Sunday, April 26, 2015

55 Thoughts and Beliefs at 55

I turned 55 today, and I took some time to write down 55 things I think or believe.  I tried not to plagiarize anyone's words at all, and tried not to be too trite with the thoughts.

1.         I’m not positive I could truly distinguish charcoal grilling from propane in a blind taste test, but I don’t often eat with a blind fold on.

2.         I’ve been fortunate to be living through the greatest beer renaissance in history.     

3.         It’s a tremendous coincidence that almost everyone in the world believes that their religion is the true one, and that they were lucky enough to be born into it.

4.         I wish I had taken more vacations to make memories when the kids were younger.

5.         Crisp and salty, sweet and sticky, soft and buttery – there are plenty of great taste/texture combinations in the world, but these three are at the top of the mountain.

6.         Being good and being nice are usually the same thing, but not always.

7.         If someone’s belief in divine oversight is all that keeps that person from mayhem, I don’t want to challenge that person’s theology, even though I think it’s wrong.

8.         When you’re traveling, fast food is dependable, but the point of travel is not sameness.

9.         There are some people in this world to whom I was a complete jerk.  I don’t expect their forgiveness, but I hope they know I’m trying to do better.

10.       Atheism requires the same ability to pretend that you know things as the most fundamentalist religions.

11.       Nuclear physics is no more understandable to me than medieval theology, but I trust physicists more than priests. 

12.       I am capable of being wrong about things I have thought long and hard about. 

13.       Dave Brubeck’s music is like the soundtrack to my life if I were infinitely more cool.

14.       People who think that both political parties are the same need to pay more attention to the specifics.

15.       I still have the sense of humor I should have grown out of in my teenage years.

16.       When leaders try to convince you that another group of people is a bunch of inhuman monsters, they want you to become the same.

17.       You don’t really save much time by speeding in city traffic.

18.       No church I’ve ever encountered has an accurate or believable theology.

19.       It’s hard to believe that you’re a strictly rational person if a bunch of musical notes played in a certain pattern can change your mood.

20.       Pundits are not paid to be truthful, accurate or insightful.

21.       The best hobbies allow you to concentrate completely on something that doesn’t really matter much.

22.       PGA on the television is great background for a Sunday nap.

23.       Baseball on the radio is a great American sound.

24.       Someday I hope I learn that there’s no real advantage to waiting until the needle is on “E” to fill up the tank on a long road trip.

25.       If you feel you need to buy a gun because you’re afraid of crime, you’ve already surrendered your peace of mind.

26.       A happy dog greeting is a shot of pure joy.

27.       Some great poetry exists without rhyme or traditional structure, but not very much.

28.       Even an average tree is mind-blowing if you look at it.

29.       I tell myself I want to travel more, but I don’t even get up and explore Kansas City as much as I should.

30.       I used to think that going into the “helping professions” was somehow nobler than business, but a successful businessperson can accomplish tremendous things with a well-aimed check.

31.       What kind of sense does it make for me to send a check to a politician who is richer than I am?  If they’re not willing to invest until they are down to my level, why should I?

32.       If you look at a field with horses or cows in it, they are usually gathered near each other rather than spaced out evenly.  Humans are mostly the same. 

33.       Lawns are dumb, and an example of how we let peer pressure make us do dumb things.  I’d rather have an herb garden out front.

34.       Bass players are almost always the coolest people on stage.

35.       When you’re traveling, it’s best not to eat within a mile of an Interstate highway.

36.       I am generally a peaceful, well-mannered person, but bring me to a hockey game, and I turn into a bloodthirsty screamer.  It’s kind of unsettling.

37.       I know everyone probably thinks this, but, really, my group of friends is the most amazing group in the world.

38.       I’m never sure what it means when people say the US is the greatest country in the world.  I’m sure that Belgium, Bolivia and Bhutan think the same thing.

39.       At 55, I think I’ve missed out on my best years for mountain climbing.  Really, that doesn’t bother me at all.

40.       Golf is an amplifier for your inner self, good and bad. 

41.       Racism exists in everyone.  People who deny it are both racist and not struggling to improve.

42.       It makes good sense to invest in high quality items you use all the time.  A dependable car, well-made knives, and good pots and pans pay me a dividend every time I use them.

43.       I understand that the people with confederate (“loser”) flags aren’t racists at all, and are merely proud of their heritage, but I wonder why they choose the most racist and offensive period of time in their ancestry to trumpet.  Why aren’t they displaying WWI flags, or something from the War of 1812?

44.       I wish that people who go to concerts and then talk loudly through the whole thing would just go away. 

45.       It’s really easy to get calcified in your music taste, but it’s worth the effort to enrich your musical horizons by trying new stuff.

46.       If relative peace can be achieved in Northern Ireland, it’s possible elsewhere, too.

47.        It is a rewarding challenge to my chatterbox mind to stand in front of an abstract painting and not understand it, but allow myself to feel it and my reactions to it.

48.       I think the best form of government would be to hand the country over to the editorial board of the New Yorker, and allow them to run things with the same intelligence, wit and intellectual curiosity they bring to the magazine.

49.       Red and yellow delicious apples are a triumph of marketing over virtue.

50.       People probably weren’t meant to live anyplace that palm trees don’t grow. 

51.       If we paid the consequences for all our bad behaviors, we would all be in a terrible state.  A lot of people in terrible circumstances haven’t really behaved worse than us, but they weren’t as lucky.

52.       Insults that don’t have a grain of truth in them are easy to ignore.  Those with a grain of truth, though, hit deep.

53.       Fountain pens are unnecessarily difficult and risky, but I still like the experience of using them.

54.       Men like to think of themselves as independent thinkers beholden to nobody, but they scrape sharp metal over their faces every day so that they look a certain way.

55.       I really don’t understand how pizza wasn’t big in the United States until after World War II.  Baked dough, sauce and cheese – wasn’t that kind of obvious?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Go!" (Jump in a Lake)

"What's the best beer list in Westport?  Go!"
"Which of these hairstyles would look best on me?  Go!"
"Font suggestions for my new resume.  Go!"

If you're one of the Facebook denizens who likes to gather feedback by imagining your friend list as a group of eager-to-please racers lined up waiting for your signal to frantically offer you our best efforts, just stop it.  

If you want your friends' advice, ask for it.  If you want to create a competition of people trying to impress you, keep dreaming.

Tracker, by Mark Knopfler (album of the week)

Mark Knopfler’s new album, Tracker, delivers exactly what I expected - beautiful, nuanced, thoughtful rock that raises my spirits if not my pulse or my eyebrows.  It is better than I had hoped, but I guess I kind of expected that, too.  Mark Knopfler at his best is the musical equivalent of comfort food and good beer, something that fills my heart with feelings of well-being and good will.

The first song on the album is an absolute triumph of Knopfler’s musical genius.  It starts and ends with homage to one of my favorite pieces of music, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”.  It’s a neat statement of seriousness and musical sophistication surrounding a more Celtic folky song with a maritime bent.  The easy mixture is a gentle tap on the shoulder – “pay attention here – this is enjoyable music, but that doesn’t mean it’s shallow.”

Another gem is “River Towns”, which blends Knopfler’s trademarked fluid guitar style with an evocative, haunting saxophone.  It tells the tale of a shabby hook-up by the banks of the Ohio River.  At the end, the encounter exacts an unexpected cost:

something’s hit a nerve
And I’m looking in the mirror
At the face that I deserve.

“Silver Eagle” is a touching piece about passing on a tour bus through the town of a former lover, and not reaching out.  It describes the experience of performing on stage:

At his feet a sea of faces
Make devotions with their love
Clap their hands and plead their cases
Call for blessings from above
Like the rolling waves forever massing
To crash and foam and creep away

Many of the songs center on the walking wounded.  Whether it’s a literal wound, as in “Broken Bones” (a jumpy, hand-clapping, tough guy answer to the Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”) or the frustrated poet/copy boy in “Basil”, Knopfler is a master of empathy.  The album is populated with underdogs painted in warm colors.  It’s a generous album, filled with love, not a voyeuristic freak show.  Dire Straits made millions sneering at some knuckleheads in “Money for Nothing”, but Knopfler’s rich, deep, weathered voice has mellowed to the point that it doesn’t seem to have the edge for a sneer.  Or maybe he’s matured past the point of sneering.  Regardless, what is left is warm, generous and comfortable.

I’ve only been listening to this album for a week, and I can already tell this is going to wind up on my long-time playlist.   “Wherever I Go”, a long-distance love song is probably going to raise the hairs on my arm when I’m driving in the night for years to come, with the touching duet of Knopler and Ruth Moody, accentuated by the saxophone and every-bit-as-majestic guitar work. 

I probably owe an apology to the readers for completely abandoning the cynicism and edge I try to bring to most of my reviews.  I’m sorry, but all that melted away with the first song.  If you’re looking for something to complain about, I expect you could quibble with “.38 Special”, a banjo piece that compares a gambler’s heart favorably to politicians and insurance men, but I think it’s worth keeping just so those dull-witted reviewers who claim the album sounds all the same look a little bit foolish.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin also expresses her appreciation of the album.  She complains that it is a little long, perhaps even tending toward tedium, but that might be my own fault, for getting us the Deluxe version which included four extra songs.  Having written the above review before reading hers, I was relieved that she did not claim that the album sounds all the same.

Next up: Ivy Tripp, by Waxahatchee

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, by Courtney Barnett (Album of the Week)

“Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” is funny, intriguing, and musically spot on.  When Robin chose this one for our series of reviews, I had no idea who Courtney Barnett is – now she’s my second-favorite Australian (ONJ will never be displaced). 

The music on this album is solid rock.  Great guitar work, solid drums, up-tempo bar band rock.  It works perfectly with the lyrics, which are clever and hooky, but could come off as introspective and self-absorbed if not for the energy supplied by the bouncy melodies.

Which isn’t to say that the lyrics aren’t strong enough to maintain interest, even if they were doomed to an acoustic, quiet-voiced treatment.  Good stuff abounds.  The opening track is about a young man dodging his responsibilities by skipping work – but he gets mistaken for a potential suicide.  His accuser – well, she might be the one thinking of jumping, with her botox frown.  It’s a quirky, surprisingly fun song, and it’s the only one on the album that isn’t centered on Courtney Barnett’s thoughts and feelings.

This is not at all a suicide album – Courtney Barnett’s style is too tackle things head-on.  In the second track, “Pedestrian at Best”, she embraces her flaws and insecurities, and assures the world “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”. 

There’s hope here, too.  In “Small Poppies”, the longest song on the album at 7 minutes, she offers up some great guitar work that moves from the Cowboy Junkies to Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Over that solid backbone, she intones,

I don't know quite who I am, oh but man I am trying
I make mistakes until I get it right
An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye
I used to hate myself but now I think I'm alright

Nothing here is taken too seriously – nothing except, perhaps, the music, which I really want to see performed live.  

In “Kim’s Caravan”, she complains about the environmental degradation in her native Australia, but acknowledges that her role as an artist is to allow people to draw their own conclusions:

Don't ask me what I really mean
I am just a reflection
Of what you really wanna see
So take you want from me

Like the people destroying the Great Barrier Reef, the world is going do what it’s going to do, but, at least in this song, she sees Jesus transform from a frowning he to a smiling she.

Robin absolutely loves this album, and has already carved out a spot on her Top Ten of the Year for it.  In one sentence, she does a better job of describing Courtney Barnett than this entire review achieves:  “She is kind of Lucinda Williams melting into Chrissie Hynde to create the next generation of women rockstars.”  Yep, that about sums up Courtney Barnett. 

Next up:  Tracker, by Mark Knopfler