have the man go wash it off, upon which the man was healed. Just a couple of pages before, Jesus had healed a kid who wasn't even there — wasn't even in the same town — by snapping a finger. Why on earth do it this way?

Subsequent events show why: the religious leaders were scandalized, and criticized Jesus for "working on the Sabbath."

It is unavoidable to conclude that Jesus went out of His way to do this deed in just the manner that would vex the rule-followers who couldn't see past their rules. Even if you don't believe this happened in real life, you have to admit it's a powerful, subversive message for any religious text to be sending.

Fitting tribute, then, to a guy who spent so much of his life doing the right thing no matter whether it ran crossways with the rules of man. And he did it because, folks, there's only so much time. I'm glad this clock — squarely part of a long Baptist tradition — will always be a prosopikon for me tied to this friend, now asleep, his work done.

Monday, November 6, 2017

the bowl test and the messier test

I told my girls two stories.

One is about bowls: the wise man said that the only reason you should be looking to the other person's bowl is to see whether *they* have *enough*. Asking if they have more than you (then calling it 'unfair'), especially when you both have plenty, is destructive.

The other isn't about being messy. (Each girl manages to be messier than the other, a paradox I haven't gotten to the bottom of, possibly because I myself am messy.) It's about Messier (French: mes-si-ay) Objects: I only recently discovered that these exist. Somehow I'd never heard of them! One friend reacted with scorn that I was ignorant of something so commonly known even to idiots; another friend got all excited for me because he knew I'd be on a path of discovery. The excited friend was the one being the true friend — and refining his own soul in the process. The other was fruitlessly putting me down — and himself in the process.

The Bowl Test and the Messier Test. They boil down to abundance: of physical provision, of information, of space and time and goods. They ask what we will do with that abundance, and how we will treat each other.

The challenges they present are different: one native to older sisters and one native to younger ones. But life gives each of my girls both of these tests on a nearly hourly basis. So I've named them. We'll be discussing each test and how to pass it. Maybe I'll do better along the way.

Friday, October 20, 2017

two wildernesses, same wilderness

I sat in on an American Lit class today, and came to a realization. Here in our country's twenty-third decade, there seem to be two trains of thought about where we've come from and where we're going.

One train of thought says the land we've left is Eden. We're in the wilderness, and must go back.

The other says the land we've left is Egypt. We're in the wilderness, and must go forward.

Make America great for once? Make it great again? Most of our rhetoric, posturing, and genuine disagreement can be traced back to this vital difference in view.

Our dialogue, then, if it could ever get so plain, would look like this:
"Your promised land looks like it's going to be my hell."
"Your Eden *was* my hell."

The thing is, these two views catch on for a reason. They're deeply implanted. We have a very real memory of a Lost Eden, and a very real anticipation of a New Jerusalem.

So each of these narratives resonates chimingly with something central to our cosmic story. But we distort when we try to apply the narratives to our human nations, so fallible and so momentary.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

science kids and blue mountains

The Landa Library had their 70th birthday shindig Saturday. At the book sale, I spotted this gem, a well-worn edition of one of the Danny Dunn books. I gasped aloud.

Landa (and bookmobile) librarian Carl Bernal, whom we considered our family librarian for decades, turned me onto Danny Dunn, a series of slightly plausible science-fiction adventures (no Cat Women of the Moon but lots of tech that could theoretically happen, including, now that I think about it, virtual-reality drones).

Years later, Carl heard me on the radio and called the station. I told him Catherine and I were getting married soon, and invited him on the spot. On hearing we were going to Thailand for the honeymoon, he got excited because he'd been recently and loved it. He also immediately began recommending Thailand books. True to form.

At the reception, along with a more standard wedding gift, he passed me an envelope. Thai currency! Arriving in Bangkok at midnight, we were grateful not to have to deal with exchange. And there was enough to pay for the cab and our first hotel night, with a little left over.

Throughout our stay, I looked for some cool little thing to spend the last of Carl's money on. One day, down south, we were at a coffee place that had Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I'd never had it, but recognized it as the first better-than-Maxwell-House coffee I remember hearing about, well before the era of boutique coffee, back when i was 9 or 10. Where did I hear about it, you ask? The Danny Dunn books! (His mom and Professor Bullfinch liked it.) And it cost exactly the amount of Carl's money we'd had left over. I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent coffee, the superb coincidence, and the reminder, in this faraway land, of a dear friend, a guide to life well lived, then and now.

A lady who had heard my gasp came and found me on the grounds later, wondering what on earth could have produced it. I recounted the whole story to her and her young family, who were, or pretended to be, enchanted. I'd decided not to buy the book, even though it benefitted the library, so I was glad to see later that her husband had nabbed it. He said the whole thing was too good to resist. Just think: years from now his grandkids may remember, in their middle age, those great old 20th-century books he had lying around when they were kids.

So. I'm brewing some coffee (Yirgacheffe, if you must know). If you're drinking one, join me in a toast! to Carl, to the Landa, and to the many people who opened my first glimpses of faraway lands through books.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

happy and unhappy families in art

Watching a "This Is Us," I come to a realization: the big difference between scripted drama and unscripted (reality shows, daytime talk shows, all that) hinges on a false but compelling observation by Tolstoy.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Scripted drama still adheres to this. ("This Is Us" does so with just the right recipe of grandeur and detail and tenderness and severity.) Time after time, we're presented with people who are lovable but flawed and whose flaws create the germ of the drama, always threatening to capsize things and sometimes succeeding.

Reality TV, though, has shattered this cozy illusion. We now know that Tolstoy had it wrong (in a way, if you squint): unhappy people and families are leadenly, stultifyingly, numbingly alike. Happy people and families are quirky, odd, a delicious blast in their uniqueness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

the metonymy of attraction

I had a funny conversation recently. Try it on yourself.

It was not about politics, but rather about the metonymic nature of attraction. (I've talked about this before, from the opposite direction.) My observation was that, if you dislike someone, you dislike how they look (and their stupid striped shirt too); if you love someone, you love how they look (and their cool striped shirt).

They try to get at this in the movies by frumping up the girl at the beginning and then dolling her up by the end as the guy begins to see what's good in her. (Of course, she's played by a glamorous actress.) But that's a kind of distrust of the audience. Better is the strategy of "Lost," which picked unlikely actors and then gazed at them up close as you the audience fell in love with them, with the result that you had the most compelling-looking ensemble cast there's ever been.

If you've spent years scoffing at Donald Trump, and a good solid year or more hating him, then you might not be *able* to see that he's a handsome guy. He is, and was, both in his younger years and now.

Similarly, if you've spent your entire adult life hating Hillary Clinton, then you might not be *able* to see that she's an attractive woman. In her younger years and now as well. She's got that Washington charisma — you can't get far in politics without it.

One friend said, "nope, he's an ugly man. Nasty." Another said, "Hillary? I don't see it. " Sure enough. You know who they voted for.

One of the greatest things you can do as a human is to remove the tinted glasses.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


This afternoon, a comment by a friend got me to watching "Frozen" in its entirety for only the second time. I'm sitting here undone by a superbly-told story. Once again, Disney, when they're on their game, taps into the mythos like no one can.

Again and again, they get it right: the way people can deceive and be deceived; the relationship of law (the parents' solution to Elsa) to love (Anna's solution), the use of gloves as metaphor for covering the true person. As Dennis Whittaker points out, aside from Elsa's gloved or bare hands, it's also how you know that the gloved prince is not to be believed. Only the touch of skin is truth.

The most arresting song, Elsa's stunning Byronic paean to Milton's Satan, is exposed in retrospect for the selfish ode that it is by a sister whose other-directedness winds up in a spectacular sacrifice.

The theme of fear is woven masterfully into the story from its first moments until the climax, when the visionary John's words "perfect love casteth out fear" become visual and musical and dramatic reality. What follows is an indelible image of the world being made over, a Northern New Jerusalem where brotherhood and sisterhood are finally possible, all our curses now tamed into powers.

The final musical motif, sounding as the camera retreats into the sky — should I spoil it by telling you? no! — is an affirmation of the film's highest principle.

Monday, October 2, 2017

today's etymology

Today's etymology:

Khwarezm: a region of central Asia.

Khwarizmi: a surname indicating origin there. (Like someone whose last name is Aleman probably came from a Spanish-speaking family that had immigrated from Germany)

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi: a dude. Not just any dude; he was a mathemetician.

al-Khwarizmi: his 'last name,' again. Say it a few times.

Algoritmi: his Latin name. (Dudes went by their Latin names because Latin was the lingua ... uh, Latina.)

algorithm: the multi-step formula named after him

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

tramp stamps

Think about “tramp stamps.” The term, and the tattoo.

The term is sexist. The tattoos themselves are much-derided. Looking past all that, I often find them to be quite attractive.

In general, tattoos have a purpose: to decorate the human body. So it has to sit well there. Designs have to work in the place they're designed for. A picture meant to be on a square painting on a wall has different requirements than one on a cylindrical vase. Same goes for something you put on the front of a building. Or on a real human body.

See? That would have looked better on a vase.

The most successful tattoos are the ones that obey the human form. We're very attuned to the human form. It's one of the pillars of world art throughout history, and we know it well. A tattoo that interrupts that form may be trendy for a moment (like those geometric designs that crop up every generation or so in fashion, and don't last for the same reason), but it will ultimately look wrong.

This gent's admirable V-shaped form begged for a design just like this.

There's an exception: the tattoo that defies the form, which is another way of imposing the human will on nature. When done well it can look good too. But that's very rare.

Actual example of one that I think is really beautiful. Especially because the careful point-by-point tattooing process is contrasted here by the illusion of watercolor's spontaneity. 
I stress that this is the exception.

Mainly, you want to obey and honor the human form. A small horizontal design at the lumbar, or slightly above at the slimmest part of the waist, can act as a visual cinch. It accentuates the feminine form in a pleasing way.

No. No, not like that. Sorry, St. Paul.

Yes. Yes, just like that.

Maybe that's why those tattoos are so popular, even and especially among girls who are not typically inky girls. Ironically, it's the conservative choice! Conservative in the sense that a small design that accentuates the female form is a safer bet than, say,


So if you're not the sort of girl who gets a lot of tattoos you may still get one on your lower back. (This is also true of those tiny ankle tattoos, which share the lumbar tattoo's feature of being easily concealed in business settings.)

Thus, girls who get typical lower-back tattoos are scorned from both sides: from those who don't get tattoos at all, and from those who get more "tattoo-culture" tattoos.

It's like a person whose favorite singer is Kesha. People who don't like modern pop scorn you for being so pop, and people who do like modern pop scorn you for being so obvious.

Hey, I like Kesha's music.

Meanwhile, those tattoos might very well stick with us for a while. They'll look good as a woman ages. They're easy to conceal when necessary and pleasant to reveal when desired. And at this point they'll never really be in or out of fashion.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

grading syrup

Grade A maple syrup is not better than Grade B. Grade B syrup has a darker color and deeper flavor than grade A. The grades are indicators of color and flavor, not quality.

So the US Department of Agriculture decided to clear that up. How? By changing the labeling system, you ask? Yep:

    • Grade A Light Amber is now
Grade A Golden Color/Delicate Taste

    • Grade A Medium Amber is now
Grade A Amber Color/Rich Taste

    • Grade A Dark Amber is now
Grade A Dark Color/Robust Taste

    • Grade B is now
Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste

So instead of just getting rid of the letter grade, they just call it *all* grade A.

That is as concise a summary of America, in science, commerce, character, and logic, as I could ever hope for.

Monday, September 11, 2017

september eleventh in history

If you think modern attacks from Muslims on September 11th are referring to 9-11-2001, you may not be looking back far enough.

1565 — The Ottoman Empire had been trying to invade the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights, with approximately 2,000 footsoldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. Voltaire said, "Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta." It undoubtedly contributed to the eventual erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility.
Their forces retreated on September 11, 1565.

[1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Manhattan Island]

1683 — The Battle of Vienna took place at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna after the city had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle was fought by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of King John III Sobieski against the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states. This is the first time the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire had cooperated militarily against the Ottomans. It began the Great Turkish War and it is often seen as a turning point; after this war the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world.
The battle took place on September 11, 1683.

1697 — The Battle of Zenta (or Senta, today in Serbia) was a major engagement in the Great Turkish War (1683–1699) and one of the most decisive defeats in Ottoman history. In a surprise attack, Habsburg Imperial forces routed the Ottoman army which was crossing the river. At the cost of a few hundred losses, the Habsburg forces inflicted thousands of casualties on the Ottomans, dispersed the remainder and captured the Ottoman treasure. As an immediate consequence, the Ottoman Empire lost control over Banat, while in the long run, the Habsburg victory at Zenta was the last decisive step to force the Ottoman Empire into the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), ending the Ottoman control of large parts of Central Europe.
The battle took place on September 11, 1697.

info from Wikipedia

Saturday, August 26, 2017

nature's own

A day before Hurricane Harvey hits Texas. Maybe this company is johnny-on-the-spot with its restocking. The friend who took this pic suggested instead that people would rather perish than eat Nature's Own brand bread.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

could it be magic

I've been listening to Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic."

Give this a listen from beginning to end. A gorgeous composition. The chorus pays homage to a Chopin prelude (C-minor, op 28 #20). The verses and other material are equal to Chopin's bewitching progression, with intelligent lyrics by Adrienne Anderson that perfectly speak Manilow's sumptuous pop melodies and harmonies.

Goodness! To think that anyone was complaining in the early 70s that the American pop song had died, or entered a dumb period! Surely Manilow was an exception (just as Porter and Gershwin were), but he was spurred on by a moment that could allow a 7-minute-long pop song.

There's so much here. First, the out-of-tune studio piano bangs out something like Chopin's original prelude, cadencing into the song itself. The verse layers one richly extended chord after another. 7ths and 9ths abound, even in the melody. The piano is set off by some nicely-recorded guitar fingerpicking. We really hear the gut of the strings, so fleshly! When the Chopinesque chorus arrives, it sounds like a deep exhale.

The arrangement itself, as performed here, doesn't stand the test of time. The drums and bass sound so constricted and not-right to us. But the vocal and string arrangement, and the overall shape of the song, is a testament to Manilow's pop genius.

Anyone who thinks of Manilow as too smooth and slick needs only to listen to the when's-it-gonna-end coda starting around the 5-minute mark. It's some of the rawest vocal work he ever did. It plays perfectly against the stately brass and strings, before being engulfed by the rest of the mix. The impression is of a man drowning in his need for his beloved. It's exactly the kind of extended coda that rock musicians hope will be overwhelming, but rarely is. (I'm looking at you, Michael W. Smith. Fade out already.) Here, it is. I'd do away with the tag ending that returns to the Chopin piano — it's unneeded and feels arty — but it works decently. By that point, we're ready for a landing, I guess.

Man, what a piece of music. Sit down and let it operate on you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

two approaches to gratitude

Giving gratitude: 
the saint's discipline

Demanding gratitude: 
the devil's playground

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

an 1814 banner ... sort of

Some time ago, I searched around for a modern, fair copy of the original arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," as it was first published with music. It's different in several ways from the way we sing it now. I didn't find one.

So I started doing my own, copying the arrangement as it was, but with the awareness that it's now our national anthem, which means it's for group singing.

The original is for a soloist, then repeats the last line for group singing, so I took out that repeat. The original also has a piano interlude that seems to symbolize the faint bugle-calls and cannon-fire of the battle at Fort McHenry; I took that out too. The original has just a single-note right hand and left hand piano part, with the lyrics between; I followed standard sheet-music practice by writing a vocal staff and a piano part that's nice and full, while keeping to the harmonies of the original. I also kept the original notes and rhythms.

The result is, then, true to the original, but far from it. If you could go back to Mr. Key, tell him this is now our national anthem, and play him what the Air Force Band played today, followed by what I wrote, he might be puzzled at the band version but less puzzled by mine, which has the tune closer to how he sung it.

If he looked at the sheet music, though, he'd marvel at the inhumanly superb engraving, remark on the strange notation ("Stems on the left side of a half-note?! Jupiter!"), and wonder why on earth I couldn't count on pianists to realize (to use the old word) their own part, filling out what's implied from the melody and bass.

So. Here you go: click on the page to get a brand-spankin'-new edition of the national anthem as it would have been sung in 1814, notated for modern patriots. Play it and sing it, con spirito.

keeping promises

"All men are created equal."

The more I think about it, the more I think the 241-year story of these words and their effect doesn't sound as new as it does old. Thousands of years old, maybe. Just about every culture has a story like it, taking place in storybook land.

A king, or person of great power, makes a promise. The promise seems generous and reasonable. Then a crafty peasant comes along to hold him to the literal terms of the promise's wording. It's something far broader, that the king didn't foresee and wouldn't have agreed to. No one else would have foreseen it either, but his being forced to keep it winds up in great good being done, or a great evil being defeated, or a seemingly unsolvable problem solved.

Except with us, it took place in a real land. Let yourself be amazed by it: Hancock and Jefferson and company were trying to accomplish something. They did accomplish it. But in the process they generated words that later generations held them to, in ways they would have considered unacceptably broad. If you could go back and say, "All men are created equal? OK, then: all means all," they would have said, "Well yes, but." They did say that, with later words and actions.

America stands as a beacon to the nations, partially because we made the fairy tale come to life. It's crucial to recognize something, though. We're a beacon not just because we had that king in our history, but also because we had that crafty peasant. We had a series of them, each extracting, with much trouble, greater and greater implications from that phrase. Our greatest heroes are often people who brought about new actions from a new understanding of it. Even some of us as individuals, during our lifetimes, have had our own sense of that phrase expanded. In the process, great good has been done, great evils defeated, seemingly unsolvable problems solved.

What's in our future? More.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

a rit and a flourish

At a church I used to lead music for, we always divided the Sequence hymn, that hymn in the part of the service where they're doing Bible readings. We sang two verses before the Gospel reading, then one or two after.

To keep people from absentmindedly continuing, I often ended the second verse with a slight ritard and slow arpeggio. It's like using your legs to slow down on a swing. Keyboardists have done it since the days of Mozart, Bach before him, Buxtehude before him.

Every once in a while, I thought, "With this simple gesture (rarely even notated), I connect myself to a centuries-long tradition."

Friday, June 23, 2017


Taking a shower in a friend's house, I looked at the world map shower curtain in reverse, and something struck me. I looked at Europe and Africa right next to each other, and the shapes and sizes of the countries in each. I had a thought, which a glance at North America, east and west of the Mississippi, confirmed.

The thought is this: the boundaries of Europe were drawn, with exceptions, on the ground. The boundaries of Africa were drawn on paper (in Europe). The boundaries of the eastern US states were drawn on the ground — that is, by living there; the ones of the western states were drawn on paper — that is, using maps rather than real living experiences.

Look at the difference through that lens: the sizes and shapes, on the scale of human communities on one hand and monumental on the other.

Monday, May 29, 2017

memorial day

Today I want to honor *all* who lost their lives in battle. Not just the brave: some weren't. Not just the ones who bought our freedoms: some lives were wasted. Not just the willing: some went against their will. May they rest in peace, and may we work for peace.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

fragrance tour, part 6

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.

Calvin Klein

What a strange scent. Rummy and woody nightclubbing scent, but it has that bit of oud in the base, like so many men's colognes from the early teens, all colored by the cool, smoky, barky taste of cardamom. It's sweet and medicinal, and very much of its time, although not all that popular as far as I can tell. Warms up to a nice sweet presence. Works well in cooler weather, but good all around too. It's so strange!

Luna Rossa

A compliment-getter for sure. It caters just enough to popular tastes while standing solidly on its own. The smell starts as a battle of lavender, citrus, and mint, but fades quickly to an orange-and-cedar combination that people just love, myself (and Catherine) included. In this way it reminds me of Azzaro Chrome, a superb scent I can't wear because it's so owned by my immaculately turned-out colleague Ken Slavin. I can't pick out the smell of ambergris, but they say it's here in synthetic version, and maybe that's what makes Luna Rossa just different enough that it smells like me and not my friend constantly lurking around the corner. It's a great big smile of a fragrance, a snazzy outfit, unfailingly clear. I got a couple of tiny free sample sprayers of it recently. Gotta get a bottle!


This after-shave was always at my grandmother's house on childhood visits, generously applied after a bath. I clicked around and found a vintage bottle. Even as I opened the shipping box, the smell overwhelmed me with memories. It's an old-fashioned smell, mentholy and witch-hazely, with a distinct lavender top note and a lingering mid-century smoothness. I put it together that the first times we used it at our grandmother's house were really only a couple of years after our grandfather had died. What did it mean to her to splash this on the young Brake boys? What fragrances will Greta and Clara, or their children, associate with bright or dim memories of me?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Thursday, April 13, 2017

fragrance tour, part 5

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.

L.12.12 Blanc

When it first goes on it smells very typically guy-ish, that sporty citrusy smell that dominates dorms across the land (though it's on the grapefruity side, so that helps it be more distinctive). But after a few hours it mellows into a sweet woody smell with just a tinge of something distantly flowery. I wasn't sure whether it would pass the distinctiveness test, so I got a small trial size. Nearing its last spray, I'm resolved to get more. It has turned out to be a favorite. If L.12.12 Blanc went to high school with you it would be that guy on the tennis team who's athletic and "popular" but also actually popular — nice to everyone and pretty smart and fun and great to hang around with. It has the glowing presence that good fragrances have, that give you pleasure as you get whiffs throughout the day. Terrific in spring and summer.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Ohhhh, man. I have a whole ode to Oud here. Go ahead, read it! It goes into rhapsodic detail. The ancient intellectual-sensual smell of oud may be to fragrance in the twenty-teens what New Wave is to music in the nineteen-eighties: an era-definer that seeps into seemingly everything. Add to it a burst of saffron-flower, amid a peerlessly-blended swirl of complex tones, and Kurkdjian's masterwork is divinely hard to pin down in the mind: celestial, dark, smooth as hand-rubbed mahogany, masculine, satiny, powdery, sensual. This is the first fragrance I've been really excited about in a long time. Catherine is too. Every time I wear it, she can't stop sniffing and nuzzling. Near-perfect.

Banana Republic

And we go from the hautest of haute to the mall chain store. Vive la différence! This is a pleasant, cool, fresh scent. Someone described it as the smell left in a bathroom after a well-groomed guy has gotten ready. Soapy and cologny, not overbearing. Just a hint of wood gives it the note that a vintage skinny tie gives to an up-to-the-minute suit. Great to pack in your travel bag.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Monday, April 10, 2017

fragrance tour, part 4

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.


Odd and elegant. It smells very mid-90s, which it is, for better and worse — mostly better. Supersuper sweet from beginning to end, with a mint/orange zip that offsets a glowing floral center. Its sweet warmth is wonderful for the sweaters and velvets of deep winter. Extra points for the distinctive bottle.

Perry Ellis

Stylish, a little sporty, clean. A firmly 21st-century fragrance. Maybe the most and best so far. It's already 13 years old, but today seems utterly new. It's a corrective to the aquatics of the 90s and the pungent powerhouses of the 80s and the sandalwood/musks of the 70s. For the entire time you wear it, it smells intriguing, which is a hard thing to pull off. It's said to smell of "star anise," but since the only place I've ever smelled that is in this cologne it's hard for me to get a handle on. It's not almondy, the way you'd think anise would be. But that appealing just-out-of-reach scent dominates from beginning to end, as the fresh spray of bergamot (a bitter, oily orange) fades into cinnamon and vanilla and coffee and a little wood, all matchlessly balanced. I've noticed with pleasure that, after several hours, it smells like book: that wonderful (vanilla-ish?) smell that hits you in an old bookshop.

Scuderia Ferrari

Yes, it's a Ferrari brand. I usually don't go for that sort of thing, but then again if it smells good what does it matter? If you really don't care about this kind of marketing, well OK then, just let your nose be your guide. In this case, your nose wins. Launched in 2010, but more of a classic scent, with a lemony-lavender opening and a cheerful floral-tea smell to it. It even has that cedar-musk of yore lurking around. It's spicy and barbershoppy and very well blended, with a clean-boy soapiness that's never out of style.


Another celebrity tie-in, I'm afraid: this time, with Jay-Z's fashion brand, which did a licensing deal with Elizabeth Arden in 2011. Again, the proof is in the smelling. This one's appropriately club-noir, a little boozy, but with enough spicy coffee and incense to sober it up. You can tell it's trying to be "sexy," though it ends up being fairly sexy anyway. It's not for every day, but it's young and fun and a little serious.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Thursday, April 6, 2017

HI-FIne print

Click on the above for a collection of those notices that give information and "information" about the recording process on old albums. (And cool new ones.)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

the sonicon and the zone

I spent something like 47 hours a while back working on a piece of music that's 2.11 seconds long.

It's a corporate sonicon, or sound trademark, like the NBC major chord tones, or the "Law & Order" chung-chung, or the Intel "bum-beem-bum-BEEM." It's a very small but incredibly important little sound that they'll use in all their radio and TV and web ads and other things — eventually you'll begin to just hear the sound and know what it means. (No, you may not hear it yet.)

Like those other sounds, it has about 15 layers of samples, instruments, musical things, percussive things, atmospheric recording, and other stuff all blended together into a unique thing. So, with each hour I spend on it, it really does get better and better — it's been a total blast.

The initial idea — a basic sound effect and a simple cadence — took me literally 2 minutes. Then the whole rest of the time it's been tweaking and polishing, sanding away with finer and finer grains. Allllllllllmost done now. I'll come out of a long tweak, covering the final quarter-second, and realize it's 5am, and I've been going at it non-stop for hours. This kind of zone, where skill and interest and absorption-cum-obsession meet, is one of my favorite ways to live. And yet it's kind of the opposite of the usual sentimental myth of creativity. (My friend says, "so I guess one 2.11 second note on a tuba wouldn't have done the trick.")

Friday, March 17, 2017

a saint patrick's day thought

How technology shapes and limits us, in so many invisible ways. Think, for instance, about the fact that you very rarely see green on news and talk shows — ties and shirts and dresses and desk elements and even background decor always avoid that part of the spectrum — simply because they all use green screens.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


After an unhurried search that lasted a decade, I have finally found the ideal chambray shirt. As is usual for me, it's actually not quite chambray, but has a very slight little herringbone pattern to it.

Manly, distinctive, casually sophisticated. How nice, to now and then find what one is looking for.

Friday, February 3, 2017

that's all, folks

Tonight we reached a milestone. Tonight was the night the Alberich Stories ended. (Greta has referred to the stories of the Ring Cycle as "Alberich Stories.")

I've been telling the entire thing, from the first moments, with the magic gold shining in the riverbed of the Rhine, guarded by Rheinmaidens, and stolen by the evil dwarf, right to the end, with Brünnhilde immolating herself on Siegfried's funeral pyre and returning the gold to its rightful place, for nearly a year now at bedtime.

Giants, dragons, birds, blood, greed, love, triumph, disaster, the whole thing. Both girls have been absolutely absorbed. Greta's requested it more than Clara, but whenever Clara joins in to listen, she's more attentive to me than she ever is in any other context.

Greta has often stopped and asked questions and gotten clarification, as well as offered insights of her own. When she first heard about the terms under which Alberich could forge a ring of power from magic gold — namely, that he had to forswear love — she had the same reaction as her cousins Hannah and Trey had had back in the 90s: Complete power and untold riches? "I would give up love for that!" But when it was explained that they could no longer love anyone, whether a mother or father or grandparents or siblings or friends, and could no longer be loved, ever, for the rest of their lives, they (and now Greta) thought long and hard about it.

When we got to the spine-chilling confrontation in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde and Gunther swear to be telling the truth and that the others are lying, all taking a death-oath on Hagen's spear, Greta stopped the story to point out that none of them was lying, going through each character and telling it from his or her point of view. She then circled back around and, since there was a mitigating fact in each case, pointed out that they were all speaking an untruth. When she realized what that meant (the death-oath!) I could see it dawning on her with a shudder.

What fun!! What depth! I love to think past the Wagner version and even past the Elder Edda and other mythological sources, to people gathered around fires and children in beds listening to these stories over and over, thrilling to the tales of love and betrayal and redemption, expressed through magic helmets and speaking birds and rings of power and potions — fire, water, earth, and sky all peopled, playing host to a story for the ages.

Friday, January 6, 2017

boys and better boys

Joe Biden's continually-repeated anecdote: "My dad used to say, 'you have one job: keep the boys away from your sister.' "

Michelle Wolf's response: "Boys wouldn't have to protect their sisters if they would stop being so crappy to girls who aren't their sister. How about instead of teaching boys to protect women we just teach boys to be better boys?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

the healthy effect of advertising on content

(click for larger view)

Friday, November 11, 2016

the incompetent adult in kids' stories

An author friend says that, on occasion, an adult will write to him, expressing annoyance about how incompetent many of the adult spies are in his books. They feel this isn't very realistic.

This kind of reaction, which most children's authors will tell you they get in a steady stream, mainly comes from people who believe that children's literature exists to instruct children in some way.

Interestingly, it's that very concern that leads to the problem: throughout history, human cultures have seen need for stories with children protagonists who must display resourcefulness and bravery (or whatever other virtues we're trying to instill). They must, then, be in situations where an adult would ordinarily intervene — but without the adult. A great number of stories solve the problem by dispatching the parents on the first page. But that still leaves stories where a kid must encounter an adult world that somehow leaves an authority-and-safety vacuum that a kid protagonist can fill.

So, today's parents often complain about the "stupid dad" meme or the "incompetent adult" meme, because of their concern for the teaching duty of stories — a concern that created the very memes they complain about.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

putting on the pantsuit

Ah, the pantsuit. It's been an object of derision for as long as it's been around. Of course, it's little different from the suit — leaving aside the essential difference, namely who's wearing it.

There's a tidy iconographical rhyme in the phenomenon of Pantsuit Nation. It's yet another way in which a group of Davids reclaims a symbol or term ("bitch"; "queer") to wield against Goliath.

Anne Hollander was talking about this in the 90s. She pointed out that the Western woman's silhouette was denied legs, the symbol of action and agency. Every time women got a bit of power — say, in the 20s, when women, newly enfranchised to vote, entered the urban workforce in a new way, or in the 60s, when they began to clamor against other forms of disenfranchisement — the female silhouette gained legs. It happened either through the raising of hemlines to reveal the leg, or through pants.

At this fun moment, our culture seems ready to embrace all it considered dorky a moment ago. Men are embracing the previously unsexy mantle of soccer-dadhood. (Witness the ads for the newly revamped Chrysler Pacifica, which aim to make the minivan an object of neighborly admiration. Minivan: The New Grill!)

And, this Election Day, women are putting on pantsuits, the fluorescent-lit symbol of all that is dreary about the workplace. For five minutes, the pantsuit has become a badge of honor and a tribute to the strength of those who paved the way.

Hope that idea has legs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

costume and custom

I was delighted to see that this week's poem for memorization in Greta's class was by Gelett Burgess. (It's his most-known work, the nonsense poem "The Purple Cow.")

Early in my adult life I came across a first edition of his 1901 book The Romance of the Commonplace, and I've gotten it out and enjoyed its prose (purpler than his cow, I'm afraid) every couple of years since. I guess he's my second-favorite essayist, the first being the incomparable Robert Benchley, whose collections I discovered in my parents' library and read and loved from 8th grade on.

Only a short while back, before the poem came along, I'd pulled it off the shelf again. I especially love one piece, "Costume and Custom," which puts forth so much of what I've always thought a man should be: whimsy, standards, a mind opened and closed to the right things.

Click on the book cover to read.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

every weapon wounds its wielder