Category Archives: Confessional

Why compartmentalization didn’t work with Snowden

OK, now I’m back to being serious about Edward Snowden…

Way back last year when we first heard of him, there was a lot of frantic head-scratching in the intelligence community because espiocrats didn’t see how this low-level employee of a contractor had access to so many different subject areas. Given the way information is normally compartmentalized in intelligence organizations to prevent such broad leaks, he just shouldn’t have known most of that stuff.

The authors of an article in Vanity Fair tell NPR’s Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” how it happened:

The NSA now tells us they’re able to explain why Snowden was able to roam so free through the computers — including many niches he should not have otherwise been able to access. And it turns out, the NSA tells us, it was because they had given Snowden a different assignment, a unique assignment if you will, just because he was in Hawaii.

Hawaii is at the end of a long, long tagline with Washington and it’s not necessarily always up to date on the latest procedures and things that should be gotten from Washington. Further, if there’s ever any type of disconnect between Fort Meade and Hawaii — technically or communications-wise — Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA, was very concerned that somehow they would not be able to reach Hawaii: literally [would be unable to] communicate with them in the event of, I don’t know, a nuclear problem or an earthquake or something.

What Snowden was doing was downloading and copying and backing up hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pages of documents to make sure Hawaii had it all in case something went wrong. … What no one realized at the time, of course, is that he was also making copies for his own reasons…

When I was a student at Memphis State and had a part-time job at the library, I was assigned at one point to haul older periodicals down to the basement and stack them on a vast number of metal shelves down there. The library subscribed to what must have been hundreds of fascinating, esoteric publications. I remember in particular a journal called Conradiana, devoted completely to the study of Joseph Conrad. It sticks out in my mind because I read in it an article from an English teacher I’d had during my one-semester sojourn at USC.

Not until the Worldwide Web came along would I have the opportunity to surf such a wealth of little worlds of arcane knowledge. I would head down with a load of old magazines, and not re-emerge for hours. I didn’t mean to slack off; I would give those publications a glance while filing them, and I would just get lost in them. For me, it was like being Scrooge McDuck, diving into his vault full of money.

Anyway… the moral of the story is, you need to keep an eye on the kid down in the basement with access to all the info…

Hey, iTunes! Where are all of MY tunes?!?!?

iTunes panic

OK, I’m trying to suppress the panic here…

I was already pretty ticked off because the only tunes that showed up on my Apple TV were ones that I had “purchased” (either for money or by redeeming a free song from Starbucks or something) from iTunes.

Whereas, most of the music that was in iTunes on my PC laptop and my iPhone and my iPad were songs I owned before iTunes was invented — things I bought long, long ago, either on CD or vinyl (I have a turntable at home that hooks up to a computer and converts vinyl to MP3s). Stuff I had every right to. I liked that this music was in iTunes because it meant it wasn’t subject to the ravages of time and rough use as they affect vinyl and CDs — and they were available to me on multiple platforms, wherever I went.

The number of songs I had “purchased” from iTunes were insignificant. I mean, unless someone has given me an iTunes gift card, why would I spend money on something I could hear on Pandora or Spotify for free? (Especially, especially, especially if I had already paid for it once, twice or three times in my lifetime?)

Anyway, this state of affairs got worse when I got a new iPhone a month or so ago. Everything transferred over from my old iPhone just fine. But recently I noticed that all of MY music (the music I owned before iTunes, from vinyl and CD) was missing.

So today, when I connected the iPhone to my PC in order to transfer some photos, and iTunes automatically launched, I thought, “I’ll try to fix this.”

I did this by clicking on “Brad’s iPhone” in iTunes, scrolling down to options, and clicking off the button that said “Sync only checked songs and videos.” And then I clicked “Apply.”

I got a dialogue box that I can’t seem to get back again now, but I think it said something like “Do you want to erase the iTunes profile on your phone and replace it with the one on your computer?” I said “yes,” because that’s what I wanted to do. And I ran it.

And now, I still don’t have any of MY tunes on iTunes, and a bunch of them (but strangely, not all) have disappeared from my laptop as well! For instance, all of the Beatles albums — just gone!

They’re all still on my iPad. So now I’m scared to connect the iPad to the PC, lest I lose them. (And yeah, I suppose I still have copies of these things somewhere, in some form, but getting them onto iTunes represented a lot of time and effort.)

Any minute now, I’ll start freaking out.

Anyone have any advice?

My very first Tweet was (allegedly) a sinful one

Twitter is celebrating its 8th birthday, and in connection with that has set up a website where you can find your very first Tweet ever.

Allegedly, this is mine:

first Tweet

First, I remember that Tweet. Weirdly, I was thinking about it during Mass this past Sunday. I was thinking about how it takes willpower to refrain from Tweeting during Mass, and I suddenly remembered a time when I gave in to the temptation. I sort of remembered where I was sitting. I also remembered that I had been to Starbucks that morning, and was still feeling a very nice first-cup buzz at the time. And I remembered that I mentioned that I was in Mass in the Tweet. (And the timestamp, 12:37 p.m., places it smack in the middle of the Mass I attend most weeks. And I checked — May 24 was a Sunday.)

Second, it seems highly unlikely that that was my first Tweet. I seem to recall rather clearly first trying out Twitter during the week, while sitting in my office in the Byrnes Building at USC. This was when I was on that 90-day consulting contract with Harris Pastides, right after I was laid off at The State. I had been talked into trying Twitter after a meeting in which some other consultants had given the university president and members of his communications team a presentation on social media. Tim Kelly talked me into it. I was reluctant to try Twitter, but he persuaded me that it would be a great tool for promoting my blog.

I remember trying it, sitting there in that office, and almost immediately becoming hooked on it. Which surprised me. I thought I would hate it.

It seems highly unlikely that I would have waited until Sunday, while I was in Mass, to try my first Tweet. For one thing, if I hadn’t Tweeted before, how would I know that it was something I enjoyed doing, and therefore be tempted into doing it at such an inappropriate moment?

Still, it was interesting to suddenly have that indiscretion thrown at me today. It’s both a pleasant blast from the past, and a cause for a wave of guilt. But then, as Yossarian said to Chaplain Tappman, “I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings. Right, Chaplain?”

I am guilty of the unforgivable crime of walking on the gym floor in street shoes

sock hop

On a couple of occasions recently, in the line of duty for ADCO, I have found myself out on the court at USC basketball games. A nonprofit client of ours has been blessed with donations that it has received in the form of oversized checks presented in front of the fans at Colonial Life Arena. (The client is the SC Center for Fathers and Families; the generous donors are TD Bank and Colonial Life.) I was there to help publicize the donations.

There are a lot of things a person might think as he steps out in front of a crowd like that, some relevant, some not: Do I have a good angle for the picture? Is my focus good enough to read the check? Cheerleaders are cute, but they wear a lot of makeup. Is it hard to smile that much? They’re also smaller than they look from the stands. The players are not. Am I standing in anyone’s way? Is my fly zipped? Who that I know is seeing me down here and wonders what I’m doing?

But the one predominant thought I had on both occasions was, I’m standing on the gym floor in my street shoes! This made me very self-conscious. I felt guilty, furtive, a scofflaw who was going to get yelled at by coach any second. (And in my day, coaches yelled what they pleased at us with impunity.)

Young people, and even some not-so-young-anymore people, are wondering what on Earth I’m on about. But when I was a student at Karr Junior High School in the suburbs of New Orleans in the mid-60s, it was deeply impressed on us that you never, ever walked on the shiny gym floor with street shoes on.

Perhaps I should explain what “street shoes” are. They are dress shoes, made of hard, polished leather. Like what your Daddy wore to work at the office, if your Daddy was old enough to go to the office back when men wore suits and hats. If he wasn’t, then your granddaddy.

We did not wear sneakers, athletic shoes, or whatever you want to call them to school. Or zoris, either (on the Mainland, y’all call them “flip-flops”). Nor did we wear jeans, or shorts, or T-shirts. We dressed in a manner that today is called “business casual,” only less casual than a lot of business people today.

Except in gym. In gym, we wore gym shoes. And shorts, and T-shirts. That’s how you knew you were in P.E. — you wore things that would be strictly verboten in English class. To participate in P.E. was to “dress out.” If you were sick and had a note from the doctor, you didn’t have to “dress out.” The rest of the time, you did.

And you wore those special shoes in P.E. shoes because you never, ever, for even one step, touched the gym floor with street shoes. Because gym floors were extremely delicate, and taxpayers shelled out gazillions of dollars to keep them perfectly shiny, and your parents couldn’t possibly make enough money to pay for the damage that street shoes could cause. It would be like mixing matter with antimatter, or crossing the streams (Egon!).

Stepping on the gym floor in street shoes was, in 1965, the civilian, junior-high equivalent of being a Marine and calling your rifle a “gun.”

We had dances in the gym in our street clothes on Friday nights, but it wasn’t a problem, because we were all completely conditioned to remove our shoes before stepping onto the gym floor. I have somewhere a Polaroid picture I took once of the pile of shoes under the bleachers. If I can find it, I’ll post it. Today, the kids would just wear casual shoes and clothes. But for social occasions that involved girls, you dressed up.

We spent the rest of the evening in our socks. We did the Jerk, and the Monkey, and the Boogaloo in our socks. We engaged in the delicious mystery of slow-dancing in our socks (we waited and waited for the band to do “House of the Rising Sun,” which was the only slow song they knew). If we were total rebels, with no respect for decency and societal mores, and no teachers were in sight (a rare occurrence), we did the Alligator in our socks.

It was what used to be called a “sock hop,” although I don’t recall our actually calling it that. It’s just that when you danced in the gym, you did so in your socks.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about while standing in front of all those basketball fans at Colonial Life Arena. I have no idea who is going to pay for the irreparable damage that my Johnston and Murphys surely did to that floor.

No wonder coach was yelling.

Well, at least I’m in good company, I guess


While going through my email, I paused a moment to take the weekly Slate News Quiz — which I always do horribly on, partly because you’re scored on how quickly you answer, which I hate, and it rattles me.

This time, in my haste, I gave two wrong answers even though I knew the right answer in my gut — trying to play safe and give a more reasonable-sounding answer than the right one. My mind does that, when hurried — the stress of lack of time makes me overthink, for some reason.

But I don’t feel too bad, because even though I did worse than average (I usually do, which is why you don’t see me posting my results the way I do on the tests that I ace), I did better than Slate’s chief political correspondent, that loser

Dang. When you’re on your own, you have to think so HARD

So this morning, I was trying to post a quick reply to something Doug had said, and I was trying to think of a word. I was trying to think of a word for considerations that exacerbate a situation (I never have trouble remembering “exacerbate,” because, you know, it sounds dirty).

When I was at the newspaper, I would have gotten up, walked next door to Cindi Scoppe’s office, and said, “I’m having trouble remembering a word that should be easy. What’s the opposite of extenuating, or mitigating, circumstances? You know, like committing the offense within the context of another crime or something.”

And she would have said, “aggravating,” and I’d nod, say “of course,” and go back and type that, assuming I didn’t get distracted on the way.

But without her and all those other people to check with, just sitting here blogging alone (is that redundant?), I had to think of it all on my own, which took several seconds.

Having to remember stuff on your own is hard

Mark Sanford’s contribution to the rhetoric of regret

After Chris Christie’s lengthy presser the other day crying the blues about how wrong his staff had done him, someone at the NYT had the bright idea of piecing together a bunch of recent (well, not all so recent), similar such moments into a sort of all-purpose mea culpa (or they-a culpa) speech.

Here’s the opening:

I rise today to deliver a very difficult speech. I’ll lay it out. It’s going to hurt. And we’ll let the chips fall where they may. I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago. In recent weeks, serious questions have been raised about my conduct in office. … I welcome any and all appropriate investigations. I want the American people to know all the facts, and I am not afraid of having independent people go in and check the facts, and that is exactly what they did.

Anything sound familiar? Yep, the second, third and fourth sentences are classic Mark Sanford, from June 24, 2009.

The feature at the NYT is interactive — scroll over a section of the speech, and you see the source. Go check it out, if you like to wallow in that sort of thing…


The kind of quiz I DON’T do well on

lousy score

In the past, I’ve posted links to quizzes on political science, history and other such topics. I’ve done so partly because I thought y’all might enjoy taking the tests, and partly (largely) to give me an excuse to brag on my way-higher-than-average scores.

But there’s a kind of test I’m not all that good at.

I don’t do well on current-events quizzes. Sounds odd, huh, since I’ve spent all those years in the news business.

Well, I have a couple of reasons/excuses to offer for this. One is that I’m a big-picture guy. If you test me on broad knowledge of history or political science, or I don’t know, popular culture, and make it the kind of test that is so broad you can’t possibly study for it (you either know the stuff or you don’t), I tend to do well. I know a lot, in general, about how the world works.

But if you narrow it down to specifics, in a particularly limited field — such as what happened this past week — I don’t do as well.

Second, these quizzes tend to run to oddball stories, and those are the ones I so often miss. I scan the main pages of top newspapers every morning, and that tends to form my frame of reference. Meanwhile, people who watch a lot of TV news see all these quirky little gossipy stories that I tend to miss. This was always a sore point for Robert Ariail in working with me. He’d come in with a cartoon idea, and I’d ponder it and say, “What’s this about?” And he’d be like, “You’re kidding me! This is all over! There’s no way you’ve missed this…”

That said, I did miss one serious, important news-story question on this quiz. I’d tell you what it was, but I’d have to give away the answer.

See if you can do better than I did. It shouldn’t be hard, since y’all are smart and my score was way below average.

Anyone remember Space Family Robinson? I do…


Over the weekend, I denied being a “geek,” at least according to the parameters that Amazon set out.

However, I admitted that I may be such a geek that normal geek-dar doesn’t pick me up on the screen, in that my enthusiasms are slightly more esoteric.Goldkeycomics

For instance, I denied being a Trekkie, and that was true. But I was into the even lower-quality “Lost in Space.” I thought it great that TV had turned a comic book I was into — “Space Family Robinson” — into a prime-time show.

Anybody remember that? It was published by Gold Key Comics. For that matter, anyone remember Gold Key comics?

I was originally attracted to the comics by the obvious play on “Swiss Family Robinson,” a movie I had enjoyed (I never read the book). I haven’t touched a copy in nearly 50 years (I wasn’t foresighted enough to keep them until they grew in market value), but I still remember one edition causing me to think about how immense space was. There was a story in which the Robinsons received a signal from about 20,000 miles away, and one of the kids said, “That’s practically right next door!” Which is really trite, except to a kid.

Of course, no one has ever evoked the vastness of space as well as Douglas Adams:

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…

As someone at the BBC wrote, that should be in every science textbook.

The joys of a real bookstore

There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:

The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.

I wish he’d come by.

Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.

In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….

Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.

First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.

Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.

Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)

Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.

Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.

I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.

But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.

Forget oxycodone. The most addictive drug is Google. And we’re past the point at which it’s just a ‘choice.’


Back on this post from yesterday, we were having the usual argument about the intrusiveness of private companies vs. the government, and as usual someone said “my use of Google Maps is voluntary,” an assertion which I questioned.

My use of Google Maps and other Google products is no longer in the realm of what I consider to be “voluntary.”

Google is as much a part of the daily infrastructure of my life, and the things I need to get done, as the streets I drive on. Its services are something I rely on, in a more direct, frequent and ubiquitous manner, than I do the direct services of the police.

I don’t see how to engage modern life without it — or something exactly like it. I couldn’t get through a day of ADCO work without it, much less publish this blog. Without Google, both of my active email accounts go away, my browser (the instantaneous searches that occur when you type into the URL field, making it unnecessary to know the address of anything, is indispensable) disappears; there’s no YouTube, no really utilitarian Maps program, and then all sorts of other useful things like Google Books, Translate (no longer can I just say, Well, that’s French and I don’t understand French… no excuse), etc. Without Google Images, I have to fall back on my highly flawed memory for names and faces.

One can attempt to drop off the grid and no longer use Google, just as one can drop out of society at large — quit paying one’s taxes, go live in the wilderness off the land. Theoretically, at least.

But the cost of doing either is pretty high…

Yes, there are other services that do these things. But that’s not the point. If Yahoo or AOL had succeeded in being what Google is, or if Facebook were to succeed in being what it wants to be, then it would be the same thing; we’d just be calling it something different. And why ever use competing services for any of these functions, when the very fact that they are all knit together seamlessly magnifies their utility exponentially? I would no more want to switch platforms than I would want to try to leave the roads and drive on a railroad track in my car.

Kathryn writes, “Google is a gateway drug.”

Yes. And more addictive than most.

I always had trouble with being distracted by looking things up. It was just too seductive. A dictionary on my desk was a dangerous thing. I couldn’t look up a word without running across several other words on the way that fascinated me, and each of them led to other words, and on and on.

Fortunately, I had a good vocabulary, and seldom really needed to look up a word.

But now that I can, instantly, look up anything, I cannot stop doing it. A thought about a word or a fact that causes my brain to wonder or doubt even slightly (something I have always done, constantly; it’s just that for the first decades of my life it was harder to scratch that itch) sends me on an immediate search.

For instance, last night I watched “Looper.” Almost immediately, I wondered who the protagonist was. It looked remotely like , but the expression and even facial structure was wrong (It was him, but he wore extensive makeup to make himself look like a young Bruce Willis). Then I thought, “Isn’t Bruce Willis in this? Why haven’t I seen him?” So I checked, and yeah, he was coming up. I see Emily Blunt’s in it. Isn’t she the girl who… ? Yes, she is. She’s really something. Jeff Daniels is surprisingly good in this. What’s his character’s name again? And so forth… (By the way, the movie wasn’t very satisfying.)

OK, so most of that was IMDB, and IMDB isn’t Google. Yet. But the fact is, I often use Google to flesh out what I find in the movie database, because the info there is pretty sketchy. I like depth in my trivia. I used to do this with my phone, which is always clipped to my belt. Now, I usually have the iPad within reach as well.

In any case, now that it’s possible to look things up constantly, I can’t stop.

You can point to this as a character flaw (or perhaps an illness), and you have a good argument. But aside from the compulsive aspect, a certain amount of this is necessary to practically everything I do, everywhere I go.

Let’s say that a person only really needs to use these services a tenth as much as I do. I could concede that. But if a person doesn’t at least use them that tenth amount, he’s not going to be able to keep pace with the world and interact with other people at the pace that society demands — at least, not in anything I’ve ever done for a living. (Yes, I know that lots and lots of jobs today are still not information-based.)

That puts Google into the realm of essential infrastructure, again like the roads that are a function of government.

It at least gets us to where any assertion that one is not forced to deal with Google (or, for the sake of argument, with some other “private” entity that’s just as useful) on fairly thin ice.

A ‘SmartCard’ is of little use to a stupid driver


A couple of years back, tired of getting tickets whenever I found myself without spare change for the meters (which was often, since I conduct few transactions with cash these days), I took the advice of one of y’all — I think it was Kathryn — and got myself a SmartCard.

I carry it with me always, and top it up whenever it gets low.

But you know what? It’s of no help at all if you don’t actually use it.

This morning, I went for my usual breakfast, and sat there eating and reading my iPad, and right about the time I decided to have a second cup because I hadn’t gotten around to reading all the papers yet (I’d gotten sidetracked trading comments with some of y’all while eating), it suddenly struck me — I hadn’t slipped the card into the meter.

Sure enough, I had an $8 ticket when I got down to the street.

This probably happened because I’ve had relatively early (I say “relatively” because I still work roughly the hours I did as an editor at a morning newspaper, which makes a meeting at 8 or even 9 “early” for me) appointments all week, which means I was done with breakfast and gone well before they start checking the meters at 9, so I didn’t have to use the card before today.

But that’s a poor excuse. I’m pretty irritated with myself over this…

Top 12 Songs I Either Missed Entirely, or Didn’t Fully Appreciate at the Time

This started out as a Top Five List, but there were just too many, even for a Top Ten. Maybe I should have split it into two lists (or  even three) or simply been more selective. But I did none of those things. To carry on…

There are gaps in my musical memory.

For instance, there’s the late ’70s, when I was too busy starting a family and launching my late lamented newspaper career. Popular music of that time was in the very distant background for me, so I didn’t discover the Clash, or even Elvis Costello (just about my all-time favorite), until years later.

Music videos pulled me back in in the early ’80s — first TBS’ Night Tracks on the weekends, then later MTV. I loved the medium. Video may have killed the radio star, but it turned me on to so much music I would otherwise have missed. Madness, for instance. For a time, I told everyone, in all honesty, that if I could figure out how to become a director of music videos, I would give up newspapers for that.

Then, in the early to mid-’90s, MTV quit showing videos. Or at least, quit showing them all the time (video killed the radio star, and reality TV killed MTV). I had this routine in which I’d go down to the basement gym at The State and turn the tube onto MTV and watch videos while I worked out. This kept me current up to Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, but then all of a sudden, the videos disappeared and I lost touch.

Consequently, I missed a lot of great stuff by Radiohead and Weezer and Green Day and Death Cab for Cutie and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and Adele, to mention a few of those I’ve been listening to on Pandora or Spotify or YouTube lately. (At first, I was put off by Pandora’s way of refusing to play the song I asked for, and playing other things like it, but that has introduced or reintroduced me to a lot of great stuff I would not consciously have sought out).

Then, there are songs that came out at a time when I thought I was paying attention to music, but that went right by me — either because I was listening to the wrong stations, or my tastes hadn’t matured to the point that I fully appreciated them.

Here’s a list that just gives a sample of the stuff I find myself appreciating lately, and wondering how they got past me the first time (by the way, I’m not ranking these 1-12; I’m not sure I could. But I don’t mind naming these as, more or less, the top 12 in the category):

  1. Love and Happiness,” Al Green.Al Green I could just as well have named “Tired of Being Alone,” or “Let’s Stay Together.” I was actually living in Memphis at the time that he was recording these classics, but was too focused on The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Elton John, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, The Band and other international stars to pick up on the richness that was right there at my feet. I choose “Love and Happiness” because I actually heard it recently and thought, I’ve heard that forever and never appreciated how awesome it is, and even thought, who is that?, before realizing a split-second later that of course, of course, it was the Rev. Al. And kicking myself.
  2. Creep,” Radiohead. I had half-heard this many times before really listening to it once and realizing how good it was, how it qualified as rock in a way that so little other new music I’d heard in recent years did. This was two or three years ago. Then, when we visited Oxford and stayed on Abingdon Road, I somehow became aware that Radiohead was from Abingdon, and resolved to look into them further. Much later, I did, and now listen to my Radiohead “station” on Pandora as much as any other. Best bit: When the soft opening is first interrupted by the stuttering “CHA-chunk, CHA-chunk” of distorted guitar, and the whole nature of the song changes.
  3. You Can’t Hurry Love,” The Supremes. supremes Or almost any of their greatest hits, really. In the couple of years after I returned to this country in 1965 (after 2.5 years in South America), when I just could not get enough of American popular culture, the Supremes were always there — on the Sullivan show, everywhere. But I wasn’t into them. I was the stereotypical little white boy, into English guitar bands and Americans who imitated English guitar bands, with an occasional side trek into Herb Alpert or whatever. I just wasn’t that into those three elegant black women dressed like old people going to a formal affair. It was decades later before I realized how deeply they had imprinted their sound into my fondest memories of the period. Maybe it was Phil Collins’ special-effects tribute to this particular song in the early, exciting days of MTV that made me look back and consciously realize how amazing the Supremes were. Or the effective way “China Beach” used “Reflections” to, well, reflect the era. (I never actually watched the show, but I can remember pausing the channel long enough to list to the intro a number of times.)
  4. Life on Mars?” David Bowie. I could swear to you that this song did not exist before I first watched, on DVD, the British time-travel-cop show of the same name (sans question mark). I had zero memory of it. Of course, I wasn’t at all into Bowie in his initial iteration, but still — I had heard and enjoyed “A Space Oddity” and heard other songs of his in the background. But I had completely missed this. Even now, I’m not sure if it’s just that the song itself is so great (which it may be; a critic in The Telegraph listed it as the single greatest song of all time, with “Let it Be,” one of my personal favorites, in second place) or it’s just the way it shaped the wonderful opening scene in which the protagonist of the TV show is transported back to 1973 that imprinted it so favorably on my mind. (Wonderful touch — the song begins the scene playing on the character’s early iPod, which itself now looks dated, then ends up on an 8-track.) In any case, I listen to it a lot now. Oh, a word in your shell-like: Don’t bother putting the American series based on this into your Netflix queue (despite the presence of Harvey Keitel in the cast); just watch the original. (Best bit: 37 seconds into this clip, as the character “wakes up” into 1973 and the music reaches its climax.)
  5. Say It Ain’t So,” Weezer. In this position I could put Green Day’s “Basket Case,” or any one of a number of super-catchy way-post-punk, post-grunge tunes. But I’ll just pick this one, because I’ve been listening to my new Weezer station on Pandora a lot the last couple of weeks. I got into them through their relatively recent hit, “I Want You To,” which has everything a pop song should have, despite the feckless theme of the lyrics (assuming it’s up to a girl to make the first move — although, when you see Weezer, you understand this better).
  6. I Want You to Want Me,” Cheap Trick. cheaptrickNot much to say about this except that the title of Weezer’s “I Want You To,” got me to thinking about it, and wondering who had played it — because I assure you, I had never been a Cheap Trick fan (I was way too busy in 1975). But I finally recognized it as a very well-crafted pop song, which has a classic feel to it after all these years. It’s sort of anthem-y. After all, doesn’t the title rather economically state what most pop songs are about?
  7. Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen. I wrote about this before, wondering at the alchemy that made it so hypnotically beautiful. Ever since I was quite young, I had known that cool people were supposed to be into Cohen — it was more of a measure of coolness even than being into Jeff Beck. But I was aware that I was not cool, and was satisfied not even to try to listen to him. It was the use of this in the love scene of “Watchmen” that made me focus on this song finally (which followed on a cover effectively used in “Shrek”), and I’m glad I did.
  8. Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service. First, I heard the cover by Iron and Wine, which was on a copy of the soundtrack of “Garden State” belonging to my daughter. She referred to it as “that Postal Service song,” and later she persuaded me to spend a gift certificate for Best Buy on “Give Up” — which is probably the last complete album that I have bought and really, completely gotten into, to the point of listening to it scores of times they way I did, say, with Abbey Road in 1969.
  9. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” Otis Redding.OtisatWhiskey66-1-TH How did I live all the way through the 1960s thinking that Otis Redding was just that guy who had sung “Dock of the Bay”? Yes, that was a magnificent song, and no one could have done it better, but it wasn’t even really representative of what he did. I didn’t learn how wrong I was until I borrowed a greatest-hits CD from my brother (which I fear I never returned). This song moved me more than any other, but I could just as well have chosen “Try a Little Tenderness,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” or “Mr. Pitiful.” One weekend recently, my wife and I were walking up St. Philip Street in Charleston, and heard the echoing sound of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” coming out of one of the old Charleston-style houses turned into apartments. It made my day, and made me think highly of the tastes of the person (probably a very young person, since everyone in that neighborhood seemed to be about 24 — in which case, it’s someone who is much more hip to what’s good than I was at that age) who lived in that apartment.
  10. Bring It On Home to Me,” the Animals. After what I said about the Supremes, I guess I shouldn’t pick the version of this by a white guitar group, but hey, Eric Burdon wanted to be black more than any other white boy ever to come out of Newcastle. And this version is pretty soulful, I think. I think I like it better than the Sam Cooke version (which, I hate to say, seems to have most of the soul bleached out of it, in the deliberate effort to create a “crossover” hit). Anyway, I didn’t get into it until I bought an Animals greatest hits compilation on CD, sometime in the past decade. Eventually, I put the song on the playlist of my band — you know, for when I get around to starting a band.
  11. Goin’ Down,” The Monkees.the-monkees-goin-down-colgems I’ve mentioned this before. It’s sort of a special category. I thought it was cool when it came out (I had the album), but as I got older peer pressure brainwashed me into thinking that nothing by the Monkees could possibly be cool. Then it was used as background for a frantic meth-cooking montage on “Breaking Bad,” and I couldn’t place it for a moment, then recognized it. At first, I thought it was maybe someone else doing it, not Mickey Dolenz, it was just so good. Finally, I realized I had been right the first time, when I was 13 years old — it was a great song, very well done. And the “Pre-Fab Four” should probably get more respect than they did. (Oh, and yes, I know that The Rutles actually called themselves the Prefab Four, but the sobriquet was applied to the Monkees first, intended as an insult.)
  12. Mais que Nada,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. So yes, I heard this at the time, but it was in the background, and I never could have named it, the way I could have Mendes’ covers of Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel tunes. After I’d seen “Austin Powers” — which uses the song very effectively to evoke the period — several times, I set out to learn what that signature Brasil ’66 song was called. (It’s interesting to me how a Sergio Mendes or Herb Alpert or Petula Clark song, played in a background, can evoke the 60s more effectively than a Beatles or Rolling Stones song can do.) Once I figured it out, I’ve listened to it a lot.


I give up — what’s that bright thing in the sky? (Oh. Sirius.)

Image from my app.

Image from my app.

Any astronomers out there? Because I’ve got a question that’s been bugging me.

Some time ago, I picked up one of those cards at Starbucks that provides a code that lets you download a free iPhone app. This one was called “Star Walk,” and it was very cool.

Basically, you hold your phone up to the sky, and it gives you a labeled diagram of what you’re looking at. For that matter, you can use it inside, and it will tell you exactly where the planets and the constellations and major satellites are in relation to where you’re standing. You can even hold it toward the ground and see where the heavenly bodies are when they’re not in the visible sky, on the other side of our planet.

I appreciate it because I’ve always felt particularly ignorant because I know so little about what’s out there. I read those novels I love about Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, and Jack is always so dumbfounded by how little his friend the doctor knows about the planets and stars or anything else having to do with seamanship. And I’m not genius with languages like the doctor, so I feel particularly stupid.

Before the app, if I saw a particularly bright object in the sky, I assumed it was Venus, unless it had a reddish tint, in which case I assumed it was Mars. But I really had no idea.

I’m not that much brighter now, but I’ve picked up a couple of things. I can look up right away and say, “There’s Jupiter.” And at this time of night, I can pick out Orion pretty clearly.

But there’s something that’s been perplexing me in recent weeks.

Jupiter is off to the right of Orion. Fine, I can see that. But there’s something a roughly equal distance off to the left of Orion, at about the same elevation, that’s just about as bright as Jupiter. And what with light pollution from streetlamps and such, that object is the only thing bright enough to see in that part of the sky.

There’s nothing on Star Walk’s celestial map to indicate that there’s anything that really stands out in that part of the sky. There’s Sirius, and…

You know what? I just looked up Canis Major, which I know to be to the left of Orion, and according to Wikipedia Sirius is the brightest star in that constellation by far. In fact, I see elsewhere that it’s the brightest star in the sky other than our own Sol. So, you know. Duh.

(Yes, all of you who know something about astronomy; I am abysmally ignorant. No way would they let me be master and commander of any vessel in Nelson’s Navy.)

Don’t know why my app didn’t indicate that. (It makes it look like Murzim and Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Rigel are all just as bright, which they’re not.) But hey, it’s a free app. And what it does do is pretty cool.

It’s got to be Sirius. So never mind. Unless you know I’m wrong, in which case please tell me…

First-person shooter: What games did Loughner play?

This is a post I wrote back in early 2011, and didn’t publish. Recent discussions of gun violence bring it back to the fore, so here it is…

In my Monday Wall Street Journal (the only edition I received after coming back from England until late Wednesday, which was really frustrating), I read the following about the Arizona shooter:

“All he did was play video games and play music,” said Tommy Marriotti, a high school friend.

And that got me to wondering: What sort of games did he play? Since initially reading that, I see he recently played Earth Empires, a strategy game. But I suspect he has at least at some time — maybe back in high school, maybe some other time — played another sort of game.

I find myself wondering whether he was into first-person shooter games…

I have two reasons for wondering that. First, there are the theories of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.). Col. Grossman is the foremost expert in the field of “killology,” a term he coined. He wrote a fascinating book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which I recommend. It discusses the psychology of killing, mostly within the context of war. He explains that for most of military history, as long as we’ve had projectile weapons in the hands of the average soldier, the overwhelming majority of soldiers did not shoot to kill. Frequently, they didn’t fire their weapons at all, and when they did, they tended to fire over the heads of their enemies — to engage in a sort of threat display, rather than use deadly force.

They did this because for most humans, the reluctance to kill is deep and strong.

The U.S. military, realizing this (on the basis of extensive studies during and after WWII), started conditioning that reluctance out of soldiers starting with the Vietnam era (or perhaps a little earlier; it’s been awhile since I’ve read it). Soldiers started to be trained to quickly acquire the human target and fire accurately before thinking about it too much. The result is that the U.S. military is, soldier for soldier, the most deadly fighting force in the world, perhaps in history. (Probably the most dramatic demonstration of this was the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, in which elite soldiers faced mobs of Somali militias with a tendency to fire randomly and wildly with their AK-47s — the result was 18 dead Americans, but about 1,000 dead Somalis.) But soldiers who shoot now often pay a profound psychological cost later, and that was what Col. Grossman was motivated to study.

He has also ventured into related peacetime phenomena, such as the popularity and increasing sophistication of FPS games, which train the reflexes of the kids who play them to shoot quickly and accurately, without reluctance. He asserts that it’s not a bit surprising that we have Columbines given the ubiquity of such games. Kids have had conditioned out of them the hesitation that affected trained soldiers through most of history.

You may say Col. Grossman exaggerates. And indeed, some experts are far more phlegmatic about such games. I don’t think he does, but that’s because of the other reason I was interested: I’ve played these games myself. A decade or so ago, I had a copy of an early version of Wolfenstein. The violence was non-stop, but it was also cartoonish and unconvincing, only a step or two beyond Space Invaders. Now, it’s different…

Two years ago, I got myself a copy of Call of Duty: World at War. I was fascinated by the premise, which was to put the player in realistic scenarios from the Pacific and Eastern fronts in the Second World War. (Some of them weirdly realistic. When I saw some of the scenes from the Peleliu campaign in “The Pacific” recently, I thought, I’ve been there… It was weird.) But I was completely unprepared for two things: First, the realism. When I first booted up the game on my computer (and I had to get a more sophisticated video card to run it, even though my computer was almost new), I thought I was watching a video prologue — I didn’t realize the game had started. I couldn’t believe the graphics were that realistic, that high-res.

Second, the emotional manipulation, which was stunning. There are two story lines: In one, you are a U.S. Marine named Miller, fighting your way across the Pacific. In the other, you are a Red Army soldier. The designers of the game came up with their own way of overcoming any reluctance the player might have to shooting the enemy. The Marine scenario begins with Miller being a prisoner of the Japanese. As Miller, you watch the Japanese torture and kill your buddy, before one of them moves toward you with a knife, prepared to serve you in the same way — before he is stopped by the commandos who have come to rescue you. Your rescuers hand you a weapon, and by this point, you’re expected to know what to do with it.

In the start of the Russian scenario, you are lying still among dead and dying comrades in Stalingrad. As you lie there (the game won’t let you move at first), you watch German soldiers step around you, casually shooting the wounded as you watch helplessly. Somehow they overlook you. As the enemy moves away, a grizzled Red Army sergeant who was also playing dead whispers to you to follow him, and he will show you how to get your vengeance on the fascists, who, as he keeps reminding you, are raping your homeland. He hands you a sniper rifle…

Creepy, huh? At this point, you’d like me to tell you I didn’t go on and play the game, but I did. I’ve played it all the way through a number of times. It’s very seductive, because it’s challenging. But I wouldn’t argue if you were to say, “Yes, of course it is — like other forms of pornography.” I expect those of you who’ve never played such games will have all sorts of critical things to say about me for playing it, and I won’t argue with those assertions, either. I know how it looks. When my wife enters the room when I’m playing, I hastily shut it down. Because she is my conscience.

But that’s not the really creepy thing: Over time, I played the game less. I had mastered the easier levels, and the harder ones were just ridiculous. Also, well, I’ve tried to spend less of my life in nonproductive pursuits. But a number of months ago, I got curious about something: I had never played the “multiplayer” option, in which you fight against other players over the Internet. So I tried that.

And I discovered that either the world is full of unsuspected super-soldiers, with reflexes that are not to be believed, or there are a lot of geeks out there who spend WAY too much time getting ridiculously good at playing these games. The latter, of course, is most likely. And hardly surprising. But I discovered one thing that positively sent chills down my spine. I quickly accepted that I could not survive more than a few seconds against people whose reflexes were so finely honed to aggressive play of the game. Fine — I have trouble with basketball, too. And I figured that the guys who spend a lot of time on these games are 20-something, and an old guy like me can’t hope to keep up. But what got me was when I encountered a few players who had activated the feature that enabled them to speak with each other in real time as they shot and stabbed their way across the landscape.

The thing that got me was when I heard their voices.

They were little boys. They sounded like they were about 10. And they were very, very efficient, hyperaggressive and unhesitating virtual killers.

I quit playing at that point.

Anyway, that’s why I wonder — what sorts of games did Loughner play?

What does a ‘like’ mean, as we slouch toward post-verbalism (if that’s what we’re doing)?

The top of my main Pinterest page.

Some years ago — it could have been 20 — I read an article by Umberto Eco that seems appropriate to this topic. I don’t remember all the particulars of the piece, or even in which magazine it appeared. But I seem to recall that the semiotician and novelist set forth the notion that we might be moving, beyond a post-literate society, to becoming post-verbal, returning to means of communication common in medieval days when, say, a pub called the Rose and Crown would be identified by a hanging sign showing pictures of those things, rather than words.

The premise would seem excessively alarmist, or at least premature, since the decades since I read that have seen an explosion of the written word on the Web. More people are writing, and reading, a greater profusion of words than at any time in the history of this planet.

But sometimes, we are faced with images alone, and words fail us. On friends’ Facebook pages, I’m occasionally confronted with images that just beg for accompanying text to explain them, but nary a word is offered.

And recently, I found myself in a world that brought the Eco piece back powerfully.

I was going to (and eventually did) write a light item for the ADCO blog about the addictiveness of Pinterest, which has hooked a couple of my co-workers. The spark was a study indicating that 20 percent of women who are online were into the site.

At first, I supposed that only women could possibly get into it, for as I perused the boards created by my female co-workers, I was overwhelmed by all the images of food and housewares and decorating ideas. As I said in that ADCO blog post, those screens looked like “the result of Edward Scissorhands going to town on a 10-foot-high stack of old copies of Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living.”

But as I went through the little signup ritual for creating my own account, I saw how quickly the screen would morph into something that more interested me.

Here’s what happens: You sign in to the site. You are offered a screen full of slightly-bigger-than-thumbnail images. You are asked to “like” the ones that appeal to you. What you “like” affects what you see as you continue to scroll down. It’s rather fascinating to watch as the algorithm does its work. For a time, for a long time, the wave of images coming at you seems never-ending. The scroll bar on the right will seem to be approaching the bottom, then suddenly it will glide back up toward the middle as a new load of images arrives.

I saw a lot of images that interested me a great deal, but I couldn’t decide whether to “like” them or not. I mean, what does it say if you click “like” on a picture of a B-26 going down in flames? I don’t like that it’s going down, with American airmen dying in it. But I do want the program to know that I find images of WWII warplanes interesting.

Or what about a picture of Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer? Will it think I like the raincoat, or “The Ipcress File?” This is a place where words would help.

And what does it mean when I “like” a picture of Marilyn Monroe? I mean, have you ever seen a picture of her you didn’t like, on some level or other? I haven’t. And yet, after I liked one or two of them, they kept coming in a profusion that suggested that Pinterest thought I had some kind of Elton-John-like celebrity fetish centered on her. I continued to “like” them, because that was my honest and uncomplicated answer. But I didn’t want it to offer me nothing but movie-star pictures going forward.

Just because I like Sean Connery doesn’t mean I want to see pictures of Rock Hudson (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And my liking a picture of Natalie Wood doesn’t mean I want to see Robert Wagner. And what’s with these Jody Foster pictures you keep throwing at me? I haven’t liked a single one, and they keep coming. Who do you think I am, John Hinckley? And just because I click on an interesting diagram of old military headgear doesn’t mean I want to look at one Confederate kepi after another!

So here’s where you end up, or where I ended up anyway: Pinterest now “knows” me well enough that one out of 10 or 12 things it throws at me will be mildly interesting. Which I guess is an achievement for a computer program.

But the language of social media — “like” and “friend” and other terms that so often don’t exactly describe the relationship in a given case — still needs work. Let’s not give up on words just yet.

Below are some of the pictures I “liked” as they were thrown at me. But really: What does it mean to “like” a picture of Bonnie and Clyde?

Enjoying reading about the last time I was this ticked off

At my desk at The State, evincing one of those moods./file photo from 2007

Today, grumpily wondering whether I’ll find the Democratic Convention next week as vapid, monotonous, insulting and obnoxious as I did the sliver of the GOP convention I listened to last night, I was reminded of column I wrote four years ago.

If past is prologue, it would seem the answer to my dreary question is “yes.”

That column, which ran on Aug. 31, 2008, was headlined, “Yelling at the television.” If you go back and read it, it will tell you what the rest of this week and all of next week will be like, if you find the parties as disgusting as I do.

A favorite excerpt:

What sets me off? Oh, take your pick — the hyperbole, the self-importance, the us-against-them talk, the stuff that Huck Finn called “tears and flapdoodle.”

Take, for instance, this typical bit from Hillary Clinton’s speech:

My friends, it is time to take back the country we love. And whether you voted for me or you voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose. We are on the same team. And none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. This is a fight for the future. And it’s a fight we must win together. I haven’t spent the past 35 years in the trenches… to see another Republican in the White House squander our promise…

Let’s deconstruct that a bit.

Take back the country? From whom? Did I miss something? Did the Russians roll right on through Gori and into Washington? No? You say Americans are still in charge, just the “wrong” Americans, of the wrong party? But your party controls Congress! Take it back from whom?

… a single party with a single purpose. Now there you’ve hit on the biggest lie propagated by each of the major parties, the conceit that there is something coherent and consistent about such loose confederations of often-incompatible interest groups. Did you not just spend the last few months playing with all the force you could muster upon those very differences, those very tensions — between feminists and black voters, between the working class and the wine and cheese set? What single purpose, aside from winning an election?

This is a fight… No, it isn’t, however much you love to say that. Again, I refer you to what the Russians are doing in Georgia — that’s a fight, albeit a one-sided one.

… that we must win together. Actually, that raises a particularly pertinent point, which is that the only “fights” that “must” be won are the ones in which “together” is defined as all Americans, or all freedom-loving peoples, whereas such divisive factions as your party and that other one that will meet in St. Paul militate against our being able to win such fights together.

I haven’t spent the past 35 years in the trenches… You’re absolutely right; you haven’t. So spare us the war metaphors.

… to see another Republican in the White House squander our promise… Like that’s what matters, the stupid party label. Like there isn’t more difference between you and Barack Obama in terms of philosophy and goals and experience and what you would bring to office than there is between John McCain and Joe Biden. Come on! Please!…

Sigh. Fume. Mutter.

Yep. I was thinking almost identical thoughts last night watching this convention.

I was pretty disgusted back then. Now, I enjoy reading about how disgusted I was. I always find that my writing improves with distance…

Where do kids listen to their pop music today? (All I know is, it better not be on my lawn…)

Spotify informs me that Darla Moore has subscribed to “my” playlist, “NPR Songs of Summer.” Of course, it’s not “my” playlist. It’s NPR’s.

For a moment I thought I’d discovered what Darla had been up to since Nikki bumped her from the USC board of trustees — listening to Adele, LMFAO, Taio Cruz, Gnarls Barkley, Simon and Garfunkel and the Stones. But then I realized it was another Darla Moore altogether – but one, it should be said, with pretty good taste, who also listens to Emeli Sandé, Kate Bush, R.E.M., Loudon Wainwright III, Beck, the Velvet Underground and the Psychedelic Furs, among many others, according to her public profile.

Which is aside from my point. The point is, I have a confession to share.

After having played them over a bunch more times, I realize I was wrong about some of those songs on the NPR list. Some of the recent songs I rated really low on my zero-to-five-stars scale are a lot better than I thought they were when I first rated them.

For instance… I wake up in the morning with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which has really grown on me, in my head.

And more dramatically, I originally rated Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” at two stars, which was ridiculous. I now consider it to be worth at least four, if not five. It’s amazing. I didn’t come to this decision because of seeing two of my older (male, amazingly enough) cousins dancing to it with abandon at a wedding a couple of weeks back — doing something that looked very like an Indian rain or war dance, which the song’s driving rhythm tends to abet.

No, I’ve come to that conclusion from listening to it over and over. And eventually going, wow. You know how I posed the question of what, exactly, makes Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” so mysteriously stirring? What, I asked, is the music doing to the ear, the brain, the soul in that part that “goes like this, the fourth, the fifth/ The minor fall and the major lift…?”

Well, something comparably awesome happens, building irresistibly, and then exploding, every time, when Adele sings this part:

The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all
The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
I can’t help feeling

We could have had it ALLLLLLL…

It’s just amazing.

But it took time for me to fully realize it.

And it occurs to me that that is a large part of the difference, in terms of my appreciation, between recent songs and something like, for instance, “Honky Tonk Women,” with which I was saturated during the summer of 1969. (When I hear it, it brings one particular memory specifically to mind… driving down Highway 17 between Myrtle Beach and Surfside, passing by right where Tad’s used to be, telling my Uncle Woody — who’s just a little older than I am, and therefore sort of like an older brother — that that was just the best driving song ever. This was possibly influenced by the fact that I had just started driving.)

It’s not that I’m an old fogy — although I’m sure some of you will have your own opinions as to that. The thing is, I react to music much the same as I did in my youth. I certainly feel the same inside when I hear it.

But back in the day, we heard the songs so often, and they had a much better chance of growing on us. On TV, on the radio, walking down the street, coming from a juke box. Music was so common, and shared, and unavoidable. Grownups were able to mock The Beatles’ “yeah, yeah, yeah” because they heard it, everywhere.

There was one Top 40, and everybody was exposed to it. Now… music is more diverse, and specialized, and broken down. And I have the sense that you have to go out and seek it more than you do today. Even if it’s only clicking on a link from a friend via social media, you sort of have to seek it out.

Yeah, maybe it’s just because I’m not invited to those kinds of parties, but music just doesn’t seem as public and as ubiquitous as it once did. Is that a misperception? I don’t know.

I do know that music took a shift toward the private and esoteric and fragmented in the 70s, as we all became “album-oriented.” But then it came back together, became more democratic, in the 80s with MTV, to where most of us have a shared soundtrack for that era.

Now, just as people can choose highly specialized TV channels to watch — rather than having to be satisfied with three networks — they are more empowered to choose a specific musical direction, and have it be private, through their ear buds. Yes, it’s shared, but more person-to-person, rather than communally.

Or so it seems. As I say, I don’t go to parties where current pop music is being played, assuming such parties still exist. But then, I was a pretty antisocial kid, and didn’t go to all that many parties.

So what’s different? How do y’all see, or rather hear, the music scene today?

The music used to be so public, and unavoidable.

The alleged Top Ten best films of all time

There are things that run through my mind when I see Kim Novak. "Great actress" isn't one of them.

Roger Ebert brings my attention to this report by Alexander Hull on this decade’s Sight & Sound Top 10 Greatest Movies of all Time. Hull starts out:

The recent unveiling of Sight & Sound‘s 2012 list of the Top 10 Greatest Movies of all Time brings with it the inevitable chatter that accompanies most lists taking authoritative stabs at qualifying the best of, well, anything. Cinephiles scan for snubs, ranking quirks, and whatever consistencies and trends they can glean from the list. Released every ten years since 1952 and voted upon by hundreds of critics and industry professionals, Sight & Sound has long been seen as a definitive voice in cinema-culture consensus. This time around, though, there’s one gleaming omission from the Sight & Sound list: modern films. The top 10 doesn’t include any movie made in the last 44 years, and the Top 50 only features 13 films since the 1970s (only six since the 1980s)….

To be sure, there’s something obviously preposterous about saying that the decades after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 have produced no films worthy of inclusion in the top 10. If a movie is a masterpiece, it should be ranked as a classic, regardless of how old or young it is—right? Since 1968 (or the 1970s if you’re looking at the Top-50 list) cinema has offered countless great, widely acclaimed films. The critical question, as voiced by New Statesman‘s Ryan Gilbey: “Are those who voted paralysed by history or are the finest films really located in the distant past?”

But I’d argue that the voters are not as paralyzed as some might suspect. The new Sight & Sound list actually does represent a move—a small move—towards the modern. Citizen Kane lost its top spot to Vertigo, a movie 17 years its junior. And compared to the 2002 version, this year’s top-50 breakdown features fewer works from the years between 1920 and 1950 and more from the years between 1960 and today. These incremental shifts towards the new (well, newer) certainly suggest change is happening and that modern films are becoming canonized. It just also suggests that the canonization process is very, very slow.

Personally, I’d suggest that the methodology of this survey is lacking. This comes across like the consensus opinions, reflecting a discernment process lasting centuries, of the Old Ones in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. (And by the way, why hasn’t that been made into a movie yet?)

Other reports have noted the fact that “Citizen Kane” has been toppled from the No. 1 spot. Which would be fine with me — I find the constant ranking of that admittedly excellent film on the tops of such lists rather monotonous — if only it were replaced by something awesome.

But instead, it’s replaced by Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” — a film that, to be honest, I can’t remember whether I’ve seen. Film buffs aren’t supposed to admit things like this, but frankly, some of Hitchcock’s films run together in my mind. Of course, if it’s the best movie of all time, certainly I haven’t seen it, or I’d remember, right?

But then, my tastes are seldom those of the kinds of people who assemble these lists. For instance, there’s the overabundance of foreign films, which too few Americans are regularly exposed to. Yes, there’s Netflix now, and I do order foreign DVDs (how else could I have been exposed to the wonderful “The Lives of Others?” But it’s not like I’ve seen it 10 times in theaters, starting when I was young — which I suspect is the case with New York or Los Angeles-based critics. Because those are the kinds of movies they seem to be into — ones that prove themselves over and over. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well. But I’ve often thought that maybe if I were exposed to “Citizen Kane” more often, I’d realize how awesome it is. But I haven’t been, and I don’t.

Here’s what I think of the films in this new list:

  1. Vertigo” — OK, so I’ll put it on my Netflix list to make sure I’ve seen it. I’ll only pass on something my wife said last night. “Pal Joey” was on the tube while we were getting ready to have dinner, and she said something like, “What made anyone put ‘Kim Novak’ and ‘acting’ together?” I couldn’t answer her.
  2. Citizen Kane” — Again, maybe if I watch it over and over I’ll get hypnotized into thinking it’s awesome, but it might be too late. It’s been the butt of too many jokes playing on elements of the film that have become cliches. But it did produce some awesome b/w stills, I’ll say that.
  3. Tokyo Story” — Since the article doesn’t tell me, I don’t even know what it is about.
  4. La Règle du jeu” — Ditto. Another one for the Netflix queue, I guess.
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” — Same deal. This is getting monotonous.
  6. “2001: A Space Odyssey” — A masterpiece, all right, although not one of my faves. I do happen to own it on Blu-Ray — it’s one of the first I went out and got when I first got a Blu-Ray player — and watched it again recently. The cinematography in the early scenes of the Pan-Am flight to the moon are great — the ballet of the spheres, and so forth — as are the scenes between Dave and Hal, as the quiet tension builds. But something struck me, as happens sometimes with pre-MTV films — I’m struck at how slow the pace is, and while I’m impressed with all the majesty, I get a little antsy.
  7. The Searchers” — Another I’ll have to see again, and try, try to understand why so many critics rate it above “Stagecoach” or “My Darling Clementine,” or “High Noon.” Probably something esoteric.
  8. Man with a Movie Camera” — As Soviet films go, I’ve at least heard of “Battleship Potemkin.” This, no.
  9. The Passion of Joan of Arc” — Yeahhh… that’s one of those I kind of knew I should probably see sometime, but haven’t quite gotten around to…
  10. 8 1/2” — OK, now this one I think I started to watch once, out of a sense of duty, but I didn’t finish it. Guess I should try again.

Basically, I think those who contributed to this list have achieved their goal: They’ve made me feel like an uncultured boob.

Now, for a regular ol’ unpretentious, red-blooded, All-American, pure vanilla Top Ten list. I’ll give my reasons for the my picks some other day:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. The Godfather
  3. Casablanca
  4. The Graduate
  5. High Noon
  6. Saving Private Ryan
  7. The Natural
  8. “Hoosiers”
  9. His Girl Friday
  10. Mean Streets

And as a bonus, here are five more to chew on:

  1. The Year of Living Dangerously
  2. Gran Torino
  3. In the Line of Fire
  4. Young Frankenstein
  5. Goodfellas

Alla you foreign film buffs, get offa my lawn!

What my Paul Harris Fellowship means to me

Today, I was one of a group of Rotarians called up to the front of the room and honored for becoming “Paul Harris Fellows.”

Let me try to explain, simply, what that means to Rotary: It means the “fellow” has contributed $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation. Although I’ve been told probably 100 times what Rotary Foundation does, I can’t seem to remember. According to this website, the Foundation’s mission is “is to enable Rotarians to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education, and the alleviation of poverty.”

Which is kind of general and vague, bearing a marked resemblance to a response given by a Miss America contestant. In a recent note of thanks I had gotten from Rotary International for a contribution of $9 (I have no memory ever of having given precisely $9 to the Foundation on any occasion), I got an elaboration:

On behalf of the mother who will receive prenatal care, the father who will have access to fresh water for his family, and the children who will learn to read and write in their newly furnished school, thank you for your gift to The Rotary Foundation’s Annual Fund. Your contributions provide immediate funding to projects that assist these individuals, these families, these communities.

If the first statement was too general, those examples were a little too specific, too retail, for me to get a clear idea of what the Foundation does. But that doesn’t matter much to me. I belong to Rotary for the fellowship of the specific people who are in the Columbia Rotary Club, and Rotary International remains to me not much more than a remote concept. Giving to the Foundation is just something Rotarians do.

Now… all of that said, my purpose in this post is not to communicate what the fellowship means to Rotary, but what it means to me, which is not the same thing at all. Oh, another thing I’m not doing — I’m not trying to get you to think I’m a swell guy for giving a thousand dollars to advance world peace, end poverty and so forth. It was pretty painless. In fact, most of the money I gave wasn’t even mine.

To get to my point…

A little more than 11 years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had already spread to her liver when it was found. We found this out in a quick series of shocks: First the lump, then the exploratory surgery that found that the nodes were involved, then the biopsy that found multiple tumors in her liver. Stage four cancer. It is a brutally blunt understatement to say that her survival chances weren’t good.

We lived the next few months in a fog of anxiety mixed with urgent determination to do whatever we could. When 9/11 happened, it had little emotional impact on me; I was too wrapped up in this (I wrote about that in a column at the time). There was the quick series of interviews to find the right oncologist (we found the best in Bill Butler). Then the biopsies, and one bad report after another. Then a massive round of chemo. Then the surgery. Then a brief period of recovery, followed by another devastating round of chemo. Followed, after another brief time for recovery, by radiation. Then, the beginning a routine of milder chemo treatments every three weeks for the next eight years.

One night, early in the process, I was watching television, and for a moment, had stopped thinking about this horrible thing. My wife, who had been on the Internet where she spent so much of her time during that period, walked in and said she had good news — she had found a site that said she might live for five years if everything went right. That, she said, was easily the most optimistic assessment she had found. I was devastated. That might, in fact, have been my low point. I had not actually internalized, in a quantitative sense, how bad things were until that moment. And my shock was exacerbated by guilt, for having for a moment forgotten about this thing hanging over us. Watching stupid television.

We got through this time through the prayers and concern of many, through determination, through the skillful guidance of the folks at S.C. Oncology Associates, with the helping hands of friends (all sorts of folks brought us dinners during that period). One evening our pastor, Monsignor Leigh Lehocky, visited and spoke with us. I don’t remember all that he said, but I came out of that meeting with a particular focus on something Jesus told his followers more than once: Think about today; don’t get wrapped up in worrying about tomorrow. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Ask for your bread daily, not for storehouses that will supply you for life. Storehouses just keep you up nights.

So for my part, that’s what I did. I drew a line. I did not think about tomorrow, because it didn’t bear thinking about. I just focused on what we needed to do today to fight this threat.

But then one Monday, early in the crisis — sometime in the summer of ’01, I think — someone at Rotary spoke about how everyone in the club should try to become a Paul Harris fellow. The speaker — I don’t recall who it was now, although I can remember where I was sitting in that room at Seawell’s — said you don’t have to write a check for $1,000, although some in the club would do that. He or she said we could just commit ourselves to giving $25 a quarter, and in 10 years, we’d have accomplished the goal.

I sat, staring down at the carpet, almost shaking I was so upset. I was holding myself back from shouting, Don’t TALK to me about ten years from now! I don’t want to THINK about ten years from now! You’ve got no business, no right, trying to make me do that!

I don’t think anyone noticed what was happening to me, and I was glad for that. But I was shaken.

As much as I resented that pitch, at some point I started making the payments. It wasn’t about me; it was about the mission of Rotary, and I was in Rotary, so…

In any case, it wasn’t me doing the paying. I was in Rotary because my publisher (Fred Mott at the time) had told me to join (and because Jack Van Loan was recruiting me). The newspaper completely paid my way as a member. So, as the executive in charge of the editorial division budget — and as a member of the newspaper’s contributions committee, back in those days when we still had money to distribute in the community — I made the decision that if I were to be a member in good standing, the cost of contributing to the Foundation should be added to those quarterly payments I signed off on. It was a justifiable expense.

When I got laid off in 2009, I had a couple of decisions to make, among many others: One was whether to stay in Rotary, given that I had to pay for it myself now. The other was whether to keep making the Foundation payments. I’ve made these decisions over again every quarter when the bills come. Each time — so far — I’ve answered “yes” to both. So I guess a little over $300 of that thousand has come from me, in small increments. I sort of figured, I had come this far… and by this time, all members were expected to at least be working on becoming fellows. It really wasn’t seen as optional.

Since that first $25 payment, a lot has happened to us in our personal lives. Our children, three of whom still lived at home in 2001, have gone through all sorts of passages — graduations, and weddings for two of them. Most wonderfully, four more grandchildren have come into our lives.

My wife was first told she was definitely in remission early in 2002. In 2010, Dr. Butler said he thought it safe to take her off chemo altogether (for years, the regimen she was on didn’t have enough of a track record to give him a guide on when it would be safe to stop it).

For the past four-and-a-half years, she has spent most of her waking hours taking care of our four youngest grandchildren. She is their Nonni, and it would be impossible to overestimate how much she means to them. She is an irreplaceable part of their world, as she is of mine, and our children’s.

Last year, we spent 11 days in England, after delivering our eldest granddaughter to her Dad, who was studying at Oxford. Aside from one trip to Disney World with our two youngest daughters some years back, it was the first time we’d ever been able to go anywhere together other than the beach, or to visit family. We had a wonderful time together. Now, inspired in part by a whirlwind European tour our youngest daughter just returned from, we’re working on coming up with an excuse to go visit Wales and Ireland next summer. We may just go anyway, excuse or no.

So this is what the Paul Harris Fellowship means to me: It’s not about world peace or ending poverty, as wonderful as those things are. It’s not about standing up there today and having my fellow Rotarians applaud and congratulate me and the others, as kind as their intentions are.

What it means is that, even when things are at their darkest, the future is a thing worth investing in. Maybe you won’t make it to the end of the next decade; there are no guarantees in this life. But you might. And it’s worth a try.