Here's a Tip for You

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Scene 1: A coworker and I recently ended up going to our favorite buffalo wings restaurant, Three Dollar Cafe Junior, two days in a row. As happenstanceBuffalo_Wings_1 played its hand, we recognized our waitress from the day before and let her know we were back. It's not a big restaurant, and not only did she not remember us (or fake that she did), she let us know that "I don't ever make eye contact with customers."

Given, then, an opportunity to test this as a thesis, it was proven true through the course of our meal. She was careful to look at the drinks to see if they needed refilling or if the plates could be taken away. I think at one point she actually managed to look above the tabletop to perhaps my shoulder, but, clearly, there was no eye contact.

The previous day, we had left a pretty good tip. On balance, it makes sense that someone so extraordinarily focused on the state of the table has a great opportunity to provide exemplary service, though unnecessarily at the cost of making it impersonal.

So there's a conundrum. Do you reduce a tip for what is otherwise excellent service due to what is, if not an intentional slight, a disconcerting phobia?

Scene #2: There's a girl (with a purplish pink streak initalianbmt her hair, not that it matters) who works at a nearby Subway where my wife and I visit once to twice a week. Hey, $5 footlongs are a deal.

Still, each time she sees us, it's like she has never seen us before. As it happens, she does make eye contact...but it's the unseeing kind. We tend to order 4 sandwiches, fairly consistently, finishing with a relatively plain turkey/cheese/mayo sandwich for our son. You would think that there might be some familiarity about either us or the sandwiches. She obviously doesn't own the business, and her style for customer interaction may best be characterized as "just doing the time."

Curiously, prominently placed by the register, is a tip jar. I understand tipping, and I'm happy to do so where warranted. I don't know that making a Subway sandwich is such a personal service that tipping is appropriate, but there's ample evidence that tip jars are quite fashionable in places where they're not expected. As an experiment,tip-jar I added a buck or so to the tip jar a few visits in a row. Hey, maybe it would spark some recognition our next trip, right?

Wrong. Ultimately, just as she didn't recognize us, she failed to recognize a fairly conspicuous effort of placing money in the tip jar. The lights are on, but there's nobody home.

Scene #3: Sent on a last minute errand to Publix to pick up a boutonniere we had ordered for my daughter's Prom Night, there was a surprising scramble as people dashed into the store from the hard driving... mist. Admittedly, a driving rain would have made it play as a more overtly sacrificial effort of my time, energy, and potential melting, but I still managed to parlay the errand to a "Good Deed of the Day" Daily Double as I stopped to let a seasoned citizen pass by with her shopping cart.

Publix has a posted policy on not tipping their staff. That's obviously not applicable to racing formnon-employees, however. In her words, "That's very kind of you, sir. You deserve a tip. Bet on Slow Baby in the third race." And with a wink, she was gone.

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March Madness, part 2.

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My wife and I graduated from Clemson University. Our best friends graduated from the University of Tennessee. When these fine instutions faced off in football in the 2004 Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl, it mattered.



Why? Aside from the fact Clemson won 27-14? Because we're fans of our teams. Well, my wife isn't, but being an alumni, she, at least, preferred that Clemson win, though watching the game wasn't strictly necessary.

Off to dictionary.com we go:

fa-nat-ic

-noun. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religious or politics.

I'll make a bold guess that most sports fans don't want to be lumped in with extremists. Although certainly derived from fanatic, we're fortunate that being a fan has been societally accepted, with a resulting leniency inherent within the word that defines us.

fan

- noun. an enthusiastic devotee, follower, or admirer of a sport, pastime, celebrity, etc.: a baseball fan; a great fan of Charlie Chaplin.

Sweet! Being a fan conveniently falls outside the fanatical world of politics and religion, but we're allowed to be just as fervent. But really, what is all this about? Why do we allow ourselves to become fans of a team or an athlete? First, let's consider the ways in which we might relate:

  • A school affiliation. Go Clemson! (Boo Vols!)
  • Geography. I live in Atlanta; thus, Go Falcons!
  • Birthright. If you watched TBS since childhood; Go Braves!
  • Inherited Interest. "Like my father before me, I root for the..."
  • Friendship. Knowing an athlete or anyone directly associated with an athlete or given team.
  • Shared Values. From interviews, press events, or other media, we find aspects worthy of admiration or shared values.
  • Favorite/Underdog bandwagons. Many favor teams that consistently succeed (Yankees), or pull for the guys that consistently fail (Cubbies' last World Series in 1908).

Well, that's some. But to the non-sports fan, all but "friendship" are incomprehensible. They won't deny that you are a fan, but you may as well be from another planet. You're an alien life form, and you're occupying the TV for insensitive amounts of time.

That's okay, though. It's the price of being a fan. Of course, there are other costs. As fans of a particular team, we buy the merchandise. The jerseys, the bumper stickers, the keyrings, the T-shirts, the golf club head covers, etc. Oh yes, and the tickets. As fans, we're obligated to visibly demonstrate our support. We spend $.

What do we get in return?

Much as music is the universal language, sports is also a buddy bonding endeavor. Race, politics, religion, etc... it doesn't matter. If you're a fan of the same team, you're among friends here. That's good. Maybe being a fan provides a sense of belonging, but... a sports fan just won't go there.


Even better, there's (don't read this kids...) beer. Yes, outside of sports, a person drinking alone is subject to an immediate diagnosis of depression or alcoholism. But if a football game is on... hey, it's cool! Maybe it's effective advertising, but it works.

Another "benefit" is, debatably, sports radio. This is practically intolerable unless you're a sports fan. Sports radio is certainly a source of information, but in a sense, it's also a competition for supremacy of opinion... and a sports fan is all about both.

But it's not all good. We live and die as our hopes and aspirations are raised or dashed based on others' performances. Human beings are loaded with luggage; sports fans take on an extra bag knowing it is as likely to be filled with woes as good tidings. College recruiting, professional drafts, wins and losses, injuries, coaching changes, improper conduct, contract holdouts, salary caps and free agency... that's a lot of satellites orbiting around the sports fan's world.

So it's the season of March Madness, where 65 basketball teams compete (and hundreds of thousands of office pools) under the understanding that either you win or you go home. To borrow a phrase from "Highlander," in the end, there can be only one. It's that time of year that the unscripted couldn't be scripted, and the heroes rise to the occasion. And for the goats, as they used to say on the Braves' Opening Day (pre-Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz), "there's always next year."

Or, for the sports fan, we must only wait until April for the Masters.

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March Madness

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There comes a time in every man's life when he's asked a certain question. And if he isn't, is he truly a man?

That question, to my knowledge, was never posed to Socrates, Plato, Kant, Freud or Kierkegaard. Their loss. But, it is one that slips from one generation to the next, answered many times but never authoritatively, or else it would no longer be asked. That question being: "Why do you like sports?"

I mean, isn't it obvious? Apparently not.

You might think the person ignorant. And despite the societal judgment that rests upon those so labeled, you would be correct. But it's not an insult.

ig-no-rant –adjective

1./lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.

2. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.

3. uninformed; unaware.

The persons asking this question, somehow, just don't know. They don't understand.

I am, at least, comforted by daughter, who intrinsically relishes the thrill of competition, but the blank looks on the faces of my wife and son clearly indicate they were not similarly gifted. Alas. And, to be fair, it is not just men who must try to answer this question, but certainly predominantly so.

March Madness is here. If you don't know what that is, this post is just for you. This is the season (or one of the many seasons, to the regret of those ncaawho are not part of the club) for such questions to again confound and perplex many a man. Does such a question truly deserve an answer?

"Why do you like sports?" has been asked of me many times by my son and wife, and I suppose I have failed in my previous attempts, or they would no longer ask. Having asked "spousal permission" to enjoy an evening with the boys watching the NCAA tournament has once again prompted the question to which I can only think: "Why would you ask such a question?"

I don't take this question personally. We have to acknowledge that the person asking the question truly wants the answer. It obviously bothers them and disrupts what we hope would otherwise be a harmonious life. We're, therefore, obligated to attempt an answer, not only to avoid being asked again, but to help them come to a fuller appreciation of sport and, possibly, life itself.

Context is everything, and it's important to understand the assumptions made by the person asking the question. I'm an analytical person. It's time to analyze.

First, it's not a particular sport that is being questioned. We can (almost) understand why someone may not appreciate the finer points of rowing, luge, or discus. But, that is not the question being asked, though it may be misinterpreted that way. You don't have to defend football over basketball over golf over hockey over luge over soccer. Don't fall for that trap.

But as is the case with many questions, there is a more telling question positioned within what is spoken. Why does one care when watching a sport? And there it is. This is not a question of fact; it is indeed one borne of observing a sports fan engrossed in this form of entertainment. For example, Friday night, when USC had a turnover against Boston College, a friend had to look away from the screen and grimace. Why? Because he cared. That type of reaction is simply foreign to those who don't understand.

So let's look at "caring" a bit more closely. To the person asking, they are actually establishing their own conclusion that sports do not warrant caring. I know. It seems wild beyond imagination, but it is true and, therefore, must be addressed.

Wording it more directly, why do we care about people playing a particular game that we don't even know?

Or, why do we care about the team from our college when we don't even know them and we graduated long ago?

Or, why do we care about the professional team in our (or any other) city when we don't know the players, they don't represent any institution with which we affiliate, and the players (or we the fans) have no actual "connection" to the city?

Sheesh. Can't we all just enjoy sports and not have to think about it?

Sadly, we're not yet done with undermining our mines.

There may be, I'm sorry to say, a touch of cynicism involved also. The person may indirectly be asking, "Do you like to watch because you're too (Pick one - old, short, fat, lazy, weak, uncoordinated)? Just great, eh?

Or, perhaps, are you such a loser or under such tremendous stress that you have to watch other people work out their aggression? Further translated: "Why don't you busy yourself with something "more productive" that actually solves your problems?" Please, we just want to enjoy the game.

But, wait! There's more! And tread carefully here. Are they asking "Why does it bother you that I'm asking you this question? It's just a game. Am I so terrible to talk with that you can't take a minute from that stupid game on TV?"

Know your questioner!

Who knew this question could come to potentially harness so many possibilities? Let me help. In short, our original question now has three key facets, and any of them may be intended within the original question.

These are:

1. "Why do we care about strangers playing some game?"

2. "Why do we become a fan of a particular team or athlete?"

3. "Isn't it obvious that you only watch sports because of (insert perceived personal failing of choice)?

Egad. The first I'll attempt to answer in short order. #2 will be addressed in my next post. Andpopcorn and movie #3 involves a monkey on either the questioner's back or yours, and I want no part of it.

(Brief Intermission)

US hockey amateurs beating Russian professionals in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. McEnroe outlasting Wilander in miracle-on-ice the 1982 Davis Cup. Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46 in 1986. Michael Jordan's two NBA "three-peats" with the Bulls. Christian Laettner's last-second shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament. George Teague's strip of the ball from a Miami receiver in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in Beijing in 2008.

These are but a few of the memorable moments I've had watching sports. Any sports fan has their personal "Best of" recollections. As with any sports fan, there are also those memories that are not as triumphant as those listed here but linger instead as unhealed sores. To win, one must risk losing.

Let's rule out some false steps to which your questioner may try to lead you, which would quickly score points in their tally. And, after all, we must recognize that answering this question is, in fact, a competition. We want to win the point, yes?

Red Herring #1: Is it because other people play a sport so well that we never even tried, or tried and were only average (or worse)?

No. Don't go there. This may affect our appreciation for an athlete's skills, but does not address our love for sport.

Red Herring #2: Is it escapism?

Maybe. At least from sitcoms. But for the love of God, don't say this! They'll demand the remote control! And then drinking your frosty beer alone in the garage becomes somewhat pathetic. Just say "No."

Focus here. There are two parts to a complete answer that demand respect and continuing mastery of your HD screen. These answers inform, moving our audience to a knowledgeable position from which to choose to enjoy sports or not to enjoy sports, but not to question your enjoyment. Winning a conversion would be nice, but ensuring understanding has been our end game, after all.

1. It's unscripted. In relation to their world, "sport" is not a play, a TV show, a novel, or a movie. If forced, you might ask if they would skip to the end of a book before reading the chapters preceding. But this should be a backup position, only.

By unscripted, we're not living by what a person thoughtfully constructed in orchestrating a series of events to a conclusion. We're living in the moment. Certainly competitors have plans of what they want to accomplish, but at the moment when it matters, none of us knows exactly what they will do. It makes these moments precious.

This is why watching a recorded sporting event after learning the final score is a bore. One no longer lives in the moment, because the conclusion is now written.

2. It's heroic. When it really matters, a competitor(s) steps up to that particular moment in time when a specific action is required that either succeeds or fails that results in a gain or setback, a win or a loss. It's a crucible which offers glory, and, in a good game, many opportunities for heroic triumphs.

There's also a sense of truth about that athlete. What stuff are they made of when the forces against appear likely to prevail? This is why we react so negatively to those who cheat in competition or use steroids. They didn't come to their heroic moments honestly.

This isn't about celebrity worship or an animalistic homage to testosterone. It's a celebration of life, from the master strokes of intentions to the minutiae of execution, from the failures to overcome to the obstacles set by the opponent.

Perhaps there is a sense of living beyond one's self, of projecting our aspirations onto the actions of others. But any appreciation of art or music is essentially the same. We experience the work of others and process them in ways which can help us to live life more fully.

And if we happen to marvel at a quarterback throwing a tight spiral to a receiver running in full stride, through the outstretched arms of a defender, in the end zone, with no time left on the clock, for a come from behind victory, please respect the sport fan's appreciation for that unscripted moment when heroics prevailed.

For you questioners, there should be understanding between us, and a respect for our differences. You may not come to appreciate sports. That's okay. Apparently, when it comes to sports, you either get it or you don't, like, say... Clemson and the University of South Carolina in football (because football is all that matters in the post-Civil War south). There are winners, and there are losers. But the games go on... with people who want to watch.

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Watchmen

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It's no secret.  I'm a sucker for super-hero movies.  The heroes don't even have to be fully "good guys," either.  Take Hitch or Iron Man, for example.  But if one enjoys heroic triumph, why not add a few super powers?

Soooo... the movie drought ends with "Watchmen."  I have not read the 12-issue graphic novel series, but only seen the movie trailers.   These certainly had a dark look to it, but no more so than your average Gotham City or Matrix underworld.  And the watchmen_ver18characters could as easily be Nextgen X-Men, by looking at them.   So, why not?  Bring on the ICEE and popcorn!

It turns out, there are reasons not to watch.   This is a movie for fans of the graphic novel.  It may otherwise appeal to teenagers who don't have enough angst and negativity in their lives, but for the non-fan watchers, there's just not enough heroic about it to maintain interest.

This wasn't meant to be a story of the heroic.  It's meant to test our assumptions about right vs. wrong, about the cost of justice, about man's penchant for evil.   "V for Vendetta" worked this theme successfully clearly defining black and white, though testing sympathies to each side.  This story thrives on the gray muck that lies between the poles. 

A narration sets the tone:

"Rorschach's Journal. November 12th, 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll whisper "no."

You get the picture, and that picture is the tone of the whole movie.

Computer generated images can help visualize a story in ways not otherwise possible, but they can't develop character.  That takes careful writing and time. Yet, despite ample defining moments, there's a sense that each character requires more definition.  We don't fully understand motivations, or, when we think we do, we need more to confirm it.  

A span of over 2 hours and 30 minutes is ample time to define characters.  We get some good hints, but they still fall short.  You might also think that this would be sufficient time for, hmm..., an overarching plot that hovers with suspense, action and tension.  Sadly, it doesn't.   Instead, we meet characters that we never really come to care about and follow occasional droplets of a plot that we must assume is much better realized in the fullness of the graphic novel.   

I won't say that it's not worth watching, but I can't recommend it.  A sense of relief at the conclusion is not a good thing.  Unless the bad guy got killed.

But the bad guys are everyone, and if not, the good guys are powerless to overcome them.  Deconstructing the hero, remember? 

Walking out of the theatre, we have feelings of: 

1) Escape from the brutality that overwhelms the daily double of gore and violence (Watchmen is a graphic novel, after all).  

2) Rest from trying to make sense of the metaphysical arguments that are hinted at but never won.  After all the metaphysical discussion, it doesn't really matter and its shallowness belies its better placement within a novel format where it can be more fully communicated and understood. 

3) Freedom from the irritation that comes from too few moments with characters such as Rorschach that could carry an entire movie, while watching a movie that one hopes will end while not caring how.

4) Release.  As in, a much needed bathroom break.

It's not bad. It's... okay.  The special effects are fantastic.  The music is often superb.  Despite the "suspension of belief" that comes with the genre, it holds the imagination.  The altered telling of 20th century American history works as both an adequate background for the plot and in establishing the idea of generational Watchmen who look over its citizens. 

But it doesn't satisfy.  Imagine "The Lord of the Rings" told within one movie.  There's a sense of incompleteness, and, ultimately, it remains a very long and slow paced movie.

On to interesting quotes:

Reality:

Adrian Veidt/Ozymandius:  "It doesn't take a genius to see the world has problems."

Edward Blake/The Comedian: "No, but it takes a room full of morons to think they're small enough for them to handle."

Metaphysical (and not surprisingly, lengthy):

Doctor Manhattan: "Thermo-dynamic miracles... events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.

And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.

Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre: But...if me, my birth, if that's a thermodynamic miracle... I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!.

Dr. Manhattan: Yes. Anybody in the world. ..But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from the another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come...dry your eyes. For you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.

It seems difficult, if not tacitly incorrect, to term a statistical unlikelihood or anomaly as a "a miracle."  This is a convenient sidestep for those who prefer the random to an actual cause, but a miracle without an author is unworthy of its name.  

Rating: 2 Stars out of 5

Now, where's that "The Incredibles" DVD?

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Dollhouse

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Three episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in a row, and my wife and daughter become giddy.  I'm merely amused.  Unless they're really good ones.  At another level, given the entirety of (the wonderful but short-lived) "Firefly," viewed in one healthy dose over a weekend, other TV series seem uninspired and irrelevant.  I'm all in for these two, and thankful for the convenience of DVD's.  (I'll pass on "Angel" though - It wasn't bad; I guess I'm just old-fashioned and prefer my vampires with wood stakes in their chests).

What these shows have in common is their creator, Joss Whedon.  As I generally have low expectations for TV shows, the news that a new Whedon series, "Dollhouse," would debut in February, was, at least, something to look forward to as football season came to an end.

eliza-dushku-dollhouse-2

The show is about Echo (Eliza Dushku), who, in Fox's summary, is "a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas.  Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become -- with mind, personality and physiology -- whomever the client wants or needs them to be."

Cool.

In essence, this gives the writers wide liberties in creating plots from week to week, a necessity for any show that aims to last.  But it also comes with a price.  At only five episodes into its launch, an undertone of pimping and human trafficking creates a curious conflict of interest for the audience.  We want to see Echo succeed in her missions, but despite the moral oughtness that is lacking with her handlers, we don't really wish them ill.  

Also, from the first episode, the stain of entropy was already inserted; Dollhouse is threatened from within and without, and Echo seems destined to resist the full memory wipes.  Even if a little forced at the onset, it's still interesting as a number of straight-forward episodes could have been created before showing the cracks in the foundation.

I've given it enough time, and, unfortunately, the casting remains questionable.  Due to Dusku's previous role as the very unlikable Faith, any "Buffy" fan was unlikely to approach Echo with open arms.  The challenge of varied roles from week to week also brought to mind the question of her range as an actress, as Faith remained nothing but angry, unsympathetic, and unremorseful.  Good news here:  That question has been answered as she has clearly handled all "imprints" astonishingly well and has proven that she can carry the show.

Still, a significant portion of the success of "Buffy" and "Firefly" was the chemistry of the casts.  So far, that is lacking here.  Cases in point are:

Topher Brink - Genius Scientist who has not quite mastered imprinting.  I know a lot of very smart people who are goofy, but even if he were not the show's primary means of comic relief, he's just not credible.

Sierra - An Active.  Okay, she handles the role pretty well.  But in a show named "Dollhouse," she's... not doll material.  Sorry.

Paul Ballard - FBI agent trying to discover Dollhouse.  Tahmoh Penikett had a similar challenge coming to "Dollhouse" as Eliza Dushku.  Unlike her, he's as one dimensional here as he was on "Battlestar Galactica."  Curiously, he's even shot and put into the hospital before the audience has any chance of even caring.  They'll have to flesh out this character or he may take another round.

Laurence Dominic - Chief Security Officer.  Granted he's had little space in the plots to develop, but he seems more likely to advertise a Gillette razor than to be taken as someone who knows the business end of a gun.  He doesn't even warrant a place in the cast photo.

dollhousecast

Four misfires in a recurring cast of 10 doesn't mean that the show won't succeed, but it's likely to make it difficult.  Also, the show doesn't carry the humor or the quirkiness that Whedon's previous series enjoyed, at least so far.  They aren't necessary for a show to be good, but their absence will nevertheless be a test for those who come expecting them.  

I'm hoping that the show does develop a fan base.  Dushku has been amazingly good, and there's already been ample plot lines thrown in to keep this interesting for a good while to come.

And, after sacrificing the initial episodes, in a sense, to lay the groundwork for what the show is about, Whedon let it be known early that we will finally come to see the show he envisioned in the next two episodes.  I'm hoping that they might include a peek into the obvious gap of how they acquire imprints from the dying or the dead. 

In any case, the prospect of "Dollhouse" becoming even better is a good thing, as it's grown steadily in its short span.  Oh, and it's needed to fill the black hole that "Battlestar Galactica" is leaving on Friday Nights.

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J.J. Cale - Roll On

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Years ago, when reading the Rolling Stone Record Guide, it was amazing to follow artists careers, reviews of an artist would often point forwards or backwards in time to other bands.

An easy case in point would be The Yardbirds, perhaps best known for "Heart Full of Soul" and "For Your Love," but better known for their guitarists.  These were Jeff Beck (afterwards with Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck group followed by a solid solo career in rock and jazz fusion), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Eric Clapton.

Clapton went on to record solo, but only after leaving a  breadth of other bands in his wake, among them John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek & the Dominos, not to mention guest turns everywhere from the Beatles ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps") to Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), to Sonny Landreth, to...it's too large a list.  I followed much of Clapton's career through each of these branches, but it's curious that I never touched upon J.J. Cale, who wrote two of Clapton's more popular songs, "Cocaine" and "After Midnight."

In 2006, Cale and Clapton finally paired on "The Road to Escondido," an album with a great vibe if rather restrained, if one expected Clapton to add a guitar solo ala "Cocaine."  The two paired wonderfully, with a sound similar to other work Clapton did in the mid 1970's (Slowhand, Backless).

Since hearing that, I've gone back to listen to many of Cale's albums, which, if anything, haven't varied much in tone or style, but are consistently good.  As I'm one who tends to like artists that chase a personal vision and develop over time, I'm not less a fan in that he hasn't developed at all.  None of these songs sizzle with guitar pyrotechnics or other musical measures to hype himself.  He sticks with what he does best, I guess,  and that's telling the story that he wants.  In listening to Cale's body of work, it's obvious that jjcaleClapton's 70's sound was greatly influenced by Cale, beyond the covers of his songs.

At the age of 70, he's released "Roll On," an album that is simply the next chapter to where he left off last time.  One noticeable difference between this release and the prior with Clapton is the efficiency of the songs.  On "Escondido," half were over 4:00 minutes.  Here, only one passes that mark, which is the title track featuring... Eric Clapton.   It's fair to say that each song lasts long enough to say what needs to be said.  A sound associated with the '70's may not be for everybody, but there's no denying it's consistently good.

Recommended Songs: "Strange Days," "Former Me," "Roll On"

Rating: 3 Stars

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U2 - No Line on the Horizon

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Listening to an established artist, it's very difficult not to compare a new release to prior work.  This is especially the case if previous songs or albums affect you in some meaningful way.  If you just like a good tune on the radio, bless you.  You're immune from this.

For the rest of us, there's an interest in how an artist changes over time, both musically and lyrically.  After all, we don't want to hear the same tunes with new words, or familiar lyrics with a new tune, do we?  Well, sometimes we do when an artist turns from those things that we liked.

Another facet of the challenge is that both artists and fans want something greater.   This is a fair challenge, as most bands would be pleased have just one album, or song, considered "great." 

So what do artists do after meeting success?  They create.  They evolve or devolve.  They discover.  They lose inspiration.  They push boundaries to expand the definition of who they are.  It must be even more difficult then, when the band's high water mark, "The Joshua Tree," was released 22 years ago, and the band continues to demand critical validation with each successive release that they are better today than yesterday. 

Bono, lead singer for U2, declared "If this isn't our best album, we're irrelevant," regarding No Line on the Horizon, their 12th release.  While the implications of this conceit could tempt one to hand him the sad news, I think it's unfair to be drawn into an ultimate judgment of a CD's value solely against the previousWhy is there a horizon? catalog of work, even at the artist's behest.  Horizon would not fare well in those comparisons.  

Which is not to say that Horizon is not good.  It is.  Had it been released by an artist freed from mass expectations, it would likely be very well received.  That said, with so many fans wanting Joshua Tree (or other favorite U2 moment) but only better, this will undoubtedly receive very mixed opinions.

The good:  There remains a willingness to experiment.  These include an enhanced placement of producer Eno's electronics, a willingness to let a lyric define a song's pace ("Moment of Surrender"), quirkiness ("Unknown Caller," "FEZ-Being Born"), an atypical single selection ("Get on Your Boots"), and the MUSE-ish "Stand Up Comedy."  All of these songs fall into the category of an artist working towards a personal vision, rather than meeting others' expectations.  Regarding those expectations, only "Magnificent" stands out as a memorable U2 anthem.

Bono remains a good songwriter, and some of the lyrics here are hidden in the quirkiness of the delivery.  Overall, they tend to be more personal than preachy, which is a good thing.  From "Moment of Surrender":

I was pushing in the numbers 
At the ATM machine 
I could see in the reflection 
A face staring back at me 
At the moment of surrender 
A vision of invisibility 
I did not notice the passers-by 
And they did not notice me

The bad:

Curiously, the production tends to elevate Eno's contributions in the mix while burying Adam Clayton's bass through most of the songs.  He has an exceptional bass line through "Magnificent" that seems likely to only find light when propelling the song in concert.

Much like Coldplay's Viva La Vida, this CD will likely never achieve a place within U2 Fandom as a collection of standout songs.  While most of the songs have some really good moments, they also have elements that detract.  I-Tunes won't be selling many individual song downloads. 

But that's okay.  Horizon plays well as an album, from song to song, especially when listened to freed of the "what it should have been" expectations.  Appreciation for it grows, always the sign of good music.

As an aside, Bono has always held Christian imagery alongside frequent themes of grace, hope, and charity, as he does through much of Horizon.

An interesting lyric from this set is:

God is love
And love is evolution’s very best day

His conjoining of the secular with the religious relates lyrically to a world in need, but as they underpin the majority of his songs, I wonder if it tells of an inner struggle to revisit his failed Catholicism.  Perhaps the cost is too high.

Suggested Songs:  "Magnificent," "Stand Up Comedy"

Rating: 3 Stars

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Richard Thompson - Live

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Richard Thompson is a folk/rock guitarist, beginning in the early 1970's with a group named Fairport richardthompson Convention, followed a solo career that's been erratic in song quality, but always with great guitar work.

I saw him around 1986 in Atlanta at a bar no longer on the scene. With about 5 of us waiting for the doors to open, he stepped out of a cab, acoustic guitar case in hand and quickly stepped inside. Such is the treachery of fame for someone frequently mentioned as "Best Guitarists of (insert year)" by Rolling Stone. It was a great show, especially when seated at a table about 15' from the stage with an unobstructed view.

He came to town again last night, this time at the Variety Playhouse, a favorite venue of mine. We arrived at 8:20, just in time to see the opening act. As the stage included only a stool, a microphone, and a couple cups of water, we decided to find a resting spot at the rear balcony, then descend to a small open floor area in front of the stage between sets. The joy in watching this artist comes from watching his fingers.

Strangeness. First, the place was sold out for an artist relatively unheard and unpublicized. Second, the entire audience was seated. No one was standing in the floor area in front of the stage. I mean, there's always someone up there to check out the band's licks, right? Third, at 8:30 sharp, there's Richard, guitar in hand. And we're as far from the front as one can get.

Prelude: Driving to the Little Five Points area, my concert buddy and I were pretty well into a 1974 "bootleg" recording of Rory Gallagher, live in Kansas City. This is adrenaline music, featuring a roaring, emotional, fiery guitar from this forgotten master. We were pumped.

Having met two other friends, a brief detour to Criminal Records was required, and amongst the area's many varied restaurants, we found ourselves at the relatively mainstream Brewhouse Cafe. A tasty burger and Ommegang Abbey beer later, we were ready for the show.

RT can tear it up on electric guitar, and he's usually accompanied by a stand-up bass and drums, at minimum.

Not this time. A man and his guitar. It took several songs to process the absence of the rock show and come to terms with a solo acoustic presentation, even as many of the songs were familiar from recordings with a full band.

It was as peaceful a concert as I've ever attended. The crowd politely clapped, and occasionally stood to do so. RT, at almost 60 years of age (not much higher than the average age of those attending) has perfected his craft, in my opinion, unparalleled in his genre. I'm fairly confident that he did not miss a guitar note the entire evening, and if a note was not struck perfectly cleanly, I don't remember it.

Our perch at the rear center of the auditorium, while only 150 miles or so from our intended location, worked well for sound. Other than the occasional voices of those around us, we may as well have been wearing headphones. Crystal clear.

It's amazing that a man an fill a room so fully with sound, never mind the amplification of the guitar. On almost every song, he picks a bass line while also playing the melody or a solo. And while other singers his age may be faltering on higher notes, his songs have always been on the lower registers, and his voice remains as strong as ever.

The show clocked in at under 2 hours. Overall, it was an uneven evening in tone. The slower numbers tended towards the sad, and even the up tempo songs generally were tempered towards the British cynicism of his writing. However, his humor both within and between the songs brightened the evening. Befitting a what stylistically was a folk concert, it left us feeling appreciative. The evening was quite enjoyable, but it was not the punctuated sonics that come from a good ol' rock show, even Richard Thompson style.

Two songs included in this show were:



Lousy lighting, but the performance speaks for itself.

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Gilgamesh and the Erudite Driver

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Books (with the exception of the subspecies known as "textbooks," my kids would point out) are treasures. Considering the proximity of local libraries, the littering of our nation's strip malls with Barnes & Nobles, and the binary vastness of the digital domain, there are plenty of books from which to choose.

But what is truly a good book? My mom might pull out any number of cookbooks. My father might suggest a particular biography of Nathaniel Greene or Henry Knox. If you ask a History professor what his favorite book is, it's your fault.

My wife might prefer "The Art of Glass" or "Techniques of Kiln Formed Glass." That's her interest (the kiln fire safety portion is necessarily one of mine), but she has read many books that I've taken on her recommendation and with which I have been pleased. "Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card or "Battlefield Earth" by L. Ron Hubbard (yes, the guy who made up Scientology), are two. Whether more look to or around the Good Book for a good book is a topic for another day.

There's certainly enough recommendations amongst reviewers or friends that, within a desired genre, a good read can be found if one is willing to search and devote one's time. And I won't even go into the first hundred or more pages of not-so-good book before one truly discovers if, as a whole, it is pronounced good.

I could argue that the environment for reading is as critical as the content. A good book is much like a comfort food. While reading an escapist fare is certainly enjoyable, it does, in fact, matter whether one is ensconced on a couch (with accompanying blanket, pillow and beverage of choice) or in an airplane seat, shoulder to shoulder, between Mr. Stinky and Ms. Overlarge. Location, location, location...

Some favorite authors include JRR Tolkein, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Jordan, MC Beaton, Lawrence Block, Lillian Jackson Braun, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Randy Wayne White... Wait! Did I mention Janet Evanovich?

You betcha. They're uproariously funny. Here's the thing... I used to drive. A lot. At some point I went with my wife to the library, and decided to check out the selection of books on tape (now predominantly books on CD).

I began by testing the familiar. It turns out that many of those books that I did book reports on back in school (but never read...) are amazingly good. "Classics" by Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce are among the authors whose works I've now heard and enjoyed in unabridged format. I would even consider reading some of these authors now.

Otherwise, I like fiction, and, in particular, murder mysteries. There's some authors I'm familiar with; after all, it's hard not to have heard of John Grisham. But where does one start? With "A," of course. Beaton, Block, Braun... It seems have a hard time getting past "G" on the library shelf; there's murder aplenty.

The impact of the written word by a narrator (or more properly, performer) cannot be dismissed. Some narrators make the work unbearable. Eject disk. Listen to "Hotel California." Again. Others supplement it or lift it beyond the print to an aural art. If I were to read a MC Beaton (Hamish Macbeth series) or Tony Hillerman novel, it's fairly likely that I would put them quickly aside as, from a stylistic standpoint, subject-verb-direct object used repetitively becomes a bore. But, having listened to the narrator give voice to the characters, reading them in that "voice" gives the printed words a life that otherwise I would not have appreciated, and, I think, the "reading" which the author intended.

I knew nothing about Gilgamesh. Heard the name... never knew the context. But murdergilgamesh mysteries were in short supply from authors A-G, and there it was on the library shelf, another impediment to reaching the "H" section. It also had the benefit of being performed by the same person who handled the Tony Hillerman books, George Guidall. George Guidall could perform a telephone book and I would be perfectly entertained; he's that good. As it happens, Gilgamesh's literary style is similar to a telephone book, with the addition of verbs. Okay, it's a poem and recently rewritten for the modern era, but it was utterly enjoyable, a rousing epic tale spoken as if passed from one generation to the next by the wise man of the village.

Aside from an unreserved encouragement to give a listen to anything that Guidall performs, audio books have enriched my life. There are numerous books that I never would have taken the time to read which I've now had the pleasure of "reading" by ear. Others, like Gilgamesh, I never would have thought to pursue given all the time in the world.

I don't think audio books will replace "real" books; the digital age and the greening of the western world are sufficient threats for that. I can't discount that serious readers set aside time to devote to their books. It's their entertainment of choice. However, as interested as I may be in any number of things, I have ample amusements which compete for my time.

One thing is certain. When in travel mode and facing a the inevitability of songs-heard-too-many-times or laments-of-the-day on talk radio, a good (audio) book is a dear thing, indeed.

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Carpe Diem

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Sometimes you come across a picture that's fairly beautiful, and though I'm tempted to post one of Clemson University, this is actually what I have in mind:

japan

Breathtaking...and, thought provoking, as it turns out. In Atlanta, amusement parks are significant options for entertainment bringing tourists and income to the City. Stone Mountain, Six Flags Over Georgia, and White Water are cultural fixtures not only for the Atlanta area, but for much of the Southeast.

When I was growing up in South Carolina, to go to Atlanta for a day at Six Flags was a big deal. By comparison to the local Greenwood County Fair, The Great American Scream Machine was the pinnacle of thrill rides. Today, it still rumbles along still, even as more dynamically involved rides like Batman and Goliath have marked the passing of the "old coaster" generation.

I'm not sure, though, that the County Fair wasn't more enjoyable than the big city fare. It was local, so more friends would go, and as it came annually, it was a fairly big deal. You had to go for the week or so while it was in town. Added to that the anticipation created when the school bus passed the fairgrounds as the rides were assembled, and it was a major event.

And not just for the kids. My mom carried a winning tradition in the annual judging of this and that, regularly bringing home first or second place ribbons for things sewn or cooked. There was a lot of family pride in the station wagon when these were picked up at the end of the week.

The Fair was best at night. With the sounds of the rides ratcheting and rolling, squeals throughout bottlethe park, and the pitch of Carnies trying to get your attention, it was a happening place. Shooting water guns to fill balloons, throwing rings around stretched neck cola bottles, and tossing ping pong balls into gold fish bowls, and one had a memorable time.

goldfish

Add to that the smell of popcorn, hotdogs, corndogs, burgers, fried fritters and other foods on a stick, as well as the visual stimulation of the flashing bulbs and neon lights, this was a burst of energy for a small town.

The Fair didn't have "major" rides, but it had enough. There was always the large Ferris wheel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, and smaller rides or attractions to round things out. The relativeferris safety of these was not a pertinent question for a pre-teen, though it was for the parents. Memorably, the Double-Ferris wheel, parentally labeled as "maybe when you're older," was officially off limits. Or, when free to run off with your buddies... seize the day.

Well, sure, that's the memories. It wasn't the best thing ever, but it was a very good thing. Fairs were built to come and go; amusement parks, though, are expected to stay. So, it's a surprise then, when something iconic is no longer.

Following are the remaining pictures from the Japanese amusement park. On the simplest level, it can be processed as a business failure. But observing this particular form of loss in terms of today's economy, it's disconcerting. Perhaps it's the recurring movie theme of the future gone awry (Planet of the Apes, The Day After, Wall-E). Maybe it's growing older and experiencing a more personal and tangible sense of change than that preoccupying our public discourse. And, maybe it's that dreaded entropy again.

japan1 japan2

japan4

japan5 japan7

japan6

I wonder how the adults who once enjoyed this park reflect on these images. Memories matter. We shouldn't live within them, but they can remind us to live meaningfully, today.

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