Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hamlet + Brad Mehldau

Two unrelated quick notes:

One, I'm teaching Hamlet and feeling particularly thankful that I, somehow, got myself a job that requires -- actually requires -- me to read, talk about, and write about literature. Like, someone pays me to read Hamlet. Someone pays me to start (and try to stay out of) discussions about Heart of Darkness. Someone pays me to talk about Beloved. Someone pays me to reconsider the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And, on the best days, someone pays me to read a student paper that makes me see a book, a poem, a play, even a word, in a new light.

And two, there's a cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall" on Brad Mehldau's new CD. And it's brilliant. Completely reinvents the dang thing, beat first, keeping enough of the melody to showcase its smart simplicity, transforming enough of the melody to make it obvious that its simplicity is not necessarily its strength. Drums, bass, and piano keep unlocking and relocking, unlocking and relocking in this wonderful almost-chaos that's never as close to collapse as it appears.

Plus, Mr. Mehldau's trio plays out here at the end of the month.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ten Days to National Board Deadline

National Board deadline in ten days. Made for a fun spring break, kids. Really.

But, here's the real deal: I know that ten o'clock on a Friday night is no time to be writing (or "blogging," as some might say, verbing in a manner that I can't, just can't, bring myself to), but I had to share this, as I'm confident that I'll forget by whatever point next week that I remember that I, one, have a blog, and, two, have the ability to post to it.

It's Garfield Minus Garfield. Brilliant. Simple, and brilliant. Brilliant like the way that Yossarian finds the 22nd catch brilliant. Brilliant like the Liquor Giants are brilliant -- that perfect combination of coulda-done-it-myself and damn-i-mean-damn-I-wish-wish-wish-I-had-managed-to-think-of-that.

And how can you not like that?

Outside of Garfield, and National Board, and brewing twice, here's what went down this week:

1. Cormac McCarthy's first novel: The Orchard Keeper. I'm happy to be on this McCarthy kick. And this one was great. Floods, bootleggers, bars collapsing into the sort of crazy yawning abyss that they only dream of in the Garden State. And a funked-out not-quite-Oedipal conflict that develops every way but how you think it will. And a brilliant opening vignette.

2. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I liked this more than I thought I would, based on interviews that I've heard Dawkins give. In interviews, he comes across as a self-righteous, half-intelligent, faith-based preacher of no-faith, spouting platitudes and possibilities as if they're supported by the kind of evidence that he insists all such spoutings should have as their foundation. But, the book has enough interesting moments to keep me with it. Sure, there's a little too much "and then I got this email from a reader in Topeka" and "and then I found myself in a debate with a distinguished Anglican believer and I tried to dissuade him from his etc etc," and I ultimately found myself liking Sam Harris' style and voice more, but there was something about this British guy, this educated British guy, trying to get all righteous and angry while remaining sensitive to everything in the whole damn world (except faith) that amused me. And, yes, that's mostly because my understanding of the British comes, first and foremost (and, therefore, most importantly) from National Lampoon's European Vacation, and I understand that. Understanding it, though, doesn't make it less humorous, to me, to read this discourse that's trying so hard to be angry, to be righteous, to be shaking-fists-pissed, in the voice of an unfailingly polite Brit.

3. Richard Price's Clockers. Because it'll be another eight or nine months before the last season of The Wire hits DVD.

4. I found Ha Ha Tonka's album at a used CD store for 3.99 and picked it up. So far, it hasn't impressed me as much as Panda Bear's record has. We'll see how it goes from here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Detroit - Denver

Couldn't seem to get this one on the laptop, making me wonder just what spring break is for, if I can't stay up past ten o'clock watching the Pistons score 136 points -- 136 points -- against the Nuggets.


The endless playoffs are still a ways away, in any case. And, as they do every year, they'll start, and I'll get fooled into thinking that it means that the school year is about to end, only to wind up, months later, writing and grading exams during the Finals.

Which makes me wonder: if I, loving my job as much as I do, still look so forward to my two months off every summer, how awful must it be to simply cruise through, simply tolerate one's job, and dream about future vacations?

But the real point: should anyone decide to make this jersey available, I'll buy one.

And the secondary point: I went looking for a Rasheed Wallace jersey for Harper, figuring that it best fits his personality, but it seems as though the kiddies have to choose between Chauncey and Rip. No Sheed. (And no Lindsey Hunter onesie for Maya, either, damnit).

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Sunset Limited

On a student recommendation, I read Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited a week or two ago. It’s a single act (McCarthy calls it a novel in dramatic form), a single setting – a room in a New York City tenement – and only two characters populate that setting: White and Black.

A fast read, fast enough so that you can go back and read it again immediately after finishing it, and well worth reading. White and Black carry on what is, in essence, a Platonic dialogue about faith.

Through the first half, I found myself entirely an observer, not particularly taken by anything either character said. Same old same old, really, I felt, when it comes to this sort of conversation. But, midway through Black’s “jailhouse story” (notwithstanding that the entire dialogue is, in essence, a jailhouse story, the door to the tenement room being covered in locks and chains) of conversion, White describes the tale as “the story of how a fellow prisoner became a crippled one-eyed halfwit so that you could find God.”

“Whoa,” says Black.

Whoa, said I. I was no longer an observer. What White said was exactly what I would have said, and exactly what I have said, about such stories. This is what has, for so long, fundamentally offended me about assertions like, "All things happen for a reason," or "God must be trying to teach me something," or "God sure showed me what I needed to know, now that I look back on it." And McCarthy saw it and gave it to White.

The second half, then, took off. I certainly did not become White, nor did I identify entirely with what he said throughout the rest of the play, but I found myself paying much, much closer attention. And that’s a great experience, when literature, when art, when a film, when a piece of music, when a landscape, when a moment, can grab a relatively passive you, shake you, wake you up, and push you, even for a limited time, into wakefulness.

Now, would I teach it? Probably not, just given that I don’t want – at least, not yet – my entire English class to be built around McCarthy. And since we already read The Road, and most of my students read No Country for Old Men, and some read All the Pretty Horses, I think I’ll leave it at that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Keep It or Lose It? Why Is It There?

Okay, so I know that 80 GB of music in portable form is, in some rational sense, too much. I know that having access to another 20 GB wouldn't -- again, from any rational perspective -- improve my life. Wouldn't even change it, really.

And I know that another 500 albums sitting in a pocket isn't, just by virtue of being more, automatically, better than not having another 500 albums.

And I know that the quest for the perfect collection of artists, the perfect combination of familiar and new music, is quixotic, at best.

And I know that the word quixotic marks me as an idiot.

But, just like using more activator only stimulates the jheri curl to want more activator, I find myself, every week or so, having to decide what GB of music to move of the iPod in order to make room for a different GB's worth.

Which brings me to this post. A few songs, shuffled up, and a decision, upon individual reflection, whether to keep or lose each one.

1. "Glass Hotel," by Robyn Hitchcock. There are only a few RH songs on here (and a handful of Soft Boys' numbers, as well), and all of them from Eye. I don't know that I necessarily need, say, "Queen Elvis" or "Certainly Clickot" (which I put on the iPod originally only so that sometime, somewhere, I could hear the lines "I had one chance to stop her eggs / Pronounced 'eggs' or 'Brad,'" lines that I used to find quite funny), but this one I like. It's got a great, delicate melody. And unlike "Beautiful Girl," which I like, but that originally made the cut mostly because it makes me think of Dan Wineman and my sophomore year of college, it's one that I like because of the song itself, not because of associations with it. And although I haven't listened to Eye in a few years, hearing this song now, out of context, made me want to hear the album again. So, it stays.

2. "I Don't Mind," by James Brown. The track itself was ripped from the Star Time box, but the version of the song originally came from Live From the Apollo. I'd rather hear the song in the context of the live album -- 30 perfect, joyous, pleading, soulful, knee-dropping minutes if there ever were -- but so good is JB here, and so good is his backup and so immediate and keyed in is the audience's reactions to his every cry and moan, that it has to stay.

3. "Billy Preston," by Miles Davis. From the Complete On the Corner Sessions. Now, I love me some On the Corner. It's chaotic, it's dark, it's dense, it's abrasive, yes, but it's also hypnotic, rich, layered, and, ultimately, melodic. And there are parts of the box set that are fantastic -- though mostly those parts, like "He Loved Him Madly" that had already seen release elsewhere -- but, like the Jack Johnson box, too much of the extraneous material doesn't work on its own. It might have a certain impressive cumulative weight over the course of several discs, but a track like this, 14 minutes of relatively aimless, formless searching-without-finding can't hold up to being excerpted from that context. A great bassline, with plenty of space, but nothing particularly interesting riding atop it. It should get cut, I guess.

4. "Percy's Song," by Fairport Convention. Dylan originally wrote this, and hearing his version, on the Biograph collection, when I was a sophomore in high school, was one (of soooo many) of the more formative musical experiences of my youth. FC's rendition lacks the weary sadness of Dylan's, and while it has an impressive arrangement, and great harmonies during the refrains, and fantastic guitar, it still sounds, in the end, like a bunch of good musicians singing a folk song. And that's not a bad thing, necessarily. And it does, in the end, achieve a certain catharsis. And it reminds me of what it was like to hear, really hear, Dylan for the first time. And, in that, it reminds me of what it's like to be open to getting, on such a wonderfully regular basis, absolutely blown away by music that you haven't heard before, to having your freaking life changed, man, by an album or song or cracked vocal or three-part harmony in a middle-eight every three or four days. So, it stays.

5. "The Clairvoyant (live)," by Iron Maiden. From the bonus disc included with some pressings of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Now, this is a Tuesday afternoon I can get behind. Sure, I desperately need to finish up a unit for my National Board Certification Seminar this evening, and I can't, in good conscience, spare the time to continue to write this nonsense, but, damnit, I like this song. I like the album. I'm tempted to cut it -- because, really, do I need a relatively straightforward live reading of an album track? It's not like they rearrange it for solo piano. And Bruce never, say, implores the audience to scream for him. But, instead, I think I'll cut the album track and keep this. It has less of a synthesized guitar sound.

6. "Long Lonely Nights," by Lee Andrews & the Hearts. From Rhino's first doowop box set. Now, here's the problem with this exercise: I don't want this thing to shuffle up when I'm driving home from school on a perfect spring day, or even while driving to an afternoon class on a perfect spring day, and so, part of me says, "Cut it. Cut it. Be a man and cut it, for Christ's sake, and quit your crying. 'Tis unmanly grief, as Claudius says." But, right now, in this moment, I like it. Sure, a little doowop goes an awfully long way, and I don't need 100 slightly different iterations of this song and sound, but isn't the occasional perfect doowop moment worth the 4 MB this thing probably takes up?

7. "Tell It to Me," by Tom Waits. From Orphans. No brainer: Tom stays. Unbelievable bass sound on this. I find the pedal steel to be a little intrusive, but only because the song is already so perfect before it wanders in. "For all of your faithless beauty / I'll give all of my tomorrows." That pretty much captures it, doesn't it? And don't be afraid to check out this Waits site:

All that to cut one song?

Random Journal Page

I wanted to get a post in today -- lest I let slip another two months -- but only have a few minutes before a department meeting. So, I thought I would offer a re-run. Not a post, but a random page from a journal. I grabbed a notebook from the wardrobe in my classroom (turned out to be the fall/winter 2005 journal) and opened to a random page. Here you go:

demand of the universe that it provide answers, that it unmask itself and reveal its meaning, even if "there's naught beyond," even if its meaning is, in fact, meaningless.

"Time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more... All loveliness is anguish to me." (37)

Now, Ahab has his reasons for feeling this and while might not relate completely to those reasons, I can certainly relate to the feeling itself. That sunrise that once spurred us becomes the sunrise that leaves us squinting and bleary becomes the sunrise that leaves us indifferent. And it's where he goes from there that is so marvelous:

"Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power." (37)

It's Prufrock. It's self-justification and self-abnegation rolled into one messy nautical package. He is damned, he says. Damned in the midst of paradise. Damned in the midst of that which he used to love so strongly. Damned in the midst of a universe that used to make sense, that used to present more answers than questions, that used to order itself in a perfect, aesthetically

And there the page ends. Sorry for the pretension of having it be about Moby-Dick (a classtime writing assignment, I'm sure), but once you decide to excerpt a random page, you can't go picking and choosing what the random page will be.