Monday, November 19, 2018

American History Tellers Podcast

So I've gotten the opportunity to write a series for a podcast company called Wondery

I'll be honest: before this opportunity came up, I'd never listened to a podcast before. I actually recorded a podcast once, but I never heard the finished product. (That was when I was working for a friend's English language learning company as the resident writing expert and we did a podcast for the website on English writing tips.) 

Anyhoo, I am finishing up a series of scripts for a Wondery podcast called American History Tellers

This podcast tells stories of American history in a sort of documentary format, including lots of sound effects and re-enactments of historical events. I keep telling people it's sort of like a history documentary you'd see on TV, except it's for audio. It's also similar to an audio book - although unlike printed books, it's actually written for listening. 

The series I'm writing is on the history of party politics in the United States. It starts in the 1790s and goes up through the present day. It's a 6-part series. Each episode is about 40-45 minutes. 

Please understand, I'm writing the script for the series, I'm not narrating it. It's narrated by a podcaster named Lindsay Graham (no, not the douchey senator from South Carolina). It's not in the format of a lot of podcasts where you hear a couple of people talking back and forth or doing an interview. It's a narrative podcast - you're basically listening to a story. It's immersive in style, attempting to put you as the listener right down into the action as it takes place. 

For anyone who doesn't know how podcasts work, it's free. You just listen. There are commercials, like on TV. There are a number of ways to listen. You can go to the Wondery website and stream the shows from your computer. You can listen through smart devices like the Amazon echo (I read somewhere that you can just ask Alexa to play American History Tellers and she'll take care of it for you). You can subscribe to it on whatever app you use to listen to podcasts...Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, NPR-One, etc. 

The first episode drops on Wednesday, November 21, 2018. That's the day before Thanksgiving. The remainder drop each Wednesday thereafter. Of course, you can listen anytime, even if it's a year from now. 

I would be really, really happy if you listened. I'd be even happier if you'd leave a review saying how much you loved it. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The 10 Best Songs of Willie Nelson

So, in years past, I've done various "10 Best" posts about music. Today, I decided it was time to do another one. It took me approximately 2.73 seconds to determine whose catalog to feature.

While intently studying this list for future reference, please keep in mind that I have given exactly zero consideration to whether a song is famous or well-known. These songs are the Willie Nelson songs that I think are his best, regardless of whether you ever heard Paw-Paw play them.  Also, I have limited this list to Willie's solo efforts - which means I'm ignoring several hundred duets he's done.


10. I Gotta Get Drunk

The title pretty much says it all. Willie recorded this song in 1970 for his Both Sides Now album. If you like Willie, and you like to drink, I highly recommend this song while drinking. Or when sober.

9. Sad Songs and Waltzes

This classic is from 1973's Shotgun Willie album. After 15 years in Nashville and 15 prior albums, it was his first really successful effort. It was the album that really set him on the path to super-stardom. When you listen to his albums chronologically, you can definitely hear a change on this one. As the title implies, this is a sad song in 3/4 time about a broken-hearted singer who tells his ex not to worry about becoming famous in a country music song, because no one's currently buying sad songs or waltzes anyway.

8. When I've Sung My Last Hillbilly Song

From what I've read, this was literally Willie's first song. He was working as a DJ in Texas in the mid-50s when he recorded it on a reel-to-reel tape at the radio station. He later added a few more verses and included it on a boxed set in the early 2000s. The song is about a country singer contemplating the end of his life and career. Very ironic to listen to now, knowing it's his earliest recording and he's now 65 years older and there can't possibly be many more songs left.

(Couldn't find a YouTube version of the 2000's version of this song...only the original version from the 50s, which is really, really low quality...if you've got a streaming service, look it up there.)

7. Red Headed Stranger

This is the title track to Willie's signature album. The Red Headed Stranger album made Willie one of the biggest names in country music in 1975 upon its release. It's biggest single was Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain. It's actually a concept album, telling the story of a cowboy who kills his wife and her lover and then flees and attempts to put his life back together. The title song was written in the 50s by a duo of professional songwriters. Willie built his album around it 20 years later. The song tells the story of a cowboy whose wife has died (on Willie's album, it's explained in other songs that he actually killed her for cheating on him). While still in mourning, he goes ahead and shoots a prostitute who dares to lay a hand on his dead wife's horse. It's pretty violent and non-PC to be honest. But this is 'merican country music, so that makes it okay.

6. Help Me Make it Through the Night

This song was written by Kris Kristofferson and Willie recorded it twice. The most famous version of the song is by a female country singer named Sammi Smith. Willie first recorded it in 1972 on his The Willie Way album. He then recorded it again in 1979 for his Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson album. It's that second version that I'm referencing here. Just a perfectly written and perfectly sung country music song.

5. My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

It's really hard to put this song at #5, because I freaking LOVE this song. But that just goes to show you how good Willie is. This is another song that was written by someone else, but Willie made it famous. This is probably the earliest Willie song that I can actually remember. I recall my mother playing this song when I was a kid. It made me want to be a cowboy.

4. It's Not Supposed to be That Way

This song comes from 1974's Phases and Stages album. It was the album that came after Shotgun Willie and before Red Headed Stranger. Like Red Headed Stranger, it's a concept album, telling the story of a break-up. The front side of the record tells the woman's story, and the back side tells the man's story. It's Not Supposed to be That Way is part of the man's story and it's just a really freaking good country music song. Love it. It's Willie at his best.

3. Healing Hands of Time 

Basically, the top five could probably be in any order, depending on the day. Healing Hands of Time is an absolutely incredible Willie Nelson song. It was released on his third album in 1965, Country Willie: His Own Songs. With a great little acoustic riff that backs up the song, this is one I can just listen to over and over again.

2. Are You Sure

How did Country Willie: His Own Songs not make Willie Nelson famous? Both this song and the last one are from that album. Neither was released as a single at the time. And yet they just have some kind of magic about them that I can't really put into words. When either of these songs comes on, everybody has to shut up to let me listen and sing.

1. Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground 

This is Willie's signature song in The World of B. Scott Christmas. It's a song that he wrote and recorded for the movie Honeysuckle Rose in 1981. He also starred in the movie. It's a live recording, taken straight from the film. He also recorded a version in the studio, but that version was only included on compilation albums and it's not the one I'm referring to here. The Honeysuckle Rose version is the one you need to listen to. This song never fails to give me chills and it's absolutely one of my favorite songs of all time.



Of course no normal person could come up with just ten songs on a Willie Nelson best songs list, so here's a bonus song that could probably go just about anywhere in the list above.

The Pilgrim: Chapter 33

This is another song written by Kris Kristofferson and included on the Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson album. I guess Kristofferson probably recorded it at some point too, but I've never heard his version. Willie's version is excellent. It's a song that reminds me a bit of myself. It's a self-reflective song of a person who (presumably) has just turned 33 and is looking at his life and who he is. 

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusherHe's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stonedHe's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Musings of a Saturday Night

Hello old friends.

Lately, I'm into candles. No, not newfangled electrical candles. Real life, honest-to-god drippy wax candles.

I'm trying to get my ambiance going up in here.

Yes, I have a miniature chiminea and a goddamn Buddha.

I know, I know. Some of you don't like the GD word. Seriously, grow up. It's 2018.

Have I mentioned that I've been in a materialistic phase lately? This might require a bit of explanation. I've never been a materialistic person. Oh, I mean I have as much shit as the next average white middle class dude, but I've never been one to constantly buy stuff for myself. I have shirts in the closet that I've been wearing for 15 years. I've had the same work shoes for the hospital since about 2011. We still have dishes in the cabinet that we got when we got married...21 years ago.

But since the spring, I've been increasingly wanting to buy shit. Of course, it's not the typical shit that average people like you would's stuff like old man hats and musical instruments and old vinyl records and wax candles.

Speaking of musical instruments, I learned to play the harmonica this summer. It was cheap, so that was my first musical instrument. Of course, as you well know, I already play piano, guitar, and drums. But I haven't learned a new instrument since college. For whatever reason, this year I decided I needed to learn new instruments. So I started with the harmonica. It was actually easier than I expected, although I suspect my background and general knowledge of music theory, scales, and chords, etc., helped a lot. Also, I kinda have a knack for musical instruments.

Of course I've still been playing tons of piano. I just completed songs by Dvorak and Liszt and have started new pieces by Beethoven and Schumann. I'm also learning a really beautiful piece by a concert pianist and composer named Nobuyuki Tsujii. He's actually blind, which makes his playing ability all the more amazing. The piece in question is an elegy dedicated to the victims of the 2011 tsunami that killed thousands in Japan. ANYWAY, it's a gorgeous song. I highly recommend you Google it, OR wait until I post myself playing it on YouTube. :)

Didn't know I had a YouTube channel? It's okay. You can follow me here.

Do you play the piano? Do you know anyone who does? If so, you can buy my original compositions and arrangements here. (You can also listen to them there as well.)

Okay, enough self-promotion that won't work.

I think I've decided to leave the Democratic Party. Oh, I mean, I'll still frickin' vote for Democrats, and I have no plans to actually update my registration, but I think I'm going to start self-identifying as an Independent liberal. The truth is, I've always been an independently-minded person. That's been true since childhood, and has in many ways defined my adulthood. I used to feel like it was more true of religion than politics, but now I'm beginning to see that it's true of politics as well. The reaction of the Democratic Party as a whole to the Trump Era has really alienated me. Their uncompromising focus on identity politics to the exclusion of practically all else has really put a bad taste in my mouth.

I realize much of what I'm experiencing has been horribly skewed by the broken lens of social media. These apps show you what they think you want to see, based on what you are most likely to click or or otherwise interact with. The result is that you see only what Twitter (or Facebook, or whatever other app you use) wants you to see.

I've really started thinking that maybe it's time to get off social media completely. I deleted my Facebook page over a year ago, but I am still active on Twitter and Instagram. I'm not sure, at this point, that either app really enriches my life. The fakeness of Instagram is almost too much to bear, while Twitter is just nonstop political activism. I'm just getting to the point where I'm totally over it. I can't quite make myself stop, though. It's sort of like a drug.

Well, this post has turned to crap. I had much higher hopes for it when I started. Now I'm just kind of over it.

So, bye Felicia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Thoughts on Roseanne Barr

I think Roseanne Barr is legitimately mentally disturbed. I don't know if she could actually be diagnosed with something from the DSM-5 or whatever, but there is something definitely not right about her. It's not just that she's a quack conspiracy theorist and right-winger, although that's a big part of it. But just the way she clearly can't think straight or make sensible decisions like well-adjusted members of society. Her latest thing is that her racist comments on Twitter weren't about Ambien (her first excuse), and weren't caused by ignorance about Valerie Jarrett's race (her second excuse), and weren't caused by her ignorance about the fact that comparing a black person to an ape is considered racist (her third excuse), but rather about how Planet of the Apes was about anti-Semitism and Iran is anti-Semitic.

Now, Valerie Jarrett is an African-American who was born in Iran to American parents. They moved home when she was 5. She is not Muslim. She is not Iranian. She was an advisor to Obama, but not on his dealings with Iran.

But apparently Roseanne is now claiming that she was tying Jarrett to Obama and Obama's handling of Iran's nuclear situation by using Planet of the Apes, which - according to her - is about anti-Semitism, and Iran is anti-Semitic and therefore Obama (and Jarrett, by association) is guilty of aiding anti-Semites.

It's an absurd and convoluted argument, particularly given that Planet of the Apes is not, and never was, about anti-Semitism. It was about racism in the 1960s, with the Apes representing white people who oppressed blacks. The sideways reference to the old racist taunt about black people being apes was an intentional aspect of the story line, attempting to turn it on its head. As anyone who has ever watched The Twilight Zone knows, racism was something Rod Serling worked into many of his stories and teleplays. He also wrote Planet of the Apes.

But apparently only "low IQ" people failed to understand that her tweet was aimed at the Iran regime. Just to keep everyone clear, here's the original tweet: "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj." If you don't understand how this tweet is about the Iran regime, consider yourself "low IQ."

It might also be worth noting that Roseanne admitted right after the original tweet, during her initial string of apologies, that the tweet was a "bad joke" about Jarrett's looks and was "indefensible."

I don't know if it's age-related, or years of pot-smoking, or what, but Roseanne seems like she is mentally unstable to me. She's always been edgy, of course. Her comedy has always had a touch of raunchiness and been thoroughly unapologetic, but she has gone off the deep end in recent years. The irony, of course, is that conservatives used to hate her. They seem to have forgotten the controversy she caused when she "sang" the national anthem before a baseball game, intentionally brutalizing it, before grabbing her crotch and spitting as the crowd booed. Now the same assholes who are boycotting the NFL over black players kneeling during the anthem to protest racism are treating anthem-degrader Roseanne like a hero. But no one ever accused the right wing of consistency.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Notes from the Cave

It's hot as hell and the air conditioning in my car is broken. I'm learning to live like it's the 1960s and air conditioning in cars isn't a thing.  It's fun rolling down the road with the windows all the way down, although I worry about getting a pebble in the eye or something when I'm on the Interstate.

Thankfully, unlike the 1960s, the buildings and homes I go into after being in my car are always air conditioned, so at least I can cool off afterwards. But I've started carrying my scrub shirt to work (wearing only a T-shirt) and putting it on after I get there so that there are no visible sweat circles across my back and sides. I cannot IMAGINE what it must have been like when air conditioning didn't exist in cars OR buildings. Can you imagine going to work in a suit and tie (because that's what EVERYONE wore to work back then) AND not having air conditioning, either in your car OR your office? We are seriously spoiled these days, and you learn just how spoiled when your AC goes bad.

My piano playing is going really well. I recently read an old book from the 1940s about piano playing for the "amateur" and it has really inspired me to make some positive changes in my practice. I had felt like I was "plateauing" in my playing and this book has helped me to get out of that. I've started working to retain pieces after I finish them, and am even thinking about doing a "recital" on Instagram Live (not that I expect dozens of people to sit there and watch me play for however long, but I want to do it for myself).

In college, I was a music major until my Junior year, when I switched my major and minor. The main reason I did this was because I had gotten burned out with practicing and I was terrified of giving an hour-long senior recital. That's what you do in music instead of a senior thesis. My last semester of piano instruction was the first semester of Junior year, and I got an "Incomplete" for my grade that semester because I had basically stopped practicing. That Incomplete is still on my permanent record. I've always appreciated Mr. Tilford giving me that instead of an F, which is what I deserved.

I still have the sheet music for at least three pieces that I was supposed to be learning that semester. The first is a difficult Impromptu by Schubert that I made virtually no headway on that semester.  I completed it earlier this year, although it wasn't as perfect as I would have liked. The second is a well-known Rondo by Mozart that I had made some progress on in college but never came close to finishing (Melanie actually remembers me practicing this song way back when). The third is a Prelude by Bach. All of these pieces still have my instructor's chicken scratch all over them.

Although that Incomplete will remain on my permanent record, it has been important to me to finally "complete" the work I was supposed to learn during that last semester of my formal piano instruction. Once I've completed the Bach piece (which is almost done), I will be able to consider that class completed, even if it took me 22 years.

This is also why I want to do a recital on Instagram - a way of feeling like I have finally finished my abandoned degree in music. There was only one class I needed, plus a recital (and three more semesters of instruction), to finish that music degree. Obviously I'm not going to take the class. But by completing the recital, I'll feel like I've come pretty damn close to finishing what I abandoned in 1995.

Here is that second piece I mentioned. It's the Rondo in D Major by Mozart.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Poem for World Poetry Day

In 1999, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) declared March 21 to be World Poetry Day. I never heard of it until this year.

But I thought it was odd because I had planned on posting a poem today. Just another case of my latent 6th sense, I guess.

Anyway, I planned to post a poem today because we got about 4 inches of snow last night to usher in the first day of spring. There was a lot of talk about this, naturally, on social media and it instantly reminded me of a poem I had written in 2004 after it snowed that year on the first day of spring as well.

March of 2004 was a few months after my wife and I had split up and right around the same time that we were filing for divorce. I was living alone in a cheap apartment in Richmond, Kentucky, with no family nearby, alienated from most of my friends, and feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was also writing a lot of poetry.

The first day of spring was a Saturday that year, so I was doing what I always did on the weekends: hanging out by myself in my apartment and hoping something would be on one of the 3 channels I got with my rabbit ears on the TV. I remember watching the snowflakes fall outside the sliding glass door in my family room and thinking about how totally appropriate it was that this year, of all years, it would snow on the first day of spring - the first day of what is supposed to be an end to the deadness of winter and a rebirth of lush, green life. It seemed so significant to what I had been going through and what was certain to continue for the foreseeable future.

It's not the best poem I ever wrote, but it's one of the most poignant and meaningful for me personally. So I offer it here for World Poetry Day, 14 years to the day after I wrote it, and in another year where it snowed on the first day of spring. 

spring snow

it snowed this year
on the first
not much, just
a light dusting that
but it reminded me,
painfully, of the
i’ve just endured,
and how it is


Friday, February 02, 2018

Notes from the Cave

I'm not sure if my blog really has a point anymore. 2018 marks the 12th year I've been doing this and I'm feeling more and more like it's run its course. I mean, do people still blog? It's so 2008, right?

Whether I continue to maintain the blog or not, I've decided to end my annual reading list and Serene Musings Book of the Year. Does anyone really care what books I read last year? Or how many? Or which one was my favorite?

How about I just tell you I read 24 books last year, and if I'd chosen a book of the year, it would have been a competition between Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, the classic The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman about the start of World War One, and The Dome, by Stephen King. Sapiens probably would've won.

Last year, I also started an annual "Completed Piano Pieces," list, but again, I think I'll spare you and not make that a tradition. For what it's worth, I am continuing to play 2-3 hours per day, 4-5 days per week, and completed 18 pieces last year, including several of my own compositions (it's one thing to write them, but then you have to learn how to play the damn things).

One of my biggest accomplishments last year was re-learning (after 25 years) all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I had learned this originally in high school, and used to play it in college as a way to impress women and scare up some tail (not really), and had always thought of it as my "signature song" - the one I was most proud of being able to play. I officially marked it completed in December, although I'm still working on making it cleaner. If you're interested, you can watch me play the third movement below. As usual, let me qualify the performance by telling you up front there are some wonky notes here and there. Also, near the end, my camera tipped over and I had to stop and fix it. Oops!  It's also important to remember that I'm playing on a 600-dollar digital keyboard that has a limited touch and dynamic range, so don't expect freaking Alfred Brendel.  (I know, I know, no one knows who the hell that is.  He's a famous concert pianist and especially well-known for his Beethoven recordings.)

I've still got it in my head to publish a book of my own piano arrangements of well-known old-time songs - things like Home on the Range, America the Beautiful, My Old Kentucky Home, etc. I've arranged 10 so far, but have a few more on my list. I'm not actually positive that I've got the software I'll need to effectively get the pieces into the self-publishing platform that I use at Amazon, so I may end up not being able to do it.

As you may have noticed in the video above, I'm wearing a brace on my right forearm. I've started having to wear it at work too. I've jokingly been telling people I've been training for my third triathlon.  (Did you realize "triathlon" had no second "A" in it?? It's not "tri-ath-a-lon" but "tri-ath-lon." I'll be damned).

Anyway, it's not really a triathlon injury - it's a repetitive motion injury from piano playing. For the first year after I started playing again, I was doing scale exercises (the so-called Hanon exercises) that involved playing continuous, high velocity scales and arpeggios for 30-40 minutes. It was fantastic for helping me to re-learn finger dexterity and whatnot, but whenever I would do them, I'd develop tension in my right forearm - almost like a shin splint, like a muscle tightening up. Stopping and resting for a minute, and stretching my arm out, would usually help ease the tension, and it would go away completely once I finished my warm-up and started practicing and playing my regular songs.

When I started to notice I was having pain in the same spot while lifting heavy digital x-ray cassettes at work, I decided maybe I should quit doing the Hanon exercises (I had gotten to the point by then where I was probably ready to retire from them anyway). So I quit doing the exercises in November, but I'm still having the pain in my forearm. It doesn't really hurt when I play, but when I'm done my arm feels tight around the elbow, particularly when I extend my arm. The brace helps with the pain, but I'm concerned that it hasn't gotten better yet. I mean, it's obviously tendinitis, but how long does that last? (Why do we spell it "tendon" when it's just a tendon, but "tendinitis" when it's tendinitis? Shouldn't it be "tendonitis"?)

I haven't posted on Twitter in almost 3 weeks and as far as I know, no one has noticed. That always makes you feel nice, especially considering I typically post multiple times per day. I decided I needed a break from social media, but I'm so pathetic and needy that I keep checking it to see if anyone has mentioned me being gone. No one has said a word. Guess I'll just kill myself.

(I'm just kidding, don't everyone start panicking. And yes, you're right, suicide is no laughing matter.)

(Why do we add a "K" to panic when writing it as a present participle, e.g. "panicking"? English is dumb.)

Have I carried on long enough yet?

I got a real live record player for Christmas. I've always been dismissive of those "purists" who only want to hear music on vinyl - could you be a little less pretentious please? But over the last few years as I've gotten more and more into old music (70s and earlier), I've started wanting to listen to some of my favorite stuff on vinyl. Also, there are some old albums (Christmas albums in particular) that are long, long out of print, and I'd like to have the songs on them, and the only way to get them is to buy old vinyl records. So I got a turntable.

The problem is, I don't actually have any records yet. Anybody got any vinyl they want to give/sell/loan me?

Okay, you're off the hook. I'll stop now.