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.