Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ethno-music...: Mixtapes: Jason Kohn's "Rabbi Shubert Sings"

Here's a lesson for mixtape makers: a title can go a long way toward capturing a theme. Or at the very least, helping you to remember where a mixtape is from and what it has on it. So when I look at this tape...

I instantly think of Midway Jewish Center, where I learned to fake prayers and got something of an ethical education through stories.
Example: The secretary at a dentist's office tells the two Jewish dentists that her husband is sick and they've run out of insurance money. One dentist cries and commiserates and gives her whatever small cash he has on hand. The other dentist looks at his watch, quickly dashes off a check for 10% of what he made that year, and heads for the door. 
Who acted more appropriately for the principles of tzedakah (which we loosely translate as "charity")? 
The guy with the check and no tears, because though we often talk tzedakah as charity, the real meaning is closer to "justice" or "fairness." In other words, helping other people isn't about feeling nice or having a big heart; it's doing the fair thing for our fellow humans. 
Though I still have no idea why they were dentists. 
"Rabbi Shubert Sings" was a mixtape gift from Jason Kohn, my fellow worker in the Hebrew mines at Midway; Rabbi Shubert was our teacher one year. I believe he might've been the one who made fun of my long hair? Can anyone corroborate that? I remember him saying, "Ben will celebrate getting 100 on this test by getting a haircut."

"Rabbi Shubert Sings" isn't just the name of the mixtape, but the theme for the sides:

Side A: Torah
  1. Silent Majority, "Arthur Trevor"
  2. Rocket from the Crypt, "Shucks"
  3. 108, "Scandal (Live)"
  4. Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "Noise Brigade"
  5. Downset, "Anger!"
  6. Promise Ring, "A Picture Postcard"
  7. Snuff, "Rivers of Babylon"
  8. Propagandhi, "The Only Good Fascist is a Very Dead Fascist"
  9. H2O, "5 Year Plan"
  10. Against All Authority, "Centerfold"
  11. Clockwise, "Keep it Together"
  12. Lifetime, "The Boy's No Good"
  13. Less Than Jake, "Dopeman (remix)"
  14. Metroschifter, "$39.00"
  15. Avail, "Bob's Crew"
  16. Pietasters, "Girl Take it Easy"
  17. Shift, "Picturesque

Side B: Haftorah
  1. Snapcase, "Zombie Prescription"
  2. Bouncing Souls, "Ballad of Johnny X"
  3. HiFi and the Roadburners, "Get Outta My Way"
  4. Chokehold, "Afraid of Life"
  5. Inside, "Liquify"
  6. Mr. T Experience, "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend"
  7. VOD, "Choke"
  8. Sleepasaurus, "She Already Has a Boyfriend"
  9. Lagwagon, "Sick"
  10. Scofflaws, "Paul Getty" / "PWBA"
  11. Indecision, "Reconsider"
  12. Enkindle, "Petose"
  13. J Church, "Ivy League College"
  14. Downset, "Sangre de mis Manos"
  15. Bonus Track!

I'm going to be honest: this mix has some amazing songs; and it probably was in the top 5 most played mixes in my car. And yet, I still don't remember what that "Bonus Track" is.

You'll notice also that Jason's sensibilities at this time, in high school, align pretty well with Mike Pace's: there's your hardcore, like Downset and Snapcase; your punk, like Less Than Jake; your ska and ska-inflected bands, like the Bosstones and Pietasters; and a bunch of more humorous bands, like the Mr. T Experience.

Also, Promise Ring's "A Picture Postcard" deserves to be remembered. At least, I remember walking down the hallway of my freshman dorm at Bard and hearing it come out of a room that I pretty quickly invited myself into. 

UPDATE: I have heard the Bonus Track--and transferred it to mp3 thanks to a USB-capable cassette player--and it is... 

LL Cool J with "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

Monday, December 29, 2014

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, season one

The short version response: I'm not sure I'll watch the second season.

I was one of the people who was pretty excited by Marvel's Agents of SHIELD before it showed and pretty underwhelmed by the first few episodes. So I've only gotten around to watching the first season now, after I heard some reports that it really shaped up with some Whedon-esque twists later.

Uh, well, I'm glad that some people like it.

Now, I really don't want to perform hate on a bit of popular culture because (a) it's not really worth it and (b) it's really hard to make anything, let alone make anything good.

So, what's the good lesson to take from this show? The big lesson is: don't hide your light under a bushel. Or, more concretely: if there's something that makes your work interesting, don't hide it under a long setup. As the discussants at Writing Excuses have said several times--even using Agents of SHIELD as an example!--if you're writing a revolutionary take on epic fantasy but only reveal the twist in the last chapter after writing the whole book as straightforward fantasy, you will have effectively (a) driven off the people who are interested in revolutionary takes and (b) disappointed the fans of straightforward fantasy who stayed with you.

In SHIELD's case, the big twist that really energized the show (somewhat) in the second half was the revelation that SHIELD was infiltrated by Hydra, which was tied into the second Captain America film. Even a hater like me can see some logic to holding off on that reveal, both logistical (the show needs to start with the regular season of shows, but the movie only comes out later); and artistic (the big betrayals will have more punch if we see everyone pretending to be good at first).

But, oh god, if you're making a show about, say, how a 1960s ad man is really sleazy, you don't do 10 episodes of normal ad life and then show him cheating on his wife in episode 11. You end episode one with that revelation.

Or, let's take Hitchcock's famous dictum: a bomb goes off at a table and blows up two guys--how surprising! That's good and sometimes good enough if all you want is a sudden, sharp surprise. But if you show the bomb and then show the two guys talking normally--suspense!

So, if I were doing a SHIELD show (which is unlikely on a hundred different levels, but go with me), I wouldn't burn 13 episodes of mostly blah adventures, building up pretty cliche characters and pretty cliche characters' relationships. Instead of having bland adventure guy and bland hacker girl build up a relationship only to reveal the secrets, I'd much rather show bland adventure guy's secrets from the get go. That way, viewers could spend the time realizing that bland adventure guy's blandness is a put-on.

I could point out some other issues (like that time that some guy gets magically killed over the phone, when the guy on the other end turns out not to be at all super-powered), but the second biggest lesson to take away here is be interesting. That's a little vague, but the show leaned heavily into some cliches, from "He's standing right behind me" to action-movie-style quips in the most inappropriate places.

Let's just all agree to write that on a card and put it over our computers: BE INTERESTING.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 258: Anonymous (A Kentucky Soldier), “Like a Sea of Blood” (#258)

Anonymous (A Kentucky Soldier), “Like a Sea of Blood” (published 1926) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

A first person account from the trenches--or rather the brestwork around New Orleans. (I don't know if that spelling is idiosyncratic or historical, since we write "breastwork" now.)

The battle of New Orleans is one part of the War of 1812 that gets wide play, possibly because it was such an American victory against long odds (the British had more men and lost a lot more); possibly because it led (eventually) to Andrew Jackson's presidency; or possibly because it's a classic example of looking back at history and thinking, "those dolts!"--which always makes us feel better today, never realizing that some future people will think we're pretty doltish ourselves--since the battle took place after the peace treaty. I've always liked that pirate Jean Lafitte took part in the defense.

(Though what if Andrew Jackson had been killed? Or merely failed to defend the city? What would a US be like without his presidency?)

This anonymous Kentucky soldier tells his experience of the battle, which wasn't much: there's a lot of shooting in the dark and some antics by American soldiers, each with their own idiosyncrasy. There's the death of one American that seems like friendly fire. There's the surrender of the British, which leads to the narrator helping a young man over the wall, giving him some water, and then being there when he dies, which is a curiously empathetic scene. I mean, and this has come up before in war reporting, how curious that one moment you can be firing at and killing people, and the next, feeling bad for a young man who dies.

Which is especially interesting considering the report ends with one British guy trying to escape and making rude gestures--and getting shot for them. So, yeah, not everyone is going to switch so quickly from firing to feeling bad for the people fired on.

Also, the "sea of blood" image isn't actually blood--it's the Britishers' red coats.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ethno-music.. etc.: The punk mixtapes, 1: Mike Pace's "Ben Blattburg Looks Just Like Jesus Christ"

The title for this mixtape probably only makes sense if you remember that I had shoulder-length hair in high school; and also a penchant for knocking over the tables of money-changers. In my memory, this is probably the first mixtape given to me by one of my friends who listened to punk / ska.

Back then, I was a bit of "musical orphan," which is the phrase I used even then to describe how I didn't really have a musical thing--no one band or type of music that I always liked. Which somehow translated into me being a target for musical evangelists. So I'm sure Mike Pace was joking when he wrote this--

--but there's an element of truth to that. What he wrote on side B, however--

--was just a joke about the band my brother had in high school, and which my friends often liked to joke about back then.

This mix is from high school (and, if memory serves, includes a clip of Mike Pace as DJ at the high school radio station). So what music was I being evangelized about back then?

  1. Minor Threat: I don't wanna hear it
  2. Minor Threat: Small man, big mouth
  3. Rocket from the Crypt: Sturdy wrists
  4. Screeching Weasel: I was a high school psychopath
  5. The Queers: Ben Weasel
  6. The Vandals: Summer Lovin'
  7. Rancid: Detroit
  8. Down by Law: 500 Miles
  9. Slayer: Dittohead
  10. SOD: Ballad of Jimi Hendrix
  11. Voodoo Glow Skulls: Insubordination
  12. Man or Astroman?: Destination Venus
  13. Bouncing Souls: Neurotic
  14. Downset: Holding Hands
  15. They Might Be Giants: Whirlpool
  16. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Someday I suppose
  17. Ice-T: Ed
  18. Beck: Fuckin' with my head
  19. Sloppy Seconds: It finally happened
  20. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Dogs and Chaplains
  21. Social Distortion: Makin' Believe
  22. Cracker: Can I take my gun to heaven?
  23. Rancid: Nihilism
  24. Rev. Horton Heat: Bullet
  25. Paul Simon: Crazy Love, Vol II
  26. Rocket from the Crypt: Ditch Digger
  27. Total Chaos: Babylon
  28. Operation Ivy: Knowledge
  29. MU330: Hoosier Love
  30. Mule: Charger
  31. Ween: Pumpin' 4 the man
  32. Silent Majority: Knewsong
  33. Propagandhi: Ska sucks
  34. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Where'd you go?
  35. Down by Law: Sam
  36. Government Issue: I'm James Dean
  37. SOD: Diamonds & Rust
  38. SOD: Hey Gordy!
I loved my mixtapes a lot, but this first one doesn't hold up as well. Or rather, there are some songs and bands here that I would listen to at the drop of a record needle. Who doesn't like Paul Simon and the Reverend Horton Heat? At the same time, I'm not sure SOD ("Stormtroopers of Death") have come up in my memory any time in the last decade.

Also, how much do I love that a good friend in high school misspelled my last name? A LOT.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ethno-music...etc: They Might Be Giants (a 13th birthday present)

You can probably make out the title for this mix--"Happy 13th Birthday, Ben!" And you might be able to make out the little note at the bottom: "I love you! Sarah." Which tells you the context for this tape: my sister gave me a tape that she made from some albums she had. CDs, I'm guessing.

If you can't tell, what with the coloring and my quick snapshot of these liner notes, the original playlist was They Might Be Giants's album Flood on side A; and on side B, a collection of John Williams's soundtrack for Hook. (My mom loved Robin Williams, so I watched just about any movie with him.) Also, let's note those few tv themes at the end of side A, none of which were shows that really meant much to me. But thanks to the magic of the mix tape, I can't hear The Muppet Show theme without getting ready for Inspector Gadget.

This was a birthday present, but when I was young, tapes didn't grow on trees. And at some point, I realized that I kept listening to side A and fast-forwarding through side B; and somehow, I got access to They Might Be Giants's album Apollo 18. So, not being a sentimentalist (says the guy recording every tape he had kept with him for decades and decades), I taped over side B with They Might Be Giants.

Curiously, I don't listen to They Might Be Giants often these days, but I still get a little thrill in my heart when I think of them or see that they are playing a show nearby.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 257: Washington Irving, Christmas Eve (#257)

Washington Irving, "Christmas Eve" (1819) from Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches:

What is our current equivalent of the "sketch," an old form where people just wrote about things they observed? Is it the blog post, the Facebook status, or tweet, that simply records having seen some person? My friend Adrianne is a killer at this form, recording micro-transactions with just enough context and just enough isolation to give a whole glimpse of an imagined person.

Washington Irving takes a different tactic, recording at length his outsider impressions of an old English Christmas Eve. It's very much what you'd expect of his sketches (assuming you read his earlier "Christmas Dinner" sketch): the narrator arrives with a guide at the old Squire's house and just sponges up everything going on around him, from old English games, to the current love affairs blooming among the youngsters.

Again, there's something implicitly melancholy--or at least narrow--about the Squire's attempt to keep the world and history out of his house; in a way, the symbol for this might be both the squire and his bachelor relative, both of whom have frozen history at a certain point. For instance, the bachelor may be full of family history and genealogy, but he won't be contributing to that genealogy, even if he is still a bit of a flirt.

And so, even if Irving keeps the observations moving, and presents a world of cheer and song, I can't help remember that Rip Van Winkle's important skill is sleeping through history; and how much Anglophilia there is in Irving's work, as if all these sketches are an attempt at capturing a moment in history--and not letting time move on.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ethno-music0-historico-biography: My cassette collection! Cruisin' Classics, Vol III

I recently sold my car--my '96 Honda Accord, that I've had since '01. This was my first car and I really wanted to keep it forever. Largely because it had a tape player and I have a lot of tapes that are irreplaceable.

But, alas, the car wasn't going to make it around the world with me. (Note: I have no plans to go around the world via car. Yet.) So now I have nothing to play my tapes in. But I still got those tapes. And, yeah, I am definitely going to tell you about them. Starting with the tape that was probably in my possession the longest:

This tape is from a promotion at Shell. I think my family had several volumes of this--this is Vol. III, and it's clearly the best. Look at the playlist! (Or... song list? What did we call the list of songs on a cassette?)

If you can't make out the pictures, the songs are

  1. Chuck Berry -- Johnny B. Goode
  2. Jerry Lee Lewis -- Great Balls of Fire
  3. The Everly Brothers -- All I have to do is dream
  4. The Temptations -- My Girl
  5. Rick Nelson -- Travelin' Man
  6. Buddy Holly -- That'll Be the Day
  7. Fats Domino -- Blueberry Hill
  8. The Chiffons -- He's So Fine
  9. The Four Tops -- Reach Out I'll Be There
  10. The Beach Boys -- I Get Around

I've had this tape for so long, I can't even estimate how many times I've listened to it. Suffice to say, I can--and gladly will--bust out with the lyrics for "Johnny B. Goode" any time, night or day. ("Any time, night or day" is part of the Everly Bros. song.) Some of these songs are better for blasting with the windows down.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this coupon is still good.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 256: Mary S. Mallard, Union Looters (#256)

Mary S. Mallard, "Union Looters" (1864/1972) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Mary Mallard spent part of the last year of the Civil War at a plantation owned by her mother; and here's her memoir of the mostly awful Yankees who came and stole all their stuff. Which brings up some interesting stuff, like: jeez, but these women come off somewhat privileged. I mean, when a man comes in with a gun, Mary continues to argue with them; and continues to think that they have the right of history on their side.

Which is probably why my favorite parts are when she reports how the plantation servants (she never says "slaves") react to the Yankees coming and stealing all the white people's property. I mean, I easily can imagine that the freedmen really do complain to Mary--but I don't know that they really mean what they say.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Goals, tasks, milestones for 2015, part 1: Goals

Friends of mine in my online fiction critique group were talking the other day about goals and milestones for 2015. Actually, we were talking about goals, until one member made the distinction between things you are in charge of (like writing more) and things that you are not the sole arbiter of (like getting published), which is the distinction between self-set goals and other-influenced milestones. (Pretty great distinction, right? That's why I'm friends with these people.)

Another member made a further distinction: her ethos remained the same--become a better writer, be a good person, etc.--but the concrete steps that she could take would change over the years or be broken down into discrete tasks for that overarching goal. (If you're like me, and I hope you're not, you might make the further distinction between abstract goals and concrete tasks.)

So I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolutions, which I don't really do seriously, but enjoy the same way I enjoy throwing salt over my shoulder: I don't really believe, it's fun, and just in case...

In 2014, I didn't have resolutions so much as a spreadsheet to keep track of various goals and ideas. I will post-mortem that spreadsheet in 2015 and see what I did and didn't do. Teaser: I did not learn to draw.

But for now, I want to start sketching out those three lists for 2015: abstract goals that I set for myself; concrete tasks that I set for myself to reach those goals; and some milestones that depend on other people that I would like to work towards or see. Actually, today I'll probably just talk about


Goal: Be happy.
Feels somewhat silly to write, but honestly, I am someone who has a history of muddling through somehow.

Take, for instance, that time I lived in England for six months. They were not happy six months; and I eventually got into a survivable routine of work and coming home to dinner and watching TV with my girlfriend of the time. Nothing terrible, but I wasn't thriving. Now, I could've tried to make some drastic changes in order to break out. But instead, I largely took the safe route of routine. Which resulted in me being pretty even-keeled in a content to blah state for six months. Which brings us to goal two:

Goal: Be more open and adventurous.
Pretty self-explanatory. I sure can spend an evening quite comfortably watching TV or a movie. Ah, comfort.

But maybe if I push myself out of my comfort zone a little, I'll discover some thing I wouldn't otherwise have known about. Leading to increased happiness.

Goal: Give back.
I've been so really touched by all the mentorship and helping hands as I've changed careers; and the world is really a terrible place sometime, especially for women and minorities and, urgh, I just want to punch something some days.

So, I'd like to give back, both to pay back (or forward?) for the mentorship I had; and to help people who otherwise get slighted by the system. (And of course, as studies have shown, volunteering and gratitude are important to long-term happiness and health.)

Goal: Take care of yourself.
Especially while I was at MakerSquare, my self-care regime took a nose-dive: I hardly exercised, never meditated, and only once wrote morning pages. I can let some of that slide, but not all.

I think self care also leads into the next topic:

Goal: Be a better friend.
Maybe I haven't been a bad friend, exactly--though I did recently write a response to an email that was 11 months old. And here's the thing: I like being around people. I like being a friend. Being a friend makes me happy. (Which is why I associate it with self care.)

But sometimes it's easier to say no, to stay home with Netflix rather than go to a bar. And hey, that's a valid option sometimes. Maybe most of the time. But at the end of the day, there are going to be some times when being with friends makes me happier than watching Netflix.

Goal: Say no.
This is mostly directed at myself, since I have a tendency to be interested in everything and everyone and more more! It's a problem because then I don't have the time or energy to do everything as well as it deserves to be done.

Another way to put this would be Focus. Instead of doing a dozen projects--here's an app, here's two short stories, here's three screenplays, and four languages I want to learn!--just focus on what you can reasonably do. And do those well.

Goal: Embrace the pain.
Oh, that sounds way too serious for what I mean. Would it sound better if I used the developer term "pain point"? That is, when you're developing something, you'll find that some issues are particularly difficult. During my final projects, I definitely had some pain points as I tried to work through some issues. Amazingly--but more like unsurprisingly--my favorite moments in all of those were when I made some breakthrough on my pain points.

In other words: when you focus on a project, don't get put off if you run into difficulties.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 255: Annie Parker, Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman (#255)

Annie Parker, "Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman" (1853) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Really, I should tag every blog post with "race" and "class" and "gender" and probably a few other tags as well. For instance: "ability/disability" is an axis of normativity--the often invisible struggle to define what counts as normal, as Other--that I'm really only beginning to become aware of. I mean, we tend to label a story about black people as having to do with race in a way that we wouldn't label a story about white people. And yet, even if it's a story just about white people, there's lots of race involved.

(A: Remember, "white" is a relatively new construct for race, and in the old days, people used to talk about everything from "the Irish race" to "the Alpine race." B: New favorite exemplary quote, from Billy the Kid: talking about a boss named Tunstall, "who was the only man that treated me like I was decent and white." For more fun, Tunstall was Irish and the Lincoln Country War might have had to do with Irish/English immigrant hostility. Totally unrelated but still fun trivia: Billy the Kid was born in NYC.)

Anyway, enough about my general failings to correct my privileged position, let's move on to the story, which is all about privileges:

  • the privilege of the white male slave owner to make a mistress of a slave;
  • the relative privilege of the slave mistress compared to the other slaves;
    • a pretty common trope in slave literature, that of the slave who doesn't fit with the other slaves;
  • the privilege of the slave owner to sell away any inconvenient slave, as Mr. Lee does here with his slave son, Jerry, who looks so much like him;
  • the privileges of knowledge and ignorance: the narrator who knows all, Mr. Lee who knows--and hushes--all, the kind Northern mistress of the house who knows nothing because it would hurt her too much and no one wants to give the nice lady any pain.

It's also a super Southern Gothic story, about two slave siblings, separated by slavery, who decide to get married; and the narrator's attempts to prevent that incest without letting anyone know. And you know what the solution is to the hurt caused by slavery? Mr. Lee simply sells away the daughter that he kept. Remember: this is also his daughter that he's selling away.

What's really killer to me is the title, as an added layer of misery: this isn't an exceptional story about people selling away their family or what's stolen from people by slavery. This is simply some passages in the life of a slave woman. Check out that indefinite article: "a Slave Woman" could be any slave woman. It could be many slave women. This could be going on all the time, says this story, written in 1853.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Master (2012) and the haunted human face

How much of The Master--Paul Thomas Anderson's movie about an alcoholic seaman and the charismatic master of a Scientology-like cult--is made up of close-ups on faces?

There's a lot of very intense dialogue scenes that are all shot-reverse shot, either over the shoulder or from the POV of the interlocutors (so that, for instance, we're not looking over Joaquin's shoulder at Amy Adams, but staring directly at her, as he would be).

Even when we're not technically in a close-up, many of the shots are focused on faces, with settings and objects fuzzing out into the background. (The ur-shot of this film might be the sort of department store portrait photography that Joaquin's character falls into after the war: faces on a blank screen.)

It is, in a way, indicative of the type of movie this is, almost like a Philip Roth story: not a lot of incident, but a lot of character.

And there is a lot of character in these actors and their faces. (Another object lesson of the importance of casting.) Joaquin, with his high-waisted pants (the importance of costume!), moves almost as if he's been broken in half; and with his scarred lip, his face really is broken in half, with half of it smiling and laughing, never quite touching the other half. (The converse to the half is the double and there's certainly something double here between the Master and the Margarita-drinker. Also, for doubles/repeats, check out the Master's real name: Lancaster Dodd. So many ds, so many consonant/vowel/consonant collections!)

It's the kind of film that could survive a term paper. And it is enjoyable in its own way. (That way being "for those who like stories where not much happens.") But I'm not entirely surprised that it didn't do so well at the box office. Staring at Joaquin Phoenix's twisted face for two hours is not everyone's idea of fun.