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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Poker 101

My intention has been for SPF to be at best, a semi-regular feature here at Words Matter. If not necessarily a fresh post every Friday, certainly a couple of posts per month on one of my favorite subjects—music—I never intended to drop the ball for three weeks, however.

A lot has happened since I last posted my last SPF. Ironically, my last SPF three weeks ago found me repping the number three, as in Joel Plaskett’s triple record, the triply delightful Three.

Over the past 21 days, I joined a gym, have lost a few more pounds, and I’m not too pleased to mention that my home state decided to dubiously embrace its state motto of Dirigo (means, “I lead”) by becoming the first state to reject a gay-marriage law that was approved by the legislature and signed by our governor—same-sex couples are now second class citizens in our state. Music, as always continues to provide support, inspiration, and a soundtrack by which to navigate this veil of tears.

Poker Rapper-Squeeze Play/10 Card Commandments

Poker Rapper, aka J. Taka, is married to my niece. To me, he’s simply been JT. Little did I know that this always funny, and sometimes retiring member of my extended family was destined to become a poker legend.

By day, he’s a network engineer, IT geek (in the best sense of the word), and all-around good guy, but when the night falls, he’s a poker rapping fool. He now has a new mixtape/CD out, announcing to the world that he knows how to squeeze, stall, and grind with the best of them.

Actually, JT (as I’ll forever know him, blowing up, or not) is no stranger to Maine hip-hop fans, the creator/founder of longtime online hip-hop oasis, Appleton Radio.

I ordered the disc two weeks ago and had it sitting around on my stereo. Two days ago, I threw it into my CD player upstairs and began blasting it during a treadmill session. The 10 tracks got me through my workout and then some.

Bisson obviously knows his stuff, as he recently proved by winning a trip to the Aruba Poker Classic via Ultimate Bet, and having the chance to rap, and also sit at the table with some of the legends (all verified in the best journalistic fashion by asking his wife) of poker.

Pick up the disc (or download from the site) and Bisson will have you talking poker smack like a true champion.

The Hold Steady-Chill Out Tent/Boys and Girls in America

In May 2007, I made a trip back to Indiana, scene of my fundamentalist train wreck some 20 years earlier. I chronicled the “Pleasantville” qualities of my first day, and subsequent observations returning to the land of Hyles.

Tucked into my suitcase were six CDs I had brought with me, one of them being The Hold Steady’s BAGIA, which became the soundtrack for my daily journeys, first exploring NW Indiana’s post-industrial wasteland, and later in the week, when I journeyed across farm country, to Fort Wayne, reconnecting with an old Bible school buddy, now pastoring an inner-city church, while engaged in many interesting entrepreneurial ventures in another post-industrial Midwestern hub.

I’ve written before about the lyrical genius of Craig Finn, and his former band, the legendary Lifter Puller. The Hold Steady, Finn’s current focus, are a band that are destined to be under-appreciated by fickle rock connoisseurs, a band that Pitchfork accurately (in my opinion) characterizes as sounding better “sandwiched between "Born to Run" and "Back in Black" than Illinois and Tigermilk. In other words, the more likely you are to use music as a social lubricant than as a social balm, the more likely you are to enjoy the Hold Steady.” What that means, I think, is that The Hold Steady get shunned by some in the indie scene because they aren’t weird, or quirky, or lack any historical context for their music. Instead, Finn writes literate lyrics that tell stories about people we all know, and the band packs a wallop, equally capable of carrying off their rockmanship in a club setting, or an arena.

‘Tis the nature of today’s fragmented world of rock and roll.

This particular tune, which captures the day in the life of two disparate characters—the college girl from Bowdoin and the working class stiff, who takes the day off, “his first day off in forever, man,” who shows up at the musical festival in “western Mass.,” probably Amherst, and how their two worlds of polar opposites and separate social classes get shoved together when both O.D. during one of the musical sets.

The Bowdoin Girl:

there was a stage and a PA up in western massachuttes,and the kids came from miles around to get messed up on the music.and she drove down from Bowdoin with a carload of girlfriends,to meet some boys and maybe eat some mushroomsand they did and she got sickand now she's pinned and way too shaky.she don't wanna tell the doctor everything she's takenthe paramedics hovered over her like a somber mourning familythey gave her activating charcoal, they flooded her with saline

The Working Class Stiff:

he was rough around the edges:he'd been to school, but never finished,he'd been to jail, but never was his first day off in forever, manthe festival seemed like a pretty good plan,cruise some chicks and get a sun-tan.and his friend gave him four, but said only take one,but then he got bored and ended up taking all four.ah, so now my man ain't that bored anyways,the paramedics found him: he was shaking on the side of the stage.

And then the chorus:

Him (the boy):"Everything was spinning and I came to in the chillout tent,they gave me oranges and cigarettes."Her (the girl):"I got really hot and then I came to in the chillout tent"Both:"They gave us oranges and cigarettes."

Great, great song, and just one of many Finn masterpieces across a career that will one day be lionized I’m sure, posthumously.

Simon Scott-Spring Stars/Navigare

Simon Scott once drummed for Slowdive, one of those great turn-of-the-90s bands, in the same vein as Galaxy 500, My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, and a host of others that got lumped in as being “shoegazer.”

Slowdive’s Souvlaki, which came out in 1993, was voted by the Guardian as “one of the top 50 albums to hear before you die,” in 2007. Quite heady praise, indeed.

Scott has a new solo record out, and this track, first heard on Irene Trudel’s weekly two hours of wonder on WFMU, features a nice slide guitar carrying the melody, and the song has a textural quality that works well.

I actually found an interesting music site that includes an interesting track-by-track analysis of the record by Scott.

In-Flight Safety-Model Homes/We Are An Empire

In keeping with my Canadian musical fixation of late, In-Flight-Safety gives me no reason to abandon that orientation.

“Model Homes” is possessed by a plaintive, mournful melody that speaks volumes, connecting personally with me to where I’m at, where I’ve come from, and possibly where I’m headed.

Good songwriting has the capacity to speak to people across a variety of experiences, and I think this tune is one of those songs that does that very well. Based in musically fertile Halifax, IFS create atmosphere and textures with their sound.

John Mullane, IFS’s vocalist describes their sound as “cinematic.” Since I love cinema, and I dig their sound, I’d say he’s done a good job with that description.

The band’s been around since 2003 and We Are An Empire indicates that the best is yet to come.

Yo La Tengo-Periodically Double or Triple/Popular Songs

YLT are indie rock royalty. Popular Songs is album #16 for the band over their 25-year career. That’s a lifetime given that most bands outside of rock’s limelight rarely put out a second, or a third record.

It’s rare in underground rock’s fragmented universe of musical schizophrenia, to find a band that consistently produces good to great music every time they come out with a new release. There are few other bands that occupy that rarefied status—possibly Sonic Youth, and maybe Built to Spill—certainly few others with the track record and consistency of YLT.

I can never get enough of Ira Kaplan’s guitar wankery, particularly when it is accompanied by James McNew’s soaring organ. On this one, however, there is a more subdued approach, at least at the beginning. This particular track features McNew’s funk organ swirls on a Motown-influenced groove. The last three tracks ratchet up the noise and allow the trio to stretch out, clocking in at 9:39, 11:25, and the epic closer, “All The Glitter Is Gone,” with a track length of 15:54.

It’s hard to believe that it was 15 years ago that I first saw the band for free, playing one of the lounges at Bowdoin College. It appears that the band’s lost nothing with over time, continuing to defy the tendency to become a parody, or nostalgia act, a scourge for many of their aging rock peers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Industrial food in America

The older I get, I continue to marvel at how little I truly comprehend the level of "fucked-upness" that pervades the culture I'm trapped living in the midst of. Take for instance, food--or something closely resembling the industrial approximation that comprises the diet of average Americans.

Writing about food is a lot like writing about religion. Americans generally know little about either topic, but that doesn't stop them from getting offended when you broach the subject. Better, both topics are chock full of misinformation, myth, and downright destructive ideologies.

I just got done listening to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, on CD. I'd read most of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and have consistently sought out his columns in the New York Times and other places, writing about food in America. Pollan regularly has stated that the food system in our country is a matter of national importance. It rarely is framed, however, in almost any political debate, or discussion.

What I love about Pollan is that his writing on the topic hits us right between the eyes, like when he wrote back in July, in the New York Times Magazine “How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For 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.” Food, like just about everything else in our land of make-believe has become just another spectator sport.

Because Americans have become ahistorical, Pollan's thoughts and ideas seem new, and somewhat offputting to anyone that thinks high fructose corn syrup is one of the essential food groups. Actually, others have firmly tamped this ground before, writers like Wendell Berry, before Pollan, and Joan Gussow both understood the connection between dietary health and its connection to our agriculture, and policies that drive it. One can even go back further to Sir Albert Howard, British botanist and organic farming pioneer, in the 19th century. Pollan references all three in his latest treatise on food, in which he indicts the American food industry as the cause for our plague of obesity, diabetes, coronary disease, and cancer, to name a few of the serious health issues that now are rampant across the U.S. Let's have a conversation about health care reform, and while having that conversation, let's also place part of the blame squarely where it belongs in this conversation; firmly on the American diet of highly processed, industrial foods.

I'm now more than four months into a journey that I don't plan on turning back from. I've faced up to some truths in my own diet that weren't easy to tackle at first. As weight has come off, and I've become conscious of what I'm putting into my mouth and body, the words of Pollan have resonated with me.

Health is more than how much you weigh, or how many times you exercise each week. Pollan boils his ideas down into their most basic element when he states, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Not a bad manifesto for Americans to adopt.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Maine revisits Prohibition-era

If you've ever attended a wine tasting, you'll know how informative and enjoyable these can be. For someone like me, who never knew much about wine, and whose experiences with the fruit of the vine consisted mainly of toasts with really bad, discounted wines at family gatherings, the past couple of years of occasional tastings accompanying the wine drinker in the family--my wife--have been great. I'm still no expert, but I now can tell the difference by taste between a cabernet, a merlot, or a shiraz.

Recently, Mary informed me about a law that has curtailed these monthly events at wine merchants across the state, including a couple of her favorite wine venues--RSVP, in Portland, and Freeport Cheese and Wine.

A new law, sponsored by Rep. David Webster (D-Freeport) has put a damper on wine tastings at wine merchants and other establishments that held these regularly. The new regulation requires every seller of wine to reapply for permission to hold wine tastings. Since Maine has only five inspectors covering the entire state, it has basically closed down an important element that merchants use in promoting, and ultimately selling wine.

My first forays into the world of wine tasting began about five years ago. A small shop in Freeport (now shuttered), whose owners happened to live in our town, sent out mailings to all the residents in town. Mary dragged me to my first event that July, and I've been a semi-regular at a variety of tastings in Freeport, Portland, and a few other locales since.

While I don't drink wine regularly (I'm a beer kinda' guy), I've come to appreciate a nice red with my steak, and particularly enjoy other varieties of wine with special meals. Sometimes, having a nice chianti Fridays, at pizza night is a great way to wind down after a demanding week.

Mary's been mentioning this issue now for several months, and this morning, she put the Portland Forecaster in my hands, doing something I often do with her--"here, read this article--"offering a better explanation of an issue than I can usually give. Her rationale was wanting me to have a broader sense of the issue with wine tastings, and how they've been shut down by a stupid piece of legislation.

Steve Mistler, who has written for this venerable monthly for quite some time, does a good job showing the idiocy of Webster's bill, and the consequent difficulties this has visited on businesses, many of them Webster's own constituents. What is particularly troubling is that it hurts small businesses particularly hard.

From my own experiences, it's not unusual for Mary and I, after attending a wine tasting, to pick up several bottles of various types of wines that we've just sampled and enjoyed. We might spend $50-100 that particular evening, and bring them home and have them in our wine refrigerator to enjoy with a meal in the future. Others do the same, with a few spending much more than that on wines. It's obvious to see that this legislation removes some serious cash flow from local businesses.

From Mistler's article, I gather that Webster was more concerned about supermarket liquor events where "booze, race cars and scantily-clad women" were going to be present. The article goes on further, doing a good job painting Webster as the "boob" that he is, when it has an additional quote from him saying that "we wanted to give parents a fighting chance to go to a grocery store and not have to wade through a sea of drinking adults." Some of the merchants that Mistler interviewed were none too pleased with Webster's explanation, including Peter Leavitt, of Leavitt & Sons Deli in Falmouth, who characterized the bill as "stupid," and "neo-Prohibitionist."

I understand New England's Puritan past, but good lord, why can't consenting adults be trusted enough to enjoy adult beverages without government nazis and anti-drinking zealots taking that away from us?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Post-election day, 2009

Waking up in the wee hours, I went to Twitter first for my news, and then various news sites, often linked from Tweets--another example of how technology changes the way news travels and how we access it.

Sadly, Maine's opportunity to take the lead and be the first state in the country to endorse gay marriage via referendum was defeated, and the vote wasn't as close as pundits had predicted. One year after California's Proposition 8 struck down gay marriage in the country's largest state, it was hoped that Maine, might counter and endorse same-sex marriage, providing supporters with the political breakthrough they coveted. In the end, the effort was thwarted. Like in California, gay-marriage supporters were outflanked by those wanting to protect "traditional" marriage, and once again, Maine, like California before, with its Proposition 8 referendum, was flooded television ads warning voters that legalizing gay unions could change the way children are taught about marriage in schools, and other misinformation. Even worse, Maine's Catholic Diocese, an organization with no moral authority, used its tax-exempt status and pulpits to lobby against civil rights for all of Maine's citizens.

[Bangor Daily News photo/Bridget Brown]

I found this while surfing for results, a "Love letter to Maine" from a couple that hoped for a different result on Question 1.

Seeking election results, there were some positives for me as the results of the other questions were settled. Both question 2 and question 4, two other measures that I had been following closely were soundly defeated.

Here's the results from Tuesday, with most of Maine's precincts reporting:

Question 1

With 87 percent of precincts reporting, the campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law won with 53 percent of the vote vs. 47 percent opposed to Question 1, according to unofficial results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.

Question 2

Question 2, one of two tax initiatives on the ballot, was trailing 74 percent to 26 percent as of 1 a.m. with 87 percent of statewide results tallied and it appears that it will be roundly defeated.

Queston 3

Maine voters rejected a move to repeal the state’s school district consolidation law, an initiative that was of greater concern in Maine's rural areas, than in the more populated parts of the state. It was voted down soundly, with a vote count of 284,117 to 201,203 — or 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent — against repealing the law.

Tuesday's vote appeared to have fallen largely along an urban-rural, north-south divide. Voters in Maine's southern counties --where cities and larger towns were largely exempted from merger requirements -- voted to keep the law.

Northern counties, where dozens of towns found themselves out of compliance with the law -- and now face more than $5 million in penalties starting July 1 -- voted in favor of erasing the mandate.

Question 4

Question 4, known as TABOR II (another in a long line of "taxpayer bill of rights" initiatives), conceded defeat shortly after 10 p.m. on Tuesday. With 87 percent of precincts tallied, the vote was 60 to 40 in oppostion.

Question 5

A proposal to expand the availability of medical marijuana in Maine was headed for passage late Tuesday night.

Question 5 would expand Maine's medical marijuana law to permit marijuana to be used for treatment of many more conditions, and to create a system in which patients can get the drug from nonprofit dispensaries.

With 136 precincts reporting statewide, 22 percent, the proposal was leading 71,620 to 43,244 -- a 62 percent to 38 percent edge.

Maine is one of 13 states that allow the use of medical marijuana, a group that includes Montana, Hawaii, Rhode Island and California.

Question 6

Voters in Maine supported a $71 million transportation bond nearly 2-to-1, according to unofficial voting results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting, more than 65 percent of voters said yes to Question 6.

Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, was encouraged earlier in the evening with how widespread backing for the bond appeared.

“So far we are seeing that there is support both in rural and urban parts of Maine,” she said. “This year people are very anxious about the economy, but Maine people have been pretty consistent about supporting transportation bonds.”

Mainers have traditionally supported bond issues for transportation, given the state's rural character and dependence on roads, passing every transportation bond issue voted upon over the past 40 years.

Question 7

Question 7 on Maine’s ballot was a constitutional amendment designed to give clerical workers extra time to count signatures on citizen referendums and people’s vetoes.

Given that five of seven questions on this year’s ballot are people’s vetoes or citizen initiatives, each requiring at least 55,087 signatures to be approved as a ballot question, this puts a strain on municipal offices throughout the state as clerks and other personnel must verify each signature on petitions to ensure that they are registered voters. Because petitions are often submitted shortly before they are due, clerical staffers at municipal offices often don’t have the time to count signatures before they are required to return them to the circulators. Question 7 would have increased that time to 10 days. Municipal office staffers currently get five days.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting, 52.2 percent of voters, numbering about 252,332 had voted against the measure as of 1 a.m. On the other side, about 47.8 percent of voters, totaling 230,890 people, supported the measure.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Civics in the age of (dis)information

One of the ongoing issues plaguing American politics, and by extension, any pretense towards dialogue, is the institutionalized ignorance brought about by our continued failure to properly provide instruction to our young in the area of civics. While other advanced societies, mainly western, provide a strong foundation to children in school, the U.S. fails mightily in this area. As a result, we must bear with ignorance at every turn, and often, turn of the radio knob, or channel scroll.

I met a woman a few years ago. We connected on a personal level, mainly through my books, and some of the things I’d written about my former hometown. Initially, our conversations were based on mutual interests and passion for people and for local places. Over time, however, I realized that we had political differences that were impossible to bridge. I was a left-leaning independent voter, with quasi-libertarian tendencies, and she was a right-wing ideologue, supporting people and ideas that I found abhorrent, and intellectually dishonest. Some of these ideas were plain bat-shit crazy.

This isn’t limited to my own small circle of acquaintances and the people I brush up against, either. Take for instance the entire “birther movement.” This group/movement has as their foundation the belief that Mr. Obama is ineligible to be our President because he is not a “natural born” citizen.

I had been hearing rumblings about this from the far right edges of the political landscape, but Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker helped bring it into sharper focus for me. Kolbert cites a poll indicating twenty-eight percent of Republicans surveyed don’t think that Obama was born in the U.S., and another 30 percent said they were unsure. Kolbert’s point, a somewhat scary one, is that over half of Republicans surveyed by this poll doubt the legitimacy of the U.S. government.

Tying this into technology, Kolbert references the writings of Cass R. Sunstein. Sustein taught for 27 years at the University of Chicago Law School. He now heads up the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is known as a prolific legal scholar who has produced a wide swath of written material, including four books on the topic of information, or better, the avalanche of information available via technology. Kolbert uses the term “virtual civics” to classify Sunstein’s four books about issues pertaining to truth, and the idea that if information is good, then more information must be better; or as Sunstein views it, “the Web has a feature that is even more salient: at the same time it makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable.” Basically, if something doesn’t square with my presuppositions, often wedded to an ideological position, then to hell with it—I’ll just ignore it. Consumers can now filter what they see or hear. (See/hear no evil)

In 2.0, Sunstein writes, “I do not mean to deny the obvious fact that any system that allows for freedom of choice will create some balkanization of opinion.” Choice now has been taken to a new level, and the consequences are not positive, in my opinion.

Group polarization—people’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with other likeminded adherents—is becoming increasingly widespread and has infected American politics like the plague. This isn’t the bastion of right-wingers, either. Spend an hour, or so, reading the comment sections of Huffpo, the DailyKos and other well-trafficked left-wing blog sites, and you'll recognize that this tendency exists at both ends of the spectrum.

Because I’ve read Richard Hofstadter extensively, and also because much of what he wrote looks back on a time that now can be viewed within a historical context—helping provide a framework for our current period—I was pleased when Kolbert referenced the following snippet of Hofstadter’s description of an equally dark period, some 45 years ago, during the era of Barry Goldwater. Hofstadter wrote, “I call it (that period, which could easily be describing our current time) the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Never before has the need to beef up civics education been any more urgent than during our present time of disinformation.

You can test your own level of civics literacy here.

Here are my results:

You answered 28 out of 33 correctly — 84.85 %

Average score for this quiz during November: 77.7%
Average score: 77.7%

I missed the following (with their correct answers)-

Answers to Your Missed Questions:
Question #6 - D. establishing an official religion for the United States
Question #7 - D. Gettysburg Address
Question #10 - C. Religion
Question #26 - C. revenue minus expenses
Question #33 - D. tax per person equals government spending per person