Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If You Want Thinking Man's Non-Fiction...

...then Malcom Gladwell is your best bet.
Maybe you've heard of him? He's written several
critically acclaimed books, including The Tipping Point (2002)
and Blink (2005). His most recent publication is Outliers (2008),
which I just finished reading this weekend.

The central thesis in Gladwell's writings is that nothing in
this world happens for any ONE reason. Human activity,
human inactivity, the vagaries of random events...all of
these affect our lives. For the sake of simplicity (and sanity)
we convince ourselves that there is one simple reason
why any one thing occurs. But, as Gladwell proves,
we're just kidding ourselves.

Through the spectrum of "life-as-complex-event"
Gladwell shows us how and why Sesame Street came
into being (but also why Blue's Clues did better in
educating preschoolers); why an art expert could
immediately detect that a priceless ancient Greek vase
was fake (and why, after dismissing the expert's claims
and placing the vase on display, a New York museum
finally agreed that his suspicions were correct); how to
tell if a couple is about to get divorced (even if audio
tapes of them talking in private during marriage
counseling don't seem to give it away); why, after a
certain number of drinks of each, no one can tell the
difference between Pepsi and Coke; why the Beatles
and Bill Gates succeeded; why you've never heard of
the world's smartest man; and why Asians are so good
at math, yet tend to crash airplanes.

(You can't tell me that you're not even mildly curious
about any one of the above. You know you are.
These are curious things. And Gladwell gives the

Some of Gladwell's ideas are controversial, especially
in a modern world that believes that racial and cultural
backgrounds don't (or shouldn't) define who we are, and
that the best and brightest always rise to the top. Yet
if you're willing to read them carefully and thoughtfully,
you'll find many of these ideas convincing.

If you haven't read any of the above books, head out
to your local library and check out a copy. I can promise
you this much: you will be enlightened.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 3: The Picker Reaches Back 30 Years, and Returns to the Piano

Timeline: 1993 - 1996

In our last installment, the Picker had dropped hip-hop (and composition) like a bad habit. In this installment, he buries himself in the loving embrace of classic rock... and returns to the rocket 88, as it were.

At the risk of repetition, I'm not sure exactly why or when my attachment to hip-hop faded into nothingness. But I distinctly remember the time and the place where classic rock took its place: Camp Seagull, on the banks of the "Nasty Neuse" River, in coastal North Carolina, the summer of 1993.

Camp Seagull was mom and dad's ticket to getting me out of their hair for a spell. The summer after 8th grade, they decided that I needed a broadening of perspectives and experience, and shipped me off for six weeks of male bonding, bad cafeteria food, sailing instruction (Seagull was primarily a sailing camp), and homesickness.

They would repeat this process for the next three years.

I had no choice in the matter; so off I went.

I never enjoyed Seagull, mostly because I've never enjoyed sailing. Being out on the water is fine, but I'd prefer to leave the knots, ropes, sails and tillers to the more nautically-minded, while I sit there and enjoy it all. However, at sailing camp they don't typically allow the option of "sitting there and enjoying it all". Such an attitude invites mild threats from elder camp counselors, condescending remarks about one's masculinity from one's cabin mates, and a general sense of unease.

Mostly I survived for six weeks, eagerly awaiting the last days of salt-water (the Neuse is a briny estuary, not a fresh-water stream) and the return to Georgia red clay.

By the third (and final) year---the summer before junior year at
Marietta High---I had unbended a good bit. I did as much as I could,
taking up every waking moment with some activity (mostly to
offset boredom), and even got a Red Cross/lifeguarding certification
on the side, which I later parlayed into a four-summer gig as a
lifeguard at the White Water/American Adventures park in

And in that third and final year, I met the Doors.

The Doors were in a CD brought by a cabin-mate who was, in
all imaginable respects, a Deadhead. His collection of Dead
paraphernalia (stickers, books, music) was borderline-fanatical,
and his proselytizing (about the Dead, of course) much the same.

At the time I believed some old wive's tale (not my own mother's,
I'm sure) that the Grateful Dead were a Satanic band, so I kept my
distance from them. But the Doors...well...the Doors I latched onto.

The organ did it. The electric organ did it. The sound of that
organ---organist Ray Manzarek played, I believe, a Farfisa model---
was unlike anything I had heard much so that it made
me think in cliches, just like I did right now. In particular, the song
"Light My Fire" would send me into fits of ectasy; whenever it
began, I would lean over the Deadhead's bunk and keep one ear
trained on the speaker, from beginning to end.

How can I describe what that organ did to me? I can't. I only know
that it powerfully affected my thinking about music. If something from thirty years earlier could be this cool...well, then, the past was worth looking into, now, wasn't it?

Let me be clear, though, that the world of classic rock did not fall, unheralded, from the heavens during that summer in North Carolina. I had heard it before, many times; all I needed was a compelling event---such as hearing Manzarek's long "Light My Fire" solo---to bring old memories to the fore.

I had my first exposure to classic rock when I was still a child,
riding around with the folks. They liked to listen to 97.1
(Fox 97, at the time, now 97.1 The River), the "oldies" station.
My sister and I, held virtual prisoner in our seatbelts, were
forced to digest the likes of the Beach Boys, the Beatles,
Jim Croce, Percy Sledge* and Jan and Dean.** We would ask,
"Who's that?" and dear old Dad would enlighten us.***

(This, I think, proves something that the Beatles mentioned
in the book companion to their 1995 Anthology TV show; namely,
that even the music we think we don't enjoy ends up affecting us.)

Once Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby
Krieger had stoked my interest, I jumped in with abandon.****
At home later that summer, I dug through closets and drawers
and laid my hands on nearly all of my parents' vinyl records, and
began spinning them at any and every opportunity. I convinced
Sis to buy me a few tapes, two, such as (no surprise) a Doors'
greatest hits collection and the Beatles' "Red Album" (my
folks had the "Blue Album" on vinyl).

Thirty-year old vinyl albums were the soundtrack to my life
through junior and senior year at Marietta High. I would get
home from school, get a snack, go upstairs, turn on the turntable,
and start on my homework. Four albums, in particular, became
my favorites, the grooves nearly worn off of them through
sixteen months of after-school studies: Crosby, Stills, Nash &
Young's So Far; Santana's first album; Blood, Sweet & Tears'
Greatest Hits; and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

At the same time, the outside world was encouraging this interest.
Thanks to the 30-year cycle---the phrase used to describe how
trends in music, fashion and worldviews tend to repeat every
30 years---the music of the 60's featured prominently in
blockbuster films such as Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. At
Marietta High, too, the marching band began playing Blood,
Sweat & Tears and Motown songs during halftime. And then,
in freshmen year at Presbyterian College (1995), there was the
Beatles' Anthology television series (along with the Anthology
book, CD compilations, and assorted memorabilia).

It was a good time for older music, I dare say.

So good that I even went back to the hated piano bench...for
a brief period of time.

Envy led me there. Envy of a certain person I had known
in preschool, in church choir, and the last few years of
high school (he transferred to Marietta from elsewhere
our junior year). To protect the innocent, we'll just call
him "Mr. A."

Mr. A was, to put it mildly, a fantastically talented person.
Mr. A could sing, he could act, and he could tickle the
ivories like nobody's business. I remember being
especially envious during senior year when, in the midst
of some down time in a Theater class, he sat down at his
Kurzweil keyboard and banged out the synthesized intro
to Van Halen's "Jump"---pitch perfect. On several other
occasions, he sang the blues on a spare piano in the
auditorium where we rehearsed, name-checking
everyone in the class (including yours truly).

This was the sort of skill that made Mr. A popular with
the "in crowd"...and with girls, of course.

Meanwhile, your humble narrator was in the shadows,
fairly steaming.

With the perspective of 32 years, I think it's fair to say that
Mr. A must have practiced relentlessly as soon as he could
toddle. But I didn't see it that way; I figured he must have
one-upped Prometheus by stealing musicality, rather than
fire, from the gods.

And I wanted it for myself.

So I drove myself over to Ken Stanton Music and bought a
few up-to-date beginner's piano books. Soon I would be
challenging Mr. A on his own turf!

Alas, the challenge was never thrown down.

Like so many other things in life, this desire to better myself
and pick up a new skill lasted for a few weeks, maybe even
a month. I diligently picked my way through elementary
explanations of scales, chords, and right- and left-hand
exercises for building speed and dexterity. I learned the
chord progressions for the Theme to "Hill Street Blues" and
the Fine Young Cannibal's "She Drives Me Crazy."*****I even
learned how to "play the blues"---if one can call stumbling
through three fairly simple chords, off-rhythm and completely
stiff, "playing the blues".

But I never pursued piano with the zeal of a new convert, or
even that of an envious high schooler. I took my cheesy
keyboard---the same one used in my rap "compositions"---
off with me to college, but I rarely touched it. When I got
back home from college, it went back into storage. My
niece has it now, assuming it's still working.

It wasn't a dying of musical interest that doomed my piano
days, though.

It was something new, and sinister.

Something with a curved body, a long neck, and six strings.

Something that crouched in the corner of nearly everyone's
dorm room at Presbyterian College.

Soon it would come looking for me...

*He sang the original version of "When a Man Loves a Woman", so
famously butchered by Michael ("Office Space") Bolton.

**This was before the days of SUVs with flip-down movie players,
walkmans, and other gadgets. If you were a backseat passenger,
child or not, you had no choice in the matter of what you listened to.
You listened to whatever you parents felt like listening to.

***Actually, he'd bet us dessert that we couldn't guess the song/
performer...and he usually won. Dad won't try this game with me
anymore; I now know more about the music of his generation than
he does!

****The four members of The Doors; don't say you didn't learn
anything from my blog!

*****Both fairly "dated" by the time I got to them. I guess the
piano books weren't quite as up-to-date as I thought.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sex in Advertising

(That got your attention, didn't it?)

Yesterday I was driving home from work, and found myself behind
a pickup truck with a bumper sticker. The pickup truck was for a
small business that repaired/installed windshields (the truck bed
was full of them), and the sticker read:

Have Trouble Putting on Condoms?
Most Windshields $150 and up (phone number)

...Proof positive that sex (or lack of performance thereof) will sell
nearly anything...including windshield installations.