Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Honest Question

This is something that is probably better suited to Facebook, but I hate Facebook and don't want to talk politics with 95% of the people I'm friends with there, so I'm putting this on my blog instead, even though that means I'm likely to get far fewer responses.

Here's my honest question, for which I'd like honest answers:

If I were to suggest that Trump is intentionally trying to start a war with North Korea because he thinks it will help his popularity at home, would you tend to agree with that, or would you think that was just a ridiculous partisan conspiracy theory?

If it's a ridiculous partisan conspiracy theory, then what do you suppose is driving him in this matter? He's an asshole and just can't help himself? He's an aggressive, militaristic bully and wants to flex his muscles? He really just wants to keep America safe and he bizarrely thinks this is the best way to do it?

As a follow-up to this, are you concerned about the potential for a full blown nuclear war? Is it realistic to assume we can get in an neutralize the nuclear threat to our country BEFORE North Korea has a chance to unleash a weapon on us? What would you do if we ended up in a full blown nuclear war? Would you leave the country?

Sorry, I guess this is more than one honest question, but any honest answers you have would be appreciated.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Total Eclipse: A Bad Omen

As any student of history, particularly medieval or ancient history, should know, total eclipses are a bad omen. The Assyrians were defeated by the Greeks 11 days after a total eclipse. The Medes and the Lydians literally were in the midst of a battle when a total eclipse overtook the field, scattering the armies. Henry I of England died right after a total eclipse, and a 20-year civil war followed his death.

Eclipses have presaged major events in U.S. history as well. A total eclipse in the U.S. in 1869 was followed by a financial crisis later that year that saw numerous bank closings, a major stock market crash, and an almost 10-year economic recession. A New Year's Day solar eclipse in 1889 was followed by the infamous Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which killed more than 2,000 people, and a near war with Germany over the shelling of warships in the Pacific Ocean (war was only avoided because a hurricane blew through and sunk all the German AND American ships there). A U.S. total eclipse in 1900 was followed a year later by the assassination of president William McKinley.

In fact, presidents who have presided over a total eclipse in the U.S. have generally not fared well. Woodrow Wilson (1918 eclipse) had to contend with World War I and was incapacitated by a stroke for the last 18 months of his term. Warren G. Harding died in office in the year of a U.S. total eclipse (1923). Herbert Hoover presided over two total eclipses and saw the advent of the Great Depression. Like Harding, Franklin Roosevelt died in office during a total eclipse year. A total eclipse was visible in John F. Kennedy's home region of New England just a few months before he was assassinated. Nixon presided over a solar eclipse shortly before the Watergate break-in and his subsequent resignation. And the Iran-Hostage Crisis started in a total eclipse year in 1979, derailing Jimmy Carter's re-election bid the following year.

If you count total eclipses occurring outside the U.S., both Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor died in office the same month as a total eclipse. There were no total solar eclipses in 1841, the year William Henry Harrison died in office, but there were 4 partial solar eclipses that year and 2 total eclipses of the moon, both visible throughout the U.S.

There have, of course, been a few total eclipses in the U.S. that have not, apparently, presaged bad tidings for the country or the president. 1925, for instance, seems to have been rather tame, as was an 1878 total eclipse and a 1954 eclipse.

In any case, a total eclipse, covering the entire United States, during a year when a tyrant has gained control of the White House, the far right is building momentum and prominence, and we are in a nuclear stand-off with North Korea ... it can't possibly be a good omen.

(FYI: I don't REALLY think total eclipses have some sort of predictive power. But it's fun to speculate.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

A Year With the Piano

It was one year ago today that the piano came back into my life.
At my mother's insistence, I started taking piano lessons in, I think, 2nd grade. I continued them until 5th grade, when I finally convinced my mother to let me quit.

It wasn't that I didn't like playing the piano. What I didn't like was having to play the crap the teachers wanted me to play. I wanted to play what *I* wanted to play. This continued to be a problem for me well into college. I wish I could go back now and change that.

In any case, I continued playing the piano on my own time, finally restarting lessons in the 12th grade, before going to college to major in music. My music major eventually became a minor and once I graduated from college, I didn't play the piano much anymore, primarily because I didn't have a piano

A year ago today, I finally got a digital console piano. Hopefully it's just a first step towards eventually getting an actual acoustic piano (maybe I should start a Go Fund Me?).

I am absolutely thrilled with the progress I've made in the last year. Despite hardly playing at all for 20 years, I very quickly got back into the swing of playing and at this point - a year later - I can say I'm a better pianist now than I ever was at my peak in the old days.

To give you an idea of my progress, he's a short clip with my very first recording last August, picking out the opening of Beethoven's "Für Elise," compared to the same piece today:

In any case, when I think back to what started me on the path to a serious love of the piano, it has to be the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. This was one of only two songs my Dad could still remember how to play when I was a kid (actually, he could only remember part of it), and at some point - maybe late middle school or early high school - I started learning it myself.

I eventually learned all three movements, including the quite advanced third movement. This became sort of my "signature song" that I would pull out to impress people.

I recently completed re-learning the first movement, and I am a day or two away from having the second movement down as well. I started working on the third movement last week. So in honor of a year with the piano back in my life, here is the piece that started it all: the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Some New Piano Pieces

Here are my two most recent piano performances. Both of these are my own arrangements. The first is America the Beautiful and the second is My Old Kentucky Home. My performance on America the Beautiful is not my favorite, but it's the best I could capture on video.

(Turning on the camera is like stepping onto a stage for me - even in the privacy of my own studio, when I know the camera's rolling, I'm a basketcase.  Both these performances required video editing when they were done, as you'll undoubtedly notice.) 

Hope you enjoy. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nothing to See Here

Opinions are like butts: everybody's got one and nobody wants to hear yours (yes, that's a modified form of the expression, which I did for the benefit of my spouse who thinks I'm gross white trash for initially writing it the original way).

But not everyone has a blog and since this is my blog, I'm going to share my unfiltered opinion on several issues.

Transgender Peeps in the Military: Transgenders in the military is the new gays in the military. In the 1990s, conservatives didn't want gays in the military, either. "They'll be using the same bathrooms as people they are sexually attracted to!" was one of the typical scary scenarios touted by the millions of Republicans opposed to it.  One would envision thousands of unsuspecting American Heroes being anally assaulted in the shower by devious homosexual girly men. Democrats compromised and instituted Don't Ask Don't Tell, which effectively allowed gays to serve, as long as they stayed in the closet.

Now Trump is planning on reversing the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender people to serve openly. An opinion piece I read on USAToday (written by a gay, conservative, evangelical Christian - yes, apparently they do exist) argues that this is the right policy, because transgenderism is an emotional issue that the military doesn't need to be distracted by. The author also brought up the obligatory bathroom issue. In other words, he used the exact same argument conservatives used 20 years ago about gays.

Look, if you think transgender people are the only ones with emotional issues, YOU have an emotional issue that needs to be treated by a therapist. The simple fact is, emotional issues aren't unique to transgenders. Believe me, I know quite a few people who have served in the military and not a few of them have had some major emotional problems. Fact is, EVERYONE has emotional baggage to one degree or another. And let's not even mention the emotional problems the military CREATES.

As for the bathroom issue, punishing transgenders because some people are uncomfortable showering with them is like suggesting people who like pizza shouldn't be allowed to eat in the cafeteria with people who are grossed out by pizza.

The simple fact is, this comes down to one thing and one thing only: some people, mainly conservatives, find it distasteful. They don't like it, they don't like that it exists, and it bothers them. And so they want to do everything they can to make it go away. Like with the gay marriage issue, religion often plays a central role in driving these opinions.

Donald Trump: Trump is, quite simply, the worst president the United States has ever had. That's only this blogger's opinion, but keep in mind I've studied American presidential and political history and even written a book about it. So I have at least some level of expertise on the subject. He's not a president at all, but a CEO attempting to run the country like a company. I've written before why this will certainly fail, so I won't go into it here.

He is treating the Oval Office like the headquarters of a corporation. That's not even the worst part of it though. Personally, he's a monster. He is petty, vengeful, narcissistic, and literally represents the dictionary definition of greed. He worships himself in a very open, public, and unapologetic way. The fact that evangelical Christians support him in such wide numbers proves what I've said for years - that most evangelical Christians aren't Christian at all and don't understand the first damn thing about Christianity, Jesus, or what it means to be a follower of Christ. Trump supporters are, by and large, narrow, twisted, angry white people who have finally gotten to experience one of their own in the White House, and they are positively gleeful. Spend just a little bit of time on their Twitter pages and you can see how the worst kinds of Americans really live, think, and feel.

The Republican Party: The Republican Party has been taken over by their own right wing and the whole party is a mess. They created Donald Trump by refusing to unite behind any of their other candidates during the campaign, and now they are simply trying to balance not openly supporting the most unpopular president in U.S. history while attempting to not let him reflect badly on the Republican Party. It's a balancing act that is doomed to fail. They're like an amateur trying to spin plates and you know, eventually, everything is going to crash.

Their interactions with Trump aside, what the Republican-controlled Congress has done over the last few years is nothing short of unprecedented. Denying Obama the right to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court is one of the great historical injustices of U.S. history. When the Democrats retaliated by refusing to let the Senate vote on Trump's candidate, the Republicans literally changed the rules of the Senate in order to confirm him. I've always said the Republicans don't play by the rules. Now they've turned that expression from metaphor into literal fact.

Their actions on healthcare are positively abominable. Drafting bills in secret with just a few senators, no input from Democrats at all, gutting Medicaid and kicking millions off of their insurance plans, a complete disregard for recommendations from their own Congressional Budget Office. The list goes on and on.

Congress has become a useless morass of partisanship and refusal to work across party lines. This is reflected at the state level as well. Compromise has become a dirty word. A word for losers and weaklings. This is America under Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party:

The Democratic Party is too nice and they play too often by the rules. They have never learned from Republicans how to take the country by the throat and throttle it until they get their way. And they never will. And the reason why is because Democrats care too much about others. The Republican Party is now a party of right wing politics. People don't just randomly become right wingers. They become right wingers because they are basically mean. They care about themselves and those that matter to them and they don't really care about anyone else. They are insular, narrow, and driven by fear of the unknown, fear of outsiders, and fear of change. They are typically poorly educated. Their leaders are driven by money and greed and power.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to become Democrats because they care about others, have more open world views, and are driven by a desire to make the world a better place.  They are typically well-educated. Their leaders are driven by altruism and helping the little guy.

Neither of these descriptions apply to ALL Republicans or ALL Democrats, of course, but I think they explain why Democrats can't compete with Republicans. They are, quite simply, too damn nice and aren't willing to stoop to the level of the Republicans.

Can you imagine, for instance, what would be happening in America right now if the Democrats had won two elections in the last 17 years by losing the popular vote but winning the electoral vote? Do you think there would be a Republican anywhere who wouldn't have abolishing the electoral college as their central platform? Do you think the Republican Party wouldn't be spending hundreds of millions to push for a direct-election of the president? It would, literally, be the number one legislative agenda of the Republican Party.

Yet, that's exactly what has happened to the Democrats in the last 17 years. Two popular votes won by Democrats, but Republicans took the White House anyway. And I haven't heard A WORD about abolishing the electoral college from anyone in office, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise. And you won't, because Democrats don't have any power right now and even when they do get the power, they'll have other things on their mind, like making the world a better place. Furthermore, having benefited twice in 17 years from the electoral college, you don't think the Republicans are just going to merrily go along with any Democratic proposal to abolish it, do you? That's why it's a non-starter even for Democrats.

Speaking of Democrats getting back in power, will they ever? With Republican gerrymandering at the state level, and with Trump's "election commission" that is pretending to fight a battle against a fake enemy under the widely-discredited guise of voter fraud, how will Democrats ever get back into power again? Trump can't stand that Hillary beat him by 3 million votes, so he's made up a fight against voter fraud, suggesting that 3-5 million votes were cast illegally - just enough to mean he would have won the election outright (because it's not like any of those illegal votes were for him!). This has been thoroughly discredited, but he's pushing forward anyway. What he wants to do is disenfranchise people who tend to vote Democratic.  This is Donald Trump planning for his re-election. Keep millions of likely Democratic voters from voting in 2020 so he can be assured of a second term.

Combine that with Republican gerrymandering - where Republican-controlled state legislatures change around congressional districts to ensure that they don't lose seats in the House of Representatives. Since the majority of states have Republican legislatures, this means that it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will be able to win a majority in the House of Representatives any time in the foreseeable future. This doesn't affect the Senate, because Senators don't have districts that can be altered. Which of course is why the Senate is much closer to 50-50 than the House is, even though it's the same people voting for both chambers.

If you've read this far, you must really like me. I think I'm done for now.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A Project 30 Years in the Making

Today I completed a project I first began thirty years ago.

On June 12, 1987, around 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, I sat down with a tape recorder and started making a tape for my children.

I was 12 years old.

On it, I recorded my grandfather singing old hymns that he loved (as well as a rendition of the Jimmy Rodgers yodeling classic "T For Texas" which has been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Lynyrd Skynyrd), and telling a few stories from his childhood. I also recorded my grandmother singing a silly kid's song from the 1920s and telling her own childhood story.

This was all designed to be "for my children" and in it I address my future children and tell them that these are their great-grandparents.

I go on to do a walk-through of their house, describing each room, including a priceless description of a "microwave oven" and instructions on how to microwave a hot dog ("Assuming you still have hot dogs in the future"). I talk baseball and UK basketball and describe the Cubs jersey I was wearing at the time. Probably this one:

Later I recorded brief conversations with my father, mother, and sister, so they could greet my children.

Occasionally, throughout the tape, my 13-year-old self from the following year cuts in to tape over certain parts that embarrassed me, continually remarking, in a puberty-deepened voice, about how "stupid and dumb" I was "back then."

In any case, today was the day when I finally introduced this gem to my children. There was nothing special about today, I just decided today was as a good a day as any.

So I have finally completed this 30 year project, having faithfully hung on to the tape for all these years. I plan to digitize it and upload it (privately) to YouTube for family (or friends) who may be interested. It'll be private so it will require a link. Let me know if you want it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Washington's Nightmare

Focused as I am these days on music, both playing and writing, I don't talk much about my books, but I just got caught up on reading my most recent reviews on Amazon and I came across one from February that was so glowing and kind that I just had to share it. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

If you haven't bought Washington's Nightmare, it's available for Kindle readers and apps here.

Here's the review from an anonymous reader:

"This is a fantastic, entertaining, well-organized history/guide to political parties in the United States, from the Federalists in the 1700s up through today's Libertarian and Green parties. Each chapter presents a brief narrative about the history of the party in question followed by a "fact sheet" listing when the party was formed, how long it lasted, how many presidents it managed to seat, who the major players were within the party, what the campaign slogans were, what the key party platform issues were, etc. The author does a fantastic job of presenting a clear picture of what American sentiments, regionally and nationally, have been at various times over the past 200+ years and how events have shaped those sentiments and, in turn, the political climate in America. If you're wondering how the US became dominated by a two-party system, or how the formerly pro-slavery Democratic party became a champion of civil rights, or how the formerly liberal Republican party became associated with ultra-conservativism, or even what the heck the Bull Moose Party and Free Soilers were all about, this is your book. In reading this book, I found it tremendously helpful and oddly calming to be able to put current events into a historical perspective. I liked this book so much that I find myself wishing it came in paperback so I could keep a copy handy for reference! Highly recommended."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Notes from the Cave

As I've reported before, I'm continuing to work on arranging "old-timey" songs for piano solo, with the intent to publish them in a collection later this year. I'm calling this my Opus 1.

My Opus 2 is a piano suite, in 6 movements, telling the story in music of the White Ship. The White Ship sank in the English Channel in the year 1120, drowning the heir to the throne of England and setting the stage for a 16-year civil war known as the Anarchy in British history.

I've recently finished learning a Mozart sonata (just the first movement) that I have been working on since December, as well as my second Joplin rag. I've also been learning the songs that I've been arranging, and recently posted a performance of my arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races."

There are a few wonky notes in there, but I'm still in the phase of hitting wonky notes, particularly when the camera is rolling.  I'll probably always be in the phase of hitting wonky notes, for that matter.

I'm currently learning the prelude to Bach's fugue in G, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (which was one of my specialties in college), and a Stephen Foster piece for piano (one of his rare instrumental pieces) called Santa Anna's Retreat from Buena Vista, which was written in 1848, presumably in honor of Zachary Taylor's campaign for president. Taylor had been the victor over Santa Anna two years earlier during the Mexican War (which was, by the way, the most immoral and unjustifiable war in America's history). At the time, Taylor was a national hero and certifiable celebrity. He was also the only president before He Who Shall Not Be Named who had no political experience before winning the White House. His presidency was, of course, largely a disaster and he died after about 18 months in office. Just sayin'.

But this is a politics-free zone so lets talk about sex instead. Just kidding. Honestly, music, reading, and work is about all I do these days and I don't have much else to talk about.

I just wrote a paragraph about work and decided it sounded so jaded and cynical that I didn't want to put it out there for the world to read. So I deleted it.

Let's try reading instead. I'm currently reading a book called Foundation, which is an overview of British history from the ancient past up through the end of the 15th century. I wanted to learn more about the ancient history of Britain in particular, although the author really only spent a few chapters on that. The bulk of the book covers the Middle Ages, although I really enjoy reading about that too.

I'm also reading Under the Dome, by Stephen King. I am very picky about what King books I read, but I watched the CBS series that was based on the book and decided I wanted to read it. It's a monster - well over a thousand pages - but it's good.

I've got something like 59 books to be read on my Kindle, another 4 or 5 print books that I've had for years and haven't read yet, and an additional 85 books on my Kindle Wish List. I have a serious problem.

Remember when I used to have a trampoline? Some of you may. Well, we're getting another one! My 11-year-old has been campaigning for one all summer and she's finally broken me down. It'll be a good way for her to exercise and if I can stomach it, maybe it'll be a good way for me to get some additional cardio as well. I jumped on my sister-in-law's trampoline a few weeks ago and felt queasy afterward, but I'd just eaten a huge meal and had some beer in me too, so I'm hoping that wasn't a normal thing. Trampolining is a good cardio workout and also good for your abs, and God knows I need to do something about my abs. I hate crunches and won't do them, so maybe this will be a way to slim down a bit. I'm over the waist-to-belly ratio that is a marker for heart disease, so I need to lose some of my gut.

That's enough for now.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Middle Age Musings

Entering my 40s has had an unexpected influence on my hobbies and general interests. In no way have I made a conscious effort to be any different than I've ever been, and yet I've come to realize recently that I've gone through a lot of changes since turning 40 two years ago, especially in regards to the things I'm interested in. 

It's not that I've abandoned all my old interests: I still love history and music and literature and intellectual pursuits. But the direction of all those things has changed since turning 40. 

In general, I seem to have started taking more of an interest in the past, particularly the past 150 years or so. 

"You say you love history; isn't history ALREADY about the past?" you may ask.

Well of course, but what I mean is that my musical and literary and even film/TV interests have, in recent years, turned towards events of the last 150 years. I've found myself listening to what I call "Old Timey" music (I have a so-named playlist on Amazon music that has nearly 150 songs ranging from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s), watching old TV shows and movies, and reading 19th and early 20th century novels. 

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know I've been working on a songbook of "old timey" songs that I am arranging for solo piano. I just finished an H. Rider Haggard novel from 1886 and have since started a Jack London novel from 1908. This is the second Jack London novel I've read in the last 6 months and the eighth book I've read in the last year from the late 19th or early 20th century (and that's not counting a biography of Zachary Taylor - president in the 1840s - that I read a few months back).  

I've also started occasionally watching old movies and, especially, old TV shows. For instance, I've been making my way through the original Twilight Zone series over the last year or two, and I recently watched a movie from the 1970s that was about World War One.  I've been watching The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals on Hulu and hoping for them to get M*A*S*H. 

In addition to my "Old Timey" music on Amazon, I've also, in recent years, really gotten interested in classic country from the 40s through the 70s. I've got three different playlists of that music on Amazon Music (I'm listening to one right now, actually).

I enjoy watching shows on KET and PBS about early Kentucky and early America. I especially like old documentaries from the 70s and 80s on various topics (I watched one recently that was made in the 1970s and was about a Kentucky Derby clock that was being made by a Louisville artist who smoked like a freight train). 

This is the clock in question, still on display in Louisville

I'm not sure why I've had this sudden interest in various aspects of the last 150 years, but I think it might have to do with being more "in touch" with my grandparents and great-grandparents. 

"What the HELL are you talking about now, Schmoo?" I hear you asking. 

It may be another aspect of reaching middle age, but I have started thinking about my grandparents and great-grandparents a lot more in recent years, and even "talking" to them on occasion. 

I was not one of those who was blessed to have my grandparents (or great-grandparents) alive during a significant period of my adulthood. My parents were both the youngest of three children and my grandparents were all already in their 60s when I was born. By the time I was old enough to remember them, my grandparents were already "elderly." Three of my four grandparents lived into my adulthood, and my Dad's mother didn't die until I was 34, but after my childhood, I saw very little of my grandparents because they all lived out of town and I only saw them once or twice a year on average. And by then, between the distance and their increasing ages, it was hard to have any sort of "relationship" with them. 

In any case, since turning 40, I have found myself wanting to "connect" with my grandparents by experiencing the things they would have experienced - like the TV shows they would have watched or the music they would have listened to. Classic country music, for instance, makes me feel close to my grandfathers, knowing that it's the sort of music they liked listening to. Right now, "Sweet Dreams of Kentucky" is playing on my playlist. It's a song by Grandpa Jones of "Hee Haw" fame. I associated my Dad's father very closely with Grandpa Jones. They were born within a couple of years from each other in neighboring Kentucky counties and my Papaw loved a Grandpa Jones song called "8 More Miles to Louisville." I also have many memories of watching Hee Haw with my grandparents. 

As he got older, Grandpa Jones didn't have to wear make-up anymore

Now, a song by Tennessee Ernie Ford is playing - "Shotgun Boogie."  Another Tennessee Ernie song, called "16 Tons," reminds me strongly of my Mom's father, because it's a song about coal miners written by Merle Travis, who was from the same western Kentucky county that my Grandaddy was from. My Grandaddy was also a coal miner. So this song is, to me, basically about Oscar Kirby and the life he lived. 

Oscar with a gigantic cigar
In the same way, listening to, or playing on the piano, Stephen Foster songs, and other songs from the 19th century and early 20th century, reminds me, in general, of the lives my great- and great-great grandparents led, even though I didn't really know any of them. I know their names, thanks to, and listening to the popular music of their lives makes me feel a connection with them.

Why, in middle age, has feeling a connection with my ancestors become so important to me? I don't know the answer to that. I just know that it's a thing now. I want to feel close to the ancestors I never knew or only knew for a brief time, and delving into the popular culture of their lives helps me to feel connected to them. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Notes from the Cave

I'm continuing to work on my songbook (which I mentioned in the last post), where I'm arranging a collection of "old timey" songs for piano solo. I'm doing "old timey" songs because anything more recent than 75 years ago is likely under copyright and thus can't be freely used.

I've recently finished an arrangement of America the Beautiful, and I'm currently about three-fourths of the way through My Old Kentucky Home. Up next is Massa's in de Cold Ground, my all-time favorite Stephen Foster song.

Here's one I did a few weeks back. It's an arrangement of an old hymn called Just As I Am.

I recently had an idea for a blog post related to Kentucky basketball, but I abandoned it because I discovered that my main thesis was basically false (this is what's called being "intellectually honest"). Like many UK fans, I felt that Kentucky got an insanely unfair road to the Final Four in this year's NCAA tournament - they were the first team in NCAA history to play three 30-win teams before the Final Four. Basically, 3 of the 4 teams they played had 30+ wins by the time they played them. They ended up losing by 2 points to the 3rd of those 3 teams. This is not the first time that an unfair bracket has been complained of by UK fans. So I decided to do a blog post comparing other major programs (Duke, UNC, Kansas, maybe a few others) to UK to demonstrate how Kentucky is more likely to get difficult paths to the Final Four.

In reviewing past tournament brackets, I discovered that it's basically bullshit. Yes, Kentucky got screwed this year, but while they may sometimes have tough roads in the tournament, they don't always have tough roads, and other teams could easily make similar arguments. I won't go into all the data now, but essentially any team that routinely gets a high seed could argue that they "often" get a tough road through the tournament. It's just the UK fans (myself included) tend to only pay attention to UK's seeding and UK's potential path.

I've really been enjoying the new show on NBC called Trial and Error.  It stars John Lithgow and it's a spoof of trial documentaries. It's silly, but I think it's hilarious and well-written. I highly recommend it.

Now that I am not on Facebook, the readership of my new blog posts has declined considerably. I guess I didn't realize how many people on Facebook actually clicked on the links I shared. Oh well, it's not enough to make me get back on Facebook.

Melanie and the girls are on Spring Break this week, but I'm unfortunately working a lot because I have a co-worker out on medical leave, requiring the rest of us on third shift to pick up extra hours. It's really amazing how, when you're used to working three 12-hour shifts, having to work extra days, even when some of those shifts are only 8 hours, really screws with your mojo. It makes you realize how much you value that time off!

After debating and discussing it for the last two years, we finally got a new dog on Sunday. We've wanted a playmate for Sophie for a long time, but hadn't ever pulled the trigger. I had actually sort of gotten over it, but Melanie and Sydney continued to look and follow adoption sites and they finally found one they wanted. We had to apply to adopt, but our application was chosen so we brought Maggie home on Sunday. Sophie is a full-bred Havanese, but Maggie is half Havanese, half Cocker Spaniel. We jokingly call her a Have-a-Cock. She's the runt of her litter and since she's only 9 weeks old anyway, she is tiny. The dogs are getting along well though and I think they're both going to do well. I fancy myself a dog whisperer, so I'm working hard on house breaking and training. She's doing well so far, although she's very timid and has awful separation anxiety - two things Sophie didn't have issues with.

I guess that's enough boring shit about my life for today. Peace.

Monday, April 03, 2017

New Piano Arrangement

I've started doing some arranging for the piano and one of the first pieces I did is a somewhat obscure Stephen Foster song called My Hopes Have Departed Forever. It's a really pretty piece, though, and I think my arrangement is fairly good for a first try. I've since done a few more and have many more on deck. If all goes as planned, I hope to publish them in a songbook by the summer. It'll be a book of piano solos based on old classics.

I also would like to do a songbook of hymns for solo piano as well as one for traditional Christmas songs. (If you're wondering why all my plans are for old songs, it's because if I want to sell them, I can only do songs that are no longer copyrighted.)

We'll see if all that pans out, but for now I'm enjoying the arranging I'm doing. I've been using a great little website I found called to write the scores.

If anyone happens to be interested in getting a PDF of the sheet music for this piece, just ask, I'll be glad to send it to you.

Since it's an old piece, I made the video look like old cinema. Nice effect, don't you think?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Why I'm a Feminist

So I recently updated my Facebook profile picture to the same one that's here on my blog, and my primary reason for doing so was simply because I think it's a good picture of me. But I also happen to be wearing a very visible "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt in the picture.

If I could've updated the picture without everyone seeing it on their timeline, I would have, because I knew it would generate comments. Furthermore, for every person who posted a comment, there were undoubtedly 20 others who thought something, but didn't post it.

In addition to the obligatory comments likening me to Brian Posehn (the most hideous-looking actor in Hollywood), and in addition to the smart-alecky comments from old fraternity brothers, one person said the following:

Feminism isn't really about supporting women or women's rights, it's more about spite and envy directed towards men.

This led me to thinking about the reasons why I consider myself a feminist, and what feminism really means to me versus what a lot of people might think of when they hear the word "feminism."

To suggest feminism isn't about supporting women or women's rights is patent nonsense. That's certainly what it's about for me. It's about standing in solidarity with women's rights and women's issues. I'm a man; obviously I'm not interested in directing spite and envy towards my own gender, and neither are the vast majority of the women I know and am acquainted with, many feminists included.

Women have been regarded as second-class citizens in most societies for most of human history. In some modern societies, they still are. Since the advent of human civilization, men have been controlling what women do, what they say, how involved they get to be in politics and culture, what kinds of jobs they can have, what kind of education they can have, what they can expect out of life, and how they should treat their own bodies. In the modern west, most of these issues have been addressed and are no longer a day-to-day struggle for most women. Instead, they have taken on new dimensions. Women today, for instance, can and do vote and participate in the political process. But we still live in a society that is in many ways distrustful of female politicians and which doesn't encourage female participation in political leadership. Of our 100 U.S. senators, only 21% are women. The U.S. House is even worse, with only 19% women. Only 10% of U.S. states have female governors.

Is this all the fault of men? Of course not. But considering the sorts of things women must endure if they want to enter politics (from both men AND women, sadly), it's hardly surprising that many gifted women prefer to do something else or work behind the scenes.

This is just one example, of course. There are countless others. Violence against women. Rampant sexism. Religious traditions that still deny women ministerial and/or leadership roles. Access to reliable and affordable gynecological and obstetric care including, when necessary, safe abortion services. Strong social protections for single mothers and their children. Equal educational and vocational opportunities, including equal pay.

I totally agree that there are some feminists out there for whom feminism is (or certainly seems to be) largely about spite against men and metaphorically castrating men. These are what you might call "militant" feminists and they seem to be interested not in equality and protection for women and women's rights, but rather for replacing a perceived patriarchy with what could only be called a matriarchy. They don't want to be equal with men, they want to rule men. And anytime they perceive something wrong in society, especially in regards to women, it's all men's fault. Presumably, even the millions of women who are opposed to "feminism" in general are just under the spell of the evil patriarchy.

I don't think this characterizes most self-proclaimed "feminists." I think militant feminists are just like many other groups in society - they are a loud minority who, by virtue of their extremism, get a lot of media attention.

Defining feminism by militant feminists is a bit like defining Islam by Islamic terrorists or Christianity by fire-breathing fundamentalists. It's like defining white Americans by the KKK.  

I also want to make a brief comment on the "envy" thing. I think that bothered me more than anything about my friend's comment, because it implies that men enjoy certain inherent virtues or abilities that women don't have and which are, therefore, "enviable." That, of course, is biological nonsense, and that attitude is exactly why standing for, and supporting, women's rights is still so important.

So yes, I am a feminist, and I am proud to stand in solidarity with women and their continued pursuit of equality and fairness in society, even as millions of other men and women roll their eyes or, at times, stand boldly in their way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Denying Jesus

So I saw this post today by someone on Facebook:

I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He said deny me in front of your friends and I will deny you in front of my Father. Challenge Accepted: If you are not ashamed Copy and paste!!

I started to reply to the person, but refrained because I figured I'd regret it later, as I always do. I won't, however, regret blogging about it.

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my father in heaven." A popular verse among evangelical Christians, for sure.

This is the only gospel that records this saying of Jesus, making it among what textual scholars call the "M" material - meaning stories and sayings unique to the gospel of Matthew (compared with "L" material for unique stuff in Luke and "Q" material for stuff unique to both Matthew and Luke).

Most scholars would undoubtedly agree that Jesus never made this statement because it sounds suspiciously reflective of the early Christian society in which the author of Matthew was living and writing (80-85 AD) rather than the society in which Jesus lived and spoke (30s AD). The fact that no other gospel records it lends credence to this theory.  It's also worth pointing out that Matthew (as well as the other three gospels) also records the story of Peter denying Jesus three times before his crucifixion. Did Jesus therefore deny Peter before God? Is Peter in hell? If you take Matthew's gospel literally, that's the obvious conclusion.

In any case, whether you agree with scholars that this isn't an authentic saying of Jesus, the saying clearly held profound meaning for early Christians who were, at times, faced with persecution and even execution for being Christians (the main reason why this seems to come out of the culture of the 80s, and not the 30s - no one was being persecuted during Jesus's lifetime for following Jesus). Standing before a magistrate of the Roman Empire, many people denied being Christians so they could avoid being tortured or executed. But this saying was used to encourage Christians not to be afraid to stand up for their beliefs, even in the face of death or torture or social ostracism. The implication was that you might lose your salvation if you denied Christ. Many people were (unnecessarily) martyred in the name of this verse.

Why did the Romans dislike Christians so much? Because they considered them a new and insidious cult who had secretive rituals and who denied the Roman gods and refused to acknowledge the authority and, especially, the divinity, of the Roman emperor. This last point was the primary reason Christianity was frequently outlawed in various portions of the empire. Jews had long been given a pass on denying the Roman gods and the emperor's divinity, but that was because theirs were an ancient and well-respected religious tradition that predated Rome. Christianity, on the other hand, was new and had no antiquity to lend it credence. Think of how many people today feel about Mormonism - a relatively new and secretive cult, invented in America, and espousing strange beliefs and rituals. That's how average Romans viewed Christianity. There were all sorts of crazy rumors about what Christians did, including one that actually accused Christians of sacrificing, then eating, a baby while sitting at a table (which was undoubtedly a conflation of Christian interest in "baby Jesus" and the Lord's supper, where - in the eyes of Romans - Christians ritually ate their own god).

So how does this historical context relate to modern Christianity? To be perfectly frank, it doesn't. Modern Christians aren't persecuted and haven't been since the 4th century. Sure, there has been mistreatment of Christians in parts of the world where Christianity isn't the primary religion, and that continues to some extent even today, but in the Christian west, it's always been Christians doing the persecuting. In the United States, no one has to fear proclaiming their Christianity - depending on which poll you look at, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of Americans identify as Christian - a vast majority.

That's why this verse has become a popular one for evangelical Christians. It's not about courage in the face of persecution, it's about proclaiming one's faith for the purpose of evangelizing. My Facebook friend isn't proclaiming Jesus even though she thinks she might be persecuted for it. She's proclaiming Jesus because she thinks that's what a good evangelical Christian should do.

In closing, let me also note that failing to copy and paste an evangelical proclamation of your faith on Facebook does not equate to "denying Jesus," as the post strongly implies. This post uses the old trick from the days of mass email forwarding where one was promised good things if they forwarded an email to a certain number of people, or bad things if they didn't. This post makes no promises like that, but the implication is clear that you are "denying Jesus," and Jesus will therefore deny you, if you don't copy and paste it to your profile.

I can't help but wonder if evangelicals like this have ever read another verse from Matthew which, interestingly enough, also is only found in Matthew (the "M" material). Matthew 6:5 says: Do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synogogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." The whole first part of Matthew chapter 6 is devoted to Jesus encouraging people to practice their religion in private and not proclaim their actions to the world.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 10 Best Jimmy Buffett Titles

As the heading indicates, you don't have to be a Jimmy Buffett fan to enjoy this post because it's not about Jimmy Buffett songs as much as it is about Jimmy Buffett song titles.

If you know anything about Buffett, it's that he fancies himself a comedian, working clever turns of phrase into his songs and occasionally coming up with funny song titles to go with it. This is, of course, a tradition in country music, and Buffett has always first and foremost been a musician out of the country-western tradition.

Not all of these songs are among his best tunes, but they are without question among his cleverest and, sometimes, surprising titles.

10. Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

This is one of Buffett's better known songs, if only because it's on his seminal 1974 album A1A. If you haven't heard it before, it's worth a listen because not only does it have a clever title, but it's a fantastic song to boot.

9. God Don't Own a Car

This is from Buffett's pre-major label period. Recorded in 1971 as part of his second album on tiny Barnaby Records, neither the song nor the album was ever released because the sales of his first album with Barnaby were so poor. Barnaby actually claimed to have "lost" the master recordings when they explained to him why they weren't releasing the album. After he achieved mainstream success in the mid-1970s on a different label, Barnaby magically "found" the master tapes and finally released the album, to limited appeal, in 1976. After going out of print for years, most of the songs on the album (including this one) were released on a compilation CD in 1991 called Before the Beach. It's an apt title because these songs don't sound like anything Buffett did later. They are more like 60s folk rock songs.

In any case, God Don't Own a Car isn't a great Buffett song, but the title is eye-catching nonetheless.

8. Earl's Dead - Cadillac For Sale

This is a track from Buffett's most recent studio album, Songs from St. Somewhere. Like a lot of his recent music, this song is only okay. He definitely doesn't have the songwriting chops of his heyday, but that's okay. I still love everything he does and this song is clever if nothing else. It's about a circus performer who has died and whose widow is trying to sell the Cadillac that was an integral part of their life together.

7. It's Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet

This is a song from the 1982 album Somewhere Over China. It's about a gambler in a casino trying to win it big with "one more bet."

6. If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me

This is a really good song from the 1985 album Last Mango in Paris (the title track, which follows this one on the album, was considered for this list, but didn't quite make the cut). This song is clearly based on Buffett's separation from his wife, which occurred in the early 1980s. They finally reconciled around 1987 and have been together ever since. He wrote a lot of break-up songs during that period.

5. What if the Hokey-Pokey is All it Really is About?

This is from 2002's Far Side of the World album. It's not one of my favorite Buffett songs. It's a song that gives one the impression that it began as a funny title - probably something that someone said while drunk - and then a song was built around it. This song has five songwriters credited, including Buffett, and I've found there is an inverse relationship between the number of songwriters on a Buffett song and how good the song is.

In any case, the title's still funny.

4. We are the People Our Parents Warned Us About 

From Buffett's classic 1983 album One Particular Harbor, this is a great song that pokes fun at what the Baby Boomer generation was growing into in the early 1980s, and how that related to their parents' views on life in the 1950s.

3. Vampires, Mummies, and the Holy Ghost

Religion has long been a theme in Buffett's music, and this song, from 1994's Fruitcakes album, is no exception. Growing up Catholic (he was even an alter boy), Buffett jettisoned his religious trappings in adulthood and apparently never looked back, but his religious upbringing has influenced a lot of his lyrics.

This song is only okay, but the title is eye-catching and the lyrics discuss childhood fears that Buffett had - namely vampires, mummies, and the Holy Ghost. "These are the things that terrify me the most." Which is pretty funny.

2. The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful 

A classic Buffett title, this song comes from the Coconut Telegraph album of 1981. Like a lot of Buffett's tunes, it could easily be turned into a short story. It's about a New York businessman who runs away from his life and moves to the Caribbean, only to find that even paradise sucks after a while, and he ends up heading back home to his old life. Buffett has stated that he got the title from graffiti he saw in a bar bathroom.

1. My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don't Love Jesus 

Unquestionably Buffett's best song title, this one comes from 1976's Havana Daydreamin' album. The song is about a killer hangover and the title describes how Buffett feels about it. Humorously enough, the Oak Ridge Boys, of gospel music fame, sing back-up on this song, which has a real ragtime feel to it. They apparently were afraid their largely southern Christian audience wouldn't get the joke and asked not to be credited in the liner notes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 10 Best Songs You've Never Heard Before

Okay, so to be fair, some of you have undoubtedly heard some of these songs. But I'm fairly confident most of them are unfamiliar to most of you.

Like other similar lists I've done in the past, this list is, of course, my own creation based on my own likes, dislikes, and experiences. You might pick different songs. That's okay. We're different people.

I've tried to put some semblance of "ranking" here, just because it makes for good reading, but you could probably mix up any or all of these numbers and it would be the same difference.

Finally, I decided not to pick more than one song by any one artist. Narrowing down great deep cuts by my favorite musicians was probably the hardest part of this exercise.

And now ... on with the countdown!

10. Don't Damn Me - Guns n' Roses

This is a highly underrated GnR song from Use Your Illusion I that has been one of my favorites since I bought the album on the day it was released in 1991. It was written by Axl Rose and Slash (with additional credit given to someone named Dave Lank, who must have been a friend or something) and it's got one of Slash's best guitar riffs, matched with a great vocal performance by Rose. The guitar solo near the end is pretty kick-ass too. The lyrics are Rose's attempt at justifying (and kinda sorta apologizing for) some of the controversial things he said and did back during GnR's heyday in the late 80s and early 90s.

9. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot 

This is actually one of Gordon Lightfoot's better known songs, but I still think it deserves to be on this list simply because most people under 50 aren't familiar with Gordon Lightfoot or his music. The lyrics tell the (mostly) true story of the sinking of the ship in the title during a storm on Lake Superior in 1975. This is the only Lightfoot song I know, but it's a really good one. I heartily recommend drinking a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter while listening to the song.

8. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy - Queen

This song appears on one of Queen's greatest hits compilations but it's only claim to fame is being a minor hit in 1977 in the UK. It's from Queen's hugely popular A Day At The Races album. Written by Freddie Mercury, he described it as a "ragtime" song. It's piano driven and sounds like parlor music, particularly at the beginning. Maybe my love of ragtime parlor music is why I like this one so much. In any case, it's also kind of funny because you can't help but remember how flaming gay he was while listening to him serenade an unnamed lover in the song.

7. Leningrad - Billy Joel 

Despite being a Billy Joel fan since I was a kid, I had never heard this song until a few years ago. It's from his later period and was never released as a single in the U.S. (It apparently did chart briefly in a few European countries, which is undoubtedly why it was included on one of his greatest hits compilations.) It tells the story of a visit Billy made with his daughter to Leningrad when Russia was still the Soviet Union. It's a great Cold War song with emotive music and poignant lyrics that aimed to humanize the Russian people during a time when they were frequently still demonized in the American popular consciousness.

6. Pillar of Davidson - Live 

In the same way that Appetite for Destruction by Guns n' Roses provided the soundtrack to my high school years, Throwing Copper by Live was the soundtrack to my time in college. I absolutely love this album, which offers an hour of great song after great song. Pillar of Davidson was not one of the many hits off this album, but it's perhaps the best song on what is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the entire 1990s. Like a lot of the album's songs, the lyrics are vague and make no sense at times (for instance, I have no idea what the title means or how it relates to the theme of the lyrics), but it appears to be a song about the plight of factory workers and laborers in the U.S. But it's the hard-hitting riffs and vocals (especially the chorus, which is downright glorious) that really make this a magnificent song.

5. I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford) - Elton John

If you know anything about the history of the Old West, you'll know Robert Ford (more commonly called Bob Ford) was the man who shot and killed Jesse James. As evidenced by this an other songs, Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, apparently had a fascination with American history. In any case, the song is actually about the breakup of a relationship, but uses Jesse James' murder as an analogy. Between the great music and vocals, and the lyrical themes (I'm a big fan of the Old West), this has always been one of my favorite lesser-known Elton John songs.

4. Migration - Jimmy Buffett

This is the best song from Jimmy Buffett's best album, and it's been one of my favorites since I began listening to Buffett in the early 1990s. You won't hear it on his multi-platinum greatest hits collection or in concert, but trust me ... it's one of his best songs. It's the quintessential beach bum song and it includes a line about buying a parrot and teaching it to cuss and drink. What more could you want?

3. Are You Sure - Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson has had a slew of hits over the years but what is perhaps more remarkable is how many great songs he has that never were radio hits. This is one of them. I'd never heard this song until a demo version (released in the 2000s) was used during an episode of the first season of Lost. The studio version, as released on his Country Willie album in 1965 (his third album) is the one I like best and it's the one featured above. It's a great little ballad that highlights everything about Willie that makes him the greatest of all time.

2. Headlong Flight - Rush

It's me, so of course Rush is going to be on the list and be ranked near the top. Headlong Flight is from their most recent (and probably final) album, Clockwork Angels, released in 2012. Unless you're a major Rush fan, you've likely not heard this song, as it certainly didn't get any radio airplay. But trust me, it's one of the best songs of their 40-year career. With their recent retirement (at least from touring), it's become in my eyes their final masterpiece, after four decades of masterpieces. You may or may not like Rush, but if you don't think this song kicks all manner of ass, you just don't like hard rock. It's three virtuoso rock musicians at the height of their collective power.

1. Was I Right Or Wrong - Lynyrd Skynyrd 

Though it was recorded in the 1970s, this song was never released on any Lynyrd Skynyrd albums during their heyday, but sat in the vault until released during the 1990s on several compilation albums. This is remarkable to me because with the possible exception of Free Bird, it may be their best song. It tells the story of an aspiring musician who goes out to pursue his dream against the advice of his parents. He succeeds, but then comes home to find both parents have died. The story is perhaps a bit sappy but the guitar riffs are unbelievable. I just love, love, love this freaking song.

Special Bonus Song!

The Green Fields of France - Dropkick Murphys 

When picking songs to include on this list, I came up with 11 instead of 10. Instead of dropping one, I just decided to add one as a bonus. You're welcome.

The Dropkick Murphys are a Celtic punk band - yes you read that right - from Massachusetts. This song is a remake of a folk song written in the 1970s by a Scottish singer named Eric Bogle. In it, the singer reflects on the grave of a 19-year-old who was killed in World War I. In my opinion, this is not just the greatest anti-war song ever written, the Dropkick Murphys' version of the song is hands down one of my favorite songs of all time. I can't listen to this song without getting chills. Watching the video above while listening to the song intensifies the impact even more.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Notes from the Cave

Thanks to everyone who has responded to my last couple of blog posts with thoughts and advice. It's appreciated. I've decided to go ahead and more or less disengage for the time being from politics. It's just too overwhelming and there is so little of real value that I can actually do. There's just no reason to feel guilty for being powerless to change anything. It's just reality.  I'll leave the hard work to those who are in better positions to fight than I am, and put my trust in their progress.

In other news...

I finally got a new desk chair at home. I had been without one for about a year since the last one broke down after years of abuse by my children, their friends, and my niece and nephews (not to mention my increasingly fatter ass sitting in it for untold hours). I'd had that chair since 2000. For the last year or so, I've been using a horribly uncomfortable metal folding chair. Thanks to a Christmas gift card, I've now got a Serta desk chair that is super comfortable. I could sit here and watch TV in it.

I also recently got a book of Elton John piano music. These are note-for-note transcripts of the recorded versions of the songs. I'd had one of these in college, but it was not with my other music books when I pulled them all back out last year after getting my piano. I have no idea what happened to it. It's been fun playing some of these old songs again. I only wish my friend Mike Houchens was still around to sing to them while I play. I've also got a Billy Joel book of the same type, although I think I like playing the Elton John songs better. Elton is a little more of a classical-type to Billy's jazz-inspired stuff.

I'm currently reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian. I highly recommend it. As the title suggests, it's an overview of literally all of human history, from our earliest human ancestors up through the 21st century. I'm still only on the "cave men" part, but the survey so far has been fascinating and informative.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Today's Musings and a Polite Request

How does one stay informed and involved while simultaneously not feeling riled up and helpless all the time?

I've been struggling a lot with this lately. I don't want to check out from social media and the news and current events, but I also feel upset and bothered all the time.  Even when I'm not actively thinking of the new presidential administration and its enablers in Congress and around the country, and all the horrible things they're doing, I frequently get that feeling of knowing there's something to be upset about and momentarily not knowing what it is, before suddenly remembering.

So how do I balance being an engaged and informed citizen, while also not feeling like my personal life is being affected by it? Every day I consider logging out from social media and staying away from the news, simply so I can just live and enjoy my life without worrying about "big issues." But I also know that checking out and burying your head in the sand doesn't solve anything, and in fact makes you an accomplice.

I was convicted recently by a post I saw on Twitter about this issue. It was condensed into 140 characters, but it basically said: Remember that history class you were in, or that museum you walked through, or that movie you watched which talked about some horrible historical period in the past, and you thought to yourself that if YOU had been alive during that time, YOU would've done so and so and such and such. Well, this is your historical period, and what you do now is what you would've done. 

This hit me like a ton of bricks because I have done that very thing. I've read about something or watched a movie and thought: If I had been alive during that time, I'd have been out on the streets. I'd have been writing and talking and letting everyone know about what was going on. I wouldn't have just sat idly by and watched while the world burned down around me.

What about you? Would you have buried your head in the sand? Would you have just gone along with it because there was nothing you could do? Or would you have stood up to injustice, fought corruption, and taken an active role in stopping it from happening?

Would you have ignored segregation and the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South? Would you have ignored the evils of slavery? Would you have just gone about your business with your head down in 1930s Germany or Italy? Would you have just focused on yourself and your family while Vietnam raged?

So I feel convicted about staying involved and informed - it's literally the least I can do. But I also can't stand feeling riled up and upset so much.

I ask for your advice for balancing this and thank you in advance.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Trump's First Week

The Immigration Ban

I'll spare you a diatribe about how awful this is, or an appeal to America's melting pot identity, or a sad description of crying and dying children. All that stuff is true, but you can get it elsewhere.

Instead, let me just say this: Trump and his team are not stupid. They know good and well this ban is unconstitutional and will be struck down faster than you can grab a pussy. They also knew it would create chaos at airports.

The purpose of this little exercise is twofold.

First, it's the fulfillment of a campaign promise. "I said I'd do it, and I did. Who cares if it's illegal."

Second, and far more importantly, it's the Trump administration's way of saying to the Muslim world beyond our borders: "Muslims are no longer welcome here in our Christian country." Of course the ban doesn't apply to all Muslims, but that doesn't matter. The message is loud, clear, and intentional.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Lost to some degree among all the furor of the immigration ban was Trump's official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Notably, he failed to mention Jews. Now, no official presidential statement would accidentally forget to mention Jewish people on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  No, mention of the Jews was left out on purpose.


Simple.  It's because Trump's chief advisor, Steve Bannon formerly ran a far right news outlet that routinely printed anti-Semitic writings and advertised itself as the news source of the "alt-right," which is a trendy name for good old-fashioned right-wing extremism.

These right wing extremists love Israel, because they believe its existence is necessary for the second coming of Jesus, but they don't like Jews, particularly American Jews. And they don't like American Jews because they have a very well-established collective delusion that liberal Jews run the media and use it to spread liberal Jewish and socialist propaganda. Sound familiar?  That's because it's straight out of 1930s Nazi Germany.  So it should come as no surprise that Trump didn't mention Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.

That someone like Steve Bannon has become the White House Chief Strategist and, as of a few days ago, a member of the National Security Council, should literally scare the shit out of you.

Some have reasonably argued that Bannon, himself, is not an anti-Semite, but has simply pandered to such people in order to stir up discontent against the establishment and transform traditional American conservatism into far-right nationalism - something akin to the far right nationalist populism of Europe. Even if that's true, the results are still the same: he is a champion of right-wing extremism and is undoubtedly the most dangerous demagogue in the Trump White House - which is saying something.

The Wall

Many conservatives have reasonably argued that protecting one's borders is a wise and fair thing to do, pointing out that many nations in Europe and elsewhere have physical barriers along their borders, requiring people to pass through checkpoints. Since most agree that illegal immigration is a problem (regardless of their views on how to solve it or how big the problem is), what's so wrong with a wall to stop illegals from coming into the country?

Several things, actually.

First of all, the cost. The Trump administration's estimate of 9 billion dollars is widely considered to be conservative (no pun intended). Of course, when you're talking about that much money, what's a few billion here and there? More than likely it will be twice that much. Either way, for a political persuasion that claims to be interested in cutting spending, throwing 20 billion at a wall in Texas is hard to justify. Sure, sure, Mexico's gonna pay for it. Right. And pigs will fly out of my ass.

Secondly, and far more importantly, is the symbolism of a 20 billion dollar border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. We all know what walls stand for - they stand for oppression and isolation and aggression. They scream a big loud KEEP OUT and they tell people WE DON'T WANT YOUR KIND HERE. Think of a mansion with a gigantic perimeter wall and an armed guard at the only gatehouse. You're poor ass isn't welcome here. That's what Trump is proposing we do to our long-time neighbor and ally, Mexico.

And it's in keeping with his stance on immigration - Muslims and Mexicans aren't welcome here (unless they're going to toe the line of right-wing populism, of course). And it all goes back to the influence of people like Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the champion of far-right nationalism and politics.

I would much rather see the process for getting visas made quicker and easier, and then hard-working Mexican laborers wouldn't need to come here illegally. They come illegally because it takes too long to get a work visa. They need to eat now, not in six months. If it was quicker and easier to get visas, people wouldn't need to sneak in, and then voila, we wouldn't need a 20 billion dollar wall.

All in all, Trump's first week is pretty much what I expected it to be, and despite all the controversy and protests, I predict his approval rating will go up. People will see him as keeping promises and being decisive, and in many people's eyes, that's far more important than what he's actually doing and what harm it may cause. I hope I'm wrong - I hope his approval rating stays in the gutter, but I've lost all faith in the American people at this point. After all, they elected him in the first place.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Entertainer by Scott Joplin

I promised to post videos this year of my piano adventures, so here's me following through.

This is an oldie but a goodie, a popular ragtime piece from the 1910s that became widely-known after it was used as the theme song for the blockbuster 1973 movie "The Sting."

The song is in 4 sections and I learned the first one back in the day when I was in high school, but never went beyond that.

There are a few minor mistakes in this performance, but I think it gets a solid B+, which means it's good enough to post. Pardon the tiny little sliver of fat belly you can see on the lower right by my phone holster.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Beginning of an Error

Eight years ago today, I wrote a blog post entitled "The End of an Error." The title was, perhaps, not particularly original, but it expressed perfectly how I felt about the Bush administration that was leaving office that day. Despite how happy I was to see Obama entering the White House, on Inauguration Day, I was evidently more concerned with writing about what had gone before than what was to come.

In the same way that I felt January 20, 2009, was the end of an error, I feel that January 20, 2017, is the beginning of one.

Of course I feel this way: I'm a liberal, after all, who abides strongly by typically liberal political beliefs and perspectives.  No matter who it was, if a Republican was entering office today, I would undoubtedly consider it the "beginning of an error."  

But this particular beginning is even more troubling and upsetting because of who it is. Donald Trump is not a typical Republican.  He's not a Republican at all.  He's an authoritarian and oligarch whose gods are himself and money. 

He enters office with the lowest approval rating of any president-elect since such polls have been taken (which, in fairness, only goes back to the early 1990s). Real Clear Politics shows the current average of approval ratings to be 41.8%. That's remarkably low for a president-elect who hasn't even gotten into office yet; George W. Bush in 2000, despite winning a disputed election in a campaign that was widely considered to have two less-than-stellar candidates, entered office with a 59% approval rating.

I'm not one of those people who hopes Trump (or any president, for that matter) fails. Like all decent human beings - not to mention self-respecting American citizens - I want all presidents to be successful and to lead the country into prosperity and general well-being. Unlike people like Rush Limbaugh, who openly asserted in January of 2009 that he hoped Obama failed, I hope Trump succeeds. I hope the country does well under his leadership, and if it does, I will be the first to give him credit for it. I haven't forgotten when Mitch McConnell, upon assuming the mantle of Senate Majority Leader, said that his primary job as leader of the Senate was not to govern, but to ensure Obama did not get reelected (which means, of course, that he failed in his primary job). I don't support views like that. I hope Trump succeeds, and if he does succeed, I will support his bid for reelection. 

Having said that, I have no hope whatsoever of that actually taking place, and no reason, in my view, to feel anything different. As a historian, I tend to look at things like this through the lens of history, and I see nothing in historical precedent to make me think the chances of Trump succeeding are very good. 

There are two primary reasons for this: 

1. His economic policy is based on a failed policy frequently referred to over the last few decades as trickle-down economics: cut taxes for corporations and the rich so that these "prime movers" of society have more wealth with which to invest and create jobs, which will make their extra money "trickle-down" to the rest of the masses and improve everyone's life. 

This was a fine and noble theory 45 years ago when Ronald Reagan began championing it in the mid-1970s and used it as the centerpiece of his economic policy after being elected president in 1980. Unfortunately, we have known for a very long time now that it does not work. The wealthy simply get wealthier while everyone else stagnates. More money in the pockets of corporations does not make them hire more people or, especially, pay their people better. Instead, it is reinvested in growing the business to pad the pockets of their investors, or held back in savings against a future bad economy. 

There is simply no reason to suppose that this time it will finally work. That this time, Reagan's grand vision will finally come to fruition. It won't. Instead, over the next four years, the wealth gap will undoubtedly grow wider.

2. People often think that success in business will naturally equal success in the White House. Republicans, in particular, tend to abide by this belief, as evidenced by the many wealthy businessmen they have nominated for the presidency over the last century (including three of their last four nominees going back to 2000). 

Unfortunately, history shows that successful businessmen tend to make unsuccessful presidents. Prior to Donald Trump, there have been three presidents who were successful businessmen before winning the White House - two Republicans and a Democrat.

The first was Herbert Hoover, who was one of the wealthiest men of his day, earning a fortune in the mining business. He was the third Republican in a row to be elected to the White House, taking office in 1929. He, of course, presided over the Great Depression and lost in a landslide four years later to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is widely remembered as one of the 20th century's worst presidents. 

The second was Jimmy Carter, who owned a large agricultural business in Georgia (commonly referred to by his critics as a peanut farmer, it's important to realize he was not a sunburned farmer in overalls picking peanuts, but the head of a major farming operation). He took office in 1977 and, after presiding over an economic recession, was easily defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. 

The most recent was, of course, George W. Bush, who was an oil industry executive before entering the White House in 2001. Like the two businessmen-turned-presidents before him, he presided over a major economic recession and left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history. 

Learning from history has never, of course, been the forte of many conservative voters, and clearly the monsters and naive enablers who voted for Trump don't realize and/or don't care that no other businessman has been able to translate his business sense into good public policy as president. 

This is not surprising since the factors and qualities that make for successful business operation do not work when it comes to governing.  You can't run the country like a business for the very simple reason that the United States is not a business.

When you consider that all our previous experiments with businessman-as-president have failed, and when you also consider that those three previous presidents did also have governing experience as well as being successful businessmen, but still failed, while Trump has never governed anything, it leads to a very strong sense that he will fare no better than Hoover, Carter, and Bush before him. God forbid that he fare worse. 

And these historical considerations, of course, say nothing about his personality, his bluster and bloviating, his narcissism, his inability to accept criticism, his vengefulness - all qualities that make for a poor leader.

So I see no reason to be upbeat or positive about the prospects of Donald Trump's presidency. I hope he does well, but I do not expect him to. I have every reason to suppose that this is the beginning of an error, which will hopefully come to a peaceful end in four years.   

It's 12:12 pm, Barack Obama is now an ex-president, and Donald Trump has taken the oath of office. 

God help us. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

2016 Playing List

What is the 2016 Playing List, you ask? It's a new list that I plan to post every January (I know, I know, you're super excited) of the piano pieces I completed in the previous year.  As many of you know, after nearly 20 years of virtually not playing the piano at all, I finally got a piano in 2016 and have been playing my little heart out, getting reacquainted with my first musical love.

I've been pleasantly surprised at how quickly I have gotten back to a place of reasonable competence, given how long it had been since I'd played.

Once I get more comfortable (and competent) performing in front of a running video camera, I hope to start posting videos of my playing here on my blog.

For the time being, here are the pieces I completed in 2016.  Considering it wasn't until the beginning of August that I got the piano, I'm pretty pleased with this list.  A lot of them are pretty simple, but still.

I'm primarily using piano books from my college days, and it's been nice because my piano professor's notes and markings are all still there.  It's like Dr. Tilford is still teaching me, even though he's in his 80s now and living in Alabama. I had forgotten that I ever played a lot of these songs until I started flipping through the books and seeing his scratchings on various pieces.

I'm currently working on a Scott Joplin rag, the first movement of a Mozart sonata, a set of seven folk songs by Beethoven, and a Bach invention.  In addition to the songs that I'm learning at any given time, I also do regular piano exercises, using an exercise book I used with my piano teacher in high school, as well as The Virtuoso Pianist, a well-known exercise book first published in the 1800s by Charles-Louis Hanon. And, like any good pianist, I do daily scales and arpeggios.


Aug. 2016
Bagatelle in A Minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise” – Ludwig van Beethoven

I used to play this one when I was younger, though I don't believe I ever mastered the entire song (most people are familiar with the famous opening refrain, but there are two other sections to the piece too which are more difficult and typically left out of your basic 5th grade piano book). 

Minuet in G Major, WoO 10 No. 2 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Sept. 2016
Sonatina in G Major, Anh. 5 No. 1 – Ludwig van Beethoven
“Edelweiss” – Richard Rodgers, arranged for piano by Dick Averre

This one was from sheet music I bought in high school but never learned. 

Sonatina in C Major (first movement only), Op. 36 No. 1 – Muzio Clementi
Sonatina in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 11 – Dmitri Kabalevsky
Ballade in C Minor – Friedrich Burgmüller
Spinning Song, Op. 14 – Albert Elmenreich

Oct. 2016
Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28 No. 20 – Frédéric Chopin
Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 – Frédéric Chopin
March in D Major, BWV Anh. 122 – Johann Sebastian Bach
March in G Major, BWV Anh. 124 – Johann Sebastian Bach

I really don't like playing Bach.  I resented it in college when Dr. Tilford made me play him all the time. I just wanted to play Beethoven and Liszt. I still don't like playing Bach's stuff, but I know now how important it is for teaching your fingers how to move across the keys.  So, as with Beethoven, my favorite composer, whenever I finish a Bach piece, I immediately start another.  

Nov. 2016
“Träumerei,” Op. 15 No. 7 – Robert Schumann

I clunked my way through this one when I was younger, but never really mastered it.  It's one of my all time favorites.  A beautiful piece.  YouTube it. 

Prelude in F Major, BWV 927 No. 4 – Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatina in F Major, Anh. 5 No. 2 – Ludwig von Beethoven
“German Song,” Op. 39 No. 17 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Dec. 2016
“The Entertainer” – Scott Joplin

A famous ragtime piece, this one is also from a piece of sheet music that I think I bought in high school.  If memory serves, I learned to play the first section pretty well back then, but never bothered with the second, third, or fourth sections (the second section, in particular, is quite difficult).  I'm still playing this piece almost every day, to keep it clean, but I counted it as "complete" back in December. This is one of my all-time favorites. 

Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934 – Johann Sebastian Bach 

Monday, January 16, 2017

2016 Reading List

Only 8 posts on Serene Musings in 2016.  Pretty pathetic blogging by yours truly, and for that I'm sorry.  Maybe I'll be better in 2017, but no promises.

In any case, here's my reading list for last year.  A mere 25 books in 2016, largely due to the prodigious length of several of the books I read.

I am forgoing the Serene Musing Book of the Year Award this year, not because I don't want to do it, but simply because, quite frankly, I didn't feel that there were any books I read this year worthy of this prestigious award.

Seriously though, it's not that I hated everything I read, it's just that nothing I read this year really struck me as a fantastic book - as something I'd want to read again. So there will be no 2016 winner this year. Yes, Serene Musings is a bit like the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's only awarded if someone earns it.


Carrion Comfort – Dan Simmons

Another massive horror tome, this time about vampires, from the most long-winded writer who ever lived, with the possible exception of James Michener (see below). Aside from the fact that the story could have been told just as well with 500 pages instead of 1200, this was still a really good book for anyone who enjoys good character-driven horror fiction. The twist on the vampire genre in this book is that the vampires don't suck blood - instead they feed on other people's minds by mind control: forcing people to do their will.  

First Blood – David Morrell

This is the book that inspired the Rambo series of films. If you've seen the first Rambo movie, it follows the book pretty closely, except that Rambo kills a lot more people in the book than in the movie (in the movie they intentionally had him only kill one really bad cop in order to make him seem more sympathetic; in the book, it's intentionally left unclear who the actual hero is - whether Rambo or the sheriff who is intent on capturing him.) One other change is that the movie is set in the upper northwest, while the book takes place in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky. 

Crimson Shore – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The latest installment in the Agent Pendergast series.  As always, it was solid.  

The Martian – Andy Weir

I decided to read this one after the movie starring Matt Damon came out.  I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I was drawn to this one largely because of the backstory of the author and the book itself. He initially self-published this book for Kindle through Amazon and simply advertised it on his blog (sound familiar?).  It took off and went viral and started selling a lot on Amazon. The publishing industry took notice and before long he had a New York Times bestseller in hardback and a hit movie. The book was good, although it's very, very technical - but not to the point that you can't follow what's going on. 

One Corpse Too Many – Ellis Peters

Book two in this historical mystery series starring Brother Cadfael, a crime-solving monk in the vein of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.  It's set in 12th century western England. 

Never Binge Again – Glenn Livingston

A self-help book about binge-eating that sadly didn't do me much good. #fat

The Fall of the Roman Empire – Peter Heather

This was another one of the "prodigious tomes" I read this year. It took me from October 2015 to March of 2016 to get through it. If you a very in-depth look at the reasons for the fall of Rome, and you DON'T want to read Edward Gibbon, this is a good place to start.  

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

I read this one in an effort to read more critically-acclaimed literary fiction (this one was  Pulitzer Prize winner).  It was okay.  A little too artsy in the writing style, which is, of course, something that high-brow literary critics love.  

The Five – Robert McCammon

This was somewhat of a departure from the norm for McCammon, who is typically a horror novelist in the vein of King or Simmons. This book centers on a struggling rock band who gets stalked by a serial killer, but it's less of a horror story and more a character study. I gave it a solid 4 stars.  

The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

A very famous self-help novel that falls into what the old Southern Baptist Scott would have called "new age-y" stuff. It's inspiring, but ultimately sort of impractical. 

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Another book I read in an effort to read more "great novels."  This one was interesting if for no other reason than to see how Huxley got his predictions for the future right and wrong. As far as dystopian novels set in the future go, however, it doesn't hold a candle to 1984. 

Masters of the Planet – Ian Tattersall

A fantastic overview of anthropological studies on human evolution, including a survey of all the various bones and skeletons of pre-modern humans that have been found.  Very informative. 

You Look Like That Girl – Lisa Jakub

A memoir by the actress who played the oldest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire and also the daughter of Randy Quaid's character in Independence Day. She left acting in young adulthood and teaches yoga and memoir-writing classes in Virginia now.  An interesting "inside" look at a working actor's life in Hollywood, without the glitz and glamour and gossip.  

This Naked Mind – Annie Grace

Another self-help adventure, this time on drinking responsibly. 

Chesapeake – James Michener

One of Michener's thousand page historical dramas, centered on a series of families in the Chesapeake Bay region, starting right before Europeans arrived there in the late 1500s and leading up through the modern day. 

Zachary Taylor – John S. D. Eisenhower

A short biography of one of my favorite ex-presidents. Taylor is the only person prior to He Who Shall Not Be Named to ever become president without having any political or top general military experience.  He was a general, and very successful one who was given wide acclaim for his victories in the Mexican-American war, but he was a field general, not a commanding general. That may be splitting hairs a bit, but it set him apart from all other U.S. presidents until Señor Cheeto got elected.

He died from food poisoning a year and half into his term and was the subject of speculation in the 1980s that he might have been assassinated. The speculation was rampant enough that the Kentucky state coroner agreed to disinter him from his tomb in Louisville to check fingernail and hair samples for signs of arsenic. Arsenic was found, but it was in low enough concentrations to be considered normal. The test, however, was only able to rule out arsenic as a cause of death, but no other potential poisons.  

Monk’s Hood – Ellis Peters

Book three in the Brother Cadfael series. Speaking of poisons, the murder victim in this one got poisoned with monk's hood - also known as wolf's bane - a super poisonous flower that grows throughout the northern hemisphere and occasionally kills unsuspecting flower-pickers in places like England and northern Europe. 

The Great Emergence – Phyllis Tickle

A book about the emergence of a new kind of Christianity, which the author believes (or believed - she's dead now) indicates a new reformation is taking place.  Tickle was the long-time religion editor at Publisher's Weekly.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

See a trend here?  Another great work of literature I had never read until this year. 

The Ice Limit – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

This was a re-read from a book first published (and which I first read) in 2000. I re-read it in preparation for the long-awaited sequel. 

Beyond the Ice Limit – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The aforementioned long-awaited sequel. It wasn't as good as the first book, but it was okay. 

Before Adam – Jack London

Earlier in the year, I downloaded a bunch of old Jack London novels (he of Call of the Wild and White Fang fame). This was the first one I read.  It was intriguing because it was basically set in prehistoric times. The main character is a caveman (although he's more ape-like than human) and it basically tells this guy's story. London, who was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, was inspired by new advances in the study of evolution. It was interesting to see (especially in light of the book on human evolution I had read earlier in the year) a century-old take on human evolution by a novelist. Needless to say, he got a lot of things wrong. But it's a bit like opening a time capsule. Very illuminating.  

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

And yet another great work of classic literature. 

Refuge Recovery – Noah Levine

And yet another self-help book on drinking responsibly. 

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Another classic, but this one was a re-read. I read this originally about 20 years ago, and decided to read it again. Still the prototypical pirate adventure story.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015