Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bookmarks for October/November 2005

The Call of Stories by Robert Coles. I have been reading this book a bit slowly, savoring the stories Coles tells of his days as an intern, psychologist, and professor and the impact that literature has had on the lives those he meets as well as on himself. More on this, I hope, next time. So far, I can say that I think this is fascinating book. I'm surprised it doesn't show up on more reading lists. It certainly should be read by all teachers of literature.

He Ain't No Bum by Bum Phillips and Ray Buck When I was young I loved to read biographies of interesting sports figures. I remember liking Bum Phillips though I've always been a Cowboy fan, having respect for him for what he had done to make Oilers winners, but also because football seemed just a little more interesting with him around.

But this is not really a biography, and though it does have its moments, it really isn't all that interesting despite its colorful subject. The book is filled with vignettes about Phillips, mostly covering the time he took over as coach of the Oilers through the celebrated season that ended with them getting trounced by the Steelers in the playoffs. Frankly the material covering his career before coaching the Oilers is the most intriguing, but there is precious little of that.
Instead, readers are treated to little stories where some sort of "witticism" or supposedly humorous observation as punch line. With each small tale, Buck treats the reader to his own banal murmurings about whatever he has just told us Phillips said or did. Frequently, Buck repeats that Bum is honest or forthright or simple in a world that seems to value those virtues's opposites. In addition, the book is badly written, with a prose style that might be good if Buck was a sophomore in high school. But at the time this book was published (1979), Buck was writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Instead of showing Bum Phillips as a wise man who has lived through his share of rough times and worked hard to earn his victories or a man who has met life's struggles with calm and humor, He Ain't No Bum makes the man looking like a doddering, rambling hick who now and then manages to emit a smart phrase. The book might be valuable for sports scholars looking for information about good coaches, but those scholars would have to be the very disciplined kind that who can pour through tedium in order to get gold.

Poetry magazine. Okay, I've been slowly making my way through the most recent editions. My favorite poems have been by C.K. Williams, Stephen Dunn, and a couple by Amit Majmudar. I must recommend an essay by Mary Karr entitled "Facing Alters: Poetry and Prayer." Though my vision of God may be a bit different from Ms. Karr's, I found her essay honest and compelling. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this honesty is what real religion should be all about. In a world where so many people want to define religionn in general and Christianity in particular with ideas not biblical, but personal, I think Karr's piece is a breath of fresh wind to struggling souls like me. This essay is also a subtle argument for not only the reading of poetry as pastime or academic pursuit, but because of emotional and spiritual needs that are unlikely to be met any other way.

I also would like to recommend you check out this little piece first published in 1926 by Harriet Monroe, founder of this magazine. It is a timely comment on the Christmas season.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Music Notes for October/November 2005

Walter Beasley’s For Her disc isn’t terrible in the sense that one can’t listen to it. It is terrible in the sense that once one has listened, it has made no impact other than giving the impression that forty-five minutes have gone by without silence. The album is standard smooth jazz fare with is "nice" in its way, but not distinctive or even interesting.

The project also is guilty of doing what so many smooth jazz radio stations do. It contains vocal tracks that are really R&B songs with a sax solo. The title song, with its repetition of "I will....for her," is particuarly vapid.

Kurt Rosenwinkel's Deep Song reminds me a bit of Works For Me by John Scofield. Both contain lush, well crafted songs played by excellent guitarists supported by a cast of big names in jazz (starting with Brad Mehldau on piano and Joshua Redman on sax). But there the similarity ends. Rosenwinkel's disc is his own. The disc opens with the haunting "The Cloister," a tune that shows what right with jazz. I'm particularly impressed with Redman and Rosenwinkel's interaction here as the song reaches its peak at the end. "Brooklyn Sometimes" demonstrates Rosenwinkel's fluid playing, a la Metheny. Here one might miss Larry Grenadier's fine work at the drum kit, so this tune, like so many others on the album, will need repeated listenings to uncover its many layers of beauty. "The Cross" is a groovy, fun piece with a Redman solo that segues nicely into the main melody before Rosenwinkel takes over with a firey, sung over solo. Then there is the melody again before Redman and Rosenwinkel trade licks to an ending that feels so natural it is scary. Next is the ballad "If I Should Lose You."
Alex Acuna and the Unknowns: Thinking of You.This disc might be popular with the smooth jazz crowd, but I do think it is better than that. I've been interested in Acuna since I first heard him with Koinonia (an underappreciated group I very much with still played together). I'm not sure this album is as solid as any of their projects, and it may disappoint fans of Weather Report (another great band Acuna played for). However, it does have some fine moments, and is well worth listening to. It is a shame that I found it in the bargin bin. The disc deserves better treatment.

Last, I must make a note about the performance I went to by Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas. Their annual holiday concert this year was entitled "Fall Into Winter" and presented at the nearly full Meyerson. The selections of Christmas and holiday pieces should be a model for future programs. Each choir performed nearly flawlessly. If all holiday music was like this, then people wouldn't get bored so quickly.

Sports Notes for October/November 2005

So who was picking the Cowboys? I'm sure a handful of people thought the Cowboys would beat Philly last Monday, but with four minutes to go thought that McNabb and the Eagles were finally playing as they should have been, and sticking it to child star Terrill Owens by playing like a complete team and winning without and despite his theatrics. But Dallas hung in there, not always playing well, but still keeping themselves in the game, and won on a couple of exciting plays (at least from the standpoint of the Dallas fan).

But do sportswriters and analysts give the Cowboys credit? Not much they didn't. The next day, more energy was spent on the mistake the Eagles made in throwing, particularly in that area at that time of the day, than on Roy Williams brilliant play not only to make the interception, but to disguise his coverage. Precious little was said about Bledsoe's fantastic pass just minutes before. I heard a little, but not much except about the Eagles blowing it.

This wouldn't bother me so much, but when the Cowboys lost to the Redskins, I also didn't hear or read much about how Dallas dominated the game. I'm sure there isn't really an anti-Dallas bias (except perhaps from some Dallas media figures), but the discrepancy sure does lend credance to the idea that maybe some can't stand for the Cowboys to be considered good.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sports Notes for September/October 2005

Predictions anyone?

Baseball. Of course I'm glad the Yankees are out of it. But I don't want to see Torre fired. I do expect egos to get in the way and Steinbrenner will likely either dump the best manager he has had or make it nearly impossible for him to do his job well next season.

How 'bout dem Cowboys? You better believe I'm happy to see my Cowboys beat up on Philly. I don't expect it to happen next time (unless Detmer is at quarterback). Don't give me that McNabb wasn't healthy. It pains me to say it, but a McNabb that is half dead is probably better than what they have otherwise. Even with this "sports hernia," he's better than most quarterbacks in this league. And the man can lead a team. I'd have been happier had the Dallas defense kept spoiled Eli Manning out of the end zone, but I'll take the ugly win.

Bummed about
Flo being out. Crayton, who has been playing pretty well, is going to miss some games too, but we have to wait and see. I guess Price will see some action soon.

Hockey. Hockey is back. I'm still pissed that Bertuzzi is playing. Watching the Canucks whip my Stars the other night made me think that the NHL wants this franchise to do well. The inconsistencies in the calls were startling, particularly concerning incidents where blood was drawn. Watch for Vancouver to fare better than their talent deserves.

College athletes: an oxymoron? I have to confess that I temporarily lifted my boycott of college sports to watch most of the Notre Dame/USC game. And it was a great game to watch. I just wish that when it was all over, I could have forgotten that most college athletes, especially in football and basketball, are spoiled semi-professional ballplayers whose interest in education exists only in the minds of parents foolish enough to believe the recruiting pitch. Speaking of which, I can't help but remember that this Irish team is made up of Willingham's recruits, not Weiss's. What is the difference? I suspect that Weiss's team will get in less trouble over going to class (something Willingham was criticized for).

Speaking of class...I have a proposal. Take every athlete playing in college and hand him or her a sheet of paper. On that paper instruct the athlete to list each one of his/her courses for the present semester. Have them write down what the time and location are for class meetings. Ask them what grade they believe they have in these courses. Ask them to correctly identify their professors. Here is what I think will happen: 1) female athletes will more likely know their own schedules better than men because the culture does not yet exist where women are coddled by coaches and alumni and 2)football players will know less about their own schedules than other athletes (with basketball coming in a close second), over ten percent of the athletes will put their names on the survey and turn it in (some asking how much it is worth toward the final grade).

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bookmarks for August/September 2005

With the semester starting, I seem to already be behind, so I'm combining some thoughts on the what I've been reading to cover two months...

Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa (1988). A few years ago, I read Neon Vernacular and was immediately a fan of Komunyakaa. As I was piecing together the syllabus and assignments for my American Lit class, I decided I needed to read this book to try to let it impact me as it did readers when it first came to the attention of poetry lovers.

This volume should be required reading for anyone studying the literature of the Vietnam War. The much anthologized "Facing It" is one of most powerful pieces I've read about the Memorial Wall and the many issues and problems soldiers dealt with and continue to deal with. The poem's placement in the collection is key. Reading the poem in an anthology will have, I presume, an impact on readers. However, since Dien Cai Dau reads like a diary or journal of the experience, I think readers are likely to have a stronger reaction.

The verse is accessible and pulls no punches. It needs no tricks to shock the reader, and it does not rely on its subject matter to carry the emotional weight. This is also a book that leaves politics to the politicians, though in a way that does not ignore the subject, but allows the personal to become universal. No matter where one stands on this war, or even on the subject of poetry, Dien Cai Dau is a must read for any American.
Life Studies by Robert Lowell (1959). In the "Groundbreaking Books" section of the Academy of American Poets website is an nice introduction to this volume. After reading this short article and a couple other notes about Lowell, I read all his poems in an old textbook I had at the house this summer. Then I made up my mind to look at this whole book, and I'm very glad I did.

Life Studies is a rather personal book, one that might be partially responsible for the so called "confessional" sub-genre in American letters. However, one doesn't need to know Lowell or even sympathize with his various problems to find something meaningful in this book. (An exception to this might be Part Two, and long prose section entitled "91 Revere Street." I found this piece quite interesting, but I could see how it might not be to the liking of the average reader.)

One problem with the Confessional poets is that their works are so filled with emotional outbursts and supposedly "honest" feelings about people close to the writer, that readers are often left out of the experience. One is expected to vicariously experience events in the poet's life. Sometimes the subject matter is supposed to be enough for us to be interested in and empathize with the poet. I think good poetry stands on its own no matter who the writer him/herself is. This is why Life Studies is such an important book. One does not have to have a domineering mother or sometimes weak father or have been born into the same socio-economic class as Lowell to "get" what is going on here. One does not have to suffer from depression (or know someone who is depressed) to understand the pain and anxiety addressed here. (However, I do have some sense that reading this book may shed some light for those who wish to understand the disease more.) This is particularly apparent in the moving "Home After Three Months Away" and "Memories of West Street and Lepke."

One might also note Lowell's social and political commentary, as in "Inauguration Day: January 1953" and "Words for Hart Crane."

The Broker by John Grisham (2005). I was given this book as a Father's Day present, and finally got around to reading it. If you are looking for something that is entertainment only, this novel is okay...at least until a more compelling one comes along. I found the idea for the story very interesting, but the story itself is not plausible. The Broker is about Joel Backman, a man who is given a presidential pardon he does not ask for and does not deserve. He is taken to Italy, presumably to protect him from the many people and nations that want him dead. However, the real reason is so the CIA can see who kills him first. Somehow this murder is supposed to provide the CIA with information they need, enough to go through the trouble of whisking a convict across the globe, giving him a new identity, and teaching him a new language. The basic story of the main character trying to save his life was interesting, but I could not buy into the premise.

The book does not contain, for me, as much drama as I've come to expect from Grisham thrillers. The protagonist is a guy people want to kill, and I was pretty sure he'd get away, but the story is bogged down with conversations in coffee houses and at historic sites with agents and tutors. I had the impression that Grisham took a nice vacation in Italy and wrote a novel with this setting so he could write the trip off as a working expense. The novel is enjoyable, but nothing to get excited about.

Next month: Two issues of Poetry magazine and The Call of Stories by Robert Coles.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Music Notes for August 2005

Here are some of the things I've been listening to in the month of August:

Live at Budokan by Dream Theater (2004). This is a fine recording of their set during the Train of Thought tour. Three discs, impeccably produced, once again demonstrating the band's massive storehouse of energy and musicianship. "Instrumedley" is a fun tune, and it was great to hear the house come down with "Pull Me Under."
Unspeakable by Bill Frisell (2004). Mr. Frisell's Grammy winner should delight people who like contemporary jazz and even a few who would not normally taste a soundbyte of America's music. I've long admired Frisell's playing and ability to weave elements of other genre's in his music. Samples and turntables are used tastefully, never overpowering the skillful playing or delicate compositions. It is hard to pick standout cuts, but my personal favorites are "1968" and "Alias." Of course if you ask me next month, I'll likely have different songs at the top.

Fly By Night by John Adams (1999). I have had the privilege of watching John perform several times with either his group or with Mike Drake. He is fun for me to watch because without drawing attention to himself, a listener gets the sense that all is right in the musical world, that a group, or even an audience, would be very different without him. This 1999 collection shows his fluid and sensitive style. He has a fine group with him as well: Dennis Dotson on trumpet, Joe LoCascio at the piano and Ed Soph on drums. Here is a nice mix of standards and original tunes. If you are ever in the Dallas area looking for some fine jazz, you have to check this man out.

Up All Night by The John Scofield Band (2003). I love Scofield's fuzzy and funky guitar. And even when he plays something that goes away from the elements of his signature sound, Like Quiet, Works For Me, or Enroute, I find the music feels right on the first hearing and grows better every play. But for some reason, I'm having trouble getting into this.

Sorry the thoughts are so short this month, but its been busy...not too much work to listen to music, but certainly too much to give hard working musicians their due by listening well. Hopefully I can do better next month. I'm hoping to rave about Kurt Rosenwinkel, an old Weather Report disc I finally got, a compilation of Charlie Hunter tunes, and an interesting treasure from Alex Acuna.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Summer Sports Notes

So while I've been lounging around the house this summer, I've noticed a few things happened in the world of sports. Here's a few thoughts:

Little Boy Green. I have always hated the Philadelphia Eagles, and when Mr. Owens signed with them, I had all the more reason to do so. People use the word "distraction," "disruptive," and sometimes "distasteful" to describe this person. I say epitomizes all that is wrong in the world of sports. He used the phrase "be a man" in his invitation to have his coach do what he wants. He tells people "I'm a grown man" as some sort of excuse for being allowed to behave as he does. Mr. Owens is not a man; he is a child. He is like a spoiled teenager whose hormones and impulses drive his thoughts and actions.

And he was given a timeout by the Eagles, a move I heartily applaud. But he has been coddled enough. When (not if) he throws his next tantrum or his next prank, this team and the league need to send him to his room until he realizes he isn't the only person on the planet and that he and football can survive just fine letting others have attention. That or send him, in his infamous fatigues, to Brat Camp.

(I refused to call him "T.O." because nicknames and cute shortened versions of one's name lend an air that he is actually important.)

The right to remain silent. What seems to have been lost in all the rhetoric here is that Rogers was harangued by people for some time before he blew his stack and injured men doing their jobs (sort of). Mr. Rogers should not have attacked these men; however, everyone has a breaking point and given his circumstance we should be surprised he held his temper so long.

Further, the incident has brought me back to a problem I've noticed throughout sports. Why must an athlete or coach talk to anyone? Dale Hanson, among others, whined long before the violence about Rogers's refusal to talk to the media. Could it be that much of the anger had come from reporters initially, and not from Rogers?

Sports fans should notice that often players and coaches are fined for not speaking to the press, and not just when they refuse to participate in special media days (another odd idea--everyday is Media Day) or autograph sessions. I'm sure in most cases, it is good PR to speak to the media who can easily hurt a man's career (right Mr. Switzer? right Mr. Reeves?). However, what is the rationale for forcing players and coaches to give their usually banal thoughts?

A little juice, Mr. Palmero? I'm more than a little disappointed the Rafael Palmero has not only tested positive for steroids, but that he lied so much and so long about it. He should probably quit trying to convince us that there was some sort of accident and that he is going to discuss "his side of the story." Unless his side is to tell the truth (including why he seems to have lied so vehemently to Congress, a moment that strikes me as being like gangsters shooting other gangsters for being gangsters), I'm not sure anyone is going to be listening except to find more soundbytes for talk radio hosts and comedians to skewer. Otherwise, just shut up.

Does anyone remember Steve Moore? Hockey is back, and none too soon. I am excited that soon I will be able to watch slap shots and hear the scrape of blades on ice. But wait a minute! Bertuzzi gets to return to play after serving only twenty games. Why this guy isn't living out the next ten years in prison followed by an exciting career sacking groceries is beyond my comprehension. Both Commissioner Gary Bettman and the Players Union should be ashamed for letting this happen. I'm also taken aback that Wayne Gretsky supports the decision, noting that he is happy Bertuzzi will now be available to play for Team Canada.

Bertuzzi will earn 5.2 million dollars this year while Steve Moore will struggle to walk normally. If we can't get rid of Bertuzzi, how about a clause that states Moore's family gets at least half of Bertuzzi's salary until Moore can play again?

The most popular sport an afterthought. Just thought I'd throw in a thought that while the U.S. National Team is poised to go back the World Cup, and this team may be even stronger than last, the sport of soccer still gets little or no press. Most of the local media coverage for FC Dallas has been over the new stadium, not the actual games. I know that soccer is not the most popular sport in the United States (most who even mention it on talk radio do so in derision), but how much broadcast time does Mr. Owens really need?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Music notes for July 2005

So I got a couple "new" discs from my CD club and have been listening to them lately.
Whisper Not by Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette (2000). Many who read my writing will note that I am particularly drawn to Keith Jarrett's music. I think it must be the intense, but controlled, emotion in his playing that makes me almost need this music. This two disc set, recorded in Paris, makes me wish all the more that I could see his "Standards" trio in person. The group moves quite naturally between bebopping numbers like the opening "Bouncing With Bud" and ballads such as the closer, "When I Fall In Love." I'm not sure why, but I really love "Poinciana," which earns its groove with skillful, emotive playing rather than tricks. I prefer to listen to this disc with the next selection in a playlist on my computer so I can have a few hours of uninterrupted bliss.

The Out-of-Towners by Jarrett, Peacock, DeJohnette (2004). I have heard a few of these pieces on KNTU, most notably the title track and "It's All In The Game" since the disc's release, and have looked forward to hearing the whole thing. I am certainly not disappointed; however, I do wonder why this isn't also a two disc-set. I feel as if I'm getting highlights from a terrific concert. I keep wanting more. Every cut is a winner. The trio plays like one might expect from three men who have been listening to each other for decades, but who have the energy of musicians just starting out.

I do wish to comment briefly on the fact that these discs have no liner notes. I suppose I can live without more pontificating prose, but something in me wants more to read. However, it is more important perhaps to let the music speak for itself.

As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays (1980). I had heard this album before and enjoyed it as much as the group recordings from this time period, however I had not listened much to it. A few weeks ago, on the way to visit someone in the hospital, I heard the title track. Well most of it. The song is over twenty minutes long, so I didn't get to the end. I couldn't remember for sure which disc it was on, a problem furthered by the fact that I probably first heard this song on Travels, one of the best live albums I've heard. Most of this disc is made up of the title track, a 20 plus minute opus that prefigures what we have twenty-five years later with The Way Up. This is an exciting and thoughtful composition, highlighting both virtuoso players. Nana Vasconcelos's percussion and vocal work is excellent. One can see why Metheny and Mays have used, in their group and in their solo projects, great percussionists. I remember hearing "September Fifteenth" on the Imaginary Day Live DVD and "'It's For You'" is featured in Metheny's Rarum: Selected Recordings disc. This is a must particularly for fans of Metheny's group works. (Now if we could get the duo to a release of acoustic duets as they have done on tour.)

Weather Report's Live and Unreleased. Critics have faulted this two-disc work with being uneven. It does juxtapose recording from different sets between 1975 and 1983 in what seems to be a haphazard collection rather than placing the cuts in chronological order. Perhaps if I was a more astute listener or musician, I would be bothered by this. Perhaps I need to listen closer. I enjoyed these quite a bit, however. I worried that this would have a bootleg quality that would belie the sound that never gets old or dated for me. I hear this and wish I'd been listening to jazz when this group was still together (I'm already sad that I never got to see Jaco Pastorius in any setting.).

What does trouble me about this is the omission of two of Weather Report's best songs, "Birdland"and "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Both of these are found on 8:30 a disc I haven't heard yet, but which gets pretty good reviews from fans of the group. The first song is probably their most popular and the second, one of my personal favorites, is even mentioned in the liner notes to this disc as being a breakthrough tune for the band. However, there is much to enjoy here and I'm likely to keep at it. I sure am thirsty to find 8:30 however.

For next month...Bill Frisell's Unspeakable and Live At Budokan by Dream Theater.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Bookmarks for July 2005

Have been looking at a smattering of things this month, taking a bit of my cue from my Mom who likes to alternate light books with heavy ones.

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. Found a first edition of this book at a little garage sale in Mineola when visiting my brother John. Did not intend to read it right away, but having forgotten to bring the books I was reading, and not able to sleep one night, I started it.

So far I haven't seen the movie version of this book, but from the commercials, I sense the film is supposed to be a comedy. This book does have its funny moments (It is somehow hard to keep from laughing at a man hanging upside down by an extension cord), but it seems that Grisham wanted the story to be somewhat serious, at least in the beginning. I was mostly interested in seeing how the Krank family was going to get through not doing the usual, material, Christmas thing. The book was a fun read, but a little disappointing. The story seems a bit uneven and some of the prose needs a little polish. On the other hand, watching Luther Krank rebel against his neighbor's and then find the power of community (however heavy handed) was enjoyable, a nice Christmas in July present.

The June issue of Poetry. Okay, I was a bit slow on this one. But I have a tendency to read this magazine in no particular hurry. I actually started it last month and finished in July.

Some of the poems in this issue baffle me, even with re-reading, and a couple seem, to be blunt, too average for what many consider the premier publication of verse. However, I must be honest: I feel that way about pretty much every journal or poetry magazine I encounter.

I have noticed that much of the space in Poetry is devoted to essays and reviews. Though many reviews are perhaps unnecessarily harsh, and most essays repeat the lament of how too much modern poetry comes from the universities, I do find snippets that are interesting to read.

The July/August issue of Poetry. This is the once a year issue devoted to humor. Garrison Keillor, a fan of good poetry (see his fascinating anthology), once told Larry King that one thing missing from American poetry is humor. I am inclined to agree. So it is refreshing to me to find that one of the most prestigious publications in letters devotes its double issue the subject. And here we find humor fit for a variety of tastes. I honestly did not get all of it, but that didn't bother me. Most of the poems were enjoyable and not "light" in the sense of being an easy to read source of momentary chuckles. There were a few disappointments (notably parts of Richard Wilbur's poem, but mostly because I think he is a better poet that some of this suggests). On the whole, this was a good read.
I have mixed feelings about the prose material. I'm glad to see that Poetry doesn't, at least for one issue, take itself too seriously, and even pokes a bit of fun at the pretensions of the community. Particularly interesting, as well as funny, is Kay Ryan's "I Go To the AWP." The piece is probably depressingly insightful for those who are hoping to make their way into the "business" of writing poetry. Dean Young's fake reviews were quite humorous. These and Michael Lewis's "How To Make A Killing From Poetry" struck me as satire that is easily could be mistaken for real criticism.
Three volumes by Wallace Stevens. Stevens himself admitted late in life that he seemed to write for a rather limited audience. I felt I might not be in that audience, but I must admit that I might not have been reading in the right frame of mind. Usually it was late at night and I was tired; therefore, I may have hurt my best chances to be edified in some way by his well-crafted verse.
Harmonium (1923, 1931) was Stevens's first book. It contains his most well known , and I think most powerful, poems. While Ideas of Order (1936) had some moving and interesting passages, I was felt lost most of the time. The Man With The Blue Guitar (1937) was fascinating one moment and infuriatingly dense the next. I am taken by the theme of imagination's importance; however, I may need to look at these volumes at a later date, a date I could bring more of my own imagination to the task.
Presently reading: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Perhaps next month I can give a fuller report of this book. For now, know that I consider Merton to be one this country's most neglected poets. I have no evidence to this fact, but I suspect that one reason more is not known about him and why he is not anthologized is that he is a hopeful poet during a time of literary history marked by themes of doubt and alienation. Anyway, should I manage to make my way through this huge book, I'll try to write about it next month. In the meantime, I do recommend this poem, "Aubade: Lake Erie" at the Academy of American Poets website and his Selected Poems.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Art in my study

My study is ornamented with art from my children, mostly Christina, who deems herself the artist. But all my children draw and create marvelous things that make this space mine.

This mask hangs between a painting of a boy and girl holding hands and another of hearts within hearts. I think she took the picture of it too.

Perhaps I should look for prints of famous works. I can easily see the kids doing this in their rooms as they get older. I doubt I'll change much, except to add some new works as they mature and create. Who can fail to find a voice amidst so much love?

Here I have books and paper and, when necessary, a computer. The walls remind me of the difference between solitude and solitary confinement.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bookmarks for June 2005

Well, since school got out, I've been doing a bit of reading despite being busy with family stuff. Here's a few thoughts on what I've looked at so far:

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden. I really like the idea for this book, but it is a bit too new age-y for me. Hodgsen has selected some fine pieces, well worth reading on their own. I suggest, should you read the book, that you read each poem, then its corresponding chapter, then the poem again before going on to the next chapter. The book is not really for self-help or devotional purposes, but it can work that way.

I once asked a friend, someone I consider very intelligent and centered, why he read so many self-help books. He said that now and then he got a nugget of helpful information or advice. When I said that it did not seem worth the trouble read so much for the mere possibility of a small amount that might be useful, he noted that reading them just made him feel a bit better about himself. Ten Poems to Change Your Life is the sort of book that one might read in just that way. It encourages, it seems, the reader to see life as a journey that takes us to places we might not be comfortable with, but if we hang in there, we might see something good in ourselves and others. It is not my cup of tea, but I read it while I was particularly down, and I have to admit I felt a bit affirmed...sort of.

Ashes by Philip Levine. I think I read this book sometime when I was in college, but I don't remember. I have read a couple Levine books and several poems here and there in anthologies and journals. I've always been struck by Levine's rather down to earth, honest, poetry that does not have to be overly gritty or earthy (but isn't afraid to be when necessary). His work demonstrates that the poetic is what is part of real life, not that poetry is an escape from the real world.

The very first poem, "Father," knocks one down. It opens: "The long lines of diesels/groan toward evening/carrying off the breath/of the living." One sees that the poem's quiet anger is earned well before the punch of the final short line, "Don't come back." By the time we reach the last poem, "Lost and Found," the reader senses not resignation or bitterness, but a belief that some sort of connection can exist even in pain. This is the sort of affirmation, I think, we need -- imagination grounded in the universe we must inhabit, hope in just walking forward.
Unseen Rain by Rumi (translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks ). These are (mostly) quatrains written, as the translators note, during the middle part of Rumi's life, during and immediately after the deep friendship (is that the right phrase?) with Shams. The poems are certainly not like haiku, or even in the spirit of haiku, yet some of them do seem to read like haiku that just sits there saying little, expressing little. I don't mean that to be a criticism except that apparently, like haiku, one might need to be in a particular frame of mind to get out of the verses something more than the image or sentiment. That is not to say that the image or the well phrased sentiment isn't sufficient. I did find some pieces that were quite powerful, lines that helped me see why Rumi is so often quoted these days.

As an example of what I mean, let me give you the following: "I have lived on the lip/of insanity, wanting to know reasons,/knocking on a door. It opens./I've been knocking from the inside!" This little poem seems to contain a "message" (something I normally eschew). Yet I think there is something there worth noting, and perhaps something different to be gained or enjoyed if read in a different frame of mind.
John Coltrane by Bill Cole. Cole's book is part biography of the great sax player and part analysis of Coltrane's music and genius, particularly as a spiritual artist. Most of the discussion of Trane's music is way, way over my head, but I can see it benefitting serious students of music. I like best that Cole works to connect Trane's life, philosophy/religion, and jazz history. Thanks much to my daughter, Angela, for giving me this for Father's Day.

June has been a difficult month. But reading has been quite a solace for me. Here's to the joys of quiet and the pleasure of holding words in one's hands.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What are we teaching our kids about sportsmanship?

Last Saturday was the last game of the Spring season for my daughters' team, the Titans. Our girls lost the game 2-1 to a team that I believe is not as good as ours. I don't think we lost because of a biased ref or bad calls. I can't say we lost because our girls didn't put forth the effort it takes to win. There are many reasons our team did not win. One reason is that our girls (I am assistant coach) did not know how to handle the sort of tactics used by the opposing team, particularly their coaches. The other team's coach encourages his kids to knock people down, pinch and step on feet when the referee is not looking, and intimidate through words. These same coaches complained throughout the game when their own girls fell down or got bumped during the normal course of play. One coach said to one of our players, "Too bad you suck!" as she went down the sideline and after the game refused to shake hand with any coaches or players.

What we have here is a sort of disconnect between the I'm a victim and Win at all costs mentalities. I see this professional sports all the time and I remember running into these sorts of players and coaches when I was involved with sports. Perhaps there is a little of this in all sports fanatics. But when a coach of young people feels the need to act this way, especially toward young children, then something is very wrong. For these people, it is not the momentary lapse of reason that one has when supporting a team. This is a lifelong attitude.

I'm not sure what can be taught to kids on the other team unless their parents see the problem and step in. But I have to teach our girls, or at least try. And the lessons they learn from this experience cannot be taught in a locker room session or discussion at the next practice. Surely kids need to know such people exist, and they need tools to deal with them. I certainly was not prepared to give this lesson, though I knew they were poor sports.

A few games ago, I had a run in of sorts with a different opposing coach. Our girls were winning quite handily and he made some comments about running up the score. I snapped back at him something inappropriate. He yelled at me. I yelled at him. Our conversation got quite heated. I knew I crossed a line when a curse word came out of my mouth. I stepped back, but he was too upset to let it go...for the moment. The referee had to stop the game to tell us to focus and to consider the girls on the field (most of whom, I believe) did not even notice what was going on.

The next week, when tempers were cooled, this coach made an effort to come speak to me and to our other coaches and apologize. I did the same. We both recognized that we had lost sight of the reasons we were out there: the kids. I have a great deal of respect for this coach. His own frustration, I believe, came from what he perceived as a slight against his girls. He wants to win, but he wants more to see those girls get something positive out of the experience of playing soccer. And forgive the sexist comment, but he acted like a man, not only in apologizing, but in being gracious in accepting my apology. That he treated my team with the dignity and respect he expects others to treat his team, I think teaches my girls as well as his, some of the important lessons that show why sports itself can be valuable.

Awhile ago the coach of my daughter's team got very caught up in a game and spent a lot of time screaming at the kids, the referee, and others. This is a person who I respected, a man who had taught my girl a great deal and improved not only her play, but her self-esteem. After a time, he wrote an email to all the parents apologizing for his actions. At the next practice, he took each girl aside individually and apologized to them. That took guts I know most people don't have, but I will think of him every time someone like the jerk I mentioned above comes along. We always say, "It's all about the kids" and "People need to take responsibility for their actions." But here I saw it. I think it is obvious what these people teach not just to kids, but to all of us on the lifelong journey for self-improvement.

Monday, May 09, 2005

End of the semester notes (Spring 2005)

Well, it has been a busy semester. I realized that I haven't blogged since February, and I have some catching up to do. For now, I'd like to discuss a few things about education since I have spent so much of my time and energy on this.

Plagiarism. I have been plagued by students who, despite all they have been taught, and all that they should know, either believe they have not committed plagiarism or want to pretend that they didn't know. Am I to really believe this? I have had a few students this semester who will claim over and over that they have not done this even when I take the time to show them how portions of their papers are word for word what I have found on the net.

Know yourself (Or at least read the syllabus). In the past couple weeks, I have had conversations with students who claim they did not know they were failing. I am inclined to believe them. I have a policy I call the "Five Error Rule." Basically it means that if a student makes five mistakes that he/she should not make at whatever level, then the paper must be rewritten, usually after consultation at our Learning Assistance Center. Students usually have a week to perform this task. This seems to work a bit better than giving the opportunity to revise after the students earns an F, because under that system, half the students just dropped the course and of those that did not, only a few papers were revised. But this semester, I have had a few students who have ignored my sometimes many notes to revise their work. When asked why, some said they did not know I had made such a request. Some had not even checked their grades online. Some did and figured that as long as they occupied a seat in the class, I would not fail them. (Of course, I fail no one. They fail themselves.)

I blame three things for this problem. First, I think that our system of organized babysitting that we call public school encourages such notions. Even when a hard working and gifted and dedicated teacher works to make students accountable for their own lack of initiative or drive, that teacher is often hindered by policies that give students chance after chance to do screw around all year and still pull it out. Second, we have a culture that hammers home the idea that if a student does not think the work of a course is important, then she/he can put less effort into their tasks. This goes with the third problem: laziness. One study showed that 75% of college students cheat. When asked why, most of these students state that the courses they cheat in are merely hoops they must jump through, are not important, and they would rather do anything else than spend the time and energy it takes to write a paper or study for an exam.

Take responsibility for your apathy. I'm sure every teacher gets students near the end of the semester who suddenly seem intensely interested in the course when previously they have shown not only no concern, but often open hostility to learning. Some of these students look for extra credit to do at the end of the term though they have not turned in some of the major assignments. Many act surprised that they are failing. One student a week ago actually told me that he figured he'd pass if he kept showing up and turned in something for each assignment. This week I have had two students take an option final exam though it could not possible improve their grades. One of the students told me she figured I would not fail her if she did it.

Look, I cannot make a student care. I try to be accessible, understand and all that stuff. I try to help students value the experience of my class and the skills they should gain, but I can only do so much. We need to quit allowing students in public schools to blow off the majority of the year only to pull it out at the end. I told a student the other day, "If you do not care about the course, that's fine. But you need to be prepared for the consequences of your apathy."

Some students complain that I do not give a "review" of their tests. Of course, I do tell students what the format of their exams is and I remind them of what material will be covered. But I refuse to try to re-teach students material they have spent weeks ignoring. There is a reason I am required to be on campus and available many more hours per week than I am in class. There is a reason I have email and a phone. Why students, after they have done little or nothing, expect me to give them a break...and don't get me started on the "I've just never been good at English." One student told me this right after telling me she usually got A's and B's in high school. My answer: You are there to learn, not perform.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

This year's adventure in movies

Each year, my wife and I try to see as many of the five movies nominated for Best Picture before the Academy Awards. Often this means seeing as many of them as we can in a very short time period. In 1993, we saw three movies, including Schindler's List, in a single day/night. It can be exhausting, but usually is quite rewarding.

This year, partially due to the generosity of gift cards for movie and dinner from my daughter, we were able to see four of the five movies in a single weekend. We saw the fifth the evening before the Oscars. What follows are some brief thoughts on each film, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. Because I don't like ranking works of art, I'll remark about the movies in the order we watched them.

The first film we saw on Friday evening was Sideways. Of the four, I think this is my favorite movie. Perhaps this is an emotional reaction since I was quite surprised to like it. The commercials make the movie look, well, stupid. It is far from that. The performances are good and the writing sharp. After the "Why I Like Wine" scene, I thought that I'd just seen a very good example of how something becomes valuable to the point of near obsession even when one is not "doing it for a living." I don't know if that makes sense to someone who hasn't seen the movie. If not, then go see it and find out what I mean.

We left the comfortable seats of the Legacy in Plano and rushed over to the "dollar" movie in the same city to see Ray. (Can't tell you how disappointed I was to see the same five commercials I saw before the previous movie and only have one preview -- I do love those trailers!) Anyway, I thought this was a fine movie, very interesting, and certainly better than most bioflicks. Ray Charles does not come across as superman or as a twisted soul, but it seems we get an honest look at his struggle with addiction and his real genius as a musician and songwriter. The music, as one might expect, was great. That in itself might be worth the price of admission.

The following morning we returned the Legacy to see The Aviator. I am drawn to stories about tortured geniuses, and this film certainly fits. The movie was a bit long, but it covered a lot of ground. Hughes' famous phobia of germs was well documented, but I think my favorite scene in the movie was after Hughes spends considerable time locked away and is testifying before Congress. Alan Alda is nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this movie, and though he is marvelous, I don't think he was in enough of the movie to warrant the award.

Then we rushed to the movie theater in McKinney to see Million Dollar Baby. This is Clint Eastwood's opus. I did enjoy the movie quite a bit. The performances by Eastwood, Freeman, and Swank are all good. I guess I was surprised by the reaction. I was probably the only person who didn't cry rivers at the end. I don't agree with what Eastwood's character did, but I will say that the storytelling certainly earns that ending no matter what I think. (My philosophical objection, in other words, did not damage my view of the film as a piece of art.) When I most wanted to cry was when Swank's character is getting chewed out for buying her mother a house. Good movie. Not my favorite (or even my favorite Eastwood flicks), but a fine experience.

We did not see Finding Neverland until the day before the Academy Awards. I wish I had more to say about it. We took the kids thinking they would enjoy it because of the connection to Peter Pan, which my children love. They seemed to like it okay, but didn't get so excited. I enjoyed what I saw. I had to get up five different times during the movie to take kids to the bathroom or get some sort of snack. The movie is good, and I look forward to watching it again on video. I am glad, though I'm sure the kids didn't understand it, that the film does not shy away from the material about Barrie's marriage and his relationship with the children that inspired his play. I will add that my wife told me this was her favorite.

Well that's about it movie fans. Five good movies and I'm back in my cell. Maybe I'll get out during Spring Break and a couple times in the summer, but this is probably the highlight of my movie going time during the year. Ironically, I don't care for award shows, so I avoided watching them (that's more my wife's sort of thing). After Easter, I'll probably get back to my dish and see what's worth watching on video. Until then, happy viewing!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Thoughts from the cell -- volume 3

So much to write about, so little to say.

First weeks of Spring semester. It seems to have gone pretty well so far, at least with classes. Everyone seems reasonably happy. I have the usual problem with the bookstore ordering the right book for my a few of my sections, but perhaps a little less hostility this term. I'm grateful that the Wintermester schedule worked out so that I actually had a real weekend before reporting week. That helped a great deal.

Pinewood Derby. Max won first place for all the Tiger cubs, so Saturday was a pretty good day. Perhaps I'll get a picture up here soon. Max had a good time. Much thanks to Jim for help with the car.

Lent has arrived. So far, I'm keeping to my discipline. But the weekend may provide greater challenge.

Reading. Most recently read Walt McDonald's Blessings The Body Gave. I liked it very much. May write a review of it, but so far, I have not gotten around to it. Still going though The Spiritual Life Of Children by Robert Coles.

Writing. A couple poems. A non-fiction piece(s) on the subject of fear. A couple letters. Nothing earth shattering.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Brief reviews: Green/Malone, Nashville All-Stars, Pat Metheny Group

Was listening to: Jazz at the Bistro by Benny Green and Russell Malone (2003). I looked forward to hearing this. For some reason, I was just in the mood for some duet music, and really wanted to hear something between guitarist and pianist. I have mixed feelings about this disc. The music is pleasant enough. I like the mix of jazz standards, pop tunes and originals. As music to work or read by, this stuff is great. And I believe these two are terrific musicians. They collaborate well.

But this disc is, for me now, a bit disappointing. The songs seems arranged well, but there is little improvisation and little to excite the listener. And while I know the setting of this live disc is quiet and soft, there are some tunes that lack energy. A quiet tune can have plenty of energy, as these two have demonstrated.

As I stated, I think the disc is pleasant but not outstanding. I like the medley of "Killing Me Softly" and the old Bee Gees tune "How Deep Is Your Love." I really can't explain why I like it other than to say it comes off nicely.

A recent recommendation: I have my friend and colleague Glenn Clayton to thank for loaning me a most enjoyable collection called After the Riot at Newport (1960, 1989) by the Nashville All-Stars and for telling me the interesting story surrounding its recording. I have been enjoying this disc immensely. It features the playing of Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, and Hank Garland, and Floyd Cramer as well as other musicians primarily known in the Country music genre. But this is some solid jazz jamming. I got the feeling I was hanging out with musicians who were oblivious to and without need of an audience. But this isn't music just for musicians. Standards like "'S Wonderful," "Round Midnight," and "Frankie and Johnnie" mix naturally with extended jam sessions like "Opus to Funk" and my personal favorite, "Relaxin'." Here we also hear a then young Gary Burton before his days as terrific bandleader and teacher.

As my friend Curt Bradshaw would say, "If you don't like this, then you don't like music." I noticed at least one website lists After the Riot at Newport among its 100 Greatest "Live" Jazz Albums. If you can get a copy, I suspect you will be inclined to agree.

Most anticipated: The music in my player (really on my computer, the best stereo I've ever had) lately has been the new opus delecti by The Pat Metheny Group entitled The Way Up. Pat is certainly one of my favorite musicians and composers and I've been excited about the release of every disc he's been a part of for the past ten years. When I read that this was to be a single, 68 minute long tune, I did worry that I'd have another Zero Tolerance For Silence or Sign of Four on my hands. The best I can say about those efforts is that I'm working to appreciate them.
But this album is everything that I hoped for. Longtime fans should love it because it seems to take the best musical ideas of Pat and Lyle Mays' many years of collaboration and expand them in a panoramic journey. I do not hear strains of old tunes here, but I get a strong sense of them. I'm not sure if that point communicates to anyone not familiar with the group's music, but I suspect fans will know what I mean.
Metheny has stated that The Way Up is a protest album. I think it is worth the trouble to go to the group's website and see what he means by this. But one thing he says is that the album can be seen as a "protest against a world where a lack of nuance and detail is considered a good thing, a protest against a culture that values that which can be consumed in the smallest bites over the kinds of efforts and achievements that can only come with a lifetime of work and study." I hope that reproducing these thoughts does not lead people to think this is pretentious music where one is expected to feel like an idiot if he doesn't "get it."
Metheny and company are as accessible as they have always been without sacrificing integrity. The Way Up, as a composition and as a recording, works on some pretty deep levels I'm only now starting to get at. At the same time, the experience of listening on the surface level is only heightened by repeated listenings. This is a rich, thoughtful piece that may well come to be viewed as a landmark in the ever blossoming history of jazz.