Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Some people say/You can make it on your own/Oh, you can make it if you try/I know better now..."

The Song: "Real Real Gone," Van Morrison. Words & music by Van Morrison. Track 1 of Enlightenment, 1990.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1992.
Listen/watch here.

The horns at the beginning of this song are an automatic mood-lifter. I wish I could play the trumpet, or better yet, the trombone -- I would love to know how to make a note slide like that.

Here it is the 31st of July already. I'll be real real gone for the month of August, at least from this blog. In fact, I'm going to try to take two days completely off this week, and visit a couple of friends who are renting an island house. We'll see if I can manage it.

When the blog returns in September, the new theme will be "Gods & Monsters." Every day I'll feature a different god, hero, monster or villain, with due respect to believers. I'm a believer myself, which the blog will explain and explore, and I'll welcome contributions from interested parties. I expect to learn a few things along the way, and I hope you do, too.

Between now and then I may post the occasional book review, or just check in to say hello. Happy August, and see you in September.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"I don't know much but I'd like to know why."

The Song: "Maybe It's Imaginary," Kirsty MacColl. Words & music by Kirsty MacColl. Track 10 of Electric Landlady, 1991.
When/how acquired: Purchased used CD, c. 1994
I couldn't find this online, but you can see a pretty good cover here.

A former boss of mine once said he knew everything when he was 26, and had gotten dumber every year since. I might have peaked a few years later, maybe in my early 30s -- but without a doubt, I'm losing brain cells every day.

I'm surprised that this is only the second song from this album I've quoted this year. Electric Landlady is another one of my Desert Island Discs, and I'd ask for "The One and Only" to be played at my funeral except it would come off as maudlin.

That sound you hear is my deadlines rushing by you. Back to work, but I'll post tomorrow to close this year and announce next year's theme.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The right to work is traded in for the right to refuse admission."

The Song: "Clubland," Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 1 of Trust, 1981.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1984
Listen/watch here.

"Clubland" was the first song Elvis Costello and his band played off the Spectacular Spinning Songbook last night, and felt even more pointed in today's world than it did 30 years ago.

The show was fantastic, and Costello himself is uncanny. I don't see well in dim light, but on stage he looked ageless, just like the skinny kid he was 30 years ago. More than that, he looked like he was having a great time. We should all be so lucky; the man will be 57 next month, and he seems to be doing exactly what he wants to do.

Elvis Costello's gotten more posts in this year's blog than any other artist, and what I love about him is how wide his vision is. When he was burning out on New Wave in the early 1980s, he peeled off and made a country album. Later, he made an album with Burt Bacharach (Painted from Memory) that is still one of my favorites. After Katrina, he made The River in Reverse with New Orleans R&B legend Allan Toussaint.

Last night's set included covers of the Rolling Stones ("Out of Time"), Prince ("Purple Rain"), Johnny Cash ("Cry, Cry, Cry"), Jesse Winchester ("Payday"), Chuck Berry/Elvis Presley ("Promised Land"), and a version of "Tracks of My Tears" that segued from "Alison" and made me realize those are basically two versions of the same song. Elvis Costello understands his place on a river of music, and rides the river where it takes him. I admire that.

I said I'd talk about books this week and haven't really, but last night's show reminded me of one of my favorite reads of this year so far, which I don't think I've mentioned yet: NASHVILLE CHROME by Rick Bass. It's a novel based on the real-life story of The Browns, a brother-and-sister trio (Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed) who were early members of the Grand Old Opry, and toured with Elvis Presley. NASHVILLE CHROME is one of the best portrayals I've ever read of music as a job, and that tension between the longing for stardom and the need to make a living.

By the time my friend Richard and I got out of the State Theatre last night, the Spinning Songbook was already dismantled, and the stage was a jumble of boxes and cables and dollies. It's only glamorous from the outside, but on a good night it must be magic for the musicians as well as for the audience. Why else would they do it?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"There's a word in Spanish/Italian and German/In sign language, morse code/Semaphore and gibberish..."

The Song: "Pidgin English," Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 13 of Imperial Bedroom, 1982.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1983; purchased CD, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

Writing a lot this week for various clients, and one of the challenges is switching voices from one to another. An author's newsletter is not written in the same language as a marketing pitch, or a commercial website, or a press release, or Congressional testimony – although of course they're all in English. Switching back and forth, I occasionally come up blank when I reach for a word, and it's hardest of all to find my own voice again at the end of the day.

Tonight I have tickets to see Elvis Costello at the State Theatre, though it feels like playing hooky to take an evening off. I've seen him before, but it's been years. This time he's got the roulette wheel that lets audiences choose the playlist. I'm hoping to hear a lot from this album, which would rank near the top of my Desert Island Discs.

The words Elvis Costello is trying to come up with, in this song, are "P.S., I love you," which I don't say enough. We're three days away from the end of this blog incarnation, so go ahead and take that to heart -- thanks for hanging in there with me this year, and sorry I haven't been as conscientious as in previous years. When I'm AWOL, you can always check out blogs belonging to my cousins Moira and Sheila (who celebrates a birthday today).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"I know it might sound strange, but I believe/You'll be coming back before too long."

The Song: "(Don't go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. Words & music written by R.E.M. (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe). Track 5 of Eponymous, 1988.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1991.
Listen/watch here.

Yes, I know this track was originally on Reckoning; I don't own Reckoning. Sorry.

So I promised last week that I'd write about books this week, because I've gotten so far behind on my reading lists here. It's not that I haven't been reading; it's that I've been reading things for work, and reading things in bits and pieces, and reading works still in progress or at various stages pre-publication.

Of the finished books I've read this year, though, I've noticed a strange spike in stories about kidnappings. Joseph Finder's BURIED SECRETS is about a teenaged girl who's kidnapped and buried alive; Linwood Barclay's FEAR THE WORST is another story about a missing teenager, with his trademark revelations of shocking family secrets; Michelle Gagnon's KIDNAP AND RANSOM is an interesting look at the international paramilitary industry of kidnapping.

The most powerful kidnapping thriller I've read this year, though, is also the shortest: Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING. (I almost used a line from that Chris Isaak song as today's lyric, but there isn't much to the song.) I've read the book twice now -- I needed to give myself a couple of weeks to digest it, then went back for a second look. If anything, it punched harder the second time around.

THE END OF EVERYTHING is set in a wealthy Michigan suburb, sometime in the 1980s (the book includes at least one anachronism, but it's a memory piece, verging on the surreal, so I didn't mind). It's narrated by Lizzie, who is 13 the summer her best friend Evie disappears. Lizzie and Evie are next-door neighbors; Lizzie's parents are divorcing, and she longs for a father like Evie's. The mystery of where Evie has gone, and with whom, is solved quickly enough. The book is more about why, and what happens to Lizzie and the others who are left behind.

Some of the published reviews of this book, while positive, have missed the point in quite a spectacular way. This is not a conventional thriller: it is almost an emotional autopsy, a fearless look at the violent boundaries of adolescence. Thirteen-year-old girls are chimeras, extraordinary creatures who are neither girls nor women, but both. It's a strange and dangerous time, and I'm not sure I've ever read a book that examines this as ruthlessly as THE END OF EVERYTHING does. When I finished it, I told Megan that I felt a little afraid of her. She took it as a compliment, which was my intention, but I wasn't kidding. We should all be a little afraid of anyone who sees the world this sharply, and isn't afraid to report what she sees.

I finished this book and wished that I belonged to a book group, so I had someone to discuss it with. I have discussed it, at length, with a couple of friends, and have not been surprised by how viscerally everyone seems to respond to it. It's made at least one of my friends downright angry, which I take as proof of the uncomfortable truths at its center. Exactly what those truths are I don't want to say, for fear of giving away too much of the story -- but if anyone wants to discuss the book in the comments section, go right ahead. Everybody else, skip the comments to avoid spoilers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Special Bonus Post! Five Exotic Major League Pitches

Tim Wakefield is one of only two knuckleballers pitching in the Major League today (the other is R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets). I realized yesterday that I don't actually know what a knuckleball is, nor could I explain several of the other pitches Wakefield threw yesterday. So for my edification and yours, a quick rundown.

1. Knuckleball. A pitch thrown deliberately to minimize the ball's spin in flight, which creates erratic speed and motion. Knuckleballs are hard to throw, hard to catch, hard to hit and hard for umpires to call. The pitcher who brought it to the Major Leagues, Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox, actually held the ball with his knuckles before throwing it; Tim Wakefield holds it with his fingertips. Knuckleballs are slow -- 55-75 mph -- so it's their unpredictability that makes them hard to hit.

2. Cutter. A fastball that breaks slightly toward the pitcher's glove side as it reaches the plate. Most effective against opposite-handed batters.

3. Splitter. A split-fingered fastball, related to the changeup, sometimes called a forkball (though a forkball differs slightly, and I'll be grateful to anyone who can explain how). Splitting the fingers when throwing a fastball makes it behave more like a knuckleball, but (obviously) faster. The ball drops and moves right or left as it reaches the plate, forcing the batter to try to chase it with the bat.

4. Slider. A pitch slightly slower than a fast ball that breaks sideways and down as it reaches the plate, and is thus a type of breaking ball.

5. Changeup. Sometimes called a slow ball or an off-speed pitch, it's created by changing the grip on the ball. Pitchers generally use two fingers to throw a fastball; changeups use three, with the ball held closer to the palm, or cradle the ball in a circled hand. The goal is to fool the batter about the speed of the approaching ball, so that even if the batter makes contact, the ball flies foul.

"You'll be a bust, be a bust, be a bust/In the Hall of Fame."

The Song: "We Welcome You to Munchkinland," original cast members. Words & music by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. Track 5 of The Wizard of Oz, original motion picture soundtrack, 1939.
How/when acquired: This is a cheat, as I don't actually own this track. I did once, on vinyl, as a tiny child; years later I did again, on a floppy disk, as part of a screensaver package. But this track I found on Spotify, which I just got and love like a new pet.
Listen/watch here.

Yesterday I went to Fenway Park for the very first time, to see the Red Sox clobber the Mariners and Tim Wakefield pitch his 2,000th career strikeout (and the 2001st, too). It was Maine Appreciation Day; thanks to my friend Richard for bringing me along.

Tim Wakefield turns 45 next week, and has been pitching for the Red Sox since 1995. He is currently the oldest active player in Major League Baseball, and yesterday marked his sixth win of the season, bringing his record to 6-3 for the year. Last year he won the Roberto Clemente Award (after being nominated eight times) as the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."

What makes Wakefield's performance even more remarkable is that he didn't start out as a pitcher at all. He came to the majors (after being told he never would) as a first baseman, with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988. He decided to try to learn to pitch, and worked his way back up from the Carolina League (single-A ball, if you remember Bull Durham). He spent most of the first half of the 1990s in the minor leagues, eventually being released from the Pirates and winding up with the Red Sox in 1995 basically because he and they didn't have many other choices. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tim Wakefield just wanted to keep playing, and has found a way to do it for 23 years. Whether or not he ever gets elected to the official Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, he's already a Hall of Fame player, and I'm so very glad that I got to watch him play. It makes me want to work on a knuckleball of my own.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"I wish that I could push a button/And talk in the past and not the present tense."

The Song: "Brilliant Mistake," The Costello Show (Elvis Costello). Words & music by Declan MacManus (Elvis Costello). Track 20 of The Very Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, 1994.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

This track appeared first on the 1986 album King of America, which my then-boyfriend owned on vinyl, but I never did. For some reason the songs on this album are credited to Elvis Costello's birth name, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, which reminds me that I've always wondered what his friends call him. Surely his wife doesn't call him Elvis? "Aloysius" was my own grandfather's middle name, and I always liked it, although you probably couldn't call a kid that today.

Anyway, I digress. We're having a heat wave in central Maine, along with the rest of the country, and my brain is melting and slowly leaking out of my ears. It seems impossible that a month ago I had the heat on, and I know that a month from now we'll already be looking at autumn. That does not make today's 90-degree temperatures any easier to take. Dizzy lies in front of my floor fan and whimpers; I'm sitting here with a cold pack draped around my neck, although it's turned lukewarm and clammy. Disgusting. I could go work at the state library and probably will, since the heat's making my computer erratic (at least, I hope it's the heat). But I feel both worried and guilty about Dizzy, who will probably need a trip to the river or the reservoir in another half hour or so.

I realize it's been a very long time since I posted a reading list, and since it has, I'll make all of next week's posts about books. The problem is that I've been reading too much for work, and some of that is confidential, so I need to figure out what I can and can't admit to having read.

Still, I have no reservation about recommending my current reading material, which is Hodder's UK trade paperback reissue of NINE COACHES WAITING by Mary Stewart. I read this book first when I was nine, I think. It was one of the very first grown-up books I ever read, and I reread my mother's paperback copy until it fell to pieces. It is a modern (well, 1958) updating of a classic Gothic tale: Linda Martin, English governess, comes to the remote Chateau de Valmy to care for the nine-year-old Comte, an orphan whose uncle Leon serves as guardian. Leon's son is a handsome rogue named Raoul, who sweeps Linda off her feet -- but soon enough, Linda realizes that all is not as it seems, and that both she and her young charge are in deadly peril.

At nine years old, I wanted to live in this book. I wanted to ride in the passenger seat of Raoul de Valmy's Cadillac, taking the Alpine turns at reckless speed. I wanted to be able to make my own ball gown from Italian gossamer found in a small mountain town. I wanted to drink cafe fine, not that I knew what cafe fine was, and quote William Blake to handsome strangers.

I do occasionally quote William Blake to strangers. And I drink my share of coffee, though I'm still not completely sure about the definition of cafe fine.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"I'm the devil and the king of lies."

The Song: "Crime," The Pietasters. Words & music by Todd Eckhardt. Track 9 of Willis, 1997.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1998.
Listen/watch here.

I have a lot of work to do. A lot. My apartment is a mess. My kitchen sink is full of dishes. And what am I doing?

Watching the Murdoch hearings on MSNBC. It's not our scandal, it's not even my country, but I cannot look away. "Are you familiar with the term 'willful blindness'?"

The facts of this case are compelling enough, and get more astonishing every day. (The Guardian is the best source of comprehensive coverage, though it can hardly claim to be a disinterested party.) But what's sucked me in is the sharp suspicion that this kind of thing has been happening for quite a while, may even happen all the time, and this is the inevitable product of our society's insatiable greed for gossip. In fact, I've heard a few people say they weren't particularly bothered by the idea of celebrities' cell phones being hacked, as it was part of the price of fame; they weren't outraged until they discovered that private individuals had been victimized.

I don't know where we got this idea that celebrities traded in their basic human rights as the price of fame, but I hope this scandal makes the whole gossip and "reality" industry stop and step back. People have a right to keep secrets, even if they're selling other elements of their personas. The public doesn't necessarily have a right to know, except about public actions being performed with public funds.

Imagine this level of aggressive reporting and national scrutiny being turned on our medical system, or on the Afghanistan campaign, or on any public matter that costs us money and shapes our lives.

The breakup of NewsCorp seems inevitable in light of these hearings, falling hard on the heels of yesterday's announcement of Borders' liquidation. I would like to think this presages an end to the dominance of the global corporation, and a new era of start-ups and small businesses and independent entrepreneurship. I don't know whether one thing necessarily follows another.

The lesson that emerges from this hearing, however, is that as soon as an organization becomes large enough to obscure personal responsibility, it does.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"I want a feeling for a dog."

The Song: "Dog," El Perro del Mar. Words & music by Sarah Assbring (El Perro del Mar). Track 5 of El Perro del Mar, 2006.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2009
Listen/watch here.

Sarah Assbring, the sole member of El Perro del Mar (Dog of the Sea), is Swedish, and while I know her English is better than my Swedish, I wonder why the songs on this album are written in a language that is obviously not her own. Then again, would we buy pop music recorded in Swedish? Possibly not, although the friend who gave me this CD probably would and has.

Anyway, this is a nice, bouncy chorus that's been running in my head all day, because Dizzy does not seem to be feeling well at all. I hope it's just the heat, which is brutal for Maine (although, in only the high 80s, would seem gentle in Washington or Los Angeles). Dizzy didn't get up until after 9:00 this morning, and is currently strategically positioned to catch the cross breeze between the fans in my living room and my bedroom.

I want to believe that Dizzy's life is a good one and mostly cheerful. He always seems happy to go out, happy to get a treat, happy to go for a ride. He's much slower than he used to be, though, and gets confused about things. His eyes are a little cloudy, and I'm not sure how well he hears any more. I've just made an appointment for his annual checkup, in two weeks, and found myself tearing up over the phone, just talking about the fact that he's suddenly an old dog.

The Pedigree Dog Age Calculator says he is between 82 and 89 in dog years. The vet's been saying for a while that Dizzy's in great shape "for an old guy," but until quite recently I've been able to forget that he's aging much more quickly than I am, and will not be with me forever.

I don't think he knows. I don't think dogs are that self-aware. Yesterday I took him down to the river and let him wade for a while, and he was perfectly happy. He wanted to say hi to everyone and sniff things and roll in the grass. At some point, the bad days will outnumber the good, and it'll be time to say goodbye. I hope I recognize it when it comes, and don't wait too long just because I'm not ready.

I'll never be ready.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"I only want to be left to my own ways/The rulers of one leaving all things undone."

The Song: "Rulers, Ruling All Things." Words & music by Midlake (Paul Alexander, Eric Nichelson, Eric Pulido, Mckenzie Smith and Tim Smith). Track 6 of The Courage of Others, 2010
When/how acquired: Purchased MP3, 2010
Listen/watch here.

I don't quite know what the words of this song mean, but they felt more than appropriate for me today, as I worked quite hard on a number of things and finished nothing. With luck, everything will be finished at once, sometime between now and Friday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Let the other forty million, three hundred and seven/People who want to get famous."

The Song: "Mr. Sellack," The Roches. Words and music by Terre Roche. Track 3 of The Roches, 1979.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

Last night I turned on the TV when I couldn't work any more, and found absolutely nothing to watch. No baseball, because of the Home Run Derby; none of the usual Monday night shows, because it's summertime. Instead, I had my choice of reality-based shows. I did not want to watch "The Bachelorette." I did not want to watch "America's Got Talent." I did not want to watch "Celebrity Chef Housewives of Peoria." I wasn't even in the mood for the series return of "No Reservations," although that's one of the few reality-based shows I do watch.

I wanted a story. I wound up ordering Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I on demand, because friends invited me to come along to the midnight show of Part II on Thursday. Most of what I watch on TV these days is movies, in fact -- not pay-per-view but Turner Classic Movies, the Sundance Channel, and the odd films that pop up on the Ovation network. I want to watch people pretending to be other people, not pretending to be themselves.

Something about that desperate desire to be on television breaks my heart. Are people so small, in their lives, in their worlds, that they need to be on TV just to prove to themselves that they exist? Do people think that being on television will turn them into something that they're not? I suspect they do. Of course, being on one of those shows does change them. For one thing, those shows need conflict to attract viewers, so I have no doubt that people being filmed look for opportunities to create that conflict. More conflict means more camera time -- more camera time that shows them to be people no one would want to know in real life. But they're famous, at least for a little while, and that seems to be the goal.

Where I notice this most of all, strange to say, is the supermarket checkout line. Tabloid covers used to be full of movie stars; now they're about reality TV "stars." This makes me weirdly sad, as I think about people looking through old copies of The Enquirer 40 years from now and having absolutely no idea who any of those people are. We're still watching 40-year-old episodes of "Bewitched." No one's going to be watching 40-year-old episodes of "Teen Moms."

Monday, July 11, 2011

"You might need me more than you think you will..."

The Song: "Brainy," The National. Words & music by The National (Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger & Scott Devendorf). Track 3 of Boxer, 2007.
When/how acquired: Purchased MP3, 2009
Listen/watch here.

Hi there. I know I've been away too long when friends start to write to ask whether I'm okay, because I haven't posted in a while.

Last week was an object lesson in many things, but most of all in the fine art of asking for help. My friends and family are constantly bailing me out in some fashion, and I realized last week that this is because, paradoxically, I do not ask for help in a timely manner. I don't want to admit that things are beyond me, and therefore I keep that secret (or flatter myself that I keep it secret) until it's obvious to everyone that I'm not coping, and then I do look like an idiot.

Had I gone to the doctor when I first got sick, no one would have accused me of faking it or malingering or being a big baby whiner. (Why I should accuse myself of those things, I do not know.) And had I gone to the doctor when I first got sick, I would not have missed the trip to New York I had planned, not only for a variety of work-related reasons but also to spend quality time with friends I hadn't seen in a while.

Now I am a week behind, because I got very little done last week, and will have to do all the things I'd hoped to do in person over the phone or by email. And that, at least, I might be a big baby whiner about.

I don't remember how or when I first heard this album, but it was probably through my brother-in-law, Scott. If you click through to the YouTube video I've linked to, you'll see the comment, "Every time someone listens to the national, my diary gets invaded by a stranger." I feel the same way. The whole album is a mine tunnel through my soul, and this song in particular kills me.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"I ain't nothing but tired/Man, I'm just tired and bored with myself."

The Song: "Dancing in the Dark," Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 11 of Born in the U.S.A., 1984.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1984.
Listen/watch here.

This is not my favorite track off this album, which is not my favorite Springsteen album, but it was the record that made him a star, and "I'm on Fire," "Bobby Jean" and "No Surrender" stand with Springsteen's very best work.

I was supposed to go to New York today, and instead am going to the doctor about a cough I have had, off and on, for the past six weeks. If I am honest about it, I've had this cough, off and on, for considerably longer than that. I don't go to doctors. I feel ashamed of myself when I get sick, and going to the doctor feels like an exercise in ritual humiliation, besides being horrifyingly expensive. Once upon a time I had a regular doctor; once upon a time I had good health insurance. See my earlier post about living like a refugee.

This will change, I think, sooner rather than later. Exactly how, I couldn't yet tell you. In the meantime, I'll try to be better about posting for the rest of the month.