Sunday, December 13, 2015

My favorite recordings of 2015

 Apologies to all of you Adele fans. I didn't include her on my end of the year list because it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to hype a CD that most of you have already heard and that will sell millions of units without any help from me. For the record, I quite like most of "25" and I like Adele. But I am pretty sure I will be sick of her album within a few weeks. These are my favorite recordings of the year. I honestly believe most of these are worth owning and some of them will stand the test of time. 

1.)    Courtney Barnett. “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.” (Mom & Pop). Barnett’s second studio effort is a masterpiece that feels at once both casually tossed-off and meticulously planned. Lyrically always inventive, Barnett delivers ear-grabbing catch phrases with the panache of an Academy Award winning actress and a Joyce-ian eye for detail and humor . The internal rhyme of this lyric from one of the CD’s stand-out cuts, “Pedestrian at Best”  gives a sense of its irresistible word play: “I must confess I’ve made a mess / of what should be a small success / but I digress at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess”.  And check out this observational moment from “Elevator Operator”:  “He waits for an elevator (one to nine) / a lady walks in and waits by his side / Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton / Vickers perfume on her breath, a tortoise-shell necklace between her breasts / She looks at him up and down with her botox frown / he’s well-used to that by now.”  Meanwhile, three cracker-jack band mates whip up a wall of noise as tightly poised as battleship cannon while Barnett herself conjures left-handed sonic hand grenades that would make both Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix jealous from their graves.  What’s not to like? This was my favorite record of the year.

2.)    Songhoy Blues. “Music in Exile” (World Circuit).  The title of the album is not meant to be whimsical. It’s as much of a political statement as anything popular culture has come up with in this year of cartoon campaigning and the demagoguery of Donald Trump. When jihadist terrorists took over their Mali city, Bambako, three years ago, this 4-piece collective decided to leave the country. They’ve lived on the road ever since, bouncing from gig to gig and one borrowed couch to another to crash on. That they managed to produce a searing set of blistering African blues as inspirational as this is miraculous. Combining the subtle guitar licks of their homeland’s greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the ethereal easiness of Moroccan bedouin music, “Music In Exile” feels timeless.  “Soubour”, the opening track, is a blues classic.   

3.)    Ryley Walker. “Primrose Green” (Dead Oceans Records). If the organic, natural feel of acoustic guitars floats your boat, this is the one record you need to own from this year’s great crop of albums. “Primrose Green” announced Ryley Walker as an artist to watch in years to come. It’s obvious from the first note that Bert Jansch’s blue print for Pentangle provided Walker’s artistic template. His songs showcase  virtuoso performances on his instrument and Walker’s gorgeous vocals evoke Tim Buckley and John Martyn in their prime. “The High Road” and “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” are tracks to seek out.

4.      Sufjan Stevens. “Carrie & Lowell.”  (Asthmatic Kitty).  Stevens has one of the most wide-ranging curricula vitas in modern popular music. A chameleon of the highest order, he’s dabbled in musical state histories (Illinois and Michigan); Christmas albums; orchestral works; folk music, ballet works and, now, a confessional  tribute to his parents and an intimate case study in bi-polar disorder.  He hasn’t made an album that feels this constrained since “Seven Swans.” He delivers these family tales in an introspective whisper that make the heartache and tragedy feel earned, almost sacred.

     Kendrick Lamar. “To Pimp a Butterfly.”  Eight out of every ten critics have it at the top of their best of the year lists. 11 Grammy nominations herald its historic relevance to the times and draw comparisons to Stevie Wonder’s heyday. In a year when Black Lives Matter protests were callously marginalized by Bill O’Reilly as “a radical group… not all that different from the Black Panther movement", Lamar’s angry album was as politically and culturally relevant as Bob Dylan’s finger-pointing songs of the 1960s and To Pimp a Butterfly became a timely soundtrack to the media’s sound bites of white cops shooting black teenagers.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as some other things I listened to this year, but it’s relevance to what’s happening in America is impossible to ignore.

6.      BC Camplight “How to Die In the North” (Bella Union). After two forgotten piano-based CDs that were ignored by fans and critics alike, New Jersey native Brian Christinzio moved to Manchester in the north of England and quietly went to work on this quirky, gorgeous record. “Bold, campy, heartbreaking and flush with moxie, Christinzo’s third outing is a left-field gem, an indie rock distillation of ‘60s and ‘70s chamber pop tropes that prefers Nilsson over Newman, Todd Rundgren over Lennon and McCartney,” is how James Monger’s review for the All-Music Guide review put it. “You Should have Gone to School" and “Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” best showcase the songwriter’s considerable humor and charms.

7.      Mbongwana Star. “From Kinshaha” (World Circuit) If you liked “Kongotronics” by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you’ll appreciate this Republic of Congo collective called Mbongwana Star. Employing the same “thumb pianos” as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios back in the 1950s, the recording has a live quality to it that makes it bristle with visceral power. Imagine you’re standing on a crowded street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big thing to come out of Africa and you’ll have a clue. “Malukayi”, one of the strongest cuts, features Konono.

8.      Father John Misty. “I Love You, Honey Bear.”  (Sub Pop). Josh Tillman’s second solo effort reeks of Left Coast hipster irony and white boy L.A. cynicism. Don’t let that scare you away. Think of Glenn Frey and Don Henley ooh-wooing their way through a Jackson Browne cover for an early Eagles’ album and you’ll know the well-produced studio charms of Father John’s sound. The sexually-frank bedroom details of his personal life might provide a tad too much information for the weak of heart, but so did the disintegration of Browne’s marriage back in the mid-1970s when “Late for the Sly” and “The Pretender” became classics. Like Jackson, Josh is a troubadour of the map of the heart.

9.      Waxahatchee. “Ivy Tripp.” (Merge)  Sleater-Kinney got better press and their “No Cities to Love” CD has landed on a lot of “best of the year” lists, but for my money “Waxahatchee” was the cleaner and more listenable feminist manifesto. A native of Alabama but a resident of Philadelphia, Katie Crutchfield put together a collection of songs that plumbs her past and uses the raw material of failed relationships for fodder in ways that even Carrie Brownstein would admire. “Breathless” and “La Loose” showcase Crutchfield’s fuzzy guitar rumblings, a hallmark of the album.

10.  Joanna Newsom. “Divers” (….) After keeping fans waiting five long years for her 2015 release,  Newsom finally delivered another terrific album. Newsom’s strength is an ability to create a world that seems entirely her own vision but that gives her fans access to a place of mysticism and renewal as frequently as they go to church (but that probably offers them a more uplifting experience). If Loreena McKennitt is your cup of mull, you should take a dive into “Divers.”

1    In alphabetical order, these ten records were in heavy rotation in my car stereo during the year and came close to making this 2015 list of favorite recordings. Brandi Carlisle, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”; The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”;  Patti Griffin, “Servant of Love”;  Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Ruffian’s Misfortune”; Jason Isbell, “Something More than Fire,” Kacey Musgraves, “Pageant Material”; James McMurtry, “Complicated Life”;  Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”; Satellite Hearts, “Desire  Forces the Flow”;  and Tame Impala, “Currents”. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Agnes G. Bauerlein, February 12, 1928 to November 26, 2015: an appreciation

On Oct. 2, 2010, my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at a large family reunion in Lancaster county. That day, I read this testimonial to my mother.  Agnes passed away peacefully in her sleep yesterday at 1:15 p.m. in her 24 hour care facility in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My sister Heidi and my brother Mark were with her at the time. The family is holding a small (family only) ceremony for her in Wisconsin tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 28. We will hold a much larger celebration of her life in a month or so here in the Philadelphia area, once arrangement are made. Thanks to all of you who kept her in your thoughts and prayers these last few weeks as word went our that my mother was nearing the end of her life.  And thank you again for reading this.

"Cheers to you, Mom!"

It goes without saying that most young men love their mothers and that their mothers become the template against which all other women are measured. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble finding the right one, Mom! You were just impossible to replace!

It finally dawned on me – just how special you are, and how difficult it would be to find someone like you to spend a life with – when an old friend who’s never met you read my Mother’s Day story from the Inquirer Magazine and said how touched he was to read that story. He told me it must be hard to live with a mother who is a saint. He was right about that. It was hard then and it still is hard today. It is hard because you set the bar so high. You and Dad really demanded greatness of us. None of us achieved that, of course. Not yet. I keep waiting for Mark to outshine us all when his graphic novel hits the best seller’s list. Here’s the working title: “My Abusive Childhood: Collective Memories Growing Up Catholic at Kidzaplenty Place”

We know how hard you worked. Just the daily routine of taking care of such a large home and feeding 11 children was exhausting to witness. And coming into the second floor bathroom every morning and seeing three or four piles of laundry that awaited you, was a constant reminder of all the work to be done while we were off in school. That work alone, in a house as large as ours, should be enough to get the beatification process started in Rome. Mother Teresa started out in life as an Agnes, too. Did you know that?

We remember the sacrifices you made for us. We all made them, too! We sacrificed our appetites when we were fed macaroni and cheese once a week, or liver and onions twice a month; or broccoli stalks and brussel sprouts and blood-red beets and other inedible vegetables we hated but that you knew we needed. We remember how you fed a family of 11 for years on a $60 grocery allowance. We always hoped for spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausages, and, despite how much work that took, we were fed that meal more than any other because you knew how much we all we all loved your sauce.

We remember seeing you stooped over the family sewing machine, sewing missing buttons on our shirts or hemming hand-me down pants from the Hopkinson boys or mending torn kneecaps and holey socks or making the girls dresses or even sewing clothes for their baby dolls, doing all you could to ensure we were not dressed like street urchins out of a Dicken’s novel. You might think all that work was God’s penance for having such a large family, but we tend to think you were doing God’s will. There’s grace in performing those mundane motherly tasks that all mothers do and you earned a ton of it, Mom.

We remember the stories you told us growing up in Holland. We experienced first hand a treasure trove of those Dutch customs every Christmas. The time you spent in the kitchen making saucijsbrooges and stollen, and separating each and every piece of a dozen grapefruits with the curved edge of a grapefruit knife and then sprinkling sugar on top. We remember the tales of Black Peter putting coal in stockings and of the Dutch songs you would sing to us in words we couldn’t understand but that delighted us anyway because they always made you laugh when you finished them. We all remember the way you and dad turned Christmas day into a never-ending event of good vibrations by making us sit as a pajama collective in a wide circle and unwrap our gifts individually, one at a time. It stretched that glorious holiday out for hours.

Only rarely did any of us get the present we most wanted, but none of us has forgotten the experience of those Christmases past or forgot how much they brought us close as a family. We learned then to appreciate the things that really matter in life. Some of us went to our friends’ homes on Christmas afternoon to play with their shiny new Erector sets or slot car tracks or their Lionel trains or to play with their soft, new Care Bears or My Little Ponies or their shiny and leggy Barbie Dolls. We likely wished we had those presents too.

But I know none of us would ever trade the lessons we learned about the real meaning of Christmas for the neighbor’s presents. All of us wish we could bottle those Christmas mornings and sell them to the rest of America. Not because it would have made us fortunes, but because it would have made us all rich in love and people everywhere would thank us for sharing those wonderful vibes of sheer joy. You earned some heavenly points there, too, Mom.

You made all of the holidays special in some way. We all remember your incredible pies at Thanksgiving we somehow forgot to save room for but devoured anyway; the painted Easter eggs at Easter we hunted in the vast uncut openness of the spring front lawn; the costumes you made at Halloween. Points, points, more heavenly points.

You were a Queen among moms. And I suspect my friend from Loyola knew all of this when he made his comment to me about what a saint you were. But that’s not really what he was talking about. When he mentioned how difficult it must be to live with a mother destined for sainthood, he was talking about your courage, your willingness to show the world of powerful men that mothers count too; that the opinion of mothers was what got politicians elected and that they should be held accountable for their decisions, especially when their governments ask America’s mothers to send their sons and daughters off to foreign lands to protect the nation’s economic interests.

You wanted them to take their oaths of office as seriously as you took your own responsibilities as a mother. You knew that the lives of American youth was too high a price to pay to fight unnecessary wars. You knew that the very idea of war was something people had to start to question. You knew that “Question Authority” was not some trite political slogan but a social responsibility all citizens have. I never personally knew anyone who was willing to go to jail for this just cause, Mom. Until you did. You showed us all that one person could make a statement of goodness and purpose with her life; that in fact, there is no higher purpose in life than that: to try to speak the truth and to embrace life itself and all its goodness.

I don’t think too many of us ever really understood or appreciated the toll those actions took on you, Mom; on your marriage and on your relationship with your siblings. But God knows. And he loves you very much for those sacrifices and maybe we are all a little bit jealous of you for that. That’s probably what my friend was thinking of when he told me how hard it must be to have a saint for a mother. It’s hard because none of us possess the same amount of fortitude to follow our hearts as you do. We look up to you for a wide variety of reasons, most of all for showing us how to love our own children, and we emulate you and honor you and we sing your praises in birthday cards and in anniversary parties like this. But we find it impossible to follow in your footsteps and place our personal freedom at risk to live a life of conviction.

All of this is just prelude to a moment we shared together. You and I. You probably won’t remember it, but I can’t ever forget it. It held for me the secret of who you are and why you did what you had to do when you took on the government and the war machine and the arms dealers. I knew in my heart I would write about this moment some day. All of us have some very private and special moment with you we hold sacred, Mom. This is mine.

I had gone with you and some of the siblings to the Schretlen family reunion in Holland in 1988. It was July and I was leaving my job soon at the newspaper in Virginia and I was coming home soon to start my teaching job at West Chester. Isabel turned one during the week I was away in Holland, so the trip cost me the experience of sharing her first birthday.

One day the Schretlen clan planned an afternoon trip to your parish church. It was centuries old, made of old brown stones from some local quarry. As we walked into the interior of the church, it smelled musty and the sanctuary seemed smaller and darker than churches I was used to in America. The pews were made of an old hard, dark wood and the kneelers were worn. After 10 or so minutes, I followed you and one of my aunts up a small path towards a grove of tall trees, mostly pine. It looked like we were approaching a park. When we got to the summit of the hill, I was surprised to see a series of small plots of ground encircled by stone walls about three or four feet high. Initially, I thought they were small gardens. They were meticulously cared for and, because it was the middle of summer, all of them had a variety of blooming flowers in them, a blaze of color. Primroses, daffodils, irises, nasturtium, scarlet sage, sunflowers, violas, catmints, polyanthas, and foxgloves. It was as if I had stepped into a well-tended English arboretum.

It was stunning and peaceful, quiet except for a slight rustle of the tree branches and birdsong that filtered gently through the pines and leaves. I thought to myself I had found a small slice of heaven. But I couldn’t quite figure out why the garden was separated by these small stone walls and divided into plots. It was almost as if this sacred place were a 4-H competition…. each plot more meticulously planned and carefully tended than the next, as if someone were coming soon to judge them and one of them would win the gold medal.

Then we walked to a small plot that was less well tended. Flowers bloomed there too, but it hadn’t been weeded in quite some time. Soggy leaves left over from the last year’s fall were stuffed into corners of the stone walls and the lush, emerald grass was uncut, growing wild, several inches higher than the trimmed plots that surrounded it. I was puzzled and couldn’t understand why this one was different than the others. The overall effect of the place was one of serene, lush beauty, a place as alive as any I had ever been in. Even this untended plot had been lovingly cared for, but just not as recently as the others.

You and Aunt Celine stopped and looked around the plot and you both became quiet and respectful. When you looked down at the ground, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in a cemetery. And then you started crying. Very softly, as if you didn’t want to worry us or to interrupt our own thoughts. Then I finally realized where we were: at the grave site of your sister Mary and your brother, Bluffy. The aunt and uncle I had never met. And I knew that it had been a very long time since you had been back to visit them.

Maybe you were crying because of things you remembered about them. The shade of Mary’s ash blonde hair in her teenage youth or the way she sang to you to sleep at night. Or maybe you were thinking of Bluffy’s small and tender hands and they how they felt in your own fingers when you took him for a walk over the shady streets of your neighborhood. Maybe you were remembering back to that tragic day when the Americans were trying to drive the Nazi’s out of Nijmegen and they were killed by American bombs in an air raid. Maybe you were crying because there was no one from the immediate family left to take as good a care of their final resting place as the other cemetery plots were so lovingly cared for. Or maybe you were crying because you were afraid you might never come back to this serenely quite place, where your sister and brother would spend eternity, thousands of miles away from you and your other siblings.

I knew then Mom, why you did what you felt you had to do when you were breaking laws and going to jail and becoming the disgraced sister of your siblings, the family’s embarrassment to many of us. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I was coming to the burial plot of Lisa and Matt and their graves were so far away that I would not be able to leave flowers there or trim the grass and tend to their garden so others would feel welcomed there. I tried to understand the complex emotions you were feeling but I failed utterly to do so. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that much pain in my life and I hoped I never would.

The searing memory of those five or six minutes with you at that small plot of land surrounded by small stone walls has never left me. It made me understand so much about your desire to try to change the world, try to make it a better place; to do what little you could, as a single person, a mother and a grandmother, to eliminate the violence and the horror and the implicit, everlasting sorrow that reside in weapons of mass destruction. I am so very proud of you for that. And I feel more than a little shame that I have not yet been able to bear your torch and carry on the fight you so nobly waged against what President Eisenhower once called the “military industrial complex”.

You have set an example for all of us with your service to peace and justice,
Mom. And those minutes in the cemetery in Nijmegen at the graves of Mary and Bluffy told me all the reasons I ever needed to know about why you had to speak out about war.

And dad, I know you initially were reluctant to embrace mom’s acts of civil disobedience. It was more than an inconvenience to you…and I know how hard it must have been to field questions about mom’s behavior from her siblings. She didn’t ask you for your blessing when she went and got herself arrested. But I have to tell you, I never felt prouder to be your son when you fielded those questions gracefully and told the relatives how much you admired her and that she had a mind and will of her own and she was following her conscience. 

At that point, it finally seemed to me your marriage to Mom was one based on trust and respect. It seemed to me you had learned the hardest lesson of marriage one has to learn: how to adapt to your partner and support your partner when your partner’s life suddenly takes a course you never expected and that you don’t necessarily trust or approve of. Surely you turned to your faith in God in those moments and surely you heard God’s answer: that Mom’s work here on Earth was pretty darned important too and that you would have to make some personal sacrifices to adapt to Mom’s newfound purpose.

In those moments, it seems to me, you and mom really forged a marriage for the ages, one we honor here today. You have given us all more than a lifetime of love and blessings. You have shown us the meaning of personal sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. We are all so blessed to have you as our parents.

So in closing, Yes, I must agree with my old friend. It IS hard to live with a mother who is a saint. But I thank God mothers like you, mom, walk among us.

You inspire us to greatness and to accountability. That’s the best kind of work that parents can do. You both did your jobs very well. We all love both of you very much. 

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.