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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Look at me! I'm ranting!

When I was a teen and even more in college, I thought I didn’t care that much about what people thought of me. In reality, I wanted people to think I was different. That isn’t too much unlike most young people though they work hard at trying to pretend they are unique.

As an adult, I find myself keenly concerned about how others perceive me. Don’t get me wrong: I still want to buck the status quo and prove myself different from what people may expect. But I also am more and more aware of what those I work with and for may believe, accurate or not. Sadly, perception rules more than reality.
So I come to this day angry about a lot of things concerning the media. And I have to admit I must go on perception, but I think some of these people either don’t really care or are ignorant about the perception they give to others.

Last night, Artie Lange hijacked Joe Buck’s debut show. There is no other way to describe it. Already many people are making a big deal about his “course humor.” That isn’t what bothered me. I don’t particularly like his brand of shtick, but I am upset that Mr. Lange took so much of the time of the show. He didn’t allow Buck to go on to other subjects or allow either of the other guests in the segment, Paul Rudd and Jason Sudekis, to speak. Lange is a selfish prick who craves attention more than a horny dog. And the horny dog is more interesting to watch.

David Letterman has had to do a bunch of backpedaling over the ire stirred up over a couple jokes he made about the Palin family. While I’m not sure the comedian should have to apologize for what really would otherwise have been a largely forgotten and inconsequential joke, I do think he did the right thing last night in addressing this the way he did, saying that he realized that the perception was stronger than the reality of his intent. But those sponsors who have threatened to pull out and Palin really got this wrong. I wonder if Palin and her jerk husband really are that oversensitive, that stupid, or just need attention so bad they have to complain their way into the media spotlight. Hasn’t anyone told this broad that she is the one who has made her daughter’s lives worse with her own foolish mouth?

I certainly would not appreciate a joke of a sexual nature about my daughters. But Palin and her cult are so unable to read and hear that they actually assumed that Letterman meant them harm. They seemed to completely miss that the jokes were poking fun at others and not necessarily the Palins. (Well, except the slutty librarian joke, and I’m sorry Ms. Palin, you bring that on yourself.) And perhaps it is futile, in a business known for being more concerned with the moment, for Letterman to suggest that his detractors “check his record.” David Letterman has had crude jokes on his show before, but never something that would suggest sex with a fourteen year old, forced or otherwise, is acceptable.

The phrase “political correctness” makes me nervous. It has become a way for all sides of political and cultural spectrums to decry other people. But political correctness is not always about being safe, but avoiding unnecessary offense. Lange doesn’t give a damn who he insults or what he does to others. His fans who think this makes him worth praising only have half the picture. He isn’t “keeping it real” (a truly meaningless phrase). He is garnering attention for himself for no other reason than to have it. Letterman, on the other hand crosses some people’s idea of the line of good taste. But he knows that offending people just to be offensive doesn’t serve him or those who work for and with him very well.

Consider another word that has lost a great deal of its meaning in the past few years: rant. For many, when a person rants, that person is angry or upset about something and saying whatever comes to mind about whatever is creating in them emotional distress. They may say things “in the heat of the moment” that they would normally not say in an environment where they would have to be careful about their words, such as on the job or at a party with people one does not know well. They sometimes use “colorful language” and even friends can tell that the person may not be totally fair. Sometimes we need to let off steam, I’m sure, but that is what friends and close relatives are for. They understand us and help us gain perspective while trying to support us.

When I tell a student she or he is ranting in an essay, I am trying to let that person know something about how the audience is likely to perceive the message. While the opinions may have merit and the ideas well worth noting, the delivery is such that the student can only appear to others as someone, not with an opinion, but one who presents that opinion as if nothing else in the world matters, not even organization of thought or the choice of words that best communicate one’s ideas.

But the word now seems to denote that a person, by jabbering and working to be as offensive as possible, has done the world some sort of service in presenting an opinion. The truth is most of what others may praise by using the word “rant” is really only preaching to the choir, only louder.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Songs I love by bands I hate-#1: Jump

I don’t really hate Van Halen, but I do think they are among the most overrated rock groups of all time. Sure they are fun, and they have a handful interesting songs, but they really don’t deserve the status they have achieved. A reviewer once said that each new Van Halen album is really ten new ways to say “Let’s fuck.” I’ll go even further and say that the cult of Eddie Van Halen needs to remember he didn’t invent all the tricks he uses when playing; he’s just more fun to watch than those who did.

“Jump” has all the excess and goofiness bands in the eighties were guilty of: keyboards where guitars usually go, chords that replace skill with loud and effects, and a video that has features 80’s rock star hair and pretending that the white man’s overbite is cool. But this song about trying to pick up a girl (another tired rock cliché) is really infectious and I have to admit to loving that little keyboard solo (better than most of what Eddie Van Halen ever played on guitar).

Commercial Complaint #2 -- Just For Men

Okay, I know that there are men who cannot accept they are going bald or that they have managed to acquire gray hair. I understand that there is a large market for such people.
But what I cannot grasp is the portrayal of graying men as insecure, pathetic losers who cannot find love or even manage their lives without dyeing their hair some youthful color (which basically means not gray). In one awful commercial, two daughters lovingly tell their father “It’s time,” and “help” him improve himself by making him use the product. Then we see the guy with an attractive woman and the girls are satisfied they have fixed their father. Everyone is better off because the guy did what his children told him to.
Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong? I don’t like having gray hair myself, but it is a crazy world if we really believe that only young looking men are winners. Never mind the fact that hair itself has no bearing on things that matter, like parenting or being a husband.
So much is taught in today’s schools about tolerance. And that is good. But when the young cannot tolerate their aging parents based on hair color, I begin to doubt. Of course, it is the parents first who must teach that even Dad can be different from what society approves of and he is still worthwhile no matter what is on the top of his head.
There’s irony. I’d love for the father in this commercial to tell his kids they are shallow and demeaning. But I guess that wouldn’t sell anything—except reasonable values.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Music notes--State of Nature

Stanley Jordan has always defied categorization. He’s always been a jazz guitarist, but has covered rock tunes with aplomb. He has appealed to listeners in both genres, not only because of his keen and unique approach to playing, but simply because the tunes are fun to listen to.

State of Nature is Jordan’s first project in over ten years. What has he been doing in the meantime? Well, among other things, he has been studying music therapy. But don’t let that throw you. State of Nature is not a collection of new age tunes designed to make you feel good about yourself or become at one with the universe. On the other hand, if you can’t feel good listening to this, then perhaps you need therapy.

The project is mixed between Jordan’s original tunes and his renditions of classic pieces by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and even Mozart. All of these covers are handled well, and though from divergent traditions (even within jazz), they sound good together on this disc. I do think the Mozart piece would have been a better choice to close the album than Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” I’m particularly fond of “Song for My Father” and “All Blues.”

“A Place in Space” opens the disc with a nice groove. Other originals worth noting are “Forest Garden,” “Ocean Breeze,” “Healing Waves” and “Shadow Dance.” The latter song is one of those tunes Jordan does very well: starting off pensive and slow and building to furious crescendo, much like his signature cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” Songs like “Healing Waves” and Forest Garden” might be a little mellow for some tastes, especially with the inclusion of environmental sounds, but I found them to be well played testaments to what Jordan has immersed himself in as fans have waited for new material.

The album also features Jordan on piano. One should not expect the same prowess he displays on the guitar, but he does accompany himself quite well here.

State of Nature is first class jazz, though it does stretch the boundaries a bit. Was it worth a ten year wait? I can’t say. But it seems Jordan’s hiatus has resulted in not only enjoyable, but thoughtful music. I can’t complain about that.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bookmarks--The Shack

Considering the subject matter, some may find that The Shack contains very little drama. Well, that is if you are looking for the sort of excitement one finds in crime stories or adventure movies where the focus is on catching the bad guy. But this novel has plenty to keep the reader interested.

The story centers on Mackenzie Phillips (Mack), a father who loses his daughter to a serial killer. After a couple years of what is termed “The Great Sadness,” Mack is called to the place where the murder took place to meet with God. Here he may not get the answers he wants, but he does find many of the answers he needs.

I’m sure that plenty of readers will be put off by God the Father as a Black woman, Jesus looking more like a yogi than a guy sitting on the side of a mountain, and the Holy Spirit as an ethereal sprite. But Young manages to handle these images deftly without, it appears, violating the basic orthodoxy of Christianity. (Not that one must be Christian or even religious to appreciate the story.) And there will be readers who are challenged by the theology in this book. However, while certainly outside what many expect from books on religious subjects, The Shack does not really go against the important ideas of religion. In fact, I’d go so far to say that those who get hung up on such things are likely to miss the value of this novel.

As noted, the book is more about Mack’s reconciliation with God, his family, and himself—a reconciliation he doesn’t even fully realize he needs. It is about facing not only one of the most difficult trials a parent could ever endure, but also about dealing with the problems that keep most of us from real peace and joy, no matter what real life problems plague us.

I expected a book that would too easily dismiss the real ache and anger behind such events. I expected some sort of Touched by an Angel crap that would certainly turn me off from religion. But The Shack is not that book, Thank God. There are places where, in my opinion, the prose needs sharpening, and parts of the tale that are not completely clear for me. But these are minor problems.

On the front of my copy is a quote from Eugene Peterson that states The Shack “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” I’m not so sure about that. But I do think it is a good novel well worth reading whether or not one shares Young’s vision.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bookmarks--This Year You Write Your Novel

I rarely have use for magazines that are supposed to be for writers where fairly young authors tell you, as if they have been writing and publishing for decades, some kernel of wisdom about that one thing your story or novel or poem supposedly needs to be publishable or at least so wonderful that no one would dare reject it. And books on writing are sometimes so self-indulgent and thoughtless, I wonder how these people sometimes made it out of Advanced Composition.

But Walter Mosley’s slim little book promises what it delivers. Following his clear, simple advice, one could actually compose a short novel and significantly revise the draft within a year. And this doesn’t come from a guy you haven’t heard of who just happened to get a book in print a couple years ago. This is from the mind of one of America’s best selling and most respected authors.

Mosley's main advice is to write every day. Simple? Yes, and no. A writer writes, I'm told, but so much of what Mosley talks about here is just why it is necessary to carve out that time, and not use other things (like research) as excuses to put off writing. Mosley also provides practical ideas on how to accomplish revision, an integral and oft neglected part of all writing. In addition, This Year You Write Your Novel gives some good pointers on another habitually ignored part of the writing process: reading. I particularly liked what he had to say about the value of reading poetry and the pitfalls of the writer’s group.

This Year You Write Your Novel is a book that should be on the bookshelf of every beginning novelist, but is well worth the purchase for some who have been writing a while. In fact, because it contains ideas concerning writing of all kinds, if I taught Advanced Composition, I’d probably assign the book in that class as well.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Music notes--Piety Street

I am one of the few people, I presume, who heard That’s What I Say, John Scofield’s tribute to Ray Charles, and got tired of it quickly. The playing was fine and the songs were good, but I guess I had not warmed up to singing along with Scofield’s fun and fuzzy guitar. But his latest project, Piety Street, may have me changing my mind.

In Piety Street, Scofield explores both blues and gospel. I already knew that he could play a mean blues guitar, and he certainly does not disappoint here, though some may feel the sound is a bit subdued. I happen to like this subdued sound. Piano and keyboard player Jon Cleary and John Boutte take on the vocals here and really shine. These tunes won’t make the listener feel likes she or he has been in church, but the spirit is definitely not missing here. Like Scofield’s guitar, these tunes are gritty and sweet at the same time.

I hope I can catch John Scofield as he tours with this material. I suspect it will sound terrific with the rest of his set, distinctive as this disc is.

Bookmarks--Cesar's Way

Before I get to why I recommend Cesar’s Way, let me get out of the way a couple things that bothered me about it. First, it didn’t take long for me to get tired of all the name dropping. I didn’t care much when Cesar Millan was talking about his work with Oprah’s or Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s dogs the first time. Doing so over and over about made me crazy.

Second, it seems that Millan didn’t know what kind of book he wanted to write. A friend recommended the book to me to help me with my own dog. There are parts that are certainly “self-help” or instructional. But parts of the book are memoir. These sections are interesting in their own right, but a few shorter stories to illustrate his points (without the aforementioned narratives about animals belonging to celebrities) would have been more effective I believe. When Millan wants to write a real memoir, I might read that too.

But as I made my way through this book, I did find I looked at my own relationship with my dog differently, and I suspect this is the main purpose of Cesar’s Way. I could see not only why it is important to walk a dog every day, but how to do so. I did gather insight into the behavior of my pet (and some people). Cleo (our dog) doesn’t get walked for an hour a day, as Millan suggests, but she gets a lot more than she did before, and I like being around her much more.

Readers might also find interesting what Cesar Millan has to say about “bad” dogs. I was particularly encouraged that habits that make some dogs seem mean or just plain stupid could be changed with the right attention and work.

Since reading Cesar’s Way months ago, I have also noticed how woefully ignorant most people are about the animals they make blithe commitments to. People who grew up around dogs, like me, often make some rather damaging assumptions that are addressed in this book. Don’t get me wrong. Millan (with help from Melissa Jo Peltier) writes about the obligation sometimes as if it is marriage, as if most of one’s waking hours should be devoted to the animal. That’s a bit strong for me. However, he has convinced me that dogs one takes into one’s home should play a greater role than barking at strangers and languishing in the backyard until the owner feels like playing. And if readers use half of what Millan suggests, they will find themselves in the midst of a very rewarding relationship.

Bookmarks--The Stupid Crook Book

The Stupid Crook Book, by Leland Gregory, is one of those perfect bathroom books. Each page contains one or two very short anecdotes. It is easy to read and certainly entertaining, in its own way. One does run the risk of having others wonder what is going on they pass by your reading room and hear your guffaws. But the bathroom is no place to seek enlightenment, so what do they expect?

Most of the stories in this collection are pretty darn funny. And there are plenty of good tales to tell, considering that most criminals are not that smart to begin with (and Americans really do enjoy laughing at other people’s idiocy). Having listened to and read bad stories by students who try to explain why they deserve a good grade when they never come to class or why they just had to plagiarize their papers, I admit to a smug satisfaction that not everyone with the same mindset is running the country, but that most trip themselves up, making the jobs of overworked police detectives that much easier.

But I do think there are a couple of problems with this book. Perhaps they fall under the pet peeves category, so take these criticisms for what they are worth. The lesser difficulty I have with The Stupid Crook Book concerns the many, many bad puns that seem to end most of the stories. A few is okay, but many were a stretch and the sheer number should make one groan.

The most significant flaw in this little volume is that not every story is about a person who is actually stupid, unless “stupid” is part of your general definition of criminal. In some cases, the criminal hasn’t done something idiotic, but has really had circumstances go against them (perhaps it is bad karma). Some of the stories are more about the odd things that criminals try to steal than about brainlessness that gets them caught. I’m not saying we should have sympathy for burglars who are having a bad day or robbers stealing a toilet or popsicles. However, with so many bad criminals in the world, why throw in narratives about what many would really call bad luck? (By the way, are criminals “smart” when they get away with their crimes? Where is the stupid police book?)

I’m sure my issues with The Stupid Crook Book won’t bother the average reader. As I mentioned, the book is, overall, pleasurable, even if that pleasure comes from thinking the reader is certainly not as dumb as the moronic and unsuccessful felons Mr. Gregory writes about.