Wednesday, April 30, 2014

All About The Swagger?

An interesting experience, today, talking with a classroom full of high school seniors: As we wind down the year of my "College Writing" class, I tend to get into "real life" writing tasks. This is both my chance to prove to them the writing will be part of their lives beyond college and to hand them a few pointers on resumes, e-mails, cover letters, etc. The general lesson, of course, is that all of these tasks call for "clarity, brevity and precision" in their work. Same skills, different tasks.

One of the topics we covered was tone. A student asked how one can sound confident without sounding egotistical. He is a bit of a rare bird among the young flock even to have asked this question and you could see some quizzical expressions around the room. In the culture that surrounds these young people, they are bombarded with bragging. Muhammad Ali opened a real can of worms when he shocked everyone by announcing, "I am the greatest! I said that before I even knew I was." It was cool, then -- it was pleasingly cocky. But now, it is pretty common. 

So, some of these kids didn't really know what their fellow student meant. They were confused. Sincerely, so. They were baffled. "Self-confidence is all about the swagger, right?" their eyes seemed to ask me. 

Of course, we talked about balanced tone, blah, blah, blah... 

But it is interesting. These guys are bombarded daily with media-driven behavior traits. There is no agenda behind it; it is not a conspiracy to corrupt our kids or to draw them away from good old-fashioned values. It is more like a spreading sickness, really. Each exposure leaves kids more and more contaminated with examples of cockiness and egotism, expressed without shame or remorse. How are they supposed to react? It's the norm. 

If parents want kids to be even remotely humble, it is going to have to be handled at home and parents are going to have to point it out: "Look how arrogant that guy/girl is." Otherwise, it will just seep in... Actually, it may seep in regardless of our attempts. It's a heck of a tide to fight. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

If Prayer Is Silly, So Are "Positive Thoughts"

Every so so often, someone I know will post, on Facebook, about something that's happening in his or her life; something bad -- or something that could wind up badly. Usually, a ton of friends will respond. Some will say: "I'll say a prayer for you." Others will offer "positive thoughts." Either way, the gesture is well-taken: they want things to turn out well for their friend.

But, it does strike me as a little funny. People who do not believe in the Divine still feel the need to do something "supernatural" for a suffering friend. They "send positive thoughts."

Out of the people who do this, some truly believe in the power. I have heard numerous atheists defend "the power of positive thought." I don't know about you, but I have never seen a stitch of empirical proof that positive thought does anything to help matters. Still, some who think it is foolish to believe in prayer think it makes perfect sense to believe in the power of thinking as some kind of positive incantation.

Inconsistent? Uh, yeah.

The other half of the people who do this are to be commended: they do not believe in either the power of prayer or the power of positive thought, but they want to offer something to help combat a problem they have no ability to alter (in their own opinions).  "Sending positive thoughts your way..." they write.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Me Chris...Me Like Bang Drums.

I think I finally figured it out the gist of something. For years, comedians and critics of both sexes have been getting a lot of mileage out of joking that men are "simple" women are "complex."

I think most people realize this is silly. All people are complex, even when they seem simple. The human brain is complex beyond comprehension, male or female. Still, it makes for good jokes and it seems true: men can appear to be simple oafs. But I think it has more to do with (can I use this term?) "primality" than with simplicity.

Men are not, generally, simpler than women, but they have remained more connected to their primal roots than women seem to have. Maybe this means women have actually evolved further than men. I don't know. But I do know that even the most philosophical and most metaphysical of men still have a bit of the chest-beater in them even when they pretend not to.

A Japanese Taiko drummer.
We want to be strong and tough. These two qualities might not be as immediately and as literally useful as they were when we were living in fear of being ingested by three-headed swamp creatures or of getting clubbed by someone from the tribe over the hill during a cattle raid, but the primal need for these qualities remains. How they manifest themselves is up to us.

If we pick fights in bars, we are being morons. Those of us who do this are the ones who deserve the whatever oafish label they get. There are a lot of these guys around.

The rest of us (the majority) tend to channel our strength and toughness into other directions.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Necessity of Possession

I had forgotten about this -- that I wanted to write about it. I sat down to write about something else, and, as usual, I put on the headphones to listen to music while writing and I selected the album I wanted from my mp3 list. For some unknown reason, the album wasn't "there." There was that little picture of a cloud, showing I had to download it to my phone if I wanted to listen.

Yesterday, mind you, it was there. I listened to the whole thing. Not today, for some strange reason. But, see -- I paid for it. It is supposed to belong to me, but what I really paid for was some kind of sonic code. I have no record in my possession; I have no CD. I have code. 

So, I am a dinosaur, right? But, by the teeth of all the saints, I want to possess the things I pay for, no questions asked. 

Shocked? I know we have been conditioned to shun material goods. I know "money can't buy happiness." I know "we can't take it with us." But I think this is getting a little crazy. 

When I pay for something, I want to be able to put it on a shelf and admire it as part of my collection. If it is a record, I want to be able to take it down, put it on the turntable (or into the CD tray) and listen to is as I read the lyrics or check out the musical personnel on each track. (I spent many happy hours doing just that in my younger days.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Handsome Is As Handsome Does

A small, good thing.

Yesterday, we went out for my mother's birthday; dinner. On the way home, we engaged is various crazy discussions and in an elevated level of goofiness that actually left me hoarse from repeatedly doing a silly voice.

At one point, for some reason, the conversation lead to my son, who is twelve, asking my mom: "Grandmom...who was the actor you had a crush on when you were younger? Tom Cruise?"

"No," my mom said. "He was after my time. It was Charlton Heston."

"Who's he again?" my son responded.

"The guy from Planet of the Apes," I chimed in. "Taylor."

"Oh, yeah," my son said. Then, he thought for a minute. "He was a pretty good-looking guy. I could see why girls would like him."

What was cool was the ease with which my son said that. If I am geing honest, as a twelve-year-old from a different time, I would have hesitated to have even mentioned that I thought a man was handsome. I would have been afraid of what it would have "sounded like." I might have thought it (in fact, I actually remember having thought it watching the movie as a kid his age), but I would have refrained from saying it.

I think it is cool that my son has a such a level of comfort with his own sexual identity (one that has been comically clear since his youngest days -- the lad has clearly loved the ladies since preschool); I think it shows an exceptional level of maturity, even in a time of apparently (though maybe exaggeratedly) shifting perceptions.

That's it. I just like when people (especially my sons) are, as they say, "comfortable in their own skins."

Monday, April 14, 2014


Sometimes, more words equal more confusion.

Sometimes, more words equal more clarity.

Sometimes, words are not meant to lead us to clarity, but to the confusion that leads us to the path toward clarity.

Sometimes we are ready to walk that path and sometimes we are not.

Sometimes a lack of readiness is own our fault, and sometimes it is not.

Either way, clarity lies there, at the end of the path. Waiting.

We will either find it, one day, or we will not -- that much is clear.

Pissarro: 1879

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Last Ship Has Finally Come In

I finally got Sting's first collection of original songs in about ten years: The Last Ship. I love it. (Don't worry -- this is not going to be a record review. I hate those.)

I haven't "loved" one of his albums in a long time -- maybe ever since 1993's Ten Summoner's Tales. My enjoyment of his work declined with every album since that one...until this one. Yet...I never got bitter.

Sting, doing a character from The Last Ship --
which will be a broadway play in September.
You know what I mean? Did you ever witness people who get downright mad when musicians they like put out albums they don't agree with or enjoy? -- as if it is a personal affront?

It is hard, granted, when one makes a personal connection with an album, not to look for that same level of identification out of everything after. Those albums become dear to us. I wouldn't be who I am today without Rush's Moving Pictures; Genesis's Seconds Out; Sting's Soul Cages and U2's Achtung Baby, just to name a (very) few. In the case of each of those artists, there have been scores of records that I disliked deeply or that I thought just didn't stand up to the "gems."  (I use only rock albums here -- it is a particular thing, the "album of songs" that cannot be compared to the mountains of other types of music I love.) But, though I might have disliked the directions these artists took, I never, as I said, got bitter. And I went right on buying their stuff.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Child Logic

A few days ago, I picked up my sons from something after school. As we were driving home, they asked me to put in the CD of a recording my friend Mark and I had just finished -- one that I posted about a few days ago.

They both like it, but my younger son (10) loves it -- wants to hear it over and over. After it played, he asked me:

"Dad, can we play this song this year while we are decorating Easter eggs?"

I told him that of course we could. Then, I wandered down the sun-flooded path of unraveling the logic of the small one. What connection, in his little head, made him say that? Is he a synaesthete like his dad? -- does the music suggest the bright colors or Easter egg dye to him? -- is he reacting to the closing section of the song with its use of the word "rise," whose phrase is lifted by choir chords and airborne strings?

Who cares? It made my throat lump up and it made my heart about seven minutes younger. And, you  know, for the first time, I am looking forward a process that I usually despise but that I smile through anyway:  dyeing Easter eggs.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Bully Society

Some people have watched the film Bully and come out of it with inspirations -- ideas about how to end this sort of horrible mistreatment of kids by other kids in American schools. Some have seen it and gone through tissues by the box and have left screenings with temporary feelings of sympathy -- or maybe even of empathy. Others, like yours truly, walked out of it in an existential tailspin.

It is a documentary that chronicles the bullying of a few young people in a few towns. There is no narrator. What we get is a series of clips, images and statements by the people involved: parents who have lost children to suicide; parents who have children who are being bullied and the children themselves, who, for whatever reason, are being tortured by their classmates.

You know what I saw? First, I saw stupid adults who are the maintainers of a system that encourages kids to categorize one another and whose actions in response to bullying were so moronic that it was all I could do to keep from clawing the cushioning off of the sides of my seat. Second, I saw kids behaving in a way that causes me to question the very worth of mankind.

I watched a principal chastise a kid who was being tortured by another. The bullied kid didn't want to "shake hands" with his tormentor (of course, the bully was all too eager to "make up" in front of the principal). The vice principal told the bullied boy: "You're just as bad as he is." This same professional educator told the parents of a bullied kid that when she, herself, rode the bus on which bullying was taking place, the kids were "good as gold." (Thought bubble above moronic principal's head: Kids are bad. I ride bus. Kids are good. Therefore, problem solved.) These are some of the people to whom we are entrusting our kids.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Playing It By Ear

My wife and I, cutting-edge people that we are, are watching this hot new show called Lost. (I know, I know -- no cable, plus Netflix...) It's pretty cool, I guess. I have never finished an episode and thought, "Wow, that's brilliant." But I have also never been bored. The show is what a former Romanticism professor of mine used to call "chewing gum for the brain;" chewing gum with good, long-lasting flavor, but no real nutrients in it.

But that's not the point. Here's the point: Dominic Monaghan's character is a former rock star; a guy who was in a really low-intellect, poppy-punk kind of band called "Driveshaft." Or, as the character Hurley's friend puts it: "Driveshaft? More like 'Suckshaft'."

Charlie playing in a less than ideal acoustic environment. 
In an episode we recently watched, Monaghan's character, Charlie, is at the piano writing a song. And you know what he is doing? He is writing down notes. Do writers and people in general really think rock musicians and pop musicians write their music down like classical composers? Let me illuminate through summaralysis. (Yeah, I made that up.)

Classical and orchestral composers write their music down. This is so that a hundred or more musicians all play things that sound good together. Big band arrangers do this too, when you can find a big band.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Track One: "Waking the Sun"

On a frigid Thursday night in late December, I sat with two of my best friends in a nearly empty pub. We ate wings. (Well -- two of us. The other has a wheat issue. Something about the breading. I dunno.) We drank some good brown beer. (Well -- two of us. The other with the wheat issue...I think he had Scotch or something.) Anyway, we talked about many things: philosophy, psychology, Specifically, the music that Mark (the one without the wheat issue, but plenty of others, let me assure you) and I had created some months before. We talked about doing more.

Mark tends to stomp when he plays.
This is a problem with open mic's in the room,
so, one needs to be resourceful with solutions.
We discussed everything from doing a Christmas record, to pass down to our future generations, to putting together a totally conceptual, avante garde "sound tapestry" of studio magic. In truth, we didn't set a musical direction at all, really. But we did, at Joe's urging (the wheat guy), set a date to get together and write some music: January 11. If Joe hadn't been there, Mark and I probably would have drifted off into our usual vague existences. Thanks to Joe, we had a date on the calendar.

January 11th, a Saturday, came, and Mark showed up bearing coffee and donuts (and blackberry brandy, which he claims enables him to sing anything at any time of day, which appears to be true) and I threw a chord progression at him. In about twenty minutes, we had the backbone of a pretty good song.

My wife popped her head into the studio: "If you guys don't get together and do this one a month, I will kill you." (This meant, in Karenese, that she was pleased with what she had heard.)