Sunday, November 22, 2015

everything old was always new

Here's a way of getting a handle on a deeply odd fact about our culture: suppose someone came to you and said, "I'm making a movie about a half-man/half-robot who battles evil aliens in outer space — what kind of music should be on the soundtrack?" Think of the choices at your disposal at this point in history: hard-edged rock, hip-hop, computer-generated electronica ... but of course you know the overwhelming answer to that question in American cinema. It's the symphony orchestra, mostly unchanged for a couple of centuries.

Like those other inimitable gifts of the West to the world, the piano and the suit, the symphony orchestra keeps on getting talked about as if it's obsolete and passé. And yet it keeps on getting used. Why?

Think of the way people talk about suits. Constricting, old-fashioned, not with the times. Now look around: have we lost any appetite at all for seeing our talk-show hosts, sports announcers, politicians, bachelor-contest gladiators, and news anchors (if they're men) in suits?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


A friend writes:
You know, I was just thinking... if everybody in the world were musicians, there'd probably be a lot less wars. Of course, nothing would get done before noon, but there'd be a lot less wars.
"Man, we were selling missiles for $12 million a piece, but then that sax player came in and started selling them for $4 million. 4 million?!?! Come on, man, you're just making it worse for everybody. Have some respect!!"

"OK, we told you the raid on their redoubt was at 0600, but I forgot to tell you to load in at 0300 and be completely set up by 0500 because there's a program. Still paying you the same."

"Sources say that Obama and Putin were making progress toward a solution, but then Putin brought up his girlfriend, who is a singer. Obama displayed his famous cool demeanor until Putin mentioned that she only sings 'Summertime' and 'God Bless the Child.' The White House has now announced that troops will be deployed on schedule, as before."

"Bill O'Reilly says that the conflict dates back to the aftermath of WWI, but he's only partially right. It really goes back much further, to the late 1800s, when the Bosnians were angry with the Serbs for switching from upright to electric bass on club gigs. The Serbs angrily countered that they can make their electric bass sound *just* like an upright, and that's when the legacy of violence began."

"The French offered support to the Mohawks and surrounding Native American tribes, but those tribes refused, because the French kept calling 'Cherokee' at 260bpm, then soloing for 7 minutes."

"Eventually, tensions reached a breaking point in the summer of 1789, when the peasants stormed the Bastille after finding out King Louis was charging $4000 for gigs but only paying the band $80 a man."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

on leaving the greenhouse

It's inevitable that your kid will begin to learn more from the world outside your home than inside it — and, over all, it's a good. But it's sad when there's something you've carefully sheltered them from arises. Today, Greta said, "This is boring." Boring?!?! And to add insult to injury, she pronounced it "boreen," doing the maddening -een ending that drives any Brake berserk. ("Good morneen." Blech!) Of course, such things give us the opportunity to verbalize our values. Felix culpa!

Monday, November 2, 2015

why i have the best friends, part 2

Thursday, October 29, 2015

one man's treasure

There's never been a better time to invest in excellent editions of good books. The reason? Fewer people value them.

I've been buying up gorgeous editions at prices I'd be embarrassed to share — wonderful sturdy children's books, finely printed and illustrated, classics and first editions, including a first edition of In Cold Blood and a superb printing of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from a run of only 1000 — all because people are selling them to used bookstores at an unprecedented rate (and, less directly, because the people who valued and bought them in the first place are dying and their relatives sell off their libraries for pennies).

Just the other day, a new treasure came in the post: Doctor Dolittle's Circus, in a 1952 printing. I've been collecting all the Dolittle books for a couple of years now, one at a time, as I see ones come available at a good price. This one is absolutely a gem: it's in perfect condition, with pristine pages, black-as-black-can-be printing (including Lofting's wonderful illustrations), and the attention to typography typical of the best of the era.

It's just a pleasure to read!! Can't wait for our girls to be able to digest these.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

writing by hand

A friend showed me this article, entitled "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades," which unveils some research about writing by hand as opposed to using computers or tablets (or, for that matter, voice-to-text, which I use all the time).

It's something to keep in mind for other disciplines as well. I've been amused at the number of people who've forwarded that video of the new music software that allows you to write on the tablet to create a music score: invariably, it's from a non-musician to a musician, saying, "You'll be interested in this!!!"

Of course, actual musicians have been using music software for decades, far quicker and easier than this. It's like telling a professional author they can now use a tablet to write a book in longhand. Hate to pop your enthusiasm, folks, but typing *really* is easier.

On the other hand, articles like this show that there's a neurovalue in doing it by hand — one that we shouldn't ignore. I remember reading a thesis that compared bestselling novels from the age in which a manuscript would be written in longhand (Austen, Dickens) to ones from the 20th century written at a typewriter (Hemingway, Steinbeck). The idea was that using both hands, connected to both hemispheres, somehow affected the type of writing and even the subject matter, as compared to using just one hand. Not sure that was a great thesis (knowing what we now know about the hemispheres not being quite so divided as all that), but still interesting.

And here we have evidence that the connection of writing to the hand, making a mark on a page, is somehow deeper than we'd thought.

Catherine still writes longhand in journals. I confess that I even write digital thank-you notes now!! Ah well, maybe that'll change.

Friday, October 9, 2015

a mother's kitsch

Somehow, it's comforting to know that others besides evangelicals are capable of this.

I call her the Virgin of Guadalalaloope.

Monday, October 5, 2015

pressure off

Really great pop music artists who have a flowering of creativity in their youth sometimes come out with something decades later that's kind of a renaissance — the old spark is back, this time with a lifetime of mastery behind it. (Willie Nelson's "Teatro" is a prime example.)

Right now I'm listening to Duran Duran's "Pressure Off," a song that has all the Duran gestures and an infectious energy. Delighted!

Monday, September 7, 2015

the trifecta

Today, I got it in my head to write a poem. But a dreadful urge to make it perfectly constructed, flawless — tight, yet free and easy sounding — caused a waking nightmare like a stomach-ache to start inside me.

Could I do it?

Oh, sure, I was able to, back in my super-smart teen sighing days, when I could just let fly with mopey tributes to some nerd-girl crush, and have it come out word-perfect, with faultless scansion, rhyme, and big emotions: gushing, chiming masterpieces of teen alt-romance.

But that’s all past. I’m halting. Now I just want to impress, but don’t know how (I’m such a mess). Should I rhyme? Should it be quick, spiffy couplets of tetrameter, or a balanced and classic sonnet? Or both?

Today, I got it in my head
To write a poem. But a dread-
ful urge to make it perfectly
Constructed, flawless — tight, yet free
And easy sounding — caused a wak-
ing nightmare like a stomach-ache
To start inside me. Could I do
It? Oh, sure, I was able to,
Back in my super-smart teen sigh-
ing days, when I could just let fly
With mopey tributes to some nerd-
Girl crush, and have it come out word-
Perfect, with faultless scansion, rhyme,
And big emotions: gushing, chim-
ing masterpieces of teen alt-
Romance. But that’s all past. I’m halt-
ing. Now I just want to impress,
But don’t know how. I’m such a mess.

Today, I got it in my head to write
A poem. But a dreadful urge to make
It perfectly constructed, flawless — tight,
Yet free and easy sounding — caused a wak-
     Ing nightmare like a stomach-ache to start
     Inside me. Could I do it? Oh, sure, I
     Was able to, back in my super-smart
     Teen sighing days, when I could just let fly
With mopey tributes to some nerd-girl crush,
And have it come out word-perfect, with fault-
less scansion, rhyme, and big emotions: gush-
ing, chiming masterpieces of teen alt-
     Romance. But that’s all past. I’m halting. Now
     I just want to impress, but don’t know how.

Ha! I've been wanting to do that since my senior year in high school, when I thought it would be a blast to write an essay for Mr. Naegelin's English class, totally understandable as modern prose — no high-flown rhetoric, no thees and thous, no reversed subject and predicate, none of the markers of "poetic" poetry — but perfectly renderable in verse.

A few years later, in Professor Ann Miller's English Poetry Since Burns class, I thought that it would be even cooler to write a poem in rhyming couplets of tetrameter that was also perfectly renderable in pentameter. Better yet: sonnet form!!

But I didn't do it, either time. It sat there, as a cool idea that occasionally came to my mind, as decades came and went.

Just over and just under thirty years later, today was the day. The trifecta!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

heart and soul

As I sometimes do, I'm thumbing through Alec Wilder's terrific book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. He mentions Hoagy Carmichael's song "Heart and Soul," which you'll recognize as the song Tom Hanks and his mentor play on the giant piano in the movie Big, but undoubtedly you knew it well before that. Wilder actually goes into this.

   What does fascinate me and has never been explained is how it came to be more popular with small children than "Chopsticks." I have never known a home with contained both children and a piano in which "Heart And Soul," without the release, was not the principal pianistic effort. And it was always for at least three hands. The rhythm was almost always a form of "shuffle" rhythm and more often than not the bass line was scalar and in dotted quarter and eighth notes.
   The copyright date is 1938, and I first found children experimenting with it around 1950. Even though it had been a great hit, it never did become much of a standard song. So where, oh where, did the children come across it a dozen years later? How did it manage to spread over the face of the nation? If there is an even faintly reasonable answer, I'd be very grateful for it.
I've often had the same question. What could possibly be the explanation?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

the bad "such"

From an article by someone named Edwin Lingar:
Like many self-identified American Christians, I grew up calling myself such while adhering to few of the precepts and never going to church. 
There it is! That use of the word "such," that always hits me as ... what? not quite wrong. Maybe "undergrad" is the word. That use will show up in an opinion piece in the local college paper (or in Salon, whose sloppy editors let in so many amateur-hour flubs that it's hard to believe there are editors at all).

But here's the deal: I've never seen it used by any writer that's really good, or in any publication that's at the top. It's a usage that seems to belong only to smart 10th-grade poets, but really should be out of their system by college. It's one of those things that the writer thinks sounds good but is really an indicator to the audience that the writer is trying to reach for a rose and getting a thorn.

There's one use that's even worse, and more pretentious: instead of "you're a rascal!" or "you're quite a rascal!" or (ramping up the lit-snob appeal just a bit) "you're quite the rascal!" or even "you're such a rascal!", you often see 10th-grade-poet-types going for "you're such the rascal!" In a just world, this would set off actual alarm bells and sirens.

Such things are often the subject of humor — think of the fun Jon Stewart had, and Jimmy Fallon still has, with the Jersey use of "classy" — but I've never seen the "such" poked fun at that way. Wouldn't it be just right in the mouth of some dowdily-dressed book-club prig in "Girls?" I would definitely chuckle at such.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

goodbye, red

NO!! I just found out Red Lane died about a month ago!! Great songwriter who wrote dozens of hits, mostly mid-charters, and always underrated.

I associate him with the hybridized pop country music of the Seventies and Eighties. Generally, the tangy swing of traditional country is more appealing to me, but Red wrote some great stuff. He wrote Waylon Jennings' "The Eagle" and BJ Thomas's "New Looks From An Old Lover," but here's my absolute favorite of his. It should go down as one of the great American standards.

Rest in peace, Red.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

ginger, mary ann, and the rest

Mary Ann: I don't see how you can exercise in that dress anyway, it's so tight. I'm surprised it doesn't cut off your circulation.
Ginger: Honey, in Hollywood, the tighter the dress, the more the girl circulates.

A friend, quoting that line, says, "I've recently rediscovered Gilligan's Island and I am finding it really funny now that I am old enough to appreciate the old-school writing and comic performances."

I think I remember having the same impression sometime in the late 90s when it was on somewhere: macroscopically it's incredibly stupid, but microscopically — the little funny lines and zingers — it's bubbly and clever.

Of course, for decades, sitcoms were seen as just that: a vehicle for microscopic hilarity — great comic actors doing their thing. (Think "Three's Company," which was never macroscopically worthy of the terrific John Ritter, but nonetheless gave him plenty of comic scope.)

Alas, poor Yorick.

We're re-watching the entire run of "Seinfeld," and recalling that this is exactly the show's great innovation — they carefully constructed plots that blew up at just the right moment, like in a great comic play or movie. And then they carried plot elements over from show to show, and even season to season, and you were expected to remember. (Of course, the most important feature there was probably the VCR, which allowed you to brush up on demand, so a show didn't simply evaporate after it was aired; and, crucially, you could arrange to never miss a show: if you had another engagement you could just tape it. Revolutionary, when you think about it!)

Maybe I'll go back and do the whole run of "Gilligan" sometime. All those actors were great pros with real credentials. I remember being impressed with especially the penumbral character actors in "Bewitched" for the same reason.

My bones aren't marrowless, if you know what I'm saying.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

whole tone spontaneity

We regularly sing instead of speaking. A life in arioso!

Greta just went into Cate's room with a balloon and sang, "Mayyy - youuu - pleeease - blowww - thiiiis - uuuup?"

The weird thing is that she sang it right up the notes of a whole-tone scale!! We all usually default to diatonic (think white keys on a piano); what on earth caused her to do something that unnatural, and, for the untrained, quite difficult?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

prostitution and covenant

Here's an article about a guy who auctions his virginity as documentarians film a movie about it. A girl was auctioning hers, too, but that's less surprising, as is the difference in starting bids. Yeeeesh! So much to say here. I guess one reason for the disparity is purely mechanical: a man could have a satisfying time with a completely inexperienced woman, but a woman almost certainly won't have a satisfying time with a completely inexperienced man.

Deeper, though, is the main issue in my opinion, and that is common sexual economics. Sex is, for many many people, something that women provide for men at some price: it's up to the woman, then, to decide what she's "worth," and it's either a hamburger and movie, or willingness to hold hands in public, or willingness to commit to being a boyfriend, or a fortune of several million dollars, or $70 an hour, or marriage and no less. All up and down the scale, though, this is a prostitutional model of sex — and it's one that I encountered in youth programs at my church! Naturally, at church, the prostitutes were encouraged to be as expensive as possible, not giving away their virginity when they could sell it for an ultimate price: a man's possessions and life in marriage. (This was invariably pitched to girls: guys were never seen as prostitutes, because, naturally, guys are the customer.)

Completely out of the blue, then, comes our model of marriage: the covenantal model — so different from the prostitutional model in every way. People just don't understand it. The other day Catherine and I were having dinner with a friend, and talking about marriage and cheating, and he just couldn't understand how hugging and kissing and having a candlelight dinner could be as worthy of fury/divorce/murder/complete dissolution of marriage as actually sleeping with someone. Catherine and I both feel that emotional cheating is just as much a betrayal as sexual cheating, and arguably more. But when your view of sex is the prostitutional model, and you're talking with someone who's on the covenantal model, it's like one person's playing chess and the other's playing checkers: same board, same talk of "pieces" and "moves," but there just can't be a game till the game itself is discussed openly.

The covenantal model is foreign even to most Christians, I've reluctantly and sadly concluded. But it calls, more and more insistently and gently to people all around us who are weary and heavy-laden.

Maybe the most disturbing thing in the article is what goes completely unsaid: [1] that sex might be worth something other than money; and [2] that in the brutal gladiatorial entertainments of reality TV, it's always and only the gladiators who are destroyed — if you don't count the incremental coarsening of conscience in every audience member.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

yyz isolated bass track

A friend alerted me to this cool recording of just the bass track from Rush's song "YYZ" from their album Moving Pictures.

The interesting thing about this is that the isolated track shows that they were recording it not only live but in the same space. They're miking the bass amp, and the mic picks up the drums and guitar.

Especially interesting is the cymbal bleed: usually you roll off some of the highest frequencies of a bass track but these are all there, or at least not rolled off completely — that's how you get the nice edge from hitting the string against the pickup, one of the signature bass timbres of this album.

Also, you realize that the bass amp is right in the room, picking up those guitar and drum sounds — not in an isolation closet somewhere. Back then, you often had the band in one room (if it was a rock-n-roll band), but they were listening through phones, and the guitar and bass amps were off somewhere stuffed into closets. Doing it this way, though, actually in the same room, gives you that indefinable open-air feeling. Nice!!

 (Also, notice that they cut out Alex's [still rather inexpert] 16th-note Van-Halen-ish fill when they punched him in. Hah!)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

end-of-a-movie-fy your statement

Here's how to End-Of-A-Movie-fy any statement. Say the thing, then say a person's name, then say the thing again. Does it work? You better believe it.

Viz: You better believe it, Barry; you better believe it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

states' rights and textbook learning

Some friends of mine were discussing this article in the Washington Post, about Texas teaching standards for the War Between the States, and whether they should have talked more about slavery as a cause of the war, or just states' rights and sectionalism. What's amazing is that this lengthy, in-depth article makes no mention of the glaring fact about the states'-rights argument: that is, that the Southern states were very much against states' rights to, for instance, ignore the federal Fugitive Slave Act. One main reason for secession is that the Southern states were furious that the federal government didn't trample on states' 10th-amendment rights by forcing the return of escaped slaves to their owners. 

Not to mention, of course, the states' 10th-amendment rights to not recognize slavery to begin with, so that if you're vacationing in Pennsylvania and you bring your valet with you, your valet might not come *back* with you because that person is regarded as a free citizen by the state of Pennsylvania.

Needless to say, that particular states' right was hated by the Southern states, and the fact that the federal government turned a blind eye and didn't enforce it under the full faith and credit clause was another reason those states wanted to secede.

So, the states'-rights issue is a complete load of bunk: any true believer in our 10th-amendment rights would be (however dejectedly) in favor of those actions regarding the Fugitive Slave Act and the full faith and credit clause. (Just as a true believer in states' rights who hates marijuana and prostitution nonetheless affirms Colorado and Nevada, respectively, in their rights to decide for themselves.)

But of course they weren't true believers in states' rights, then or now. Not that you'd ever know that from reading a textbook.

On the other hand, demand from school the person you are today: could they produce that person? There's a reason they call graduation ceremonies "commencement" — it's when your education finally begins.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

a declaration for the ages

On other holidays, we honor our country's veterans; on other holidays, we memorialize those who have died in serving; there's also Armed Forces Day, and lesser-celebrated holidays for the various branches of the military and for various recent battles and victories.

Today, though, we honor an un-military group who did an un-military thing: they published a document, ink on paper, claiming some things to be self-evident that weren't self-evident to most of their international audience. They claimed that all are equal, and they have — by dint of their very existence, not by fiat of the state — the right to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness. Perhaps more audaciously, they claimed that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, something they no doubt saw to be true of dictatorships as much as free lands. Every one of those assertions was controversial, and many have a hard time swallowing them even today — sometimes we ourselves have a hard time swallowing them.

But there they are, ink on paper, sent out into the world to change it. It's inarguable that they themselves saw those rights as available in their completeness only to white male landowners, but no matter: those words rang nonetheless. Over the years our republic has chipped away at the barnacled understanding of those words, the rough-hewn stone that covered the true polished shape of liberty, with much pain and with much howling. The pain continues, and the howling too, and there is still rough stone left, but our edifice is far more an edifice of freedom — of those radically-stated rights — than they ever could have imagined.

Take a moment to pray, sing, breathe gratitude for these people and their vision, and vow to continue chipping away, making those words true all over again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

a great dinner reminded me

When Jesus of Nazareth was asked for a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, he didn't answer with blue cloudy mist and harps and wings — he answered with images of a happy feast. Every strum of the harp may recall Hollywood heaven, but every family meal with people laughing and talking and enjoying great food recalls the real thing.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


I've been wearing Oud, Maison Francis Kurkdjian's bewitching 2012 fragrance, lately.

Given a name like "Oud," you might think that this fragrance is the smell of oud, the unusual resinous Asian wood whose unduplicable smell has been valued since the time of the Sanskrit Vedas. Well, there *is* oud in Oud, but oud isn't the smell of Oud. The rush of saffron-flower — a burst of late-afternoon sunshine — followed by cedary, leathery, incensy smells, with a quiet but distinct trace of patchouli (a smell I usually find repugnant, as does Catherine, but which we both find just perfectly framed here), and swirls of half-hidden pepper and pine, is all held together by just the right amount of resinous Laotian oud.

It's like making a stew with fruits and vegetables and meats, and then making it all come together with just a touch of paprika, and then calling the soup "Paprika." You can see why when you smell it, but it's not really even the main part of the fragrance. Maybe it's more like calling this picture "Red":

Perfect, right? Some artist would name it that, and you'd immediately know why. The exact right red in that hat suffuses the entire picture with meaning. It's a perfect metaphor for the way oud operates in Oud.

This is one of those newer fragrances that revive an older trend from the 70s and early 80s. You're always in dicey territory when you do that, because nostalgia can go both ways. I lent a sampler of Cuir to a friend whose wife couldn't abide it because it reminded her of the going-out-of-date fragrances of her childhood, and couldn't get past it. Similarly, Catherine, though she liked the smell on paper, always ended up thinking "old man from the 1970s," which isn't a thought every husband wants to call up in his wife. (Bonus: a gay friend teases me to no end about wearing a cologne called "Queer.")

But Oud is simply beyond that. It's definitely in the musky world of men's colognes from that period, but updated to feel utterly modern. To my nose, it doesn't smell nostalgic at all: less like Ford's new Mustangs than like the new Thunderbirds, every line and contour justified and all else sent away.

It settles down into a very subtle glow that just smells like incredibly great-smelling skin, and stays that way for hours. Very very complex, as it's made from several notes that are themselves complex, it's 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. She can't stop sniffing and nuzzling. Near-perfect.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

the movie slide game

I just realized that a favorite pastime is gone! They used to show slides before the movies started in theaters: the game was to try to read the entire text — every word — on a given slide before it went to the next slide. A fun contest, now obsolete!!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

a mad men ending

Catherine and I have only just watched the first episode of this final season. (The second airs tonight but we won't watch it for a few days.)

I have, though, come up with a great final scene for the series. Don gets out of the car, wearing one of his outfits that signals he's in California, and goes into some place (restaurant, hotel, something). The person brightens with recognition and greets him, "Right this way, Mr. Whitman."

Friday, April 10, 2015

'get hard' and sex

Tonight we saw "Get Hard," the movie about a white-collar criminal's attempt to harden up for a real (non-Club-Fed) prison. It's a negligible movie, but Catherine was so in the mood for something fun that she was thoroughly entertained, and *that* was quite entertaining to me.

It in no way passes the Bechdel Test — it's so un-Bechdel that the only actual female character is a cardboard first-prize fiancee, a near-total waste of Alison Brie's razor-sharp talent. Interestingly, there were two movies previewed that passed the Bechdel Test in the *preview*. And, not surprisingly, they look like actual good movies.

The main message of "Get Hard" is that there's nothing worse in the entire world than prison because prison means gay sex. What could be worse than gay sex prison? They may have gyms and yards and cells and cafeterias but the main thing is lots of gay sex, which can only be avoided by being protected.

As we were going out to the car, I chirped the remote to remind us of exactly where the car was, and Catherine, half-jokingly, said, "Male privilege." I can chirp my car remote because I don't mind everyone around knowing where my car is, because I'm a man. Interesting!

It hit me that men are so afraid of prison because it's the only place where a man is as likely to get raped as a woman.

Friday, March 27, 2015

the importance of shoes

A friend sent me this article on the importance of shoes. Too many men simply pay no attention to their shoes, either in buying or in keeping them up. My dad always wore good shoes, bought them for me, and showed me from an early age how to use a shoe-shine kit and keep my shoes looking spiffy. (My mom has fond memories of her German father doing his shoe-detailing routine daily. It was part of his entire air of rectitude.)

I have to say that once we decided that Greta and Clara were going to be our only two, I had a moment of sadness that I'd never bring up a son to enjoy all the accoutrements of manhood — the necktie knots, the importance of shoes and collar stays and good tailoring — that I always enjoyed. Of course, there's no guarantee that my son would value those things, so there's no sense sentimentalizing it.

The article goes a bit adrift when bringing in the choice of shoes that seem to the author inappropriate. After all, I've seen rhinestoned sandals with cocktail dresses that were a delightful choice. One gets the idea that this author would have disapproved of the first gents to wear tuxedos, though no doubt he does himself now. And he's on slippery ground in calling for hiking shoes for hiking, dancing shoes for dancing, and presumably never any mixing or borrowing: in a society in which a man wears a lounge suit to work and then comes home and changes into laboring-men's work clothes to lounge, that's a bit tone-deaf, right? If sailor suits were only used by sailors when sailing, we'd lose one of the icons of childhood, not to mention one of the icons of cheerful femininity.

But he's on much firmer ground in exhorting us all to enjoy our black lace-ups and take care of them. I've had my Florsheim Imperials for coming up on two decades and they look spectacular. It's my firm conviction that one of Greta's or Clara's sons will wear them with joy, just as I wore my own grandfather's gorgeous kangaroo-hide boots ... for dancing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

sympathy for the devil

Some friends and I were discussing (lowercase) sympathy for the devil, specifically in relation to Milton's "Paradise Lost," which is a seminal text in English on the topic: Milton allowed us into Satan's Satanic reasoning, and it looked awfully familiar.

William Blake famously said that Milton's writing of those scenes was so alive precisely because he was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." He couldn't help but make Satan sound more interesting than boring old God, because he, being so sinful, had some natural ... err, sympathy for him. Later critics repeated Blake while reversing him: Milton did know that he was of the Devil's party, and knew that you and I were too; he deliberately made Satan persuasive so we wouldn't kid ourselves about whose side we're really on. (Whether his trick was intentional or not, Milton's aggressive Protestantism, which held that we are all completely incapable of good without direct intervention from God, would absolutely track with that interpretation.)

This all got me in mind of one of the Rolling Stones' most notorious songs. I remember hearing that the Rolling Stones were Satan-worshipers (an allegation that was diluted by the fact that virtually all popular musicians were, in the eyes of many youth ministers in the 80s). Mick Jagger is even on record as saying that, because people thought of the song that way, later heavy-metal acts got in on the action, and that song is the genesis of an entire heavy-metal trope. It bears mentioning that in that same interview Jagger brushed off the idea that the song indicated anything like Satanism on their part — proof for many that he was indeed a Satanist, because that's exactly the tricky sort of thing a Satan-worshipper would do.

As usual (I'm looking at "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Bohemian Rhapsody"), the religious-minded critics of that song quite simply couldn't have really listened to it. At least, if they had, they might not have perceived what's there in black and white, instead trusting what they think they know.

Before we get into it, though, allow me to rewrite the song, or rather write my own song, with lyrics that could very well be forwarded in one of those horrible emails that your uncle sends around. I'll even cast it in doggerel form just to make it more realistic. The goal here is to write something that would give a more traditional view of Satan, something like a pop-culture Screwtape Letters, in which Satan introduces himself and reveals to the presumably skeptical listener that he's the dark power behind all the evil of history — a poem that your youth minister could have gotten behind, a song Carmen might sing. Let's give it a shot:
Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith
And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
I made sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
"Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all
It was you and me

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse —
Or I'll lay your soul to waste.
I like the references to Soviet Communism and WWII, which we think of in such human terms, but which we must realize have their roots in the spiritual world. I especially like the subtle and damning theology of "I shouted out, 'Who killed the Kennedys?' when after all it was you and me." Bam! Says it all, right? The sin in the world doesn't come at us; it comes out of us, to use Jesus of Nazareth's startling phrase. The evil that plagues history isn't some accident or flaw: it comes from Satan, and you and I are in league with him.

By now, you've figured out that those are the lyrics to the real "Sympathy for the Devil," by the Rolling Stones. That doggerel isn't an inexpertly-rhymed email forward or a Carmen spectacular: it's the original song.

So that's "Sympathy for the Devil?" Why on earth didn't every youth minister in the land latch onto it as a perfect bit of pop-culture theology? How could anyone look at it and conclude that these people are God-is-bad-Satan-is-good occultists? Certainly they weren't exemplars of sober and spirit-filled living, but few pastors went after Jerry Lewis. What's the deal? These guys succeeded in a rock-n-roll samba worthy of Screwtape himself.

Rule number one: before you criticize a song, pay attention to what the song is actually saying. You might be surprised.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

leaf work

Our yard man has steadfastly refused for the past 5 years to include our back driveway/parking court​ in his sphere of duty. (It bears mentioning that this was a stable back when the house was built! The pleasures of old homes!) I've steadfastly refused to let him off the hook, leaving the leaves to pile up till he can't in good conscience leave them unnoticed.

Well, gents, he won. Yesterday I decided to clear all that stuff away, and quickly decided I wasn't going to be the one to do it. The girls and I struck out up and down the street till we found some 10-year-old-ish boys bicycling around. I offered them a few bucks to come to the job. Their parents, from their porch, gave the OK and expressed enthusiasm that their boys were going to earn an honest dollar, but they didn't have a rake. Since we didn't either (we, after all, have a yard man who has a rake), I went to our next-door neighbor, a quiet older man who takes care of his mother, and borrowed *his* rake, took it to the boys, and brought them out back, where they worked for a good hour and a half.

As they worked, Greta and Clara came out to help/hinder, got to know the boys, tried to get them to play, jumped on the trampoline, fussed with a ball. Catherine came out and introduced the first cascarones of spring. (Greta's raison d'etre in spring is cascarones, and she's been talking about them for weeks.) The boys got a couple and exchanged a look that made it clear their victims would be each other.

13 bags of silty leaves, a fairly-well-cleaned-up driveway (I'll handle the remaining silt and leave the bright confetti), an ice-cold Coke for the boys to top it off, and a standing invitation to the trampoline, and I felt much more connected and grounded in our community, our little neighborhood with such a mix of people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

the first 4000 days

Today, Catherine and I walked, talked, dined, smiled, hugged, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and each other, on the 4,000th day of our marriage. Four thousand days! We're old pros now, and we loved thinking up what we'd say to our younger selves 8000 days ago about what was to begin in their future: a beautiful lifetime together, who knows how long — a marriage of true minds.

Monday, March 16, 2015


I tried on Cuir for the first time today. Part of the Les Nombres D’Or series of fragrances by Mona di Orio. It came out in 2010; always good to try relatively new fragrances, if only to see what they're making and wearing these days. You don't want to be one of those people who stopped everything at the age of 28. So I treasure the fragrances of my youth — YSL and Platinum Egoiste and Kouros — but I occasionally try new stuff too.

Cuir is (as you may have expected if you know any French) very leathery. Zow! It's like it's 1977 all over again, except edited for modern tastes. Smoky, dusty, spicy, absinthey, and *completely* opposed to the watery-citrus smell of a college hangout on Friday night. Mellows out to a purer sandalwoodiness. Masculine, soberly intoxicating, well-balanced and daringly imbalanced. Not sure if I would wear it regularly, and it still hasn't passed the wifely gauntlet, but what an interesting side trip! It's like wearing a tuxedo at a campfire.

Friday, February 6, 2015

yea! we're nerds! oh, it's just me

True story: we were having a conversation about some weighty issue, and someone said, slightly ironically, "Let's talk about something more important. Did you hear the latest news about Gwyneth?"

I was delighted and surprised, thinking I'd found a kindred spirit ... till I found out they weren't talking about the opera diva Dame Gwyneth Jones.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

pawing into history

On this day in 1469 Johannes Gutenberg died. Gutenberg, the first developer of a reliable movable type printing press, helped bring on, um, everything including this blog.

I was just reading that his black ink is still superdark and glossy after over 500 years, as if it were brand new. Never faded. To this day, no one knows quite how he did it.

Then I got to thinking about this guy, the monk who was writing this page when, apparently, his cat got into the ink and then walked across the page, just late enough in the page's progress to keep it, and not doing quite enough damage to justify starting the page over.

We all think this picture is about the mischievous nature of kitties, but really it's about how this monk saw a repeated impression of the same shape multiple times stamped in ink ... and for the millionth time in history didn't put it together.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

song juxtapositions

There are different ways to sit around and think about one band doing another band's music: one is to find the common ground (on a Rush tribute project, "Limelight" should be done by the Dave Matthews Band); another is to come up with a loopy assignment and make it fit (Foreigner's "Cold as Ice" done by the Beach Boys? Perfect: piano riff now done by Wurlitzer organ, bass "ba-dump, ba-dump" doubled by loose toms; add some sleigh bells in there).

Just today I thought I'd like to hear Mumford and Sons do some 70s glam rock. First band to my mind was Queen, and then I immediately landed on "39," from their "Night At The Opera" album. Obviously! If Dar Williams's fans can get her to do "Major Tom," surely Mumford & Sons's fans could get them to do "39."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

an ironic fate

I just found out something absolutely shocking. (Shocking at least to me, a person of delicate sensibilities.)

What do you know about Mithridates? Many know the story of the king of Pontus who developed an immunity to various poisons and was an inspiration for the Dread Pirate Robert's greatest showdown.

If you're like me, you mainly know about him through A. E. Housman's poem "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff," in which the speaker defends his morose poetry as a way of inoculating himself against the evils of the world:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Hm. How did old Mithridates die? I actually never bothered to ask, nor, I'm ashamed to say, did I ever pay much attention to the actual plot of Mitridate, re di Ponto, the opera by the 14-year-old Mozart, instead just listening to the pleasant music the one time I heard it.

So, today, I just found out how he died, and I'm gobsmacked. No screenwriter (or opera composer) would dare to have come up with this fate. He was finally defeated by Pompey, and instead of being paraded around in defeat, in those death-before-dishonor days, he and his family protected themselves against rape/slavery/worse by entering a suicide pact, killing themselves ... by ... poison!

That's not all: wife and daughters keeled over as planned, but — as planned — the man himself didn't. He was last in line to drink, according to the morals of the time, and there wasn't enough left to overpower the immunity he'd spent his life building. Finally, he asked his friend to end it by sword so he could die with honor.

Like all of us, he'd protected himself against the wrong thing the whole time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

bummers come in threes

Monday, January 12, 2015

black keys

Right this very minute, Greta is picking out tunes on the piano. She always tries to figure out her favorite songs — at the age of 3 she hammered away until she had "Ode to Joy" perfectly — and right now, on Monday, January 12th, she's picking out "O God You Are My God," starting on C, thus putting it in the key of F​. Black keys haven't been on her radar, so for a while she got stuck on the "I" of "I will ever praise You." But — one of my favorite sounds in the world, the rounding of a corner — a Bb! Haaaa!

She's now getting through the third line, through "learn to walk in Your ways," pretty perfectly, and stops, saying, "aaaah, this is impossible!!" I say, "you just did it!" And the painful and joyful job of joining civilization continues.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

here comes the bride or o tannenbaum

Here's how to play my new game 'Here Comes the Bride' or 'O Tannenbaum'?:

• Whistle or sing the first four notes of (your choice) "Here Comes the Bride" or "O Tannenbaum."
• The other person guesses which one it is.
• Then you tell them whether they guessed right.

Barry: ♩♩♪♩
Cate: ... "Here Comes the Bride?"
Barry: Wrong again. It's O Tannenbaum.
Cate: Dang it!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

empathic power and politics

Salon, as part of a series in which notable women share their wisdom, ran a piece by Anne Lamott, a favorite writer of mine, favorite partially because she doesn't hide her demons — the very subject that she hits on in the piece.

The whole thing is really about forgiveness. It's wonderful, but there's one phrase she uses that works like a bell tied to a preacher's wrist whose sound completely overtakes the sermon. Doesn't drown out the message — it's just than no one's going to really pay attention to it.

Almost no one: her close audience is made up of people who share most of her political views and they won't even hear the bell. They'll just hear a penetrating sermon on forgiveness, with real wisdom and insight. Others will hear a very marred piece; others will only hear what they perceive as a gratuitous and unnecessary political potshot that undoes the piece.

I don't think she intended it as a potshot. The "as told to" nature of this series means she was speaking extemporaneously or nearly so, and probably we just have an example of her ideology leaking out. Naturally, the editors put it in the headline.

That leak, and the thought process it revealed (that Tea Party people are the most hateful on earth), and the reaction it's gotten, from liberals and conservatives and centrists, got me to thinking about empathy. Not sympathy, the ability to see a person's problems, but empathy, the ability to share for a moment a person's point of view and feelings. When you do that, you can begin to see that there can be another point of view, another way to feel about whatever's going on.

The ability to imagine a different set of conclusions from the evidence the world gives you turns out to be one of the keys to life — and we're all guilty of inability in that area to various degrees.

Liberals often can't imagine why you'd ever want to restrict the rights of women and take away the measures that have helped minorities and make laws that burden the poor unless you are simply hateful and bigoted and repressive.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to protect fetuses and have a meritocratic level playing ground and let the free market reign.

Meanwhile, conservatives often can't imagine why you'd ever want to snuff out the lives of the unborn and give minority students better grades than they deserve and restrict the trade that brings prosperity to all, unless you are simply hateful and repressive and don't care for human life.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to lessen the instance of abortion by measure rather than fiat and give some people the academic and professional tailwind that others have always had and put reasonable harnesses on forces that tend to destroy if unharnessed.

When people have such different reverences, they begin accusing each other of opposite blasphemies, and then very little dialogue can actually take place at all.

One giant step we could take would be to make it so that, politically, we need each other a bit more: the scourge of gerrymandering, in which people from both parties have spent generations carving us up into like-minded districts where primaries and their purity tests matter more than actual elections, is a massive contributor to this talking-past-each-other effect, and, if reversed, could contribute greatly to a healing process in the way we try to appeal to and persuade each other.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

when and how to start piano lessons

Being an expert in all things musical (or at least perceived that way), I often get questions when it's piano-lesson time for people's kids. I've accepted that I'm not really a great teacher, but I can steer kids toward good ones, and give some advice based on my experience.

A friend writes:
When did you begin piano lessons? And knowing how musically gifted your family is in general, was it a requirement for you, or did you just naturally gravitate toward it (i.e., were you a modern day Mozart)? I would love for my boy to learn, but I don't want to introduce it too soon (or too late).
     And I don't know if it's better for parents to push kids to practice or to hope they will want to intrinsically. I had a couple of years of lessons as a kid, but most all of that knowledge has vanished and now I wish my mom had pushed.... And — last question — is it too ludicrous for me to contemplate taking lessons again at my age?
Piano: was it a requirement or did I naturally gravitate? Hm — both. All three of us took lessons, and it was very much a requirement. Just part of a good upbringing because everyone should learn to play an instrument. (We also had to play on the softball and basketball teams. Less of a triumph for me, but Paul and Rich took to it.)

Allow me to set your mind at ease about when to do it. You pretty much can't mess that up unless you somehow prevent your child from taking. It's not too soon or too late. Naturally, if the kid is 4 or 5 there's going to be a different approach, but by the time school starts a moderate amount of school-like discipline and the idea of practicing aren't that foreign. I recall that we had to practice 30 minutes a day. Had to, had to, had to — non-negotiable.

That said, I had two older brothers who took lessons, so I saw them playing and wanted to play myself. I got up on the bench and started farting around with notes and melodies. That interest, coupled with a natural talent, convinced my parents that I could start lessons at 5 rather than 6, which is when my brothers began.

I've got to say I wasn't a great student. I ended up practicing far more than 30 minutes a day — in Jr Hi and High School more than an hour usually — but hardly any of it was on the stuff I was supposed to be doing. Instead I just did what I felt like and what I was drawn to. So my teacher always thought I wasn't quite living up to my potential; nevertheless, the skills did build up one way or another and I was gigging professionally by fourteen.

All of which is to say that if your kid really takes to it there's not much you can do to stop him. (Think of the phenomenon of the 10th-grader who shuts himself in his room and plays the same Jimi Hendrix tune for 9 hours, till he can nail it.) And even if he doesn't take to it that way he'll still be learning valuable stuff that, we now know, is like learning a new language, along with mathematical and systematic brainstretching, a sense of accomplishment, comfort in getting up in front of a crowd, hand-eye coordination, pleasure in being able to do something pleasing — on and on! Good things come when you learn an instrument.

As far as taking lessons yourself, my guess is it would all come flooding back. You should do it! I have fond memories of standing there watching my mom play through Chopin books and "100 Piano Favorites" books when I was a kid. Really cool to see her calling forth such sounds from the piano, and easy to assume that I would someday do the same.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"I don't understand," she said mondegreenly

Just got through with a hilarious conversation about Taylor Swift's song "Blank Space," in which she sings "Got a long list of ex-lovers; they'll tell you I'm insane," but tons of people hear something like "All the lonely Starbucks lovers...."

Haha!! There have been a couple of articles about it. They only give us half-baked ruminations on mondegreens. But they don't really tell you why you misheard the lyric.

The main reason is that she disobeys the laws of English lyric-writing. A pop song should rhyme and scan seemingly effortlessly. When you have to put THE acCENT on THE wrong sylLABle in order to make it fit the musical phrase, you'll always murder the phrase.

For instance, if she were to write a boppy melody that goes, with a steady BOM baBOM BOM baBOM BOMba, "GOT a LONG LIST of EX LOVers," the exact same phrase would be perfectly understood.

Or, conversely, if she kept the same melody and rhythm but changed the lyrics to "Got a longish list of exes" (admittedly a terrible line), then the scansion of the music would match the natural accents of the phrase and you'd understand it.

As it stands, she's constrained herself to say "Gotta long lst-OV-x-LOV-rs"— English is especially strict because of our tendency to assign any non-stressed syllable a schwa sound (that "eh" or "uh") rather than the vowel's normal value. So, speaking it, you'd say "LONG LIST əv EX LOVərs," something very different from the song's "LONG ləst OV əx LOVərs".

Yeouch! "LONG ləst OV əx LOVərs"?!?! Madness!!

That is why your brain goes to the trochaic "Lonely Starbucks." It's the closest thing you can land on.

So, in the language of scansion, the melody, which goes "badaBAAdump BAAdump BAAdump," asks for four trochaic feet in a row (or a pyrrhic and three trochees), but her lyric, "Got a long list of ex-lovers," consists of a pyrrhic, a spondee, an iamb, and a trochee.

got a | LONG LIST | of EX | LOV ers.

Catherine suggests replacing my awkward suggestion with "Got a longish list of lovers." PERFECT!!

got a | LONG ish | LIST of | LOV ers

Swift is pretty much a pop genius, but even pop geniuses can have off days. The best pop songs just pop right out of your mouth, with the spoken inflection matched perfectly by the rhythm and melody. Most "mondegreens" in modern pop result from the songwriter's failure to do that.

Also bothersome: the Nashville girl suddenly goes Cockney with "They'll tell you oim insane." Where on earth did she get that??

My experience tells me some misguided enunciation coach (called, wrongly, "diction coaches" for some reason), heard her "ahm" on the first take and told her to fix it. That's doubly funny because one of the nudgy things that nudges our ears toward "Starbucks" is the long history of r-dropping in American pop music, which is strongly influenced by singers from r-dropping areas, who also "ahh" out our "i" sounds. Ironic!