Thursday, December 31, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Let the countdown begin

Hot Tuna-I See The Light/The Phosphorescent Rat

There have been a wealth of bands and performers over the years occupying my personal upper shelf of favorites. While it’s difficult to isolate and name a solitary artist/band as my all-time favorite, Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna would give the #1 slot a strong push—and depending on the day, Hot Tuna may be the one artist I’d take with me if given one catalog of music to take with me to a remote location—like the proverbial dessert island.

I was a high school freshman during the fall of 1976. Dana Aspinall introduced me to his senior football teammate, and Hot Tuna fan, Paul Bohunicky. I didn’t know much about the band at the time, and wasn’t aware that they were Jorma’s Jefferson Airplane side project. Bohnucky was cranking what I’d later learn was America’s Choice from his Jensen’s perched in the back of his ’69 Rambler. Given that I was always interested in new music, I made my own mental note to check out the record bin at DeOrsey’s the next time I was in Lewiston.

By the end of my sophomore year, I had acquired the entire Hot Tuna catalog, all of it on vinyl, which was the preferred music format of the era, and still my favorite way to listen to music when I have a turntable nearby. Unfortunately, the draconian dictates of the fundamentalist sect I got wrapped up with looked unkindly on rock and roll, and I eventually unloaded my carefully acquired record collection for pennies on the dollar.

I’ve begun reacquiring some of the best of my former collection, picking up the odd gem, and adding back classics like Hot Tuna’s Burgers, America’s Choice, and Yellow Fever on vinyl.

Realizing how much I love music, my lovely wife gave me a gift certificate at BullMoose Records. Ironically, owner Brett Wickard once worked for the long departed DeOrsey’s, before starting his original BullMoose store in Brunswick, while a student at Bowdoin back in the early 1990s.

I still love browsing my way through music (to me, always “record”) stores, and BullMoose still maintains a great physical selection at stores like the one I visited in downtown Brunswick. This is no small fact in our age of iPods and other digital music devices, given that younger (and older alike) listeners no longer believe they should have to pay for others creative genius, causing sales to continue plummeting downward.

When The Phospherescent Rat was released in 1973, Hot Tuna no longer was a sideline endeavor for Kaukonen and bassist extraordinaire, Jack Casady. Jack and Jorma were now fulltime and full throttle committed to the band. Jorma’s songwriting shows it, and Casady’s bass playing is amazing, with few modern players coming close to creating the textures, and even foghorn effects that Casady was getting from gear that is far from today’s technologically advanced equipment.

While many of Tuna’s current fan base clamor for the acoustic, Rev. Gary Davis-style finger-picking songs in the band’s catalog, I’m one of those that loved the heavy, effects-driven mid-70s period. It was during this time that the band was known for three plus hour shows, combining both acoustic, and electric in separate sets, and extended jams. This album was transitional, with songs like “I See The Light,” along with “Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From,” hearkening back to the previous Burgers style of folk-rock, and “Easy Now” foreshadowing the full-blown electric inclinations of Jorma and Co.

Jorma and Jack performed in South Portland two weeks ago. I was on the fence about seeing them, but decided against it at the last minute. One of the reasons was that I knew they’d play a lot of great acoustic stuff. For me, however, the electric days are gone, as the amplified storm generated 30 years ago just doesn’t seem the same coming from an older musician, which Jorma certainly is, at this juncture in his career. That’s not a criticism, it’s just part of conundrum of rock and roll, baby boomers, and the nature of what the music once was about, and often is tough to pull off for stalwarts like Kaukonen, Neil Young, the Stones, and others, as they age, some not very gracefully.

Sonic Youth-Teeage Riot/Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth represents the break I made with the music I listened to throughout high school, and the DIY-influenced music that I embraced after coming out the other side of a difficult period immersed in fundamentalist ideology. Bands like Sonic Youth provided a new way of seeing music, even processing personal experiences at the time.

Another piece of recorded music that I once owned, originally possessing it on cassette, released on the Enigma label. As would happen occasionally with a cassette recording, particularly longer recordings (Daydream Nation clocked in at 70:47), the cassette would jam, and sometimes get “eaten” by the cassette player. At some point, my cassette copy became unlistenable, and disappeared from my music collection.

My new copy is on CD. I listened to the first half on my ride to work Wednesday morning, finishing the first run through on my commute home, at night. Subsequent listens defy a sense that this recording is 21 years old.

“Teenage Riot” is anthemic in the best sense of the word’s usage. Driving, propelled by Steve Shelley’s always solid drumming, with paired vocals from Thurston and Kim, this song is fairly straightforward, but not typical, given the band’s penchant for feedback, noise, dissonance, alternate tunings, and guitar skronk.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember the bleakness that many of us felt back in the late 80s, at the tail end of the Reagan presidency. This disc reminds us a bit about the dark days of those years, and cuts through so much of the historical revisionism that’s taken place since.

Here are a portion of German artist/musician/critic Jutta Koether’s liner notes that appear on the CD version I picked up at BullMoose.

Daydream Nation: a picture of a moment, taken with a Polaroid. Though the colors are faded, they were faded when the album was first released…remember? Hearing this music now reveals the power of memory-conceptually dreaming, thinking along with the flow. For that moment, it appeared as a stylized recording, a conceptual work, which allowed for spacey “light listening.” [light listening, indeed!—JB]

Koether, again:

Others thought of Daydream Nation as a perfectly laid out demonstration of the paradox of underground music, a dialectical meltdown, a moment in utopia and regression. To a quite a few people, the whole thing looked and sounded good as well. A breakthrough of unique but also somehow generic independent music.

Sonic Youth have continued making solid and even some excellent subsequent recordings, but nothing approaching the sprawling epic sweep that was Daydream Nation.

Todd Rundgren-Just One Victory/The Very Best Of Todd Rundgren

It might be difficult to truly appreciate Todd Rundgren’s musical genius, removed from the late 1960s/early 1970s context, which saw his star reach its commercial zenith.

While not an obscure talent by any account, as time spent listening to oldies formats will probably allow a listen to one of a string of Rundgren’s hits from the 1970s, it’s rare to find anyone that recognizes his name in a conversation about music. During the 1970s, however, you couldn’t pick up a major music magazine without reading an article on Rundgren.

Rundgren was someone that I was somewhat familiar with during my formative musical development as a pre-teen, browsing, and occasionally buying what I remember as Creem, Circus, or possibly even Rolling Stone, at Robert’s Pharmacy in my hometown of Lisbon Falls, or Victor News, in Lewiston.

Later, my best friend, Dave Gray (who taught us all to think [inside joke]) would tell me of Rundgren’s musical prowess as a mult-instrumentalist, his spiritual inclinations, and other qualities that I obviously had missed in my reading.

Most of my musical purchases over the last 20 years have primarily been rock of the independent variety. The last few years, however, I’ve allowed myself to be less focused on maintaining the self-imposed militancy against so-called corporate rock, and I’ve begun occasionally picking up recordings that seem a bit eclectic, and even mainstream, compared to most of my current CD collection.

Browsing BullMoose, I saw TVBOTR and realized that many of the songs were ones I recognized, and actually really enjoyed. Once in my car, after grabbing a cup of coffee at Little Dog (a great locally-owned coffee shop on Maine Street), it was Rundgren’s CD that found its way into the CD player.

There are wonderful tunes on the CD, in fact, all of the 16 tracks are of the quality that I could listen to them over and over again.

“Just One Victory,” however, contain lyrics that uplift, and promote an optimism that might seem hokey in 2009/2010, but in 1973 still seemed possible, as our sense of what was possible hadn’t been wrung out of us yet.

The Rural Alberta Advantage-Edmonton/Hometowns

My last tune, on the last day of 2009 (most of this is being wrapped up an hour before midnight) is by yet another Canadian band, a special discovery from the last half of 2009. I now know there is a wealth of musical talent north of the U.S. border. The Rural Alberta Advantage is one of several artists that I’m learning about.

The band’s music is rooted in a sense of place—in this case, the vast prairies and mountain ranges of western Canada. I think the music also has a timeless appeal to that sense of geographic rootedness that we all yearn for, and continue to search for. As homogeneity continues to be pushed upon us, from Edmonton, Alberta, to Portland, Maine, songs like the ones that the RAA play connect.

Much of the material was written by Nils Edenloff, the band’s lead singer, and chief songwriter. Edenloff had relocated to the more cosmopolitan and artistically viable Toronto, a journey that countless creative Canadians have made before. What comes across in many of the band’s songs, is that sense that you can take the boy out of the prairie, but you can’t take the prairie, and the distinctiveness of Alberta, out of the boy.

The band plays music that’s acoustic, but rocks as well as anything electrified and cranked to 10. In fact, the driving nature of many of the tracks indicates that rock and roll is an attitude, as much as it is amplification. The arrangements of strummed acoustic guitars, synthesizers, even glockenspiels, work, and make for a rich mix of musical mastery.

Well, 2009 is history, and we’re on to bigger and better things in 2010—music will continue to be part of that journey.

Happy New Year!!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Staying true, and keeping fit

Just before Christmas, I hit a milestone on my fitness journey I began June 23. I have now been walking (as well as biking, lifting weights, and participating in other cardio and strength building activities) the path towards fitness for six months.

What began as disapproval (seeing my weight at 259.5 on the digital scale display), then shifted into the planning stage (how do I lose some weight), and eventually became part of my lifestyle. Changes take time to become personal. For me, personalizing my routine happened almost immediately. By that I mean that I quickly embraced my initial plan of exercise, calorie reduction, and then, as the weeks rolled by, I became acclimated to portion sizes, foods I could eat, and foods I preferred not to eat.

Here are a few things that I have learned in arriving at this stage, with my weight loss fluctuating between 47-50 pounds:

  • Change requires positive reinforcement--
Rather than deciding what foods I couldn't eat, I started out by figuring out what my caloric intake should be to maintain my weight where it was, and not gain one additional pound. From there, I then ratcheted back my calories, tracking them via Fitday, which has been a great site for me.

  • Find foods that you enjoy, and don't overindulge--
I love cheese. I also like snacks that are salty. I found a great cheese made by Cabot, which has 50 percent less fat. I allowed myself one serving (which was one ounce) in my lunch for work. I also found that pretzels, particularly the mini ones are fairly low in calories and are a nice compliment to my cheese, and my Sara Lee turkey ham.

  • Pack your lunch everyday--
I can't emphasize this enough. There are very few options for lunch that are as low-calorie and generally as healthy as packing your own lunch. By the time you can get away from work for lunch, you are generally hungry and when you're hungry, you overindulge. Not a good place to be. Plus, most quick lunch options are heavy in calories, not to mention expensive.

One of the nice perks of packing my own lunch everyday has been the money that I've saved (a minimum of $5-6 a day, which is being conservative, multiplied by two, as Miss Mary has also joined the pack-a-lunch-for-work club), which in these economically trying times, is not a bad thing.

  • Find a way to exercise vigorously 3-4 times per week--
I can't emphasize enough the importance of vigorous exercise. For me, I need to burn about 3,500 to 4,000 calories per week to support my love of food and occasional higher calorie outings.

When I began my weight-loss regimen, my calorie intake was about 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day. Over time, I've allowed it to increase to around 2,400 to 2,600 per day (particularly on workout days). Occasionally, usually one day per week, I'll allow myself an extra beer, and a snack of some kind, or Mary will make a meal on the weekend that might be a higher-calorie choice and I'll approach 3,000 calories on the intake side.

Because I've been doing this long enough, I know that given my current routine of going to the gym three times per week, which includes an hour of cardio and an hour of weights, plus one to two sessions on the treadmill on my non-gym days, I can support my current calorie intake schedule. This is a key to where I'm at, which has become a maintenance phase.

Today I'm off from work. Instead of taking the day off from exercise, however, I spent 35 minutes on the treadmill, running for 12 minutes, and maintaining an average of 5.0+ miles per hour intensity level, which burned 375-400 calories.

  • Find a weight range you're comfortable with and stay there--

I'm now trending in a weight range that fluctuates between 207 and 210. My goal is to stay south of 210. I have had a couple of upticks over Thanksgiving and recently, over the Christmas holiday, although this morning's weigh-in (prior to my treadmill session) found my weight at 210 on the button!

I generally weigh-in on Monday and then again on Thursday, although sometimes I can't help jumping on the scale more frequently.

Joining the gym has been a pleasant surprise for me. I'm not someone that generally enjoys gyms, but Planet Fitness in Auburn has been a good fit for me.

I'm in my ninth week of gym membership. I now workout early. Two times during the week, I'm at the gym at 5:00 a.m. Then, on Sunday, I arrive at 7:00 (when it opens) and this is usually my most vigorous workout of the week.

While diligence is required and I have to remain focused on staying the course, it's also exciting to be heading into 2010 without having to make a resolution to lose weight.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Invalidation Nation

The range or spectrum of discussion and debate in the U.S. is a narrow one. One could argue that our nation’s corridor of communication continues to contract, mainly along ideological, religious, and even cultural lines, inculcated via changes that are being pushed by technology.

In my own life, I have experienced the difficulty engendered by the pinched parameters of dialogue. Never one to stay rooted in any one place, I first investigated and embraced fundamentalist religion during my early 20s, found solace in political/ideological right-wing posturing during my late 20s and into my 30s, and then, pendulum swinging back to the left after the previous administration’s failure to clearly articulate their position for waging war. These journeys to and fro across the realm of what’s acceptable have provided me with a unique perspective, I think.

Spending time in multiple (often opposing) camps over the course of my adult years, compounded by not growing up in an environment that cultivated thought and exploration of ideas, propelled me to desire a deeper understanding of movements, organizations, and whatever else I decided to become involved in and with.

Regardless of what my affiliation was at the time, I quickly realized that most of the people around me—family, friends, co-workers—knew very little about my frame of reference at the time. Whatever they might know about my religious choice, political leanings, or books and ideas I was interested in and exploring, was miniscule, and often, laughable, if it wasn’t so deeply rooted in a fierce anti-intellectual sense of pride.

I enjoy observing people. Because I don’t travel with your typical coterie of friends and acquaintances, I regularly find myself in solitary situations, sitting in a coffee shop, browsing in bookstores, or having a drink in a bar, taking in the conversations of others. Listening to friends chit chat, weigh-in on national issues, or make small talk about their children, marriages, television shows, and thoughts on food/fitness, to name but a few of the topics I’ve overheard being discussed during the past 30 days, reinforces my own anecdotal belief that 85-90 percent of Americans know little or nothing about anything substantive.

My previous point begs the question, then; what are the substantive topics of debate that you are looking for?

Well, how about something as basic as how are government works? Rarely, if ever, do I run into anyone, ideological hardliner, or not that can outline our tripartite system of governance. Yes, some of the right-wing types that I seem to regularly run up against, think they have the solution to all of the nation’s ills. They know the problem, and they are quick to tell me and anyone else that government can’t solve them—because Rush Limbaugh, or some other talking head told them so.

A case in point is the current debate (if you care to call Fox News, and the WSJ harangues against anything that will remove the least bit of control from large insurance companies, a debate) over health care reform. What percent of Americans do you think have read one, long form narrative journalistic treatment of the subject? I think I’ve read five, at least, that have looked at various aspects of healthcare, its attendant issues of cost, doctor’s responsibilities in this, technology’s role, etc. Even the handful of colleagues that I rub elbows with in my day job—people that are bright and knowledgeable about government policy—didn’t follow through in reading one of the better pieces, about health care costs, after I sent them the link.

I’ve made a point of trying to read as widely as I can, on as many subjects as I can find the time to pursue, in an attempt to be an intellectual person. I don’t hold and advanced degree, and I have never even risen to the level of D-list stature in my writing, blogging, or any other attempt to get my thoughts on ideas into the public square. However, I can honestly say that for the past 10 years, I’ve tried to take a more nuanced view of the world, although, my initial attempts to distance myself from religion, and right-wing ideologues, found me overcompensating with wild swings to the far fringes of left-wing thought and ideas. This is a nether world just as dangerous, in my opinion, with Kool-aid drinking required.

What I am beginning to understand is that distant regions of thought tend to be places where the ideological weeds grow the thickest, and can deprive you of valuable air and vitality required for ideas to flourish. Better, spending too much time hard right, or lunatic left, diminishes the ability to think critically. This I have come to accept as a fact. These far flung regions require straitjacketing via ideology that restrict, rather than encourage open-mindedness.

This topic of free thinking and ideas is one that I rarely stray too far from these days. I now understand this as a consequence of my time spent deep within the inner sanctums of movements, and organizations that regularly demanded strict adherence to a narrow parameter of ideas and thought. Because of this, I now recoil when well-intentioned, and others, not so benign in their intent, tell me that truth lies only within the circumscribed confines of their religion, political party’s platform, or corporate parameters required for inclusion.

I just picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermined America. This is the kind of example of an idea, which Ehrenreich appears to have again trained her investigative antenna towards, which when I’m done reviewing, and reading parallel books, studies, etc, I’ll have a better understanding of. In this case, Ehrenreich sets out to shatter the myth that all we need to be happy and successful, is a happy outlook. That’s total BS, but the cult of Pollyanna is so entrenched in the U.S. that if you dare to offer a contrary opinion, you are immediately labeled as a cynic, crank, misanthrope, or worse. What is frightening, as I make my way through the first few chapters of the book, is how Ehrenreich’s clear-headed prose resonates with me, based upon years of experience being told not to feel the way I feel, or hold my particular view on a particular subject, because it wasn’t in line with what was “accepted.”

The other day, after posting my thoughts about Oral Roberts, I had a discussion with two co-workers. One, a lukewarm Catholic, with his own fucked up brand of theology that he was sticking to, and wasn’t being budged by anyone else; the other, I later would find out, was a true believer, who attended a Baptist church I once visited and found too narrow for my open-minded religious views at the time.

The first one, a fat idiot (I know, a needless ad hominem attack), who regularly throws out his opinions with the kind of dogmatic certainty, honed by a daily diet of sports talk radio, faux local news, and 15 minute liturgies once a week that irritates the shit out of me, said to me, “boy, are you cynical,” when I launched my missive on Roberts and religion.

Afterwards, I felt somewhat sorry about being so forceful in my condemnation of religion, particularly as perpetrated by religious hucksters like Roberts, in light of finding about the latter co-worker’s Baptist proclivities. Not necessarily because what I said didn’t contain a good measure of truth, sprinkled with firm (and accepted) theological underpinnings, but because I actually like him, and have found him to be thoughtful, and open-minded, at least compared to the other blowhard. This is a good example of the censoring nature of groupthink.

Hence, my ongoing dilemma in trying to think my way through life, and routinely, running up against legions of others that don’t. What I find so difficult, is that these individuals that don’t think, and don’t see a problem at all with their irrational, anti-intellectual parsing of the various issues, regularly indict my views, which have been framed, more often than not, by honest attempts at arriving at a nuanced understanding.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Are you into Facebook, or Twitter?

How addicted to Twitter are you?

Created by Oatmeal

This could have been higher--my intuition towards not being "addicted" to social media led me to answer questions a certain way.

I'm actually embarrassed by some of my answers to the questions, like, have I tweeted while on the can ("yes," he sheepishly replied)? At least I haven't tweeted what I was eating, while I was eating it.

Social media is here to stay, and while I was initially very cold on Twitter as a communications tool, I've warmed considerably, while maintaining my general disdain for Facebook. A recent article in the Washington Post considers the merits of Facebook vs. Twitter.

Interestingly, most of the people I rub elbows via work in Central/Western Maine are pro-Facebook, and many know little or nothing about Twitter. I tend to go the other way on this, given the number of Farmville acolytes inhabiting Facebook, and the general "FML" patois that is rampant there.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday randomness

Anyone who has ever toiled on a diamond, whether Little League, sandlot, or at a higher level, always dreamed they'd have a baseball card of their very own, at least back when baseball cards were all the rage.

On my BlackBerry, I have several Google Alerts set up, one of them alerting me if my own name gets mentioned. Occasionally, something actually comes across the transom that relates to the Jim Baumer of Words Matter. Most often, however, it's some Baumer in Iowa, getting married, or in this case, another Jim Baumer, a former rookie shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, in 1961, the year before I was actually born. On the left was his very own rookie card, which apparently is fetching $3 on today's baseball card market.
Here is a profile of this Jim Baumer's professional baseball playing career, a somewhat checkered one. He later became a major league GM with Milwaukee, and I occasionally got some joy out of pointing this out to my friends who were baseball fans.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Shopping locally before Christmas

I’m not a shopper. For most of my existence, I dreaded the weeks leading up to Christmas mainly because I knew that it would require me to go to the Maine Mall, or some other shopping complex to buy gifts that I was never quite sure that the recipients wanted (or needed).

The past several years, my wife and I have de-escalated gift giving—one of the benefits being that I’ve been able to eliminate the stress of fighting crowds as the holiday season approached. Better, the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas have become bearable and even, dare I say, enjoyable—this for someone that could be characterized as a bit of a scrooge (Mrs. B says I was much more than a “bit” of a scrooge). Maybe I'm like the Grinch, and my heart has grown a size or two bigger?

Actually, Christmas, at least in its most traditional sense and accompanied by magic, always held a special place for me. Even as an adult, while hating many of the commercial conventions that characterized the holiday, I would take pleasure in things that become part of my own traditions—A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and books that elevated Christmas to a place beyond the crassness of business bottom lines.

For some reason, this year's ramp up to Christmas hasn't seemed very Christmas-like, commercialism, or not. I have sort of felt like Charlie Brown, searching for the “true meaning of Christmas.”

Today, Mrs. B. and I decided to make our seasonal trip to Bath, and do a wee bit of Christmas shopping. This holiday visit to one of the state’s few remaining vibrant downtowns always leaves me feeling better about the upcoming holiday, even given the attendant trappings and commercial pitfalls.

Visiting Bath’s downtown shopping district always involves a stop at Reny’s Department Store, a place that reminds me of the downtown shopping experiences I recall, when I was a kid, in Lewiston, and Portland, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before malls and big-box retail become intertwined with Baby Jesus. For those of us that remember Peck’s (considered “Maine’s first and [at one time] largest department store), Woolworth’s, and Spark’s in Lewiston, and Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun in Portland, to name but one of many downtown retailers, most defunct, or at least, relocated out of downtown, a visit to Bath helps one relive one’s first retail experiences 40 years ago, before malls were ubiquitous.

We began the day at Fort Andross, picking out fresh ingredients for tonight’s dinner, as well as baked goods and locally-raised bacon for Christmas day. The indoor farmers’ market continues to be vibrant, and it’s exciting to know that local farmers benefit when Mainers make simple, yet profound decisions to support local, sustainable agriculture practices.

Having the opportunity to score fresh greens and beets from Fishbowl Farm, and turnips and carrots from Six River Farm, both farms located near one another in Bowdoinham, is a real treat in the middle of December. There was a time when fresh veggies like these were something that one dreamed of in the dead of winter, imagining warmer days returning, along with yummy produce grown during Maine’s short growing season.

I want to illustrate a clear example of how local buying behavior can influence farmers and other suppliers participating in something like Brunswick’s winter market. Mary and I, while picking out our fresh produce at the Fishbowl Farm booth, had a nice conversation with the young young lady manning their table. When we mentioned how much we have been enjoying the indoor market at Fort Andross, she said that local farmers like Fishbowl are able to take on supplying consumers and their desire for fresh produce throughout the winter, if they know that the market can support their efforts. Buying local does matter, as studies clearly indicate.

Beyond the mere economic data, and agricultural sustainability that shopping at the local farmers' market is this. When I was picking up my turnips from Nate, from Six River Farm, who had both the larger, traditional-style turnips, and beautiful, white turnips, that are smaller, which the small card accompanying the display said, "great in salads," he mentioned that they were also great roasted. I've mashed turnips, boiled them and eaten them with butter and salt/pepper, but never roasted them. He gave me a few hints, and last night, we roasted up a pan of turnips, garlic, and onions, drizzled with olive oil. It was a unique and tasty alternative, as the roasting and olive oil brings a carmelized quality to the turnips and accompanying onions and garlic cloves. Never underestimate the personal touch when dealing with local purveyors. It usually is less transactional, and much more relationship in nature.

We then headed down Route 1, to Bath. Besides Reny’s, I visited a used book shop operated by the Friends of Bath Library, and the very decadent Marnie’s Cookies. I’m particularly careful about what I eat now, but if there was ever a reason to stray a bit from my caloric considerations, it is Marnie’s Shangri-La.

While downtown Bath was a wonderfully different way to spend the Saturday before Christmas, strolling along Front Street, it appeared that many people either stayed home, or chose to shop at the large retailers up the road, at Cook’s Corner, like T.J. Maxx, and Big Lots. The numbers of shoppers seemed less than I remember from other local holiday shopping excursions.

All in all, it was a fun Saturday, and I look forward to heading back to Bath again, possibly for dinner at a place like Solo Bistro.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Searching for nuance

We live at a time requiring full-time vigilance to stay out and front and not be buried by the avalanche of information rolling down media mountain. Many choose to go under, swamped by secondary squalls of reality-based television, ideological axe-grinding passing as hard news, and others fixate on professional sports.

While the United States has now poured 900 billion dollars into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd hazard a guess that fewer than one in 10 Americans could provide you with little more than cursory information and surface noise on either country. I think it would be rare, or even impossible to glean any geopolitical understanding on U.S. involvement in either country from the man on the street, Mr. Joe Sixpack, a close friend of Sarah Palin.

I've been similarly guilty on not really involving myself much beyond cursory details when it comes to our policies in the Middle East, and specifically the two countries where our country's foreign policy has been focused since 2001. Reaching around and patting myself on the back, I have at least read a few books and the occasional essay and investigative piece about military and civilian life on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While it's convenient, I guess, depending on your political leanings, to chant either, "Bush lied, and people died," or to embrace some variation on "drill, drill, drill," as a subtext to removing ourselves from foreign wars for oil, if you in fact hold to that theory, the truth about ME geopolitics is significantly more nuanced than that, I think.

When I first saw George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in CD version at the Maine State Library, my first reaction was, "No--not interested in a book on Iraq." Packer, someone that I've come to know and respect from his essays in The New Yorker, is a solid journalist. Subsequent visits eventually saw me taking the CD package down off the shelf and reading the cover copy.

I'm now in my second week of listening to the lengthy book, 480 pages, and in its unabridged form on CD, it is nearly 20 hours long, which is on the high end for audio books. I'm glad I decided to give Packer's work on Iraq a shot.

The book's strengths, in my opinion, are the persons, opinions, and institutions that Packer covers. While some have panned the book, most of these critics (like this one) were the kind that attempt to run everything through an ideological blender during their evaluation process. I used to be one of those people. Over time, I've tried to back away from a strict anti-war bias about this conflict, and given the resources, and American lives spent, in what has become a case of nation-building, the most extensive, in fact, in our nation's history.

While the usual cast of characters show up: Bush, Cheney, Paul Wolfiwicz, Donald Rumsfield, and other A-list political figures and members of the administration in power at the time, Packer also highlights some lesser known, but just as important people. Packer's work is brimming with rich profiles of the people on the ground, and those most affected by the day-to-day realities of the war, and subsequent occupation. None is fuller than his narrative portrait of 29-year-old (at the time, in 2003) Charlie Company Captain, John Prior. When Packer writes about Prior's high-minded leadership, and how this young man from rural Indiana, making $53,000/year, while leading 150 men/woman through daily danger, it makes you appreciate the committed people that by-and-large make up the U.S. military.

Prior, like many commanding officers in Iraq, did much more than lead troops in battle. He also was tasked to oversee opening up open-sewage sludge lines, garbage pick-up, power restoration, and a slew of other tasks that were way more than any of these leaders bargained for. It didn't help matters, as Packer details that the boots on the ground were continually hampered by Donald Rumsfield's irrational belief that this was a war that could be waged on the cheap.

I highly recommend Packer's book, as well as just about anything else he writes. In an milieu where there are fewer and fewer journalists working the long-form narrative essay that is Packer's specialty, he continues to be one of the best.

If you're looking for one book to invest time in reading (or listening to) in order to expand on news accounts, and give a broader understanding of the entire U.S. enterprise, as well as one that dispels many myths about the Iraqi people, the CPA, and other entities, then this would be a good one. A word of caution--if you're a Bush apologist, or are looking for simplistic takes on the complexities that make up military endeavors, look elsewhere.

This review was more in line with my own sentiments about the book.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Who names their kid, Oral?

Another religious charlatan has departed this mortal coil. The latest one exiting stage left is Oral Roberts. The evangelical pioneers are all kicking it.

The standard line on Roberts goes something like this (from the Chicago Tribune):

Mr. Roberts became one of the most famous preachers of the 20th century by pioneering the use of television and computerized databases to spread the gospel and raise hundreds of millions of dollars -- a formula followed by many other ministries.

Using sophisticated direct-mail campaigns, Mr. Roberts popularized the "prosperity gospel," which asserts that God generously rewards financial acts of faith.

"It gives people hope and expectation that seeds sown to God will be multiplied back in every area of life," Mr. Roberts wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry."

Mr. Roberts brought Pentecostalism -- which promotes charismatic worship including faith healing and speaking in tongues -- to the mainstream, giving it a newfound sense of legitimacy among the middle class and within other Christian denominations.

That last paragraph threw me for a loop. I'd never thought of Roberts as someone who legitimized religious practices and experiences, like speaking in tongues, which if taken this out of its religious context, might get the practitioner committed to a mental health facility.

I found these two comments from the NY Times to be more pertinent than most of the mainstream accounts of Roberts' life, spent fleecing suckers in the U.S. and abroad.

From Mitch, in Florida-

This marks the end of an era. Roberts was one of the great religious huckster's of the last century. He could pull money out of the trailer parks like no other. He was also a great inspiration for me. I wanted to get into the game with them 25 years ago, but after watching him, Falwell, Angley, Swaggart, et al, I knew that I couldn't compete with pros like these guys.

These guys had the routine dialed in and I could have never kept a straight face with the delivery. Too bad. "I could have been a contender".

From Charlie, McLean (?)-

Change happens one funeral at a time. He will NOT be missed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Songs for the guitar

I’ve never played guitar as well as I’d like to. I admire every guitar player that I've watched that makes playing seem effortless. I think my shortcomings stem in part a result of the scattershot way that I learned to play the instrument.

I started playing in my early 20s, after my line to God got disconnected, courtesy of Hyles-Anderson College. Stuck in the middle of the country with no funds to return home to New England, I had to figure out what to do next. At the time, mid-1984, I was 22, married, with a five-month-old son. My wife and I had spent our meager nest egg moving to Indiana, from Maine, on our quest to find some spiritual Mecca, following Jack Hyles.

Maybe God hadn’t entirely abandoned me, or maybe I was just plain lucky, but I managed—in the midst of double digit unemployment—to land a job that paid more than minimum wage, provided health insurance, and offered opportunities to work considerable overtime—did I also mention that it was at a prison?

Westville Correctional Center was a medium security prison, located about 10 miles northeast of Valparaiso, Indiana. From where we were living in Hobart when I was hired, Westville was a 25-mile straight shot east, out US 6.

While I could write volumes about my experiences working for four years in the bowels of a correctional facility, with its cast of characters, not limited only to inmates, I’ll spare you for now. My SPF post this week is about how I acquired my first guitar, and keeping with my format of five songs for the week, some of my favorite ones to play.

The first axe I ever owned was a cheap Les Paul copy electric that I paid $35 for. I had been working as a Med Tech at Westville for about a year when I noticed the 3 X 5 card on the break room bulletin board advertising the guitar.

I had always wanted to own a guitar, dating back to high school when my best friend, Dave Gray, a highly skilled player, told me that “my hands were too big to play the guitar.” Looking back, I think he enjoyed being the musician in our group of friends, and didn’t want any competition.

The guitar was owned by a guard at the facility and I drove over to his house in town on a Saturday and made the purchase. Since I didn’t own an amp, I improvised by playing it through my boom box.

My time in Indiana didn’t find me learning to play very well at all and I ultimately put the guitar away for a few years. When we moved back east in 1987, I began to work on my playing again, and even took a few lessons.

Since my acquisition of skills was piecemeal, plus I’d play for a few months and then, get bored and put the guitar away for months, and even years, it wasn’t until I started learning to play songs that I my playing finally moved forward.

While I’m still a rudimentary axeman, I can play a bunch of songs fairly well, and a few really well.

I haven’t been playing for most of the past year, and in fact sold a really nice Strat copy that I had, along with a vintage Fender amp last spring, in order to finance my trip to California to visit my favorite writer. I still have my trusty Yamaha acoustic, however, my first brand new guitar I ever owned. Last night I got it out and started playing it a bit.

In keeping with my SPF theme, here are five songs that I enjoy playing, which I’ll dub, “songs for my guitar.”

Woody Guthrie-This Land is Your Land/Library of Congress Recordings

Is there a song more American than this Guthrie classic? The chord progression is a simple one and this song is just so damn much fun to play and have people sing along with.

The myth surrounding the song states that Guthrie wrote it to counter Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a ubiquitous song that Guthrie was tired of hearing on the radio, with the attendant jingoism represented.

Given that Guthrie had seen much of America by this time, had experienced the worst aspects of the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, as well as the racism and classism that followed blue collar workers wherever they went, Guthrie wanted a new song about patriotism, one rooted in the reality of his world and the world of many others just like him.

Jimmy Eat World-The Middle/Jimmy Eat World

I stumbled upon this song by accident. I heard the chords, and liked the muted nature of the progression. I started fiddling around with it before I checked out the chords, and it wasn’t long before I was cruising through it.

Since I suck playing lead, the break isn’t anything I’ll ever master. It’s still fun to play. Even better, it’s a great song on the acoustic.

Three chords, people, a D, an A, and a G.

Semisonic-Closing Time/Feeling Strangely Fine

This album is one of my favorites in my collection. This song is one I never grow tired of hearing.

There are certain songs that sound fairly easy to play, but when I begin working them out, and figure out the chords, more times than not they have a change that my limited chops prevent me from even being perfunctory. I was afraid this would be one of them, but alas, it has the old comfortable G, C combination that I love, with an Am and D mixed in, so even for me, it’s easy to play. I also love to sing it.

Violet Burning-Berlin Kitty/Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic

I made one last trek back into the church after 9/11. The denomination was The Vineyard, and Sunday morning services featured some amazing contemporary music, at least compared to what I had experienced in church.

Mary and I joined a small group Bible study. Since no one in the group could play guitar, I volunteered to be the worship leader, meaning I had to learn a bunch of songs, including a song called, “Invitacion Fountain,” by a CCM band named The Violet Burning. Like most worship songs, it was a strummy little number, but I still enjoy playing it to this day, even if the lyrics don’t take me to a higher place, necessarily.

I picked up a couple of Violet Burning CDs, including Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic, which is much “harder” than most of their other stuff. Unlike many CCM bands, I think their music stands up well against a lot of secular music.

This song, which has a world weary vibe not found in most of what passes for “Christian” music has a cool riff that sounded great with my Boss distortion pedal turned up to heavy distort. I could play this verbatim, along with the disc, which really helped me with my confidence as an electric player.

Green Day-Working Class Hero/nstant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur

While the late John Lennon wrote and released this song, it was Green Day who got me turned onto the song.

There aren’t many songs that capture the class issue as well as this one. Billie Joe nails this in a way that is both contemporary, and also is true to Lennon. It’s a fitting song for the band and one of the best covers I’ve heard in quite some time.

Learned this one during one of the best vacations of my life, a week renting a rustic cottage in Steuben. We spent the day hiking, biking, and just enjoying time away from the grind of life. Without a TV, I’d read for a bit, and after everyone retired upstairs, out came my acoustic and I’d play for a good hour and then head to bed to do it all again the next day.

Nice hammer on with the Am—simple song that is made by the strum patterns.

That’s it folks, for this week’s guitar lesson.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Today is canceled

It's supposed to snow today. Every newscast for the past 24 hours has hyped this upcoming storm, the first supposed major snowstorm of the year.

I live in central Maine, so the forecast is for 4-8 inches of snow, before turning to a wintry mix, before winding down tonight. It's supposed to be windy. Nothing I haven't experienced before in my 47 years of winters.

So why are cancellations pouring in from all over, scrolling across the bottom of my television screen? If you choose to live in a winter environment, shouldn't you be able to cope with snow and wind? It used to be expected.

I don't think taxes and a preponderance of services is what's killing our state. I think it's that there is so little time in the year when business actually gets transacted.

We don't do anything all summer because the kids are home from school and it seems like every HR person and hiring manager is taking their 6-8 weeks of vacation time that they apparently have (I have two weeks). Then, between T-giving and Xmas, nothing gets done because everyone is out during work time shopping. Add to the stew of non-productivity the day before, the day of, and the day after a winter storm, which once again means reduced time in the office, and it's no wonder that Maine's economy resembles that of a third world nation.

It snows in Maine. Deal with it!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A prosperous faith

Sunday mornings now find me at the gym. I joined Planet Fitness in Auburn in an attempt to keep my fitness momentum moving forward during the dark days of winter. For the past several weeks, my goal has been to visit the gym 3-4 days per week, where I engage in 50-55 minutes of weight lifting, and another 30-45 minutes of cardio.

Weekdays, I tend to get up early and arrive by 5:30 a.m. in order to get my reps in before heading to the office. On Sunday, Planet Fitness doesn't open until 7:00, so I have to go a bit later.

This Sunday morning routine finds me on the treadmill or elliptical machine during part of my longer, two hour session. Being tethered to an exercise machine results in you being captive to the row of televisions projecting a mix of Fox propaganda, infomercials, and local weather at the AM fitness crowd. One program on The Discovery Channel that I've tuned into the past two Sundays is popular preacher, Joel Osteen, he of the great head of hair, as well as the nation's largest congregation, Lakewood Church, in Houston. To say his theology is suspect, would be putting it kindly. Like so many prosperity preachers, Osteen dispenses with the message of self-sacrifice, and living for others--in essence, Jesus' gospel--and has crafted a message that overflows with pure positivism. Osteen has distilled the Xian life into a series of steps (seven, to be exact), which if followed, guarntees that our existence will be happy, healthy, and blessed with everything that would make this life wonderful.

Actually, I haven't invested more than about 10 minutes the past two Sundays, kicking the tires, so to speak, on Osteen. When someone is hyped as much as he is, and you have some experience with movements that follow a man, then a few minutes listening to what someone like Osteen has to say, since he's wildly popular, is just staying abreast of an opponent, in my opinion.

Interestingly, in catching up with my Long Reads Twitter feed, I came across this article from The Atlantic Online, written by Hanna Rosin, provocatively titled, "Did Christiantiy Cause the Crash?"

Rosin's lengthy, well-written piece explores the prepondarance of preachers that peddle the prosperity message to tens of millions of Americans. While Osteen gets a mention, there are many other messengers that are promoting a brand of Christian faith that is a different kind of animal than the one I once embraced, and different than espoused by traditional evangelical theology. The article provides a blow-by-blow account of the gullibility of many that profess to be following Christ. It also shows that P.T. Barnum's adage about suckers is still alive and well in America.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Called by God

One of the things that I've gleaned from tracking stats for this site (beyond never having as much traffic as I'd like) is that writing connected to me, personally, seems to do much better, and attracts more hits, than most commentary on politics and culture. My music posts also do quite well, as well as anything tied to sports, although the post on Tiger Woods landed like fart in church.

With that in mind, and since I have quite a bit of material "in the can" that isn't ready to publish in various other forms--plus I have a desire to "test run" some of it--I've made a decision to post it at Write in Maine, my blog targeting writing--my own and the writing of other formidably more talented writers.

If you've been visiting Words Matter for awhile, you know about my experiences, "shipwrecked" in Indiana, after washing out as a student at Hyles-Anderson College, in beautiful Northwest Indiana, America's post-industrial armpit. In two weeks, it will be the 26th anniversary of our son's birth in Hammond, Indiana.

If you would like to know a bit more about my experiences in Indiana, and how I ended up there, head over to read my most recent post, about being called to preach.

There are times that I think I have a book about those unique experiences. Other times, I wonder if there is a demand for a memoir about a 22-year-old "kid" trying to find himself, thinking he's called by God to preach, and stranded with an equally young, pregnant wife, 1,500 miles from home, and the subsequent journey out from the bowels of a movement that was more cult, than actual religious movement.

My first in what I hope will be a series is called, "Call to preach."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Tiger tales

I don’t spend much time keeping up on the lives of celebrities. Since much of what passes for journalism is often no more than celebrity voyeurism, I have dramatically cut back on news watching, and my newspaper reading. Tiger Woods’ recent car accident is a case in point—not so much the accident, but the media fallout afterwards, and his apparent affair(s).

While tabloid fish wraps like The Enquirer, as well as publications like London’s Telegraph, and a slew of other North American mainstream pubs have been slinging salacious allegations about the world’s top golfer, there are precious few journalists out there delving into more substantive issues regarding Woods, his image, and other questionable activities that fan out far beyond this recent incident, whether or not it involves marital infidelity.

[Reuters photo]

One writer, who regularly covers a different side of sports than do most writers running that beat is Dave Zirin. His recent article at The Nation, where he serves as their sports editor, takes a look at areas of Woods’ reputation that never get talked about—his long-term relationship with Chevron, a company with an abysmal environmental record, not to mention their strong ties to Burma’s ruling military junta.

As Zirin notes, the press has been virtually silent about Woods while he’s made “deals that benefit dictatorships and unaccountable corporations, all in the name of his billion-dollar brand.” All of that’s ok. What he’s now being scrutinized over is his alleged marital infidelities, which are routine for entertainment types like Woods.

Zirin’s right—where was the press before now, when he was taking tainted millions from corporations, governments, and lending his name to golf courses in exotic locales built by slave labor—they were silent. Of course, in America, corporate malfeasance and exploitation of people are much less serious "sins" than cheating on one's wife.

Check out Zirin weekly at his Edge of Sports site.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving turkey talk

I’m still recovering from Thursday’s excesses. The extra four pounds I packed on has been halved, however. I hit the gym hard both Friday and again this morning, mixing in weights with an hour of cardio each time. By Tuesday morning, which is weigh-in day, I anticipate being back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight. Not too bad, and actually, if I hadn’t engaged in an evening binge of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and creamed onions, just a mere four hours after a dessert of pumpkin pie and apple crisp, I might already be back to my low ebb. I guess one food binge in 23 weeks isn’t too bad.

I spent time doing other things besides eating the past few days. One of the wonders of having time, and not being forced by work, and life in general to approximate a hamster on a wheel, is it gives us time to reflect, and even reconsider our modus operandi.

Over four days, I read, spent some time with my wife and son (home from Brown), played cards, and watched an amazing panel discussion yesterday, on C-SPAN2’s BookTV. The panel featured Chris Hedges, George Packer, and Sam Tanenhaus, taped a few weeks back, during the Miami Book Festival.

The panel, on “politics and culture” allowed all three authors to talk about their new books. Rarely are three erudite and articulate authors featured on television. In fact, television has long ago decided that it would rather trot out blow-dried talking heads and guests playing around the borders of credibility, rather than providing viewers with something more than mere sound bites, or endless harangues back and forth between so-called experts.

Chris Hedges, in describing his latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, a book he details by way of synopsis as a book about how Americans are “the most illusioned (sic) nation on the planet; we have become utterly disconnected from who we are, what we represent and where we are going—and replaced it with fantasy.”

Some of what Hedges discussed as part of the panel is the same ground that the late Neil Postman tilled two decades ago, when things weren't as dire. Hedges brings a critique of capitalism, however, into the mix, which I think puts his content into a more contemporary window than a mere rehash of Postman.

Packer, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, has released a book of essays called, Interesting Times: Writings From a Turbulent Decade. The essays are what Packer termed “long-form narrative journalism,” a type of journalism that is almost disappeared, outside the pages of a few print publications, one of them being The New Yorker.

Packer describes his book as being about places in the world—East and West Africa, Burma—that have fallen off the radar in the post-9-ll world we now inhabit. Packer, in unpacking one of his essays, about the civil war taking place in the Ivory Coast, described a group of 12 and 13-year-old soldiers that he met while in their country. They were all wearing t-shirts featuring the faces of either Osama Bin Laden, or George Bush.

When Packer asked these kid soldiers about their t-shirts, their thoughts and ideas were a “crazy mish mash” of images and slogans and ideas—some if it coming from hip-hop culture in the U.S. and some of it paying homage to Islamic jihadism.

After he had these conversations, Packer was able to have another discussion with an Italian doctor in the country working for a humanitarian medical organization. When Packer shared his conversation, and the images on the two t-shirts, this doctor said that this was a “perverse affect of globalization,” and called it “contagion by media.”

Today’s world is such that 24/7 media, via images that are broadcast through the web and global satellites, rather than knitting the world together, seems to be driving the citizens of that world apart, perpetuating violence and conflict.

Global media tends to frustrate, and promote alienation, according to Packer. The images that they are exposed to are selective, and provide an “intense, but very narrow view of the world.”

Americans, on the other hand, are receiving “sanitized” views of the wars taking place across the world. We’re bombarded by information and images, but rather than providing clarity and complexity to our thinking about the world, rather, most Americans hold a very simplistic, black and white view of the world.

Packer’s book of essays chronicles the world from the events on 9-11, to the rise of Barack Obama’s political star.

The third panelist featured, Sam Tanenhaus, spoke about his new book, The Death of Conservatism, a book that traces the lineage of modern conservatism, a form that Tanenhaus characterizes as “movement conservatism,” in contrast to the “traditional” form of conservatism that most right-wing gas bags, like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck, know little about.

Tanenhaus argued points about how Republicans must moderate their focus on ideological purity if they are to return from the political wilderness and offered a historical context, talking about Edmund Burke, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (who Tanenhaus characterized as “one of the most liberal presidents of the modern era.”

While Hedges was a bit “testy” during an exchange with Tanenhaus, the interplay, and the response to the audience members’ questions were some of the most interesting analysis I’ve listened to for quite a period about the current place we’re in here in America, with Hedges and Packer extending this out into the global sphere.

Interestingly, since joining the gym several weeks ago, I now am treated to semi-occasional glimpses at news channels, like Fox, while on the treadmill, or using the elliptical trainer. I rarely can watch more than one segment, but that brief look at what news has become—mere entertainment, with a veneer of credibility—is what Tanenhaus was talking about.

Here is the link to CSPAN’s archive of the panel.

There is an amazing sequence around the 26:00 minute mark, with Hedges answering a question, and gives a real clear delineation of what has happened to capitalism, with the shift from a “penny capitalism,” which Hedges describes by way of his experiences growing up in a farming community where farmers brought their wares to market and were paid, to the current form—described by Hedges as “corporate capitalism,” which he makes the point has radically upended American politics.

This 5-6 minute section is well worth watching for anyone that would appreciate hearing a clear understanding of where we are, and even, how we got there. It’s the kind of trenchant analysis you’ll never hear on Fox, CNN, or sadly, even NPR, which has become an apologist by-and-large for corporate benefactors.

I’m looking forward to reading all three of these books. I’d go a step beyond and say that if you are fortunate enough to have sophisticated friends, or family members that still care about narrative journalism, any of these three books would make an excellent Christmas gift.

In response to a question about Obama, Hedges refers to him as a “brand,” much like Calvin Klein, or Benetton were able to brand themselves with HIV/AIDS culture through ads trivializing the disease back in the-mid-1990s. Obama has not veered at all from the policies of the Bush administration, despite the ideological hoopla passing as journalism, as well as the antinomian tendencies of many on the right, and even on the pages of mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal that likes to pose as an institution of "old journalism," but at least since Rupert Murdoch took over ownership reins, more and more resembles the far right's print cousin.

As Hedges accurately indicates, Obama is a mere “figurehead,” and has been “emasculated” by corporate interests, the very same interests that have orchestrated the single largest wealth transfer upwards in American history, from the working and middle classes, to the rich.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Shuffle Play Friday-Shop 'til You Drop

Chuck Prophet-American Man/Let Freedom Ring

Prophet, former front man for Green on Red, a Tuscon-based roots rock outfit, loosely associated with LA’s Paisley Underground movement (along with Steve Wynn and Rain Parade).
Prophet’s new record, Let Freedom Ring, was recorded in Mexico City, not your typical locale for rock inspiration. Yet, as Prophet indicates in an article he penned for The Huffington Post, Mexico City has some interesting musical energy floating about.

“There's energy in the air. Bands sprouting up out of the cracked sidewalks. These days any kid can find the weird culture that suits him on the Web. It's surreal, but a delight, to see gangs of kids walking down the street in the Roma Norte district dressed as if they were in Kings of Leon.”

Pants Yell!!-Cold Hands/Received Pronunciation

Slumberland Records remains uniquely independent as a label and Pants Yell!! is my new favorite band name. Anchored by singer/guitarist Andrew Churchman, the band deftly maneuvers through nine jangly indie-pop songs in less than half an hour on the band's fourth album, and their first for Slumberland.

It’s hard to believe that Slumberland’s been around since 1989. Along with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance at Merge, Slumberland remains one of the few indie mainstays that have managed to persevere into the 21st century’s fragmented musical environment of iPod shuffle’s, music downloads, and a general apathy for independent music.

Slumberland has always been, and remains proud to be hailed as a “pop” label. As the Slumberland notes for the new Pants Yell!! record, the band has found their “spiritual home” on the label.

Bon Jovi-Superman Tonight/The Circle

Bon Jovi are rock legends. Love ‘em, or hate ‘em, this Jersey rock icon has been pumping out rockage for 26 years. That alone warrants attention.

The epitome of corporate rock in many ways, and the very antithesis of what usually entices me to a band, or performer, I have my few mainstream musical vices and Bon Jovi are one of them. I don’t apologize for this. Every man has to have a place where he can pull out an anthem, and Bon Jovi are anthemic.

What’s interesting is that while the band’s early chart success and their phenomenal album sales guarantee financial comfort, the band hasn’t necessarily taken the comfortable route the past decade, or longer. While they could certainly “dial it in” and put out rehashes of their former hits like “Livin’on a Prayer,” “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” as well as other chart toppers, their last few albums have actually taken some stylistic risks, like 2007’s Lost Highway, a very solid record, with a strong roots/country influence and vibe. Bon Jovi hasn’t shied away from reinventing themselves.

Of course, when you have Jon Bon Jovi fronting your band, still making women of all ages hot, at 47, it’s easy to overlook that Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora are talented songwriters, and the rest of the band, talented musicians. Hell, turning heads of women at 47 is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The Superman motif is something I’m attuned to. I actually had an earlier SPF focused on songs related to it. Lately, at least in my work life, I’ve felt like I have had to don a cape almost every day for the past three months.

Wesley Willis-Rock and Roll McDonalds/Greatest Hits, Volume 1

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. You’ve over-indulged and all good things you’ve accomplished on the weight-loss front have gone up in flames. In light of that, go out today and pig out at McDonalds. Have a Quarter Pounder w/ cheese and be sure to super-size that order of fries between your shopping stops during Black Friday . Hell, have two Quarter Pounders, a Big Mac, a super-sized order of fries, an apple pie (do they still have the deep fried pies that scald your mouth?), and wash it down with a large serving of Coca-Cola.

I don’t know why this song popped into my head yesterday, while eating turkey. Maybe that’s what caloric overload does—it alters brain chemistry.

The late Wesley Willis was a unique talent. Willis had been diagnosed as a chronic schizophrenic. His music and art (he produced hundreds of unusual colored ink-pen drawings, most of them of Chicagoland and various streetscapes) percolated with the details of life’s little things—like McDonalds—filtered through his special worldview.

Here’s what Jello Biafra wrote upon learning of Willis’ death:

As I got to know Wesley, what really struck me was his sheer will power, his unrelenting drive to succeed and over come a horrifically poor background, child abuse, racism, chronic schizophrenia and obesity among other things. He was the most courageous person I have ever known. Yet through it all he had such a deep, all-encompassing love of life. Little things, big things. He loved bus rides. He loved watching trains. He loved writing songs about how much he loved his friends. He loved traveling to new towns so he could headbutt new friends. Is there any band he saw that escaped being in their own song about how much he loved their show? He was so warm, so sweet, so giving. He could be a handful when he came to visit; but as soon as he left, we'd miss him immediately.

A Big Mac has 29 grams of fat. A Quarter Pounder w/cheese has 34 grams of fat.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Writing about food

Thanksgiving Day is a day when we enjoy food like few other times during the year. In a country that has lost the ability to cook, Thanksgiving is one of the few days when the kitchen stove gets fired up and food is actually prepared, and shared.

In light of that, I thought it was fitting that The New Yorker the week of Thanksgiving included four captivating “improvisations” about food preparation. These were penned by Judith Thurman, writing about aspic, Anthony Lane on eggs, Jhumpa Lahiri, about her father’s recipe for a rice dish that she referred to as pulao, and finally, Heston Blumenthal on duck.

Food writing is something I’m developing an interest in. What I find interesting about the best writing in this category is that it is often about much more than mere ingredients in a recipe, or simply reviews of restaurants and haute cuisine. Food, like most other subjects, has its own rhythm, politics, culture, and is often connected intimately to people, as well as their geography.

Lahiri’s improvisation was especially of interest because I had just read her essay in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, a marvelous book that seeks to update the state guidebooks that were created by the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project. She’s a wonderful writer, who covered Rhode Island for this captivating collection of state essays, where I first met her father.

Lahiri writes,

But there is another rice that my father is more famous for. This is not the white rice, boiled like pasta and then drained in a colander, that most Bengalis eat for dinner. This other rice is pulao, a baked, buttery, sophisticated indulgence, Persian in origin, served at festive occasions. I have often watched him make it. It involves sautéing grains of basmati in butter, along with cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, and cardamom pods. In go halved cashews and raisins (unlike the oatmeal raisins, these must be golden, not black). Ginger, pulverized into a paste, is incorporated, along with salt and sugar, nutmeg and mace, saffron threads if they’re available, ground turmeric if not. A certain amount of water is added, and the rice simmers until most of the water evaporates. Then it is spread out in a baking tray. (My father prefers disposable aluminum ones, which he recycled long before recycling laws were passed.) More water is flicked on top with his fingers, in the ritual and cryptic manner of Catholic priests. Then the tray, covered with foil, goes into the oven, until the rice is cooked through and not a single grain sticks to another.

Today is a day when I’ll sit down around the table with family, like many others. I know that I will appreciate the bounty and variety of foods that I’ll be sharing with others in our home.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, my regulars, and all the others that may have stumbled upon my writing, here at Words Matter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writers that kick

I'm sending this video to the Baltimore Ravens. I don't care if my son is enrolled in an MFA program, and wants to be a writer. Hell, on the strength of this video, he might get a tryout and if he kicks well, get a 10-day tryout.

He is going to play football, goddamit!

I kicked field goals all day from Mark Baumer on Vimeo.

I hope Billy Cundiff misses all his kicks this Sunday. Oh no! I just found out he kicked at Drake, collegiately, which makes a pretty good guy in my book, so I guess a football career for Mark is no big deal.

He's coming home for Thanksgiving and I'll hold if he wants to practice after dinner.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Know thy farmers

There are many things that industrial production has done to rob Americans of food’s value and benefit. One of the most basic things lost is our ability to enjoy food’s simplicity and its most basic components—things like vegetables, fruits, simple cheeses—and just as important, we’ve forgotten the culture of food that probably has been lost, beginning with our parents, possibly, but most likely, with us.

Michael Pollan, one of the best writers currently writing about food, touched on the phenomenon of American’s rabid interest in watching people cook and prepare food—some of it quite exotic—yet at the same time, they don’t cook, or take much interest beyond watching regarding their own food and its preparation. Or, as Pollan puts it, “the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.” Paradox indeed!

One of the things that my wife and I have found exciting is the amount of fresh locally grown foods that we can locate within 2-30 miles of our home. I think it’s much like that in many other parts of Maine, a state that isn’t considered a major agricultural producer. Trips this summer and fall on Saturday mornings to the state’s best farmer’s market, in Portland, have convinced us that Maine has a vibrant farming community around Portland, as well as many other communities nearby. It’s like that through much of the state, actually.

A quick 20-30 minute walk among the assorted, colorful vendor’s booths revealed familiar vegetables like carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, and lettuce. Other favorites, like beets, turnips, and parsnips also bid us hello. Even better, we began asking about other vegetables (one of the additional benefits of farmer’s markets—you get to talk to the experts who know the most about their products), discovering a wonderful root crop, like celeriac (or celery root), which is wonderful in soups, as well as kohlrabi (also called, German turnip), which has a texture like broccoli root and makes an awesome slaw.

As fall set in and many of the smaller outdoor markets ended for the season, like in Brunswick (held on the mall and on Saturdays as Crystal Spring Farm), a group of local farmers began holding an indoor market at Fort Andross, near the bridge between Brunswick and Topsham. This Saturday morning market, begun in 2008, now boasts over 30 vendors, with a wealth of vegetable, meat, and cheese options available to shoppers.

[Fort Andross in Brunswick; a former mill, it is now home to the winter farmer's market]

Not only does Saturday bring out many local farmers, but other vendors include some amazing artisan bread makers, including a local favorite of ours, Judy’s Kitchen, of Durham, who bakes breads, pies, pickles a variety of vegetables, and now is producing ChowChow. Chowchow, is a relish made from a combination of different vegetables: green and red tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, beans, asparagus, cauliflower and pies, which are pickled in a jar and served cold. The name is based on the French word chou for cabbage.

I have come to enjoy these forays each week to the farmer’s market. Not only do Mary and I get to pick from some of the best locally grown produce, grain-fed beef, free-range turkey, and even freshly harvested fish, we are getting to know our local food producers, ask questions about farming, and we have become connected to the food chain in a way that would never happen relying solely on our local supermarket.

In closing, Mary and I have made positive lifestyle changes, dating back to June. While both of us have lost significant amounts of weight (50 pounds for me and 26 for Mary), the more lasting result has been to get a handle on the way we eat, particularly choosing local options whenever we can get them. We still go to the local supermarket, mainly for our staples, but more and more, we are finding local food to be a better choice, and even in Maine, with winter rapidly bearing down on us, it appears that we’ll be able to stay connected to our local purveyors during the months between growing seasons.

Last night’s menu:

--Salad made from lettuce and fresh mixed greens, fresh carrots, and local broccoli (all grown within 30 miles of our home)
--Mary whipped up a warm Vinaigrette (Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe)
--Leftover minestrone/vegetable soup from the previous week’s farmer’s market run, which included locally grown parsnip, turnip, and celeriac root.
--Bread from a local bread maker that practically melted in our mouths and was the perfect accompaniment to our meal

Lastly, there’s an appreciation that comes from a meal like this one, shared together at our dining room table, not in a restaurant, or in front of the television. Conversation occurs, the food is enjoyed, and food becomes something sensual between people and helps ground and connect us.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Workin' for the Man

Four songs, and the briefest SPF yet. Work has been kicking my ass up and down I-95, and then beating me over the head every evening, and even in the early morning hours when I usually have time to write. Hopefully this stretch ends soon.

No time to write, with little time for music makes Mr. Jimmy a cranky boy.

Did I once say “I love my job?”

Kathleen Edwards-Hockey Skates/Failer

Kathleen Edwards burst onto the music scene in 2003 with her critically acclaimed Failer disc. You couldn’t turn on the radio and not here one of her songs being played on Adult Contemporary radio.

Edwards cites Neil Young as one of her influences, which makes sense if you’re a Canadian singer-songwriter. Being Canadian, Edwards also sings about Canada’s most favorite export—hockey.

I like Edwards’ writing. It’s gritty, and there are a wealth of references I connect with. Oddly, as Pitchfork noted, Edwards also produces the kind of stuff that wins “Grammys and sits on the coffee tables of well-behaved urbanites, who will shiver a bit when Edwards says ‘fuck,’ but quickly grin and giggle at her candor, clinking their martini glasses.” That’s irony, I guess.

John Doe-The Golden State/A Year In The Wilderness

John Doe has been a favorite of mine since I first “discovered” LA punk legends, X, back in the early 80s. Once you hear them, you never get Doe and Exene Cervanka’s restless harmonies out of your head.

Doe’s continued to record, act in films, and maintain a frantic work schedule that puts many of his younger peers to shame.

Interestingly, Doe and Edwards toured together back in the fall of 2008, co-headlining 11 dates, and she contributed vocals on Doe’s 2007 release. Their harmony on this track takes me back to when I first heard Doe and Cervanka for the first time. Of course, there’s only one Exene.

The Bottle Rockets-Indianapolis/24 Hours a Day

This is shit-kicking at its finest. One of the best stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere tunes ever written, IMHO.

This song nails a band’s worst nightmare, “broke-down” in a place that while, technically a city, isn’t exactly the cultural milieu where the songwriter wants to stranded. I think this line is so apropos to the singer’s plight:

Sittin' in this bar is gettin' more than I can stand,
If I could catch a ride, would they think I ditched this band.
Who knows what this repair'll cost, scared to spend a dime.
I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time!

The Bottle Rockets are one of many American bands that crank out fine tune, after stellar track, in relative obscurity. Since forming in 1992, the boys from Festus, Missouri have churned out 10 records, with nary a bad one in the bunch. This one, along with The Brooklyn Side are my favorites, with Zoysia being a close third.

Think Uncle Tupelo, with a bit more southern twang.

30 Seconds to Mars-Kings and Queens/Kings and Queens

I now try to catch Robin Ivy’s Zodiac Zone each day, leaving the house for another long work day. Ivy’s the longtime morning DJ on the only rock station left in southern Maine that plays music newer than 20 years old. Ivy gives her daily astrological forecast, and also provides the “color for the day.” She also gives daily music news updates, which is where I caught her talking about Thirty Seconds Over Mars and the short film, The Ride, set to their song, "Kings and Queens."

Set in Santa Monica, the film features hundreds of riders, descending on Santa Monica’s historic pier, where I spent some time, back in April. The film’s cool, so check it out.

For those who don’t follow music, or may know little about the band, 30 Seconds to Mars is actor Jared Leto’s band, formed back in 1998 with his brother, Shannon.

Jon Nolan-Hope, AR/When the Summers Lasted Long

Jon Nolan at one time fronted Say Zuzu, one of the best alt-country bands I’ve had the pleasure to catch live. I happened to see them the first time, at the Cumberland Fair, where they burned through a set for about 20 people. Subsequent live sets never failed to leave me in awe and wondering why they never had the success they obviously deserved. Did I mention that they were just great guys and always emanated appreciation for their fans.

Say Zuzu, who hailed from neighboring New Hampshire, slogged across many miles and American landscapes in their infamous “Bull,” their tour bus (and the title of their 1998 record) . Much bigger in Italy than they ever were stateside, nevertheless, to have seen and heard the band over their decade long run is to have loved them and their music.

Nolan, who is now plays mostly local gigs as a solo artist, released the amazing When The Summers Lasted Long in 2008, his debut disc.

“Hope, AR” is the final track on the song, and like “Indianapolis,” uses the locale of a breakdown to pen an ode to life on the road, at least the less enjoyable aspects of being a touring rock musician. It also happens to be the birthplace of our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Changing your orientation

How do you develop a habit? Procrastination is a habit, which is developed by never following through on anything. Are lifestyle changes anything more than just an alteration of habits? How long does it take to make significant changes in areas like eating, exercise, or developing the habit of writing (yes, developing your writing craft is a habitual activity)?

There is a myth that is perpetuated by online research (basically, a Google search with the string, “how long does it take for something to become a habit”) that says that breaking a habit takes 21 days. Gretchen Rubin, at Psychology Today’s blog, The Happiness Project, had a post about this, back in October. I just ran across it.

Rubin links to an article and study that shows that developing even simple habits “could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit.”

Positive changes don’t happen overnight (or in 21 days). It involves a change in orientation, which is what I’ve been experiencing in my own life, given the lifestyle changes I’ve made. While the feedback I’m now receiving via self-evaluation and from others can be flattering, it was literally weeks, and even months before that occurred.

Significant changes require a mindset and a determination to do the right thing, long before a habit becomes ingrained, and often before the changes are noticed by others. Better, success in anything isn't about a lucky rabbit's foot, a talisman or amulet, weird diets, or self-help videos.