Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bookmarks -- Shop Class as Soulcraft

The subtitle of Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft is "An Inquiry Into the Value of Work." This is an apt description of his book, but one wonders who he is asking questions of. At times, Mr. Crawford appears to be forcing the reader to ask the questions, reevaluating the culture that has changed its idea of what it considers valuable work, and how it has changed the nature of education so that perhaps both the "knowledge worker" and the one who works with his/her hands are not in the best of all possible worlds.

Crawford notes that the trend in education is to discourage people away from training for jobs as mechanics and electricians, despite the idea that many are best suited for such careers, not because of intelligence, but because of temperament or because such careers might actually make people happy. I recall that at my high school some were encouraged to go to "trade school" only if their high school counselors felt they lacked the intellectual aptitude (or their families the money to help them feign such), and so these jobs were considered "beneath" those considered mentally capable for other work. The result of the push to get more people into "knowledge work," Crawford writes, is that we have not only people who are in jobs that they are not really able to do, but even when they are, they are not happy. Further, the gulf between such workers is so great that those who work as mechanics, for example, are hampered because people with no real experience in the craft are the ones the mechanic has to turn to for information instead of relying as much on his learned intuition and the community he builds around him.

That learning and community have not disappeared, Crawford tells us. But he hints that it might be diminishing.

I never saw my grandfather doing the work his college degree trained him for. But I knew about it. I often saw of him as a fixer, someone who took his own knowledge and willingness to tinker, and turned it into something good, often delighting in what he learned along the way. My father, who had spent many years as an airplane mechanic, was as creative a person as I've ever known. And my step-father, a mailman, was rarely at a loss working around the house. Perhaps this is why the book, despite some of its problems, appeals to me.


I had the opportunity to sit in a library for a couple of hours, one where I had no privileges to check out books. Otherwise I would have taken home the copy of Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses I read while there. Komunyakaa is one of the our best and most significant poets, remaining so long after winning the Pulitzer for Neon Vernacular.

Warhorses is divided into three sections. The first is a sequence of blank and free verse sonnets titled, "Love In The Time of War." Here Komunyakaa writes, of course, of the many loves and losses during wartime, but also the battles during love. In the section, "Heavy Metal," there are poems which explore the connections of machines and madness to beauty. The final section, "Autobiography of My Alter Ego," is a free verse sequence about betrayal and forgiveness. Here Komunyakaa also addresses the theme of the wanderer.

I very much look forward to re-reading this packed volume again.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Publication Notes -- October 2009

Okay, I really don't have much to say as far as submissions and rejections. I have received a couple of rejections and have not sent much out, due to busy-ness. But I do have other news. I have published a few things at Smashwords. This is a place for e-books, and you can find them in a variety of formats, so you can download them to your computer or other devices you like to read on. At present, I have four e-books available, one collection of stories and three volumes of poetry. Click here to see my profile. The books are:

Die Laughing includes three of my stories ("Jabba the Cop," "I've Been Killed Before," and "Except the Weather.") All are first person narratives, with the protagonist a young man (late teens/early twenties).
Three Laments is a collection of three suites (some poetry people call them "sequences," but I prefer the musical word). These were written as I went through some of the most difficult times of grief in my life.

Making Rounds is a sequence of its own, a collection of short tanka-like poems written during my time as a security guard.

Walking in Circles is a short collection of early poems.

I do have plans to offer a couple more in the future. I have a couple of longer stories that don't seem to fit any of the publications I typically try to publish in, but they are stories I happen to think deserve an audience. You can click on the covers below for information about any book or to read samples.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music Notes -- Consequences

I don't know much about Dave Burrell, but I've always like Billy Martin's work with Medeski, Martin, and Wood. So when I found this little project with Martin using a bunch of percussion instruments with a piano player, I got very excited. But Consequences is a major let down.

While I do not listen to a lot of the avant garde side of jazz, I try to at least appreciate it. I try to give the benefit of the doubt that this music may need to grow on me or that musicians of this caliber may be trying to do something I just am not equipped yet to understand.
But the more I listen to this disc, the more I begin to sound like my jazz hating friends. Consequences is a self-indulgent nightmare. Some avant garde projects put me off at first, but grow on me as I begin to tune in to certain elements or instruments that strike my fancy. When I can find something interesting somewhere, I look to see how those pieces fit with the others. Doing so has helped me to at least appreciate, if not always enjoy, work by people like Derek Bailey and Ornette Coleman. But I couldn't find anything interesting here.

I tried. I listened. I put it away. I listened another time. I even tried listening different contexts and places. Nothing worked. It all just sounded like kids playing with instruments, not even like kids who actually play.

I wanted very much to like this, but so far the experience has been quite trying.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Music Notes-- Repercussions

Richard Souther's projects typically include either solo piano material a la his magnificent "Douglas Trowbridge" LPs for the old Meadowlark label or the electronica of his Narada days or the material he produces under the moniker Under the Radar. Repercussions seems to be a project that mixes the two with thoughtfulness and warmth.

I confess I have a preferences for Souther's acoustic piano works. Memories of Twilight and Reminisce are frequently on my playlist, especially when I need something soothing and reflective. So it should be no surprise that "For Philip" is my favorite tune on this project. I don't know who Philip is, but he has one very beautiful song.

But Souther's work is not mere mood music or wallpaper. Songs like "Follow Me (Dance Re-Mix)" and "Loch Ness" may contain simple looped melodies as underpinnings, but they are worth listening to closely for the other instrumentation and recorded sounds and where those take the songs. And what Souther does around and with the guitar riff on "Alice Absynth" is outstanding.

Two songs make use of recorded voice: "Twenty-Three" and "Doughgirls." The first of these combines a bluesy rendition of the 23rd Psalm with an aural palette that suggests real comfort during real storms. The second begins with a recorded conversation that put me off a little at first, but repeated listening has helped me understand that dialogue is also part of the world's musical landscape.

Even if one merely wanted a taste of what Souther's recordings are like, this is a nice introduction. But I think most people listening are likely to return to this project again and again.

Reading Response: Of Online Classes and discrimination

Normally, I try to remember that student journalists are students, in college to learn the art and craft of journalism. I try to leave their opinions alone and keep from responding, especially as a teacher might. However, there are times when I just can't stop myself from providing one of these guys either a strong pat on the back for a job well done or a little extra education.

The following is in response to an article entitled "Online classes discriminate against less-connected" by Brad Powers. It was published in the online version of The East Texan. I had tried to leave a comment, but got an "error" message that said my email address (which I have used for 12 years) is "invalid." Thus, I share it with you.

I am an alum of your school and I also have been teaching online, hybrid, and "face to face" classes for a number of years. These questions seem fine on the surface, but the attacks on professors in this editorial are out of line and show that you have not really looked at all sides of the issue.

A few years ago, the term "digital divide" was used to identify the problem you are writing about: that the poor and others could not have access to technology (or did not have access others more fortunate did). That has not completely gone away despite computer labs and other resources more and more colleges have. But it is getting better.

Calling professors lazy shows you have not taken the time to talk to one. You need to find out just how much work it takes to put together online elements for a course and to maintain those courses. You obviously are not sitting in the same damn seminars teachers all over the country have to where we-- after working late not only putting together syllabi or tests, had to deal with putting the material online in a way that fits some other person's idea of a user-friendly format-- have to listen to some blowhard tell us that our students are "digital natives" and that we (backwards professors) are "digital immigrants."

In most schools, students do have choices and can enroll in classes with no online components. There are still many professors who are willing to teach the "old fashioned" way. Note also that those who are not "technologically inclined" are often people making excuses to avoid gaining the computer literacy they will need to be employed once they leave school.

Why didn't you, before spouting off, ask even one teacher the questions you pose in this article? Why didn't you consider that NO change in the way classes are taught is going to make every student happy? Why didn't you look at the whole story before trying to give the impression that professors had some sort of agenda? Why didn't you do your homework?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bookmarks -- Jazz Notes

Donald Miller calls Jazz Notes a "re-mix" of his bestselling book, Blue Like Jazz. The book is more like a Reader's Digest version which retains the "what happened" and not much of the narrative magic. It is more a collection of anecdotes than stories linked to form a narrative.

Supposedly, the book contains new material, but most of what is added is stuff about the characters since Blue Like Jazz was originally published and a few tidbits about the movie (which I have been looking forward to because of the book and because the director is Steve Taylor). Speaking of which, most of the notes say that things will happen in 2008. So far the film hasn't been completed.

I reviewed Blue Like Jazz a couple years ago, and I liked it very much. Still do. But I cannot figure out what this is supposed to be other than a "gift edition" of the original book. I'd rather give the book itself.

Jazz Notes comes with a CD that I think is Miller reading these excerpts. I'm not sure because the music overpowers the speaking, so the experience is like a bad subliminal tape. I also could find no notes anywhere to tell me who made this music.

Though it captures somewhat the general idea of the original, Jazz Notes was, for me, ultimately a disappointment. It might be a nice book to show your friends to give them a taste. But why leave a couple of bites on a plate when the whole enchilada is so much more appetizing?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bookmarks--Acedia & Me

Before the concept of Seven Deadly Sins, there was the idea of Eight Bad Thoughts. When the Seven Deadly Sins were originated to help monks and others to recognize tendencies in themselves and help them order their lives, Acedia was the Bad Thought that seemed to have dropped from usage. But dropping a word does not mean the realities go away.

Acedia is a Greek word which means "the absence or lack of care." But of course there is more to the concept than this. Kathleen Norris provides a few definitions at the beginning of her excellent book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life. As I see it, the term refers to a lack of concern or care that is so strong that one might come to believe (act as if one believes) that no action is worth doing. This affected the medieval monk terribly, and was sometimes called "the noonday demon," because it took the monk (or any other spiritual traveller) from proceding with the tasks that were important for spiritual formation and growth.

I finished Norris' book months ago, but I have had the problem of finding the book and the concepts she addresses difficult to talk about at the same time I almost cannot stop talking about the book's impact. I realized that it has struck a personal chord that I cannot adequately explain or express. It is also difficult to admit problems of this nature and at the same time I notice the workings of such problems in my own life and in the lives of some around me.

Norris weaves her stories of wrestling with acedia with narratives about her dying husband and her time as a Benedictine oblate. As with her best known book, The Cloister Walk, she also intertwines healthy, but not too heady doses of theological and literary scholarship. Other gettting a handle on the concept, I found it particularly important that Norris addresses the differences between acedia and depression, noting that some who have been diagnosed with depression are actually dealing with acedia. She does not diminish the value therapy and medication, particularly from those who suffer from severe depression. However, she agrees with many today (myself included) that drugs are too easily and readily prescribed, and often do much more harm than good.

This is not a self help book or a how to book. Yet as I read, and very much after, I had a sense naming and identifying the problem could help me get up and engage the world, and I could fight this "noonday demon" whereas I have lived much of my life in a cycle of inaction, guilt, and prayer. The prayer helps, but isn't all that is necessary, and often the struggle means I might not pray when I need to most.

We live in a world where the concept of sin is diminished, often nullified by those who are supposed to offer us the most help. We also live in a world where it is easier to take a pill or spill our guts to a paid "professional" who does not actually help us to explore our real selves and what we may do or not do to harm to ourselves and others. We live in a world where the spiritual, if it is acknowledged at all, is put on the back burner or blamed for the world's ills. In such a world, Kathleen Norris' Acedia & Me is much needed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Music Notes--Living Proof at First Baptist Church of Fate

I pretty much soured on gospel music long ago. And bluegrass is a genre I have always had distant admiration for, which means I have enjoyed sporadic performances and appreciated the talent of a few great players. Yet, I must admit I enjoyed the concert I recently attended at First Baptist Church of Fate of Living Proof.

The strength of this group, or at least what surprised me most, were their arrangements of not only their original songs, but also well known hymns. I expected a lot of verse/chorus, verse chorus songs with no room for musicianship. But they did not seem afraid to allow the instruments to take part in the ministry. I was particularly struck by their version of “How Great Thou Art.” Leader Jonathan Thrift, is a particularly fine musician, adept on guitar, mandolin, steel guitar and banjo. He also shared vocal duties with his wife Melissa and Kathleen Parker, and the harmonies, particularly between he and Parker were really fine.

Much of the set seemed to lean a little more to country than bluegrass, but I didn’t find that to be a distraction. I suspect people who like either style will find the band agreeable to their palates. They didn’t, thank God, talk to the audience a whole lot. The music did all the communicating they needed.

Living Proof is based in Jacksonville, Texas and work through the music ministry of Emmanuel Baptist Church. If you are in that area and enjoy southern gospel, country or bluegrass, you should give them a try.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Of Politics and Polls

It may be that I’ll lose some Facebook friends for saying that I will, as far as I can see now, vote for Obama in 2012. Actually what will probably tick them off is that I commented that the polls on Facebook, like the one I responded to, are not set up in a way as to actually be fair or unbiased.
I was upset, at first, by the photo image used to attract others to the poll. Here we do not have two pictures of Mr. Obama or a photo that might be non-descript, but one of the now infamous pictures of the president with a cigarette dangling from his lips. It is, of course, quite an unflattering pose. So the implication for many is that a vote for Obama is a vote for a filthy man with a disgusting habit.
Then I thought further. I’m not sure the creator of the poll was trying to use some sort of subliminal message, but I do believe that person chose the image deliberately, quite likely because this person has an image of Barack Obama as a bad man. A person who already has a negative image of a person will likely portray that person in a negative light, even if they do so unaware that their portrayal is such. They may actually believe either that there is no other way to “see” the person they dislike, or that they are actually being fair.
A few weeks ago, I responded to a poll whose language was obviously biased: “Would you like to have the government take your guns or allow criminals to put you in danger?” (This isn’t the exact wording, but it isn’t far off.) In the case above, the wording is not biased, but the image that goes with it.
So the person with negative ideas about a person chooses a negative portrayal to present to others, and then shares that image via a poll, which may appear to be unbiased, as if only looking for information. But who is this person going to be sharing this poll with? Those who, by and large, already agree with him: his Facebook friends, who are most likely to share most of his beliefs about politics. And who is likely to see the results of those friends’ voting? Other friends who mostly share those beliefs.
So it doesn’t surprise me that when I looked at the “results” of the poll up to that point, the “No” votes largely outweighed the “Yes” votes, probably by a three to one margin. A computer tabulates the votes, so that seems unbiased, but the dissemination of the poll in the first place keeps the instrument from being democratic or even honest.
I have largely contended that bias is neither good nor bad, but that it just is what it is. But when we cannot recognize bias in such things as this, we have real bad brewing. Conservatives, from my experience, have spent a long time complaining about “liberal” bias every where they look. This usually means anyone who doesn’t agree with them is 1) a liberal and 2) therefore not to be trusted. And I am well aware that liberals (myself included) have often argued using the same logical fallacies.
If we want to stop trafficking in fear, then let us consider less what people with labels might “do” to us, and think more about what a lack of critical thinking on all sides has been doing to our country. And while we are at it, we might confess the sin of acting on the belief that it is more important to manipulate others toward what we believe is the right end than to seek, with open heart and mind, an honest truth.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Music Notes--Jeanne Lay and Fat Tuesday at The Harbor

I hope I get a chance to Jeanne Lay and Fat Tuesday again. Not because they were good, but because I suspect they are better than the performance I saw last Thursday at The Harbor. A bluesy-rock outfit, they churned through a number of standard tunes, most played with either some technical glitch or one or more members of the band just a little off in timing or tone.
An example of the problems encountered by the group came during the Elvis classic “Suspicious Minds.” Played ably by Lay and the instrumentalists, the background vocals came off flat and sometimes louder than the lead. I can give the female background singer a bit of a pass because, with two injured legs, she spent the evening in a wheelchair, and I suspect should could not use her diaphragm as well as she should have.
On other songs, sax or guitar solos came late or didn’t seem connected to the song at all. Some time into the concert, the bass player and drummer got a chance for solos. Most of these just seemed to be player doing what he would normally do during the song, with no other instruments in the way. It was as if they were practicing.
Ms. Lay herself does have a fine voice, a kind of Wynona with an extra kick for rock fans. On most of the songs, she performed as well as one might expect, though a bit emotionless at times, despite the substandard presentation by her support. On “Fire,” for instance, she was able to exude the sensuality of the song quite well, and the sax solo was really nice. But the rest of the group was dreary and subtracted from the energy.
Each member showed fine talent and ability. Unfortunately, the concert, as a whole, didn’t come together.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music Notes--Blast of Brass 2009

On July 17, I had the opportunity to take my daughter to the Blast of Brass performance at Eastfield College, thanks to my friend and colleague Oscar Passley. I was treated to some fine music and an enjoyable evening. The performance featured the instructors and other professional performers that had been working all week with young brass players at the school in workshops and classes.
Each song played made me marvel at the versatility of instruments I guess I didn’t know that well. I was particularly impressed by the guest soloist, Scott Hartman, a trombone player I had had the chance to hear the day before in recital. His rendition of “Londonderry Air” (best known as “Danny Boy”) was marvelous.
Two interesting highlights for me were the student ensemble performance and the surprise guest. Playing the “Overture to H.M.S. Pinafore,” a student group calling themselves The Beastie Brass entertained the crowd of mostly students and their parents. Trumpet student Danial Gerona had many in the audience laughing and saying “Wow!” to his part of the show.
Another treat was the “unscheduled” entrance of Kurt Bradshaw, artistic director of the Dallas Jazz Orchestra. He led the group in an unrehearsed playing of “My One and Only You,” sung by the Darla Meek, narrator for the evening, to her husband, trombonist, conductor and Blast of Brass founder, Keith Meek.
The concert ended with the students joining the professionals on stage for Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Sheep May Safely Graze”). There were lots of people up there, but the result was nice.

Blast of Brass is a wonderful way to support not only the young people working hard to improve their chops, but the mentors and performers who make that possible. I look forward to going again next year.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Music Notes--Random Axis at the Harbor

Last night I sat with my wife and friends to listen to Random Axis playing The Harbor in Rockwall. I really don’t have much to say about them. They were adequate, though they played a lot of mid-tempo songs like low tempo songs. They also played several tunes I’m not either not a fan of or I’m really tired of hearing. (I know it is darn near sacrilegious, but someone has to say “We Are Family” was never that good a song.) Don’t get me started on the plodding rap sections.
I did like the little Motown medley they began with. I laughed when one of the singers said they were going to “slow things down” a bit. But then they launched into “Georgia On My Mind,” which was the strongest performance of the evening. Then the group played a handful of dance numbers to close the set.
All my criticisms are likely moot. There was plenty of dancing and the crowd did ask for an encore. Though several people had left about an hour into the show, those that stayed seemed to really enjoy the performance. It seems most of the music Random Axis plays is not really for me, but that doesn’t make it bad. Kids dancing near the stage doesn't mean it was good either.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music Notes--Quartet Live!

Ever since I read that Pat Metheny was working some dates with his Berklee mentor, Gary Burton, I have been anticipating this album. Adding to my giddiness is the fact that one of the best bassists in jazz, Steve Swallow, and the heir apparent to Jack DeJohnette, Antonio Sanchez, are on this recording.
The disc opens with the lively Chick Corea composition “Sea Journey.” At once I could see this was a Burton led ensemble, with four mallet vibes blazing away, but there is plenty of room for the other players. Metheny’s solo, as on the other tracks is delicious.
Next comes “Olhos de Gato,” one of two tunes written by Carly Bley, who composed many of the songs recorded by Burton’s groups when Metheny was the guitarist. Next is Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace,” a treat every time it is recorded. Metheny’s solo here is one of his usual masterpieces in controlled fury.
Dreamy without being sleepy, both Burton and Metheny give inspired solos on the next tune, a Keith Jarrett piece entitled “Coral.” Then we have Burton’s tribute to Hank Garland, “Walter L.” This is one of the most rockin’ bluesy songs in the collection, Metheny shredding like mad.
Three Pat Metheny compositions find a place on Quartet Live. One is the ballad “B & G”. Burton’s solo on this one demonstrates where pupils like Metheny got their sense of timely improvisation. This is a song from Metheny’s early days, and his own solo impressed me. At one point he is playing very fast notes, but in the midst of the slow tempo song it sounds right. Fine backing from Swallow, Sanchez, and Burton make a big difference here.
“B & G” is followed by “Missouri Uncompromised,” a bopping number that features a fine solo from Antonio Sanchez. Hearing it made it even more jealous for the people at Yoshi’s that got to see it live. Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine (Little African Flower)” comes right after this, and it shows these musicians can make a classic sound modern without losing the flavor of the original.
“Hullo, Bolins” is next. On Pat Metheny’s website, this song is described as “a catchy jazz waltz that suggests what Chopin might have sounded like if he was reborn today as a jazz musician.” I don’t think I could say it any better. This is followed by the other Carla Bley composition on Quartet Live, “Syndrome.” This was one of the first songs I heard on a Gary Burton recording, and I really like the treatment it is given here.
Quartet Live closes with one of my favorite Pat Metheny songs, “Question and Answer.” Clocking in at just over thirteen minutes, not a single moment is wasted. We are treated another nice solo by Sanchez. Here is the only tune with Metheny soloing on the guitar synth, which might throw a few listeners, but is it does work. He moves deftly from this to a regular guitar riff until the sounds dissolve into the applause of the enthusiastic crowd.
This recording is a reunion of three of members of the original Gary Burton Quartet and the songs have all been captured before. But Quartet Live is fresh and new, the production so clean that it sounds like the band is playing in your living room. Get this and hear four great musicians who play as if jazz was invented for them.

Music Notes--Four Duke

I ran across this CD in my library and wondered why I had not listened to it in awhile. For the past couple of days, it has accompanied my work.
Four Duke features Jay Leonhart on bass (and the occasional scat singing), Gary Burton on vibes, Joe Beck on guitar, and Terry Clark playing drums in a tribute to the great Duke Ellington. All the players are in top form, and the recording sounds as fresh as if it had been recorded yesterday.
This disc demonstrates (as if proof was necessary) that Ellington is one of this country’s greatest songwriters. It is hard for me to pick a favorite tune, but perhaps their version of “Caravan” is one of the most exciting I’ve heard in years. “Azure” and “Satin Doll” had me swaying in my seat at the computer. “In a Mellow Tone” and “Cottontail” had me tapping my toes (I would have been snapping my fingers, but I did have stuff to do). And “Take the A Train,” a duet between Leonhart and Burton, is plain fun to listen to.
If you like good jazz, or if you want something tasty to listen to while you work (not that this is wallpaper music), get Four Duke. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding your head or dancing in your cubicle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bookmarks -- The Devil's Tour

Mary Karr is probably best known for her memoir The Liar’s Club. In the past few years, she has become a bit infamous for her essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lambasts the kind of poetry that says nothing and hides behind “ornaments,” the kind of verse Donald Hall would later call McPoems. These little verses come out of workshops and graduate programs whose main goal is to pad the vita and land teaching assignments for its participants.
Karr’s poetry comes from life -- joyous, painful, and real -- and if more volumes were like those in The Devil’s Tour, we would have no reason to believe poetry in America was dying.
Her second volume of verse, The Devil’s Tour is much about the hells we make and endure in our own lives. The book opens with the brutally beautiful “Coleman,” about a black friend viciously murdered by boys in town who could cover up their crime by calling it a “hunting accident.” The event of the poem is not just the murder, but also joy of their friendship beforehand and the memory after: “you rode that ghost horse/hard and recklessly against the dark,//but could not break it.” Events like these are addressed in this book are the building blocks of a soul wandering the earth, not mere recollections.
Many of the poems in The Devil’s Tour are centered around the relationships the author has as mother, daughter, friend, and lover. Those that I found most moving and honest were the poems addressed to Karr’s parents. One does not have to have read The Liar’s Club or Cherry to understand the struggle to take from one’s parents only the good and the difficulty of giving back to them as much as our love contains. In “Her One Bad Eye,” Karr writes,
We are dead to each other
that way, though she opened
her body to let me shine
weeping into this world,
and sometimes I feel her
looking through me to
that other world. Blind, this way
we stare at each other like corpses.
Dan Chaisson, staunch defender of the McPoem, ironically criticized Karr for writing poems that seemed to come from the workshop or that were unaware of their audience. But these salvos come from the offices of a magazine that openly criticizes Karr and other Christian poets (like Franz Wright) merely for being Christian. I don’t know if Karr had yet entered the Catholic Church when she published this work in 1993, but one sees in these poems a sacramental vision of the universe, where the things of the earth (including suffering) become the avenues where grace can enter. These are poems from someone who has something to say.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Movie Notes--The Wrestler

Last week, I watched The Wrestler, and I saw why so many feel that Mickey Rourke has begun a comeback as an actor. I can’t remember a better performance from him.
Rourke plays once great wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Years have passes since his heyday, but The Ram keeps plugging away at the only thing he’s ever been good at. He has lost some of his hearing and his body has nearly been crushed by the pounding it has taken. He is forced to augment what little he makes in the ring with a nothing job at WalMart like establishment, dealing with a boss that belittles his other career. Drugs and alcohol have become routine, and Randy spends most of his spare time in a strip club looking at Marisa Tomei. But it is hard not to cheer for this guy.
Much of the story centers on Randy trying to reconnect with his daughter, played ably by Evan Rachel Wood. While there are moments that get sweet and may look to be cliché, the whole tale is painful, raw and honest. The sadness here is real.
While the “sport” of pro wrestling here an act, it is one that demands greatly physicality and athleticism on the part of the participants. I was really impressed by not only the fight scenes themselves, but the conversations and planning sessions between wrestlers. Much of the film was shot in a documentary style, which provided the viewer a chance to feel emotions honestly, not in some cheap, contrived way. The movie may move a little slowly for some, but the payoff is great.
I suspect some wrestling fans will not like this film, and that those who do not like wrestling will shy away from it. But wrestling here is not merely a metaphor for how one deals with life, but also for how one accepts and shapes reality. The Wrestler is a good, rich movie, period.

Music Notes--The Pictures at The Harbor

Austin’s party band The Pictures played The Harbor last Thursday night and pleased the large crowd with mostly dance tunes, though a couple of rock and pop songs augmented the set. Lots of people got up to dance, and it looked like most everyone was having a good time.
Though well done, the band did play three Michael Jackson tunes. That was overkill to me, but as I said, they did a fine job with them. Most of the dance songs came off well, except their version of the Bee Gees classic “Stayin’ Alive,” the band sounding as if they were not in sync. Even though at least four of the tunes were also played by last week’s group (Moving Colors), including Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl,” they showed why they have a full performing schedule.

Speaking of sync, one criticism I have of the performance is the use of prerecorded or synchronized music. It was most apparent in the second tune of the night, Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” a horn laden song where neither of the two keyboards were played. Something made those sounds, and it wasn’t any of the instruments on the stage. In some songs, I could tell that there was more percussion going out than was being played. For me, this was distracting. I don’t think most in attendance cared, however.
All these problems aside, The Pictures does know how to work the crowd. There was a lot of dancing in front of the stage. My own kids got pretty worn out. I was disappointed that near the end of the set, when they played a nice version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” so many people started to go. But enough stayed to ask for an encore and the band did a rousing rendition of AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

T.V. Notes--Harper's Island

I watched every episode of the CBS mini-series Harper’s Island and I now feel like a survivor—a survivor of an attack on art and time. The show was just good enough to keep interest, but as the series rolled along, I was interested not in who the killer would turn out to be or which person was going to meet a gruesome death, but in just how many times the writers would pull plot devices out of their asses.

Harper’s Island is bit like a horror film soap opera, only tame enough for primetime television. The story revolves around the wedding of Abby Mills’ best friend (a guy by the way). Abby has come to the island for the first time in seven years after John Wakefield killed her mother and several other people. The homecoming isn’t all about dealing with her grief and terror, but also her relationship with her father and the abrupt end of her relationship with cute and rugged Jimmy Mance. In each episode, one or more the group are killed in some gruesome fashion, and of course fear and suspicion reign as they all try to figure out who is behind all the dastardly deeds.
The series has what every bad horror film and soap opera seems to need: stupid young people. Nearly every character makes brash statements and then acts most real people, even heedless youngsters, would not. Of course, sometimes these actions lead to someone’s death, but most often they just drag the story around. The side narratives (infidelity, a bag of money found near a dead man, a man trying to propose to his witless lover) do not deepen the chronicle, but are just tedious detours that help the viewer either endure or prolong the agony of the hackneyed main story.
As a mystery, I think the writer’s cheated the viewers. The flower girl, for example, after being abducted and released keeps providing the others with clues and interesting details, but only when it serves the plot. When we get to the end and find out who the bad guy is, we are not really shocked so much as we are appalled that the motivation for the killing spree seems to come out of nowhere. And any characters that are halfway interesting get killed off. I’m not proud to say that I kept hoping for the flower girl to get it.
Harper’s Island might have been fine for a two hour movie or possibly a couple weekly slots, but on the whole it was just thin and messy. Watch it at the risk of losing many hours of your life.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Music Notes--Moving Colors at The Harbor

We caught Moving Colors last Thursday at The Harbor, and were treated to a really fine set. The band played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm matched only by the crowd. I was impressed that group performed tight arrangements of a number of hit songs, but never seemed over rehearsed. Moving Colors also managed to move well through a diverse playlist of tunes from artists like Journey, U2, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Beyonce and The Commodores.
One reason Moving Colors impressed me is that they managed to keep me interesting in songs I really don’t like, such as Christiana Aguilara’s “Ain’t No Other Man” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Tunes I do like came off pretty well too. I enjoyed their version of Prince's "1999" and their little Michael Jackson tribute. They did interesting rendition of U2’s “Vertigo,” adding some drumming on plastic tubs. The video I took of them (that I can't seem to upload to Blogger) doesn’t do much justice to how they performed the tune.
During the set, members of the band contributed to a painting in the background. The painting was only mentioned briefly once, but it was interesting to see. The beach ball bouncing around the audience was an interesting way to get people to recognize their website name, but it became comical watching people fail to move the ball along. An elderly lady in front of me must have gotten knocked in the noggin about four times.
My only knock on the performance was that they seemed to hide the sax player, whose name I cannot find, in the back of the stage. I suspect he is not a regular member of the band since they mentioned the absence of another musician, but this guy could wail. He made a huge difference in the sound, reminding me of Charlie DeChant from Hall and Oates. There are only a handful of horn players who alone can make a group sound better (it is difficult to follow in the footsteps of Clarence Clemons). Many horn players are relegated to soloing on a couple of tunes and tossed off stage for most of the set. The group would do well to feature him a bit more.
If you get a chance to catch Moving Colors, do it. If you need to make room in your calendar, do it. You are very likely to have a good time with this fun and exciting band.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Publication Notes--July 2009

Well, it has been awhile since I updated here, and there isn't much to say. I went for some time not submitting work for a variety of reasons, mostly because I was very busy with school. Now that I am home for the summer, I have begun sending work out again.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my poem "Cares" was published at Pond Ripples Magazine in their May issue. The nice editor had accepted another piece from a batch I had sent her, and I had assumed she was not interested in the other poems. Now I am in the unusual position of having to withdraw the piece from a submission elsewhere.

This morning read an email saying that my poem "Moments Before the Voice Lesson" has been accepted at The Houston Literary Review. Now I have to find a halfway decent picture to send them.

Wrestling Light (my Geocities website) is going away soon, so I have been making plans for a new site, one that will likely be a bit leaner. I plan to include a page to list publications with links to where my work can be found on the web. I'll place a link here when that happens. Feel free to drop me a line with any suggestions.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Movie Notes -- Forgetting Sarah Marshall

When this flick was first advertised, I thought that it looked interesting. Then in the chaos of life, I forgot about it. Now I wish I could get it out of my head. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is as terrible as a movie can get. As one is a long list of romantic comedies, it is neither romantic nor funny.
The absurd plot involves Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segal) who takes a vacation in Hawaii after his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), breaks up with him. Unfortunately, Sarah and her (sort of) new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) is not only in Hawaii, but also in pretty much every place Peter goes. Hotel clerk Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) helps Peter have a good time (even putting him in an expensive suite he cannot afford in a move that does nothing but advance the story) and the two become attracted to each other. Yip-freakin-ee.
In the first five minutes, viewers are treated to Jason Segal’s penis three times. First time was chuckle worthy. After that, it was just stupid. We get one more shot before the movie is over. Before one accuses me of being a prude, I could help but think that we don’t get to see any female parts (unless you count the picture of Mila Kunis topless, which I don’t because it is not real).
I suppose the intent here might be to make fun of the sex as love idea in movies, but what we get in the sex scenes is really some sort of comic porn. Well, maybe not so much because it isn’t really funny and nothing to get aroused by (unless the viewer is an adolescent). What we get is at best a silly story with lots of uncomfortable jokes about sex and Segal’s member on screen four times. The subplots involving the brother in law and the newlywed couple were more interesting, though they distracted from the overall story.
One of the bits of hype for this film is that it came from the producers of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. I haven’t yet seen the latter movie, but The 40 Year Old Virgin was hilarious and clever. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was just goofy. But now I can see why it garnered nominations for Teen Choice awards. In its few good moments, it is juvenile.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Music Notes--Petty Theft at The Harbor

On a hot July evening, as I sat at The Harbor in Rockwall, I came some realizations about the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It has always seemed laid back, enjoyable in its way, but not really my thing. Something that is nice in tiny doses, but not for long periods of time. It occurred to me as I listened to the tribute band Petty Theft that I had never listened to Tom Petty for more than a few minutes at a time, probably during some kind of rock block on one of the local stations.
Not that Petty Theft couldn’t pull off a fine set. They managed to get through much of the better known tunes adequately, though they also left off a handful of notables like “You Got Lucky and “Breakdown.” People in the audience who were real fans of Tom Petty seemed to enjoy the performance. I noticed a few singing along even with tunes I had only heard a couple of times.They even spiced things up with a couple songs by the Byrds in the middle of the show.
There were a couple technical problems. Particularly in the beginning of the show, the vocals were not harmonized as tightly as one might hope with a group that’s been around as long as this one has. Also, I got the impression that they didn’t want the audience to hear any solos since when the time came for one – on both guitar and keyboards—it was either very low or couldn’t be heard.
If you are a fan of Tom Petty, these guys are probably worth checking out. They seem to get many gigs in the DFW metroplex. This was third year at The Harbor, and I suspect they’ll be back next year. But I may skip that show.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I have not been much of a fan of Michael Jackson since the 80s. I had a roommate my freshman year in college who played a couple of MJ albums and The Jacksons’ Live! quite often, and I was only tired of them when I wanted to sleep, which didn’t happen all that much. But around the time Jackson was making his best album, I started a years-long odyssey that including listening to no secular music (the two are not really related). Yet Jackson was so popular at the time, it was next to impossible to miss hearing songs like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Bad.”
And today, I am torn about his passing. His music doesn’t have the same impact it had on me many years ago, but I cannot deny his talent or how well those songs still stand up. People make fun of Jackson’s music, but those who came after him are simply posers. He was weird as hell, and I’m pretty sure that most of the accusations about his unsavory dealings with children are true. However, he managed to be a sought out entertainer.
Jackson, perhaps unwittingly, managed to polarize people interested in the entertainment industry. While many are sure that he bought his way out of his molestation cases, there are plenty who are so devoted to Michael Jackson the icon they cannot conceive of his guilt, even in the face of strong evidence.
Though I loathe celebrity gossip, I find myself wanting to know more about Michael Jackson. I want to know the truth not only about what happened between he and those children, but also about why this guy felt the need to create a zoo/theme park of his home or the need to alter his body to such grotesque depths. And I must admit I’m interested in the odd events of his death (sounds like movie in the making).
But I’m pretty sure we won’t find out much about Jackson. At least for several years, I don’t expect us to learn anything useful. I do hope he’s at rest.

Movie Notes--Gran Torino

Watched the Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino the other night and enjoyed it quite a bit. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalksi, an angry and racist vet of the Korean War who has just buried his wife. A Hmong family moves in next door and when the teenage boy tries to steal his beloved car, events are set in motion that transform Walt and the young boy Thao (played superbly by Bee Vang).

While I am not sure this movie is as strong overall as films like Unforgiven, Mystic River or his moving World War II pictures, it is really good. Eastwood’s performance is so fine, I don’t think anyone could imagine another actor in the role after seeing this. In addition, Ahney Her, as Thao’s sister is magnificent, nearly stealing the show from Eastwood. Eastwood’s attention to detail, particularly the elements of Hmong culture, make the movie all that more interesting without detracting from the narrative.

What makes the movie most interesting, I think, are Walt’s conflicts. He is, at first, a man who just wants people (including his grown children) to leave him alone. But we find that despite his racism, he can care about neighbors. Though Walt has no desire for the church or the priest that tries to harangue him into confession, he does find its value when the priest can think past his easy answers. Walt is proud of his service in the war, but admits that killing is a messy, terrible business.

The climax of Gran Torino surprised me a little, but in a very good way. I felt the last few minutes were a little slow, and perhaps a little cliché, but not so much they mar this otherwise really fine film. At 78, Eastwood is still a great actor and fantastic director who always produces top-notch work.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Music Notes -- Hanna's Reef at The Harbor

Jerry Diaz and Hanna’s Reef call what they do “Texas Beach Music.” So it was with some hope that I went to hear them play during Concert by the Lake series at The Harbor in Rockwall. While I found much of the evening enjoyable overall, there were a few disappointments.

Some of the problems, I can’t fault the band for. We arrived only a few minutes before the show, and so we sat far back, just over the hill. Not only could I not see the band unless I was standing, I think the sound from there was not as good for me as it might have been for those a little closer. This snag was aided by the fact that the steel drums did not seem to mix properly with the rest of the band through some of the set and that people around me seemed more interested in just hanging out and talking than listening to the music.

The group played credible, if sometimes plodding, versions of what were mostly Jimmy Buffet songs. Though the lead guitar seemed to disappear during my favorite Buffet tune, “Come Monday,” and some versions came off a bit slow, the starting tune, “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” came off well. And it was nice to listen to some Buffet songs I had not heard in a long time like “Pencil Thin Mustache” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”

After playing so much Jimmy Buffet, I had begun to believe Hanna’s Reef was a tribute band, they performed a nice version of “Under the Boardwalk” and an adequate rendition of “Montego Bay.” As one might expect, the crowd did enjoy “Five O’clock Somewhere.” Though on his website, Diaz lists four Beach Boys tunes in his repertoire, the only one they played was the awful “Kokomo.” Maybe it is just me, but that is certainly one of the worst songs recorded by a truly great band. It makes me queasy that so many cover bands feel they have to play it.

The group did do a fine job with a couple of original tunes, “Sail Away” and “Watch the Young Girls.” The latter song was spirited and lively. It ought to be a hit.

Most of the crowd in front of me (including people on boats in the lake) seemed to be having a pretty good time listening and drinking to Jerry Diaz and Hanna’s Reef. (This was especially true of an old fat lady sipping from a pink champagne glass and waving a plastic parrot). I’m a bit disappointed that “Texas Beach Music” seems to be more about boats and drinking than actual beaches, but the evening by Lake Ray Hubbard was mostly pleasant. Especially if you are a Parrothead, I recommend checking them out.