Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin’ done?'/God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'”

The Song: "Highway 61 Revisited," Bob Dylan. Words & music by Bob Dylan. Track 7 of Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 2008.
Listen/watch here.

The Old Testament reading in today's missal is the Bible story that bothers me most, the story of God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of his devotion. Abraham takes Isaac up the mountain to the place of sacrifice, and begins to prepare him as he would a lamb; at the last minute God intervenes and spares Isaac's life.

This story is a foundation myth of three of the world's religions, and was presented to me as a child as evidence of God's great mercy. I don't see it that way. I see it as something much more mysterious and terrifying. What kind of God demands so great a sacrifice? (What kind of God, for that matter, demands a sacrifice at all?) And then, when God sees that Abraham is willing to make that sacrifice, what kind of God disrespects that by saying, "Never mind, I was just testing you." I find the reprieve even more disturbing than the original demand. Are we not to believe what God tells us, what God asks of us? Is God so capricious and careless of our feelings and our faith?

The Catholic theologians who taught me said that this was both a paradox and a promise, a mystery solved by God's own sacrifice of Jesus as a symbol of God's love for us. I wasn't sure about that as a child, and I am not sure about it now. If God exists everywhere and in all times simultaneously, how does God learn? How is God's nature revealed to God? Is God self-aware? How can God not be? (I am deliberately avoiding pronouns; "God the Father" is a convenience but in my mind a limiting form of reference to that aspect of the Almighty.)

I'm not saying I don't believe. I do believe, which is why this troubles me so much. Later, in the book of Job, God blasts Job for challenging God's decisions -- "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

Ultimately, the only way a thinking person can get through a day, much less a life, is to accept that we never know when we're going to wind up on Highway 61. Things happen for reasons we don't understand. As the proverbs say, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"But what you gonna do when you/Slowly fade... I go invisible"

The Song: "Invisible," Michael Penn. Words & music by Michael Penn. Track 7 of March, 1989.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1990; purchased MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

It is something that happens to middle-aged women: we become invisible. The author Laura Lippman has written about it more eloquently than I can, though I can't find a citation right now.

I am, by nature, vocation and profession, a facilitator. I am most comfortable behind the scenes. I do not like to have my picture taken. I don't usually mind it when people don't remember my name, and don't expect people who call me Clair to be able to spell it correctly.

But today, this week, I am having a hard time with it.

If you see a news item about an incident of mayhem in a small New England town, you will know that I simply had one too many days of invisibility.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Who knows why you wanna lay there and revel in your abandon."

The Song: "Refugee," Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Words & music by Tom Petty & Mike Campbell. Track 1 of Damn the Torpedoes, 1979.
When/how acquired: Gift bootleg cassette, c. 1981.
Listen/watch here.

If I were ever to make a playlist that tried to explain my life, this song would be on it. I live like a refugee. I admit it. I have for most of my adult life, even when I didn't need to. I don't need to. I can't seem to help it. At this point, which is midlife if I live to be 90, I probably ought to get some help for it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Hey, you could be/A hero in your own hometown."

The Song: "Hero in Your Own Hometown," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 2 of A Place in the World, 1996.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1996.
I can't find a version of this song available for preview. You should probably just buy the album.

Yesterday I went down to Boston for the launch of BURIED SECRETS by Joseph Finder, at Brookline Booksmith. Brookline Booksmith is one of the world's great bookstores, and if I had any money I would spend a lot of it there. It made me feel great to see such a wonderful collection of books, new and old, on topics I might otherwise never think much about -- science, sociology, phrases for travelers visiting Poland.

And it was great to see so many people turn out for Joe's book launch. Joe lives in Boston, and the crowd was about evenly split between fans and personal friends. It is not a small thing to have your friends turn out for a book launch. It often seems easier for people to stay home, especially when the Green Line is full of people trying to get to a Red Sox home game. (They lost, by the way. Everyone would have been better off going to Brookline Booksmith.)

BURIED SECRETS, which I did a very little bit of work on, is the second adventure for Joe's series character, Nick Heller, a "private spy." As the book begins, Nick has returned to his hometown of Boston to set up his own practice, and an old friend asks for help with a problem he can't go to the police about.

Many things make Boston a particularly good setting for a hero like Nick, and I wish I'd thought to ask Joe about that last night. Undoubtedly there will be other chances, as it looks like Nick will be fighting crime on the streets of Beantown for years to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand..."

The Song: "Jungleland," Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 8 of Born to Run, 1975.
When/how acquired: Gift LP, 1980.
Listen. Watch.

There was rock and roll before Clarence Clemons, and there will be rock and roll after him. But this song was the dividing line. It changed everything. Even now I listen to it in awe. It is poetry in words and music, and Clarence's solo disembowels us and breaks our hearts and makes us believe in whatever it was we hoped for when we were sixteen years old.

The rest of us have to live without him. Rest in peace, Big Man.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"C'est la vie, said the old folks/It goes to show you never can tell."

The Song: "You Never Can Tell," Chuck Berry. Words & music by Chuck Berry. Track 9 of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, 1994.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1994; downloaded MP3, 2010.
Listen/watch here.

It was not quite a teenaged wedding yesterday — my nephew George is 23 — but the old folks, including me, certainly wished them well. Today's quotation might have been "I knew the bride when she used to rock & roll," but George's bride Carissa actually does still rock & roll, so it wouldn't be nearly as appropriate.

Most of the people who read this blog are going to turn up at breakfast in about 15 minutes, so all I'll say is that yesterday was lovely, and I hope it's the first of many lovely days ahead.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Feels like home to me/Feels like I'm on my way back/Where I come from."

The Song: "Feels Like Home," Mae Robertson. Words & music by Randy Newman. Track 12 of Smile, 2002.
When/how acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2008.
I can't find Mae Robertson's cover online, but you can listen to/see Randy Newman's original here.

The air hit me like a wet, smoky blanket when I walked out of the Jacksonville airport last night. I had forgotten what real humidity felt like, and will not be complaining about Maine's weather for the rest of the summer.

But I grew up in weather like this (minus the smoke, coming from the fires throughout central Florida), and was surprised by how much it felt like home.

Homesickness, as I've said before in this space, is the essential human condition. It's one of my rationalizations for living in Maine: I will always be a stranger in a strange land there, so will never relax and fool myself into thinking I'm at home when I'm not. But the longing for home is powerful, if we could only be clear about what home is.

This song offers the possibility that home might just be the right person. I hope that's true, and I especially hope it for my nephew George and his fiancee Carissa, who are getting married here later today.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"I've got no time for you right now/Don't bother me."

The Song: "Don't Bother Me," The Smithereens. Words & music by George Harrison. Track 7 of Meet the Smithereens, 2007.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

Oy, I just realized it's Thursday and I haven't been here in days. Sorry. Scrambling on many fronts, getting ready to leave for Florida this afternoon for my nephew George's wedding, and fighting something that started as allergies and became bronchitis. I'm still coughing, although I must be better, because if I hadn't gotten better from earlier in the week I'd be dead.

This CD, a gift from my friend Tom, is one of the more delightful oddities in my collection. It's a track-by-track cover of Meet the Beatles, which my mother owned an original pressing of. God only knows what that would be worth now; my dad might still have it, but it can't be in very good shape. We played it to a wafer when I was a kid.

The Beatles were my earliest exposure to popular music. My mother was an executive secretary in Capitol Records' distribution office from 1960 until her marriage, in 1965; she had a front-row seat for Beatlemania, and took Cynthia Lennon shopping during the Beatles' first New York visit. She met them all, and George was her favorite. At a reception for the Beatles at the Plaza Hotel, during their first visit, George spilled a drink, and immediately got down on the carpet with a napkin to blot it up. Mom never forgot that.

I'm embarrassed to say that I don't own Meet the Beatles in any format, although I have almost all the other Beatles album on CD. The Smithereens' cover version is terrific, faithful to the original arrangments but adding their own distinctive jangle. I recommend it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"When the change was made uptown/And the big man joined the band/From the coastline to the city/All the little pretties raise their hands."

The Song: "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 2 of Born to Run, 1975.
When/how acquired: Gift LP, c. 1980.
Listen/watch here.

Turned on the news this morning and could not understand what everyone was talking about, because the only news that matters this morning is that Clarence Clemons had a stroke. The Big Man is 69, amazingly enough -- the same age as my father -- and this song is 36 years old, but come on: we're not ready to say goodbye.

It's impossible to explain or overstate this album's place in my life. I have a signed copy of the album cover on my bedroom wall, a long-ago gift from my high school boyfriend, who won it from a radio station. The music is hardwired into my DNA. Virginia Beach wasn't the Jersey Shore, but it was close enough, and these songs gave my friends and me stories we could tell about ourselves, or at least aspire to.

By coincidence, this morning's Wall Street Journal reports on a scientific study that seems to prove what most of us already knew: the music we love as teenagers strikes something deep in our brains, and stays there. I was 12 or 13 when I first heard this song -- at a dance recital, of all places -- and I'll be able to sing along to it when I'm 90, I hope.

Here's hoping that Clarence will play it when he's 90, too.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

"Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm."

The Song: "Enjoy the Silence," Depeche Mode. Words & music by Martin L. Gore. Track 6 of Violator, 1990.
When/how acquired: I have no idea. It's in my iTunes; I suspect I borrowed it from a housemate, sometime around 1995.
Listen/watch here.

Violator is one of those albums that everyone of a certain age and worldview owns, or should. It's telling that I have absolutely no idea how or when I acquired it. I just have it, as if it magically appeared in my music collection because it knew it needed to be there.

On a semi-related subject, I recently saw a list of people's greatest regrets at the end of their lives. It was touching and much what you'd expect: spent too much time at work, didn't take enough risks, didn't give themselves credit for being the person they were. To that list I would add: I didn't spend enough time at gay discos. Seriously, I didn't. I didn't spend enough time dancing in a safe place when I was the right age and body shape to do that. If I had it to do over, I've have gone dancing a LOT more. A lot.

I digress. Today's song was an obvious choice, especially after my client and friend John Connolly played it on his Internet radio show ABC to XTC this morning. It had been in my head since yesterday afternoon, when I made the mistake of watching Rep. Weiner's press conference. Congressman Weiner's press conference was one of the weirdest pieces of Washington theater I've ever seen, and I watched the Whitewater hearings pretty much gavel-to-gavel (I was recovering from back surgery, flipping between C-SPAN and "Animaniacs").

The first moral of yesterday's squirmfest was, don't be late to your own press conference.

The second, and most important, is Image Management 101: stop talking as soon as possible. State your message and get off the stage. Answer as few questions as possible. Do not solicit additional questions. Really, just stop talking after you've said what you had to say.

Rep. Weiner's initial statement was fine, if painful. (And Chris, credit where credit is due: you were right, about all of it.) I'm glad he didn't put his wife through the humiliation of joining him on the platform. All the humiliation was his, and I feel certain that was the source of the tears, not any true repentance — although I shouldn't say that, because who knows? Once he started taking questions, though, he slashed himself back open and legitimized further speculation. Idiotic, and enough to make any self-respecting press secretary quit. (I fully expect to see an announcement of that resignation before the end of the week.)

Today is the publication date of INK FLAMINGOS, the fourth and probably final installment in the Tattoo Shop Mysteries by my dear friend Karen E. Olson. INK FLAMINGOS is not only a solid, entertaining thriller (with a really nice edgy romance folded in), but also has the distinction of being the very first book ever dedicated to me. Yes, really. I may need to go buy ten copies today just to prove it to my family.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

"For this bleak existence/Man is never bad enough/Though his sheer persistence/Can be lovely stuff."

The Song: "Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor," C.K. Alexander. Words & music by Bertholt Brecht & Kurt Weill; translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Track 17 of The Three Penny Opera (Broadway Revival Cast), 1976.
When/how acquired: Purchased LP, 1984; purchased MP3, 2011
Can't find this online to share, but you can go buy it on iTunes or Amazon. Do it. Youll thank me.

By sheer luck this morning I discovered that this recording, which I've been hunting for at least ten years, is now available for purchase online, and has been for two years. How could I have missed it?

As far as I'm concerned, this is the definitive English-language production of this show. I saw a much feebler version, with Sting as Macheath, at the National Theatre in 1990 or so; Sting, while a charismatic presence on screen and at rock concerts, simply could not carry the role. Mask & Bauble did its own version as its spring musical in 1984, which was pretty terrific, if memory serves. It was an impressionable time for me, and this show was a major force in shaping my worldview even to this day.

Between this acquisition, the gorgeous weather, a long walk with Dizzy and last night's excellent audience for Earnest, I'm having a pretty good Saturday morning. Hope yours is equally good. Special birthday greetings today to my dear friend, colleague and co-conspirator Tom Ehrenfeld, who is responsible for this blog in many ways, and has been a support to me in more ways than one for - erk - more than 25 years.

Earnest closes tonight with one last performance. I'll be sad when it's over.

Friday, June 03, 2011

"I sleep with my fists clenched tight/When I don't lie awake all night."

The Song: "Tears Before Bedtime," Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 2 of Imperial Bedroom, 1982.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1983; purchased CD, c. 1994.

I can't find this version online. You can check out two very different versions of this song here and here.

It surprises me that I haven't quoted Imperial Bedroom more often in this blog, because it was the soundtrack of the summer after my senior year in high school, and is one of my Desert Island Discs. It is pure genius, beginning to end, and has probably had way too much influence on my romantic history.

Anyway, I do sleep with my fists clenched, when I sleep. No idea why, but this morning I woke up with my right hand clenched so tightly that I'm still having trouble typing, even after a shower and washing the dishes and walking the dog. If I won the lottery I would go to one of those sleep centers and let them evaluate me, and give me drugs if necessary. I don't play the lottery.

Dizzy sleeps with a purple winged dragon I bought him over the winter. It was an expensive toy, advertised as being exceptionally durable, and so far the advertising holds true. He's very attached to it; if it's still up on the bed in the morning after our walk, he'll bark at me until I get it down for him, so he can nap with it. I would love to know what it represents to him.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

"What's a man now/What's a man mean/Is he rough or is he rugged/Cultural and clean?"

The Song: "Real Men," Joe Jackson. Words & music by Joe Jackson. Track 8 of Night and Day, 1982.
When/how acquired: Bootleg cassette copy, 1984; purchased MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

I admit I'm paying more attention than I should to the Anthony Weiner Twitter uproar, in which someone Tweeted a photo of an excited man in his underwear to a Seattle college student. Rep. Weiner's response to all of this has been, to put it mildly, bizarre. The photo might be him, he says, but he didn't send it.

The most logical explanation, which I haven't heard anyone offer, is that Rep. Weiner doesn't manage his own Twitter account. I can't imagine that most public figures do, or at least not full-time. Twitter is fun, but a terrible distraction. I have one author client who rations himself to an hour in the morning and an hour at the end of the day, and another who treats Twitter as a sort of online bar, which I think is exactly right - an entertainment, not a serious medium of communication.

It's an extremely tricky medium for politicians, because it doesn't allow for nuance or consideration. Twitter's about knee-jerk reactions in 140 characters or less, and that's not something any serious politician should be doing. Twitter's also interactive, and engaging the public in an open forum that leaves a permanent record is a high-risk political activity.

So I would guess that most elected officials delegate their Twitter feed to their legislative correspondents (LCs). LCs are the lowest-ranking professional staff in a Congressional office. Their title is their job description: they handle letters and emails that come into the office, providing routine responses where they can and routing action items to legislative assistants, district-office caseworkers, and other branches of government where appropriate. The typical LC is under the age of 25, right out of college, and might be making $27,000 (which is not enough to live independently in Washington, DC; junior Hill staffers almost always live with roommates or in group houses).

Therefore, my first thought when I heard about the Weiner scandal (!) was that an LC had gotten drunk one night and decided to use the Congressman's Twitter account to send a photo of his anatomy to his girlfriend. When the Congressman's office first bungled its response, I assumed it was because Rep. Weiner didn't want to admit that it's not him Tweeting. But now his series of non-explanation explanations and non-denial denials have just gotten weirder and weirder, and I've given up trying to come up with any new theories.

Today's quotation, though, was almost another Joe Jackson line — "Don't you know that it's different for girls?" — because in all seriousness, this is not a situation that a female legislator would ever find herself in. Who takes photos of their own genitalia, clothed or unclothed? Who assumes that anyone else would want to see them? Good grief.

Lady Bracknell and I both disapprove. You have three more chances to see her, tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at Gaslight Theater.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

"All romantics meet the same fate someday/Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe."

The Song: "The Last Time I Saw Richard," Joni Mitchell. Words & music by Joni Mitchell. Track 10 of Blue, 1971.
When/how acquired: Bootleg cassette, c. 1984; downloaded MP3, 2008.
Listen/watch here.

Romantics are just people who believe that life is supposed to follow a narrative, and that that narrative is supposed to be driven by emotions rather than practicality. I would not describe myself as a romantic, though I certainly was in earlier days. Young people should be. Young people should believe that life is supposed to go in certain ways. Character emerges from how we react when we discover that the universe laughs at "supposed to."

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Blue. I first heard it in high school, but didn't really discover it until the summer of 1984. I was sharing a basement apartment in Glover Park with my best friend, Laurie, who listened to it on a more or less continuous loop. It's a very different album now, as I listen to it at 45, than it was when I listened to it at 18. It's still just as wondrous, which marks it as a true work of art.