Saturday, August 1, 2015

Once in a Blue Moon: why I'll be drinking all day

"Once in a blue moon!"

That's what they say when one of those red-letter days happen; when the stars align and the world seems right and everything falls into this case "place" was my son's baseball glove. The way this five-star championship night ended made it a night I will never forget.

There was a lot to celebrate and there's a lot to tell, so bear with me. The recycle bin out near my garage you see in the picture above shows the brown and green glass refuse of two days of collegial imbibing and celebrations. After my union softball team, the APSCUF Rams, won game one of our best of three championship series on Monday evening, I purchased two bottles of Chairman's Select recommended champagne in anticipation of toasting to a championship on Wednesday.

I didn't think I was jinxing the team with that presumptive purchase but I knew there was a better than even chance the liquid sweet stuff would be sitting on my shelf until New Year's eve. We were playing the best team in the league, Keystone Financial Services, and they had beaten us soundly at the end of the regular season, 18-5. They were fast, young and hungry; they hit the ball hard and they served noticed that night they were determined to win the title. They were clearly the team to beat.

Because our seeding was already fixed -- we finished in third place and they had already clinched first -- I told the team before that humbling experience to "have fun. This game means nothing, it's just a tune up." Afterwards, one of my teammates said: "It was a tune up all right. WE got tuned up!" Boy, did we. 

But I reminded the Rams that evening after the defeat this was a serendipitious circumstance. Three summers ago, twice we were beaten soundly by the division's best team in the regular season. Each game ended early by the 10-run "Mercy Rule." But we came back to sweep them in the finals. Why couldn't this happen again, this year?

It was not an audacious statement, although none of my teammates greeted it with much enthusiam after that drubbing. But I believed in that baseball adage: no team is as bad as they look when they lose big or as good as they look when they win big.  If we played good defense, and got some lucky breaks, we could hang with Keystone.

We got big-time lucky breaks. We didn't just hang with them: we took them down in three games. The last one, played last night, was an epic struggle.

Keystone's best pitcher (he beat us twice in the regular season) was unable to play in the three-game championship series. Keystone was forced to try two back-ups in Monday's first championship series game. The first pitcher they used had trouble finding the strike zone. The Rams were patient and drew 12 walks that helped us in a 11-6 win. It should have been more lopsided but the team left the sacks full on three occasions...and we didn't play well in the field. We allowed Keystone to hang around in a game we should have put away early.

Nevertheless, a win is a win. We were deliriously happy afterwards. We'd finally beaten the best team in our division. It was time to buy champagne. I put it on ice and lugged my ice chest to the field with a case of beer on Wednesday evening to the field. But missing two of our best women players left us vulnerable in game two. Keystone, meanwhile, had found a pitcher who didn't get rattled and threw strikes. Aided by some loose play in the first inning of game two, they jumped out to a seven-run lead and then coasted to a 15-6 victory.

We drank those ice-chest beers in the parking lot because it had been a 92 degree day and the humidity was still hovering near 85 percent at game time. But we sure weren't celebrating and I can't say they tasted very good.

Friday night provided heavenly weather; hot but not humid. And the game started later in the evening, so the glare of the setting sun only lasted for one or two innings, which helped our aged eyes and neutralized an advantage Keystone enjoyed in the first two games when they smashed half a dozen sky rockets at our outfielders, some of which were lost in the blazing sun.

In game three, we put up two runs in the top of the first. Keystone mercifully only plated one run and left men on second and third base when my son, Luke, made his first spectactular catch of the night, snagging a sinking liner in short right field just before it fell safely for a hit. He'd scraped his leg on Wednesday making a similar catch and opened the gash again with this catch. We washed the bloody gash off, patched him up and damn if the same thing didn't happen two innings later when he snagged another line drive and helped kill another Keystone rally that put them up, 4-2.

The Rams gamely fought back to tie the score in the top of the 4th. Then they went ahead in the top of the 6th, scoring three times. Keystone came right back with three runs of their own in the bottom of the 6th. They had the sacks full, too, with just one out, threatening to take a commanding lead. But Jim Morris made a game-saving catch in left field and Jamie Smith snagged a hard line drive in right field to end the threat and keep the game tied.

Both teams went into the last inning with the bottom of the line-up coming up to hit. Morris singled to start the inning but the biggest clutch plate appearance of the entire season came next from our catcher, Corrinne Murphy, our 12-hole hitter. She patiently drew a walk to kickstart the team's winning rally.

Leadoff hitter Drew Crossett's dying quail to the outfield found a grassy place to land but Morris, uncertain if the ball would be caught, had to hold at second and the Keystone left fielder gunned him down at third base on a bang-bang force out play.

Luke was next up and he bounced a ball to the right side of the infield and sprinted desperately up the first base line. The first baseman sprinted to his right and juggled the ball for a split second. Uncertain whether he could beat Luke to the bag, he decided he to toss it to his pitcher, who was gunning for the bag. Luke and the pitcher arrived at the base in synch. The ump dramatically called Luke safe. 

The Keystone bench erupted in complaints, sure he had missed the call. Luke said afterwards he thought he was out, too, but the Keystone pitcher admitted after the game that his foot had missed the bag, so the call was correct. It mattered a lot.

Manny Otero, the Rams' best hitter, came to the plate with two outs and the sacks full, carrying the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. He'd gone 1-7 in the first two games. He was due. And man oh man oh man, did Manny deliver. At this crucial spot in the game, Keystone's pitcher turned and asked his outfielders to "move back! Don't let him hit it over your heads!" but Manny had not been pulverizing the ball as he usually does and they didn't heed their pitcher's advice. Call him a prophet. 

Otero crushed the first pitch he saw about 15 feet over the head of the left-center fielder and all three of the Rams' baserunners scored.  The bleachers on our side of the field erupted in jubilation.

Pitcher Kevin Flynn added an insurance run with a base knock that drove in Otero and then shut the bottom of Keystone's line-up down to seal the win and the league championship.

Once we were safely out in the parking lot, we started in on the ice-cold beer in the ice chest. Before long, we uncorked the champagne. Then the celebration really started. We hollared and hooted and hugged one another and laughed and shouted and relived the events of the evening in high, semi-inebriated style. The alcohol had no affect whatsoever. We were high on life; high on winning a championship. But damn, did that champagne go down easy!

Unwilling to let go of the evening's magic, most of the team went to the Square Bar to celebrate some more. There the alcohol finally kicked in. I finished filling out the box score at the bar and noted with paternal pride that Luke had three hits and five outfield put-outs. Three of them were on diving, knee-scrapping catches.

I didn't play a single pitch during the series, but I sure enjoyed myself!!! I am so proud of all of my teammates, proud to be part of this group of people who care about one another and play so unselfishly and never say die and do whatever it takes to win. Their competitive spirit makes me shake my head in wonderment. And how many guys get to experience a beer-league softball championship with their sons? Yes, indeed, life is good.

If we had to play Keystone 10 times, I don't doubt they would probably win eight of them. They are younger than us by an average of 10 or more years. They are hungry, fast and very, very talented. But we won the two that counted the most.

It feels good today to think about that. Nights like last night don't happen very often. Days like today don't come along very often either. I plan on finishing those left over beers in the ice chest through most of the day. I'll be smiling to myself for hours. 

I can't wait for next year to get here. And for the next blue moon to show up!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Mid-year pop music report

These are a dozen  CDs I have been listening to for the first half of 2015. It's already been an amazing year for recorded music so far. It's hard to know how many of these will still be in heavy rotation in my CD player when I compile my end of the year list, but some of these are too good to ignore. I am arranging them here in a rough semblance of alphabetical order.

Courtney Barnett. "Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit". (Mom & Pop)

Cortney Barnett can turn an off-handed comment into a punk rocker's manifesto. When her keenest observations are backed by power pop hooks and razor sharp guitar licks, they speak with authority. The Aussie singer-songwriter has become something of a fixture among indie rock fans and XPN listeners. What surprised me most of all, at a sold-out show I caught last week at the Union Transfer,  is that fans at that show ranged from 15 to 75, and that none of them went home disappointed to have their ears so blissfully shredded. Few performers can bridge a generation gap that large. 

Fr. John Misty. "I Love You, Honey Bear." (Subpop) Josh Tillman, the former drummer for the Fleet Foxes, released his second solo album this spring under his stage name, Father John Misty. It reeks of a West Coast vibe generated from your above average 'shroom high (I mean that as a compliment). Think of the Eagles and those Laurel Canyon songwriters back in the mid-1970s and you'll have a good idea of the kind of feel-good sound Tillman is searching for. Jennifer Jonson, in her 405 review, put it this way: "he is more archtype than alter-ego. I Love You, Honey Bear is drenched in predictable debauchery and misogyny, but just when you think Tillman is method acting or keeping up appearances, he strays toward self-conscious profundity." 

Heartless Bartards. "Restless Ones." (Partisan)  The Heartless Bastards' lead signer, Erika Wennerstrom, sounds like an edgier version of Lucinda Williams. She howls her lyrics more than she sings them but the angst she unlooses feels like a shot of 86 proof Jack Daniels. Janis would be proud of her. Her band rocks as hard and plays as tight as any in indie rock.  Restless Ones may be their most accomplished album. "Black Cloud," "The Fool" and "Wind-up Bird" are three that will test the sound limits of your car stereo speakers because they are all crank worthy. 

Ray Wylie Hubbard. "The Ruffian's Misfortune".  (Bordello Records) The Ruffian's Misfortune is full of fine, smoky grooves with just the right amount of gravel-road growl, and the quiet songs like "Barefoot in Heaven" and "Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten" are played and sung with a strength that rivals rowdy hell-raisers like "Bad on Fords" and "Chick Singer Badass Rockin'," the latter a high-octane tribute to women with guitars and attitude in equal proportion. Hubbard can sound defiant, sorrowful, or compassionate with the same degree of emotional power, and whether he's bragging about bad deeds or mourning a life gone wrong, Hubbard's lyrics are intelligent and perceptive, and he draws his characters with a clarity that's artful but never pretentious. 

Kendrick Lamar. "To Pimp a Butterfly". (Spacebomb)  The hip-hop CD of the year so far, bound to be near the top of the national ten best lists come December. Lamar's second full-length album is loaded with ear-pleasing loops and clever rhymes. "My Baby Don't Understand Me" could be straight out of the Marvin Gaye canon of 1973 while "Christy" suggests Lamar might have a career in music theater if the hip hop career doesn't take off. Don't take the Broadway bet. Kendrick Lamar has "superstar" written on every track. 

James McMurtrey. "Complicated Game." (Complicated Game)  I caught an abbreviated McMurtry solo set at the XPN Non-Comm conference in May and McMurtry unveiled some of his best songs from this collection of world-weary tunes. Using a deadpan West Texas drawl and some fancy string work on his acoustic guitar, he held several hundred listeners in the palm of his hand as we collectively waited for the next ironic, hilariously ironic bon mot to drop out of his mouth. If you like to hear home spun narratives in your favorite songs, this is a record you will endlessly return to for its wit and wisdom.

Mbongwana Star. "From Kinshasa". (World Circuit)  If you liked "Kongotronics" by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you'll appreciate this Republic of Congo nod to that wonderful album of Afro-pop inventiveness.  Employing the same "thumb pianos" as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded back in the '50s in Sun Studios, the recording has a live "street performance" quality to it that makes the music feel alive, visceral and relevant. If you want to imagine what it's like to be standing on a street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big African thing, this is a CD to get. "Malukayi", one of the stronger cuts on the album, features Konono.

Sufjan Stevens. "Carrie & Lowell".  Stevens most thoughtful  collection of songs yet. This one plunges headlong into an emotional exploration of the meaning of family and its emotional trappings. It's named after Steven's mother, a long-time drug addict, who frequently left Stevens to the care of his detached step-father while she spiraled into the abyss. Sung with the kind of confidence and off-the-cuff earnestness of Nick Drake, this is Stevens' most mournful collection of songs but a celebration of life's great unanswerable questions. 

Waxahatchee. "Ivy Tripp" (Merge).  Katie Crutchfield performs under the name Waxahatchee, a creek near her home in Alabama.  This is her third album and it received a rare rave from the New Yorker back in March. She received a welcome boost from guitar virtuosos Tegan and Sara during a summer tour two years ago and her Cerulean Salt CD was hyped as one of the best albums of that year. "Ivy Tripp" may be even better. The first cut, "Breathless" is a reflective gem that might be one of my favorite songs of the year so far. She's a talent to watch, for sure. 

Ryley Walker. "Primrose Green" (Dead Oceans Records)  I caught Ryley Walker at the Boot and Saddle back in February, opening for a band not nearly as accomplished as he is. He bought to mind the timber and singing style of Tim Buckley but Buckley could never match the tasteful ease that Walker brings to the guitar.  His finger picking style has a luminous, relaxed almost classical quality. One of his encore tunes was Van Morrison's "Fair Play" from Veedon Fleece and that said as much about his savvy musical choices and influences as anyof the originals he performed. He's not a rocker, but don't that stop you from indulging this great CD.   

Sleater-Kinney. "No Cities To Love." (Subpop)  It's been 10 long years since Sleater-Kinney released "The Woods".  There have been some notable side projects, including a Carrie Brownstein solo album and the Wild Flag debut. But you'd never know they were gone as a unit if you give "No Cities To Love"a spin. It's arguably their best record yet (and that's saying something). Loaded with bleeding finger riffs and howling guitars, this is a record the Buzzcocks, the Stones or the Who would have been proud to claim as their own. Visceral, in all the best ways possible. "Gimme Love" and "Hey Darling" are two that deserve radio play. 

Songhai Blues -- Music In Exile (Atlantic) Three years ago, when armed jihadist banned music in their hometown, Songhai Blues decided it was a good time to relocate from their home town to the capital of Mali, Bambako. That may explain the title of this remarkable collection of songs. Combining the blues licks of Mali's greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the swirling, ethereal easiness of Morocco's desert bedouins, Tinariwen, Songhai Blues has crafted their own African masterpiece. This one is a sure bet to make my final list in January.  "Soubour" is a track to find on YouTube if you're curious to hear an instant classic.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My "Wedding Day" dance with Mom

Last summer I went to Wisconsin to say goodbye to my mother. My sister Heidi had been told by Mother's doctor in the Alzheimer's facility where she lives that mom was having trouble swallowing her food. Normally this is a sign that the end of life is soon approaching. He advised us to come and say our farewells.  

Me and my East Coast siblings made arrangements to visit with her during the summer of 2014 to say our final goodbyes. Her doctor advised us 
she would likely pass before the end of the year.  

But the end did not come for my mom. Against all odds, and quite contrary to what her doctor told us, Mom is still with us. She sleeps between 16 and 18 hours a day. She seems content. But she was noticeably 
smaller than when I saw her last July.

I would not call her survival a miracle.... but I have some ideas why she has lasted longer than her doctors originally thought she might. More so than most people who end up in Alzheimer's units, Mother is still doted on. All 11 of her children went to visit her in the past 18 months, some more than once. 

When we visit her, we feed her. This is a painstaking process. On each of the four days I was with my mom, I fed her at least one of her meals and some days two of them. These feedings took between 60 and 90 minutes and mom ate between 7 and 10 ounces of soft food, similar to what infants eat from a jar of Gerber's. She ate the food from a very small baby spoon and could barely open her mouth to received the nourishment. But she seemed hungry and eager to eat and sometimes she drank three or four cups of juice or water.

There were between 10 and 12 Alzheimer's patients in my mother's wing and the majority of them can still feed themselves. But three or four of them need help eating. The three nurses aides who work there spent as much time feeding these patients as they can, but their time is limited and their work schedules are demanding. 

Their patience is remarkable with these feedings and they do the best they can in the little meal time they have. They feed mom as much as possible when none of us are there to take care of her. But they have so much to do and so little time, there is little doubt my mother eats better when one of her children is feeding her because she is getting individual attention and because we take an hour or longer to feed her, not just 20 or 30 minutes. I suspect we've been keeping Mom alive longer than expected because of the individual attention we give her.

When the unit's doctors gave her 12 months to live in January of 2014, they were projecting a "normal" estimate of how long most Alzheimer's patients survive once swallowing becomes difficult. They did not take into consideration she might be nourished by her children more carefully than the nursing home's aides.

My brother Paul arrived in Wisconsin several days before Mother's day. My flight from Philly landed in the early afternoon of Mother's day. I arrived in Oshkosh just in time to feed her dinner. She didn't open her eyes when I was there that evening and I don't think she remembered who I was. I had expected this. Mom seems to remember "better" my siblings Mark and Heidi who live near her and visit her several times a week.

This routine happened for several more days. She never opened her eyes but she was always eager to eat and seemed to sense when meals were being prepared and presented in front of her. She seemed to smell the food more easily than see it. On many occasions, she didn't need to be prompted to open her mouth. She seemed to sense when the spoon was ready. 

On Tuesday morning, Paul and I arrived around 9:30 a.m. to help with my Mom's bi-weekly swim therapy. Mom was sleeping but was already dressed for her swim when we arrived at her room. The woman who usually gave my mother her therapy on Tuesday's was named Carla. She knew Mom, Heidi and Mark well but she was meeting me and Paul for the first time. 

Carla strapped Mom into a harness that lifted her out of her padded wheelchair and lowered her carefully into the pool's warm water. Mom was awake but her eyes were still closed. Paul and I took turns moving mom around the pool, performing some exercises that Carla suggested. Paul noticed that her ankles were stiff and we gave Mom a foot rub. Her limbs were stiff, too. It was hard to get her to move her arms and legs. They were locked into the same position she maintains when she is sitting in her wheelchair. After extensive 
cajoling and coaxing, Carla was able to get my Mom to kick her legs and move her arms around.

About 30 minutes into her swim, Carla stood Mom straight 
up and was walking around the pool, holding her at arms length, trying to make my mother "walk." Mom started to respond to this. A small smile spread over her face. Carla immediately noticed and suggested that Paul and I take turns "dancing"  with mother. "She might like that," Carla told us. 

Paul went first and Mom's slight smile grew wider. Her eyes were still closed but she was feeling her oats. We could all see she enjoyed being squired around the pool by her son. It suddenly occurred to me that Paul (because he never married) he had never danced with Mom at his wedding. And then it occurred to me that neither had I! 

I had been  married twice, but I don't recall ever having danced with my mother at either one. This moment in a pool in Oshkosh was probably our one and only "wedding dance" with Mom! I didn't have music at the reception for my second wedding at my sister's house in 2003 and I don't think I remembered to ask mom to dance at my first wedding in 1980. I guess it probably pays to hire a master of ceremonies who knows how to keep a wedding party moving with two turntables and a microphone and who pays attention to all the wedding conventions! 

When it was my turn to dance with mom in the pool, I suddenly remembered Dad danced to "Those Were the Days" by Mary Hopkins with my sister Trudy at her wedding in 1978. I took Mom in my arms and I asked her if she remembered that moment.  And I started to sing the song to her and I held her close in my arms, twirling her around in the pool. Paul and Carla were laughing at me but Mom's eyes suddenly opened up for the first time all week. Now the smile on her face was huge. She couldn't actually TELL me she remembered Trudy dancing to "Those Were the Days" but there was no doubt I had triggered a memory with the song I was singing.

It was quite a scene, singing to my Mom and dancing around the pool with her, her eyes opened wide and a smile as wide as a river. I danced in the pool for about three or four minutes, Paul and Carla laughing at 
us the entire time. 

It felt sad to me it had taken this long for me to dance my "wedding dance" with her. But, well, at least I can say I managed to squeeze it in. I know there must have been other times I danced with my mother, at family occasions and weddings. But not many over the course of our life times. 
And none more memorable than this one.

Mom was tuckered out by all the fun. Carla lifted her out of the pool and toweled her off. By the time Paul had wheeled her back to her room she was sound asleep. 

My Dad must have been smiling up in heaven at
 our swim therapy antics. He had better start practicing his steps because Mom still has some pretty smooth dance moves and she's been practicing!!! Sooner or later, she'll be looking for a heavenly partner. 

I'm pretty sure I know which song she'll request. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mother's last Christmas

By Chuck Bauerlein

            Back in February my mother's doctor in Wisconsin told my sister, who lives near her, that Mother's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to a final stage. My mom could no longer chew her food, a sign that the end of her life was approaching.

            I went out to visit with her in July and had several memorable days with her, but it was sadly obvious to see she was fading. She slept half the day and wasn't eating much. It would take me 60 or 70 minutes to feed her a small container of yogurt and some cut fruit. She would wake up and smile once in a while and on one or two occasions, she seemed to  laugh at something I said.

            About a month ago, my sister wrote to us that Mom was losing weight and now sleeping about 18 hours a day. We should prepare ourselves for the news of her passing at any time. There is little reason to doubt next Thursday will be my mother's last Christmas.

            It is impossible to know what this loss will feel like, especially on future Christmas mornings. Her children will wake up on those days and realize Mom has passed and all we have left of her are memories of the many Christmases she made feel so special for so many years.

            We came of age in a large three-story stone house my dad christened "Kidzaplenty Place." Christmas day would start with the smells of a very special breakfast wafting up to the third floor bedrooms. Coffee brewed on the stove and the oven over-flowed with the smells of a Dutch treat my grandmother had passed down to her daughters, saucejzenbroodges.

              These were small pork sausages wrapped in a delicate blanket of flaky baked and glazed flour crust. The crust would melt in our mouths before we could bite the sausage. Mother only made them on Christmas, so these treats seemed magical because they were so rare. When we arrived downstairs, her other baked delicacy already had been placed carefully in the center of the family dining table: a large Dutch stollen (a foot-long Christmas cake crammed with jellied fruits and walnuts, sprinkled with powdered sugar).

            We came down to the kitchen one by one, wiping sleepy dust from our eyes and reaching for coffee mugs. Mother sliced grapefruit using the curved blade of a grapefruit knife, carefully carving each pod of the juicy flesh of a pink grapefruit, flicking the seeds into the kitchen sink. So adept was she with the blade, she could carve six or seven of them in the time it took me to carve one.

      She would send one of my sisters scurrying into the dining room carrying two at a time, placing them with care on small plates at our assigned places at the table.  Breakfast was ready to go by 7:30 a.m. The grapefruit, two large plates of scrambled eggs, coffee or hot chocolate, the sausages and the stollen. A feast fit for royalty.

      After the blessing my father would ask each of the children to say something we were thankful for that year.  With 11 hungry mouths staring at this mountain of exotic food, this last chore seemed like torture. We had no choice but to endure it. When we all complained, my dad pointed out it had been a year since the last such feast, what was 10 more minutes?

      We trotted out the usual tropes. Our thanks tended to be the same year after year: we were thankful for our friends; our pets; the new clothes we wore; the new bike or baseball glove or rag doll we received for our last birthday. Then one of the younger children would thank the Lord for her sister or brother. The table chatter stopped and we watched my mother and father glance knowingly at each other. The older kids would feel foolish (again) for taking so much for granted.

      This was the blessing of Christmas and our family. That moment when Dad looked at Mom and she at him, both of them surveying the domestic tableau, taking in its sights and fragrances, the children waiting impatiently for one minute more. That moment when love shined in their eyes for one another and all the hard work of their marriage was realized.  Here was the real blessing, an unspoken, magnetic bond of enduring love and gratitude. Look at this! Look at what we made!

      There was a lesson there for all of us, if we could just see it. This is what family is. This is what marriage looks like.

      We lingered at breakfast for at least an hour while the blinking white lights of the Christmas tree in the library and the sweet smell of the pine needles called to us like sirens.  Piles of presents circled the foot of the tree. Opening them would wait. We all knew breakfast was part of the special ritual, too.

      Finally, around 9 a.m., the youngest among us would feel the irresistible pull of the main event. We would all leave the table full of dishes, retreat to the library and gather in a large circle on sofas or folding chairs, the young ones sitting crossed legged nearest the tree and retrieving presents for everyone else. 

      A family rule was that each of us had to buy at least one small present for every member of the family, so there were at least 125 presents to be unwrapped. My parents insisted we open them one at a time, and that we formally thank the person who gave it to us. This was also part of the family tradition. It made the spirit of Christmas last for hours.

     When it was done, my parents let us congregate around the tree, laughing and playing with new toys or trying on new clothes. Then they would go do the breakfast dishes, she washing, he drying.

      They would smile and listen to the sounds of Christmas from all corners of the large stone home they called Kitzaplenty Place. Squeals of happiness and laughter and of the pounding of small feet racing up the staircases, barking dogs chasing after them.

      After the dishes were dried and stacked up on the kitchen counter, my dad would carry them all into the dining room and set the table again. Mom would start the Christmas dinner.

      Paul and I, the two oldest, would sidle into the kitchen and find the left over saucejzenbroodges. The flaky crust would melt in our mouths. But the real meat of the sausage was like the day itself. Tasty, filling. In a word: unforgettable. The very essence of Mother's Christmases.

                            #     #    #   #​

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The year in pop music: a ten best list for 2014

These were the CDs I enjoyed listening to the most this year. These all stayed in my car CD player for long stretches of time and bore up to repeated listenings. Not everyone will enjoy each of these picks. But if you read carefully, you're likely to find something that will make you glad youpurchased it or you might find something here to stuff in your family's Christmas stockings.

Happy listening!

1) The War on Drugs: “Lost in the Dream.” This album was released in March and has been in heavy rotation in my car ever since. It’s the band’s third and most fully realized album.  Starting with the epic two-chord romp "Under the Pressure," Adam Granducial and the band offer a mesmorizing collection of entirely engaging rock songs. They tend to start with predictable rock instrumentation but blossom into more interesting set pieces that feature floating ambient passages, assorted blasts of brass instruments and synthesizers. Songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" channel the energy of Bruce Springsteen with the introspective navel-gazing of Jackson Browne’s most introspective songs. The album’s ten songs are a sprawling pastiche of deceptively simple yet utterly unforgettable reflections on modern living. "Lost in the Dream" is a meandering masterpiece of shifting moods and dreamy vibes, always anchored by Granducial’s guitar. 

2) Ought. "More Than Any Other Day". This Montreal-based post-punk band had one of the most explosive debuts of the year. My son and I caught their sparsely populated set at Johnny Brenda's for just $8 and thought we were seeing the Talking Heads, circa 1978 at CBGBs. It won't be so easy (or so cheap) to see them next time around. The energy they brought to their high-powered rock n' roll set was exhilerating to witness. The band takes a collaborative approach to their songs. They tend to start slowly and gradually build to climatic crescendoes of slashing dissonance and vocal angst. Tim Beeler's vocals (like David Byrne's) may grate on some ears, but there's never any doubt he's totally invested in the performance of the song. "More Than Any Other Day" rocks harder than any CD I heard all year. 

3) Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This is the second Simpson album release this year. The album’s title clearly borrows from the landmark Ray Charles' country set. But the musical precedents he’s channeling are Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Webb. The album’s first single, “Turtles All the Way” takes an unpredictable and somewhat disconcerting psychedelic approach that works surprisingly well considering the genre Simpson is working in. His rich baritone and his phrasing sound as if he’s been taking voice lessons from Jamey Johnson. If you don’t like your country music in its most distilled form, you probably won’t dig Sturgill Simpson. But if Willie, Waylon and the boys are still rattling around your memory bank, you’ll love this one.

4) Ex-Hex. Rips. In her earlier work with Autoclave and Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag, Mary Timoney’s virtuosic guitar work always threw up in-your-face riffs that reeked of snarky confidence. If you loved her then, you’ll really  love her new album with an old collective known as Ex-Hex, who debuted in 2005 and has been on hiatus since. A punky, feminist romp, “Rips” is an economical, throwback to classic rock albums on the 1970s. This one is similar to Elvis Costello’s first record. Every song is a gem and all 12 of them clock in under 35 minutes.  Highlights include “Hot and Cold,” “You’ll Fall Apart” and “New Kid”. But trying to pick just three cuts off an album of 12 great blistering rock and roll songs is like choosing which fingers you want to slice off your hand.  “Rips” rips.   

5) Beck. Morning Phase. It’s been six years since Beck released an album. He had some serious health issues that kept him from working or recording in the interim, but the time off seemed to add layer of reflection that’s been missing from his songwriting since “Sea Change,” his most introspective record. Like that one, “Morning Phases” shows a more philosophical side of Beck that makes this latest recording a distinct pleasure to hear many times. “Sea Change” broke from Beck’s heavy use of sampling and electronic gimmicks an acoustic presentation of the songs. So, too, does “Morning Phases.” The songs possess a warmer, gentler tone and show the subtle side of an artist who destined for the rock n’ roll hall. “Cycle,” “Morning” and “Waking Light” are songs to start the day with.

6) Teddy Thompson. Family.  Just last month Teddy Thompson (Richard and Linda’s son) released his latest collaborative project, called “Family.” His mother and father and his sister, Kami, all contribute songs to the record, as do Kami’s husband (James Walbourne) and their stepbrother, Jack Thompson, from Richard’s second marriage. In an interview with the New York Times, Teddy said “at first, I thought it would be fun and easy,” but he soon realized “I was definitely trying to repair some kind of damage.” Kami, in the same story, said the family reunion concept was “like a family song-writing competition – it’s a bloody nightmare. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?” If “Shoot Out the Lights” (a ‘70s classic five-star recording ) was the Thompson’s truth about their divorce, “Family” shows that they’ve weathered the emotional storm just fine. 

7) Temples. Sun Structures. The nostalgic trip-fest of the year goes to this debut CD from Temples, a band from Kettering, England. Lead by guitarist and vocalist James Bagshaw, the Temples’ template takes 1967 psychedelic era pop and reinvents it, adding layers of sonic tricks that are pleasurable if a tad polished. Their best songs sound like T. Rex at their glittery finest but on a few others, the sheer studio sheen makes it seem as if the band is trying a little too hard to replicate a ‘60s pop confection. I caught their gig at the Union Transfer and the band pushed the songs forward with a gritty, guitar attack that suited their material better. “Shelter Song,” the title track and “Mesmerize” all sound like top of the pops chart-toppers from the late ‘60s. Temples is a band to watch.

8) Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place. Anglo-Australian band Allo Darlin' released their third album this year and it’s another batch of well-crafted, hook-laden songs written by Elizabeth Morris, the band’s songwriter and lead singer. She’s supported here with effortless ease by her band but it’s Morris’s show and she delivers these introspective, anecdotal stories with lines that sound like tossed-off couplets but reel you in close for a hard look at her heart. “I wanted to impress you, and I think you knew” she sings in “Kings and Queens”.  There are the idiosyncratic characteristics here, especially her use of the ukulele as a center point for some songs,  but the band behind her rocks hard. This is an immensely likable pop album, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her prime.  

9) The Antlers. Familiars.  On “Familiars”, The Antlers abandon the electronic influences that informed the Brooklyn band’s first two records, 2011’s “Burst Apart” and 2009 “Hospice”, opting  for a jazzier vibe that showcases a reliance on horns. Peter Silberman’s controlled falsetto remains one The Antler’s most compelling assets. There’s not a cut on the album that one might hear on top 40 radio, and that’s meant as a compliment.  Nine compelling cuts that bring you to another world and craft a soundtrack that just needs the right movie to find its audience. The Antlers seem like one of the most interesting bands making music today.

10 Roseanne Cash, The River & The Thread. Cash’s string of terrific CDs released in the last seven or eight years continues on this well-crafted set that has flown under the radar since it was released in January. (I didn’t discover its many charms until about a month ago.) Much of her most recent work was imbued with a sense of memory and grief, coming on the heels of the death of her mother and her iconic father. The River & the Thread finds the veteran Nashville songwriter crafting songs of immense detail and emotion she delivers in her trademark plaintive voice. The uptempo rocker “Modern Blue”sounds like an outtake from her classic “King’s Record Store” but the rest of the record travels down blues and folk roads, with the able contributions from her husband, John Leventhal. "A Feather's Not a Bird" and "Etta's Tune" are highlights.

In alphabetical order, here are some CDs that almost made my end of the year list: Anansy Cissy, "Mali Overdrive"; Gary Clark, Jr., “Live”; Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”; Parquet Courts, “Sun-bathing Animals”; Cookie Rabinowitz, “Four-Eyed Soul”. Spoon, "They Want My Soul", St. Vincent, "St. Vincent"; U.S. Rails, "Heartbreak Superstar"; Sharon Van Etten "Are We There"; Woods, “With Light & With Love”.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The right-wing uproar over President Obama's "latte salute": why I vote Democratic

By now most of you may have heard the president "disrespected" the military and the American flag when he disembarked from the presidential helicopter earlier this week and tried to salute two Marines standing at attention at the bottom of the chopper's exit ramp with a cup of coffee in his hand.

The rightwing propaganda machine went into overdrive outrage mode, castigating the president for this slip-up. The film clip of this incident is about  20 seconds long and nothing in American politics short of  Zapruder's footage of the assassination of President Kennedy has been discussed and dissected as much as this innocent moment.

I happened to be speaking about television news ethics in my "Introduction to Mass Media" class this week. Coverage of the president's "latte salute" incident served as a perfect example of all that is wrong with national TV news coverage. It ignores the most important aspects of public policy and it inflates, out of all rational proportion, the most trivial things that transpire.

In short, this incident has been used as an attempt to serve a far right-wing agenda (Fox News) or to chase high ratings and advertizing dollars (ABC, NBC, CBS). In either case, the national networks do not serve democracy. The root of our national conundrum is that America's TV media are owned by large corporations that are more interested in generating  mega-profits than in protecting the public interest.

President Obama's latte salute was the subject of a blistering battle of words and ideology on the Facebook page of a former fraternity brother who lives in Louisiana.  The fact that he resides in one of the reddest of red states (a state steeped in a legacy of racism) made the interchange between his Facebook friends particularly interesting and angry. One of the comments on the thread suggested Obama's salute was unpatriotic and showed disrespect of both the military and our nation's flag. 

After a day of bile and abuse, my fraternity brother decided his thread was "toxic" and promised to take it down. I wanted to get in one last response to his GOP friends before it was abandoned. My post was an appeal to GOP voters in Louisiana to consider voting Democratic in the November elections.

I want to reach out to Dave's Republican friends with some food for thought from an East Coast liberal. If this makes one or two of you think about your voting choices in the upcoming election, so much the better. 

There are lots of things to dislike the President for. Let me name three off the top of my head. One: He didn't include a public option in his Affordable Care Act. This might have saved hundreds of millions of middle class Americans money when they have to see a doctor. Think how much you save when you mail a letter to California if you use the U.S. Postal Service instead of FedEx or UPS and you'll get the idea. 

Two: Every time he orders the execution of an American with a drone, he ignores our constitutional guarantee of  due process. Those Americans did not get a trial. They were judged, sentenced and executed by the president. This seems like a gross abuse of his powers. 

Three: He campaigned as an opponent to the War in Iraq and on trying to dismantle and reduce American's nuclear arsenal, weapons that threaten the very existence of humankind on Earth. Yet the New York Times ran a front page story this week about Obama's decision to spend billions of tax dollars in a plan to upgrade our deteriorating nuclear defense system. 

Ask yourselves, my GOP compatriots: why doesn't Fox news focus on these governmental decisions/issues that Obama has made but instead focuses on the President's "latte salute"? It's a question worth asking. 

Here's my answer: our left-wing, radical president took action in these decisions that supported huge corporations...exactly the kind of action Ronald Reagan would have taken. Why? For the life of me, I cannot understand why. But from my point of view, he sure ain't no liberal! He's as conservative as Reagan! 

Here's your party's ONLY agenda. The GOP wants to accomplish one thing: it wants to help the super-wealthy. It is owned and operated by the super-wealthy. Every time you vote for a Republican candidate, you are voting against the middle class and your own economic interests. Every time you get another Republican elected to Congress, the one-percenters break out the single malt scotch and toast your naivete. They are laughing at you behind your backs because, yet again, you drank the GOP Cool-aid. 

Here is the reality of the America we all live in, Republican and Democrat; Christian, Jew and Muslim; black, brown and white. One percent of the country's citizens own 90 percent of our collective wealth. Those same one-percenters control the flow of money; they control the banks; they control the media; they own your home if you still pay a mortgage; they own the future of your children if your kids have college loans. The ONLY agenda they have is this: they want to hang onto their wealth.The only thing they understand is money. They could care less about the good of the nation. 

Any vote for a Republican is a vote for the status quo. Think what you want, that's the privilege of being an American, but please DON'T think you are creating a "better world" or a "stronger union" when you vote for a Republican. YOU may believe in family values. So do we Democrats. WE are voting for change. The change we most desire is to live in an equitable society where the distribution of wealth is not so one-sided and doesn't favor of the wealthiest people on Earth. 

Please don't tell me they "earned" it with their sweat and toil, working with their hands. They earned it by convincing people like you to elect representatives who do their bidding, who create laws and open tax loopholes that allow them to horde wealth. They are lawyers, bankers, hedge fund managers and, most of all, corporate CEOs, defense contractors and war profiteers. They are not plumbers, electricians, carpenters or reporters. 

Please don't require me to salute the flag of a nation whose government protects the assets of the wealthiest people on Earth. Please don't call me a "traitor" for pointing out this sad reality: the super wealthy and their elected representatives are working hard to keep the rest of us down. Do yourselves a favor. Start reading a decent newspaper and get your heads out of the Fox News propaganda machine. To all of you who read this far with an open mind, I humbly thank you. God bless the First Amendment!

Let's try to see TV news for what it really is: a race for ratings, a chase for advertising dollars. Let's also stop pretending we are "informed" when we watch the news on any network broadcast. You won't find the truth on network TV. You have to search hard for the truth. Try reading the New York Times every day or watch John Stewart or Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Read the Nation or the Atlantic magazines. Watch PBS between 6 and 7 p.m.  And demand that news bureaus start to take their special place in democracy seriously. We need the media to hold power accountable for the wheels of democracy to spin smoothly. It's way, way past time for the media to start taking their jobs seriously. 

See the footage here: