Thursday, February 28, 2013

Band Review: Crow Black Sky

Crow Black Sky is another band that followed me on Twitter. At least, I think that’s how I came across them. They don’t seem to be following me now. It only hurts a little bit.

The first thing that I saw on them was that they were an African Black Metal band, from Cape Town, South Africa. At the time they only had two songs on Soundcloud, but while metal is really not my thing, I felt both songs were really well-done, and powerful.

Those specific songs were “Stars of God” and “Retribution”, and initially I thought that was all there would be to review, so I was going to cover them on vacation. But wait, there’s more.

Not only is their entire album, Pantheion, available on Spotify; it is also available as a free download off of their web site. So, I found out that there was so much to them that it would need more time, and here we are two weeks later. It’s not just that there are more songs, but there is a lot to the songs. Also, I knew nothing about black metal.

With a little bit of research on that, I realized that I was familiar with black metal, because I had read an article on its growth in Scandinavia. Based on that, it should have been a lot more Satanic than it seemed to be. I have to admit, I was not picking any of the words out, but I found lyrics online.

These were very interesting. Several of the tracks are instrumental, but the first three with lyrics reference Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Vikings. The common theme is clearly war, and that continues with “Our Path Disdained”, which while distinctly more modern still follow a theme of war, and the separation from love, and the desire to get back to her and never leave again.

There is a great deal of mention of pagan gods, and there is a common thread with the involvement of these gods in the culture of war. It’s not exactly Satanic, though in “Stars of God” it moves towards self-worship, and some people have described that as the true point of Satanism, though it comes off more as an (angry) acceptance that no one can be relied on so to seek internally to rise above it all.

What made this interesting is that I had recently read an article about Nordic Noir, where there is a literary trend towards hard-boiled crime novels coming out of Scandinavia. The article was focusing more on how the protagonists were female, which was new. Talking with a friend specifically about the band though, we wondered if maybe just not being part of the local scene accounts for the change. Perhaps you get more nihilistic and hateful when you are locked in grey skies and ice than when it is sunny and there are beaches and when you live in a safari destination. Of course, they have still had their share of political and economic problems.

So, the side note that I would like to add on the religious issue is that while I blame it on human nature, religion has come off badly a lot, and I don’t blame anyone for noticing that. Being able to take a hard look at these situations rather than blindly accepting the wrong is very important. However, many just end up with a general disdain, whereas I would say that truth is accessible and it is worth it to keep looking.

However, I am writing about a band, so we need to focus on the music.

I was a little proud of myself, because I was listening to them and thinking about the intricacy of the guitar work, and then the web page used the word “intricate”, so hey, I did get something right.

Their guitar work is strong, but musically they are capable of a great deal of variety, getting very orchestral at times. The first track, “Vita Satus” sounds like it could be from a movie score, and there is a lot of passion and theatricality infused in the entire album, and clearly it is strong intellectually.

It is metal. It is loud, the singer seems set to a permanent growl-shout, where I almost wondered if there was some distortion. I don’t think there is, but that’s why I’m not hearing the words. The music is harsh, though perhaps more melodic than some metal. There are no claims to be otherwise; this is a metal band.

It is metal done well.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thoughts on Midnight in Paris

First of all, let me say how much I loved this movie. My sisters and I thought it was so fun, and there was depth to it too.

I have only seen two Woody Allen films. The other, Scoop, had a lot of good lines and interesting twists and good performances, but it felt disjointed. Maybe it was an editing problem, or maybe the clever lines didn’t fit together naturally enough. Midnight in Paris just flowed perfectly.

Being enamored of the movie, and pondering various points that it raised, I went to the IMDB message boards to see what people were saying. Of course there were people groaning about the exclusions and the caricatures and all of the quibbles that you would expect. What really surprised me, though, were the questions about whether the portal would be closed now that he has met that other girl, and if maybe she was from the future and used the portal to find him.

Well, assuming the girl in the nostalgia shop was also a time traveler seems like overreaching based on not very many clues, but it also seemed so completely beside the point.

Yes, it is nice that he has romantic possibilities, but I am not at all convinced that Gabrielle is going to be Gil’s soul mate. I suppose arguments for it are that she likes nostalgia, and walking in the rain, and that he is talking to her at the stroke of midnight at the end, which has been when magical things have happened. Going one step further, she is much younger than Gil (the actress was born in 1985, compared to Owen Wilson’s 1968), which may make her a reasonable Woody Allen dream woman.

However, I did not take it as that. Gil had a much stronger connection to Adriana, but she let him go because she was going to keep chasing the past and Gil decided to embrace his present. He could date Gabrielle, or the museum guide, or find someone completely new, but the important part is that he is now going to follow his desires and dreams rather than living in fear. That’s really important for a neurotic guy who started having panic attacks after he got engaged. Anything that happens afterward is going to feel better, because he has taken ownership of his life.

This may be a good argument that Gabrielle was not a time traveler, but it also leads to a good question about Adriana, as to whether it was reasonable of her to decide to stay in La Belle Epoque. Arguing against it, Gil told her that it would be kind of disappointing too, and maybe that’s just life, and he might have a point. However, she wasn’t just staying there to watch the can-can and stargaze. She was going to make costumes, which had been her original life plan, before she started getting romantically involved with modern artists.

With her, it’s more of a moot point. We can’t choose to go back to our favorite historical area and set up shop there. Still, there are things we can learn from it. Adriana was surrounded by great creative minds, but she longed for a different time, and when she got there, they longed for something else too. Part of that is that we don’t know how things are going to turn out while we are in the middle of them.

There’s a scene between Gil and Hemingway that hints at it. Hemingway asks if Gil liked his novel, and Gil’s like, I love all of your writing, because he is looking back over time and seeing this great body of work. However, for Hemingway, he has written one novel. He probably has plans to write more, he could totally have great ambitions, but he doesn’t know what place he is going to hold in literature. None of them do.

For a lot of them, not only is the outcome uncertain, but the process probably has some growing pains. These are artists who are changing their scenes, and they receive criticism and opposition as well as praise. Plus, artists aren’t always the most stable people, which leads to its own issues. Yes, there are a lot of ways in which life can end up disappointing.

But for all the things that we can’t control, it just emphasizes the importance of making good choices where we can. We can choose a life that is more satisfying, and that will almost certainly mean not making decisions based primarily on fear, and that we do honor our creativity.

I love that film.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More thoughts on The Hobbit

I am at one of those junctions where I find my brain running in several different directions, and I am not sure which one to follow. Several of them could get very involved, and they are interrelated, so what order do I go in? So, I’m just going to talk about movies for a couple of posts, and then do my Thursday and Friday music reviews, and then we will see. Punt!

Going back to that night we went to see the movie, one thing our friend was asking about was to try and figure out who were the good guys and the bad guys. It’s not completely cut and dried. You are identifying with the dwarves, and the one set of elves will be adversarial to them, even if Elrond is helpful. I was explaining about how in the end you are going to have the Battle of the Five Armies, and different groups uniting together.
As I told her that, I remembered something my father had said back when I first read the book. This is going back many decades ago, and is about disputed information, so I may not convey this exactly correctly. I guess there was a school of thought that the books, and I was thinking about The Hobbit specifically, but maybe it was more about The Lord of the Rings, were an allegory for WWII.
As far as I know, Tolkien specifically chose not to confirm that, but I guess he didn’t deny it vehemently enough for some people. Anyway, my father specifically said the hobbits were the English, all about being cozy and keeping their meals regular. There was more to it. Apparently the elves were going to Ireland, and yet I don’t think they were the Irish, and the men were the Americans, who were more admirable and heroic.  
So, even if the basic allegory works, about groups who would not normally join together cooperating to fight dark forces, going into that level of interpretation is probably overreaching, I would think, but I have had a couple of thoughts related to that.
One is that for a long time the Americans as the heroes made sense, because both world wars ended after we got involved. I sometimes wondered if it was irresponsible of us not to join in sooner. When we would get to reading about the Holocaust and Anne Frank, it seems like so many people died shortly before their camps were liberated, that you wonder how many could have been saved.
At the same time, perhaps it was not that the US addition was miraculous. Maybe by coming in later, when everyone else has been wearing each other down, you get the better deal. There would probably be more American dead, a lot more, if we had gone in earlier.
And you know, I’m not really going to get anywhere there. War should not be entered into lightly, but sometimes it is necessary, and trying to make good decisions just based on what is right, let alone all of the things that leaders really have to end up thinking about, seems like a losing proposition.
More recently though, I have been thinking about what is heroic. Another thing my father was fond of saying was that Italians fight with their feet –meaning they are cowards who run away. (In case anyone isn’t clear, the Italian is on my mother’s side.)
One of the most beautiful places I have been to in Italy is Bassano. It is physically pretty, but the reason it was so beautiful to me is that it felt so peaceful. I remember standing on the old bridge and watching trout in the water, and it felt very serene. Its history has not been that.
There is a plaque on one of the churches that maps out all of the places where they were hit. There were many. There are some well-maintained trees up on the hill; people who were caught working for the resistance were hung from those trees. The bridge is an important symbol of the town, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. If the Italians prefer peace to war, they’ve got some good reasons.
So I was thinking about all of that and hobbits. One of the lines in the movie, which I believe was added, was Gandalf explaining to Galadriel that he recruited Bilbo because Bilbo gives Gandalf courage. That scene was definitely not in the book, but the sentiment kind of was.
Yes, hobbits like cozy homes and six meals a day, but they are pretty good about rising to challenges. Doing the right thing, is very hobbit-like. I don’t remember Bilbo in the book wanting to go home, but deciding to stick with the dwarves so they could have their own home, but yes, I can imagine hobbits relating to the plight of someone else and accepting some personal sacrifice to help.
My older sister said the real point of the trilogy was friendship, and you can make arguments for that too. I think what Tolkien does say, regardless of whether there is complex or simple allegory, is that those are the people you count on. They aren’t going after riches and glory, but they care about fairness, and loyalty, and good. Those are the heroes.
And for what it’s worth, England did produce plenty of strength and courage at the time.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Please don’t make me defend Katy Perry

One of the things I am doing for church now is working on the single adults committee for the area. If you are 18 to 31 you are a young single, and then from 31 to dead, when unmarried, you are a single adult.

When I was a young single, I did sometimes notice the vastness of the age gap, because there is a lot of space between 18 and 31, and even 18 and 25. That is somewhat amplified once you get past 31. I mean, sure, you’re an adult. Even if you have never married you are probably working and paying your expenses and doing relatively grown up things. Of course, in this case, many of the single adults have in fact been married, and then been widowed or divorced. Frequently they have children. Sometimes they aren’t even that many years older, and yet it still feels like a lot.

Anyway, I was originally called for A1 ward, but then got moved to CM ward, which already had someone, so I thought perhaps I should focus on mid-singles, since they do sometimes have events specifically for 31 – 45. Also, I am the only person under 45 on the committee, so it seemed to make sense. One thing this led to is that I volunteered to do the decorations for the mid-singles New Year’s Eve dance.

I did decorate, but I did not stay for the dance, because I just didn’t want to. I used to love dances, but they used to be different, and music used to be better, and yeah, I was not in the mood. However, when we were discussing the dance afterwards in committee, another member had dropped by, and she felt the music was very inappropriate because when she came in they were playing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”.

I had to admit ignorance. Yes, I did go through that period of listening to popular teen music last year, and there was some Katy Perry in it, but not that one. Honestly, I can’t really remember how most of her stuff sounded. I kind of remember “Firework”, and there was something about “The One that Got Away”, but I couldn’t hum it.

Here, though, there was a real consensus that this was just filthy. I was a little surprised, because in other circles the song with the filthiest reputation has been “Whistle” by Flo Rida, but I hadn’t heard that either. I was skeptical, but did not have enough information to weigh in.

Let me add some background to this. Another activity that I was asked to be in charge of was a music video night, and I turned that down because it conflicted with my birthday party and because it sounded like pure torture. There was all videos from LDS performers, and included a seminary group doing an a capella version of “What makes you beautiful”. Well, I did remember that One Direction song, because that was part of the overall trend that offended me greatly of boys loving girls with perfect looks and lousy self-esteem and offering to buy them stuff, while girls sing about manipulation and then have nervous breakdowns in real life. But gosh darn it, there are no bad words in it!

I listened to and checked the lyrics for “Teenage Dream”. Yes, she is talking about having sex. It’s direct, though not terribly vulgar. Actually, it’s interesting following the path of the song and the title, because the point seems to be that this love takes her back to feeling carefree and innocent, so she is using the language of teenagers (“Let’s go all the way”) as the logical expression of that. And yes, I believe in chastity, and would never have sex with someone who wasn’t my husband, but I still have to say that’s not really that dirty.

While I was looking up lyrics anyway, I also checked out a few others. “Umbrella” may be code for “condom”, but you don’t have to take it on that level, because it totally works as either a literal umbrella or a metaphor of sharing shelter. It may sound sexier than that, but I can’t remember now. I can see why people hear “Toxic” and think “oral sex”, but it’s a lot more obvious in “Whistle”, so I would have to call it dirtier. I’m not sure that any of them are great for dancing. Not a single one of them stuck in my head, which seems like a bad sign.

So here’s my dilemma. I believe strongly in the power of words and of music, therefore I do think it is worthwhile to make some judgments about what we listen to. I do not blame anyone in that room for being concerned about what was playing.

I do think, however, that it is also worthwhile to question the way we are listening, and the values we are applying. There are lots of songs about sex out there, but sex itself is not bad, even though it is often used badly. What is being said about sex? What mood does it create? What relationships does it promote? I will take the one that makes me feel innocent and carefree and safe versus the one where I will never feel good enough based on my looks, and the resulting poor self-esteem is exploited by men.

No, that’s a lie; both songs are dreck. One just has a more offensive message. Shoot, a lot of the bands that I listen to now don’t even write that much about romance. They swear a lot though. I’m not saying I have it all worked out yet. I will say that a lot of the performers who look clean cut and innocent are only more dangerous because of their appearance.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Band Review: Toque Libre – Lo Mejor

Lo Mejor is the title of Toque Libre’s album, available from Amazon. They do also have a Toque Libre EP, but the 4 tracks on there are all available on Lo Mejor, so that would be the better choice.

However, it would not be unreasonable to call Toque Libre “the best” – they are really good, and I really love them.

Oddly, they did not come to me through Twitter. I went to school with Pablo Ojeda. At the time he was in a band called Rubberneck, which everyone seems to have known, except me. Well, we have covered that I am not particularly with it.

Through the magic of Facebook I am able to keep up with things better. Although I did not make it to their latest performance at Jimmy Maks, I have seen Toque Libre perform three times: once at Living Room Theaters, once in a tea lounge, and once at the Beaverton Round. The first time at Living Room, I remember thinking that the best venue for them would be poolside in the Mediterranean. There should be some combination of sun and water and the exotic.

The band may have come together in Oregon, but they have roots in Chile and Iran, and influences from Latin, funk, pop, Flamenco, rumba, and Afro-Cuban. Try finding someone else like them around.

As much as the band is dominated by guitar, with all three members playing, the percussion is important. It may just be someone tapping on a box or clapping, but there is a pulse to it, and the music is alive.

El Mejor has twelve tracks, and there is not a bad one in the bunch. The first one to get under my skin was “Creame”, but every time I see them live or listen to the album, I find more nuances and I like it more. This is one I totally recommend for buying, and check out the Live section of their web site to get a chance to see them in person.

They have three more dates coming up at the Camellia Lounge. I believe I had the chicken curry empanada, and it was quite good. I’m not a tea drinker, but one of my friends did order some, and if you’re into that, they take their tea very seriously.

But I digress. Mainly I want to say that Toque Libre es El Mejor. Short review, but I have nothing to criticize.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Band Review: Crash Boom Bang – a bunch of loud noises?

No, they’re not really that loud, onomatopoeia aside. The band isn’t nearly as percussive as the title would imply.

Crash Boom Bang was the first random band to follow me on Twitter. The Gin Blossoms were the first band to follow me, but I followed them first and I knew who they were. With Crash Boom Bang it was out of the blue. I checked out some songs and a video, because that seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and I saw many comments on the video about other people coming because they band had followed them. It’s a reasonable strategy.

I never followed them back, and they don’t follow me now, so I don’t know that part of it. Right now they have 3:1 ratio of followers to follows, so maybe they got really popular, maybe all of the follows are temporary, I don’t know. At the time I was trying to keep my feed relatively clean. It was a while ago.

Actually, it was about the time that I saw that Boys Like Girls was touring with All-American Rejects, so I had started listening to them at about the same time as well, and initially I found some corrollaries. There were some pop, clubby songs, but where Boys Like Girls often goes a bit country, Crash Boom Bang stayed firmly in the clubs.

That may be why their music never stuck with me that much. I have no interest in the club scene. Actually, calling it clubby may denote to some that it is techno, and it’s not. It’s more that the subject matter is all about partying and dancing and having the drinks in hand, and the party lifestyle. This is the exact subject matter of “VIP”, which has the video, and has a radio version, so I’m guessing that’s their big hit, though I’m not really seeing a lot of specifics about them.

I didn’t think about it that much on the first listen, but going through the second time I was just disappointed in the lack of substance. Also, I was very turned off by the profanity in “Hands Up” Yes, a lot of the bands I listen to regularly use some kind of language in their songs, and not even only the ones from New Jersey. However, because their songs are actually saying something, it makes it more palatable. In this case, a song about putting your hands up just keeps repeating “It’s a mother-f*ing anthem” over and over again.

Okay, that doesn’t really add anything. It adds four syllables. If the line is too short, maybe it needs something else. And yes, not everyone cares about profanity, and not every song needs to be deep, but it should have something going for it. Despite the devotion to partying, these songs don’t feel that fun. They are adequately performed, but no real virtuosity sticks out, so it’s just kind of disappointing.

I was thinking, okay, they’re not great now, and a lot of it seems to be due to a lack of depth, but they could grow out of it, and here is the real tragedy: their previous material was deeper and more heartfelt.

Based on Spotify, in 2009, they had a 4-track release, Surrender, and Gold Rush, with 11 tracks. Surrender may be their best. 2011 brought These Wild Things, with only 6 tracks, two marked as explicit, and one that got the radio play. At the same time, there was an increase in the sexualization of their images. This applies not just to the album covers, but their Twitter page, and the video and Facebook, where it is all about the scantily clad girls groping and being groped, and duck lip pictures.

Even the getting acquainted video on Youtube is each member answering which part of the female body they like best. Most of the band members come off as affable, but not that bright. Omar, the lead singer, seems kind of skeevy. So, if they want to become something more, he will probably have to lead them there, which is a reasonable task for a frontman, but I don’t see that they want it.

So, overall I would have to call Crash Boom Bang disappointing, and I will prefer to think of it as a Roxette reference. However, their information is still included if you want it. Music taste remains deeply personal.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Yesterday I was writing specifically about my sponsored children through Plan, and my regrets about not writing more. I know that donating the money has value, but I believe there is an added value in making it personal.
It’s something that I think about at times, like when I am at the store and asked to round up my change for some cause, or to give a dollar and buy a shamrock. It’s something quick and cheap, and it does matter to someone, so it isn’t meaningless. At the same time, it isn’t always exactly meaningful, or perhaps not in the best way.
Often the emotions it triggers are guilt, and fatigue. It does add up, and constantly being asked, and feeling like only a bad person would say “no”, can eventually build up the kind of resentment that comes from well-meaning “awareness” posts that 99% of people won’t care about, but are you one of those good people who will repost?
There are a few possible issues there. One of the first that I have read was actually about those pages where you would click and advertisers would give a small donation, though it brought in the rounding up change part also. People feel like they are making a contribution, without actually doing anything.
I get that concern, and it is the least important one to me. If you can get people to do good in a pain-free manner, then by all means go for it. The amount of good that they are doing is probably small, but still, it could be helping someone, and if someone feels more self-satisfied than they deserve, it happens for worse reasons all the time. I can’t get excited over that.
There are other things that concern me more. One is reading that people contribute about the same amount to charity regardless of the context. I believe the figure was about 2%. If people give more in response to an appeal in one place, they will give less somewhere else, and it seems to be self-correcting. This is a concern, because it seems possible that if one cause is better situated than another, it could take away from other charities with less advantages, and all based on marketing rather than on the merits of the charity.
Okay, obviously this is going to happen all the time anyway, but my point is that it can be even more insidious than we realize. It’s more insidious because there is less thinking. I can’t even remember who got the extra change. Were the sneakers for Muscular Dystrophy or March of Dimes? I don’t know. I do have limited resources; I should be a little more careful with them.
A greater level of involvement does make a difference. I remember clearly that every read-a-thon that I did in grade school was for multiple sclerosis, working in the fireworks booth and washing cars was for girls camp, the Valentine’s Day walk was for Fanconi Anemia, and that time I worked on the float it was for New Avenues for Youth. I remember those causes, and things about them, and how they affect people. Those times, it was personal—not because I had a previous interest, but I became connected to the cause.
This leads to another concern with how giving is done, that seems to go in the opposite direction, in that money is almost always more useful than in-kind donations. Last I knew, the Oregon Food Bank can purchase about 6 pounds of food for $1, so collecting money is far more effective than collecting food.  And yet they still do have food drives, and perhaps a reason for that is that people feel a sense of connection in purchasing food, or in going through their cupboards that they don’t feel with writing a check.
There is weird psychology to us. One thing they have seen with certain fundraising appeals is that people give more to one specific recipient than many. So if you focus on one victim of a tsunami, rather than the tens of thousands affected, you get better results. This is good for fundraisers to know, but it is also clearly impractical, in that the general tendency is not to be practical and effective in giving.
I think there will actually be a lot more to write on this, and I will probably keep on learning more, but as is so typical with me, the answers seem to be kindness and thinking. Love people, and want to help them, but also use your brain.
I have a small amount deducted from each paycheck that goes to the Oregon Food Bank. This is cash, it comes on a regular basis so can be depended on, and my employer matches my contribution. This is all very practical, and I pretty much never think about it.
However, I also volunteer for Blues Fest every year, which benefits them, and I also usually end up doing one volunteer shift per year there. In conjunction with those, I get more information, and I do keep it personal, at least I try, just like I will try to keep up those letters.
We are imperfect creatures, but we are always capable of more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Task: Childreach

Going through the mail that arrived while I was on vacation, I had a bit of a shock. Sophie has graduated.

Sophie is the first child that I sponsored. When I started the plan was called Childreach, and now it goes by Plan, but I still often refer to it as Childreach out of habit. It works like various other charities, including Save the Children, where you sponsor a specific child, and receive updates and letters, and you are supposed to write also, all for less than the price of a cup of coffee a day.

As a non-coffee drinker, I gradually took on two more, and with the automatic withdrawals, I have been a very reliable sponsor. When I was unemployed, I thought about giving them up, and I just couldn’t. Then I thought that maybe if one graduated, I could at least not take on a new one, but just leave it at two. Surely that was reasonable! But then one graduated, and I couldn’t turn down the new one. So, I scrimped, and moved money around, and did the same thing I did with all my other bills, and then finally I was employed again.
I have been good in terms of keeping the money flowing, and I have even occasionally sent gifts when that was an option (a soccer ball, an art kit, etc.), but I have been really horrible about corresponding. I know, it’s hard to believe, but now you see me as a daily blogger. I started doing this before there was any blog at all, and then back when I meant to just be a weekly blogger and wasn’t even consistent with that.
I could generally tell myself that the money was the most important thing, and I do still think that’s true, but there are some important elements to the letters also. In this segmented, hostile world, the opportunity to connect, and build relationships with other people, especially across country lines and ethnic lines and religious lines, is important. Having specific people who care about you, and feeling it, is important, especially for children who may have the odds against them in their environment. Also, impersonal charity probably does not do as much good to us as it could. I’ll be exploring that more.
That’s why I made a task, to really go through and make a habit of writing to my children.
Diana Carolina was my second sponsored child. She was fourteen, in Colombia, and she had a great smile and I really liked her, and worried about her being so pretty, and whether she would get the wrong kind of attention, and those four years just flew by, and I maybe wrote twice, and we do not have a relationship and I do not know what happened to her.
Actually, I ended up taking on a lot of older ones, because sometimes someone who was in the program loses their sponsor, and a lot of people prefer the younger kids, so they needed me more. They also disappeared faster, where the odds of me getting in any contact were really low. Also, sometimes the families move, and you lose them that way. It’s often very unpredictable.
Still, I never thought of that happening with Sophie, because she was so young and it always felt like we had plenty of time. I saw the pictures, and I knew she was getting older, but still, it does not feel like it’s been fourteen years.
So, last night I wrote to all three children, none of whom I have written to before, as they are currently all relatively new. I sent them all the exact same letter, telling them a little about my job and my family, and that I am bad at writing but I am going to try. Ignacio is going to be 17, and I thought I didn’t have very long with him. Today I got mail that his family has moved, and that note won’t be received. I will have to send one to Bara, who will be 15.
Hansare is only 11 and Valerie is 12. I am going to try and be more diligent with them, because they really do grow up fast.
It doesn’t mean the task is really completed. Getting one set of letters out is one thing, and I will be trying to do it again and again. However, it is some progress, of a kind, and I will take it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

It was not quite the best Valentine’s Day ever

I really thought it was going to be, and had planned that today’s post was going to be titled “Best Valentine’s Day Ever”. There were some departures from the plan.

Last week I was on vacation. We were going to spend Julie and Maria’s birthday and Valentine’s Day in Disneyland as part of our week there. For their birthday we were going to go to Farrell’s that night, and then on Valentine’s Day we were going to see the new Diehard movie in Downtown Disney. Julie had also been wanting to eat at the Rainforest Café, so it made sense to combine that with the movie.

Now, we are not the kind of people who get super depressed around Valentine’s Day, or bitter, nor do we go the other direction by calling it Singles’ Awareness Day, or anything like that. We decorate, we send cards to a few people, and we enjoy it, like we enjoy most holidays, in our own low-key way.

We have been singles for a long time, and we are aware of that, and our feelings have varied on that, as has been well documented. For the most part we are okay with it, but it isn’t necessarily our preference, so the original plan of Disneyland and a movie where they blow stuff up real good seemed like it would be pretty perfect, and a resounding confirmation of our awesomeness.

We were having a pretty good week, and Farrell’s Wednesday night was a lot of fun. There were two problems. One was that I seemed to be coming down with a cold. I always wake up congested in Anaheim, probably due to some allergies and maybe some residual effects of the flight, but on Wednesday I was starting to suspect it was something more, based on that scratchy feeling at the back of my throat when I talked. I was still enjoying myself.

Then, on the way back from Farrells, due to a string of random coincidences, we ran out of gas. This was resolved relatively serendipitously, but it made for a late night, and we were just exhausted. Wednesday night led directly to Thursday morning, Valentine’s Day, which did not get off to a good start.

First of all, we were all very tired, and running later than intended. Also, my voice was completely gone. Still, I got ready for the day, putting on my red shirt, and went to grab my breakfast. Unfortunately, my cup of apple juice leapt out of my hand of its own volition and did a flip, covering me with much more apple juice than the cup could even have held. I had to change, and never even put in my new red earrings, which are now missing a (plastic) stone.

Because we had such a late start, and we were worried about Valentine’s date crowding, we decided to go straight to the Rainforest Café for lunch instead, and maybe do a matinee. Well, we got lunch, which was overpriced and kind of stupid, and ended up skipping the movie all together. Downtown Disney was also disappointing in that I found no comics whatsoever, and also it was too early for there to be any bands, so my comics and music purchase plans were thwarted.

We finally made our way to California Adventure, and we did ride the rides we hadn’t gotten to yet, but there were longer lines that we could have avoided with an early start, we were still tired, and not being able to talk really puts a damper on things for me.

So, it was not the best Valentine’s Day ever. It probably wasn’t the worst, either. We were still on vacation, we rode rides, and Julie did get to try out something she really wanted to try. We are still strong independent women who live life to the fullest and do what we want. It just didn’t live up to expectations, much like Valentine’s Day does not tend to live up to expectations for many of the people in relationships, as was a theme of the episode of Big Bang Theory that we watched.

At least we’re not missing out.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Band Review: Chantal Claret

I was not planning on reviewing Chantal Claret so soon, but I have listened to her album a few times now, and have one of the tracks on a mental repeat. Also, the band that I thought I would do has more songs than I initially realized, so really, this is the review I’m most prepared for.

On one level I’m holding out hopes that I will be able to see her perform soon, because I bet that would be a fun show. She played in Los Angeles Sunday night, and it almost felt possible to make it, but that time was spoken for, and it just wasn’t practical. Also, she is opening for a few MSI dates (being married to their lead singer probably doesn’t hurt), but not Portland. Still, they have not announced who is opening in Portland, so it could still happen. I should have added her to my Year of Magical Concert-Going post.

The point is, all I have to go on is listen to the tracks she has recorded on her solo debut, The One and Only, plus watching her in a couple of Stickam chats. So, that’s what we’ll cover.

We have a dozen tracks, starting with a fun little intro. This gives the whole thing sort of a concert feel, and that is enhanced by the intimacy of the sound. It feels like you are listening in a club almost – a good club – though I can’t really explain why. Maybe it is because it feels so natural to dance and sing along. She makes you want to move your hips.

There is an overall feeling of lightness in the mix. It’s not that there are no serious sentiments, especially, I would say, on “Pleasure Seeker”, and the music does get dramatic, but we are having a good time.

Some of this is probably due to the throwback sound. My favorite, “Honey Honey” (which has been moving in and out of my head for the last few days), would not sound out of place sung by the Supremes. Other songs sound like they have some similar influences, but with a generous dose of funk. Good examples of this include “This Time” and “Pop Pop Bang Bang”. And of course, all of this done in Chantal’s unique voice.

I suppose the natural thing to do is to draw Amy Winehouse comparisons, but I think that would be a disservice. This is its own thing, and it’s a good thing. Also, not all of the influences are from the 50s/60s. “Real Girls” feels like it references Janet Jackson and Beastie Boys, a little, and would totally work for a bunch of girls getting down at a club.

Chantal Claret’s The One and Only is available via Amazon and iTunes. Maybe some other places too, but those two for sure.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Band Review: Sky Crawlers

Sky Crawlers is a pop punk/punk rock band from Turkey. The best comparison I can make is to early Green Day. Yes, I am a little surprised to be aware of them.

This is a case of a band that followed me on Twitter, and I followed back, and therefore I always knew I would review them. I am going with them for today because I am pressed for time and they don’t have a very large catalog yet, so I had time to review them.

I have to say that they are a lot of fun to listen to. On Soundcloud, that includes three songs, loaded individually and together on a three song demo. “The Voice Inside My Head” is my favorite of the three.

All of the songs are pretty good, guitar driven with fast tempos. The vocals sometimes come off as a bit flat, but that could almost be a recording issue. They also have some work to do on stage presence. From an instrumental point of view, they are very solid.

Moving over to Youtube they have nine videos, and you can watch them all in about half an hour. All three songs from Soundcloud are represented, as well as some previews of a new song and a Fall Out Boy cover.

In addition to their music, I like their attitude. On their Facebook page they list their influences as “Everything” and their hometown as “Earth”. That just warms my heart, even if I wasn’t predisposed towards punk.

I don’t know what my odds of getting to see them are, whether that means them touring the States or me making my way to Turkey, but I could be good with either of those. Check them out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cynic-rella, by Gina Harris

It had been a magical evening in every way.

To go from being the unwanted, ash-covered stepchild to dancing with the prince, charming him as much as charmed by him, because of a fairy godmother – well that was literally magical.
Better yet, when the evening ended it hadn’t really ended because the prince came looking for her. He found her! He recognized her! And then he changed his mind.
“Somehow, being here with you now, instead of in the ballroom, with that dress…”
“We can go back to the ballroom! You can buy me a dress! I’ll change!”
The fairy godmother still probably could have pulled off a save, if she had showed up. In retrospect, a fairy godmother who lets you spend years neglected and slaving away for your stepfamily is probably not the most reliable source of help.
So, that seemed to be that. She’d had her moment, which turned out to be a very brief moment, and now it was over.
It shouldn’t have been so unbearable. Her life was exactly what it had been before. Yes, it had been a miserable life, but she was used to that. Somehow, everything felt worse.
It didn’t make sense until she heard her stepsisters griping to each other.
“I thought I could be a princess, and now this!”
“Well I wanted to be a princess too!”
Then it devolved into cat-fighting, but she found her answer in that brief exchange. It was so rare for her stepsisters to say anything valuable, but that made sense. It was one thing to have a view of a better life, but she sort of had that already; the lives of her stepsisters were really pretty good, regardless of what they thought.
No, what was tearing her up inside was that hope that she could have something better. It had been so real, and then it was dashed. The misery of her daily life was old, but the sense of loss was new, and it was hurting her in spots that she hadn’t even known existed before.
The first thing she did was consult a lawyer. He was initially reluctant to get involved, as a breach of contract case without an actual contract is a tricky thing. However, as she explained more about the case, particularly that it involved the royal family, the case became more compelling. For once in her life, things started going right.
It turns out that popular opinion regarding the royal family was at an all-time low in the kingdom. That the ball had resulted not in the elevation of a fellow citizen, but a hasty marriage to a princess from a nearby and uninteresting kingdom left a sour taste in the public mouth. There was even briefly talk of a class action lawsuit for all of the disappointed eligible young women who attended the ball.
That never materialized, because clearly not all of them could have married the prince. However, his pointed interest in our heroine, his seeking her out with the stated intent to marry her, and the subsequent rejection did end up counting, and with only one claimant, the claim was huge.
And thus, fortunes were reversed. The royal popularity never recovered, and while marriages started through romance are not always happy, arranged marriages based on pride and politics aren’t the best starting point either. The prince did become a king, but he was a king with a low treasury, a disrespectful populace, a shrewish wife, and the beginnings of male pattern baldness.
She could have gloated over this. She could also have taken pleasure in a drastically different attitude on the part of her stepfamily. Instead, she decided not to care. She only wanted to get away.
Searching through real estate listings, she eventually found the perfect thing: an olive grove in the Mediterranean. She knew enough about exploitation of the disadvantage to never want to be like that, so she treated her employees well, with good wages. If those handsome young orchard workers ever decide that they want shirts or shoes, they will have no trouble affording them.
The rustic life is peaceful, but if she ever gets restless she simply takes a trip and stays at nice hotels, where at last she is treated like a queen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Corporate Malfeasance, by Gina Harris

In many ways, it is merely luck that I am alive and director of human resources.
Everything is due to my vacation. The timing was most important. True, I was unusually exhausted before I left, but the vacation schedule had been set long before I started sliding downhill, so I can’t take any credit for that. It was also important that the vacation I chose was relaxing and refreshing, but as a single apartment-dweller, that was the most likely option.
Most of my coworkers spent vacations chasing kids or catching up on home improvement tasks. These are worthy accomplishments, but you may return in worse shape than when you left. I spent two weeks reading, lying on the beach, and basically just resting up. When I returned to work I found out there had been three heart attacks during my absence, one fatal, and everyone looked very sickly. I mean, more so than usual.
We’d had cardiac incidents before, but usually more spread out over the course of a year. When you stick two hundred data entry clerks and programmers in a concrete, fluorescent-lit box with candy and soda machines in every corner, it just kind of happens. Of course people look bulgy and pasty. Of course they tend to get listless in the afternoon. Of course they age prematurely. Somehow this time was worse.
So there I was, feeling fully alive and standing among the sitting and typing dead. With my mind alert for once, I was disturbed by the image, and curious about it as well. I had to know what was happening. I began to look around, hoping to solve the mystery before I became a casualty of it.
The first thing I noticed was that upper management all had a healthy glow. This was odd. One would expect managers to face higher pressure, and show a higher toll from stress. They seemed cheerful, well rested, and highly nourished. The only people who seemed to match them at all were a couple of IT guys running around doing system diagnostics.
That was the other thing that was odd. They stated there were some serious performance issues that they needed to resolve, and they were working very hard to do it, but no one was experiencing any computer problems. The network was running fast, the database was stable, and no individuals were experiencing system problems. Also, it seemed like a lot of the things that they were checking were not actually computer-related.
That night I stayed late, catching up on two weeks worth of e-mail. As the building slowly emptied, I could not stop thinking about the lower level of the building. There was one door leading down to the basement (conveniently near my desk), and the two IT guys had been going in and out of it all day. That in itself would not be unusual; all the backup servers and mainframes and such were supposed to be down there. However, the three upper managers had also spent a lot of time down there. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that I had seen the managers go down there almost every day, while no one else ever did. And the regular IT guy, who took care of minor PC and network repairs had never gone down there, at least not that I had seen. In light of this, though I was scared, I had to check it out. I was already feeling my energy level sinking to pre-vacation levels, and it was happening far too fast.
Down I went, first there was a very normal, concrete flight of stairs, then a non-descript metal door which I thought would be locked, yet was not. Tentatively I pulled open the door, and saw no mainframes, no servers, just a bank of video cameras and a distillery.
When I say a distillery, that does not give the full impression. There were various tubes and hoses leading down from the ceiling. Can you imagine a pale liquid light? That was being sucked through them into a large glass globe. Steam from a copper boiler to the side was being introduced into the globe, forcing the liquid down a narrow neck into a smaller tub. One side of the tub had a tube that was apparently used for filling the nearby bottles, and on the other side was a tap. I saw our senior manager fill a mug and drain it with great satisfaction. He smacked his lips and gave an “Ah!” of refreshment, and then he turned around and saw me.
“Well, this is awkward,” he said.
I could have reacted to that, I suppose, but my attention was caught by the video monitors. They showed different areas of the work floor, and underneath the photo image each screen showed the names of the employees who worked in that area. Each name had a human shaped meter, and below the row of meters was the label “Life Force Remaining”. Higgins was the fatal heart attack from last week, and his meter was all black.
“You’re sucking the life out of us!” I exclaimed in disbelief.
My manager ducked his head sheepishly. I guess I had expected some argument or denial, but nothing.
“Well,” I struggled to find the words, “you shouldn’t.” Even I thought it sounded lame.
“You think other companies don’t?”
“Not this literally.”
He shrugged, disturbingly calm. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“I guess I should try and stop you.”
“That’s not very likely.”
I struggled for a rebuttal. If this was an action movie I would have to blow the place up, but even if I had access to powerful explosives, I would probably get arrested, and then locked up as insane when I tried to explain my actions.
“I’m quitting!”
“In this job market?”
“And I would be abandoning everyone else.”
“Do you really even care about your coworkers that much?”
He had me there. Most of them were unobjectionable enough, but we were not a tight-knit bunch, and I had homicidal fantasies about Elliott in the next cube almost daily. Still, it should not have been this difficult to hang on to the moral high ground in an argument against corporate vampirism.
“Allow me to show you some studies. We keep a careful eye on industry benchmarks, and I think you’ll see that our mortality rate is significantly below the standard.”
He then showed me several pages of charts. For the technology sector, it was apparently safer to work at our company than six of the top ten companies. The only reason things had gotten so bad lately was that the energy drain had started leaking, and extracting more than the usual amount. That was the problem IT had been investigating, but things were expected to return to normal next week, leaving my employer less deadly than 270 of the Fortune 500 companies.
“In fact, every five years spent at (a well-known company) takes one year off the average lifespan, whereas you need to spend seven years here for the same effect. I admit we’re far from equal with companies in the athletic apparel industries, but this seems to be due to a more active employee lifestyle, which we don’t believe we would be able to successfully encourage.”
He had a point there.
Plus our benefits are significantly better than half of these companies. You know we have excellent medical, dental, and retirement plans.”
“Do people live to use the retirement?”
I was not comfortable with this, but I was losing the fight.
“I am going to have to take my chances elsewhere.”
“We’ll give you a raise.”
“How much?”
“I’ll raise you to $70,000 a year.”
“Plus an extra week of vacation.”
And so it seemed that I could do more good within the organization than without it. Ultimately, we agreed that the best way to overcome the current crisis was a complete reorganization. Lay-offs were announced and the weakest were let go. Our two surviving coronaries got generous severance packages, and a suggestion to follow their doctors’ advice about working towards a healthier lifestyle.
Naturally the reduced workforce did not last long. We completely refigured and retooled. We took away the retirement plan, and downgraded the medical and dental. Instead, we went with higher pay, discount gym memberships, and scholarships. That way, people came, but they didn’t stay long-term. When we started recruiting again it was with an emphasis on students saving up for college.
They had a tendency to be younger and stronger, as well as less concerned about benefits, and they would usually move on before we used them up. The less ambitious ones would often stay on at their own peril. We tried to discourage it, but I guess there is a point to survival of the fittest. Should I have felt guilty when Elliott slumped over one day? Perhaps, but I had called 911 right away and what more can you do?
You see, the emphasis had been all wrong. With the comfortable, non-stimulating environment, management had been working towards retention of a docile herd. Production was steadily, but generally declining. I recommended the changes for the sake of the producers, but it turned out to be more efficient for the consumers as well. The younger, livelier stock produced at significantly higher levels, and at much lower cost, and then they would rotate out before they died. Sure, they might end up in another soul-killing job, but we were giving them a fighting chance and profits were up. Sometimes you are rewarded for doing the less wrong thing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I can’t blame you. I was had the same thoughts myself. So I did try it, just once. It’s most similar to Mountain Dew, but more effervescent.