Back in 2005, I assembled a couple of lists for Woodberry's New Music Club: my lists of my favorite albums from the 80s and 90s
. Having been recently reminded of this, I realized that I never managed to assemble the next list in the sequence, PC's Favorite Albums of the 2000s. I hope the list below will redress this long-overdue dereliction of my duties as a performer, critic, educator, and music snob. In chronological order, then, from 2000-2009:
Cake/ Comfort Eagle (2001): 9:31 AM
Not everyone enjoys the interplay of the band's funk-rock rhythm section, the flourishes of trumpet, or John McRea's seemingly arrhythmic vocal delivery, but I can't ignore any of them, let alone McRea's deadpan lyrical observation. There's no good reason for "Opera Singer" or "Meanwhile Rick James" of "Shadow Stabbing" to stick in your head, I suppose, but just try to get it out once it's in there. This album is probably the band's most consistent start-to-finish set of songs, highlighted by the fantasia of "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," the pulsing title track, and the relentlessly danceable "Love You Madly." If it appeals this powerfully to my love of words, my love of melody, and my love of rhythm, how could I not put it on this list?
Aimee Mann/ Lost in Space (2002): She's not the cheeriest songwriter out there, no, but Mann has a gift for framing emotional stress in unexpected ways, not to mention a voice that can shift from a pool of clear water to an irresistible current in only a few bars. The standout track is the hard-hitting "Pavlov's Bell," which makes a simple story of air travel into something far darker and more uncertain, but there are gems aplenty: the gorgeous "This Is How It Goes," a halting list of steps the narrator expects to follow as her partner spirals downward; the warm, dark metaphor of "The Moth"; and the haunting finale, "It's Not."
Sigur Ros/ Sigur Ros (a/k/a Black Cheetos) (2002): If pressed to pick the most original album on this list, I think I'd have to go with the one composed and performed by the Icelandic quartet, consisting of eight untitled tracks sung entirely in a nonsensical language. The surprise is that something so far out on a limb could be so effective. Thanks to their collective powers of melody and arrangement, plus a fantastic sense of dynamics, the band takes us on a series of journeys through landscapes we can't quite picture. Take a ride.
Coldplay/ A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002): By contrast, this is probably the most mainstream record on the list, and oddly, it's here for some of the same reasons. Chris Martin's confessional streak is front and center, but what makes these songs work is the combination of strong melodies and careful attention to dynamics: they build to something, or sometimes collapse into something, rather than just standing there. It's basically the standard rock quartet (drums/bass/guitar/piano) enhanced with strings here and there, but the careful interplay of the instruments on tunes like "Warning Sign" and "The Scientist" makes them sound far more varied. It's not a complicated record; but it is a rich one.
Fountains of Wayne/ Welcome Interstate Managers (2003): This was the album with their only real hit, the sniggering, insanely catchy Cars homage "Stacy's Mom," but that's hardly the best reason to buy it. Better reasons might include the beautiful and evocative "Valley Winter Song," the fuzzy power-pop nonsense of "Mexican Wine," the manic twentysomething anthem "Bright Future in Sales," and what's probably the only song I know about a quarterback dropping back to pass, "All Kinds of Time." These guys are simply geniuses in the realm of pop tunesmithing, and if you're not convinced by the time you reach "Supercollider," the lines "Gather round the gas tower: don't it kinda look like a bong? I heard it backward, hidden in a Pink Floyd song" should persuade you.
The Mountain Goats/ The Sunset Tree (2005): This was, for me, kind of the Mountain Goats' decade, and I went back and forth over which of their albums deserved inclusion here, but in the end, I had to go with this one. A loosely-structured concept album about singer/writer John Darnielle's memories of his years in the house with his abusive stepfather, it's a lyrical tour de force. Some images seem mythological and/or Biblical, such as "Lion's Teeth," but the sharpness of the more mundane litanies ("I spread out my supplies on the counter by the sink, looked myself right in the eyes: St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin, Bartles & Jaymes, and you..." in "You or Your Memory") is equally striking. It's hard to imagine a more haunting song than "Love Love Love" or a more anthemic chorus than that of "This Year" ("I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me"), but once you've given this album a listen, you'll find it just as hard not to think about the innocent denial of abuse in "Dance Music" or the defiant finale of "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?" ("Held under these smothering waves by your strong and thick-veined hand/ But one of these days, I'm gonna wriggle up on dry land"). A fantastic recording.
Regina Spektor/ Begin to Hope (2006): "Anti-folk" pianist/vocalist Spektor's hit single "Fidelity" gives you some idea of her sound, but not of her wildly creative composing. There's a touch of Kate Bush audible in her willingness to use her voice as an instrument, one capable not only of delighting but unsettling her audience, and her lyrical ideas ("Hey, remember that time I tried to save a pigeon with a broken wing?/ A street cat got him by morning and I had to bury pieces of his body in our building's playground"-- "That Time") are not always Top Forty material. She can throw out a big hook (just try not to sing along with "Better"), but she can also paint a miniature ("Samson") or work up an anthem ("Apres Moi," which Peter Gabriel would later cover on his Scratch My Back album). There's a lot going on here, and Spektor is just the gal to show it to you.
Richard Thompson/ 1000 Years of Popular Music (2006): If there's one musician capable of examining a millennium's worth of material, it's Thompson, whose status as a folk interpreter, songwriter, and guitar god leaves him equally comfortable interpreting British murder ballads ("Bonnie St. Johnstone"), Gilbert and Sullivan ("There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast"), or New Wave pop tunes (Squeeze's "Tempted"). Ably assisted by percussionist/vocalist Debra Dobkin and vocalist/keyboardist Judith Owen, Thompson serves up a stripped-down suite of music from across the centuries, and every selection offers a new kind of delight. Trust me, you've GOT to hear his cover of Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did It Again," if only to find out how much it resembles the music of the Italian Renaissance.
Cloud Cult/ The Meaning of 8 (2007): This loose collaboration of musicians and artists from the Twin Cities is for me the most recent discovery on this list, but I've certainly come to appreciate them thoroughly. Varying wildly in instrumentation and style, these songs share an emotional rawness that stems from the death of singer/songwriter Craig Minowa's young son. You might reasonably expect them to wallow in grief, but Minowa is instead moved to examine the larger questions of how death fits into the pattern of life. As a result, there are thumping, energetic songs such as "Please Remain Calm" and "Take Your Medicine," a pensive mixture of electronic percussion and organic strings and winds ("Chain Reaction"), and the gorgeous, uplifting "Chemicals Collide," which is on the short list of songs I want played at my funeral.
The New Pornographers/ Challengers (2007): Canada's indie-rock supergroup realized its enormous potential on this record, combining the voices of Carl Newman and Neko Case in a suite of songs that manage to be lyrically opaque without sacrificing singability. "My Rights vs Yours" opens softly and builds to an unstoppable force within four minutes. Case is featured on the stripped-down title track, as well as the vibrating "Failsafe" and the triumphant "Go Places," while Newman gets the lion's share of the vocals on "All the Old Showstoppers," but the best tunes blend their voices: "Myriad Harbour" is a rhythmic guitar exercise with back-and-forth chatter between the two, while the beautiful "Adventures in Solitude" makes a perfect finale--if only they'd finished the album there, rather than tacking on the comparatively lackluster "The Spirit of Giving" at the end.
Robyn Hitchcock/ A Star for Bram (2000): You knew Robyn couldn't miss this list entirely, didn't you? These songs are supposedly out-takes from the Jewels for Sophia sessions, but "Daisy Bomb," "I Saw Nick Drake," and the psychedelic nostalgia-wagon "1974" are at least as strong as anything on that album.
Wilco/ Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): Jeff Tweedy takes the band to the outer limits of alt-country and finds it to be an unsettling but often gorgeous place.
The White Stripes/ Elephant (2003): The fact that "Seven Nation Army" has become a staple at sporting events shouldn't be allowed to diminish our appreciation for its potency. This is an album full of earnest emotions, snarling guitars, and rock scholarship that should be enjoyed on its own merits, which are many.
Foo Fighters/ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007): Song for song, this is the best thing the FF have put together, with hooks the size of marlinspikes and guitar power to burn.
Avett Brothers/ I and Love and You (2009): If you're looking for earnest examinations of love, you're not going to find anything more plainspoken than "January Wedding" or "I and Love and You," and "Laundry Room" is just plain gorgeous. See where the boys from Ramseur, NC, will take you.
SPECIAL JUDGE'S AWARD FOR INTERPRETATION:
The Oughts were a rich period for a particular kind of album, one where an established artist takes on material from other sources to see what he/she can do with them. I don't think these are entirely comparable to the other records on this list, but I can't deny that they are worthy of mention:
Johnny Cash/ American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002): Either of these could arguably be included at the top of this list on the strength of Cash's originals (the title track from the latter album in particular). Still, these albums are primarily reworkings of others' songs, such as U2's "One" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Cash's last big hit was his stunning treatment of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Let's put them here and enjoy them.
Nouvelle Vague/ Nouvelle Vague (2004): Realizing that "bossa nova" is Portuguese for "new wave," this French combo reasoned that Eighties new wave hits would make dandy bossa nova tunes. Not just a novelty record, this album gives new life to everything from the Dead Kennedys to Joy Division to the Specials.
Patti Smith/ Twelve (2007): You won't be surprised that Smith can make "White Rabbit" her own; you may be surprised to hear her do the same with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Pastime Paradise," or her fantastic reworking of George Harrison's "Within You Without You."
Glen Campbell/ Meet Glen Campbell (2008): There's painful irony in this release, which was intended to introduce Campbell to a new audience but wound up being something of a last hurrah before Alzheimer's sent him into retirement. Still, his takes on songs by Jackson Browne, U2, Travis, and John Lennon are fitting additions to his legacy.
If I'm a little tired this weekend--and I am--there's a good reason for it: I'm back at work.
That's not an entirely accurate statement. As most teachers will attest, we do not spend the summer months avoiding work. Some of us pick up different jobs--leading tour groups, or serving at summer camps, or doing volunteer work at libraries, or waiting tables--and some of us merely take on new tasks at home. I myself have spent the summer at work on the latest draft of my novel A Raven for Doves. I finished the draft late on the 25th of August, or possibly early on the 26th, and after my in-house copy editor was done with her pass over it, I made the last corrections on Labor Day. It's now sitting on an agent's desk, which of course means I'm now checking my email with a completely unreasonable frequency.
So yeah, I've been working. 115,000 words' worth of work.
But for the last two weeks, I've been working differently: first, I spent a week attending faculty meetings, and after Labor Day we plunged straight into Camp Week, the opening orientation and organization activities for new and returning students. Camp Week is a lot of fun, but since it puts me in direct supervision of students through four straight days of outdoor fun and indoor competition and exposure to heat indexes well over 100 degrees, it's a little draining. And on Monday, I go back to class. But again, with a difference.
Last year I worked four days a week at Seven Hills and spent my Wednesdays either writing, running errands, catching up on grading, or occasionally having a bit of fun. Not this year. This year I'm full-time; though my schedule gives me at least a bit of planning time every day, I'm not going to have the luxury of sleeping in on Wednesdays in order to recover from my labors on Monday and Tuesday. Still, though I'm teaching four sections, my preps have dropped from three to two--8th grade language arts and 6th grade US history--and I have my own classroom again. Better still, my new classroom has a dropped ceiling, which means I stand a decent chance of being able to hear what all my students are saying.
I'm hopeful that the lessons I've learned about middle-school teaching can be applied with relative ease, and that the preparations I made last year can be reused this year. It'll be sad to lose that extra day to get things done, but the 35% raise kinda makes up for it.
And as I think about it, Kelly and I did have one other project this summer: finishing our binge-watch of Parks and Recreation on Netflix. We watched the DVD of Season One a few years back and were not much impressed, but Ian & Adriana insisted that we needed to push ahead, that things would get better, that the arrival of Ben and Chris (whoever they were) would turn the show into something special. And by gum, they were right. No matter how improbable the show's events were, there was an endearing and unrelenting positivity in it--a refusal to accept cynicism as a philosophy. Sure, things went wrong, even badly wrong, for many of the characters, but defeat was never defining to anyone--it was merely one element in their various histories. And partly because of those histories Parks & Rec soon became one of our favorite shows ever.
Parks & Rec was, at its core, that familiar entity, the workplace sitcom, but it was not an ordinary workplace; it was a workplace where the work mattered. It didn't always matter all that much, but it mattered: "small, incremental change every day." That was Leslie Knope's philosophy of public service. And that philosophy made the people doing it feel as though they mattered as well.
In the finale, Leslie quotes Teddy Roosevelt: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing." One of the best things about teaching is that you know the work is worth doing. People remember their teachers, good or bad, because teaching is, ultimately, important to the people being taught. Society may not celebrate you, or offer you gobs of cash for your efforts, but for any particular student, in any particular year, what you do is of great importance. And that's something I'll do my best to keep in mind as I dive back into the classroom.
So. Let's go to work.
I took advantage of several things last week: my summer schedule, my wife's patience, and my parents' generosity. Basically, I decided I needed a week out of the house to make a big push toward finishing the book. My parents agreed to put me up for that week, and my wife agreed to spend it tending to the needs the two other occupants of our apartment (Dixon and Ripley). I got a good deal of work done and am now within shouting distance of the book's end, and I also got to see a bunch of my North Carolina friends and family, some of whom appear below.
As you may know, the Cashwell clan and the Macknee clan have been friendly for lo, these many decades. (I think we met when I was in 4th grade, so call in 1972.) I was shocked to realize, however, that I had not met with one member of the Macknee family for a solid decade: Salem, whose daughter Abby we feted in Seattle a few months back. Though we're regularly interacting online, we had not actually seen each other (we calculated) since her parents' 40th wedding anniversary, and since they just celebrated their 60th, Salem and I reckoned it was time to fix that problem. I borrowed my dad's car and made my way to her place in Durham, where we enjoyed lemonade, a nice Mexican meal at Dos Perros, and a chance to look around the lake behind her house (which is where my parents keep their kayak, which Salem has on semi-permanent loan.)
A few days later, I headed to the Open Eye Cafe for a meeting with musician and fellow CHHS alum Laura Thomas, who brought along her daughter Hannah, a UNC-Asheville senior who's been bitten by the birding bug. Laura patiently put up with our discussion of woodpeckers and cranes, and Hannah then showed a similar saintly streak by indulging us as we talked about the old days of the Chapel Hill music scene. And they brought a book to sign, too:
That evening got to enjoy an evening of lively conversation and good music with old buddies Mike Beard and Bryon Settle, not to mention a visit with Mike's lovely wife and kids.
After taking a day off to recover, I got up early on Friday and hit the birding trail with Bo Howes (CHHS '83), now of the Triangle Land Conservancy. He led me to a parcel of Mason Farm out behind the Finley Golf Course clubhouse, and on our two-mile walk through the woods we were able to log a number of First-of-the-Year birds for me, including Indigo Bunting, Acadian Flycatcher, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak. We also spotted several cooperative butterflies, including this one, which Bo identified as a "Red-spotted Purple," which is a color morph of the White Admiral:
I spent Friday evening with my brother, hunting for a restaurant where we'd eaten as kids; as anyone who's visited Chapel Hill will now, there aren't many left. I'd already eaten at Breadmens and Allen & Sons earlier in the week, and we couldn't come up with any other places off the top of our heads. (Since then, we've recalled a handful of places we used to go, including Ye Olde Waffle Shop, and a few old joints that we didn't frequent in our youths, such as Linda's, Hunam, and the Carolina Coffee Shop.) We ended up at Squid's, where we had a passable seafood dinner and set up plans to get brunch with his family on Sunday.
hat Sunday involved a drive to Dave & Pam's place in Raleigh, some excellent chicken salad, fresh asparagus, and plenty of coffee, as well as a chance to hang out with Aunt Susan for a few hours. I also got thumped in a game of PIG with my nephews, though Dave emerged victorious in the end.
By the time I was loaded up to go to the train station, I had knocked out another 15,000 words and was poised to finish things up this week. I snapped one last pic before I left, since I didn't have one of my host and hostess--well, not a recent one--and off I went.
I'm now home, where I've cleaned up one dog-related accident, eaten a tasty Cuban sandwich, and successfully got Dixon to an audition: just another day in RVA. But thanks to everyone down Carolina way, especially Mom & Dad; it was great to have a chance to get a little pine tar on my feet again.
I've been a fan of birder/writer Pete Dunne for many years now, and I've been fortunate enough to meet him. In fact, I got to benefit directly from his ornithological expertise back in 2004 when I went to the Cape May Bird Observatory's Spring Fling Weekend; I not only got to meet and talk with him a bit at the convention itself, but got to follow him out on a bird walk, one which yielded my first Worm-eating Warbler, among other things. I've enjoyed (and even had occasion to copy-edit) his columns for Living Bird
, and his essay collection Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name.
is one of my favorite birding-related books.
But my main reason for appreciating Dunne's contributions to my birding experience is a single volume: Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion
. I've mentioned this massive tome before, as I've been relying on it to settle birding issues for over a decade now, but I haven't really presented a full appreciation yet. Though it contains not a single illustration, its detailed descriptions of plumage, behavior, and habitat paint their own pictures of each bird you'll find depicted in your field guide. Dunne's greatest strength, apart from sheer facility with language, is his ability to draw comparisons; since he knows each bird in the book well (with the possible exception of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker), he can not only describe it in a vacuum, but help readers who know similar birds find the points of distinction that will allow for an ID. The field guide may include a lovely painting of a bird, but Dunne's text gives you a context for that painting: where you'll find the bird, at what time of year, in the company of what other species; what its flight looks like, how it behaves, what features of its plumage you might or might not notice; what it sounds like, what it doesn't sound like, and what its response to a birder's "pish" might be.
But how is this useful? you might ask. It's certainly not easy to use in the field, because it's massive. My hardcover edition is over 700 pages long, nearly two inches thick, and 7" X 9" in dimension; in other words, it does not fit easily into most pockets, and as it weighs three pounds all by itself, it's a bit of a burden even in a backpack. But it's not supposed to go into the field; that's what your field guide is for. That key word "companion" is what should give you a clue as to what to do with Dunne's tome. I myself usually leave it in the car when I'm birding, though sometimes I'll leave it in a hotel room or even at home, depending on where I am; when I'm out with my scope and binoculars, I'm sticking with my Sibley (or sometimes my NatGeo guide, or my Peterson).
When I come back from the field, however, I may well feel uncertain about an identification, THAT is the time to dig out Dunne and start boning up on the possibilities. A brief examination of PD'sEFGC has helped me settlemore than one ID well after the fact, such as when I logged my first Solitary Sandpiper at Robertson Lake, but didn't confirm the species until at least an hour later.
Last night, however, I was able to use it for a purpose I hadn't expected: to save me a trip. I subscribe to the E-bird Alert newsletter for Virginia, and every day I get a notice of any unusual species reported by birders in the Commonwealth. Since my continuing Fifty-Fifty Project usually inclines me to look for new birds in other states, rather than beating the bush for them in the state where I live, I don't always act on these alerts, particularly if it's a species I know I can get fairly easily in one of my thirteen liferless states. There are, however, birds that are simply so cool that if they turn up in Virginia, I'm going to go look for them, state borders be damned. (Last year's Brown Booby at Kerr Lake would be an example of this kind of bird.)
This was the kind of bird presented to me in yesterday's list: a Northern Goshawk
in Chesterfield County.
I live in Richmond itself, but the border with Chesterfield Co. is only a mile or two away, and the location indicated on the E-bird map was only a few minutes from my wife's workplace. In other words, this was not only an incredibly cool bird, one I've been wanting to get on my list for years, but a location so convenient that I'd be an absolute fool not to go see it.
Still, there was the issue of why this bird would turn up on a Rare Bird Alert: they really don't come to Virginia in August. Heck, Goshawks are unusual in Virginia in the dead of winter; in the summertime, you won't usually find them anywhere in the eastern U.S. south of Pennsylvania. They're also solitary birds of heavy forests, which makes the well-populated (nearly 350,000 people) environs of Chesterfield County a highly unlikely spot to see one. The question was this: did I have to get up early on Sunday to go look for this sucker, or hd the birder who reported it made an error?
Luckily, she had included a couple of photographs, and when I spotted them, my doubts became stronger: the bird looked to me quite a lot like a young Red-shouldered Hawk. Red-shoulders are quite common in this part of the country--there's a pair nesting less than a half-mile from my apartment--and this immature bird had the requisite banded tail and a fairly chunky physique. The juvenile Goshawk in my NatGeo, however, had similar coloration and a banded tail, though the bands didn't look to be quite as clean as those in the photo. Still, these were two fairly different kinds of hawk; the Goshawk is an accipiter, a sleek, long-tailed, bird-pursuing machine, while the Red-shoulder is a buteo, more thickly built and inclined to pounce on prey from a lowish perch. Why would they be confusing?
Luckily, I had Pete Dunne to tell me (in the "Pertinent Particulars" section of the Goshawk entry) that the Goshawk is commonly mistaken for two other species: as an adult, with the Gyrfalcon, and as a juvenile
, with the young Red-shouldered Hawk
. In other words, this was an entirely reasonable mistake for a birder to make, and that gave me confidence to consider the other issue visible in the photograph: that the bird was perched on the railing of a suburban backyard deck. Given Dunne's comparative descriptions of the two birds--the Goshawk is "retiring" and "solitary," while the RSH is "fairly tame," found perching below the canopy and on suburban wooded lots--I felt pretty good about my decision to sleep in this morning.
In short, I recommend Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion
not merely as a book that can help you when you've been out in the field, but as a book that can help you avoid going out into the field in the first place. How many other birding books can make that claim?
*Another month of summer gone... I try not to revel in my months of summer vacation, but what else do teachers have to revel about? Believe me, it's not the salary or the social cachet or the professional respect afforded you by politicians. We work like dogs for nine months of the year so that we can use the next three to recover; if we didn't, we probably wouldn't sign up for another nine.
*And speaking of teaching, if you didn't already know, I am returning to Seven Hills School here in RVA, but now I'm on a full-time basis. This does mean giving up my free Wednesdays, which were awfully nice for running errands and occasionally writing, but the improvement in salary and benefits makes up for it. At last report, I was in line to teach 8th grade language arts and 6th grade US history, but that could all change very quickly...
*June was something of a creative struggle, but I'm happy to report that in July, I got back on track; the new draft of the novel is proceeding at an acceptably crisp pace. I didn't quite reach my goal of having 50,000 words done by August 1st, but since I reached 59k by the 4th, I didn't feel all that bad about it. I'm done with the second section of the book and am now looking at the third, which (yay!) is a section where I'll be able to use a lot of what I wrote in earlier drafts. Here's hoping I can get this thing finished off by Labor Day.
*I didn't watch the conventions on TV, which isn't all that shocking considering we don't really have TV. We've got a TV set, but it's used for watching DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, we still have a dual-purpose player), and streaming video from Netflix and Hulu. I suspect we could have found a way to watch on my laptop, but honestly, it was in some ways more fun to follow people who were liveblogging or tweeting about the events, and then following up in detail later. That's how I saw Michelle O's speech, and the Rev. Dr. William Barber's, and of course Khizr Khan's, which may end up being the single biggest speech of the campaign. And of course I watched bits of the speeches by Presidents 42 and 44, Joe Biden, and Tim Kaine, as well as numerous bits from RNC speakers: the various Trumps, a smattering of Pence, and even a bit of Scott Baio just for the sheer improbability of it. But yes, Kelly and I sat down with my laptop to watch Hillary Clinton's speech. There was no question of whether we'll be voting for her--heck, Kelly's scheduled to volunteer for her this weekend--but we both wanted to be able to say we'd watched a speech that, while not as moving as Khan's, as powerful as Barber's, or as well-crafted as either of the Obamas', was truly historic: a woman, speaking for herself, declaring her readiness to take the highest office in the land. HRC's basic competence has been assumed for so long that I think we risk missing just how unprecedented her campaign really is. Sure, maybe she won't be the best president ever, but if she can crack that last glass ceiling, she will double America's chances of our electing the Best. President. Ever. sometime in the future.
*And on the subject of the election--briefly--can I just note that I find it ironic, and not a little irritating, to hear Trump supporters claiming their support is based on a belief that we have to take the government back from the Washington "insiders." Despite their desire to upset the applecart, they are doing nothing to upset the part that actually touches the ground: Congress. All 435 members of the House are up for re-election, and a grand total of 62 (approximately 15%) of those races are viewed as "competitive," meaning that experts do not consider those districts "safe" for either Republicans or Democrats. In other words, even with Trump (and Sanders, and Johnson, and Stein) supporters howling for change, the vast majority of the country is perfectly satisfied with maintaining the status quo in their own districts. The Senate is a bit less settled, with between 12 and 16 of this cycle's 34 races viewed as competitive in some regard--but again, the majority seems to be happy with their own state's representation in Washington. All in all, then, I feel comfortable arguing that if you're voting for Trump AND your sitting Congressperson, you aren't really interested in change; you're just eager to deliver a middle finger to somebody.
*Along with Dixon and Kelly, I've been enjoying Stranger Things on Netflix, and one enjoyable element of the show has unquestionably been its 1980s setting. Some would argue that Winona Rider and Matthew Modine are in the cast primarily as nods to nostalgia for the period; I'm not sure whether I agree yet. Modine certainly hasn't been given much to do, which is kind of a waste, as anyone who saw his astonishing performance in Birdy could tell you. I go back and forth on Rider, who is certainly giving a glimpse of the emotional wildness that a mother losing her child might demonstrate, but at times the emotional pitch seems intense, but not varied--a high plateau, so to speak. The child actors, however, are kicking ass, and as Dixon put it, it's refreshing to be watching a show where you say to yourself, "Man, I wish they'd get back to the kids' arc." We've still got one episode left to watch, so we'll see if they can tie it all together in a satisfying manner, but so far I'm content recommending it.
*Oh, I have noticed one anachronism: the show takes place in early November of 1983. One scene shows teen loner Jonathan Byers going through a flashback: at some unnamed earlier time, he's in his room, playing the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" for his younger brother Will, who likes it, spurring Jonathan to promise an introduction to all the cool music he knows. Now, the Clash released that tune in 1982, so it's a totally legit thing for Jonathan to know and love. But among the litany of 80s bands Jonathan mentions in the flashback, one stood out to me as incorrect: The Smiths.
I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of the band, almost entirely because of Morrissey's vocal stylings (though he's a terrific lyricist), but I can't deny they're worth mentioning in a list of 80s artists--just not in November of '83. I was living in Manchester that November, and I can say from personal experience that the Smiths weren't even especially popular in their home town--yet. To be fair, they'd only released two singles, one in May ("Hand in Glove," which did not chart) and one on October 28th ("This Charming Man," which hit #25). True, they were getting some love in indie record shops throughout the summer and fall, but they didn't really gather much notice until they won NME's year-end music poll and earned a cover shot in February of 1984. (I was a regular NME reader, and that was the first notice I ever gave the band, certainly.)
In other words, Jonathan is almost certainly sharing this flashback moment with Will at a time when the Smiths' entire discography consisted of one not-especially-well-known single that as best I can tell was never released in the USA. I would thus consider the scene extremely improbable. Oh, I can imagine a smalltown loner like Jonathan fixating on the Smiths once their first album came out in February of '84, sure, but before November of '83, where the hell would he even hear about them, let alone find a rural Indiana record store where he could buy their import single? Sorry, Duffer Brothers--not buying it.
*The dog is up to about 40 pounds--a little healthier for her, I think. She has also learned that if I change shorts or put on shoes, it means she's almost certainly getting a walk. Clever girl.
*Since I'm the one who recommended Watership Down as a summer reading book for 8th grade, I suppose I should start my re-reading now. Ouch. No. Please don't throw me in that briar patch. 7:57 AM
Occasionally, Facebook's "Memories" function will do something useful, like reminding me that I haven't spoken to X in a while, or that it's the anniversary of Y. This morning it reminded me of something that I posted on my wall a while back, and as I thought of it, I realized that I never actually posted it here. Maybe I was feeling paranoid about exposing something to the wider Internet, as opposed to the massively overcrowded cul-de-sac that is Facebook, but as I think about the matter today, I can't see much reason not to share it with y'all, especially since I've been sharing it on Soundcloud for a good three years now.
Both of these are tunes I wrote long ago. Long ago as in "I'm not sure when I wrote them." I feel fairly certain "Clean Enough to Eat Off"
is the more recent, probably written in 1989 or 1990, when my twenties were rapidly running out and I was getting anxious about having to be a grownup. "There Is a Tide"
has a much older pedigree, having started as a piano tune that I originally composed and recorded for my high-school girlfriend. Sometime after the breakup of Terminal Mouse in '86 or so, I pulled it out, dusted it off, rearranged some parts for guitar, added a chorus and some lyrics, and voila.
Of course, scholars of my biography will note that I was not playing with a band during these years, though Bryon Settle and I did make occasional appearances around Chapel Hill as the performance-art/randomcore duo PC & Elmo (a/k/a Elmo & PC), where our set lists tended toward self-indulgent cover songs. (Our two-minute treatment of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" was probably the most notorious of these.) In other words, I didn't really have a means of bringing these tunes to life onstage. And in 1991, with my move to Fayetteville and the start of both parenthood and teaching career, it became clear that I probably wouldn't have such means for the foreseeable future.
The one thing I could see was the fact that Bryon and Mike Beard had bought a recording studio, which they dubbed Yellow Recording after the color of the house on Rosemary Street which contained it. I wheedled a promise that I could come back to Chapel Hill and lay down some tracks sometime, and for a couple of years I kept my mind focused on diapers and debate tournaments and grading. Finally, in 1994, Bryon & Mike informed me that a weekend in September had opened up, and that better still our old friend Rob Ladd would be in town. Rob is a phenomenally talented drummer, as he has proved by performing with everyone from Susannah Hoffs to Alanis Morisette (that's him on "Ironic") to the Red Clay Ramblers, so I jumped at the chance. I lined up another of our old friends, Terminal Mouse's own Dr. Carey Floyd, to play bass, and got myself ready.
If only I had thought more clearly about that date, I might have realized that it was a rather important weekend: Kelly's thirtieth birthday. Since Rob was only briefly available, I felt I couldn't rally back out, so instead I ended up desperately cajoling Kelly to come to town and spend the day at a friend's house with Ian & Dixon, who were three and one at the time. When we arrived, that friend backed out of the arrangement--a long and ultimately irrelevant story--which left Kelly driving aimlessly around town with a pair of toddlers for the rest of the day while I went to the studio. Whatever else happens after death, I'm pretty sure I'll be doing time in purgatory over that one.
But still, we got the tracks laid down. Rob, to no one's surprise, immediately picked up the nuances of both songs (I think he'd heard the demo tapes before he arrived, but I can't swear to it) and accepted two pieces of direction. I asked for the double-snare shot in the verse of "Tide," which he said "made it sound like an actual part." Mike, who was playing the role of producer and engineer, suggested that he break up the too-smooth rhythm of "Clean Enough"'s verse by syncopating one snare beat, moving it from the four to the and-three. We all loved it as soon as we heard it. 9:36 AM
Carey had been working on the songs for a couple of weeks, and he had come up with a driving bassline for "Clean Enough," one that got slightly more gymnastic with each verse. Mike felt it was a little too complex, especially in the second verse, where I believe Carey was introducing a third note, but eventually approved of the use of the fifth note in the third verse. (He would eventually make Carey come back to the studio to re-record the second verse with a more straightforward part; if you listen carefully you can hear that the bass in that verse is slightly louder than in the rest of the song.)
Bryon had not really planned on playing, but he was in the studio listening, and dammit, when you have Bryon Settle, and a guitar, and a tape recorder, why the hell would you NOT get him to play? He hadn't heard the songs before that day, so he was unwilling to commit to anything more involved than a solo, but once I gave him the chords and Mike played the instrumental sections for him, ol' Elmo dug right into the meat of things and churned out as raucous and expressive a pair of solos as you could want. "Tide" was done in one take; sometimes you just get lightning in a bottle. "Clean Enough" took a little more time--maybe three or four takes while Bryon tinkered with the edges. But to this day, that bent-note wail of an entrance remains one of my very favorite moments of guitar, ever, right up there with the first notes of Robert Fripp's solo on the Roches' "Hammond Song," or the two-note fanfare that opens David Gilmour's solo on "Comfortably Numb."
My own performances are, as you might expect, a bit wince-inducing at this juncture. I can hear my voice flattening out uncomfortably in spots, and though both lyrics show me maturing as a songwriter, there are still a few bits I'd probably rewrite if I had the chance. I'm actually fairly satisfied with my guitar work; I'm not a particularly good soloist player, but I can manage a solid rhythm line, and I've become fairly adept at adding grace notes to keep chords from getting too dull. But yeah, there's a reason I asked Bryon to take the solos.
All in all, then, these are two pieces of music that still intrigue me and engage me, even though they also embarrass me a bit, not purely for musical reasons. They're like old photographs in a way, ones that capture hairstyles and clothing you'd forgotten you ever sported, but which give you access to a whole file of images and recollections you never want to lose. Carey died in 2006, and the rest of us are settled down, with kids either out of the house or preparing to leave. I haven't played a gig in ages--and a paying gig in even longer than that--but I'm still proud of what I did at Yellow that day, and grateful for the friends who did it with me. And for the woman who let me do it without divorcing me.
Play it loud.
I'm supporting Hillary Clinton for president this fall.
This comes as little surprise to you, assuming you've read anything in this journal before now, but you may be curious as to why. The obvious reason, in all its fiery orange glory, has been presenting itself to the world for months now, and I don't really see a whole lot of reason to present anything further at this point; I can't possibly offer you better reasons not to vote for Donald Trump than Trump himself is offering.
Yet there are reasonable people out there who know they can't vote for Trump (which is one way in which you can tell they are reasonable) but don't yet feel they can vote for Clinton. I'm not talking about the misogynists who can't bring themselves to vote for a woman, who typically identify themselves by use of the word "cankles" when discussing a former Senator and Secretary of State; these people are not reasonable. No, I'm talking about those who fall primarily into one of these camps:
1) Habitual Republican Voters.
These are folks who don't necessarily feel passionate support for specific GOP proposals, but who have a generally conservative worldview and aren't comfortable with change. Many of them are big fans of Reagan, though they may not remember the parts of Reagan's presidency where he traded arms for hostages, ignored the rise of AIDS, cozied up to Saddam Hussein, supported the apartheid regime of South Africa, kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi
, and stuff like that--but by gosh, they remember "Tear down this wall!" and the idea that government is the problem. They've pretty much voted GOP for the last three decades, but now Trump is saying all kinds of things that Reagan never mentioned, and they're not really comfortable with that. What can they do? Vote for a Democrat? Has it come to this?2) Team Norquist.
These are people, generally Republicans, whose votes are based almost exclusively on the issue of their pocketbooks. Grover Norquist's push for Lower Taxes, Period
, has been the one unifying element of the GOP in my voting lifetime, and it remains a central part of the party's dogma: no matter what the situation might be, no matter what the country might need to spend money on, my taxes should always be lower. Always. In 2012, the assembled GOP candidates were asked whether they would support a plan where ten dollars of spending would be cut if taxes were raised by a dollar; in a stirring demonstration of just how little deficit reduction actually mattered to them, every single candidate said no. And it's that kind of fervent anti-tax philosophy that draws the votes from this group: problem is, many of them are economically sophisticated enough to be terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Will he support tariffs? Free trade? Deficit spending? Who really knows? Besides, the British pound just tanked in the wake of a vote supporting Trump's nativist brethren in the U.K., and these folks are well aware of it. But is the chance that HRC might support a tax increase worth gambling on?3) The BernieBros.
Not all Bernie supporters are BernieBros (heck, many aren't even Bros in either the social or anatomical sense), but there is a population of hardcore Sanders fans so upset at Clinton's primary victory that they don't want to support her in November. Some of them fall into the aforementioned "cankles" category above, and others have defied all reason by grumpily complaining that there is no difference between Clinton and Trump (which is like saying there's no difference between drinking castor oil and drinking Pennzoil), Still, there are numerous others who are legitimately unhappy with Clinton's positions. They disagree with her on issues such as student debt, foreign policy, free trade, etc., and fear that she is too beholden to Wall Street and the corporate elite, and they don't wish to offer her even tacit support, so they will either stay home on Election Day or cast a protest vote for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or some other third-party candidate.
I understand why each of these groups is unhappy and frustrated; believe me, when you grow up with Jesse Helms as your Senator, no matter HOW many times you vote against him, you learn very early that the ballot box isn't always your friend. Still, I'd like to reassure the members of the groups above that a vote for Clinton is not actually a bad idea.
For one thing, a Clinton administration is likely to be fairly similar to the one we've lived through for the last eight years--eight years during which the economy has pulled out of a nosedive and made steady improvements--so if you're scared of big changes, HRC is probably the best candidate to back.
If you're troubled by the vague and uncertain economic policies and promises that Trump has strewn about the landscape as the spirit moves him--such as simultaneously promising to lower America's debt and deficit while lowering the corporate tax rate
(see #4 at the link)--you can take heart in the fact that Clinton's policies are laid out in depth, and that she has an actual record of governance by which to judge her.
And if you're pondering a third-party protest vote, let me just remind you of the last president put in office by third-party protest voters:
In other words, I'd like you to consider the pragmatic consequences of your vote. Are you having a legitimate crisis of conscience? Do what you have to. But please don't pretend it won't make any difference.
*It's been a looooong while since I've assembled a collection of small thoughts, so why not today?
*Big news first: if you haven't already learned from social media, Thing One and his longtime girlfriend are engaged. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows them, but it is a very pleasant development, and not just because it's easier to type "fiancee" than "long-time girlfriend." (I note also that "wife" is easier to type than "fiancee," suggesting that our language has a bit of a pro-marriage bias.) We are very pleased. Also, Kelly is just about beside herself at the thought of having another woman in the family.
*Meanwhile, Thing Two is in town rehearsing for an upcoming production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
. It's not your usual production, however: as he and his co-conspirators, the Nu Puppis Collective, have noticed, the original story is, um, a little problematic. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the story is based on the Rape of the Sabine Women, but disturbing. As a result, the NPC has decided to give the show's themes a thorough and pointed re-examination with the sharpest available tool: the script itself. And even if you don't care for that, you can still enjoy the terrific songs (with lyrics by Woodberry Forest's own Johnny Mercer). Shows go up at the Firehouse Theater on Broad Street in Richmond, July 11-13th and 17-19th, with curtain at 7:30.
*The newest addition to our household, Ripley, is adjusting to her new situation very well. She's already reached the point of crawling onto the bed or the sofa if one of us is on it, and she seems to delight in going for car rides. When we took her from the Richmond SPCA
(which is a FANTASTIC organization with an amazing facility), we were warned that she'd never had a home before, but we've become rather skeptical about that. For one thing, she knows how to sit. She seems to associate it with getting a treat, rather than doing it every time she's ordered to, but still. And unlike our previous dogs, she does appear to have a bit of retriever in her blood, at least judging by her willingness to chase the orange rope chew toy we bought her. So far she's not barking or whining or making excessive noise, she doesn't growl or challenge other dogs (or people), and she's had exactly one urine-related accident. Basically, we have trouble believing a dog that's this well-socialized and comfortable in a house hasn't ever lived among humans before. But we're keeping her anyway.
*The novel continues to get larger, though not as quickly as I'd like. I know that Stephen King's daily writing goal is six pages, while Jim Crace shoots for three. I seem to be knocking out between one and two a day, but (as you may have noticed) things have been a little disruptive at home lately. I'm hoping to knock out three pages a day during July (except when we're traveling.)
*Speaking of traveling: despite the strength of the dollar against the pound at the moment, Kelly & I do not have the time or money to repeat our honeymoon trip to the UK just now, so we're just going to have to separate our 30th wedding anniversary somewhere else. Hey, how about a town with connections to the UK? Like, one that they burned down about 200 years ago? Hello, Washington, DC! Our favorite museum, the Renwick Gallery, has reopened, and we're ready to get a new look at Larry Fuentes' "Game Fish
." Alas, one of our favorite DC eateries, the Ghana Cafe, has closed down, and we are bummed that we will have to find someplace else to dine on African food.
*And speaking of favorite restaurants: allow me to put in a plug for our neighborhood's newest gem, Kinsfolk
. Though there is a bit of confusion about the spelling of its name on social media (the twitter handle is @kinfolkfood , for example), there is no question that this is a fantastic dining experience. The menu rotates seasonally, but there are nightly specials (Wednesday's Burger Night short rib burger is recommended) and a hellaciously good brunch on Saturday/Sunday. In addition to the outstanding flavors, there is a creative, sometimes almost reckless creativity to the dishes. It's not the cheapest eats in RVA, but you will get what you pay for: a terrific meal, excellent service, and a desire to give them repeat business. Tell 'em Pete and Kelly sent you.
*If you're in Chicago, my restaurant recommendation is a little different: try The Peckish Pig
, which offered a delicious Father's Day meal to Dixon and me when we visited about a week back. The "Pot of Pickles" appetizer was a particularly welcome surprise--many different vegetables pickled in a number of different ways--but the duck breast and coffee-bacon sandwich was pretty magnificent as well. The Cherry Evans cream ale was delicous. And the fries? Oh, man. They were the Platonic ideal of french fries: nothing fancy in terms of seasoning or smothering, but simply fries that had been cooked at precisely the right temperature for precisely the right length of time to produce tender, flavorful fries with a delicately crisp surface. Mmmm.
Also, they claim to be in Evanston. I think they're in Rogers Park. But either way, they're worth the trip to Howard Street.
*Father's Day was good to me in a couple of other ways, too. Ian gave me a copy of Smash Up, an entertainingly chaotic board game that mixes up genres (wizards, robots, pirates, ninjas, aliens, you name it), while Dixon supplied a highly practical gift: A Birder's Guide to Metropolitan Richmond
by Jerry Uhlman. Dix has also been busily exposing me to new music, which I've appreciated quite a bit. Among the artists who have piqued my interest are Dan Deacon, The Bird and the Bee, Delicate Steve, Why?, tUnE-yArDs, Martha, and Girlpool. At the very least, I'm giving my Spotify subscription a good workout.
*It's not July yet, but I've blazed through both of my summer reading novels: Mike Carey's Fellside
and Joe Hill's The Fireman
. Hill is a terrific writer and a verrrry distant online aquaintance (we were both participants at Readerville.com, though his tenure was fairly brief), and he's definitely in his element in this book; in fact, he seems to be borrowing a few elements from his dad (Stephen King) as well, but it's pretty clear why he opted to do so. My favorite Hill remains his astonishing short story "Pop Art," but The Fireman will keep you interested for a much longer time, as it clocks in at just over 750 pages. Carey, meanwhile, has been a favorite of mine for years; his post-Gaiman fantasy series Lucifer
is a wonderful comic (whatever you think of the extremely loose TV adaptation), and his tales of hard-boiled London exorcist Felix Castor are both engaging and creative, with a narrative voice that just won't quit. But none of this prepared me for The Girl with All the Gifts
, which was a tour-de-force work of horror, as well as that rare thing, an original take on the Zombie Apocalypse; it's being made into a movie, and I for one will be in line early. In addition to his talents as a writer, however, Carey has my respect because he was (and remains) a teacher; in fact, when I Tweeted that some of my students were reading The Devil You Know
, his first Felix Castor novel, he actually volunteered to help out and ended up sitting for a Skype interview with them. So yeah: Fellside
was an immediate, no-questions-asked hardback purchase, and it did not disappoint. But now I have to find something else to read. Dammit.
I suppose the term "Anglophile" fits me pretty well, what with so many of my favorite writers, musicians, and other folks hailing from the Sceptred Isle. I've certainly spent time there, though not in recent years; there was the 1982 trip with my parents, when my dad attended the NATO Defense College in Latimer, and the family went as far as Loch Ness; there was my junior year of college (1983-84) spent at the University of Manchester; there was my 1986 honeymoon, when Kelly and I toured everywhere from Windsor Castle to Llangollen to the Isle of Skye; and there was my summer running Woodberry's Oxford Program at Brasenose College, which was followed by several weeks of touring Bath, London, and Folkestone, among other spots. At some point, I've been in almost every county of England, ith the exceptions of Essex, Norfolk, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight, and have visited a number in Scotland and a handful in Wales. I've entered Merlin's Cave in Cornwall and sifted the fine sands of Nairn along the Moray Firth. So yeah. Anglophile.
Which makes me a little concerned about this whole Brexit thing.
Mind you, I think a lot of people have reason to be concerned, what with the global economy tanking. And franklyI'm never happy when large groups of people begin complaining about other (typically smaller) groups of people in their country. We Americans have a really, really bad record on this kind of thing, but we also have a tendency to assume that our racism is connected to our overall sense of exceptionalism, which makes our xenophobia the biggest, most powerful, and most blatant xenophobia on earth.
Alas, such is not the case. The most openly racist student I've ever taught was a South Korean, whose in-class treatment of a classmate (a German of Chinese descent) was so bad the other Koreans felt they had to bring the matter to my attention. A lot of his slurs were being shared with the other Korean speakers, rather than put into our common tongue, but the very fact that he was constantly excluding and dismissing the Sino-German kid was apparent even to me.
Another student of mine, a Jamaican of Indian descent, once loudly proclaimed to his schoolmates that homosexuals ought to be taken out and shot in the street. I was driving a minibus at the time, and I actually pulled over to pointedly tell this young man that his belief was not sanctioned by God, Christ, the law, or any form of humanity, and that any further advocacy on this topic was going to result in demerits at the very least. I doubt I had any real influence on a boy whose hatred was clearly baked in from early in his life, but I think I very definitely got the attention of the rest of the kids on the bus.
And then there was the very nice, very generous, elderly Englishwoman who spoke to me after dinner one evening, asking, "So, Pete, what are you Americans doing about the Black Question?" 9:29 AM
I stammered something to the effect that we'd had a war over it, followed by decades of civil unrest, and that I hoped it was closer to being answered now than it had been, but to this day, I couldn't tell you whether my response made a lick of sense. Hell, I doubt I could tell you what the Black Question even was. ("Were black people enslaved for several hundred years?" "Yes, ma'am.")
In short, I am unsurprised that a movement built on xenophobia could find enough support in Britain to produce a widespread cry for isolationism. The place is an island, let's not forget, and there are plenty of people on it who are glad they don't share a land border with the Continent. I am, however, rather disappointed to see that cry drown out the voices of those who want to stay engaged with their neighbors.
I'm also concerned about what this means for some of my favorite places in the U.K., particularly given the very real possibility that the K. may stop being U. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, and given the relatively close vote on Scottish independence in 2014, the Brexit vote may inspire Scotland to join Europe while abandoning England. Northern Ireland was also in favor of Remain, and they too might see reason to leave England behind, particularly given the number of Unionists there who'd love to join up with Ireland instead. The next time I fly to Heathrow, then, it's conceivable that I'd have to go through customs to get back to see the beauties of the Road to the Isles or the Great Glen.
But I'll remain watchful over the next few months. There is apparently some belief that the treaties giving Scotland and Northern Ireland partial autonomy might actually give the two some kind of veto power over the UK's departure from the EU. Given the immediate negative economic consequences of the Brexit vote, not to mention the late but open admission by numerous Leave supporters that the departure will not provide the promised 350 million pounds to the National Health Services, I can see plenty of reasons (not least the cheap, ironic amusement) for hope that the smaller kingdoms of the UK can bring their fellows back in line. And since the referendum was non-binding, it's certainly possible that two or three percent of the MPs might opt to move to the Remain column; it might well cost them their seats, but it might preserve England, the UK, Europe, and the global economy.
But when I think of this last, I think of Paul Ryan, John McCain, Chris Christie... all lately lined up behind America's short-fingered, tangelo-skinned mascot for the Dunning-Kruger effect... and I know which way I'd have to bet.
This is Ripley.
Full name: Ripley Furiosa Woofstonecraft. She is the first female in our household since Kelly joined it, so we decided she had to be named after a feminist pioneer. After considering Susan B., Elizabeth Cady, and Shelley, I suggested Ripley (which may have occurred to me because the first volunteer who helped us at the SPCA was named Ellen) and our friend Carrie suggested the rest.
Of uncertain parentage, but clearly related to something orange, Ripley weighs in at about 40-odd pounds, which is under her fighting weight, so we'll be working to pack some protein into her. Dixon, Ian, and Adriana have all met her and given their approval, so we'll hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.