Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Playing The Hand We’ve Been Dealt

Friday October 28, 2016

I’ll finish my second cup of coffee
then toast a bagel
so that I’m not hungry
when I fire up
the old red truck
(which rolled off the assembly line
while Harry Truman was President)
and head down
to Pegram City Hall
to vote.

Yes,
I’m going to vote
for Hillary.

Surprised?

Despite all my reservations
despite my concerns
that the a vote for Her
is a vote for Corporate Oligarchy
is a vote for a status quo
that is clearly not serving
some significant portion of the populace
– white, rural (my peeps!)
– urban under-educated (we love the under-educated!)
those “salt of the earth” types
for whom Donald-fucking-Trump
seems like a viable alternative
when what he really represents
is …
(was it Michael Moore who said this?)
… a Molotov Cocktail
that the proles can throw
into the Palace of the Establishment.

As in:
Here, take THIS
you game-rigging
East Coast
Ivy Leaguers.
Suck on this
flaming bottle of rage.
#Her2016?
#Guillotines2020.

But when it comes down to
actually pulling a lever
as much as I would like to
#CrushTheDuopoly
it ain’t gonna happen.
At least, not this year.

This year, we have to
hold our nose
swallow our idealistic pride
just do what we can
to keep (what’s left of?)
a once bold experiment
together.

Or do what Bernie says we should do.
Or as Andrew Sullivan said
just grow-the-fuck-up
and do what has to be done.

It’s unfortunate for Hillary, I guess
that the climate around her ascension
is so toxic.

It’s unfortunate, too,
that her life and career
have unfolded as they have
although had it been any different,

had she not entered the public arena
at the side of her charismatic husband
[compelling human interest story in the NYTimes this morning]
and then she had to pretty much stand by
while he self destructed
and then saddle herself
with all of that wreckage.

So you wonder
what it might have been like
if she’d emerged through some corridor
other than as Bill’s spouse
but that’s pointless speculation.

We’re all here to play
the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Sure, she’s got a lot of baggage
Who has lived on this planet
for nearly seven decades
and not accumulated
their share of shit?

(Certainly not
Donald-fucking-Trump
who has taken every day
of his 70 years to evolve
into a steaming sack
of human excrement)

But underneath it all
one occasionally gets a glimpse
of a genuinely exceptional
if equally flawed
flesh blood and bone
woman.

It’s hard to separate
the actual person
from all the mediated data points.
Who really knows
what she is really like?
I mean, who,
outside of her tight inner circle
if even them?

We’re certainly not going to get
any sense of that
from television, or – especially – the Internet
– that digital echo chamber
that does such a great job
of re-telling us what we already know.

We just have to play
the hand we’ve been dealt
and take some solace
in knowing that voices we respect
like Bernie
like Andrew
like Elizabeth Warren
are all in the same boat.

So I will dip my oar
in the swirling ocean of crazy
pull my solitary stroke
in Her direction,
hope she can steer us
to some shore of (relative) sanity,
and then pray that the polls
are reasonably accurate.

Otherwise….
Kool-Aide, anyone?

 

What Did He Just Say???

So here’s what all the fuss is about...

This is 17 month old Juniper Rae, Ann’s first and quite possibly her only-ever grandchild.  She is the primary reason why Ann decided to pull up stakes and move to Portland back in July.

Sunday night, we all – Ann and I, eldest son James, younger son Robert, Rob’s wife Melissa and Juniper – all tuned into the professional verbal wrestling match aka “The Presidential Debate” btw Hillary and Drumpf.

Her parents don’t let Juniper have a lot of screen time, and she doesn’t see much TeeVee, so this was an exception.  But as you can tell from her expression, even a 1-year-old can look at Trump and wonder whatthefuck just came out of his incoherent noise hole.

Oh, and I have to put a dollar in the “swear jar” for saying “fuck.”  Actually, I put in two dollars.  Figured I may as well pay in advance for the next one…

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week

This past Thursday night I attended the sold-out opening screening of “Eight Days A Week” – director Ron Howard’s ode to The Beatles that focuses primarily on their touring years, from 1962-1966.

It is hard now not to think of The Beatles as anything other than a phenomenon – Beatlemania! – and an iconic force of musical nature.  They were all of those things, but what this movie so effectively reminds us – as John Lennon famously said somewhere in the “Beatles Anthology” – is that they were “just a band.”

But oh my, what a band…

With vintage photos and film clips from the late 1950s and early 60s, “Eight Days A Week” shows us  four guys who grew up together (OK, maybe not so much Ringo, who joined The Beatles just as they started their recording career, but he shared their scrappy Liverpool origins).  It was essentially John’s band from the beginning, but part of his gift was his ability to recognize in Paul and George talent and ambition equal to his own.

The mission of the documentary is to trace the full arc of their years as a touring band:  from the clubs of Hamburg were their sound was forged, to the Cavern Club in Liverpool where they found their audience, and eventually around the world, where their concerts were drowned out by screaming fans.  Throughout the arc we are watch as the role “pop music” in the cultural firmament is transformed in front of our eyes and ears.

But the full power and sheer artistry of The Beatles is more fully conveyed in the 30 minutes of concert footage that follows the documentary.

Here are The Beatles in a truly epic setting: Shea Stadium in New York – the first performance of their final tour in 1966.  They dash out on the field and climb atop a stage that looks like a boxing ring erected over second base, in the middle of the vast expanse of a baseball field, 50 yards away from the nearest fan, some 56,000 of whom are screaming their heads off through the entire show.

Still,  you can’t help but be impressed with the quality of the performance.  The set includes both covers and originals, opening with “Twist and Shout” and ending with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help.” Showing the complete concert after the documentary is its own tour-de-force; it reminds us what the phenomenon was really about: the sheer power of skilled musicianship, the intensity of accomplished artistry.

The documentary is a 90 minute setup; the concert footage is a 30 minutes payoff – the undeniable proof of everything postulated in the film.

Ron Howard’s film also reminds us just how much “Beatlemania” was a reflection of the times.  In America especially, The Beatles arrival in February 1964 was the medicine a grieving nation needed after the shock of the Kennedy assassination.  Their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show carved the opening cracks in what would eventually become the “Generation Gap.”  We are reminded of the tumultuous history that The Beatles were part of, from the conflagration in Vietnam to the Civil Rights movement.

One detail in the documentary that surprised me addressed the matter of race as it is uniquely experienced in America: The Beatles had a clause in their contracts that declared that they would not play for segregated audiences.  A voice over from Paul McCartney explains how foreign the whole idea of segregation and Jim Crow was to their experience in England.

Howard deftly gives all four Beatles nearly equal screen time for retrospective commentaries.   The surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, appear on screen several times in their current incarnations; There are equal amounts of archival footage of John and George looking back on their years as Beatles.  Their commentaries lend a “Rashomon” like perspective to the whole experience.

The Beatles 1966 tour ushered in the era of the stadium concert – despite technology woefully suited for the purpose; George explains how Vox built amplifiers especially for this tour: “I think they were a hundred watts…” – and much of the audio was piped through the crackly stadium PA system: “Now playing at second base… The Beatles!”

I think it was Ringo who described the aftermath of what would history would record as The Beatles final live performance, the last concert of the 1966 tour at Candlestick Park in San Francisco:  After the show the band was raced out of the stadium grounds in what Ringo describes as “a meat wagon” – a bare metal armored police wagon, the kind that ferries convicts to prisons.  It was pretty much within those lurching steel confines that all four Beatles decided “we’re not going to do this any more…”

Freed from the demands of a touring schedule, The Beatles dedicate themselves to the studio.  There is footage from the EMI studio at Abbey Road of audio tape loops strung between tape machines… and then there is “Sergeant Pepper.”

From there the documentary quickly traces the remainder of The Beatles recording career: 5 albums in three years, from “Magical Mystery Tour” to the “White Album,” “Abbey Road” and the “posthumously” released “Let It Be” (which was released after the band announced its demise early in 1970).

The movie ends with  the most footage I have ever seen from The Beatles last-ever ‘concert’ – that day in January 1969 when they set up on the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters in London and played to the people on the street below.  It’s more than three years since the last time they performed “live” together, and the footage proves, once and for all that The Beatles were still, and always were, a great fucking band.

*

“Eight Days A Week Is” playing at The Belcourt.  Info and tickets here.  It will also be released to streaming video via Hulu next week. A subscription will be required. So go see it in a theater with good surround sound.

What Ever Happened to
The Age of Aquarius?

The Oracle of Facebookistan has reminded me that this week is Woodstock Anniversary Week.  It’s some odd anniversary, like 47.

I have already composed and posted my recollections and reflections on the subject.

This is an excerpt from a book (or maybe it’s a one-man show?) that I was working on earlier this year.  I kinda hit a wall with it, and then life happened. I’ll get back to it one of these days…

Whatever Happened To The Age of Aquarius? 

That’s the first of three installments, just follow the links at the bottom of each to get to the next.

How To Shooting Star

As I mentioned yesterday on Facebook, I’ve been chasing the Perseid Meteor Shower since 1973.

That was the summer I drove across the country, after getting a diploma (I would use the term ‘graduated,’ but only loosely…) from Antioch College (I’d  attended made-up classes at a branch campus in Columbia, MD. Remember, 1973 was still the 60s…).

I’d thrown a few things into the back of my 1966 VW Squareback (affectionately named “Duck” and sporting a Daffy Duck decal on the front fenders) and headed off to seek my fortune in Hollywood.  I’d done some “guerrilla video” in college and figured it was time to see how real TeeVee was made, so off I went, taking three weeks to get from the east coast to the west.

Along the way I stopped at the Vagabond Ranch outside of Granby, Colorado, at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park.  I’d spent two summers there when I was 14 and 15 years old.  Those might have been the best summers of my life.  Vagabond wasn’t a “dude” ranch, but it was run as a Western-themed summer camp by a couple from Connecticut,  Charlie and Ronnie Pavek.

Not very many people nowadays remember “Spin & Marty” – a short movie series that Walt Disney ran as part of “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 50s;  It was about a city kid (Marty) who got sent to a western ranch where he got to ride horses and friend up with a cowboy kid named “Spin.”  That’s about as much as I remember about the series, but it was always my frame of reference; I still tell people that I spent two summers in the mountains of Colorado, “acting out my ‘Spin & Marty’ fantasies.

For the four summers before Vagabond, my parents sent me for two months at a time to a ‘sleep over’ camp in Maine called Kennebec – a sports driven, competitive environment inhabited mostly by affluent Jewish kids from the Northeast.  That’s where I spent the summer of 1962 being tormented by an 11-year-old monster named Jeffrey Katzenberg (the name might be familiar?).  But that’s a story for another time.

I never exactly excelled at sports; I could hold my own at tennis and I was an OK sailor, but the first time another kid threw a hardball at my head (he wasn’t aiming at me, he was just 11 years old and it’s not like he had any control…) I knew I was never gonna be a baseball player.

Basically, sports suck when you suck at sports.

Vagabond was the exact opposite of Kennebec.  There were almost NO sports.  Instead, I spent the summers mostly riding horses in the mountains.  Unlike Camp Kennebec, I have nothing but fond memories of Vagabond Ranch.  I even recall with some distant fondness the night I spent shivering under a tarp in the rain at 11,000 feet; and my favorite horse, a red mare named “Strawberry.”  She could be tough to catch in the coral, but once saddled Strawberry was a soft and responsive ride.

So that summer of 1973, I made my way across the country, alone in my little VW – Niagara Falls, the The Great Northern Plains, The Badlands, The Black Hills, The Crazy Horse Monument – I stopped at the Vagabond Ranch and said hello to the Pavek’s.

I must have gotten there the night of August 11  –because that night all the campers were taken out to a meadow to lie on their sleeping bags and watch the Perseid Meteor Shower.  I’d never heard of the Perseids before that.  But once I saw them – probably 2 or 3 shooting stars every minute – I was hooked.  I’ve tried to see the Perseids almost every year since.

The flier my then-future-ex-wife Georja Skinner made for the Perseids cruise we ran in August of 1982.

The flyer my then-future-ex-wife Georja Skinner made for the Perseids cruise we ran in August of 1982.

Probably the best I ever saw the Perseids was from a few miles off shore from Lahaina, Maui, in the summers of between 1981 and 1992.

From Lahaina, you start out 70-some nautical miles from Honolulu, the nearest big city; once you get a few miles offshore there’s little impact from the lights of Maui.  The sky is ink black and there are stars by the bazillions.   The years we went out on the boat, we probably did see 60-100 shooting stars every hour (but not every minute!)

In the summer of 1999, I went back to Vagabond Ranch with my then-future-and-still-second-wife Ann.  The Ranch was no longer owned by the Pavek’s (who were no longer living) but was owned the family of Richard Kelly,  the owners of – how’s this for irony?–  a large hotel chain in Hawaii. Since the Kellys only  visited the Ranch occasionally, the caretakers of the property, Mark and Jane Bujanovich, welcomed us to stay a few nights and we watched the Perseids with them.  I’d forgotten how cold even a mid-August night can get at 8,000 feet…

It has been harder to see the Perseids since I’ve been living in Nashville, but almost every year when there’s been a waning or new moon, we’ve tried.  Last year we went out to Bell’s Bend.  This year I went out to the Natchez Trace and set up my camera with my photo-buddy Ken Gray.

*

So this is how you shoot a shooting star: you drive as far away from the city as possible. The Natchez Trace Parkway outside of Franklin, TN is only one order of magnitude-of-light-polution less than Nashville and its environs, but it’s a decent night sky.

You start at about 11 PM.  You set your camera on a tripod with a remote control shutter release.  You aim the camera at a dark corner of the sky with the widest-angle lens in your bag (in my case a 14mm equivalent) to cover as much of the sky as possible,  and set the shutter to open for  15-30 seconds with the aperture wide open at a fairly high ISO, like 1600.  The 15-30 seconds is long enough to get an exposure from the star field, and you hope that the high-ISO is enough to capture the fleeting light of a hot grain of cosmic dust as it streaks across the frame.

After that, it’s entirely random.  So you open a folding camp chair, sit down, and just start releasing the shutter, over and over again, until something streaks across the sky while the shutter is open,

And then you apply the one tool that you will not find in any camera bag: abundant patience.   A little luck helps, too.

In this case, I shot about 100 frames, between roughly 11PM and 2 AM.

This was yet another year when the coming of the Perseids was touted as going to be the most dazzling display in memory.  That’s what they say every year.  But every year… enh. Not so much.

I exposed frame after frame after frame, but for more than two hours, nothing happened in the frame.  Once exposed, the camera takes as long to save the file as the shutter was open – 15 or 30 seconds.  Several times, that’s when something blazed across the frame. But for as long as I was out there, it was less like 2 or 3 every minute and more like 1 every two or three minutes.

As 2:AM approached… I finally got one.  After that, it’s like fishing.  You get one… you want another.  It did seem like the activity was picking up a little, an so I kept releasing the shutter.  Slightly after 2AM, I got one more, a little better than the first.  That’s the one at the top of the post.

And then I drove home.

So that’s how you shoot a shooting star.  You go out in the wee hours of the morning. And you wait.  And then you wait some more.  And when you’re finally ready to give up… you get one.

Forty-plus years I’ve been chasing the Perseids.  That’s the first I ever got a picture of one.

But regardless of the actual number, every Perseid Meteor or see is filled with the memories of a lifetime of shooting stars.

Don’t Try This At Home

This is a story about how being a jerk can actually pay off.

I went to the Container Store in the Green Hills Mall yesterday because it is Nashville’s only retail source for Moleskine notebooks. While I generally avoid having/doing anything quite so trendy, I had decided Moleskines are as good a bound journal as any, so I  went to get one.

I walked into the Container Store and my first impulse was to find an employee and ask “where are the Molekines?”

Good luck with that…

There was not an employee anywhere to be found  in the vicinity of the entrance, or on the whole upper floor.  I could tell just by looking around  the first floor (which is relatively small area compared to the rest of the store which is the floor below) that the Moleskine display was not going to be on that floor, so I took the escalator down to the main floor.

The escalator opens to a large open area in the center of the main floor.  There are cashier counters in the center of area.  But, again, there was not a sole to be found – except for some other customers who seemed equally baffled at their inability to find any personnel to help them.

I felt like I’d stepped into some television show where only the employees had been swept up in the Rapture.  I figured the next scene would be customers helping themselves and just walking out of the store…

Just in case I was wrong about that, and being the incorrigibly obnoxious person that I often default to, I just shouted, quite loudly and to nobody in particular,

“DOES ANYBODY WORK HERE?!?!”

And of course, at just that instant  a young man appeared from amid the the aisles and stacks in a regulation black t-shirt – rather shocked that anybody would actually conduct themselves that way, and equally embarrassed that a customer had found it so difficult to get help that he seemingly had no recourse but to ask for it at the top of his lungs.

Quickly and efficiently, the young man asked what I needed and directed to the Moleskine display. After a few minutes of deliberation I decided which notebook I was going to buy. The task was made slightly more difficult than it needed to be because all of the products on display were hermetically sealed in plastic wrap, making it impossible to see what the pages inside actually looked like.  But I managed to figure it out.

Ah, retail… This is why I buy almost everything except groceries from Amazon.

I made my selection and rode the escalator back to the upper floor to the only cashier that was open and waited my turn in line (another one of my least favorite features of bricks-and-mortar shopping).  The couple I’d seen downstairs that was as perplexed for help as I was in front of me.  They paid for their stuff – a variety of big plastic containers – and then it was my turn.

I put the Moleskine down on the counter and reached for my wallet.  I had my credit  card out and was all set to pay my $20 for the notebook…

…when the young man who had magically appeared downstairs when I started yelling like a crazy person magically appeared again, behind the counter.  He waved off the cashier, then picked the Moleskine off the counter and handed it to me and said “we’re good…” – in other words, giving me the notebook and not charging me for it.

I certainly didn’t see that coming.

I was sufficiently surprised that I did not fully register what else he said. He might have said “I hope you have a better experience the next time you’re in the store.”

Or he might have said “Please don’t ever come back…”

In some kind of bemused shock,  I ambled out of the Container Store with a free Moleskine notebook, wondering how exactly being such a jerk had produced such a seemingly worthwhile result.

And figuring that I would tell the story and end it with the hashtag

#Don’tEncourageMe 

Photo Challenge #4: John Jarvis

So much for seven photos in seven days…

I’m really not sure how much to say about this one.

I said when I started posting this series last week that I was going to dig around for some files that had not previously seen the light of day.  This is one of those.

About two years ago I got a call to photograph a recording session for one of Nashville’s A-list players, who was making an album with some of the world’s also top, A-List players – most of whom I was not entirely familiar with though I probably should have been.

This is probably my favorite shot from the session… somewhere in there, the renown keyboard player John Jarvis is adding a melody to a track.

I got a lot of great photos of the sessions, but something went haywire.  I turned in the photos… and never heard from the client again.

Probably the less said about that… the better.

Photo Challenge #3
Put Down The Fucking Phone!

Continuing with the Facebook Photo Challenge…

I’m really not sure what to say about this one.  It was taken several years ago at the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville.

The attraction is is the Super Slide (or whatever it’s called).  You get a pad of canvas and slide down about 100 feet of undulating fiberglass.  Wheeee…. what fun!

I’m just guessing that this is a brother and sister duo.  Judging from the look on the little boy’s face, the ride was a blast.  But not, apparently enough fun for his sister to put her phone down long and actually enjoy the experience.

Such is the world we live in today.

We live in an invisible ocean of information.  We can find out anything in an instant.

And still we wind up with somebody like Trump…

Now excuse me while I go see if I’ve got any fresh notifications on Facebook…

 

Civilization? Ha!

We live in the most technologically advanced culture in the history of human civilization – Google, Gigabits, WiFi everywhere, cars that go 200mph ad planes that fly around the world – but this is what we have to do to keep a table from wobbling.

 

#TMITM #6 : Dueling Elephants Foretell
The Demise of the Two-Party System

#TMITM, for those of you who haven’t caught on yet, is the acronym for “The Medium Is The Message.”

One of my primary theses over the past several years has been that the advent of the Internet foretells the demise of the two-party duopoly.

For starters, remember: there is nothing constitutionally sacred about a two-party system. It is just the effluent of political convenience that has evolved and persisted since the emergence of the Federalist (for the Constitution) and the Anti-Federalists (for the Articles of Confederation) in the 1780s.

For different reasons, both print and electronic broadcasting reinforced the dominance of two political parties for 200+ years. But the Internet reverses all the primary forces of nature imposed by those media.  It is not your father’s media environment any more.  Nor your grandfather’s.  Nor his grandfather’s…

Print and broadcasting are organized around single points-of-origin and multiple points-of-reception; for every transmitter there are countless receivers. The Internet introduces parity between origin and reception. In the digital era every receiver is also a transmitter. This parity gives ultimately an engenders an infinite number channels through which previously “fringe” perspectives can gain considerable traction.

We have seen countless manifestations of this trend over the past 15 years.  We could argue that it first appeared with Howard Dean’s Internet-driven campaign in 2004 and rose  to a level of dominance with Obama’s digital organization in 2008.  Here in 2016, Bernie Sanders’ $27-a-pop campaign came within a few hundred pledged delegates of toppling the whole house of cards.

I contend that what we are now witnessing is the inevitable fracturing of political discourse that is empowered by an infinite number of communication channels. The Medium is The Message.

It comes as no surprise then to see Thomas Friedman – a major proponent of the mainstream media – advocating the formation of a new political party  to counter the unhinged lunacy of today’s Republican Party:

I know so many thoughtful conservatives who know it matters. One of them has got to start the N.R.P. — New Republican Party — a center-right party liberated from all the Trump birthers, the Sarah Palins, the Grover Norquists, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs, the gun lobby, the oil lobby and every other narrow-interest group, a party that redefines a principled conservatism. Raise your money for it on the internet. If Bernie Sanders can, you can.

Notice how the decentralized, distributed power of the Internet lies at the very heart of that argument.

In the  splintering of the Republican Party, I suspect we will unleash the even greater likelihood for a multi-party system of governance by fluid coalitions – all made possible by the myriad and largely unexplored functions of digital communications.

Be careful what you wish for, Tom Friedman.