Days of the Future Past

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Times change. Or, constant change is here to stay. I get that. There's yet another confluence of subjects I've posted about that surfaced while surfing the (free) digital news.

At the end of each year, a number of co-workers and others who I don't know funnel our "Top 20" lists for CDs to a person who hides behind the moniker of "The Commish." He redistributes the list, with commentary, which we all enjoy in the search for those nuggets of musical genius that we may have somehow overlooked during the year. All three of you who read this blog know I'm always looking for new (good) music. It's a quest of sorts.

Dcveloping this confluence through another blogged topic, briefly, I rarely read a physical newspaper. If I'm at a motel, and I get a "free" USA Today stuffed under my door, I'll read it. Otherwise... Well, on Christmas day, we had to stop at four places to buy the advertisements for the "Day After." That issue seems to be quite popular! Yet, I'm a poor example to my family, I know. I threw away the remainder of the paper, unread by any of us, two days later. And the last time I bought a paper? Yep, Thanksgiving. For the "Day After" advertisements... (Not that I would actually read them...They're for my wife!)

The local newspaper recently announced that they're reducing distribution in a large number of counties surrounding the Atlanta area. That makes sense cutting operational expenses if demand isn't there. Everyone is doing that, it seems. Presumably, with a lesser circulation, advertisers will pay less for their placements, meaning even less money to fund those human endeavors that result in the things written within.

Journalism does not appear to be a financially rewarding field of study for the 21st century.

Now, back to music. I've previously decried the digital download card that can be purchased at Best Buy. I enjoy owning the physical product, but... times change. I've loaded much of my music vault into my I-pod. I have many gigabytes to spare. And the entirety of it occupies the space of my wallet. Amazing.

In terms of going "green," I suppose I should reflect upon the societal impact of owning a compact disk. You heard right.
  • Plastic casing, security wrapping, and the disc. Petroleum products = global warming = America's obligation to air-condition the world. Oops, off topic!
  • Felled forests for inserts and packaging.
  • Ink manufacturing. That's got to be bad for the water table in whatever part of the world inks are allowed to be manufactured.
  • The energy consumed in manufacturing all of the above.
  • The selfish waste of gasoline from hauling all the supplies to the manufacturer and subsequently the CDs to the warehouses, to the retailers, and ultimately to my trusty CD rack.
In consideration of the above, I have much to be ashamed of and am unfit for public office due to my frequent abuses of world resources for my own personal enjoyment.

It's much more politically correct to be a drone and just download music from I-Tunes.

The problem with that is finding music that I would want to download. I already have all the "old" stuff I want. Radio stations are largely lobotomized in their airplay rotations. Where must one go to find something new?

Well, aside from the sampler CD in Paste Magazine, the internet, of course. The problem with Amazon and I-Tunes, however, is that I can only hear a 30 second snippet of music. That hardly leads to an informed buying decision. Soooo, I also subscribe to Napster. They don't have the rights to all of the music publishers, but they have a very good selection, and I can hear songs in their entirety.

Unfortunately, Napster file formats are not compatible with an I-pod. And here we come back to that "possession" hang-up of mine. I want stuff where I can find it at whatever time I want it. It's all about me...

Well, apparently, that personal requirement does not require ownership. Here is an interesting article regarding the future of I-pods that led to today's ramble.

The "cloud" is certainly a blend of my experience and needs: Instant access to whatever music I want and portability. I already buy music and pay a subscription, so I'd be able to cut out the actual purchasing. That's good for me! Granted, I'll still need some cleverly designed multi-media device in order to hear the music, assuming that that brain implants (any volunteers for Microsoft U.B.Smart version 1.0?) arrive a tad too late for my generation.

Perhaps a career in music is another antiquated idea for the 21st century. Like the journalists with fewer people willing to pay for their writing, we're not too far from musicians creating work that no one actually buys. Granted, there will be residuals from the "licensing fees." That and $4 will get them a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Overall, I think the early part of the 21st century will be an interesting time of change specific to business models. Some, like the automakers, have to change from top to bottom. But profiting from material that is, in essence, digital will prove to be very difficult, not even factoring in the hacking and trading of digital content. The only example that comes to mind of an industry that is trying is the book industry. Digital books have apparently avoided the growing cultural expectation of having anything downloadable be available for free. Lesson: If you want to author something, write a book.

But for music and the news, well... History repeats itself, and about everything non-classical is based on the blues. So, yesteryear's business models clearly support our enjoyment of yesteryear's products for years to come. It's just the quest to experience something new that may suffer.

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Rhea's - Best Burgers in Town!

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'Tis Christmas Eve, which means that it's truly getting down to the last minutes of Christmas shopping. Translated: The weight of the obligation to provide a gift for mom finally persuades my son, Brian, to leave the enthralling World of Warcraft and his basement command center for a day... out... there...

That's right, kid. My car. My rules. Let's ride.

After getting the things that needed getting, we arrived at a hunger pang. First, please note. My son hates eating out. There was a time when El Jinete persuaded him that the time spent at the restaurant was worthwhile, but once he realized that they also had take out, not even Mexican food will persuade him from gaming central.

I'm considerate enough to offer an option. "What do you want? Burger or BBQ?"

"Burger."

Good... right where I want him.

And, so it happens that we arrive at Rhea's, a 20 something year tradition in Roswell.

Rhea's is built into a corner of an old service station. It has maybe 10 bar stools and three 6-seat tables, with the grill visible from the counter. It's concrete block walls are a nice shade of "faded, somewhat stained" white, and whatever atmosphere that might be considered desirable is added by the scarcity of space and its triangular shape.


For those that haven't ventured here, you might worry that the sign that reads "If you don't like my food, there's the door" would suggest limited consumer input. Not so. You tell Jimmy how you want it, that's what you'll get.

Aside from its odd triangular shape, the restaurant also leans to the right, as witnessed by the bumper stickers on the cooler.



Yes, the radio on top is operational, and, in fact, was operating, adding seasonal music to the ambience. After all was said and done, my son re-learned that not all burgers must come from a bag, as his double cheeseburger (plain with ketchup) served on toasted bread arrived hot off the grill with fries on a paper plate. Would he dare try something so astonishgly new?



So, when all was said and done, Brian did have a final say on the experience, no doubt clouded by his angst to return to his bunker. "Dad, that was so ghetto."

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The Shack - William P. Young

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A friend loaned me a book that is a bestseller amongst Christian bookstores. I am no stranger to books, as it happens. But I’ve been spoiled in recent memory by audio books, which I typically check out of the library on a “whatever is there” basis. It turns out that all those books I did reports on in High School (but never read) were pretty good! It happens that I really enjoy reading, I just don’t like making time for it. So, I average perhaps 2-3 books per year, typically fiction or occasionally biography.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of Christian books. I’m sure something good came from most, but when it comes to spiritual instruction, I much prefer recorded (audio) works. So, this was unusual, but timely in a way to redirect my thinking towards things that matter. Admittedly, I spend too much time thinking about things that don’t. Amused to life, right?

The book in question is titled, “The Shack,” by William P. Young. In short, it
 tells the story of a man who has suffered a great hurt in his life, which as a result interferes with his relationship with his family and God.

This can loosely be translated to one of the main objections to those who do not believe in a god, or specifically the Christian God: Why would a loving God allow evil and suffering in the world?

Fair enough question. The book gives some thought provoking material. Certainly, a success is that it answers the posed question pretty well, within what most would define as clear biblical teaching. There are likely other books that answer the question better, or within a fuller explanation of Christian doctrine.

But this is a story, not an academic thesis. Jesus taught in parables, so who am I to argue?

Well, not everyone is Jesus. In 1992, I was out of town on a business trip over multiple nights, and I wanted something to read. A major display case had a book that I picked up out of curiosity, expecting to quickly read the back cover and put down before moving on to the fiction section. Instead, I bought the book.

It was called “Embraced by the Light,” by Betty Eadie. It told her personal story of an “after death” experience that gave a very clear picture of things to come after one, well, you know, dies. Light at the end of the tunnel kind of thing. It was a fascinating read, one that respawned “thoughts” towards the eternal and a certain measure of hope. It also was replete with feel good moments that became, ironically, irritating because they just didn’t sound “right.” That was unsuspected as I grew up in church but rarely listened.

The Christian Research Journal and other sources provided information that contradicted the book, and, if one is to be a Christian (and I wasn’t one yet), one must choose. Which is more trustworthy? The Bible? Or a story from someone who died but didn’t? I know there are other possible choices, but there really weren’t for me. That book, as flawed as it was, started a process of serious inquisition as to the Bible and its trustworthiness as a revelation from God. It took a year before I could make a decision. The point is that most ideas are worth a listen, as long as one has the energy and desire for an honest, open inquiry before accepting, amending, or rejecting them.

Skip forward.

"The Shack" has a number of things that were worth contemplation. One interesting line of “Father” God to the protagonist, Mack, is “Freedom is trust and obedience within a relationship of love.” I still have to think about what that means in terms of man's autonomy or free will, but a side thought is that I’d prefer substituting “security” for “freedom.” Post 9/11, those two words seem to have developed an affinity for each other that previously were more understood than appreciated.

The major emphasis of the three God characters is a message of “living life loved.” The characters share that love, purportedly perfectly. It’s another good thought upon which to dwell, understanding the difference it makes in one’s life knowing that he or she is loved.

There are others: "He (Jesus) came to show people who I (the Father) am, and most people only believe that about him. They still play us like good cop/bad cop most of the time, especially the religious folk. When they want people to do what they think is right, they need a stern God. When they need forgiveness, they run to Jesus.”

My understanding of theology says that’s not true, but, in my experience I recognize it as being so. Another interesting passage, God speaking to Mack:“Just because you make horrendous and destructive choices does not mean you deserve less respect for what you inherently are - the pinnacle of my Creation and the center of my affection.”

In essence, this speaks to the person who either feels unworthy of God’s love or beats themselves up from guilt. It lifts one up a bit from the muck that we seem to prefer.  It's also a reminder to refrain from judging and be gracious wherever possible.

It can get a bit heady at times: "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception - what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms - what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn't make it true.”

The last sentence makes a lot of sense, but you have to track the logic backwards through the paragraph to get a better understanding. 

And, finally (again, God speaking): "Mack, you and I are friends, there is an expectancy that exists within that relationship. When we see each other or are apart, there is expectancy of being together, of laughing and talking. That expectancy has no concrete definition; it is alive and dynamic and everything that emerges from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else. But what happens when I change that 'expectancy' to an 'expectation' - spoken or unspoken? Suddenly, law has entered into our relationship. You are now expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. Our living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with rules and requirements." That one has much to dwell upon, in that the Law could never be perfectly met, believers invariably fall short of expectations. In relationships with anyone, failed expectations typically pose barriers to communication. Translated: When we goof up and hurt those we love, even God, we tend to run away. We shouldn’t.

Well, that pretty well sums up what I found worthwhile about “The Shack.” Otherwise, the writing style is average at best, and there are many flaws in the theology presented in context of what is considered orthodox Christianity.

Four of what I consider major flaws include:

1. The Trinity. After all these years, there are some things I still don’t fully comprehend. The Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is one of them. I haven’t figured out how the three can be One, and also communicate with each other. I don't think we have an example in earthly terms to point towards for comparison. At the same time, it's clear that scripture reveals that this is so. I'm pretty clear on what the Trinity is not. One God, three persons does not equal three Gods. The author of “The Shack” splits God into three fairly plain-spoken Gods to make The Trinity more understandable in how we relate to each (I'm being charitable). Or, in my view, he espouses that there really are three Gods who are very closely related. Dangerous ground to tread, even with artistic license.

2. An all-but-stated understanding that all roads lead to heaven. People tend to make fun of “Jesus Saves.” But it’s what he came to do, and the question must be asked, from what? No, I’m not Baptist. But H.E. double-hockeysticks is clearly indicated in scripture regardless of denominational bias. Did he save all? No. Jesus was very clear salvation was for “those who believe.”

3. The marginalization of the attributes of God. Yes, the “God is Love” characterizations are very easily digestible to a public who just want that aspect. And God is love. But one cannot ignore his righteousness, justice, holiness, and other attributes. These didn’t suddenly become irrelevant at the close of the Old Testament. Expecting to encounter God cooking breakfast for you, as depicted in the story, strips all reverence from the One to whom it is due.

4. Truth or fiction? Much could be forgiven if the story were presented within a proper context. A quote from a Christian singer on the back cover indicates this is great fiction. But from the introduction on, the author does nothing to suggest that this is anything other than an enhanced version of the truthful experience of a close friend. That introduction matters when one reads the book. Go to the author’s website FAQs, and, oh, yes, it’s fiction. That is not exactly the best method for disclosure, and the author’s introduction to the book would rank Mack’s experience as a special instrument of revelation worthy of becoming the 67th book of the Bible. Not.

Sadly, despite some thoughtful content and even considering the desirability of explaining difficult concepts in plainer terms, “The Shack” is a book to be avoided, by Christians and particularly non-believers. It ultimately settles as being just another attempt to protect the good name of “God” by marginalizing the fullness of biblical revelation in favor of the God as the author would like Him to be.

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Christmas on the Air

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Christmas songs. You have to love them or... or what? Several local radio stations are midway through their month-long "holiday" programming. I happen to find this very relaxing and a pleasant respite from the rockin' electric guitars, sports talk, or political rhetoric otherwise available.

My preference is the older songs. Frank Sinatra. Bing Crosby. Perry Como. Brenda Lee. Burl Ives. Yesteryear's pop stars made some great music which I fondly remember because they were very much the soundtrack to the season in my younger years. And they still are.

Listening to Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas" is about as good as holiday music gets. The tune is familiar, the words are pronunciated ever so clearly, and the vocal chords resonate throughout amidst an arrangement that is beautifully matched to the lyrics. The current generation may not appreciate it, but they can't say it's bad.

Intermixed with the golden oldies are the efforts of more recent artists. A few are excellent, many are tolerable, and some are awful. For the sheer abundance of them, it seems that every artist with at least one album under their belt or a top 10 hit becomes obligated to release holiday music. I'm sure it's an easy thing to do to keep a "name" in front of the public between albums. But it also makes me wonder how many hope to achieve a lasting place next to Bing or Frank within a cultural tradition that carries many years forward.

Compared with Bing, many current artists lose sight (or an ear...) of the mood of many holiday songs. I won't name names (Mariah Carey. Oops!), but holiday songs often seem to become ego trips for those who want to expand on the original to showcase their talent, such as turning one or two syllable words into breathy 5-10 syllable expressions of..."I did it because I can," melody be damned.

I enjoy Christmas music. This includes the seasonal, wintry, good cheer of the songs I regard as holiday music, as well as music which speaks specifically to Christian beliefs - the reason for the season, as it were, as opposed to a year ending holiday.

Often, it's surprising to read the lyrical riches in Christmas songs. The tune or chorus is so familiar, that the rest goes unnoticed. Songs like "Joy to the World," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" are good examples of the the theology contained in what were hymns before the era of Christmas music overload.

Put these songs to a nice piano, or woodwinds... yeah, I like that. Give it to a choir and...

Hate.

It's such a strong word, and even within an "everything goes" society, it's probably the one thing which is not tolerated. But, dislike is such an inadequate word when one really, really uber-dislikes something.

I hate choir music. This particular type of hate does not lead to an adrenaline rush or certainty of fistacuffs.  Indeed not.  The eyelids begin to drop, the mind wanders far away, and a church pew seems a not so far of a distant cousin to a Sleep Number bed, pillows and blankets included. See? I just yawned thinking about it.

To be fair, maybe I don't hate choir music itself. Maybe I just hate the dread that comes with knowing that the appointed hour of having to listen is coming, the "dressing up" beforehand, the travel involved, the impropriety of using ear plugs, the... you get the picture. 

Or, maybe I just hate the goosebumps when it's done right. Yesterday we went to the annual Christmas concert at Roswell United Methodist Church. It has a 120 person choir, accompanied by the BIG organ pipes that belong in BIG sanctuary. I would love to hear them play "Phantom of the Opera" or even Scooby Do, but I digress. It's not the organ I hate, after all.

I think often that the best music, regardless of category, is that which elicits an emotional response, whether its the blues, happy pop, or raging against the machine. So it's a bit conflicting. I hate choir music, but there are times when they do it just right, where the vocal expression matches the majesty of the lyrics and the spirit of worship that should accompany a truly Christian, Christmas song. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" were finer examples of that at this year's concert.

Not included this year was "O Holy Night," a song well suited to choirs. For much of the music, it retains a measure of familiarity that pulls one along, then surprises with each listen as it reaches for the heights of music and worship.

Sadly, it's also one of the songs most often mistreated by popular artists who, in other genres, so often get it right.  

For those that may think I'm way too serious about this stuff, here's one of my favorites:


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Common Sense Economics

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Fred Thompson is a remarkable person in front of a camera.  It's too bad he was too lazy to run an effective TV campaign.  That doesn't mean he can't make good points.

 

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Firemen - Electric Arguments

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This is the third "Firemen" release, an experimental project of Paul McCartney and producer Youth.  Ten years after their last release, this one, fortunately, includes vocals, the others focusing solely on electronic sounds.

Fair or not, there's always a certain pining for McCartney's past, something as poignant as"Eleanor Rigby" or as melodically perfect as "Here, There, and Everywhere."  He's had a harder time over the last thirty years finding pop perfection, as evidenced by his last #1 single, in 1980, the underwhelming "Coming Up."  He may not be storming the charts, but he's continued to offer some wheat amongst the chaff in the years since.

A major difficulty for McCartney is the immediate subjective comparison to things past, namely the The Beatles' gold standard.  Invariably, the vast majority of his solo releases fall short.  There have been some great songs, and some good albums, but too often he leans to the whimsical side of songwriting, or, worse, lyrics that fit the meter but amount to nonsense... "one, two, three, four, five, let's go for a drive."  This isn't something limited to his solo career.  Some songs, like "Why Don't We Do it In the Road," get a pass because of their placement in the Beatles' catalog, such as that song's role in an eclectic mix that makes up the majesty of the Beatles "White Album."  Had the same song been placed on a solo release, it would seal the prosecutor's case that McCartney is worthless without Lennon, or, at a minimum, that he needs someone to hold him accountable to a higher standard.

McCartney, it seems, realizes that as well.  He has teamed with numerous others over his career, more recently including Elvis Costello and Steve Miller.  Perhaps that where Youth (the producer) steps in on this release.

Lost in the perceptions of "McCartney" are his fairly frequent experimental leanings, meaning songs that are not expected to be radio friendly.  Sometimes, this is hidden in things that work well, such as the strange chord progressions of "Paperback Writer," but amidst his solo work, these pursuits are more often seen as clear evidence of being past his prime.  Lost in the critique are often some very beautiful, or, at a minimum, intriguing ideas.  Winners include charming oddities such as "Dear Friend" and  "Monkberry Moon Delight."  More notable losers include "Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)" and "Pretty Litle Head."  At least he tries.

There's also the rocking McCartney, who likes loud, screaming lead guitars, as heard in "Helter Skelter," "She's So Heavy," "Soily," "Letting Go," or "Junior's Farm."  Even in his elder years, he occasionally "rocks out."

"Electric Arguments" includes elements of all three: pop, rock, and experimentation.  As these are fairly common for him, it's curious that McCartney hides under the Firemen label.   Given that McCartney has played all the instruments on two albums previously, calling this "McCartney III"  would make sense.  

In any case, it starts off rocking, an unexpected change of pace for someone who last time out seemed to be making an effort to reclaim some critical validation on the popular front, not to mention his age.  The surprises keep coming, including a surprisingly energetic radio-ready "Sing the Changes," the venturesome "Traveling Light," "Highway" - a rocker that ranks amongst his best, the breezy "Sun is Shining," and the optimistic "Dance Til We're High" before yielding to the trippy experimentation of "Lovers in a Dream" and "Don't Stop Running."  

This CD isn't for everyone, depending on their expectations.  My ears say foregoing the McCartney label on the cover has allowed a sense of freedom from the weight of expectation and more than that, a genuine measure of fun that can be heard in the music.  The CD has a good variety of styles, the songs accommodate his reduced vocal range, and it's an engaging listen throughout.  In that view, McCartney may no longer be a relevant force in the musical business, but it reaffirms that he remains a credible artist long past most of his generation.

Suggested Tracks:  "Highway," "Sing the Changes," "Travelling Light"
Rating: 4 Stars






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To the Victor Belongs the... Bragging Rights

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Gosh, Did I mention somewhere Clemson's rousing 31-14 trashing of the South Carolina Gamecocks?  Just making certain.

In any case, this is just too much fun, even for so easy a target.


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