Friday, February 28, 2020

Album Review: Watching a Garden Die by Berwanger

Released last year, Berwanger's fourth album, Watching a Garden Die, stands out in its maturity. There is still rock you can move to, especially "Bad Vibrations". I like the riffs on "Friday Night".

Beyond that, there are deeper themes that I keep going back to because they require more thought.

That's not at the expense of the music; the instruments on "The Business of Living" are gorgeous. Still, an album that has a song, "When I Was Young" has some thoughts about not being young, and change and mortality.

So I think what I like best about the album as a whole is the way it ends.

Honestly, the album feels like it starts abruptly with "Long Way Down", as if there is no lead-in and you are just there, all at once. Then you are on that journey, and it gets melancholy. Maybe the thoughts that come with that are overwhelming. Maybe you with you could stop those thoughts, but worry about what else you would lose.

With all of that, it is ultimately encouraging. "I Keep Telling Myself" is sweetly reassuring, and the final admonishment is "Remain Untamed". Even in the midst of setbacks, there is learning and an enduring you.

I recently read an article about what Tom Petty might have written next if he had lived, and the loss of not getting that album contemplating the end of life. We may not have enough great albums about death, but we do have albums at various stages of life, and bands that think and grow. That is pretty wonderful too.

Band links:

Previously reviewed:

Interview with Josh Berwanger:

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Interview: 5 questions with JOSH BERWANGER

Josh Berwanger has been rocking for twenty years, playing in The Anniversary, The Only Children, and now in Berwanger. We will be reviewing Berwanger's latest album, Watching A Garden Die, tomorrow, but for now here are five questions that Josh answered for me via e-mail.

When asked, I say the best concert I ever went to was Berwanger, The Hotelier and The Get Up Kids at the Hawthorne Theater in Portland, September 2015 . That was where I first saw you. To me, it felt like each act built on each other, and it brought the audience and the bands together. What makes a great show for you, and which ones stand out in your mind?

I think shows that are diverse in music but also gel with each other are the best. A few that come to the top of my mind that were life changing would be James Brown, I saw the Ramones 3 times, Beastie Boys, Ozzy, Guns n' Roses, the Dead Milkmen, who were one of the first bands I saw at a club, I think I was a sophomore in High School, definitely got in trouble that night for being out way too late.

Five years and three albums later, what has changed for you and what remains the same?

I try to keep on a path and not stray from it. Which means continuing to evolve and stay in touch with new music. I've definitely been in the boat of "why is this band/music popular" but the only thing that does is make me doubt what I'm doing. Embracing new music and focusing on creating my own new music is what I focus on. One could go on all day about what's changed in the music industry but I think that is somewhat focusing on negatives because we can always say "oh, it was so much better back in the day..."

I think every Berwanger album title and cover could work for a horror movie, but Watching A Garden Die seems like more of an existential horror. What does the album mean to you?

I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of great artists like Jay Shaw, Aaron Moreno and Mike Mitchell who did Watching A Garden Die. WAGD to me is a bit out of my comfort zone with a few songs being more personal then I tend to write. I tell myself it's a sad album that has a hopeful meaning behind it, but I might be lying to myself about that.

On the topic of horror, could you tell us a little about your relationship with the movie Troll 2?

Troll 2 is just a classic piece of cinema, if a person hasn't seen it I recommend them watching the documentary on it first called Best Worst Movie. The doc title alone gives you a little insight what you are getting into.

What are your hopes for the next five years?

I'm currently working on a new project with Carly Gwin on lead vocals along with my guitarist Ricky Salthouse and Jarod Evans (he produced my album The Star Invaders). I'm really excited about this and will be focusing mainly on that in this next year. I have two albums of Berwanger material written I just need to start recording it. I'd like to refer to my hopes more as my determination. So in the next 5 years I'm determined to get this new project off that ground and work to make it as successful as can be.

Berwanger will be playing with Soul Asylum and Local H tomorrow night at the Madrid Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Black History Month 2019 Overview: Black Directors

I have recently started doing my blog composition at night because I can't take that amount of time away from my mother during the day. Last night I wrote all about Denzel Washington and Fences, and realized that I should have watched the other movies he directed, and no other director felt right to start, partly because I want to group some together, and partly because a few still aren't done. (Also, I am me, but that part can't be helped.)

Clearly what is needed is an overview; then we can get down to individuals.

Here is the overview in no particular order.

Julie Dash 
Watched Daughters of the Dust (1991) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002).

Amma Assante
Watched Belle (2013). Had already seen A United Kingdom (2016).

Ava Duvernay
Watched 13th (2016). Had already seen Selma (2014) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). Still waiting on When They See Us.

Jordan Peele
Watched Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), plus seasons 1-3 of Key & Peele.

Kasi Lemmons
Watched Eve's Bayou (1997), Talk To Me (2007), and Black Nativity (2012). The Caveman's Valentine is waiting on my DVR.

Denzel Washington
Watched Fences (2016). Just requested Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters from the library.

Ryan Coogler
Watched Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). Had already seen Black Panther (2018).

Barry Jenkins
Watched Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

John Singleton
Watched Boyz N The Hood (1991), Shaft (2000), and Rosewood (1997). I have Poetic Justice set to record on March 6th.

Robert Townsend
Watched Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987), The Five Heartbeats (1989), B*A*P*S (1997), and The Hollywood Shuffle (1987).

There were also some one-offs that were related. For example, seeing Eddie Murphy do comedy inspired me to watch Pryor: Here and Now (directed by Richard Pryor, 1983) and The Original Kings of Comedy (directed by Spike Lee, 2000), but I really want to compare that to Nanette, something more modern and more female.

I did watch How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, and I thought about watching more of his films, but in terms of what I could find and what I was interested in watching, it just didn't work out.

Access was an issue. It is amazing how many pay streaming services there are now, with unique content that you can't get in other places. A lot of that can't be helped, but I am going to sign up for the free trial month of Netflix soon and go through that list of things I have been waiting to see.

Anyway, when I start writing about these next week, this is what I am working with.

Other one-offs during the time period include seeing Little (2019), directed by Tina Gordon, and I am going to see The Photograph tonight, directed by Stella Meghie.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Chocolate milk

Before I move on to Black directors, writing about schools made me think about something Hillary Clinton said to Howard Stern that drew some ire.

For a little bit of context, I recently finished The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo. There wasn't a lot new there - I was paying attention during the time period she covered - but it was a strong reminder that people misquote Clinton and take her out of context and willfully misunderstand her a lot.

In addition, I had recently read a bit on Clinton where the headlines were all about her naming Tulsi Gabbard as a Russian plant, but she never named Gabbard and she said it was Republicans - not Russians - doing the grooming. Russians came up, and Gabbard clearly felt it was her, but what was reported was not what was said. I suppose some of it could be difficulty for many in parsing complex thoughts, but it's hard to feel like the desire is even there. And yet, sometimes we need to be able to understand complex things.

In talking about Bernie Sanders, Stern referenced Bernie's tendency to one-up during conversations and criticize practical concerns. Stern compared it to a run for class presidency in grade school, to which Clinton replied "Chocolate milk for everyone!", followed by a quip about more recess.

That was pretty mild, fit in context, and related to a behavior Sanders had really demonstrated, but I saw a few "Wow!"s and "I can't believe it!"s at the audacity, in addition to a snarky "actually, there should be milk in schools".

And that's exactly how it worked with Sanders: she would bring up a potential issue and he would be like "Don't you want free college?"

In this post I wish to torture this metaphor to its logical conclusion, and then get to free college.

First of all, there is milk in schools; qualifying it as chocolate makes it more of a treat, hence the allure of that particular campaign promise.

(To be fair, at my grade school, milk came with every hot lunch, and you could choose whether you wanted white or chocolate without any trouble.)

Here's the thing: some people are allergic to chocolate. Some don't like it. Perhaps more important, an estimated 65% of the world's population is lactose intolerant.

That is more common with people of color, so one of the weird things that we get with today's political climate is a fringe association of milk as wholesome, pure, and white. That is without getting into issues with hormones or ethical treatment of dairy cows; I can't even imagine how complicated it must get to plan school lunch menus now, but that is beside the point. Chocolate milk for all sounds fun, but it might not work for everyone in the school. Acknowledging that does not mean that you hate children, or don't care if they starve, or that you don't think government should play a role.

Now about free college...

Let's dispense with the people who are against it because they paid off their college loans on their own right now. I paid off my loan within a few years of graduating. I could do that because it was only around $6000, and it did in fact put me in a much better position for job hunting.

Getting more specific, I had not qualified for any helpful financial aid until my senior year, when my parents' incomes were no longer used against me and when I had not made any money for a year and a half on my mission. That's how hard it was to get aid despite needing it.

I had previously alternated working full-time to save up for school, and also working while going to school after I had saved up some. During that time period (1991 to 1996) the cost of tuition rose from I think $600 per quarter to $1800. I wasn't thrilled to only get a loan instead of a grant, but worrying about more tuition increases made it worth taking on the debt. (Also, really wanting to be done with school.)

Yes, tuition continued to rise. A lot. The power of a degree in terms of getting a good job has gone in the opposite direction. Wages have certainly not risen the same way tuition costs have. That has caused some people to downgrade the value of a college education, but it offers many things that are enriching for a person in higher education and necessary for some jobs that society needs.

Plus there's this:

I wonder if breaking promises to people who have contributed to public service correlates at all to the attitude that if you have suffered at all other people should definitely suffer more.

Looking at those factors, one can see a clear value in free tuition and state schools, but is that enough?

First of all, tuition is not the only cost of education. There are living expenses. Today it can be a struggle to survive on one job; having a full-time job is not great for also getting through school.

Maybe you have a good university near your home, and supportive parents who will continue to provide room and board for the duration; those allowances are not guaranteed. Those financial aid forms that say how much your parents should contribute? shockingly ineffective in making your parents contribute that amount, even if they can.

In addition, text book costs can be terrible. Some professors make that worse by making their own books required texts, and requiring new editions so you can't buy used. That is a problem, but some of them do it because they are terribly underpaid, and may well still have debt from their required education. There is a web of problems there, just on the topic of money alone, but money is not the only issue.

There is also getting accepted into college and being ready for college. If your family does not have a tradition of higher education, it can be much harder to know what classes to take and how to be prepared. That is not strictly a matter of income, but money figures because K-12 schools being well-funded enough to meet the needs of their students plays a role. It is still more than that. Maybe things have gotten better, but my guidance counselors were really incompetent. There were things I could have done to increase my chances of scholarships that I did not learn until much later. Yes, if state schools have free tuition, that doesn't matter as much, but we don't want to forget the needs of students who want to go to private schools too. Hold that thought.

My school did do a good job of letting me know things like what college entrance exams to take, but those tests cost money. Application fees to get into colleges cost money. Sometimes quite a bit.

What I am trying to get at here is that what free tuition does is make things easier for kids who would probably go to college anyway. That's not bad, but does it make things that much better ?

There is one more important point; although attending elite schools doesn't seem to make a large difference on the lifelong earning potential of students from wealthy backgrounds, it can make a huge difference to students from poor backgrounds, especially minority students. Attending an elite school opens up new networking opportunities for people who have been previously unconnected.

Allowing already college-bound students to graduate debt-free is great for them, but it ultimately reinforces the existing class structure. It doesn't help students who could do well in college but do not know how to get there. It doesn't help people meet each other across different races and classes. (Hey, it's another aspect of segregation!)

Previously campaigns focused on the middle class, and a thriving middle class was seen as the ultimate goal, because then all would be well. That has shifted now to an emphasis on the working class, probably because a lot of us with middle class pretensions have backslid.

I'm fine with that. I think it would be an improvement if it dealt meaningfully with race and gender and all of those factors that some candidates just can seem to handle.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Black History Month: School integration

Looking back at history with an eye to women or people of color is important, and generally disappointing. You knew there was racism, you knew there was slavery, you knew some people were murdered, but then the more you look the more there is, and the worse we have been.

For example, I have thought the return to actual, open Nazis was a departure from where we had been. Sure, we have backtracked, and it comes from not honestly examining the past, but at least until recently we didn't have any illusions about Nazis being bad.

Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro was not initially on my radar, but the library had a viewing. I couldn't make that but I checked out the DVD and watched it. It turns out that people protesting school integration in the South used a lot of swastikas.

Brown versus the Kansas Board of Education was decided in 1954. Most of the famous photos of Black students going into formerly segregated schools happened between 1957 and 1960. Younger students were probably mostly born after the war, and even seniors for those years wouldn't necessarily remember it, but still, the war is not an abstract at that point. Parents and grandparents and teachers and certainly all of the adult protestors should have remembered the United States rising up and winning the war against evil. Sure, we didn't live up to that promise in a lot of ways, but swastikas in 1957? Really?

I watched documentaries about the Brown case and the attempts at integration in Clinton, Tennessee and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as reading a book from one of the Clinton 12, Jo Ann Allen Boyce.

It was disturbing to see that so many of the early students ended up dropping out or transferring or moving away. There was harassment at schools and at home. Sometimes interracial relationships that had been friendly before integration changed after, perhaps indicating that one factor in the harmony was everyone knowing their place.

In some areas, white people were able to strike a blow for segregation by withdrawing their kids. Ruby Bridges was the only child in her class for her first year of school. It makes me have to wonder, when did we integrate? Are we integrated yet?

bell hooks switched from a segregated to an integrated school a few years later. (It should have been the late 60s, but I can't find the exact date.) She writes about going from teachers who believed in their abilities (though still having some issues with colorism) to going to a school with more hostility. Some people tried to reach across, and some committed to their duty, but there was a lot of hostility.

That is a common theme with other students. Would they have been better off staying at the other schools? That sounds terrible, but the problem isn't the integration, it's doing it without the commitment to the welfare of the students. How do you reach the point of people accepting integration without starting it before they accept it? Do you have to sacrifice students?

It looks different out here in the Northwest. When I was in grade school, I could count the number of Black students in the school on one hand. In junior high I would have needed both hands, but you get the idea. It wasn't all white, because there were several students with Asian and Latinx heritages, but it was pretty white. That was not due to any school policy, but because our neighborhoods weren't integrated. Racist policy from years back did lay behind that.

Oddly, the thing that has made our area more integrated now (besides immigration) is that gentrification has pushed a lot of people out of their historical areas as they have gotten more expensive. I like the greater diversity, but that doesn't make gentrification a good thing. Plus, the new high school drew its boundaries very carefully to try and get the students most likely to excel, which means we have one high school that is very wealthy and one with a high homeless population. Fixing the social problems would probably do more to fix the schools, but when you are in charge of the schools, what helps most? What works best?

I don't have any answers; I just think the questions are important.

I also believe there are answers out there, and that good things can be done if enough of us will decide that we want it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Band Review: The Frst

The Frst is an alternative indie-pop-rock band based in Nashville.

Spearheaded by Mikei Gray - whose interview was posted yesterday - the band pulls from the rich local music scene to bring in talented musicians and capture what happens.

It would not be at all surprising if that mix ended up producing mostly party anthems, but that has not been the result. I think that can be attributed to two things.

Firstly, the influences on the band are too diverse for one single sound to dominate. Gray has played with groups like the Steve Miller Band, Florida Georgia Line, and Sean Kingston. For bands liked they list (among others) Imagine Dragons, Jason Mraz, and Haim. There is a lot to draw on.

In addition, there is an intentionality to the formation and management of the band that almost necessitates a thoughtfulness to what happens.

The songs are rock, but there is a philosophy to them, and a gentleness behind them. That doesn't mean that you can't find a current of funk running through "Seven Eleven", and I would even go so far as to say it is a Southern funk, but that does not define it.

There are currently six tracks out, all with videos. I think "Rules" is my favorite, but "Another One" may be the one that comes back to me more later.

That's one of the great things about music; it has effects you can't always predict. More than that, the effects matter.

I believe that The Frst understands that.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Interview: 5 questions with MIKEI GRAY

Mikei Gray has started band The Frst after playing live guitar with many musicians for the past decade. A review of The Frst will be posted tomorrow, but today we get to know Mikei a little better.

This interview was conducted via e-mail.

"Another One" relates to distracted driving and road rage, less common for song topics; tell us about some other song inspirations?

Well, Cycles was written about the cyclical nature of everything in life- music, fashion, politics, culture. Rules is pretty self explanatory, although it's meant more light hearted than it's often taken.
Ammo is about letting go of the past and more troubling times.

Pawn Shop, while a fun ode to a long standing Rock & Roll tradition of using what you've got around you and having to make it work, is also tribute to growing up in Gainesville, FL. At the time, there was no Guitar Center or anything and Lipham's (the only music store in town) wasn't keen on Punk then, so I spent a lot of time jamming in Pawn Shops with my Dad. He was always haggling them down on some weird guitar that we'd chop up and try to make sound better.

"There is no I in First" but, you are the driving force behind the band; how do you balance leadership with listening?

The nature of the song determines everything; which musicians are going to play on the record, who's going to mix it, etc... Ultimately, the music gets played for a small group of folks that we trust for honest feedback, not 'yes man kinda crap', but it's more about watching reactions and movements more than what people are saying.

What do you like most and least about being based in Nashville?

We wouldn't exist if it weren't for Nashville. Rock and Alternative music are a tightly knit underground community, which plays a large part of what led us to form in The Frst place (pardon the pun). And that in itself really is the best and worst part of Nashville. Okay the CMA traffic maybe the worst, but aside from that.... [Laughs]

You have spent a decade playing guitar for and with other musicians; what are some things that you have learned during that time?
Do exactly what you want to do now, because tomorrow probably isn't going to happen the way you think it will. When it does, it 's a wonderful surprise. Musically speaking, it may only take one song to catch an audience, but if you want to keep them you better have a plan, and fast. Otherwise they'll split because we have every flavor in the world at our finger tips. It's inspiring, but it also raises the bar. Finally, just ride the waves, there's a lot of ups and downs in any musicians career, be happy for your peers and just make music every single day!

What do you bring to the studio?
For the most part we're operating out of our own studio at the Missing i Records office, Jeff probably has to bring the most and that's just an extra snare drum and maybe a few cymbals. The rest of the gear is setup, mic's placed, ready to flip a switch and start rocking. We record everything we play, because you never know when the magic is going to hit, and when it does, it isn't the same on the second pass, (Are you catching a theme here?) so we will frequently stop and rewind and see exactly how a few bars of a jam transpired. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It sounds like Mikei is doing exactly what he should be. Tune in tomorrow for more on The Frst!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Black History Month: Random readings

Even when I have a defined reading plan things do not always go as expected; without a plan everything was always going to be all over the place. I did want to spend a little time on how and why I read what I read. Me adding things and getting distracted  and mission creep are all common themes; here's some delineation of how that works sometimes. It's not all-inclusive, because that would take too long, and sometimes I don't even know.

Starting out with a theme

Affrilachia by Frank X. Walker

I really thought that while focusing on film it would make sense to read some poetry too, and that this would be a good start. Then I just didn't find any other poets that I hadn't read yet. I have been pretty good about incorporating poetry into other months. I wanted to read some Frances E.W. Harper, but I couldn't find her book. I just didn't get back to that idea, except that the Boyce book was kind of poetry too.

Because of people I know on Twitter
Missing Daddy by Mariame Kaba
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women's Fight for their Rights by Mikki Kendall and A D'Amico

I follow Kaba and Kendall, and was excited to find their books available. Kaba's book is a children's book, covering a not well-filled niche. Kendall's book is amazing for how much it covers. It could easily fit into a college curriculum. That should be checked out.

Still from Twitter, but not quite as personally connected
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison
The Deep by Rivers Solomon and clipping.

Solomon wrote their novel inspired by a song by clipping., though that is kind of oversimplifying it. The book got a lot of Twitter buzz, and it was deserved. I don't tend to read a lot of fiction because there is so much non-fiction I want to get to, but it has a purpose too. It's important to remember that, and balance it some.

Hair Love got Twitter buzz and Oscar buzz, because there is a video short too. They are both really good, but here is your guide, based on my perception: the book is more from the girl's point of view, and the video identifies more with her father. Perhaps because of that, I understood the book better after seeing the video, so I would start with that.
Just because of how library searches work

The Headless Haunt and Other African-American Ghost Stories by James Haskins

I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and E. B. Lewis

It is actually quite logical that I Love My Hair! came up when I was searching for Hair Love. The book of ghost stories did not really relate to what I was looking for, but hey, sometimes there is serendipity. I love "real" ghost stories.

Because of the Goodreads book awards
Sulwe by Lupita N'yongo and Vashti Harrison

Once a year I am encouraged to vote for books in 16 different categories. Generally I have only read a handful of the books in maybe three or four categories, but I still look through them and I usually check out a few of the children's books. In this case I am quite fond of Lupita N'yongo, and I was already familiar with Harrison's gorgeous art from Hair Love.

Suggested by a friend 
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I posted an article about the Black Panther breakfast program, and a friend mentioned there was a book about it from the point of view of children participating. I liked it. We may be separated by time and race, but as an overly responsible older sibling, I related a lot to the main character.

I read an article

The Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce

One of the exciting things about this last round was how current so many of the books were; people were talking about them and nominating them because they were new. Most of that was happening in 2019, but I was reading things in the year they came out and that is not that common. Anyway, I read a review of Boyce's book, and decided to read the book itself.

That was the book that blended the most with my unexpected watching, and that is something I need to write about a little more next week.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Black History Month: Spotlight on Sean Qualls

On a separate note, I have decided this year to get back to my goal of checking out all of the Caldecott Medal winners. I am just checking out five a month, so it is not overwhelming.

It makes sense to write about that here, because some of them aren't very well-written. This is disappointing, but logical; the award is for the illustrations, not the text. (And it's still not as disappointing as some of the more racist illustrations and text, especially for 1940 and 1941.)

I decided I wanted to focus on the work of Sean Qualls because reading two books he had illustrated showed me that I really liked his style. It may have helped that I liked those books. However, Emmanuel's Dream was an award winner for the content. I don't remember if The Poet Slave of Cuba was on the recommended list for readings related to Cuba, or if I read it because I really liked Margarita Engle after reading some on the list, those were recommendations based on text.

The fact is, illustrating is a business.

To be fair, there were sometimes notes from the illustrator, and there were books that he liked better than I did. Maybe he made himself like them to be able to do a good job, or maybe he grew fond of them after working on them and thinking about them and trying to make the best work of them. That being said, finding an illustrator you like may not be the best way to find books where you like how they were written.

And yet, maybe it's not a terrible way either. Some of the books were pretty good, and I don't know that I would have found them in another way. Some of them could still inspire good discussions. All of them have good art. I really like his collage style. It is fun that there were a couple of collaborations with his wife.

That being said, Phillis' Big Test and especially Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass do not do justice to the history, and most of the letters in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader are not that great. How We Are Smart isn't that convincing, but that may be more of a problem with how multiple intelligence story is understood. None of those are on Qualls.

Dizzy was great, and putting it together with books on Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane makes for a nice theme. Sally Derby's book, Jump Back, Paul not only educates about Paul Dunbar but gives a kind of blueprint for appreciating poetry. There is also impressive work with words by Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison and Mandela family members. I really liked Who Will I Be, Lord?

I think Bird in a Box could have used better editing, but it was still entertaining.

It is a recurring theme of these months that as you cast a wide net not everything is of equal quality, but the search is still worthwhile. A book you give three stars is still pretty good, even if not as good as the five star books.

I see posters in the library about reading your child 1000 books before they start kindergarten. That seems like a lot, but that is basically reading them one book a night for three years (a bit less), and you have five years before kindergarten. Of course, there will be repeats, but there is room for many different books.

Of course, buying that many books would be expensive and impossible to store. Be a good patron of your library and it will be easy. They were only missing one of the books listed under Sean Qualls. I will find that one eventually, and I have requested the two that came out new since I looked.

I must have enjoyed the looking.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Black History Month 2019 AND 2020!

Last February I was so behind in the other readings that I decided to would change my focus and watch movies by Black directors instead. In addition, because there were so many stupid, racist things happening in February, I gave the month a do-over, posting content from June 19th through July 31st.

I am still not where I want to be, but I am ready to give a status of what I have done and what I will be doing.

I have watched 24 intended films by Black directors, plus the first three seasons of Key & Peele. I am going to start writing about those. I am also still going to try getting in one more documentary series, two more dramatic films, and one extended video for a concept album. I believe I can do it!

(I also just went to see a play, which I will get back to at the end of this post.)

There was also some reading. I mentioned wanting to check out more books illustrated by Sean Qualls, which I have done. I also thought maybe I would do some books, like maybe some poetry books or something. That didn't turn out quite as expected, but I will write about what I did read.

In addition, at one point I had this ambitious idea that I would be watching some of the media every day, and when I had days when I couldn't do one of the movies or one of my television shows (I have finally seen the second season and that one episode from the third season of Black~ish), I would search out things I could watch. I saw a few short documentaries that had not initially been on my radar. There was one on Emmett Till, but the others were on school segregation, or de-segregation. Viewing those, and reading Jo Ann Allen Boyce's book, plus some reading from bell hooks' (though that is from the education list)... yeah, I have some thoughts.

Song-wise, I am pulling the daily songs from some of my favorite artists from this post:

I would like to be reviewing Black artists - and interviewing them - but I am having a hard time getting anyone to agree to interviews (asking a good friend first may have given me an unrealistic sense of the possibility) and most of the relevant artists I have been wanting to review have very long catalogs that I could never make it through now. Fortunately, most of the bands that have followed me recently are newer and I can at least get through their content, whether or not I can get them to answer questions.They're pretty white though.

Looking ahead, I think my 2019 and 2020 Asian Pacific American Heritage readings are just going to blend together, and that's okay. I think that is going to happen for 2020 and 2021 Black History Month reading as well. I have about 130 books to read, and I have not started yet. It's going to take a while.

Now, with a list of that size, I don't know that it will make sense to wait to completion to start writing. I may do posts on groupings of books all throughout the year. That is what I have been doing with the death, dementia and wholeness reading, and it seems to work out okay. Sometimes I may not even have to write about a book that I read; I don't know. 

I do think that as I go through the music reviews over the years (getting closer to being ready!), it may make sense to log book-related posts, and start thinking about which books have been the most essential. What are my picks? Because some are better than others, but I don't regret any of it. I am glad to have put time into this.

Now, about that play! A friend sent me this link, about events happening through the month:

The month is winding down, but there are still things you can do, and the web page lets you browse the schedule by week. You do still have two chances to see the Who I Am play, which my friend and I saw Saturday night. I recommend going if you can. I recommend that for the knowledge, and for the spirit, and for the support of local art and youth performance.

There are always opportunities to learn more and understand more. You do need to look.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Band Review: Stormy Strong

Stormy Strong self-describes as "Saltwater Rock". The dress appears to be more yacht rock, and there is a strong nautical theme -- at least in the videos -- for this Santa Cruz band.

Their best songs are probably "Stolen Winter's Kiss" and "Holiday". However, there are two songs that tease -- "Burning Bridges" and "Where Is My Mind" -- that start off reminiscent of other songs. (Specifically "Dyslexic Heart" by Paul Westerberg and for the other with the feedback many, but it ends up usually reminding me of "Time Stands Still" by The All-American Rejects.)

When these reminders happen it feels like a cheat, because you remember this better song, and you want the current song to rise to that level. Then it doesn't, but the original song gets stuck in your head so maybe it works out.

That's not to say that Stormy Strong is horrible, or even bad, but it does feel insufficient. Maybe there should be more emotional depth or more technical proficiency or more effort spent.

There was a series of commercials for Carl's Jr. and Hardee's where there was an emotionally withholding adventurer father and his mess of a son. I know it is at least partially based on their Facebook bio, but I kind of feel like this is what that son's band would be like. It's not bad listening, but it probably is not what was intended.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Just Mercy

Yesterday's post was short but today will make up for it. Sorry.

I saw Just Mercy, and it was an emotional roller coaster.

This isn't exactly going to be a review, though I will say it was good and I can give some details on that. It also isn't going to contain much in the way of spoilers, though there is one. This is more about my reaction to it.

Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. The movie follows him as a recent graduate of Harvard law school, going down to Alabama to work with death row inmates. It was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who is credited as a writer along with Stevenson himself and Andrew Lanham.

I am more used to Jamie Foxx from comedy, so it would be easy to forget that he is a good dramatic actor, but he is. I have been impressed with Michael B. Jordan's acting for a while now.

The subject matter is important, and that is felt, but things move along at a brisk pace, with moments of grace and beauty.

Those moments were probably helpful for those of us on the emotional roller coaster.

I had not done a lot of research or planning regarding the movie. I needed to get out of the house and I had heard some good feedback on the film, so I went.

I read a profile of Bryan Stevenson a few years ago (it was from 2012), and there was a part that stuck with me. I looked it up again, so I am going to quote it:
He then walked with Richardson to the execution chamber.

“Bryan, it has been so strange,” the condemned man said. “All day long people have been saying to me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ I got up this morning, ‘What can I get you for breakfast? What can I get you for lunch? What can I get you for dinner? Can I get you some stamps to mail your last letters? Do you need the phone? Do you need water? Do you need coffee? How can we help you?’ More people have said what can they do to help me in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did” before. 

So your spoiler is that this happens in the movie. Among the multiple death row inmates there is one execution.

I said it stuck with me, but that is not exactly right. It hit me hard then - to only have people looking out for you on the last day of your life, and how much does that affect why your life is ending that way - but it's been a while, and I hadn't thought of it. I certainly hadn't remembered Stevenson's name.

I suddenly realized that this was his story, and this is what was happening now. Knowing more about the man being executed and relating to him in a different way, I cried a lot. I can't even swear they were the first tears; there was a lot that was touching in the movie, and me crying at movies is not at all rare.

But that wasn't even the real roller coaster.

There is kindness and devotion to justice and humanity in the movie, but there is also a lot of horrifying injustice greatly facilitated by racism. There were moments of humiliation and fear, and there was a lot of hopelessness with that. Sure, Bryan Stevenson could have decided to work somewhere more hospitable than Alabama, but then what about those men? There were a lot of people suffering under that system, and relocating is expensive. It's not always possible.

So the real ups and downs were moving back and forth between "Burn the whole thing down!" anger and the understanding that going in bent on destruction is more likely to harm than help, and more likely to harm those who have already suffered the most without deserving it.

That is not completely unfamiliar, either to me or to readers who have been with me for a while. I am going to make two other points about that today.

One is a reminder that when you have a system like that, based on higher ups getting to dominate the people "below" them, there are repercussions for those higher up too.

I do believe there is soul damage for those who abuse, but that is not my primary concern. You still have a young woman murdered, even though she is white. A Black person being wrongly convicted of her death doesn't make the community any safer. A need to be able to control Black people doesn't protect a white convict from horrifying manipulation. Whiteness doesn't save an officer from being fired when his conscience interferes with the railroading. Privilege has its limits when the whole system is based on domination.

Amidst all of that frustration, there was one thought that might help. Once you get a conscience and accept the reality of your privilege, it is easy to feel guilty about it. It may be more valuable to think of it as a tool.

If there are situations where you are safer, if you don't have to get worn down by the microaggressions, if people are more likely to listen to a person of color if you endorse what they are saying, maybe there is good that can be done with it.

My thoughts on that are partially from recently hearing Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, speak.

The burden of change often falls disproportionately on the marginalized, even though they have less power for enacting that change. There are opportunities to support and speak up and improve.  To amplify.

I knew that already, but the movie was a strong reminder of how much improvement is needed, in so many ways. There must be at least as many ways to help.

Checking out that book and that movie might be a good start. I am going to have some more posts about movies.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ups and downs and arounds

I recently got my first paycheck for caring for my mother.

The way things appear to be going, the house payment will take all of that, and all I can hope is that it won't mess up my insurance. For now, though, I had a little extra money and I was able to finally order a new pair of shoes, and get a Tri-met Hop card, and take care of little things that have been needed and overdue.

There has been a sense of euphoria with it; it is going on four years since my last paycheck. The euphoria is tempered by knowing that having this extra is temporary, and that my financial situation is still pretty bad.

It is also tempered by a realization that it is sad that being able to get something I need is triggering such a rush. It is good to appreciate the little things, but it shouldn't be this hard for anyone to get by.

The shoes are a big deal. I have plantar fasciitis so when that isn't supported, that involves a lot of pain. My old pair of shoes did support it, but they have been worn down past the point of support for several months now.

I had a conversation a couple of years ago about disability that was kind of theoretical, but kind of not. A woman had been taking a class, and after one lecture she approached her professor because she was not sure if her nearsightedness made her disabled or not.

That led to some interesting discussion, for her with her professor then, for us later, about how that lack of clear definition affects things, and about the fluidity of disability. Here is the concrete thing for me though: I am missing out on a lot if I don't have my glasses. Regarding that fluidity, I used to only need glasses for things at a distance, and now I have issues with small print as well. That is something aging does. Regardless, in terms of my ability to participate in things, and appreciate what is around me, and know what is going on in my surroundings, glasses are really important.

They are also expensive, and insurance coverage for them is generally not great. Like maybe insurance will cover $250, but the out of pocket cost can easily get close to that. Do we think people being able to participate is important?

Dental coverage is similar. It is not automatically covered, but it is more crucial to health than vision. Problems that start in your teeth can easily move into your bloodstream and affect other things. In addition there is a social participation factor, because there is a big stigma on missing or discolored teeth, and people are judged based on that.

Anyway, I don't intend for this to be a lengthy post, but tomorrow I want to write about a movie I saw, and this post is a lead-in.

First, we should think about what we want people to have, and how hard things should be.

And second, it should be understood that I get emotional.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Rays of hope (featuring more books)

Two weeks ago I wrote about reading books about death. That also led to reading about books that had to do more with emotional healing. There were many related books about dementia too, but that is mostly a different post.

There is one connection, in that sometimes as my mother's mind gets stuck in different times and places and modes of thought, I see traces of past hurts and fears.

We hear stories from other people, and we know that she could be much worse, but she was generally a pretty easy-going, good-humored person, and that carries through. Some of the bumpy spots are pretty universal, but they aren't random either.

When I sought out information about healing and wholeness, I suppose it was initially so that I could be able to handle everything; that my weak spots could quit dragging me down. It's not that I would have been against anyone else being emotionally healthy, but I have seen more benefits, and more potential and am taking a broader view now.

One of the earlier books that impressed me the most was My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging by Rachel Naomi Remen. There were stories that cut deeply - I will probably blog about those some day - but mainly there were many different examples of healing and grace, so it was a deeply positive and inspiring book.

More recently there have been three that I am thinking of together.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk

One of the most impressive parts of this for me was understanding why EMDR did not work for one person. It could be great for others; it was the wrong direction for her and that was completely logical after learning more about it. That contains a key part of the conclusion that I am getting to, so hold that thought.

Otherwise, there was a lot in here on different methods and the success they have had, and it was encouraging. I committed to re-read it, and that is one more of those things I need to get to.

Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain by James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth

This is probably not the best book on expressive writing, but it was the one that the local library system had. Most of my personal healing work comes through more analytical writing, which is different. Expressive writing can be faster, and not require so much boning up beforehand, and because it can be completely private has benefits for people who can't afford professional help, or feel awkward about working with someone else. It can be a good tool.

The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma by James S. Gordon

I haven't actually read this one yet (I have checked it out) but I did hear Dr. Gordon speak at Powell's Books recently. A few things really impressed me.

He started us off with a deep breathing exercise (it was a small group, which may have helped), and then asked us about any changes during it. He gave some background on the universality of mindfulness exercises, but also pointed out that with a simple thing you can make a change. It may be small, but for people who feel hopeless for any change, that can be huge.

Also, the excerpt he read about a young girl from Palestine who lost relatives, and her progress, was remarkably hopeful. His organization works with people in terrible circumstances, but he also takes a very broad view of trauma and stress; everyone experiences it in some way. It is easy to minimize what seems like our more usual wear and tear, because we all know some people who have it worse. That doesn't mean that we don't have wounds, or that they don't affect us, or that we wouldn't do better with some healing.

I look forward to reading the book, and I hope to take some training this summer (a lot would have to happen for that to work out, but I hope). Beyond that, probably reading the books fairly close together is a factor, but it reminds me that there are a lot of options for healing. Not everything will work for everyone, but maybe there are enough different options that there is something for everyone.

There is still a lot to work on with accessibility of care, and reducing the frequency of extreme trauma (we could do a lot there) but it is ultimately encouraging to know that there is room for hope.

Related posts:

Friday, February 07, 2020

Band Review: SOUND of SU

SOUND of SU is a musical duo based in Germany, consisting of Sophia CrΓΌsemann and Umut Yildiz. They currently have six videos available on Youtube.

It starts with such a heavily synthesized version of "White Christmas" that it leads one to expect a more techno band.

Some songs bear that out, especially with their original material, but there are also some very soulful covers that show another side.

"Tear Down the Walls" may be the best example of a SOUND of SU song, then, because while there are strong technical elements, the chorus touches on that ability for soul.

As the subject matter of the songs often seems to deal with the difficulty of finding humanity surrounded by the technology of modern life, finding a balance and harmony between the organic and mechanical may be the most natural flow for this new band.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020


It has been a source of some irritation to me that no matter how often my church says that we don't endorse any political candidate or party, so many members are certain that only Republicans can be righteous.

Despite that, I have felt like the policy of not endorsing is good. Usually even though you have to choose a candidate, and there may be clear superiority between candidates, how many people who seek public office deserve a religious endorsement?

That being said, there may be a point to endorsing whoever is running against evil.

Again, this is where the inability to deal meaningfully with racism is a problem. We should not have been so vulnerable to Russia. We wouldn't have been if we had already dealt with the fact that our history is built on slavery and genocide, and that settler colonialism is not superior to the other kinds.

As long as we don't deal with that, we will not get it right. We will devalue people, and it won't just be people of color and and women and people with disabilities, because just like no amount of money is enough to satisfy greed, no amount of tyranny can ever be enough to satisfy a lust for power. If you don't deal with that, the other things you do to try and deal with the environment or economics or health care won't be enough.

That can be explored in much greater depth, but I am not doing it now.

What I mainly want to say is that the most important thing to me in any candidate is how they are on equality. Castro was head and shoulders above the rest.

I had previously written that Castro's support of Warren makes sense, but I did not actually say that she is my choice. I am saying that now.

And she is not good enough on race.

But she is better than the others. She is more thorough at policy, she has a more diverse staff, and I believe Castro can be a good influence.

Sanders cannot move beyond economic equality solving everything (it won't), and his us-versus-them populism feels comfortable for people who vote based on their racism, which he keeps excusing as economic anxiety. I wrote a fair amount about things that were wrong with him last time around, and I have seen no signs of improvement.

Biden still clearly believes every stereotype about Black people. If serving for eight years with Barack Obama hasn't enlightened him, I have no hope for him.

Buttigieg seems steeped in the same traditional racism as Biden, but less amiable. 

Yang is specifically attractive to white nationalists. I don't think it's intentional, but it's a problem.

I admit I have not spent enough time looking into Klobuchar; the main thing that sticks out are stories of mistreating employees. Some of that failure to research is due to doubt about her viability. Castro had similar viability issues, but he was so exemplary it was worth the fight.

I would vote for any of them over Trump. I would vote for Bloomberg or Steyer over Trump. But of what's left, I think Warren is the best.

Is that a ringing endorsement? Am I thrilled? No, but that's politics.

Especially when we fail to deal with structural racism.

Related posts:

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Repeating the past

There were some issues with the start of primary voting in Iowa yesterday. My optimistic take on it is that this emphasizes the need for backup, like the paper ballots and photographs that they have. We learned the lesson (I hope) early and with a fairly small number of delegates at risk.

There are many issues with the primary process, and how democratic they are. Part of that is the emphasis on less representative states, like Iowa and New Hampshire. That hit me harder watching the "Pride in the Name of Love" episode of Mixed~ish. As they celebrated the first Martin Luther King Day, non-participating states were listed, and Iowa and New Hampshire were right in there.

I expected it to be Arizona, because of the Public Enemy song, but I had not understood the whole picture then. Arizona had recognized the holiday, but then a new governor backtracked, badly.

Despite Arizona not being listed, there were others. Of course Utah was one. Researching it more, the most horrifying thing may have been learning that Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi acknowledge the holiday now by pairing it with Robert E. Lee day. Yes, their birthdays were close together, but still celebrating the one feels like a contradiction.

Regardless, the primary schedule gives the earliest votes to some really white and not very progressive states. They may acknowledge the holiday now, but their foot dragging does not bode well, and closer examination at the states tends to bear that out.

Campaigning is expensive and exhausting, where having momentum makes a huge difference. Democrats started with a more diverse slate of candidates - we do way better than Republicans - but the balance of power still leans too heavily toward white people.

We run into the same issue with the electoral college. The way the votes are distributed favors slave states. It was done intentionally, and even after we have officially acknowledged that slavery is wrong the influence persists.

This is where it connects to not being rude and bringing up uncomfortable topics: slavery is barely mentioned in the constitution. They thought about it, they contorted around it, but even when they are stating that a slave counts as three-fifths of a person, it couldn't be stated in those terms. There are free persons, and they count as one. Then there are other persons. Everyone knew what it meant, why not say it?

It seems like a way of avoiding shame.

You can argue about Jefferson's influence on the constitution, but one of the most interesting things about him to me is what he endeavored to hide at Monticello. There was a tunnel underneath so you wouldn't see all the work required to create the pretty picture of bounty. There were dumbwaiters, and show gardens even though there were needed actual producing gardens. There was at least one windowless room. There was a show of magnificence, but that show was reliant on slavery and not willing to admit it.

Clearly Jefferson was not the only one with that problem.

Collectively we still seem to be unable to admit what benefits we get from racism and what motivations we have for clinging to it; that leaves a lot of room for denial about its effects. There are people who have done great work, but there are still too many pulling against progress.

The benefits they are getting are not worth the suffering that they cause.

It is past time to start doing better.

Monday, February 03, 2020


I'm sure there would have been an outpouring of grief anyway, but the sudden shock of Kobe Bryant's death may have made the grief hit harder. There were many tributes paid, and reminders that he wasn't the only person on the flight, and also reminders that he was a rapist.

We get a certain amount of stock responses any time death is paired with fame. Some people share stories, and others bring up the simultaneous deaths of non-famous people to make those mourning feel bad for only caring about famous people. Some people bring up things that were bad about them, and others post quotes about not celebrating the death of anyone, or that this isn't the time, though I suspect for the original posters a concern is that if it doesn't happen then, when will it?

I sort of went over a lot of this when Paul Walker died, so I wouldn't really get into this, except that I can't help but be aware of two issues and both have political ramifications.

Perhaps I should get it out of the way first that I haven't followed sports closely for many years, and I don't remember rape allegations. I do remember something about Bryant cheating on his wife, and I hope that's not how rape was spun, but that has happened before.

(And some apologies for apparently being most inspired by those I am not deeply invested in. Maybe it's the emotional distance allowing me to overanalyze.)

Anyway, the first general issue is that people seem to be having a harder time giving anyone they don't like credit for anything at all; people are heroes or villains and the people who disagree with you on who gets which labels have to be shouted down. (I might have one candidate and followers more in mind than others, but it is not limited to them.)

Putting rape to the side for one moment -- and only for one moment -- Kobe Bryant was a good player, and not always a good teammate, but a supportive friend and an attentive father, even though he was not a completely loyal husband, and creative and philanthropic, though philanthropy distracts from the inherent problems of capitalism. That's just from things that people have been saying after losing him. Does the good mean that the bad didn't matter, especially if it's in the past? Does the bad mean he should not get any credit for the good? Does it even make sense to look at human beings that way?

(Which is probably part of the allure of dehumanizing the people you don't like politically.)

Now, what if that bad includes a crime?

Here's the first thing I am going to say; I believe he did it. If there was another woman who experienced the same thing, but backed down when she was harassed, and the initial woman bringing accusations got a settlement... realistically there are probably even more women, and I can't blame them for not coming forward.

Does being a rapist undo him being a good father?

There is a lot that can be unpacked about a system where some people deserve good treatment, but it is not required for others, and the double standard and rape culture. I am not getting into that now.

However, if we brush things aside when famous people are alive, then it can't be a surprise if there is still something to talk about when they die. I think it would be better to talk about it when they are alive. Give people a chance to change and grow.

Not everyone is going to want personal change and growth, but so many of these personal wrongdoings reflect a larger wrong in society. If we keep pushing hard topics aside because he is a good player (or actor or is holding elected office) or she took the money (or the prosecutor didn't think there was a strong case or he had a promising future), it perpetuates all of it. It is true for everything, but yes, more rapists, and more people being raped.

That might sound more social or cultural, but there are political ramifications too.

I intend to write more about that tomorrow.