Sunday, June 11, 2017

This was the folk-music-icons weekend that was

Back in the day, by which I of course mean the late 1980s, I accumulated a few pen-pals. Yes, pen-pals -- remember those glorious days, of sitting down with pen and paper, writing a letter, and sending it off to your new "friend" who lived in another state or another country? I loved that hobby. Only one of my pen-pals lasted for years and years of correspondence -- she and I had quite a bit in common and a lot to say to each other, and even ended up both living in New York City at the same time years down the road and getting to meet and be friends in real life, which was in itself amazing. However, this particular story isn't about that pen-pal, but rather about a fleeting pen-pal with whom I briefly wrote letters and then lost contact forever but who, nonetheless, had an impact on my life through the act of sending me a particular cassette tape.

This particular fleeting pen-pal was named Nancy (I think? that's how long ago and fleeting this was) and was, again I think, from Oswego, NY.  I do hope I'm remembering that correctly and not mixing her up with someone else. Anyway, the fleeting pen-pal in question and I decided we would exchange tapes, and we sent each other lists of the albums that we owned and then let each other know which of the other person's we wanted and copied them onto blank cassettes and sent them to each other. (I know, hello, copyright laws, anyone?) We were young adolescents still with a manageable amount of albums, and I can't tell you what the hell else she sent me or what I sent her, but I very specifically remember one dark brown Memorex cassette she sent to me that had on one side a copied Cowboy Junkies album and on the other side Indigo Girls.

I even remember exactly where I was when I was looking at her letter with her list of albums and thinking, "Cowboy Junkies. Indigo Girls." I didn't really know what their music was going to be like -- anyone whose hit songs I knew and loved I had probably already acquired via Columbia House Record & Tape Club or from Sam Goody at Metrocenter mall, so browsing her list was a chance to try something new I wouldn't have otherwise stumbled upon. And this was the mother lode.

I played the hell out of that 90-minute, no-longer-blank cassette. I played it at home, in my parents' cars, and anywhere else I could get it in a tape deck. I loved those albums fiercely, and -- good future copyright law student that I was -- I eventually bought both of those albums properly, thus giving the artists and record companies their profits and more importantly getting my hands on the liner notes. And needless to say, that simple act of being intrigued by my pen-pal's album list -- I can still vividly see it in my mind's eye, can perfectly visualize her handwriting -- launched me on my lifelong Indigo Girls love and fandom.

What if I had never exchanged those handful of letters and cassettes with this random girl across the country? Would I have come to know Indigo Girls and Strange Fire, and then later, Nomads*Indians*Saints and Rites of Passage and all the rest? When? Would I have been too late? I once read a piece in Psychology Today that said studies indicate that the music you listen to during that adolescent time, like toward age 14 or so, resonates more deeply with you than anything you ever listen to in the future, no matter how much you like what you come across in the future. And among the cassettes I spent those early teen years playing over and over were Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Simon and Garfunkel,  Cowboy Junkies -- folkies who still speak volumes to me today.

I bring this up because some remarkable things happened this weekend. Tonight, Sunday, I attended a concert at the Chicago Theatre: Four Voices - Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Indigo Girls. When this tour was announced a few months back my breath caught and I thought, this! This is something I cannot BELIEVE I am going to be able to witness! Now, of course I knew that they were all friends, and I know about Mary Chapin singing backing vocals on Amy and Emily's album and Amy and Emily singing backing vocals on Mary Chapin's around 1991, and I remember when the Girls performed with Joan Baez in the early mid-1990s for a benefit and she thanked them for letting her be an Indigo Girl for the evening and called them young whippersnappers, and I own the CD (yes, I eventually moved from cassettes to CDs) from the benefit where Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin and a bunch of other artists all performed with Joan Baez and planted roots for this blossoming friendship so I've heard them harmonizing in pieces and knew of their crossing paths but THIS - a tour called Four Voice, with lots of dates, coming to my town, playing cities near me - it was amazing news.

And it was an amazing concert, needless to say. There are so many highlights, and perhaps I'll tell about more of them in another post, but here let me just assure you that among the evening's joys was the final song of their main set, a cover of a particularly good, particularly relevant, Nobel prize-winning even! song that with their Four Voices became THE best performance of a song that I have witnessed being performed live, ever.

But there was also another little thing that happened at the beginning of this weekend. On Friday night, it just so happens, I saw Cowboy Junkies in concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. For whatever reason, I had never got a chance to see them in concert before this weekend. Unlike Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter, whom I've seen multiple times (Indigo Girls, dozens), I somehow had missed out on the Cowboy Junkies until just this past Friday. There was Margo Timmins, in all her fifty-something glory, and that voice! That achingly lovely voice, with all those heartbreaking, swirling Cowboy Junkies songs. That was the opening of my weekend, and then it ended with this other collection of voices, including the legendary Joan Baez, up there showing us what incredible things words and music can do.

And I thought, how odd, how odd indeed that my weekend was bookended by incredible, life- and music-affirming concerts featuring the two bands that were on either side of that blank cassette sent to me by pen-pal Nancy from Oswego, NY nearly thirty years ago.

And I thought, how beautiful, how beautiful indeed that we are gifted with time on this planet where we can make and share our art, where we can hoist our visions onto the world stage and where we can tuck recorded sounds gently into an envelope with a bit of extra postage and let them be carried across the miles to someone who needs to hear them, or where we can now just upload them with a few quick finger taps on a keyboard.

In spite of all of the hard things, and the misery that Margo openly jokes about (wondering aloud to her audience why anyone would come to a Cowboy Junkies concert expecting to hear happy songs), and some of the political happenings that Joan, Mary Chapin, Amy, and Emily talked about and sang about and alluded to, and just despite the ever-ongoing struggle -- in spite of these things, my god but isn't there some beauty to be found out there, to be brought into our lives thanks to the random simple chances we come across?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

To end or not to end the Facebreak

I didn't really mean to give up Facebook for Lent. I don't even celebrate Lent. Wait, observe Lent. Participate in Lent? See, that's how much I don' whatever it is that I don't do with regards to Lent; I don't even know what verb to use. I grew up going to church, but it was a church that didn't really shove the whole pick-something-to-give-up-for-40-days thing down our throats. And now I've goodbyed to all that church stuff, so Lent is one of those things I watch other people do, like when my friends give up drinking for that whole time but still play on our pub quiz trivia team, which is rather stalwart of them, don't you think?

But what happened this year was, I had an incident that made me suddenly and forcefully decide I needed to reconsider my relationship to Facebook, specifically, the extent to which I rely on it to function as it says it does, to live up to its own standards, to not mess up. Of course Facebook messes up - nothing/nobody is perfect and all that, but we count on it not to. That's dangerous. It certainly worked out to be dangerous for me. (Details? Yeeeahhh...maybe I can get into the details later. I'm working on a project about that.)

And so, reminding myself of that time in law school when I grounded myself from going into Manhattan for one month because I was not proud of the alcohol choices I had made there, a few weeks ago I suddenly and forcefully just decided I should reconsider my reliance on Facebook being reliable by not relying on it, that is to say, not logging on, until I had accomplished a specific professional goal. And it just so happened that this whole incident went down on the night of Mardi Gras, with Ash Wednesday upon us. That didn't really dawn on me until a couple of days later, though, when I suddenly was like, Oh hey! I could give up Facebook for Lent! To which I responded to myself, What? A 40-day Facebreak? To which my first self responded, That reply shows me (us?) how much you need a 40-day Facebreak. (Let the record reflect that, see, I didn't even know that Lent actually lasts longer than 40 days, which is very confusing, and further evidence of how much I really don't do the Lent thing. Except when I apparently do.)

And so here we are, honing in on Easter, and as everyone hunts for eggs and bites bunnies to see if they're solid or hollow and remembers that after three days the Lord Is Risen, I'll be all mission-accomplished and I can actually check Facebook and see just what the hell has happened there for the last month and a half.

Although, you know, speaking of amounts of days, I've always been kind of confused by that whole "after three days the stone was rolled away bit" because I mean, isn't the whole thing that he was crucified on Friday night? And on Sunday morning he'd already fled the tomb and risen? That's basically a day and a half. Ya know? But we call it three days.

Counting days is hard, I guess, when it's Lenten time.

But the real question is, what should I DO if/when I end my Facebreak and rejoin the party? Any suggestions? What should be my first move? Will I have a million notifications to deal with? Will all my algorithms be hopelessly altered? Will I find out I have missed some crucial message offering me a million dollars or my dream job or trip around the world? No, but seriously, have you ever taken a long Facebreak? What did you do at the end of it?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In Which St. Patrick Checks His Calendar...
and His Watch

Well, here we are in Chicago and the news and community media are breathlessly encouraging everyone to enjoy the big excitement this weekend. What excitement, you ask? Well, isn't it obvious? As WGN-TV explains in their guide, "St. Patrick's Day weekend is upon us!"

Except, as you and I know, it most certainly is not.

That never stopped, Chicago, though! -- as I first reported in 2010, the year I discovered that Chicago can never seem to figure out what (holi-)day it is.

This morning, Saturday, March, 11, the famous dye-the-Chicago-River-green event took place at 9 a.m., followed by the St. Patrick's Day Parade at noon. Tomorrow, Sunday, March 12, will be the South Side St. Patrick's Day Parade. Also this weekend are the Leprechaun Leap 5K/8K Run and the Get Lucky Half Marathon/14K/7K. Chicagoland is blissfully concerned that St. Patrick's Day, that is, March 17th - SEVENTEENTH, people! - is still six days away.

Blissfully unconcerned that if anything were to be considered St. Patrick's Day "weekend" it might be, you know, the weekend that starts with Friday, March 17th - St. Patrick's Day.

Alas, no, that is not how we do in Chicago. And by "we" I mean - decidedly not me. This particular quirk of Chicago has driven me absolutely nuts since we moved here the first time in 2010. Be it Saint Patrick or the Bastille, Halloween or Christmas, Chicago will find a way to host a big party on a date that differs from the calendar date of the holiday. Why? Why, Chicago, why why why?

I refuse to participate in any of these off-date celebrations on principle. Is nothing sacred, Chicago? You think you know better than TIME?

What an appropriate weekend to be asking *that* particular question, too -- the weekend we all (but not my peeps back home in Arizona!) get to "spring forward" and turn our clocks to Daylight Saving Time (note: no 's' on Saving) and pretend that this somehow gives us "more daylight" and demonstrate that humans are stupid (because they can't ever seem to figure out which is standard time - that would be Central Standard Time - and which is altered - that would be Central Daylight Time) and humans are lazy (the daylight is there in the mornings if you would just get your lazy selves out of bed to enjoy it!!) and humans are impractical (you have now extended Daylight Saving to MORE of the year than Standard Time -- from March to November, now, we are on  Daylight Time. So then JUST CHANGE THE TIME ZONES PERMANENTLY YOU MAKE NO SENSE HUMANS JUST SET YOUR CLOCKS AHEAD ONE HOUR ONCE AND BE DONE FOREVER WHY WHY WHY).

Time and date, man. Who knew how complicated life could be?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

"The (right) envelope, please!"

Well, if this 2017 Oscar ceremony, awarding statuettes to 2016 films, didn't just have the surprise of a lifetime in store for all of us! Who'da thunk it...that the beloved and theoretically a little stuffy and boring Price Waterhouse Coopers accountants would take their eye off the ball for a fraction of a second and lead us to this!

For anyone who's been living under a rock this week, or for someone reading this 110 years in the future when the debacle is long forgotten, here's what happened: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway of Bonnie and Clyde (and other) fame took to the Academy Awards stage to hand out the anticipated final award of the evening, for Best Picture. La La Land, the big shiny glamorous (but still a little quirky) "rebirth of the Hollywood musical" or whatever, had tied All About Eve and Titanic for a record 14 nominations, but as the evening went on it had won some and lost some. Moonlight, the low-budget, gritty, independent coming-of-age tale that follows a poor, troubled, black boy in Miami through three life segments as he contends with bullies, hunger, a drug-addicted mother, and questioning his sexuality, and illuminates a touching relationship between him and a mentor father figure (for which role Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor), had been seen all Awards Season as the counterpoint to La La Land - and had been declared by no small number of critics to be the year's best film, I might add. So there we were, and Warren Beatty stared at the card, examining it, turning it over -- but, notably, not audibly expressing his concern, just physically -- then handed it to Faye Dunaway, who read "La La Land!" as the winner, and the producers and cast came up to the stage and gave speeches but there was a weird commotion with a stagehand in a headset and others in the mix and in the end it turns out Bonnie and Clyde had the wrong card, and Moonlight was the winner of Best Picture. OMG, right? Sooooo....exeunt, La La Land, and hey! you guys! Moonlight  did it! Which is so nice and touching and triumph of the human spiritish, not to mention fun for all of us who didn't get on the Blah Blah Land hype train.

Those are the facts. Now, on to the interpretations.

In the moment, everyone watching, whether us at home or them in the theater audience, was just like, Wait, what's happening here?! The end of the Oscars became a quest to lay blame: who had the right card? who had the wrong card? who said what? what did Warren Beatty see? what did the accountants do? who was Tweeting selfies instead of focusing on his work? who knew the winner and when did they know it?! But the next day, hooo-boy, the Oscars equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking began, and how!

Suddenly, now, the whole thing was a metaphor for our perilous, racist world (and by the way: we absolutely do live in a perilous, racist world, and that is a fact. You lucky people reading this 110 years in the future know whether or not we solved anything, but here in 2017 we are all just confused and don't know why we can't get our shite together on this issue--at least those of us who aren't hideous/violent/racist/Trump-voting or some overlap of those things are confused, as to why said hideous/violent/racist/Trump-voting people don't want to just, you know, be better. But yeah, we have a legacy of racism after founding our country on genocide and slavery and we suck and we have not solved this problem yet.) Suddenly, multiple commentaries were published in which the big, moneyed, studio-backed, and white La La Land was swept off the stage (see: "all the world's a...") to be replaced by the independent, marginalized voices telling diverse stories such as Moonlight. 

OK, so that's just a teensy bit overwrought to me. But, you know, it's a conflict story that we had heard a wee bit of during the awards season anyway, so it wasn't invented as Faye crowed "La la la...!" It was a chance for writers to "I-told-you-so" with their thesis, but not out of nowhere. BUT. Then there was Cosmopolitan. I partially agree with what a Cosmo writer was trying to say: namely, that Moonlight was robbed of its moment. That is true and it sucks. I have said it before and I will say it a million more times, LET THE CEREMONY RUN LONG and in this particular case, everyone should have been like, hang on! don't head for the exits! don't start that orchestra swell! and given Moonlight the longest acceptance moment on stage ever. Yes. On the other hand, I think people will remember that they won Best Picture for quite a while, unlike, say, The Artist of 2011 which even now is hard to pull up in the old memory banks, a mere five years later. But anyway, so while I partially agree with Brittney Cooper for pointing that out in an online Cosmopolitan piece, and I like other writing of hers, I strongly disagree with this part of what she said:
Much like Jimmy Kimmel, however, Americans are socially conditioned to feel the most empathy for what white folks are losing rather than for what black folks are rightfully, finally winning. Certainly Kimmel was not being malicious when he said to the La La Land producers, “I think you should just keep it anyway.” He felt bad that anyone should have to lose in such a public way. But notice that what Kimmel didn’t say is, “Let’s get Moonlight up here right now and let them have their moment.” His empathy, like that of many others, went towards the people who looked most like him on stage.
No. This was a colossal screw-up and it grabbed everyone's attention, which is evident by how ALL the Oscar jabber for the next 24 hours led with the tale of the envelope screw-up. Nobody could imagine or prepare for exactly the right thing to say or do when the WRONG MOVIE's producers are standing there delivering acceptance speeches. Any movie, in any year, with writers/directors/actors of any race, would likely have elicited the exact same comment from any host. I really believe that. You're standing there, desperate to improvise in a totally unprecedented situation, and you come up with, "Ha ha ha, let's all have awards!"  It's not a great line, nor is it terrible. And it really isn't as replete with meaning as the bigger institutional workings of the Academy, and of power in society, are. In fact, I think that may be libelous, to accuse host Jimmy Kimmel of feeling more empathy for white La La Land than black Moonlight. And p.s., am I only the one who also saw a white producer accepting that Moonlight award, proving again that it's SO institutional, and so much about systemic power and privilege and wealth than individual people, like Kimmel, or viewers at home, wanting things to be that way?

Brittney Cooper has some great insights about the systemic problems and racial politics of awards shows and the entertainment industry. Definitely read her thoughts here about Adele's not-racist Grammy moment just a couple weeks ago. But I challenge her statement about my or anyone's empathy. My empathy was HUGELY with Moonlight. I was watching and thinking, "Oh my god! What's happening! What are they going to do! Moonlight, you guys!" I was totally drawn to them in that moment. It's not even about which movie I liked more (for the record, I wouldn't have voted for either of them, though I ranked Moonlight slightly higher than Blah Blah Land in my ranking of the Best Picture noms). It's about that totally wackadoodle moment.

I think it is incumbent on me and other white people to think about why and how that moment can come across that way to a black writer, and to truly ask ourselves why the hell we're still living in such a world.

But I also think it is important that we don't misinterpret a laughable-if-it-weren't-so-horrible what-the-hell moment as something it's not. How is that going to help us?

(And we do need help. Have we gotten any better, at all, ye readers of the year 2127?)