My wife doesn’t have a birthday. She has a Birthday Month. So I have to be on my toes all through October, not just on the 4th (which is what the rest of us would call her birthday).
Last night we settled in to watch TV. She wanted to start with Designated Survivor, the new, so-so- Kiefer Sutherland show. I was feeling a bit sad ... silly, really, but I wished we liked more of the same TV shows and movies. Designated Survivor may turn out to be a show we watch together, but it kind of gives “common ground” a bad name.
After that, we watched the season opener of Ash vs Evil Dead. This is more like it, I thought, I like this show a lot, which reveals my real definition of “shows we watch together”: something I like that she tolerates. Except she doesn’t tolerate Ash vs Evil Dead, she likes it, too. And she occasionally laughs, which if you know Robin, you know laughing at TV isn’t a regular occurrence. But it’s one of the reasons I love her so ... she’ll sit quietly as a comedy plays, then laugh at arguably the goriest show in TV history (gore isn’t inherently funny, but ridiculous, over-the-top gore is).
And if Season One was the Goriest Show of All Time, Season Two had an early scene that easily topped anything we’d seen before. And we laughed. I can’t find the scene on YouTube, which is probably just as well. The best I can do is this Season Two trailer, which was apparently too gory for Comic Con:
Later in the evening, we spent a few minutes chuckling over a couple of S. Clay Wilson drawings.
Now I ask you: what kind of moron would think he and his wife had few shared tastes, when she laughed at Evil Dead and S. Clay Wilson?
A friend of mine turns 51 today. She’s not a big fan of public exposure on the internet, so she’ll remain nameless here, but pretty much everyone reading this knows who I mean.
We met more than 20 years ago ... we can never remember exactly when it was, but at this point, we can at least say “more than 20 years” and know we’re being accurate. We were in grad school together, we taught together, for one year we were about the only ones of our buddies still teaching at Cal. My wife and I took her to see our hometown where we grew up, met, and got married. Later, we stayed with her parents and she showed us some of the things she remembered from her childhood.
I wasn’t looking for a best friend ... I’m one of the lucky people whose wife of 43+ years is also my best friend ... but there has never been anything second-rate about my friendship with the birthday girl, she has always been there for me, as I hope I have been for her.
Due partly to unforeseen circumstances, she’s moving out of the Bay Area temporarily, the first time she has done this since we met. She is, in fact, driving to her new home today, on her birthday, with her beloved partner of many years. They take care of each other ... it’s a great thing to see ... this new experience will likely be very good for them both.
I have to admit, though ... I already miss her. Her birthday especially reminds me of the past ... between she and her partner and me and my wife, we always made sure to spend a night together on our birthdays, four times a year.
If there is a cultural artifact that bonds us, it might be Sleater-Kinney. Together we’ve seen them fourteen times since 1998. I find myself listening to S-K, thinking of her, trying to pick just the right song to include here. But most of their goodbye songs (and they have some great ones) feel final, and are filled with the problems that led to goodbye. My friend and I have never had those kind of problems, so as much as I’d like to post something like “Good Things” (“Why do good things never wanna stay, Some things you lose some things you give away”) or “One More Hour” (“I know it’s so hard for you to say goodbye”), the totality of those songs is much darker than how I feel. Yesterday, I sent her an email with a link to the following video, which I hope was the right choice as they travel to the desert. “There are no cities, no cities to love. It's not the city, it's the weather we love! ... It's not the weather, it's the people we love!”
And one more: the last song we saw Sleater-Kinney perform (so far), May 3, 2015:
My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day.
More than once, I’ve told stories about the year we lived on Telegraph Avenue. We’re talking 1974-75, and ... well, I wrote about it more than ten years ago, check out “Telegraph Avenue Anecdotes”.
On that post, I wrote:
There was other stuff that happened ... the night Ali beat Foreman, people celebrated in the street, and when Saigon fell/was liberated in '75, two different parades started up, one coming down Telegraph towards campus, the other coming downhill on Haste, and when the two parades, who couldn't see each other as we could from our window, met up at the corner of Telegraph and Haste, there was great fanfare.
In 2005, some 30 years after the fact, I seem to have my memories straight. But another decade has clouded my brain. When I heard that Muhammad Ali was on life support, I thought back on his importance, and remembered a Telegraph Avenue anecdote. But I remembered it wrong, confusing the two events mentioned above. So my most recent memory was that when Ali beat Foreman, two parades started up, and when they met, there was great fanfare.
I think there’s a reason why I combined the two memories into one. In 1975, the marchers were chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” It was a clear marker of a crucial moment in world history. In 1974, the revelers were shouting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” In its own way, that night was a crucial moment, as well. For Muhammad Ali transcended his sport.
I don’t know of a single person from the world of sports who was as important in the world outside of sports as was Muhammad Ali. This is why the phrase “Greatest Of All Time” should probably just be retired, because there is only one Greatest. The closest thing I can think of to Ali is Martina Navratilova, but whatever her impact on tennis, even a great like Martina takes a back seat to Ali.
I used to follow boxing. There is something about a big championship bout that entices and thrills. But then Ali got Parkinson’s. And as far as I know, no connection has ever been proven between Ali’s boxing career and the later development of Parkinson’s. But the damage was done, whether I can pinpoint a correlation or not. The three fights with Joe Frazier were enough on their own to destroy a man. The fights at the end of Ali’s career, when he could no longer float like a butterfly, put finished to what the Frazier fights had started.
I have great respect for the way Muhammad Ali kept on as his disease worsened. But whenever I saw him, and thought about the brilliant light of his early years, I knew I could no longer praise boxing.
We went to a Mexican restaurant tonight that I had never eaten at. I decided to have the carne asada without rice on the side. When the waiter took my order, I said, "carne asada, sin arroz". I pronounced the latter word "ah-ROW", as is the custom in that part of Spain where my family is from.
"Sin arroz?", the waiter asked, only he pronounced the word "ah-ROZE", as is the custom in most everywhere except Andalucía.
This example of an Andalusian accent was first pointed out to me in the late-80s, when I used the same pronunciation for the same word in a Spanish class, and the teacher informed me that my family was from Southern Spain. He knew this because I had an accent, which was news to me.
Nice to know that the tradition continues to this day.
I recall a record we used to own when I was growing up. It was called The Soul of Spain, which sounds pretty authentic, I know, but this was an album by the 101 Strings Orchestra. The 101 Strings were like second-string Mantovanis ... they made a gazillion albums over the years, many of them theme albums, many of those themes tied to various places around the globe ... and so, The Soul of Spain.
The big hit on this album was, of course, "Malagueña" ... this was an epic rendition, almost ten minutes long, featuring (you guessed it) lots and lots of strings. For awhile it seemed like every guitar picker had to prove he could play "Malagueña" ... Hee-Haw star Roy Clark was one of the fastest ... the 101 Strings version even turned up a few years ago on an anthology called Cigar Aficionado: Latin Mood.
Because of my childhood memories, the 101 Strings version of "Malagueña" remains completely identified in my mind with my Spanish heritage. Pretty much anytime I hear the song by anyone, though, I get all teary-eyed. I also recall, as a kid, that we would go to my grandmother's house on Sundays, and oftentimes someone would grab a guitar, usually my uncle ... he couldn't really hear out of one of his ears, so he'd stick the bad ear right on the guitar and he'd play flamenco ... like a lot of people, I guess I assumed things like flamenco and bullfighting were "Spanish," because that's really all I was taught. I didn't think of myself as being Andalusian.
That ignorance means I never even made the simplest of connections ... that the title "Malagueña" referred to Malaga.
OK, I established that in my heart, to this day, I identify “Malagueña” with both my childhood and my Spanish heritage. But a fuller examination perhaps says something about identity in the United States.
First, just to cover all bases, my father was Spanish (as in “from Spain” ... his parents were born there), my mother was “American” (as in her family came from Kentucky). I was born in 1953, so I was raised during the height of assimilation. This meant, among other things, that we didn’t speak Spanish in the home.
I’m not sure I spent enough time in the above post describing the 101 Strings Orchestra. They released their first album in 1957. Their genre was “mood music” (it goes under many names), which is basically an easy-listening version of “lite classical” music. (OK, “lite classical” is likely easy-listening music itself.) There is a lot of information about 101 Strings on the Internet, yet my search skills seem to fail me, for I never quite get the story right. Suffice to say that 101 Strings sold LOTS of record world-wide. Growing up, I thought we had The Soul of Spain in our house because of my father and his family, but as far as I can tell, The Soul of Spain was one of those late-50s suburban artifacts that made it into many households.
As I say, their version of “Malagueña” is the standard for me, based solely on that album when I was a kid. There are many reasons why this is odd. First, there’s the idea of a mood-music orchestra playing Spanish classics. Second, if we’re going to be essentialist about this, 101 Strings were a concoction of an American record mogul who signed a German orchestra to play under the 101 Strings moniker. Third, “Malagueña” was written for piano, not for an orchestra. It has become a standard for all sorts of instrumental combinations over the years ... apparently it’s popular with marching bands ... and after Carlos Montoya recorded a flamenco guitar version, it became a standard showcase for guitarists (like Roy Clark, mentioned above, although there was also Jose Feliciano, and, perhaps most “authentic”, the Spaniard María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, better known as Charo). Given my connection to the orchestral version, and the prevalence of guitar-based versions, the version performed by Liberace seems incongruous. But at least he was returning the song to its original instrument.
All of this, with the exception of Charo, would seem to move the song far from Andalusia (even Charo came from neighboring Murcia). Thus, if “authenticity” is important (and who knows the answer to that question), then it probably says something about America, at least in the late-50s, that the version which stuck with a Spanish-American boy came via a German orchestra.
But there is more. The composer of “Malagueña” was Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote it in 1928 as the final movement of his “Suite Andalucia”. Here, it would seem, we can find the most authentic “Malagueña”.
Except ... Lecuona was a Cuban, born in Havana.
Oh well ... authenticity is overrated, anyway. Here’s the 101 Strings version:
Roy Clark, flashing his hot licks for Felix Unger and Oscar Madison:
Liberace (with Sammy Davis Jr. as a bonus at the end):
And the great Charo (with bonus Jerry Lewis Cuchi-Cuchi):
On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.
Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.
While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.
There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.
A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:
To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part
To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.
Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.
To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.
To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna
Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.
I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.
What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.
I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.
This photo popped up on Facebook, where we tagged as many people as we could (our friends the Isaacs family, and another friend, Dale). What interests me at the moment is the stuff in the background.
Most of it is stereo gear, circa 1984-87. There’s a red bottle ... that’s liquid you put on the record cleaner thingie before you cleaned your vinyl. A turntable sits atop a receiver. On the right side of the picture is a dual cassette deck.
I think the books on the other side of the receiver were music-related. It’s hard to make out, but at the top of the photo, near the right, is a postcard of two boxers, one of whom is landing a punch on the other. The postcard was from Greil Marcus, in reply to a fan mail I sent him. Ah, those were the days.
There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.
And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.
But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.
Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.
I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.
What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”
Right now, the thing that has me most excited is catching up with The 100 before Season Three begins. I might have a pretty good post about that surprisingly fine show, which made #9 on my Top Ten List even though I only started watching it a short time ago.
Some think Homeland has returned to form this year, and I’ll agree, at least to the extent that it no longer rises above its form. The show is about Carrie Mathison, and about Claire Danes portrayal of Carrie. Danes never falters, and the first season, where Carrie’s bipolar disorder turned her into an obsessive investigator who is “crazy” but also “right”, was stunning. The plot became unhinged in Season Two, and I don’t believe it has ever recovered, although for some reason I’m still watching ... probably because of Danes. (One way Homeland is true to form is that, like almost every Showtime series, it goes on for too many season.)
Season Five, which just ended, began with Carrie no longer working for the CIA. Of course, she inevitably gets involved in the same old shit. A turning point comes early in the season, when Carrie goes off her bipolar medication so that she can do a better job of figuring things out. This call-back to Season One mostly just reminded me of how good Homeland used to be. No one really likes Crazy Carrie any more. Whatever ... this subplot seems to just disappear. We never see her go back on her meds, although I guess she does because Crazy Carrie is mostly subdued.
I have been on bipolar meds for more than ten years. What was I like in the 50+ years before I went on meds? My sister once told me she thought I hated her when we were kids (nothing could be further from the truth, but she must have gotten that feeling from somewhere). There’s an acquaintance from high school ... we reconnected some years ago. She told me she always thought I was an asshole when we were teenagers. One time, I asked a good friend from those days (and today) to support me on this ... he said “you were an asshole”. And he’s my friend.
I don’t know where my sins fit on the continuum of good to bad. I know I’ve never killed anyone ... I know the person I most often hurt is myself ... I know I could have been a better husband and a better father. But lots of people could say these things. They are nothing to be proud of, but I suspect they are fairly ordinary. I’ve done a couple of things that were worse than these ... maybe we all have something like that we keep hidden.
As Xmas rolls around, I recognize how much meds have improved my life. For so long, I detested Xmas. Now, I get through it, and I hope I’m not too much of a burden on others.
But tonight, I find myself wondering what might happen if I did a Carrie Mathison. What if I went off my meds on a temporary basis? She had an explicit purpose for her actions ... what would be mine? I wouldn’t see things differently ... one of the odd things about my meds is that they haven’t changed what I think, only how I act on those thoughts. If I went off meds, that awful anxiety would return, as would the depression. But I wouldn’t be able to save the world from terrorists the way Carrie does. I’d just go back to feeling shitty.
So why would I even stop to wonder what it would be like?
Because my meds take away the one thing I have always been better at than anything else: my verbal meanness. I don’t say what I think they way I used to do, and a part of me thinks it would be liberating to return to the days of cutting barbs for a day or two.
But it would last a lot longer than a day or two, if not directly for me, than for my relationships with others. It took my high-school friend more than 40 years to get over whatever it was I did back in high school. Same with my sister.
So I dutifully take my meds, and wish people happy holidays. I update folks on our dog, Spot, who as you can see is doing as good as ever:
I post a picture like this to cheer myself up:
And I revisit a good moment from 2015:
Got this feeling when I heard your name the other day Couldn't say it, couldn't make it go away It's a hard place, can't be friends, we can't be enemies It's just too much, feel the weight crushing down on my face
The hardest part is things already said Getting better, worse, I can not tell Why do good things never wanna stay? Some things you lose, some things you give away
Broken pieces, try to make it good again Is it worth it, will it make me sick today? It's a dumb song, but I'll write it anyway It's an old mistake, but we always make it, why do we?
The hardest part is things already said Getting better, worse, I can not tell Why do good things never wanna stay? Some things you lose, some things you give away
This time, it'll be alright This time, it'll be okay This time, it'll be alright This time, it'll be okay
The hardest part is things already said Getting better, worse, I can not tell Why do good things never wanna stay? Some things you lose, some things you give away Some things you lose, some things you give away