Kevin Gosa

Kevin is Contributing Editor for The Curator and Conference and Membership Director for International Arts Movement. In addition to moonlighting as a writer, he moonlights as a saxophonist (www.kevingosa.com) often performing solo, with songwriter Jake Armerding and as a member of the Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra. He also publishes original poetry (though usually in spurts) on his blog The Versery. Kevin and his wife live, what could only be described as euphorically, in Jersey City, NJ, love traveling (especially to Singapore) and are obsessed with Jamie Oliver and his show Jamie at Home. Oh, and if watching cartoons were an Olympic sport, Kevin would have more gold medals than Michael Phelps.

A Seersucker Manifesto

This article was first published in April of 2011.

No more dangerous fabric has ever been woven, washed, and worn in the history of mankind than seersucker.

Simple yet deadly, this cotton killer has condemned more fellows’ fashionableness than Fidel. (Is there anything less dapper than Castro’s garish garb?) Countless gents every spring, emboldened by the sun’s reviving rays, adorn themselves in crinkled colors and warbled white from head to toe. Confident in their comfort they step and strut not knowing this selection will forever blemish the veritableness of their future vestments.

Of course some men possess enough panache to pull it off. They know who they are.

But to the rest of Mandom I issue a strong warning.

Be wary of this weave.

First, it is nearly impossible to wear seersucker without irony or nostalgia.

Nothing calamities classiness more than donning duds with irony. I am speaking not of the juvenile, ironic t-shirt, rather of when the very essence of an outfit oozes mockery and self-awareness. “Hey everyone look at me! Doesn’t my attire make me look witty? I am wearing a garbage bag and used, holey penny loafers, and I haven’t shaved or showered since Groundhog Day. This style is called Derelicte.”

There’s nothing attractive or creative about such sardonic irreverence. Nor is there anything gentlemanly about such contempt-filled costumery.

Ironically (wink, wink) the seersucker is contemporarily associated with southern gentlemanliness. And, even more interesting are its origins in the United States as wears for the poor.

In a 2006 article about seersucker in the New York Times, David Colman writes:

“Widely considered patrician, seersucker was a 19th-century workingman’s fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk. In the 1920’s stylish undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear. That edge was still sharp in 1945, when Damon Runyon wrote that his new penchant for wearing seersucker was “causing much confusion among my friends.”

“They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue,” he wrote dryly.

Seersucker’s origins are not lost on clothing designers whose ads convince guys this is apparel that will garner respect – or babes – while keeping you looking and feeling “cool.” Seersucker certainly feels cool in the temperature sense, but in the end most guys look like tools of the fashion industry when they stuff themselves into a too tight pair of sucker shorts with a rolled-sleeve sucker blazer and a v-neck t-shirt. Unless you own a yacht and beach house in The Hamptons — where you retreat with Ralph Lauren and toast with Tommy Hilfiger — you’re being ironic and annoying.

The second major concern is that even without irony, seersucker is a very difficult fabric to wear well. Countless images of chiseled models wearing sucker suits give the appearance of a crisp, clean drape. And while the fabric may be manipulated to hold that sharp shape, the natural lay of seersucker is more slackened and supple. This isn’t a problem for skinny dudes with straight, square body types. But for curvy gents, athletes, or miscellaneous, oddly shaped beaux, it’s difficult to slip on the seer without looking like one has slipped on pajamas.

Fit is king. Fabric is second. If one’s habit hangs well, it hardly matters who made it, or how much it cost. However, of what it is made has a huge implication for how it fits. This is where seersucker threads tread toward troubled waters. It is a weave not woven to hold a pristine pressing, but rather revel in rumpled relaxation; wrinkly raiment is the usually the reserve of dressed-down denim and t-shirts, not of more formal finery. Such a juxtaposition contained embroidered into the cotton itself can careen a chap quickly into accoutrement catastrophe. Combine that with the aforementioned connotations and cultural implications, and seersucker can dive a dude into douchebaggery faster than smoking a cheap pipe and wearing a Target-brand fedora, brand-new trenchcoat, and a clip-on bow tie.

If you’re going to wear seersucker, you MUST know exactly how and why. Every small detail needs to be carefully considered. What width and color of striping? What color shoes? Oxfords or loafers? Clean shaven face or stubbly one? No tie, tie or bowtie? Belt or suspenders? Button down shirt or polo? The list could go on and on.

One slight misstep and a fellow might find himself being mistaken as the fifth man in a barbershop quartet, handed a red, white, and blue boater, and hauled off against his will to the International Barbershop Quartet Convention in Kansas City, MO. (Confession: I love barbershop quartet music, but would rather avoid being incorrectly thought to sing in one.)

More than anything, to wear seersucker well you have to believe in it — own it 100%. No hesitation; no waffling; no backpedaling. If you walk into an H&M, see a seersucker jacket and think, I’m gonna buy that; it looks cool, then you are in for a world of regret.

Fashion is a lot like cuisine. You can rain salt onto a bland dish to season it. Or, you can take the time and care to season it well while cooking so the finished creation is saline and alive with flavor from the inside and not the out. In a recent email conversation on this Rob Hays wrote, “a bow tie can be worn like it’s just another tie, or like it should be part of a face paint and clown nose ensemble; a seersucker suit can be worn like it’s just another suit, or like you’re auditioning for the role of Atticus Finch.”

I’ve known only one man north of the Mason-Dixon line to wear a seersucker suit and look like he was born to do it. I marveled at how he accomplished this astounding act. And as I considered all the mitigating factors I realized his very day-to-day life was preparation for parading such panoply.

Zack Hickman wearing a cowboy suit.

Zack Hickman, born in Lynchburg, VA, lives outside Boston, plays the upright bass, tours with Josh Ritter, sings about his handlebar moustache, performs music by Schoolhouse Rock, has degrees in English and music, and is tall. He is described thusly by the laudatory Jake Armerding:

“One of the few for whom superlatives truly fail. Resident general, fire marshal, ringmaster and power behind the throne. Maintains these offices with the help of one of the nation’s great moustaches, carefully cultivated with the use of beeswax harvested from his father’s hives. (A venture into retail, Dr. Zachariah’s Mustache Conditioning Wax and Gravity Suppressant, was, sadly, short-lived.) Buys used boots in bulk from various online vendors. Owns Z-shaped belt buckle. Has successfully roasted and served turducken. Featured in the Improper Bostonian and Stuff Boston. Swears loudly and creatively, often as part of pre-show warm-up routine. Plays the bass as if someone were going to take it away from him. (For a more visual analogy, picture the Bengal tiger from Swiss Family Robinson.)

This man defines a seersucker-worthy lifestyle.

I can’t match that. So, I don’t wear seersucker. I can’t pull it off, and I know I can’t. In fact, my playing the saxophone immediately disqualifies me from even attempting.

So men, know your limits; there’s no shame in that.

And for those who sincerely sport seersucker, I salute you.

Snobbery and the
True King Corn

Autumn is coming and with it: movies at home. And so, we thought it appropriate to republish this article on the perfect movie treat first seen here in 2009. Enjoy! 

No person can be highbrow in every arena of life and culture, even with the oldest old money in the world and the Gold Coastiest Gold Coast mansion in New York. There will be at least one aspect of life into which your tastes fall into the shunned and repulsed lowbrow designation – in food, TV, movies, theater, music, vacation spots, boats, art, cars, fashion, drink, books, comedy, sports, jewelry, or something else. But there will be something.

Many pretend to maintain the highest level of taste in every one of these, but they, too, fail. Because it’s impossible to dedicate the time and energy required to be an aficionado in all of these areas. Those who deny this reality are what we “bottom-feeders” call snobs.

I have occasionally been labeled a snob. I take exception to the term; I make no pretense toward the highest of highbrow tastes in everything. There are only a handful of cultural arenas in which I even begin to climb appreciation’s ladder: music, beer, art, and food in general – and specifically, popcorn.

How I adore popcorn. Tiny clouds of delight dancing on the tongue. Not a mere “snack” or other such trifle – popcorn is delicious. I don’t mean that popcorn can be described as delicious. I mean that it is delicious. It is the very essence of the word. To eat popcorn is to swim in deliciousness, to bed with delectability, to soar with scrumptiousness. Popcorn truly is delicious.

Sadly though, people everywhere have never dissolved themselves into a savory palm of perfectly popped, plump popcorn and had their cares and concerns whisked away in the whirlwind of fantastical flavors found in their fist.

It is for them that I here write.

Popcorn is deceptively simple. Husk-dried corn kernels containing a small amount of water that, when heated to boiling point, bursts as steam from the kernel’s hull, leaving behind the fluffy and delicate piece of popped corn.

Making popcorn requires nothing more than heat and kernels. Yet, unless the conditions for popping are just right, and the kernels both fresh and of good quality, you’ll end up with a handful of staleness. Not only can the popcorn be ruined simply in the making of it, but popcorn is also and most often ruined by the seasonings that suffocate the corn and terrify our taste buds.

One culprit is, of course, movie theater popcorn: over-salted, fake-buttered movie theater popcorn. I admit that from time to time I enjoy a bucket of popcorn with a motion picture, especially the good/bad action/adventure type. But (no thanks to the movies) all popcorn has been defined by this style, in some kind of synechdochic nightmare which we wake from to face that greatest affront to popcorn lovers everywhere: microwave popcorn.

Microwave popcorn – while edible – is to popcorn as Kraft Singles are to cheese: a mere shadow of what was intended to be.

Hope persists, though. You can make popcorn quickly and easily in your home that will leave your friends and family floating on a kernel cloud of euphoria they’ve never before experienced. And while I enjoy hyperbole, I hyperbolize not in this instance. Not once has a guest, even when pressed, admitted to preferring microwave popcorn, or even movie theater popcorn, to my corn concoction.

Let me teach you how to wow your friends and dazzle your enemies with popcorn fit for the Last Supper.

About Implements. Here is the most important thing I recommend to perfect your popcorn: the Whirley Pop. While I am not usually a fan of kitchen items that only do one thing, this item is special. The crank keeps the kernels from sticking and burning; the lid vents release steam as the water escapes its granular prison and keeps the corn light and fluffy. This piece of equipment is worth every penny.

(You can use a regular saucepan with a lid, but make sure to jostle the pan while cooking and keep the lid cracked to release the steam.)

That said, we need a recipe.

The two main ingredients when making popcorn are the kernels and the oil. Skimp on freshness and quality and you’ll be left with nothing more than an unsatisfying “snack.”

About Kernels. They come in dozens of varieties: yellow, red, blue, black, baby rice, hulless, white, and many variations of those. Part of the journey of a popcorn aficionado is to discover which varieties are palpably pleasing. The most important factor, as I have stated, is freshness. You can get good popcorn online. But it’s most fun to find a small, out-of-the way market where you can see the kernels and verify the freshness.

About Oil. Whatever your preference for general cooking, a mistake most people make when popping corn is to use vegetable oil. Flavorless, flaccid vegetable oil. The best oil for popping corn releases the corn’s flavors and doesn’t overpower them. I recommend sunflower, peanut, canola, or, as a last resort, olive oil – preferably a light olive oil.

About Making Popcorn. Since you likely don’t have a Whirley Pop yet, I’ll use general reference guides as to amounts. If you have a gas range you can begin by preparing the popper; if you have an electric range, preheat the burner to medium-high. Into the popper, pour the kernels one layer deep until the bottom of the pan is about 70-75% covered. Then add about 1-1.5 tablespoon of oil for every 1/4 cup kernels. (It is possible to use as little oil as 1 teaspoon per 1/4 cup of kernels, but that can sometimes yield popcorn that’s a little too dry for my taste.)

Place the pan on top of the preheated burner (or on the gas range and light the burner to about medium-high) with contents already loaded. If you are using the Whirley Pop, turn the crank until the stirrer cannot be easily turned and wait until there is at least 2-3 seconds between pops, then remove from heat. If you are cooking in a regular pan, continue to shake the pan until the until there is at least 2-3 seconds between pops, then remove from heat. Once off the heat, put the popcorn in a bowl big enough to allow you to shake the popcorn around a bit.

(Note: Do not wash the Whirley Pop; simply wipe it off with paper towel. If you are using a regular pan, you’ll have to wash it.)

About Seasoning. The other major faux pas in popcorn making is over seasoning. Before you add any seasoning, you must taste the popcorn. Let the taste of the popcorn help you determine the type and amount of seasoning that will enhance and enrich the flavor of the popcorn. If you want to taste nothing but salt and butter, why did you make popcorn? You could’ve stuck your face into a bowl of melted, salted butter.

For now, I’ll keep it basic. With a good popcorn recipe book, or a knack for creative flavor combining, you can concoct some extraordinary treats for special occasions – or no occasion.

I generally use one of two different kinds of salt for my popcorn: kosher, or garlic. Kosher salt is great for popcorn because the flat crystals stick to the popcorn and dissolve quickly. Their size makes it a little harder to over-salt.

For garlic lovers, garlic salt adds an extra dimension to the flavor profile of the popcorn, but is dangerous because the garlic and the salt together can quickly drown the popcorn’s natural flavor. But not just any garlic salt will do. The only garlic salt I use is Lawry’s Garlic Salt.It’s not too salty, not too garlicky, and the grains also dissolve on the popcorn well.

After you’ve tasted the corn, sprinkle a little seasoning on the popcorn and shake it up.Then taste again.If it needs more seasoning, sprinkle and shake.Repeat that process until the popcorn’s flavor bursts in your mouth. Then grab your favorite beverage and enjoy! (I recommend a good I.P.A.; the hoppy, fruity taste complements the slight saltiness of the popcorn.)

Oh, and I don’t add butter to my popcorn. Butter makes it soggy and fatty. Popcorn is actually a very healthy food, when you spare the dairy. Do your hips or gut a favor – or just do 300 ab crunches as penance.

About Storing. One of the auxilliary benefits of this approach to popcorn is its longevity. You can store the popcorn covered with foil for several days and it still packs a tasty punch. Some have even told me that it tastes better the second day.

So there you have it. Popcorn at its most simple, savory, and satisfying. It’s as timeless as corn can be in our age of victualage processing. I reckon after you get the hang of it you might start trying to sneak your own bag of delicious into the movies with you – you snob.

photo by: superiphi

Can Anyone Make Me Less “Miserables?”

The more I go over it, the more I’m torn on how to react. My instinct is to despise and dismiss. But many viewings of the trailer for the new film interpretation of Les Miserables – due out Christmas 2012 – force a more considered analysis of my concerns.

After hearing Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” though I have been a fan since the Princess Diaries, my immediate response was to see her as a vessel ill-equipped for the musical delivery of a song as untouchable in the musical theater world as “And I’m Telling You” and “I Will Always Love You” are in R&B diva-land. Incidentally, Jay Caspian King of Grantland presents a marvelous breakdown of all the monumental performances of those two songs. And I was tempted to do the same here. I combed through every possible distribution channel for recorded music in order to make an airtight case against this new “musical mockery” of Les Mis.

But, in my fervor to defend the truly great singers of the stage against this “interloping hack,” I stumbled upon something truly beautiful.

I make no apologies for having nearly impossible standards of excellence for female vocal performance – regardless of genre. And as a result I can only really enjoy the singing of a small, select handful of women, and can barely listen at all to those that fall even a little short. This is by no means braggadocious, in fact, quite the opposite. As a result of what simply amounts to snobbery – well-founded snobbery perhaps, but snobbery nonetheless – I am unable to enjoy a whole host of beautiful songs and the “good” singers that perform them. I am locked in a prison of the “great.”

So as I embarked on a mission to annihilate Ms. Hathaway’s daring attempt at musical theater (based, of course, solely on the film’s trailer – more on that later) I found myself unable to compile much evidence of singers, that in my opinion, are so monumentally superior to her in skill and execution, that she has disgraced the very thing she – in all likelihood – adores.

That is, until I rediscovered Judy Kuhn.

Judy Kuhn has been a major Broadway performer since the 1980s. She ought to be a Broadway legend, but it seems she may fall into that honorable, but unfortunate, designation of a “singer’s singer,” those who are venerated by other performers for their talent and skill, but are mostly unknown by the public. She’s received several Tony nominations, but hasn’t won. She’s overshadowed by Elaine Paige, Lea Salonga, and, hell, even Susan Boyle. But her voice soars over all theirs with a grace and completeness only a handful of women come near.

The irony is that we’ve all heard her and didn’t know it. She was the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Disney feature by the same name. But unlike Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle), or the aforementioned Lea Salonga (Fa Mulan AND Princess Jasmine), Ms. Kuhn has not garnered as much notoriety for the role. (Perhaps because that movie wasn’t nearly as well-liked as the others.)

But, her version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which I discovered while trying to smite what may be the greatest-threat-to-musical-theater-in-the-history-of-the-world-embodied-in-the-person-that-is-Anne-Hathaway, immediately halted my crusade. I was transfixed. I played the clip over and over and over again. It was a breathtaking experience. One very unlike those sublime moments in life that defy explanation. This one I can explain.

What struck me first was the effortlessness with which she sings. As a listener I’m cradled comfortably in her mastery of her voice. This is the opposite feeling of hearing anyone sing on American Idol. There, at any moment, the whole thing might come derailed. That foreboding, awkward dread of what might happen in another note or two, is entirely absent when listening to Ms. Kuhn. As I rest assured in her control I start to notice other things. The pacing of the lyrics is relaxed but doesn’t lack motion. Her diction is clear without getting too “Whitney Houston” with the consonants. The front of every word holds pitch and tone cleanly and with precision that comes only from years of labor. Often you can hear an affectation of the voice’s timbre when certain vowel-consonant combinations or diphthongs occur. Kuhn’s timbre is thoroughly consistent and changes only when she commands it to. Her releases are full of energy. Her vibrato is pure, even, controlled and balanced.

The true test of her mastery of the song comes as the melody’s direction turns downward on the line “but the tigers come at night.” The word “night” is placed near the low-end of the vocal range for an average mezzo-soprano. If you listen to many versions of this song you frequently hear a loss of power behind that note. Not in Ms. Kuhn’s performance. She arrives at that moment with such rich presence and darkness to the sound. If that wasn’t difficult enough, a few bars later a parallel phrase occurs with the lyric “as they tear your hope apart.” Here the gesture is lowered a whole step, and yet she delivers with just as much strength and resilience. That gauntlet is chased by the next stumbling block for most performers. The line “as they turn your dream to shame,” concludes with a stepwise ascension in the melody, accompanied by a necessary increase in volume and intensity. In order to amplify the emotional moment, a singer can often fall prey to the temptation to over-sing, which results in a loss of control of the timbre and vibrato creating what I hear as schmaltziness. Yet again, Ms. Kuhn maintains musical integrity without losing any of the emotional effect the composition works to evoke in that moment. Then there’s the high sustained passages, the emotional connections to the lyrics, the tension between hope and despair, intonation, pitch, breathing… I could go on and on with the technical analysis, but I trust my point has been conveyed.

The fact remains, Judy Kuhn’s singing is truly inspiring. What makes this rendition all the more awe-inducing is the time and place of its performance. She’s singing a concertized version – sung outside the context of the actual theatrical work in which it would naturally occur – for President Reagan and the First Lady who were truly beloved figures. Let me not forget to mention this was a live performance captured with the A/V technology of 1988, observed decades later though YouTube, and lacking any kind of substantive musical production. This song ought to have a whole orchestra filling every corner of the room and allowing the voice to truly flourish. Instead she’s got one piano and a snare drum (other guys are on the stage but it’s hard to tell what or if they might be playing). No offense to those musicians, but, the accompaniment is garbage. Still Kuhn completely obliterates this song. I’ve never heard a better version. Period. Go ahead and take a couple of hours to listen to all the different versions you can find. It’s possible you might prefer another one – and you have every right to do so – but it won’t change the fact that, from a musical and technical standpoint, Judy Kuhn is untouchable.

So where does that leave Ms. Hathaway. Well, it is terribly unfair to judge her, her performance of the song, and the movie solely on a 90-second preview. We don’t even get to hear the whole song. It’s decontextualized from its true dramatic setting, and the emotional connectedness between her performance and the drama is interrupted. This song is a total downer. As Hillary Busis put it, “”I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical theater’s greatest bummers — a pathos-drenched ballad about one woman’s descent into despair[.]” It may be that the cinematic elements and Ms. Hathaway’s performance work together in a way that overcomes whatever deficiencies would be exposed in a more traditional staged performance. I hope.

If, and it doesn’t seem like much of an “if” at this point, the filmmakers are going for a very dismal, dark and über-realistic interpretation of Les Mis, then a realistic and somewhat poorly sung version of the song might work to great dramatic and narrative effect. Though by listening to what evidence is currently available, it does seem that Ms. Hathaway is attempting to do a mixture of both pure singing and melodrama. She may be biting off more than she can chew. My hope is also that all the filmmakers recognize their actors’ strengths and limitations, and use that to great advantage in giving us a profound and potent story. If, on the other hand, they hope a few months of singing lessons and a highly paid vocal coach can help Hathaway go toe-to-toe with Judy Kuhn, I’m afraid it may be their dreams that turn to shame.

Boffo Socko Jaco

This article originally appeared in The Curator November 14, 2008.

Let’s start like this. Can you name any professional bass guitarists?

Mm-hmm.

And, how many recordings made by those bass guitarists do you have?

Good. Good.

If you could name one or two bassists, you have every musician’s respect and appreciation. If you could name a few, and own some of their recordings, you have our most sincere admiration. If you could name more than a handful and own their recordings, you should write the remainder of this column. Because in all likelihood you already own – and dig heavily – the record that sets my fingers to these keys.

I don’t know many musicians, if any, who do not recall with jaw-slacking stupor the first time they heard Jaco Pastorius play his Fender Jazz Bass (which he painstakingly customized by removing its frets, wood-filling the subsequent gashes, and applying coat upon coat of epoxy).

He played like no other had played before him. He changed a generation of players. He played jazz, funk, pop. He played with Joni MitchellHerbie HancockWayne ShorterDavid Sanborn; he was a pioneer of electric bass playing. So much could – and deserves – to be said about this complicated man, this artist. Yet, it’s impossible for me to summarize here the complex and tragic life that was Jaco’s. And not just because his wiki entry has more potholes than the 405. (Actually, I have no idea if the 405 has potholes or not. I’ve never even been to L.A. The 405 is in L.A., right? Well, whatever. I think you’ll still hang with the analogy.)

The words that describe his life form a perfect stereotype of “artist”: genius, friend, husband, alcohol, drugs, anger, bipolar, human, loving son, early death. There swirl around his greatness many stories of dubious authenticity. So, it’s hard to say what can really be said about him. Even his biography is considered a sham by some, and I’m not sure that that accusation is all that accurate, either.

What I can write about Jaco is really something that, well, was written by the great Pat Metheny. (And, in case you don’t know who that is-he’s really important.)

From the liner notes for the reissue of Jaco’s debut album:

Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. Everywhere you go, sometimes it seems like a dozen times a day, in the most unlikely places you hear Jaco’s sound; from the latest TV commercial to bass players of all stripes copping his licks on recordings of all styles, from news broadcasts to famous rock and roll bands, from hip hop samples to personal tribute records, you hear the echoes of that unmistakable sound everywhere. –Pat Metheny

As with all really great artists though, getting to know him is really a matter of getting to know his art. It is a matter of hearing him speak to us and tell us his story in every note and every gesture that emanates from the instrument that became a part of him. That is one way the truly great ones emerge from a crowd of excellent peers. They don’t simply wear their axe. They don’t just put it on and take it off. They are one with their instrument. There isn’t a point at which the man stops and his instrument begins. This was Jaco.

Like all greats, he raised the bar – both of the possibilities of the instrument, but also of the music itself and those that played with him. He made other players better players by his presence. And when on those rare occasions greats come together, each in their prime, something magical happens. Jaco’s album The Birthday Concert stands out as one of those special moments in music history.

In the winter of 1981, Jaco threw a surprise birthday concert for himself, gathering a superstar-studded cast of musicians for a performance that, praise God, was recorded. Here’s the a short list of behemoths that shared the stage that night: Bob MintzerMichael BreckerDon AliasPeter ErskineOthello Molineaux, and others. I realize that unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you might not know many of these names, but it’s like saying that Kurt Cobain, Bono, Madonna, The Boss, and Eric Clapton played a concert for and with Stevie Wonder. And, since Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Don Alias are all no longer with us, the magnitude of this night looms.

The evening begins with the palpable anticipation of an audience that knows what is about to come. Before a note is played, we hear Jaco address the audience: “Good evening everybody. I’d like to say hello to my mother.” Ten seconds later the count begins. “One, two, three. Two, two” CRACK . . . and Soul Intro blasts off. Think Saturday Night Live, minus everyone save the band – to the tenth power. Mintzer squeals and screams and squeezes more funk from his tenor saxophone than one thought possible, until finally Jaco fully takes the reigns with a bass line so hair-raising it makes Rogaine look like a Flintstones vitamin. At this point we are fully into The Chicken, a tune with whaling solos by two saxophoning giants and a groove so fat it should have its own zip code. It’s the kind of tune that sends you into a funky stride embodiment of 70s John Travolta no matter where you are. (Save maybe funerals. And why are you listening to soul/funk/jazz during a funeral anyway. Have some decency.)

Check out this YouTube video of Soul Intro/The Chicken (from 1982).

After listening to The Chicken anywhere from two to ten times, we move on to hear the essence of Jaco’s playing in the floating and mysterious, Continuum. Harmonics, chords and strong melodic movement don’t usually characterize bass playing, but Jaco derives much of his distinctive style from them. This cut also brings an opportunity to soak in the sound of Jaco’s axe and his unique array of equipment. His tone is unmistakable and here we really get to know it best.

Every track brings gem after gem; from the lilting waltz Three Views from a Secret, to the exotic Reva, to the Stan Kentonesque Domingo. From start to finish, this record delivers. I’ve often heard a complaint about instrumental music; that it’s monotonous without lyrics, that eventually it gets boring and backgroundish. This album offers a rebuttal fit for John Grisham; a vibrant diversity of musical elements that appeals even to those who aren’t drawn to “jazz.” It’s a piece of history; a glimpse into the heart and soul of one man’s passion and genius – of his love for music.

So, whether or not you end up grabbing this disc from your local record shop, the big chain store putting your local shop out of business, or an online megastore putting both of them six feet under, you can at least name one more bass guitarist than when we began. Unless of course, you were already savvy to Jaco and own this record – in which case, be glad I reminded you to blow the dust off that old CD, load it onto your MP3 player of choice and strut your funky stuff.

 

photo by:

9.08 Christmas Albums Yule Love – Or Your Holiday Cheer Back

So this is Christmas; well, almost. It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving as I type. But for me, and everyone except Starbucks (for whom the Christmas/unoffensive-nebulous-holiday season began shortly after Labor Day), Black Friday is also Red and Green Friday — the day we start the Christmas tunes a ring-ting-tingling through our iWhatevers.

This is a big day — the day I dust off all my Christmas albums. And by “dust off” I mean open iTunes, navigate to the genre “Holiday” and “Select All,” and then “Check Selection,” to reactivate all those jolly gems.

Christmas songs fall into that category of things people strain to avoid talking about in small groups for fear of word wars about who thinks what’s best, and who hates that very thing, and so on. It’s right up there with politics, religion, and submarine sandwiches — you put signs in your front yard declaring your preferences on them, but you sure don’t talk about them.

Well, it’s time to take down those old, lame signs. It’s time to blaze a new auditory adventure. And, you can’t spell adventure without Advent.

As a Christmas canticle connoisseur (I could start my Christmas playlist and let it deck the halls all the way through the twelve days of Christmas before hearing a single jingle twice), I present these 9.08 Christmas albums, not as the best Christmas music ever, but simply the recordings I never tire of hearing. Those for which I have a yearly yuletide yearning.

(In a somewhat — but not overly — particular, non-qualitative order.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1965, CBS Records
If you don’t have this you aren’t from Earth. I can’t be certain what planet you are from, but either buy this recording TODAY, or go get in your flying saucer and warp back home.

If you already own it and don’t absolutely love it, there’s nothing neither I, nor Dr. House, can do for you. In fact, you probably have an aluminum Christmas tree and hate floppy-eared dogs and large-headed, cartoon children. The best advice I have for you is to stop reading. Just stop right now and think about how you got to this place. Our prayers are with you.

When My Heart Finds Christmas, Harry Connick Jr., 1993, Sony/Columbia
It’s hard to go wrong with a talent like HCJ. (He told me to call him that when we met at a JazzFest back in 1999 . . . actually, that’s not true. I lied. I’ve never met him. Please don’t tell him I said anything, though, in case we meet someday.)

Writing a new Christmas song is one of the most difficult creative endeavors. Ironically, the holiday commemorates the beginning of one of the archetypal stories to which most good stories and many amazing works of art point. Nonetheless, the pantheon of gifted artists that have left a heritage of unassailable classics makes tapping even this manger of creativity a tough one for anyone.

Yet, HCJ delivers no less than two new nativity numbers that ought to be standards, “I Pray on Christmas” being my favorite among all non-classic/traditional Xmas tunes.

Once Upon A Christmas, Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, 1984, RCA
Chalk this one up to nostalgia. If you don’t like for its 1980s sincere “we think this is really terrific music that will stand the test of time” optimism*, you’ll love it as one of the greatest pieces of American Christmas kitsch ever. I guarantee you’ll be singing along by the second song. It’s got an inexplicable irresistibly to it, like raw ground beef and raw onion on a slice of pumpernickel. Well, not like that at all. That dish, served all over southeastern Wisconsin around Christmas, is disgusting.

*(The original recording is no longer available; a re-release, that loses a few of the original tunes and gains one less than stellar addition, is.)

Since Kenny and Dolly are two icons of country music with distinctive and perfectly harmonious voices, the recording is not “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. They play to each other’s strengths and keep the schmaltz to a minimum, opening the doors for cynics like me to still enjoy this hard to find treasure.

A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag, Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, 2008, Ubiquity Records
I can only describe it thusly: it’s like being in the back of Starsky & Hutch’s 1976 Gran Torino, listening to Christmas tunes on 8-Track, and not wearing a seat belt.

Enough said. Download it right away.

A Jazzy Wonderland, Various Artists, 1990, Columbia Records
Good music deserves to be listened to, with focus. But, when you’re blasting the holly harmonies at your house 24/7, you’ll occasionally need to tone it down into the background. Therein enters this jazz jamboree for all you un-hip cats out there. If, like me, you love jazz, it’s perfect in the forefront.

This album is also perfect listening for tree-trimming, baking pumpkin pie, or maybe having just a half a drink more. It’s the only compilation on the roster because most complications are merely collections of songs that originally appeared somewhere else. Such is not the case with A Jazzy Wonderland.

Check out the list of artists that perform: Monte Croft & Terence Blanchard; Marlon Jordan & Delfeayo Marsalis; Fred Simon & Traut/Rodby; Richard Tee; Ellis Marsalis; Kirk Whalum; Wynton Marsalis; Tony Bennett; Karl Lundeberg & Full Circle; Grover Washington Jr.; Kimiko Itoh & Nancy Wilson; Joey DeFrancesco & Dwight Sills; and Harry Connick, Jr. & Branford Marsalis.

It’s a soulful parade of jazz hall-of-famers. I recommend you dim the lights, sit by the open fire, and get out your chestnuts for roasting.

The Andy Williams Christmas Album, Andy Williams, 1963, Columbia Records
Everyone knows this one even if they don’t know they know it. Sadly, that’s because it’s most often heard in Midwestern department stores two months out of every year. But, don’t let that hinder your ho-ho-ho. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a celebratory romp that’s sure to get the eggnog flowing in that $700 electric eggnog fountain you bought from the SkyMall on the red-eye back from Seattle. At least it came with cool moose glasses.

Andy Williams, who is still singing, has some powerful pipes. No wispy, wimpy, Josh Groban-ness to be found.

The Christmas Shoes, Newsong, 2001, Reunion
Wait! Wait! Before you muffledly stomp your pointy-elf-slipper-shod feet away from the computer in absolute disgust, I am ONLY recommending their rendition of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (I bet you thought you’d entered a Twilight Zone Christmas nightmare for a second there.) That’s just one of the twelve songs on the record. The only other one of those twelve I’ve heard bears the same title as the album itself, which, if you heard it one of the exactly 12,445,678,453,124,245,456 times it was played last year, you know that song instantly disqualifies me from recommending any more than 8/100 of this album.

That said, it is a show-stopping arrangement. Quite fun.

The Season, Jane Monheit, 2005, Sony/BM
Jane Monheit’s singing is as angelic as her backstage persona. (I know this because, in fact, my wife and I met Jane and conversed with her for bit at the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village some years back. True story this time.)

No other songbird’s call is quite as sublime. Forget Mariah, Whitney, Beyoncé, Celine, Ella, Dinah, Sarah, and everybody else. (Though Rosemary Clooney gives her a run for her money.) Jane’s voice is truly majestic, a soft waterfall cascading down upon a silvery unicorn bearing your life’s love, while the moon rises and comets streak through regal skies over snow-capped mountains barely visible behind shimmering rainbows cast by the fading sun through joyful tears falling from a host of heavenly angels.

One thing’s for sure, if you fill your hearing holes with Ms. Monheit’s magnificent music, you’ll multiply your merry moments by millions.

The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook, Bing Crosby, 1935-1956, Decca Records
He truly is the voice of Christmas, and perhaps the most recognizable, stunning, and perfect voice ever recorded. If I had a million years to imagine things, I still couldn’t imagine what it feels like to sing like Bing.

While listening to Bing bellow, it’s interesting to be reminded that people have been opening gifts and sharing time with family to the strains of these exact versions of classic Christmas songs for almost seventy years. It’s one thing for the song itself to belong to antiquity, it’s another for an actual performance of one to endure. Plus, the whole recording has that “old-timey” feel. Probably because it was made in the “old times.”

He Is Christmas, Take 6, 1991, Word Entertainment
Before I made it big as a writer, I was an editorial intern for an industry trade magazine. I was in charge of compiling a list of “desert island discs,” or “moon mission music” as I called it. An artist submitted this recording as one of the five he would take on a one-way trip to the moon. That’s high praise since the magazine was for musicians about chamber music.

Normally I’d tread lightly when recommending an a cappella group to an unknown audience, it’s sort of like sweetbreads, you either love them, or the thought of it sends you hurtling towards the water closet like Santa after a night of drinking warm, spoiled milk.

But, with all the Glee fanaticism these days, maybe now is a good time to dip your toe into the post-doo-wop-gospel-second-wave-jazz-a cappella-vocal-pop scene.

These guys are just like the cast of Glee, except middle-aged, African-American, all-male, probably bad actors and dancers, but can sing circles around the faux-teens any day.

Give them a try. Who knows, maybe if you like it, you’ll order sweetbreads next time you go to a restaurant that serves sweetbreads — whatever kind of restaurant that is.

So there you have it. 9.08 Christmas albums yule love, or your holiday cheer back.

Musical Christmas to all, and to all a not-so silent night.

A Beautiful (whatever that means) Moment

So, there’s another contributor to the Curator with whom I share my city of residence. After discovering his views on our fair city (which align with mine down to the last ‘y’ in Jersey City) I knew that either we would be fast friends should we ever meet, or I have a split personality and am now submitting articles to this magazine under two identities (which, it seems, would be really bizarre as far as split personality vocational choices go). Or, perhaps we were twin brothers separated at birth, an option I ruled out quickly after we met face-to-face, or should I say, face to sternum. Hi-yo!! (Ugh. I can’t believe I just wrote that. I feel dirty.) Height difference aside, we did become fast friends. And, I was glad to learn that as far as I am aware, I have only one personality.

Besides the city we love, many other cultural artifacts could have brought us even closer together: songs, movies, politics, shoes, sports and, most obviously, numismatics are chief among them. But, it was that most manly of canapés that took our budding buddyship to the next level: hot wings and beer.

Now, imagine for one second the dangerous and seemingly impossible discovery that we could consume both our beloved hot wings and beer in our beloved city in one solitary establishment. (And for $.25/wing and $2/draft at that.) Needless to write (but will anyway since verbosity won’t keep you out of heaven… I certainly hope), we were more than skeptical about the quality of the items on which we were about to spend our moderately-difficultly-earned money.

We came. We saw. We paid with change we scraped up from various junk drawers. The wings were edible; the beer was wet; but, the experience we had, words cannot describe. So I won’t try.

That’s it. The article is over. (Wait, I’m sorry boss, what’s that? I’m way under the word minimum? The preceding drivel is not an article?)

Well, a truly gifted scribe, says Flannery O’Connor or Michael Crichton, would at this point put their artistic foot down and refuse to compromise themselves. Well, maybe not Mr. Crichton. But Flannery – I always wondered if her nickname was Flan. And if it was, did she go by Flan on trips to Spanish-speaking nations? A simple phrase like “quiero flan por favor” could have resulted in much awkwardness and perhaps  an accidentally- arranged marriage. It is at this point that I believe I have disqualified myself from ever being allowed to attend a Glen Workshop. Such is the extent of my commitment to my art.

I’ve lost my train of thought (and probably 2/3 of my readers).

Straight to the main point then.

What is post-modernism? Isn’t that the question people ask when they are trying to seem erudite and educated? Asking in a way that presumes they know the answer, when they actually have no clue what it means and couldn’t recognize it if it was a pile of manure stuck to their shoe, so it gets mistaken for mud and wiped off by hand before remembering the dream job interview starting in ten minutes and realizing there is nowhere to expunge the excrement before handshakes and hellos.

For the longest time I thought I had a grasp on this slippery eel; I thought there was only mud on my shoe. I’d throw around words like subjectivisticism, multiculturalityness and openmindednessicity in conversation. But it wasn’t until the night Fitz and I entered a corner beer and hot-wingery that I truly appreciated the 7-layer salad that is post-modernism.

The establishment presents itself like a typical, local-divey-psuedo-Irish pub, hookah bar, and grill. Gaudy four leaf clover signs advertising Budweiser’s newest beerish-but-not-much-more-than-sparkling-yellow-water beverage are lazily draped above the makeshift outdoor seating area furnished by plastic chairs and wobbly tables covered by partially torn umbrellas. No sooner than one finishes stereotyping this haunt from its exterior, does one enter it to find an unimaginably tangled web of discontinuity.

The window decor is Hindi-ish. The wall-hangings mirrored and/or neon. The music pounding is classic rock. The TVs blaze soccer & football. The parishioners palate burgers and burnt tobacco. The bar is dirty. The bartender is Puerto Rican*. The clientele is Russian, Pakistani, and Jerseyian. And there’s Fitz and me, talking theology, eating wings, and fitting right in. Because, in that place, a profalactic-peddling, ex-circus performer wouldn’t have stood out.

*Due to her fortissimo speaking volume, we did spend several minutes imbibing in silence as she regaled the Russians and another server with the story of missing work due to her mom being found dead on a boat docked in Costa Rica not shortly after having had an, apparently, life-fulfilling breast augmentation.

Our conversation that evening kept rolling back to how difficult it would be for Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann to sit at that bar for even 5 minutes. We just couldn’t imagine the high-modernist mind being able to make any sense of such a disjointed amalgamation. But that night we walked right up the embodiment of every rationalist’s fears, shook its hand, bought a beer from it, and said, “hello, post-modernism. Pleased to meet you. Cheers.”

Doubtless a place like this is not far from you, a place where you could get away and take a break from your worries; a place where nobody knows your name, and where they’re barely aware you came. Yet a place where people know that people are all the same.

We can find moments like this one where nothing seems to make sense or belong together if we are willing to suppress the need for sense and enjoy sensing the surrounding strangeness. In the senselessness of these situations, there can be some semblance of sanity, if we are only willing to shake hands with a new friend.

It’s A Wonderful Flight

I wish I could enjoy flying the way my son does. His jaw-dropping, wide-eyed, finger-pointing spirit is unfettered by the procession of nuisance that precedes, co-mingles, and succeeds the actual flying part of flying. It’s all miraculous to him. The airport, the trains, the cars, the planes, the monitors, and the baggage trucks are woven together for him like a grand opera. Each of these elements, however insignificant, is like a two-bar oboe introduction to a prima donna‘s aria – often unheralded yet absolutely essential. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times on a single trip they make us deplane and re-board– he’s enchanted.

The same cannot be said for me. Rather than seeing an intricately coordinated ballet of astounding technology, machinery, and humanity, I see my wasted time and money. I don’t see like a child. I think like a bloated consumer, annoyed at how much I’ve spent to sit in uncomfortable chairs, overpay for unhealthy food, wait, wait, wait, board, deplane, board again, lose feeling in my legs, and eventually land. Hardly an artistic experience, unless I was at a Bjork concert or Matthew Barney exhibition.

But somehow, despite the airlines’ best/worst efforts, I try to think of something other than myself on the flight – if only for a few minutes until they bring the sodium bag that’s called “snack,” or some other inanity. In those few moments, I think about how for millennia humankind looked to the sky and dreamt. They painted pictures, wrote stories, developed whole mythologies, all centric around the notion that one day man would fly. Journeys that would take those dreamers a lifetime take us a few hours. I imagine  they would have given up much to experience that which I take for granted and even berate at times.

What happened to my child-like wonder? Why can’t I be more like my young son, even as I try to teach him to be more like me (in the not-pooping-in-his-pants, self-reliant way, not the “hey,-aren’t-I-awesome-I’m-gonna-teach-junior-to-be-just-like-me way)? [note: His name is not junior.]

Perhaps this parenting thing will rekindle my enjoyment of the small things, help me see the special in the ordinary.

In fact, it was on a flight not too long ago that I noticed something I’d never noticed before. I’m familiar with lifting up on the buckle, finding the nearest exit, the price of adult beverages, pretending to lower my seat back in an apparently courteous fashion even though this action will swallow huge portions of the other person’s dwindling legroom, putting my mask on first (to be clear: I have never had to put on the mask, but in theory I know how to do it since I’ve seen many flight attendants half do it), Skymall Syndrome, the great steakhouses and best plastic surgeons in North America (once again, the latter not from experience), fake Mensa quizzes, half-finished Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and the layout of noteworthy US Airports. But one item I had paid little attention to are the “radio” stations. I knew that on most flights one could plug those weird, two prong headphones (I wonder if they shrivel up and disappear like the Wicked Witch of the East, or magically turn into one-prong headphones if you take them out of their element?) into the armrests. What I hadn’t known was that the reason one would plug in those bizarro headphones – when there wasn’t a terrifically bad movie to watch – was to browse airplane FM.

Since my wonderment goggles are still a little fogged up with adulthood, I was especially skeptical about the time-worthiness of spending a portion of the flight I had allocated for sleeping (ahem, all of it), listening to “who knows what” kind of garbage.

It took a minute to figure out how to take my headphones out of my iPhone (I don’t think I’d ever done it before) and jerry-rig the one-pronged cord into the two-pronged jack. But once I’d accomplished that minor mechanical miracle, my eyes got really wide. I had providentially tuned into a station playing  jazz (a favorite of mine). I listened, and listened, and kept on listening while song-after-song my jaw dropped ever more open. As I changed stations to explore this new world, I was more and more enchanted.

In our personal, digital, music player, iTunes era, it is rare that we hear any music we don’t specifically intend on hearing. Even if we “shuffle” or use Pandora, we are still in the musical pilot’s seat. But on that day, on that plane, someone else was choosing what came next in my ears.

It was refreshing. All I could change was the channel. Otherwise, I was totally at the mercy of the curator the airline hired (or outsourced company hired) to assemble play lists for those few passengers who bother listening to anything other than the music boxes in their pockets and purses.

That wonder-filled experience was undoubtedly crushed too early by the unfortunate reality of air travel, but I don’t remember that part of the flight. All I remember is how much I enjoyed the simplicity of listening to music and the mystery of what was coming next. I was more like my son than ever in that moment (you’ll be glad to know that I had not forgotten how to use the lavatory though). I was flying, for the first time in a long time.

The next time you return your tray table to its upright and locked position before takeoff, glance around your armrest for two puzzling little holes, plug in, and fly away.

Get Found at the Church of Chuck

Oh dear Lost-Lovers,

I know your recent loss of Lost is looming; it’s hard to let go of a love so long in lingering. Even when you had begun to think that perhaps it’s time for less Lost; you feel its absence and know that while the drama’s players are now found, you are lost.

I can empathize; I was lured then left by a long-running love once. And I lived to tell that there is hope. That you, too, will find your way to the church and see there all that you loved about Lost.

In fact, what if I told you that I knew where that church was? What if I said its doors will once again open this fall? And what if, over the summer, it were possible to begin to climb your way out of the purgatory in which you now find yourself?

What if you could have back all of what made Lost your greatest love – and more?

Characters that feel like family, unrequited love, death and resurrection, action and adventure, consipiration, mysterious origins, sub-sub-subplots, high-techery, super-suspension of disbelief, familial über-loyalty, double-crossing, triple-crossing, flashbacks, fabulous acting, rich characterization, profound writing, a weekly abandoning of your mundane existence into a world of enigma and possibility, beautiful people, unlikely heroes and likeable/hateable villains – all of these could once again be yours. And then add to that humor, silliness, stupendous non-sequiturs, elaborate covers, spies, and Captain Awesome.

As much as I would love to promise you tropical polar bears, time travel, flash sidewayses (that is the correct plural of flash sideways, right?), immortals, and smoke monsters, you won’t find those here.

And still, you ask, “Where can I find this great hope?”

Chuck.

Mondays at 8:00 pm Eastern on NBC starting again in the fall.

But don’t wait until then to start healing. Get Season 1 on DVD right now and start to fill that life-changing-TV-show-shaped hole in your soul. And don’t do it just for yourself, or for the good of mankind, or to help keep this show on the air for a few more seasons to generate ad revenue for a company so half-witted that it doesn’t know how good of a thing it has going…

Do it for me.

Do it so that next year – right about now – I am not weeping into my Fruity Pebbles every morning wondering what I will do now that I’m lost.

Just like you.


This article originally appeared on Patrol, an independent daily magazine where young writers explore their interactions with art, culture, politics, and religion.

An Unlikely Guide Points The Way Home

It is early in the morning on my deadline for this column; I was up before the dawn. I’m notoriously late in delivering my work to the editor, which is probably why I would not make it in the journalism business. Like any self-loathing writer I want to improve on my craft and all its periphery. Therefore I became determined to turn this piece in on time. I knew exactly the matter on which I was inspired to compose; I had a formal sketch of it outlined; I even had almost finished writing by the week of its due date. But on the eve of the deadline I decided not to turn in the almost completed essay, and instead start a new one. This one.

So, here I sit – day of the deadline – starting the second paragraph of a new work that hasn’t technically begun yet since I insist on delaying the actual start of the piece by describing why I’m writing one at all. Rest assured, dear reader (interesting: “dear reader” is deceivingly close to being a palindrome), it was not whimsy which spurred the spurning of a near-finished creation – which was, I believe, quite good. Instead, I am coerced to write this still-not-officially-started column by the weight of a brief moment experienced on a mundane commute home that pressed my soul until I wept. A weight so weighty that if I’d been on a scale I’d have weighed 10 times what I actually weigh.

And now, it has begun.

Lost?

People who are lost find out they are so by one of two ways. They might, after some time wandering off the path set before them, begin to notice the absence of the markings blazing toward their destination. Others only discover their lostness upon arriving, miraculously, back home – or at least on the path toward home. The former, now seeing the imminent danger all around them, frantically search for any sign of what was their guide and inevitably realize how precarious the journey and elusive their safety. The latter are oblivious to that precariousness and move about as though safety were ubiquitous. They don’t understand the narrowness of path and closeness of danger.

I was the latter – until yesterday.

Our deepest – and most painful when unfulfilled – dreams and aspirations for our lives are often formed in youth. I remember the me that I was when I first set sights on the me that I hoped to become. Looking back, I am glad I am the me I am now and not the me I hoped to be in almost every regard. Our lives often travel down paths that wind, climb hills, circle back, and force us to take the long way home.

I do mean paths plural. I have many dreams, many homes at which I hope to one day arrive. A home for work, one for family, one for life, one for the afterlife, and many others. Yet I, stupid little dreamer that I am, had wandered from one of those paths.

I don’t recall when it happened; I think there were signs I was taking misstep after misstep, but they weren’t ever bright enough to signal trouble – to say, “You may never get home if you keep going this way.” I wandered, feeling the whole time a security in the assumed inevitability of my arrival home, unaware that scores of threats to my hopes were amassing all around.

If I’m honest, I knew that something wasn’t right. I knew I wasn’t heading toward home any longer. I just didn’t want to believe it. It’s much easier to pretend that one day all my dreams will come true, even while I’ve forgotten what some of them were, than to pursue them.

In that frame of mind I sat on a crowded subway biding time until my stop.  I would alight there and go about believing that I was still on course. But that’s not how it happened.

Halfway home something happened – something so powerful it really did bring tears to my eyes. (Which were fortunately hidden behind dark sunglasses. Always a wise choice on crowded trains. You never know when you’ll have a “moment.” And then it gets all weird when people notice and you feel their awkward body language of not knowing whether to say something. And you have to tell them that you’re fine and they don’t really believe you because you’re whimpering like a baby. Anyway. Sunglasses are good to have.)

In my headphones, instead of the usual rotation of podcasts, I was listening to an old favorite, a group a friend recently mentioned was terrific when he suggested we start performing one of their tunes. I remembered how much I enjoyed them a decade or so ago and thought it would be fun to reminisce.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to hear the source of one of my dreams. To be reminded of why I decided to play saxophone, why I love music at all, why I studied it and still hope to “make it.” It’s not surprising that hearing music from my youth showed me how far astray I’d gone from the simplicity of my hopes and the purity of enjoyment of music that was once mine. What was surprising was the group that made me cry in public was Supertramp.

It’s almost too absurd to be true.

I loved Supertramp once. Their songs bellowed from the car stereo (back when I had a car).  I didn’t really know or care why I dug their groove then. I just did. And it was inspiring. I wanted to make music that gave others that simple – and simultaneously profound – satisfaction of relishing living.

I’m not saying that I don’t make that kind of music now. I certainly hope I do. But I had gotten caught up in the intelligentsia; in the constant analysis and dissection of music; in the reduction of the transcendent to the calculable, the concrete.

Something important happens when one falls in love with music – music which needs no justification. There’s no list of historical, theoretical, or philosophical reasons to prove why this music is “good.” It’s good because it is, and you know it instinctively.

Listening to them now, I understand why their music is compelling, why I loved it then and still love it today. I can see the stuff of which it is made, how it holds together structurally. I can hear why it is interesting.

But I don’t need the why anymore.

I had forgotten that I once enjoyed music beyond a cerebral appreciation. That I had set sights on a home where I loved the music I listened to and loved the music I made –  just because.

I didn’t even know I was lost.

Supertramp showed me the long way home, the same way they did fifteen years ago.

Story Me This

Story. That’s why people watch the Olympics. It’s certainly not the finer points of curling technique or the joy of seeing the best athletes in the world excel at doing what so many of us try to do better every time we strap rifles to our backs, slip on our skis, and head out into the hills for a causal afternoon of recreational alpine snipering.

We watch to see the grandson of WWII veteran drape his grandfather’s military burial flag over victorious shoulders as he celebrates gold. We cheer for the figure skater who overcame all odds to return to the ice for one more try for a first medal before retirement. We marvel at the skier who achieves heights none before have. We weep with the snowboarder seeking redemption for past bravado whose chance melts like the snow that slid her into disqualification.

We celebrate dreams come true and mourn those that don’t. We need their stories. It is story that informs our humanity and gives context to ebb and flow of life.

But sometimes rather than discovering story, we are deceived by mirage. All the trappings of story are laid before us, but the closer we get, the more its substance unravels, and we are left feeling hollow.

 

Such a tale was Avatar. A grandiose, colorful candy shell – with little inside. Imaginative and yet somehow uncreative. It was pure entertainment – a predictable pleasure delivered in a predictable manner.

I did like Avatar and enjoyed the experience it offered. It was spectacle, and I was entertained. It was a visual feast as promised, but a feast of little more than cinemagraphic cotton candy. In the end, I left the theater hungry (and not from consuming too little popcorn). I left feeling like I could have been changed. I left wanting to have been changed. (I also left the theater with a bladder as tired, sad, and bloated as its closing theme song.) I wanted real story, not recycled characters and cliched plot points covered in impressive technology and slick imagery.

Telling a meaningful story involves risk. And many aren’t willing, or able, to take on such risk artistically – risk that the story exposes the heart of the teller, risk that the market won’t respond and will thereby close doors to future creative opportunities. But with little risk comes little reward. (Unless the reward hoped for is little more than heaps of cash. Entertainment can yield lots of that.)

What I wanted from Avatar was risky storytelling: a bold attempt to challenge our preconceptions about life and existence, to leave us wondering if the worldview we held complete still has room to grow. If our eyes can see things afresh. If compassion can increase and love deepen as our humanity is filled up with the good, true, and beautiful.

And when you find a story like that you tell the world. You get on your Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Google Buzz, Bebo, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, Orkut, Jaiku, Friendster, Ning, or whatever and tell everyone. Whether it’s a movie, band, TV show, poem, or short story.

Or in this case, a novel. I’d never waited in angst for a book to be published before now.

Having been one of the first to discover the Harry Potter series after they were all already released, I’ve never felt that nervous energy of unquenchable anticipation. My fingernails remained neatly clipped, not chewed to stumps, as I flew through books 1-7 without pause or thought to what it was like to have a year roll by between volumes.

Until a few months ago.

I began reading Auralia’s Colors, a novel by Jeffrey Overstreet, with the end of the aughts (or the two-thousands, or the double-0s or whatever we ended up calling that decade) looming.

It’s the first book, or the Red Strand, in a series called The Auralia Thread that was initially published in 2007 by WaterBrook Press.

Auralia’s Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Set in another time, in another world, the people of the Expanse have a long history they trace back to a single ancestral group of children, who, led by a Mosaic patriarch, escaped a dangerous wilderness to settle a new land. Generations passed and the people scattered and separated into four houses, each with its own distinct and complicated lore. Auralia’s Colors throws us headlong into the contemporary trials of House Abascar when a young girl, orphaned at birth and of unknown ancestry, brings new, life-giving color to a drab and dying people.

Try to remember the last time you read a fantasy novel, and, if you can, all the ones before that. (Which might bring most of you to a grand total of three, and us geeks and nerds to a total of near 22 or more.) Of those, how many were about men with weapons and kingdoms to defend against irredeemable evil and save weak womenfolk from sure destruction? Black and white stories with no room for gray – or color?

Once it became clear that our protagonist, Auralia, was a little girl enamored with colors, mystery, and the seeing of things unseen, I was hooked. In all my previous fantastical readings I’d never encountered such a premise, though some might be out there. At first I was intrigued, stepping cautiously – if not a little skeptically – over the pages and wondering where this tale was taking me. But like that of all master craftsmen of language, Overstreet’s storytelling pulled me deeper and deeper into this vivid world both rich with – and yet deprived of – color, song, creation, and all that their presence brings.

I burned through the book like a dragon puffing ragweed rolled in magic paper.

Cyndere’s Midnight, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait at all to start the second installment, the Blue Strand, Cyndere’s Midnight. It was strategically positioned in my bag so when I inserted a finished Auralia’s Colors, I could remove an untouched Cyndere’s Midnight. Really, the only way I could’ve shortened that lag time would have been to glue one book to the other.

As much as I was enchanted by Auralia and the story Overstreet wove in her pages, I was changed by Cyndere’s Midnight, a story of loss and redemption. Of finding out what makes one human, and what shreds one’s humanity. A story that could not let me be, but pushed me to become something better. One that probed my heart as I found pieces of myself – the good and the wretched – in these characters. Their journey became my journey, their hopes and sorrows mine.

Raven’s Ladder, by Jeffrey Overstreet

So, you can imagine the vacuous hole left in me when I closed its cover and had no other book in my bag to pull out. I sat on the train filled with questions, gawking bewildered at the route map like a first-time tourist because there was nowhere else to stare, searching for answers with such ferocity that if I’d been the conductor we’d have skipped every stop until the track ran out.

And so I waited, feeling for the first time that reader’s anxiety common to many but alien to me. I waited 46 days that seemed like one point two five score and four weeks.

The characters’ stories have yet to fully enfold, but this one has a happy ending.

Raven’s Ladder, the Gold Strand and third book in the series is finally available. And it is every bit as engaging, imaginative and transforming as its predecessors.  While I long to feel the resolution of this transformational, expertly-crafted story, part of me hopes the series will never end.

Because while there will always be, in our lives and in our culture, an important space and time for entertainment – for movies like Avatar – we need story. And when we’ve found it, we cling to it. We share it. We relive it over and over, and are changed by it. We let its colors saturate our lives.


You can hear Jeffrey Overstreet himself speak about the need for good stories at this year’s IAM Encounter, March 4-6 in downtown Manhattan. Overstreet will be speaking on Saturday afternoon, and single-day tickets are available.

Christmas: The Final Frontier

Abnormally busy city sidewalks are crammed with shoppers shoving other shoppers out of the way on the “rush” home with treasures they could’ve gotten on Amazon.com, but feel compelled to buy locally. And while it’s not true that smile meets smile these days, it is true that on every street corner, above all the bustle, I hear this year’s newly released and tired rearrangements of the same fifteen songs every musical artist has been re-recording for 75 years.

So I got to thinking, with the smell of chestnuts roasting over a street vendor’s coal, that we need a new pop culture holiday tradition. Don’t we all have enough versions of We Wish You A Merry Christmas on our music playback machine of choice to last us the rest of our lives? Really, can anyone want figgy pudding so much that they would refuse to leave a person’s porch/living room until some is brought to them? I mean, how merry of a Christmas can you possibly be wishing me in this scenario?

Here’s what I propose: we replace the annual release of Music Celebrity du Jour’s Christmas record with something that has just as much cultural identity and brand development as those far-out music stars of wonder shining beyond us. Something that always turns a profit, regardless of the quality of the artifact. Something that would at least give us a break from hearing silver bells jingle.

“What is this something?” you ask, your cheeks quivering nervously like a bowl full of jelly thanks to all the pumpkin pie and egg nog you’ve been downing since Thanksgiving?

Movie franchises.

Instead of the Jon Secada & Lady Gaga Christmas Duets from La-La-Land, we get Pirates of the Caribbean: Mists of the Black Coal Stocking. A much needed change for the better.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Mists of the Black Coal Stocking

Captain Jack and crew sail to the North Pole to discover the source of coal filling the world’s Christmas stockings. Along the way, Will and Elizabeth Turner must rescue their young twins from the Isle of Banished Elves, while Jack schemes to find a way to turn coal mists into diamonds and partners with a most unusual sailor of the skies.

Terminator: Incarnation

War rages endless between man and machine. Weary of the constant loss of life, cyborgical and biological, SkyNet determines there is only one way to bring peace between man and machine. A young orphan, Maria, agrees to be the vessel that will bear the perfect half man/half machine. When word of this deliverer’s birth reaches ears and CPUs, many are threatened by the new world he will bring. But three cyborg generals, and three vagabond resistance guardians, join forces to protect the new hope that has entered their broken world.

AVP: Joyeux Noel

After eons of slaughter and violence cutting across the galaxies, two enemies – separated from their brethren – become unlikely friends as they learn to lean on each other for survival. Inspired by their experience together, Autjr’tyi and Xoktz return to their respective species and tirelessly pursue an unfathomable armistice on Pt’Katix, a holy day of celebration for both worlds.

Indiana Jones and the Star of Wonder

After inscriptions on a rare 1st century vase from the fertile crescent are found – supposedly detailing the falling of an eastern star that had shown brighter in the sky than any in ancient history – Indy and Mutt are dragged into a race against the clock to decipher the remainder of the script and find the location of the fallen star before the evil energy conglomerate Consortio Globus can destroy the treasure: a meteorite, presumed to contain enough mineralogical space radiation to overcome the world’s fossil fuel dependence and bring peace on earth and good will to all.

Sinterklaas and the Planet of the Apes

For thousands of years Kris Kringle has warped time to circumnavigate this planet in one night to deliver good gifts and cheer to all the Earth, but this time, night is bent too far and Santa is hurled to an apparently lifeless, foreign planet. The sleigh’s power of flight lost, and his reindeer scattered, Claus begins the search for a way home and discovers the horrifying reality of this new place. His capture at the hands of an impossible enemy leaves him wondering if he’ll ever escape to be Father Christmas again.

National Treasure: The Tunnel to Korvatunturi

Santa Claus and his North Pole home are the most powerful myths of the modern world. But, what if it is more than a myth? What if the Santa Claus lore is actually a series of clues? Clues to an unfathomable hidden treasure buried beneath Mount Korvatunturi, one of the many rumored locations of Santa’s lair. Ben Gates is determined to find out. He and his band of treasure-hunters embark on twisting, turning adventure to discover the fabled entrance to the Tunnel to Korvatunturi and reclaim the lost treasure of Saint Nicholas.

Star Trek: Epiphany

The United Federation of Planets calls the Enterprise and its crew into action once more. This time the mission is one of peace: to bring a gift to a new race only just discovering warp drive. But when they arrive, they find a most unusual series of events unfolding in the history of this people – events much like those reported to have occurred on Earth millennia ago. A child that some fear and others hope will be their savior has been born. Kirk and crew must confront long abandoned ideas of God and faith to present the gift to its true recipient while the fate of this entire planet hangs in the balance.

The Matrix: Neotivity

Rain pounds the window of Michelle McGahey’s Lower Downtown Capital City apartment. This dark night brings a strange visitor to the door, calling herself “The Oracle.” She tells the young woman that she is pregnant, and that her son will be “The One” and restore order to what she calls “The Matrix.” “You shall name him Thomas Anderson, but his true name will be Neo.” The Oracle leaves behind her a guardian – John Anderson, a servant of The Oracle – to watch over the shocked mother and her unborn son as a husband and father. A word of warning she gives as she departs, “stay hidden, and stay quiet. For, others will come after me who do not seek to protect Neo, but to destroy. In good time all will be revealed. Until then, guard this child.”

Avatar: Blue Christmas (IMAX 3D)

100 years after the Pandora War, peace exists between the Na’vi and humanity. Mankind has long since colonized the Edenic planet and has intermingled life and love with the Na’vi. But some Na’vi fear the loss of their ways as they see the “small man” grab more and more authority over this shared world. A group of young freedom fighters begin to study the culture of their invaders to find the perfect time – a point of great vulnerability – to take back what is rightfully theirs.

How many of the above movies would you go to the theater to see? 1? 4? 8? Won’t you join me in righting the pop-cultural ship we see sailing in on Christmas Day? Together we can usher in a new era of the commercialization of Christmas – an era that will be as timeless as an era can be, in our age of ultimate consumerism.

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Hear The Forest For The Leaves

I am a musician.

I’ve spent most of my life learning to play instruments and studying music – history, theory, composition, performance. A lifetime’s pursuit, the study of music is never complete.

 

Having a deep-rooted musical knowledge opens the door to experience music in a way that is almost indescribable. The best I can do is to liken it to a botanist’s appreciation of a leaf; every part of it has meaning to one who has learned how and of what a leaf is made.

To the “Average Harry” (I have a good friend Joe that resents his name’s use in such a generic manner. I don’t have any friends named Harry. Well, except for maybe Harry Potter) a leaf is pretty – perhaps, at times beautiful. To the botanist, the leaf is sublime; it is mystery. It is a treasure trove of wonders that both asks and answers questions about life and existence. It is so much more than a pretty color; it is the blade, the petiole, the veins, the margin, and the midrib.

In truth, I find leaves most marvelous when the colors change en masse each autumn. And, the botanist can certainly appreciate leaves this way. But like a master craftsmen, the botanist cannot help but want to get a close-up, in-depth view of even just single leaf, to study it and to marvel at it.

This is the way that I listen to music. Like most, I first hear the forest, yet I yearn to pore over each leaf and find the treasures it hides.

But a problem arises. Unlike the natural world, with all its complex systems of adaptation and perpetuation, music-making does not have a controlling force that squeezes from the raw materials an artifact of worth by default. Certainly some leaves are more interesting to certain leaf-lovers than others, but it is seems unlikely that there are leaves, which upon closer inspection, elicit a melancholy, “This leaf should never have been made. It’s a crappy leaf.”

Listening with a critical ear then, leaves me with a relatively small cross-section of “leaf music.” Usually I hear a tune on the web, iTunes, or . . . (dang it, what’s that thing that you have to put on a certain number to hear some music, otherwise it’s just static? Um. Radiator? Radial? Radiation? No, no. RADIO! That’s it!) radio, and quickly find that the particular piece of music is a forest without leaves. In the past, I would have made it a point to announce that I disdained said music and wished there were a filter for music that would create a forest of leaves for me to discover and revel in. Now I simply make a small point about it and move on. (And perhaps one day I’ll mature enough to not say anything at all and spare my friends and co-workers the verbiage.)

For instance: John Mayer’s new album was released last week. In it, he conducted an experiment and condensed the usual three stages for recording an album – writing, demo, recording – into one. Whenever an artist decides to break from his or her traditional creative method, the work very well may not shine the way it had when it was created through a honed, developed system. It seems (for now) that is the case with Mayer’s record.

I was disappointed. Earlier in Mayer’s career, I had written him off as a no-talent pop hack. And then I heard his live trio album; I heard his raw performance style; I heard him shred on the guitar in a pop/rock age where few shred on guitar anymore. I was hopeful that there would be some “leaves” in this new record worth studying. But alas – there aren’t, at least for me. (True, I only heard the first 30 seconds of half the cuts. But honestly, if the first 30 seconds of pop/rock don’t grab you, it’s too late. It’s not like each song was nine minutes long.)

So, I got to thinking. What “experimental process” records out there are filled with “leaves”? Two came to mind straight away. (Undoubtedly there are many others, but I turned to these two when slightly depressed after the John Mayer preview.)

Chris Thile’s “Deceiver”

1. Deceiver – Chris Thile
It’s not often that one artist’s ideas and voice can carry an album. This is one of those rare instances. Rather than bring in the caliber of musicians that he worked with on Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Jeff Coffin, Edgar Meyer), Thile played all the instruments on the recording – drums, keyboards, strings, bass, guitar, and mandolin. He wrote and arranged all the songs and sang all the parts. Normally, this is recipe for disaster, and yet, it’s fascinating to hear a musician push himself as far as possible in so many areas. Musically, the album takes a lot of risks, avoiding the typical trappings of bluegrass and folk music with complex rhythmic and harmonic modulations and angular melodies while still planting key musical moments in the listener’s mind.

Is it his best work? Probably not. Are there others who have executed the same concept better? Most likely. But in the realm of musical experiments, this one holds its own.

The Mutual Admiration Society

2. Mutual Admiration Society (Glen Phillips with Nickel Creek)
Here, the experiment is a little different. The former Toad the Wet Sprocket front-man and the now-dissolved bluegrass trio got together, as the name suggests, out of respect for each other’s musical voices. Over six days they wrote, rehearsed, and recorded the album, with great success. Flaws found their way into the final cut, the mix is not quite up to industry standards, and a few moments are more raw than one expects from these artists, but the songwriting and passionate performances turn this effort from flop to fab.

Each track on these records feels the first sign of fall foliage, and draws you in closer and closer to uncover every artery and vein bringing life to the music.

What do you hear in the leaves from your favorite recordings; what music do you etch in your mind?

Few joys found in music are greater than when you delve into the mystery of what makes it move you; when you seek those songs in which you find an endless forest of leaves.

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BREAKING NEWS: You Heard It Here First

All the President’s Men is indisputably the all-time best film about journalism ever made in the history of the universe of films being made about journalism. (Take that, Citizen Kane.)

It’s not about journalism in the boring sense, but the golden snitch for every journalist: breaking the story. (And, some weird lobstery guy who, I understand, did a couple of dumb things as president.) If Hollywood is to be believed – and I’d like to think that it is – a truly great journalist will stop at nothing, will leave no scruples standing, in pursuit of that grail. If you’re trying to have integrity and hone writing skills over a long, industrious career to one day enjoy a body of good, true, and beautiful work that made the world a better place – I hope you’re not a journalist. You might as well be a one-legged man in a three-legged race and/or chin-kicking contest: it’s not looking good for you.

Journalism is for the two-legged only. I suppose if you have three or more legs you can get into the biz, but you may have some serious medical conditions you should have a professional look at.

Journalism is for those in whose veins runs fire unquenchable for unbroken story; those with nose for news that sniffs out story’s scent like foxhound smelling quarry’s stink, even when quarry has recently dated skunk in feeble, but foxy, attempt to throw trail. The journalist cannot be derailed from his or her density, excuse me, destiny.

With the publication of this piece, I, too, enter the ranks of the many great (imaginary) journalists who shook off naysayers’ shackles and found a way – found the story. It might be presumptuous to start talking Pulitzer, but I thought I’d at least mention it in case the committee has a Google alert set-up to let them know when awesomeness gets published on the Internet. It’s not every day one can say they discovered, what is sure to be, the next major global cultural phenomenon.

Warning: once the word is out, this thing is going to be harder to get your hands on than the new KFC Double Down Sandwich. (Which I am likely to cover in a future article.)

I’ve been compelled by voluminous stories before: The Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Martian Chronicles, I & II Chronicles. Basically, if you put “chronicles” in the name, you stand a good chance of me liking it. And now, a new series has risen to their level, and I think many after me will agree, and some will argue it may be best of all.

This seven-volume collection “chronicles” the coming-of-age of a young wizard in modern-day England: Harry Potter. Each installment, titled Harry Potter and The Whatever-The-Main-Plot-Thing-Is-From-This-Particular-Book, moves steadily through Harry’s seven years at what is called “Hogwarts,” a school for witchcraft and wizardry somewhere in northern England that can only be accessed by a magical train, or other magical means.

The Harry Potter series is chock full of the fantastical as Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron tackle one adventure after another. Together they find themselves immersed in a long, dark battle against an evil wizard whose name most fear to speak. Having been one of the very few to have read these brand-new books, I hesitate to type the letters: VOLDEMORT.

This Voldemort – or He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named, as all the characters save Harry and the enigmatic and lovable headmaster, Dumbledore, call him – has got a score to settle with Mr. Potter, or The-Boy-Who-Lived, as he’s called, because he is the only person ever to have survived Voldy’s killing curse.

Another word of warning here, be on the lookout for a slew of references in pop culture to this The-One-Who-Shan’t-Be-Named stuff. I have a sinking feeling it’s gonna be around for a while. As will the use of hyphens to turn a sentence into a noun. For that we have J.K. Rowling to thank.

A precocious little wife and mom with an acre lot, a white picket fence and the Union Jack flying proudly from the porch (I assume the British are as into that stuff as we are, right?), J.K., or J. – as those closest to her and I call her on account of we are the only folks out there trumpeting this would-be blockbuster – got the idea for these stirring and ever-so-readable books from what can only be described as a luminous vision of herself sitting in Buckingham Palace at high tea with Her Majesty after the masses finally get a hold of these artifacts and make her the richest woman in the U.K.. Second to the Queen, of course.

That day is a long way off, but perhaps this breaking story can be a catalyst for the recognition and honor that she (and by extension, I) deserves. But we can dream.

Having recently finished the seventh book, I am convinced that Harry Potter will hit it big with the kids first. J. has a great sense of what kids are thinking and how they perceive school and teachers. It seems as though she’s written this, not for the high-brow literature critic like me, but for those schoolboys and girls whose imaginations and dreams seem to be locked up in the proverbial closet under the stairs. (Ironically, that’s where Harry was locked up when you first meet him in book one . . . )

I do foresee a little troubled water ahead for the series if it manages to cross the pond. And I certainly hope it does. Peppered throughout the thousands of pages are words that strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Words that some don’t think anyone should causally toss about. Words like “spell,” “witch,” “wizard,” “wand,” “witchcraft,” “wizardry,” “magic,” “England,” “flying,” and “Hermione.” A few will see these words as an outright endorsement of Satanism and/or the Occult. They’ll protest the idea that it’s okay, even good, for kids to read about fictional children in a made-up story doing fake spells and battling a non-existent evil-snakey-wizard-guy, all the while bolstering their imaginary friendships and learning valuable figmentary life lessons. They’ll say kids are too impressionable to understand the difference between real and make-believe. They’ll ask, “If they read these books, won’t they start trying to fly on broomsticks, levitate their peers, turn eggs into rocks, and other dangerous, magicky stuff?”

He-Man and Battle Cat

Reminds me of when I was a kid. I thought that if I just thrust my plastic sword higher and fiercer into the air and bellowed, with cracking voice, the “magic” words, I, too, would “have the power” and the accompanying steriody pecs and skimpy wool underwear. Well, look what happened to me. I write goofballish articles online, make up words, use too many hyphens and play the saxophone . . . which is the devil’s horn. Oh my! Maybe they’re right. Maybe we should stop this magicky Harry Potter thing before all our kids end up playing saxophone!

Well, anyway, the winds of change they are a blowin’ and they’re bringing with them witches and wizards (and not the innocent Gandalf-type we all know and love in spite of the fact that he, too, is a powerful, gray-haired, magical, Dumbledorean, spell-casting wizard).

I do forecast, however, that while this trend will come out of the gates strong, good ol’ American consumerism should win the day. Once Walmart starts selling the books and peripheral goods (and believe you me, they will), the protesters will put down their signs and fall in line with fellow consumers to snatch up hundreds of dollars in merchandise on behalf of one Santa Claus (a known imaginary figure who uses magical means to deliver gifts to kids who do good and who deserve them for the doing of the good things they did do).

Since none of you have yet read this about-to-be monumental series, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that, more or less, above all else, when push comes to shove, in the end, these books are about love. Not a sappy, easy kind of love, but the difficult and sacrificial kind. The kind of love which reminds you that those things worth loving aren’t so easily had or kept. That kind of love which puts neighbor before self. That kind of love that lights the darkness.

The kind of love that inspires Hollywood to crank out flicks that make oodles of dough, cashing in our collective soft spot for pre-teen/teenage fantasy book-turned-movie sacrificial-loved-themed stories. If I were a betting man, I would rush over to Vegas and put money down on the odds that these books will become feature films. I’m sure the action will be good, although the line probably won’t. Any sportsbook that would put up a money line on the Harry Potter series – and had literate staff – is gonna open the line around -500 that the movies will get made. Not a favorable risk if you’re betting sports. But if there ever was a sure bet in literature turned motion-pic, this is it. My advice: plunk down your retirement savings (or what’s left of it) on Harry Potter goes Hollywood (that sounds oddly like a sequel to the sequels) at -500 and pray that I’m not wrong about how sure of thing a movie deal for Harry is. (Gambling, and any discussion of it, is for entertainment purposes only. Unless you’re a wise guy. Then I take 15% commission for the tip.)

Whether or not this quaint little series ever rakes in billions at the box office, finds itself on the New York Times bestseller for weeks and weeks on end, drags bleary-eyed mums and dads out to the only bookstore left in a 100-square-mile radius at midnight to get their soon-to-be-saxophone-playing, magic-deprived kid the next book, or, um, rakes in billions at the box office, remains to be seen. For now, if you can burrow to the dustiest back shelves of your local mall’s B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, you might find one or two of the Harry Potters.

Oh, and don’t count on getting any help from the pubescent cashier. I recently was trying to hunt down Book Two and asked the pimple-faced youngster stocking shelves if he’d ever heard of Harry Potter and be able to direct me to its location in that fine establishment. He just stood there and gawked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head. Kids these days. Maybe he would have picked a few manners (in addition to transformation spell or two) if he had read any one of the H.P. tomes.

So. Now you can tell all your friends, you heard it here first.

I guess, what makes me sad about writing this piece, is that it may mark the end of my tenure as contributing editor at The Curator. Once it’s out that I was the one who discovered what will be the greatest literary phenomenon of all time (save the Bible I suppose) I think I might find myself overwhelmed with interviews, talk-show appearances, and maybe even tell-all book deals about my miraculous journey from wayward web-writer to Woodward-and-Bernsteiner.

I’ll save my thank yous for my Pulitzer acceptance speech, with this one exception: The Curator. Read it. Bookmark it. Tweet it. It’s as verisimilar as a small online magazine imprint of the International Arts Movement can be in our age of anti-verisimilitude.

A Fight, a Flight,
and a New Fan Contrite

Who is your archnemesis – the one who stands opposed to everything you believe is good in the world? The antithesis to your thesis? The north to your south? The counter to your argument? The “One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” to your “Boy-Who-Lived“?

Two months ago, I could have told you who mine was. It might have taken a few moments to sort through my mental list of candidates for such a designation I inadvertently keep. (If there’s anything I learned from not having been in the Boy Scouts, it’s that one must be prepared with hyperbolic and uncorroboratable opinions at any moment. That is what they mean by “be prepared,” right?)

Anyway, it was a little difficult to shuffle through the crowd of names jostling to be my chief antagonist – especially with names like Kenny G and Shia LaBeouf on the list.

But one name stood head and shoulders above them all. In fact, I remember the moment when He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-A-Few-Moments first summitted my mountain of Moriartys. I was forced, by a poster plastered onto Manhattan’s Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in its most unavoidable sight line, into confrontation about which my sister (a fan of He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-Even-Fewer-Moments) still has nightmares.

“I hate, hate, hate, hate him! He’s my ARCHNEMESIS!!” I screamed, much to the dismay of wealthy tourists stuffing their Gucci bags with Coach clutches and declaring that they came to this “mall” to avoid all the New York “weirdos.” (A statement that I took not as an insult, but rather as a sincere honor, considering the source.)

The-Movie-Star-Who-Will-Be-Named-Shortly was top bill and, literally, poster boy for a new film about to hit the overpriced movie houses of my fair city, besmirching them with that impish grin and perfectly coiffed hair. Seeing this movie quickly became last on my “mop list” – a list of things that I will never, ever do before I die.

So, imagine my utter despair one fateful day when I found He-Will-Be-Named-Soon-Enough-Just-Keep-Your-Trousers-On’s face occupying one of the crucial “films you will be forced to watch on this uncomfortable 13-hour flight to Tokyo” slots. I almost got off the plane. Really. But I quickly realized that this “quote-unquote” film would be on every flight, since it was about to be released to DVD and wasn’t boring holes into people’s souls at the theater any longer.

After watching every flick on the flight roster, I was faced with the inevitable. The high noon, or maybe midnight (I’d completely lost track of time and space at that point during the endless flight), collision between me and him: The-Guy-Who-Doesn’t-Have-A-Name-Yet-But-Will-Right-Now.

Zachary David Alexander “Zac” Efron.

I stared at the in-flight movie guide, clenching my fist around the poorly designed remote control that never fits back into the holder, often causing an accidental change of channel or crank of volume. I returned my seat and tray table to their upright and locked positions and spoke:

Oh, Zac Efron. Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac. Here we are. Just me and you… and the other 200 other people on this plane. I daresay you never thought we’d meet. Nor did I. You with your millions of dollars and screaming tweenybopper fans, your filmography and successful career. Me with my crappy airplane remote, my puffy, dehydrated eyes and my inflated and unsupported opinion of my views on art and culture. It’s time to end this once and for all, ojos a película.

I pressed Play. 17 Again began.

For nearly two hours I sat, upright and locked, eyes fixed on the manchild I had despised for at least several months based solely on the “facts” that he was young and popular, and that the tweenyboppers liked him, assuming that anyone they would like could surely be nothing more than eye candy who can barely use the English language, let alone act. Just another talentless, studio-backed tool. The type worthy of derision from those with such high-minded taste as mine. (That should be funny for those familiar with my work.)

As the high school yearbook-styled credit pages turned, one word emerged from my mind, a phoenix from the ashes of that small part of me that hasn’t yet been consumed by post-post-postmodern cynicism: delightful.

The film was delightful. Zac Efron was delightful. Truly, truly I tell you, I would have shed tears if there had been any water left in my body as we soared high, and dry, above the Pacific Ocean, or the Yukon, or wherever we were.

Of course, 17 Again is, on the surface, a tired retread of the same old “I don’t like my current life. Can I go back to H.S. and relive my ‘glory days,’ then learn my life lessons and come back and fix my current life?” story. But that didn’t matter. It was a charming movie, entertaining and heartwarming. I watched it twice on the flight, and have since seen it here on the ground, while hydrated, and still loved it.

Without the mesmerizing Zac Efron, it would’ve stunk. Not that Matthew Perry is the next thin Marlon Brando, but Efron upstages him with a surprisingly complex portrayal of the 17-year-old version of a 40ish man pretending he’s the 17-year-old version of himself. No small task, especially when that 40ish version played by Matthew Perry, an actor with a hyper-stylized delivery and a known quantity to Gen-Xers like me.

Zac nails it. He saves the day. He won me over.

Zac Efron’s onscreen for 90% of 17 Again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His performance is funny. It’s serious. It’s genuine. It’s as timeless as a performance can be in our age of immemorability.

Congratulations Kenny G: you’re back on top.

Bee Stung


Photo by Mark Bowen / Scripps National Spelling Bee

I don’t often wake up in a sweat from reliving the eighth grade.

There’s me, four-eyed, cowlicked and draped in an over-sized I.O.U. sweatshirt, facing the peercing gaze of a few hundred middle-schoolers and teachers, and waiting for the squad of judges to fire their next multisyllabic missile.

“Multisyllabic. May I have the definition please? May I have the part of speech please? Can you use it in a sentence? What is the language of origin? Are there any other alternate pronunciations? Multisyllabic. M-U-L-T-I-S-I-L-L-A-B-I-C. Multisyllabic.”

Then it comes; a hope-squashing, dream-crushing sound. DING. “Multisyllabic is spelled M-U-L-T-I-S-Y-L-L-A-B-I-C.” Jeers rain as I step from the stage and, defeated, shuffle my way to the bleachers to join my nerd friends. “Y. Y! I knew that!” There’s nothing left for me now but to seek solace in the warm-blanket acceptance of the band room. Leaving the gymnasium, I hear the Kettle Moraine Middle School Eighth Grade Spelling Bee Champion’s winning word echo in the chasm of my pubescent failure: onomatopoeia. (onomatopoeia… onomatopoeia… onoma…)

Thankfully, the only time of year I head to the bathroom at 3:00am to towel off is right around the airing of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And though it brings me nightmares every year, I must watch.*

It’s no mystery what’s so engaging about the spelling bee. Most of us have been in a spelling bee at some point, and like all things we’ve done or can easily imagine doing, we love seeing it done at the absolute highest level. And let there be no dispute: though the competitors’ ages top out at around 13, they form a Dream Team of spellers.

Really? You ask. Here’s just a few of the words spelled during the 2009 competition: antonomasia, bouquiniste, oriflamme, menhir, phoresy, Maecenas, guayabera, isagoge, sophrosyne, schizaffin, wisent, diacoele, reredos, amarevole, becquerel, Caerphilly, palatschinken, ecossaise, fackeltanz, jacqueminot. Ironically, the spellchecker has flagged all but three of those words as misspelled.

My utmost respect goes out to this year’s champion, Kavya Shivashankar, an eighth-grader from Olathe, Kansas. She, along with Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., were favorites coming into this year’s bee. Fortunately for Ms. Shivashankar, she played the role of Tiger Woods, while Mr. Chand’s performance was more akin to Phil Mickelson; Woods possesses nerves of steal and an unparalleled drive to win, while Mickelson usually falls short of expectations. Chand slipped up on apodyterium. A fluke error on such an elementary word with clear Latin and Greek origins, something any speller at that level would have studied. Even the greats lip out a “gimme” put from time to time.

Sporting analogies come easy when writing about the spelling bee. Perhaps that’s why this year’s semi-final rounds were covered by ESPN, with the final round shown on parent network ABC. In fact, you can still watch the 2009 bee on ESPN360.com. Given the prime-time media coverage of the National Spelling Bee this year, it’s clear the spelling bee is enjoying a pop culture renaissance. No longer is it the solely the domain of cowlicky geeks and near-sighted nerds, in large part due to the success of such films as Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound, as well as the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. All are heart-warming tales of quirky youngsters trying their hardest and learning valuable life lessons along the way.

But I would like to take this opportunity to thank MTV for pushing the spelling bee to new highs – and lows – and cementing it as a full-on cultural force. In its unremarkably not-groundbreaking “reality” TV show, Real World / Road Rules Challenge: The Duel 2, MTV uses the spelling bee as one of the many “challenges” in which contestants compete to receive “immunity” from contest elimination. In a recent episode, players stood elevated 100 ft. above water in bikinis and board shorts and had to spell to stay alive – and dry. If a word was misspelled, the player was dropped (though by cord and harness and almost in slow motion) into frigid New Zealand lake water.

Before addressing the spelling aspect of this episode, it is worth noting that this might be one of the worst (and best, in a sense) shows ever produced for television. The concept: place “characters” from MTV’s other dumbfoundingly dumb reality shows in another entirely trite “reality” show where their idiocy, shallowness, narcissism, joblessness, enhancedness, and utter unproductivity to the human race can be displayed hebdomadally. (A word used in this year’s National Spelling Bee, by the way.)

(And now back to our show. Which was brought to my attention via Bill Simmons‘s Twitter feed.)

Being precariously poised on a high-rise platform with wind whipping, where failure yields falling, may not be the most conducive condition for spelling. But, we are talking about highly competitive TV personalities that have faced worse, presumably, during the course of the show. After the “ladies” finish dry-heaving (from “fright,” I suppose), they begin to spell, and are followed by the men. Here’s the first round of words: arithmetic, exercise, freight, poison, cucumber, abnormal, yesterday, throne, simile, extremely. Here’s the second: millennium, pinnacle, immaculate, curriculum, svelte.

The lists are mostly comprised of fourth-grade level words and, even in these circumstances, one would think college-age and older adults could spell them rather easily. So, how many correct spellings do you think there were out of fifteen words? 12? 10? Nay, only seven. Only seven of those words were spelled correctly. It was astonishing and unbelievably – or perhaps believably – hilarious.

In fact, the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level of this very article is 8.00, which means that it could likely be understood by someone in the eighth grade, which, hysterically, might exclude most of the contestants from The Duel 2 if they were asked to read it standing on that platform.

At this point I’m really tempted to tell you how the misspelled words were so. But, the commitment and, let’s say, seriousity of each speller cannot be captured in words. Don’t be upset, you can watch the entire episode online. I recommend starting at around the 17 minute mark (though only after watching the opening credits and “Haka” chant, which truly set the mood for what you are about to view) to spare yourself – if you so wish – from a level of baseness achieved only by MTV.

If, however, you’re hankering to spell, but even ten minutes of lowbrow is enough to start you packing for Paris, here are some other ways to indulge your newfound or rejuvenated lexiophilic leanings.

Scrabble. If you don’t know what this is, where have you been since the mid-twentieth century? My advice: Buy the Diamond Anniversary Edition. The swivel board and tile-holding gameboard make it worth every penny.

Upwords. A Scrabble-y word game that’s a tad simpler at first glance, with generally shorter game-play. Its distinctive characteristic: You are allowed to build words on top of existing words. My advice: Don’t think of it as vertical Scrabble and play words to score big on layer one. You will make it too difficult to build upward later in the game.

Boggle. With letters randomized in a square grid, you are to find as many words as possible by connecting touching letters. My advice: Don’t forget to look for forms of a found word. It can help you turn one word into two or three longer ones.

Wordsquares and Wurdle. Two fun iPhone apps. Wurdle is similar to Boggle. Wordsquares is like Jumble meets Sudoku.

Snatch. A portable and well-designed game in which players form words from a central pool of letters turned right-side-up, one at a time. Its distinctive characteristic: Players may “snatch” another player’s words by stealing the word’s letters and forming a new word (you can’t, however, just add ‘s’ or ‘d’ to steal).My advice: Form words as you can that contain 5 or more letters or odd combinations of letters. The more letters your words contain, the more you score, and the harder it becomes for other players to snatch your words.

Bananagrams. Players begin with a random group of letters and must form words in a Scrabble-like manner until all their tiles are used, and all tiles from the “bunch” are gone. This one is my favorite and fun in groups, alone, or one-on-one. Its distinctive characteristic: At any point in the game, you can scrap any and all words made. My advice: Be fast, very fast. Every time you place all your unused letters you and all other players take one from the bunch. If you can be fastest, unused letters pile up on your opponents and slow them down.

So here we are, spelling sweet teeth satiated, all thanks to a few pre-pubescent, highly intelligent kids who can spell words that Google Docs doesn’t even recognize as words. I’d like to congratulate them for their effort and commitment to excellence, and remind us all that the spelling bee is as honest as a competition can be in our age of PEDs.


*Some events and persons in above story might be fictional. Any similarity to real persons or events might be coincidence. Names and descriptions might have been changed to protect the innocent and me.

Brave New Burger

I’d like for this column to be an illuminating, analytical illumination of the role of the presence of mid-twentieth century, commonplace American victuals as representative of leftover bourgeois sentimentalism for pseudo-capitalist, corporate socialism when manifesting in the Huxleyan dystopia that is “The World State.”

But, I haven’t read any Huxley. Everything I know about Brave New World – like all the topics slavishly researched to support my hastily-formed opinions on them – comes from the Internet. In fact, I don’t know what most of the words in that preceding paragraph mean.

I do know this: totalitarian control of a governing body over every aspect of life including technology, food, sex, clothes, travel, drugs, and blinking can’t be all bad.

One artifact of culture, in particular, could use some of that fascist muscle: the drive-in, drive-thru, backyard classic hamburger (hereafter referred to as a burger).

My whole issue with the burger, and my need for it to have some heavy-duty regulatory supervision, began just one week ago (which is more than ample time for me to form a theory on which I ramble for hours and then claim to be sacrosanct). My wife and I were wandering around Union Square and thought it was a B-E-A-utiful day for a burger. So I whipped out the trusty old iPhone – no holster yet – and found what seemed to be a reputable establishment only two blocks away: Goodburger. Perfect. We went. We ate. We left.

But we didn’t leave impressed. While they may just claim to have the “best burger in New York City,” little room is left (thanks to the hyperbolic steroid-enhanced reviews painted on the wall) to think anything other than Goodburger should be knighted and dubbed Sir-Best-Burger-in-the-Frakkin’-Universeburger.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it wasn’t a “good” burger. It was.The problem lied in determining how good of a burger it really was, and why the NY Times, Zagat, New York Magazine, and Time Out New York were compelled to heap praises, like too many sauteed onions, onto said Goodburger. I’ve had a burger at almost every “best burger in NYC” establishment, and Goodburger is not on that list. It’s not even close. I feel like those burger reviewers haven’t even been to the other contenders and had a burger.

Anyway, after leaving Goodburger, I was confused. I mulled. I wrestled. I tried to determine why, beyond the obvious marketing ploy and newspaper payoffs, we keep calling things “good” burgers that are either just plain burgers, or not even burgers at all. I realized that we now must exalt on high a burger like those served at Goodburger because anything that resembles ground beef found between anything that hints at a bun is called “burger” nowadays. All objective burger standards are gone. If I want to call it a burger, I can call it a burger, and no one can stop me, and that needs to stop.

Much can be learned about what went wrong in the burger industry by looking closely at our current economic debacle – specifically, subprime mortgage lending. I’m no economist, nor do I play one on TV, nor have I ever studied economics, but I read a few articles on the aforementioned Internet that I think informed me of all I need to know about what was wrong with collateralized debt obligations – C.D.O.s – and how this applies to the world of beef patties on bread.

Let’s say, instead of the scores of media outlets waxing less-than-poetic about this burger or that burger being the best, there were agencies – experts in burgerdom – charged with the rating of what a restaurant would like to call a burger from AAA to AA and on down to BBB, the lowest and riskiest burger tranche. Everything that received at least an A rating would be allowed to be called a burger to the public for its purchase and enjoyment.The public would believe it had assurance that what they were buying was indeed a “burger” because of the trusty and rigorous testing processes the agencies used to determine that the product had earned the right to use the term. All those other meat sandwiches, and even some proprietors, would have to use new terminology like: McMeatWich, MeatWich King, Old Fashioned MeatWich, WhataMeatWich, Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Big Mac, and so on. (Thankfully, one MeatWich giant is gracious – and, dare I say, bold enough – not to wait for the Brave New World, and censors itself more than one would expect.)

Much like our current mortgage bond market, this meat market would rely upon the trustworthiness of the rating system. But, what would happen if securities backed by subprime loans – excuse me – if MeatWiches that normally would garner BBB ratings somehow disguised their riskiness and were presented to the rating agencies hoping to get a high bond – sorry again – burger rating, so they may use the name?

And imagine, if you can (given the seeming impossibility of this kind of thing ever, ever happening), the agencies (for reasons that are just beyond the mind of any person with a shred of common sense remaining) rating the MeatWich AAA and allowing it to be openly called “burger.” Those high up the food chain in the – um, well – food chain industry, would have complete faith in the burgerness of the items because of their faith in the rating agencies, and would proceed to sell and trade and serve them to the public – a public that doesn’t really spend time thinking about these things (unless of course you are me; then, you probably spend way too much time thinking about these things). And the public would proceed to invest their hard-earned dollars into the non-burger burger for sustenance and nutrition.

What the public should immediately notice after one bite of the “burger” is that it’s awful and should be spat out never to be purchased again. But years of trusting the system has dulled common sense and people just go with the flow. Until the unfortunate day when the truth is finally told that all along, what they thought they were eating was not in fact a burger, but a MeatWich – a term I am in the process of trademarking, so don’t even think about using it. The burger market crash and riots that would then ensue are the stuff of legend, or more accurately, the stuff of the Wall Street Journal circa September 2008. This would cause a backlash against the governing party resulting in the opposite party taking office and trying to institute more regulatory oversight of the meat market without completely taking over because of a naive belief that the burger crisis can be solved by a moderate takeover.

We have the power to avert this disaster. We have not gone too far. We don’t have to wait for the burger industry to topple like the bond market. There is still hope that with a dash of dictatorship and a smidge of fascism, the burger ship can righted.We might lose most of individual autonomy and freedom of dissent and other useless rights, but we would gain so much more. We could be living in a world where a burger by any other name is actually called something else. It’s time for the revolution to begin. Let us together make and eat this Brave New Burger.

The Danish Gambit or
How I Broke a Blood Vessel in My Brain

I’ve never thought of myself as having obsessive/compulsive/impulsive/addictive tendencies. Although, I listen to every sports podcast available on ESPN, watch any college basketball game the cable company will broadcast, buy shoes like most people buy coffee, and drink coffee like most people drink water. And forget the fact that I’m writing this column while glued to another season of American Idol, nursing a bottle of The Glenlivet 12 and comparing it to Dewars 12 and The Balvenie 15.

But if I wasn’t some kind of an “addict” before, I am now. I’d like to think that this addiction is actually good for me, in a way.

“Seriously, what sort of addiction,” you ask with a skepticism reserved for teenagers’ excuses for arriving home hours past curfew, or for politicians, “could possibly benefit you?” Besides being addicted to serving the poor or curing incurable diseases?

The answer is (drumroll, please) chess.

I am addicted to chess. Chess books. Chess boards. Chess tutorials. Chess websites. Chess openings. Chess tactics. Chess strategy. Win, lose, or draw; chess, chess, chess.

I play when watching TV, eating dinner, eating lunch, at work, at home, falling asleep in bed, on the subway, on the way to the subway, even (WARNING: TMI) in the bathroom. And though I may have broken a cranial blood vessel at some point in there, I assure you it was from concentrating too hard on mastering the risky – but rewarding – chess opening The Danish Gambit, and not from the digestive results of eating too many Danish . . . pastries.

You now wonder one of at least two things: 1) In the bathroom!! Really?!? Is there something wrong with this guy??, and 2) How does one play chess in the bathroom?

Well friends, here’s the secret: Chess With Friends for the iPhone.

There’s no shortage of electronic versions of this ancient classic, and many of them are created for the iPhone. But most of them suck (a sophomoric way of putting it, but that’s what sophomoric efforts at building iPhone apps deserve).

Chess With Friends (CWF) is anything but sophomoric.

Unlike those other apps, CWF was built not to teach one how to play chess, or what the four-move checkmate is, or even to match human vs. computer for practice purposes. It was built so that users can play against family, friends, and even strangers. It’s all about people vs. people, the way chess was meant to be, but instead of operating face-to-face, it is played over the vast and growing series of tubes and invisible waves that make up the iPhoniverse. (I have to say – as bad an idea as this is – what I enjoy most about playing against close friends and loved-ones, is beating my father-in-law over and over again. Good thing I helped produce an unbelievably cute grandson.)

Its purpose as a chess app is only one of the many reasons to fall in love – or in addiction – with CWF. Its piece/board design and rendering are also excellent. One of the most make-or-break aspects of any chess set, whether physical or virtual, is the design of the pieces, and especially in the virtual world, poor design and rendering are infuriating and confusing. Bad chess graphics result in an inability to “see” the enemy’s lines, strengths, and weaknesses, and open the door to making a poor move even worse.

The best case scenario for a virtual chess graphic interface is unnoticeability. You should see the positions of the pieces, their patterns and potential attacks and defenses, and the open squares – not “cool-looking” chess pieces.

CWF has given us a masterful chess GUI for iPhone – a particular challenge given the size and shape limitations of the display. It is simple and elegant. It gives each player the opportunity to “see” – if they can – the panoply of moves and their relative consequences. With bad apps in the past, it’s been easy to shift the blame for my incalculably low skill level to the interface. CWF leaves one without excuse for not seeing Black’s attack on a weak G2 square with his queen and rook.

The best addition to CWF 2.0 – not present in 1.0 – is the new chat function. No longer do I have to talk chess trash after church or work or over twitter: I can tell Tom, for example, “That exchange was so weak, it makes the 2009 NYSE look like the 2007 NYSE!”

I am even now playing five different games with various friends and family from around the country. Yes, one is against my father-in-law, and yes, I’m beating him again. In fact, at least a dozen times during the course of writing this column, I’ve stopped to check and see if there was a move played in any of my games. Thankfully not, or else I’d never have finished.

Unlike most apps, CWF is not about immediate and unending access to information, or constant communication, or any of the other hyperactive reasons people use the iPhone. Amidst the deafening noise of the iPhoniverse App Store, CWF brings a beautiful moment of stillness into the frazzle of instant everything.

Chess is a challenging and intense, yet tranquil, game of war. It is both simple and unimaginably complex. It is ancient and contemporary. It is a game where luck factors not. There is only one player’s skill versus another’s. And while nothing replaces the physical game – the feeling of picking up a pawn, and the palpable concentration of opponents engaged in battle – Chess With Friends offers a rewarding and worthwhile outlet for chess addictions.

Buy it. Play it. Enjoy it. It’s as timeless as an app can be in our age of ephemerality.

photo by:

Classical What?!

Hello, I’m Kevin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

I’m sorry, it’s loud in here, you asked what I do? I’m a saxophonist.

Excuse me? Oh, uh, I play some jazz. But probably not well enough to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights that play here in New York. I did my master’s degree in classical saxophone, at KU.

No, no, not Kentucky – Kansas.As in 2008 NCAA Basketball Championship winning Jayhawks. . . Anyway, I trained to play classical saxophone, primarily.

Don’t apologize, most people don’t know some saxophonists play classical music.

Do I play with the symphony? No, no. We are rarely welcome on the symphonic stage, except for every orchestra’s annual Gershwin concert. Even then, some bass clarinetist will usually pick up his old saxophone and hack through the chart. Most classical saxophone performances are soloists with piano, or often saxophone quartets. Sometimes composers will “spice up” a new piece with a dash of classical sax.But really there aren’t too many opportunities for the performance of classical saxophone music.

I still love to play classical saxophone.

Which really means that I sit in my Jersey City apartment every day and practice music so alien to nearly everyone Ithat I’ve had that conversation more times than I’ve actually performed the music about which I mumbled.It means I’ve rehearsed innumerable hours in an unknown, unheralded saxophone quartet, with three other young saxophiles just like me whohave just as much trouble describing our colossal anonymity, only to end up disbanding.

Clarinetists, trumpeters, pianists, guitarists, conductors, bassoonists, percussionists: the whole lot of you don’t know how easy you have it.

True, the competition for an orchestra job has gotten such that if your shoelace hits the floor during an audition, you’re immediately hired so they can fire you right there on the spot;but, at least you were standing in a line waiting to get hired/fired from a job that involves playing the instrument you laboriously slaved over while chain smoking your social skills into the ground in an asbestos-walled practice room during college.We wait in line to get hired bagging groceries, because if we get asked to “play Kenny G” at another wedding, there’s a real sh**storm coming.

I can understand why so many classical musicians don’t have much respect for or awareness of the existence of classical saxophonists. We don’t gush over their artistic genius and weep with them when they have to play Beethoven’s Ninth again. I don’t feel bad for anyone who can say “I’m a violinist,” and be met with “oh, that’s lovely,” instead of, “do you play hardcore death violin?” Playing violin needs no clarification, no drawn out analogies to the vacant stares of strangers.

I can think of only a few other fields where confusion ensues upon statement of profession: philosopher, geneticist, human rights advocate. Fortunately for those highly educated individuals who are also asked to explain their day-to-day dealings, they have either mental superiority or moral uprightness on their side. In other words, the befuddled acquaintance is either intimidated by their sheer genius, or ashamed that they could really give little more than a crap about anyone else in the world.

Classical saxophonists lose on both counts.We can’t intimidate by either intelligence or shame, and so we are left with the soulless embodiment of our culture’s interest in what we do standing there, wondering why we continue to be allowed to use up valuable oxygen. And with all hot air we blow . . . I can see why.

Let me help you take a few steps into the world of classical saxophone:

The Devil’s Horn
For half of a century, hundreds of saxophonists pursuing their doctoral degrees have composed hundreds of obligatory dissertations on the history of the saxophone. You can imagine the arid reading.
The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool
by Michael Segell stands in pleasurable contrast. Segell’s journalistic writing is crisp and insightful. Its relatively short and yet tumultuous history makes the saxophone one of the most interesting instruments about which to read. Segell distills the most compelling and bizarre narratives about the saxophone’s invention and rise in popularity to the king of instruments in the mid-twentieth century. Plus, he tells the whole tale, including great tidbits about the saxophone’s classical heritage. A great read. (You can hear Segell interviewed on NPR here.)

Branford Marsalis might be the biggest name in classical saxophone – even though he’s a jazz player. Marsalis has twice made good classical saxophone recordings. They are not great, but they are good.He has developed a deep respect for the tradition and difficulty of playing classical saxophone.Branford, who has already risen to the top of the jazz/pop saxophone world, recently started studying with classical saxophone giant and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvey Pittel, in order to better approach and perform the classical repertory.

His first classical record, Romances for Saxophone, was released in 1986 and is a little schmaltzy and hyper-romantic, but a pleasant listen. Only in his twenties when he recorded this record, his youth and inexperience with the genre shows in the style of his playing, but is one of the few recordings of classical saxophone that has even one toe in the mainstream.

The second record, Creation, has been keeping Marsalis busy since its release in 2001.He performs some of the great pieces in the classical saxophone repertory and does so with a maturity not present in his earlier work.However, it was the live performances of this CD, recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, that spurred him to accept Pittel’s invitation to study the classical side of the instrument.This a great recording, and perhaps the classical saxophone’s only other foray out of the institution and into culture.

Purists, and others interested in delving into the mysterious world of the classical saxophone, should try exploring Marcel Mule, Joe Allard, Eugene Rousseau, Donald Sinta, Harvey Pittel, Vince Gnojek, Sigurd Rascher, Jean-Marie Londeix, Claude Delangle, Nobuya Sugawa, and Timothy McCallister.

Now I would like to officially welcome you to the world of classical saxophone. We the musicians thank you for taking the time to get to know us, and hope that you’ll come back soon.

And best part is that next time you meet one of us, you can impress us by asking if we play jazz or classical.

I promise we’ll appreciate it.

Top Ten TV Shows

First off, here are the top ten things (in no particular order) to keep in mind before commencing with this countdown.

  1. In none of its 32 small-screen incarnations will CSI make an appearance on this list.
  2. Nor will any other absurd crime or medical or crimedical dramas or comedies. This includes House, Bones, Law and Order, Boston Legal, Dexter, ER, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Cold Case . . .
  3. Lost will not be found here.
  4. Any show featuring the bald head of Howie Mandel will be considered an affront to the taste of this reviewer and subsequently not found on the list.
  5. I really, really wish I could put Heroes on the list. But this season, it stinks. Hey Kring, how many plots does it take to make it seem like you have any idea what you are doing with this show? (And yet, I still TiVo it.)
  6. Any and all shows currently or formerly connected to or associated with MTV, VH1, MTV2, E!, Spike or Carson Daly are also terra inconcessus.
  7. No “real” news shows. (Though Rachel Maddow gives one hope that intelligent news reporting might still exist.)
  8. No game shows (see #4), no talent shows, no reality shows, and definitely no soaps, daytime or nighttime. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Desperate Housewives.)
  9. Since I don’t subscribe to them, there won’t be any shows from premium cable channels on the list. Tough crap Californication.
  10. I do have a life, and as result of this fortunate situation in which I find myself, I have not seen every TV show that deserved to be watched, nor have I seen all the episodes of the shows on the list.

All that said, here goes.

10. Spongebob Squarepants
Not since George Carlin‘s seven words has potty humor been this funny. I dare you to watch this show and not find in it at least half the people you work with and half the people you are related to. Zany, slapstickian comedy with a touch of good ol’ childhood morality. Plus, it’s on at least seven times a day, so it’s impossible to miss.

9. Mad Men
Mad Men places just above the animated yellow sponge, not because I think it is only slightly better than Nickelodeon’s offering, but because – honestly – I haven’t seen it. “How,” do you protest, “dare you put a show on your TOP ten list that you haven’t even seen?”

“Well,” I reply, “let’s just say that my hippest, savviest, designy-est friend – who doesn’t ever watch TV – loves Mad Men.” And that, dear readers, is enough of a reason for me to put it on the list. And I wager that, indeed, it does belong above the slightly less sophisticated Mr. Squarepants.

8. 30 Rock
Unlike Mad Men, I have seen 30 Rock; but, I usually only see the first five minutes or so that TiVo records after The Office ends – which is more than enough to put this comedy romp into position number eight. I have no doubt that I would love the remaining 25 minutes (minus the crappy commercials of course) as much as I do the first five. So be sure to watch and let me know how much funny I missed.

7. SportsCenter
I think all news programs should approach their subject with the same verve, intensity, and honesty as SportsCenter does sports. I mean, for crying in a bucket, they take sports news and events more seriously than all the major and cable news networks do “real” news and world events combined. Here there is a clear distinction between what is fact and what is expert opinion. No such distinction remains in “real” news. Fact is either a dirty word or a simple tool to convince simpleton tools that what they are watching is even slightly objective – which it is not. SportsCenter is as timeless as a show can be in our age of volubility. (100 points to the first person to guess the origin of the preceding sentence.)

6. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report
To me these two are inseparable. Like Clinton and Clinton. Or Huckabee and Norris. Or Stevens and felony counts. They’re consistently funny, and often a better source for news than the networks. Somehow in the midst of the satire and silliness there are meaningful interviews, with the likes of Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There’s disagreement (see Tony Blair), and yet, civil discourse. There’s outright lampooning, and serious questions. Once again, “real” news programs, with your marshmallow journalism and Nerf questioning, take a long hard look at what you look like to the rest of us.

I was worried about the future of these two shows with the coming administration, but thankfully, there’s Joe Biden.

5. Ben 10: Alien Force
Cartoon Network delivers again. From the network that gave me years of immeasurable, childlike bliss with Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and the original Ben 10, comes the latest installment in our protagonist’s journey.

Love it, love it, love it. I mean, what’s not to love. Kid finds a watch from outer-space that lets him turn into unstoppable alien superheroes in order to battle DNAliens bent on “cleansing” earth of the filthy humans and moving onward to universal domination. Pure and beautiful entertainment. As Dana Gioia might say, it’s a predictable pleasure in a predictable medium – but once again, chock full of life lessons, action, adventure and just enough Looney Tunes-esque satire and insider sci-fi homage to keep it interesting.

4. Battlestar Galactica (BSG)
I’ve clearly showed my hand as an out-of-the-closet sci-fi nerd. (I grew up on every type of Star Trek, and even as recently as the day after Christmas, watched a half-day’s worth of episodes of Star Trek TNG.) So, it should be no surprise that I’ve got BSG near the top of the list.

Now, I would LOVE to make it my number one. But, sadly the execs at Sci-Fi seem to think that airing six new episodes every year is sufficient to continue to be considered one of the great TV shows of all time. Which it would be.

Seriously. It’s that good. The cable lines are full of programs that present themselves as having something distinct to say, but most are just a retreading of the same played-out plots and ideas. BSG is actually different. Few shows dare tackle the science/religion question with such honesty, and even fewer tackle hyper-nationalism, suicide-bombing, genocide, human depravity, power, love, commitment and truth. I don’t think I am overstating the case here. It is worth every minute you’ll spend catching up on what you’ve missed.

3. Chuck
I’ll admit I was a sucker for Alias in its prime: the twists, the turns, the love triangles. But Chuck has taken the spy drama to a new and much more enjoyable level. With the overblown seriousness of 24 dominating the genre, Chuck comes along with a really fresh variation on what could be considered a tired theme. Equal parts unrealistic spy drama and bumbling idiot retail comedy, the writers continue to weave two very out-of-sync elements into an exciting, entertaining, and cohesive whole every week. (The addition of Tony Hale as the overzealous assistant store manager was a stroke of comic brilliance.) And, the love saga is getting to be as compelling as the Jim/Pam affair of early The Office seasons.

2. The Office

Ah, The Office. It should be number one. It really should. It just doesn’t get old. That’s what makes it so good. This show could have been a one-trick pony that breaks its leg in season three and has to be put down, but it remains fresh. I, for one, am quite glad that the writers didn’t draw out the love drama year after year, and instead have focused on what my wife would call “the adventures of Jim and Pam.” I must admit that I thought going down that road would lead quickly to the “final episode” where they get married and ride off into the Scranton sunset. But the comedy rolls on. This show is passing Seinfeld in my book for most re-watchable TV program.

1. Jamie at Home

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Jamie at Home? I can’t say I’m surprised, because unless you find yourself glued to the Food Network every Saturday morning, I am not sure how you would have heard about it. Jamie Oliver, of Naked Chef fame, invited viewers each week to his home outside of London to explore a fresh and seasonal ingredient or type of food every week. Eggs, onions, broad beans, wild game, fish, pizza, tomatoes, just about everything. Of course that’s not much of an argument for this being the number one show of 2008.

So, I’ll start with this: the cinematography was groundbreaking and beautiful. Usually, food on TV looks fake, and you rarely get to see the food other than at the very end when it’s swapped out for a plastic counterpart. But Jamie at Home plopped you right into the midst of the chopping, rolling, grilling, pouring, and serving. Every element of the show was given the highest level of care and it showed. The food was art, the show was art.

Jamie’s show was unlike any other ever on Food Network. His cheekiness, his excitement, and his ease in the kitchen (or woods, backyard, or garden) drove this show to convince you that you can cook. And not simply “cook,” but cook like a chef and learn to savor, smell, taste and feel your way around food. Not find a recipe, disinterestedly slop ingredients together and slavishly follow instructions. He made you believe that it isn’t an unattainable, culinary Mt. Everest to become a better cook; to make food that is fresh and delicious; to make food that stops you from settling for second-rate flavors when it comes to what you eat and instead grab the reigns of your diet and savor every bite.

I think, though, what brings it to the top of this list, is how much it has actually changed my life. Really. TV isn’t supposed to change you. It’s supposed to entertain you just long enough to hear from advertisers. It has rarely been about art and often been about commerce. But this show has the power to affect the decisions you make daily about how and what you eat. Everyday I live out a new food paradigm I was blessed to inherit from having watched every single episode. It was like going to food church.

Fifty years from now, I’m quite uncertain I will not remember or care much at all about these shows – except for Jamie at Home.

So, there you have it – what I believe to be the top ten TV shows of 2008. Well, at least the top ten that I “watched.” Bob’s your uncle.

Boffo Socko Jaco

Let’s start like this. Can you name any professional bass guitarists?

Mm-hmm.

And, how many recordings made by those bass guitarists do you have?

Good. Good.

If you could name one or two bassists, you have every musician’s respect and appreciation. If you could name a few, and own some of their recordings, you have our most sincere admiration. If you could name more than a handful and own their recordings, you should write the remainder of this column.Because in all likelihood you already own – and dig heavily – the record that sets my fingers to these keys.


Album available on Amazon.com.

I don’t know many musicians, if any, who do not recall with jaw-slacking stupor the first time they heard Jaco Pastorius play his Fender Jazz Bass (which he painstakingly customized by removing its frets, wood-filling the subsequent gashes, and applying coat upon coat of epoxy).

He played like no other had played before him. He changed a generation of players. He played jazz, funk, pop. He played with Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn; he was a pioneer of electric bass playing. So much could – and deserves – to be said about this complicated man, this artist. Yet, it’s impossible for me to summarize here the complex and tragic life that was Jaco’s. And not just because his wiki entry has more potholes than the 405. (Actually, I have no idea if the 405 has potholes or not. I’ve never even been to L.A.The 405 is in L.A., right? Well, whatever. I think you’ll still hang with the analogy.)

The words that describe his life form a perfect stereotype of “artist”: genius, friend, husband, alcohol, drugs, anger, bipolar, human, loving son, early death.There swirl around his greatness many stories of dubious authenticity. So, it’s hard to say what can really be said about him. Even his biography is considered a sham by some, and I’m not sure that that accusation is all that accurate, either.

What I can write about Jaco is really something that, well, was written by the great Pat Metheny. (And, in case you don’t know who that is-he’s really important.)

From the liner notes for the reissue of Jaco’s debut album:

Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. Everywhere you go, sometimes it seems like a dozen times a day, in the most unlikely places you hear Jaco’s sound; from the latest TV commercial to bass players of all stripes copping his licks on recordings of all styles, from news broadcasts to famous rock and roll bands, from hip hop samples to personal tribute records, you hear the echoes of that unmistakable sound everywhere. –Pat Metheny

As with all really great artists though, getting to know him is really a matter of getting know his art. It is a matter of hearing him speak to us and tell us his story in every note and every gesture that emanates from the instrument that became a part of him. That is one way the truly great ones emerge from a crowd of excellent peers. The don’t simply wear their axe. They don’t just put it on and take it off. They are one with their instrument. There isn’t a point at which the man stops and his instrument begins. This was Jaco.


Album available on Amazon.com.

Like all greats, he raised the bar – both of the possibilities of the instrument, but also of the music itself and those that played with him. He made other players better players by his presence. And when on those rare occasions greats come together, each in their prime, something magical happens. Jaco’s album The Birthday Concert stands out as one of those special moments in music history.

In the winter of 1981, Jaco threw a surprise birthday concert for himself, gathering a superstar-studded cast of musicians for a performance that, praise God, was recorded. Here’s the a short list of behemoths that shared the stage that night: Bob Mintzer, Michael Brecker, Don Alias, Peter Erskine,Othello Molineaux, and others. I realize that unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you might not know many of these names, but it’s like saying that Kurt Cobain, Bono, Madonna, The Boss, and Eric Clapton played a concert for and with Stevie Wonder. And, since Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Don Alias are all no longer with us, the magnitude of this night looms.

The evening begins with the palpable anticipation of an audience that knows what is about to come. Before a note is played, we hear Jaco address the audience: “Good evening everybody. I’d like to say hello to my mother.” Ten seconds later the count begins. “One, two, three. Two, two” CRACK . . . and Soul Intro blasts off. Think Saturday Night Live, minus everyone save the band – to the tenth power. Mintzer squeals and screams and squeezes more funk from his tenor saxophone than one thought possible, until finally Jaco fully takes the reigns with a bass line so hair-raising it makes Rogaine look like a Flintstones vitamin. At this point we are fully into The Chicken, a tune with whaling solos by two saxophoning giants and a groove so fat it should have its own zip code.It’s the kind of tune that sends you into a funky stride embodiment of 70s John Travolta no matter where you are.(Save maybe funerals. And why are you listening to soul/funk/jazz during a funeral anyway.Have some decency.)

Check out this YouTube video of Soul Intro/The Chicken (from 1982).

After listening to The Chicken anywhere from two to ten times, we move on to hear the essence of Jaco’s playing in the floating and mysterious, Continuum. Harmonics, chords and strong melodic movement don’t usually characterize bass playing, but Jaco derives much of his distinctive style from them. This cut also brings an opportunity to soak in the sound of Jaco’s axe and his unique array of equipment. His tone is unmistakable and here we really get to know it best.

Every track brings gem after gem; from the lilting waltz Three Views from a Secret, to the exotic Reva, to the Stan Kentonesque Domingo. From start to finish, this record delivers. I’ve often heard a complaint about instrumental music; that it’s monotonous without lyrics, that eventually it gets boring and backgroundish. This album offers a rebuttal fit for John Grisham; a vibrant diversity of musical elements that appeals even to those who aren’t drawn to “jazz.” It’s a piece of history; a glimpse into the heart and soul of one man’s passion and genius – of his love for music.

So, whether or not you end up grabbing this disc from your local record shop, the big chain store putting your local shop out of business, or an online megastore putting both of them six feet under, you can at least name one more bass guitarist than when we began.Unless of course, you were already savvy to Jaco and own this record – in which case, be glad I reminded you to blow the dust off that old CD, load it onto your MP3 player of choice and strut your funky stuff.

Truth in Advertising

So, I like gum.I don’t love it.But I like it.Chewing it too much can tighten jaw muscles and increase over all neck and head tension. I don’t chomp the stuff very often.

And I like cognac too.I prefer bourbon or scotch, but I’ll sip some cognac if the occasion warrants.

What I haven’t liked in a very long time is advertising.I don’t appreciate being treated like a piece of meat for corporate America to ogle, as though my level of humanity is less than or equal to the bottom line of my money market. Which, given last quarter’s precipitous declines, might slide me into homo heidelbergensis territory.

Most days I’m not required to deal with these three preferences at all, let alone all three at once. But twice last week – TWICE – I was confronted by gum, cognac, and advertising on the subway.

There is no more captive audience than the one found sitting/standing/leaning on the New York City subway.There is no way to avoid be advertised at, no way to avoid ad schemes that overtly attempt to convince me that my life has little meaning unless I obtain <insert item here>. Then, and only then, will I be the ideal version of me, and until that moment I will be a sad shadow of a person; in fact, sadder, since I now know what I am missing by continuing to live my pathetically insignificant and dreary life without the presence of <insert item here>.

This exchange between rider and advert is unique since riders are trapped in a noisy, tin box until they alight at their destination.Imagine driving on the highway, but instead of a stationary billboard, the ads were on fantastical Rube Goldberg machines that propel themselves alongside you for twenty or thirty minutes, two or three times a day.

Those hours of deprecation take a toll on a person after while, and you start to wonder, “Am I loser? I don’t have <insert item here>. Maybe I need that <insert item here>.”

I can count on one finger the current ad campaigns that are suggesting, in earnest, that we could be living a better life.Not because of the product, but because of our actions, which the product can and often does accompany. In contrast, I’ve lost count of the ads that sell me something with less than vague sexual imagery of all the orgies I’d be in if I were hip to their product.

Enter Dentyne andRémy Martin cognac.

Make Face Time, reads Dentyne’s newest ad campaign.Each poster portrays one of the most fundamentally important aspects of existence: human interaction – the deep and meaningful interaction between friends, family, and true lovers that make us feel more human.

The campaign revolves around our growing alienation from each other resulting from the increase of online “friends” and decrease of real ones. It reminds us that we’ve swapped the kiss for a Facebook “poke.” It tells us to “close browser” and “open arms.”

A visit to www.makefacetime.com greets with a message informing the visitor that in three minutes the browser tab will shut down and force you to go explore the “worldwide something else.” Here’s a major American corporation not only encouraging you to leave their site after a few minutes, but actually forcing you to do so.Marketing trick, maybe, but I love it. Reminds me of the rock group Switchfoot whose song told us “if we are adding to the noise, turn off this song.”There’s an awareness that some things in people’s lives are more important than a product, whether pop music or gum.

I respect an ad campaign that knows this, and in this case, I can’t get enough of it. As the train pulls into a station I’ll find myself scanning the interior of each car as they shuttle past hoping I’ll step onto the car with ads like this one, photographed on the D train.


the original instant message.
power down. pucker up.
make face time.

 

It’s an odd thing to be sitting on the subway, often a terribly dehumanizing place, and feel rehumanized – feel like I was meant to live for something more. How strange it is to see an advertisement and feel . . . happy. Actually happy.

Sadly, there are not enough campaigns out there treating people as humans. On that same train I turned around caught a sight all too familiar to straphangers: two half-dressed supermodels erotically tugging at a pearl necklace and the tagline “things are getting interesting.” Which could not be further from the truth. This cheap, dime-a-dozen campaign is anything but interesting. And, once again we find innuendo crammed into our faces to push, of all things, alcohol; not just any liquor, fine French cognac by Rémy Martin.

I’ll admit that I’m skeptical I’ll be part of this sexy, chain-necklaced nightlife by purchasing a bottle of expensive booze. I’ve been buying Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey for years and I still haven’t been to the Kentucky Derby, or sat on the porch of a southern, colonial mansion, cigar in hand, watching the sun set over green plantations.

(And in fact, it looks far less like things are getting interesting, and far more like things are getting extremely dangerous. It appears that blondie is laughing with either excitement or hysteria at what looks like her impeding Nubian slavery. I’m not sure what’s actually going on in this scene, but I’m definitely sure I don’t want to end up where they are going, and also pretty sure that they won’t be serving cognac in the dungeon. Chloroform perhaps, or some other James Bondian truth serum, yes; fine French liquor, no.)

Yet we find countless ad campaigns selling us the same tired, sex-driven ideas about the kind of life their product would ensure we live. Pathetic.

Dentyne, at least, has offered us something else: a picture of what your life could be like if you invested in real and meaningful relationships – and then suggested that since you’ll now be so close to your loved ones so much more often, have good breath.(I think that’s fair.)

I might be naive to think that there is anything more here than a major corporate entity working every angle to strengthen its brand and sell its product. And yet, the presence of something undeniably true in their ads compels me to stop writing, grab some gum, and smooch my wife.

The Lifeblood that Drives
the Dreams of Champions

Like so many love affairs, this one began in a quiet café near the Seine in Paris. Unlike those others, this was not the chance meeting of two wanderlust strangers, eyes dancing over the top of books not being read. Nor the dreamy gaze that follows a handsome patron’s catching a falling waitress, nor even a random conversation uniting two souls’ destinies. It wasn’t like any of those. In fact, it wasn’t with a person at all.

This café was the kind of place where famous authors famously sat to write famous novels before their infamous demise. And at a small table tucked away by windows peering over rustic streets, their glass dripping toward Notre Dame, I was baptized. Not into the church, not into prose, but into the complex, the complicated, the rich and robust world of coffee. A world that, even just an hour earlier, I would have declared I could unapologetically avoid.

How I had hated coffee. The look, the smell, the feel, the taste. I hated everything about it as long as I can remember hating anything about beverages or foodstuffs. Roasted, dried, mocha-fied. In chocolate, in ice cream, in liquor, in anything. Hated it.

For a time I tried to quaff in the culture of coffee drinkers. A fast-paced and productive culture carefully groomed to maintain an intellectual appearance I so wanted to have. Alas, my excursions there left nothing but bitter tastes in my mouth. I preferred the shame and humiliation of that timeless winter classic – hot chocolate – whilst my peers (or so I thought, though I doubt they reciprocated as I chugged my Neapolitan-Lacto-Choco-Blast) savored sophisticated java.

I confess I have a compulsive need to both fit in wherever I find myself, and stand out as an individual thinker. A popular outcast, if you will. A free, group-thinker. To be in the crowd, but not of the crowd. I’ve always hated that feeling of being outside the circle; of looking through glass at happy diners and their culinary delicacies while trapped on the green searching for an entrance and running from self doubt’s demon-dog.

(As you scrape your memory for the preceding 80s blockbuster movie reference, I’ll add that it was that very compulsion that helped me turn the corner.)

Just after touchdown on my first trip to Paris, I found myself jaw-dropped, nose and cheek pressed against the glass, gawking at fashionable, thin smokers sitting and sipping . . . coffee. Though I bore a cocoa brown HC on my palate for years, self-conciousness was not about to commit the international traveler’s cardinal sin of being from America and looking like it. You know the people of whom I speak: the guy wearing the ridiculously huge, clearly inflatable and blinding red Kansas City Chiefs jacket in the Louvre, or that family with the matching sneakers, squeaking their nikadidasumas all over the floor where Napoleon was wedded to Josephine.

How a culture consumes its coffee says perhaps more than anything else about what it means to be a part of that culture. And I was more than desperate to fit into it. So as my wife and I entered the café, I fully intended on ordering (mega gulp) coffee.

One hurdle remained: I didn’t know anything meaningful about coffee and now I was about to order some in a global capitol of coffee drinking. My infantile language skills, barely good enough to make out a few words on le menu, didn’t help slow the adrenaline coursing through my body, heightening my awareness that I had no idea what the hell I was doing there, and urging me to leap out of the chair, spring for the door and slam a coke somewhere (which is noticeably more refreshing in Europe thanks to the absence of high fructose corn syrup – a topic for another occasion). Being French, the server arrived at our table an excruciating fifteen minutes after we sat our jet-lagged derrières. Watching his lips allow the escape of sounds, which brought none of a year of college French to mind, I assumed I ought to order. I spoke two words with a frogginess that at least might have given him the impression that I, too, was a chain smoker. Two lip-licking, luscious words that would be the beginning of my romance with coffee.

Just two tiny French words. Café Crème.

Mmm, how they roll off the tongue, like Proust. Café Crème. I often dream of that moment and literally taste again for the first time what it means to be French. A culture exclusively renowned for culture; a culture that savors every slow sip of its café. The French don’t order café to go and then consume this beverage while prancing, meandering, striding or pounding the pavement on their way to anywhere. On the contrary they will order a coffee, and sit, and drink. They just drink, simply for the pleasure of the experience. No thought of productivity, no obsessions about meetings or agenda items. Only coffee and croissant and desgustation. If no where else in the world, in France, doing “nothing” is doing something.

Ironically, the trip left me quite cynical (since after one week I was now an expert on all things café) about coffee culture in the U.S., believing that we were beyond repentance. Taking the time to stop and enjoy such a multi-sensory experience like a cup of coffee is a thing long lost in America. Thus we have awful coffee. In our big-box, mega-conglomerate, profit-minded, market-driven food culture, we’ve devalued experiences of the wonderful and new because we are conditioned to favor the familiar. Two full generations have come and gone immersed in this paradigm and we’ve lost the tools and palate for sensory adventure or even simple appreciation.

But it’s not too late to once again smell new aromas and taste flavors that truly demand attention and reflection. My grandfather – a man of the last generation not reared on rampant consumerism and homogenization of taste – with a single cup o’ joe, gave me hope.

Before I left for to visit my grandparents in Florida, I dreaded what coffee I might imbibe. Would it be the diner sludge so many daily tolerate not realizing the universe of unfathomable flavor just outside their cup? Would it be the thrice-reused grounds and swill that is New York City street vendor coffee? Starbucks? Those are almost all the choices these days. Though many good local coffee shops brew in college towns and quaint, old downtowns, they are not the standard bearers of coffee culture this side of the Atlantic.

The first morning, Grandpa rose with the sun and had completed eight sudoku before eyes had rolled from the back of my head. Dragging myself to kitchen to endure whatever was about to pass for coffee, I found Grandpa in the kitchen with a burlap sack of raw green Guatemalan coffee beans, carefully shoveling scoops into a jet black coffee roaster, equipped with a small catalytic converter to quell the smoke that would otherwise coat the kitchen when roasting coffee beans at home. One has many expectations before a trip to Florida, both good and bad, but homemade, fresh-roasted coffee was not one. Yet there I was with a rich and bold mug of black coffee, cradled in hand on a dewy Ocala winter’s morn that I could not have had anywhere else in the world.

That is beauty. I can’t say it rivaled the seduction of a café crème. But I can say it was a delicious and unique adventure, a special opportunity to broaden my experiences – to have hot water that’s dripped over ground, burnt beans change my worldview.

It reminded me there exists an ocean of new experiences waiting for us to reject the notion that what we already know and like is what is unquestionably best – waiting for us to indeed question, to ask ourselves if we’re merely habitual creatures unwittingly shaped by consumerism. Have I settled for rotten and ubiquitous fallen fruit when the door to the garden of delights is wide open beckoning me to come in, look up and taste the world that ought to be? A world that will be.

It’s sad that what drove me out of my shallow preferences was an improbable mixture of vanity and self-consciousness. What is brilliant is that it was my grandfather – a man categorized with those stereotyped as unmovable and stuck in their ways – who embraced an epicurean adventure that taught me, so can we all. So say we all.

Pay Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain

It is hard to forget the poignancy of what is, perhaps, the greatest Christmas flick of them all. To watch It’s a Wonderful Life is to witness the power of one person in changing their world – and even the cynics among us know this isn’t just some fairy tale. Every year we contemplate these individuals in top 100 lists, to remind us that it is possible for one person to change the world, to fundamentally alter the way we live, to change existence. Though billions of humans live on this planet now, and billions have come before, the list is always short, comprised of politicians, artists, humanitarians, athletes, theologians, inventors, rulers, and even despots.

When compiling such lists, it is easy to fixate on the famous and powerful, those who stood most squarely in the spotlight of their time. And we should do so, since it is almost impossible to overstate their importance. The lives and influence of people like Einstein, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Buddha, Moses, the Beatles, Jesus, Mohammed, Caesar, Da Vinci, Bach, Gates, Newton, Gutenberg, Beethoven, and Edison have left such wakes that we will ever drift in them.

But, with the hype that surrounds the publication of the top 100 – with all the focus on who is number one – we forget that what makes these people special is not their influence, but – like George Bailey – the reminder that all our lives matter and make a difference to someone. Instead of fixating on the “winner,” we ought to look for others to add to this inestimable roster. It sounds easy, but can there really be anyone left whose work has radically altered the direction of humanity and yet still languishes in popular obscurity?

Of course.

In fact, there are probably many such individuals, because unless fame accompanied their work and their lives, we haven’t heard of them. How could we have? Without a little luck, you won’t simply stumble upon one.


If you were going to start your own search, I’d recommend studying inventors or artists: inventors, because they worked so often in totally anonymity that it can be easy to gaze on the machination of the great and powerful Oz and look right past the shy little man standing behind the curtain; and artists, because, while their names and artifacts might be well known to us, the effects of their art trickle in the cultural river – helping steer its course – long after they have ceased to create. Both of these have creativity as their centerpiece – creativity to see or hear and then represent that which no one else perceives; creativity to think, not about what is necessary for the moment or easily observable, but to think in the present and look towards the future, to see the possibilities of what might be. That is the way the way the great artists and inventors thought. That is the way Les Paul thought.

One cannot underestimate how music, its players, writers, critics and tinkerers, changed the course of humanity’s Western society. Ancient ceremonial chants, the sacred motets of the high church, the fantastic spectacles of 19th century European opera houses, and the pulsing rhythms of jazz and blues all heralded new directions for the west. Developments like the piano, violin, symphony orchestra, and saxophone also brought new ideas and opportunities to make sounds that never been heard – yet most of these had a limited, albeit powerful, reach. The music of Asia, South America, India, and Africa were barely a blip on the radar of the Western juggernaut even well into the 19th century (and vice versa). It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the different parts of the world became widely aware of other cultures’ indigenous styles.

Rock and roll was indisputably the first idiom to break down the musical walls built over millennia. It begin to unite cultures, incorporating all kinds of new sounds, spreading philosophies learned from all corners of the globe, and creating worldwide fads and phenoms and fans. Thus, we look at the great champions of pop/rock as those who ushered us into this (ahem) brave new world – names like the Beach Boys, the Stones, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Clapton, U2, Madonna, Run DMC, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, and most importantly, the Beatles.


But missing from that list is a humble man from Waukesha, WI, born Lester William Polsfuss and known to the world as Les Paul-the Wizard of Waukesha. (In the interest of full disclosure and braggadocio, Waukesha is my hometown, and my grandfather grew up on the same small block with Les.)

In the window of just about any guitar shop anywhere in the world is a curvaceous and sultry guitar with Les Paul scrolled on the top of the headstock. Of course, that’s because he invented it. And, I don’t mean just that version you see for sale. I mean he invented the modern electric guitar.

Les was a pioneer in developing the solid-body electric guitar. Unlike the amplified hollow body guitars of 1930s (the type played by Charlie Christian and others), which looked more like acoustic string instruments, this new instrument was solid wood from top to bottom. All the vibrations of the strings resonating through that wood are captured by “pickups” underneath them and cabled over to an amplifier.

At this point it would be fascinatingly tangential to get any more technical, but thanks to Wikipedia that’s not necessary. Suffice it to say that a tipping point had been reached in the history of guitar making, and subsequently, playing. Another guitar maker, Leo Fender, was almost simultaneously moving in the same direction as Paul, though Paul is most often credited as first crossing the finish line. He was simply looking for a solution to the performance problems that the instruments in common use presented. (Fortunately for everyone, Fender vs. Paul was never anything like the great AC/DC debacle – not that AC/DC – of the late 18th century.)

How would the world be different if Les Paul hadn’t ever finished that first prototype? Fender may have still developed his version, still leading to the widespread use of the solid-body guitar and the future of the sound of rock and roll (early rock was often acoustic/semi-hollow guitar- or piano-driven). But while rock may still have continued on its course, Fender’s guitar advancements were not the same as Paul’s more revolutionary technological developments.

(Side note: I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Les Paul was also a highly accomplished guitarist and musician that had dozens of chart-toppers from coast to coast that spanned two decades, with his wife, singer Mary Ford. Even at 93, Les still plays two shows a week at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club. But his musical influence on rock and a generation of guitarists is another matter. )

Perhaps even more important to music than the digital revolution were several of Paul’s other inventions (multitrack recording, overdubbing, and other recording advancements) which he single-handedly developed. Multitracking, in brief, allows the recording of music element-by-element (i.e., track-by-track) while enabling playback of previously recorded material. Before Paul’s invention, music was recorded with all parts played at once, or not recorded at all. If any of the musicians made a mistake, the entire song would be recorded again.

These advancements – initiated by the gift of small reel-to-reel recorder from Bing Crosby – ultimately led to an eight-track reel-to-reel recording device, thereby revolutionizing the music industry and the conception of the way of recording music. Paul’s visionary mind led to the development of technology, not out of necessity, but out of great curiosity. If necessity is the mother of invention, Les Paul was an orphan.

What if Paul had simply put that reel-to-reel recorder in a closet and forgotten about it? What if, by missing that crucial moment, the entire evolution of the recording industry had been delayed by five or ten years? What if the eight-track recorder wasn’t used widely until the late 1950s? Imagine no Beach Boys, Stones, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Clapton, U2, Madonna, Run DMC, Nirvana, and maybe most shockingly, no Beatles – at least not as we know them. These artists’ widespread fame was dependent upon both the instrument and recording technology that Les Paul brought into the world. Imagine the world without even just one of these artists. Imagine how the dominoes would tumble. If you think I’m stretching this point for effect, consider this: every time anyone listens to recorded music they are listening to the creativity of Les Paul.

That’s the difference Les Paul made; in some sense, our world is the world Les Paul made.