Sunday, May 30, 2010

Old Black Solo

“Old Black, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul plugged into a 1959 Fender Deluxe. The guitar came from Jim Messina, who found the instrument’s monstrous sound uncontrollable. Young bought the Deluxe for approximately fifty bucks in 1967. As Young told writer Jas Obrecht, he ‘took it home, plugged in the Gretsch guitar and the entire room immediately started to vibrate…I went ‘Holy Shit!’ I turned it halfway down before it stopped feeding back.’ The Les Paul/Deluxe combo, which remains the cornerstone of his sound, would make its thunderous debute in Young’s music on his very first record with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” – Jimmy McDonough, Shakey, page 298

Jennifer and I treated ourselves last night to catching
Neil Young’s Twisted Road Tour live at the Fox in Atlanta. About two months ago, thanks to a heads up from some friends in Atlanta a few hours after the concert was announced, we were forced to slave ourselves through the monopoly of Ticketmaster and secure tickets for a mere $125 each about 30 rows from the stage. Neil is definitely pricey when he comes to town.

The last time we saw Neil was back in
2006 when he toured with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Awesome concert where the band preformed (some particularly amazing acoustical stuff) two, massive 90 minute sets. Since then Neil has added two new studio records to his body of work, along with the first volume of his huge personal archives collection, and several other featured recordings. He toured extensively in 2008 with great new electric rock material, but he never came south. I will get to see that tour, however, whenever the Neil Young Trunk Show DVD comes out. At 64, this guy is still kicking ass.

He was at the top of his game in a presentation and form that I had never heard from him before, though I own all his albums and probably 60 bootlegs of various kinds of Neil and his music. In his career Neil has been and recurrently returns to pure country, folk, blues, rock, grunge, and even jazz on one album. But, Neil live has always been something a bit different from the slicker studio stuff.

Last night was no exception.

Before the concert, however, Jennifer and I decided to make Atlanta a mini-adventure trip. We went down early, had dinner at the locally famous
Mary Mac’s Tea Room. I haven’t had tea that sweet since my grandmother died. Great grilled trout and fresh vegetables though. Then we drove several blocks to the Fox, early for the show. We found a wonderful outdoor front table at the historic Georgian Terrace Hotel immediately across the Peachtree Street. Only people from around here really understand the significance of the Peachtree Street in Atlanta. It seems to be the mother for a third of Atlanta’s other street names. Many Peachtrees in the grammar of an Atlanta roadmap.

It was perfect out. Very cloudy, humid but with a cool breeze. I had two
Glenlivets and Jennifer enjoyed a Crown Royal. Everything on the rocks. They have Neil singing Beautiful Bluebird among other acousticals in the hotel sound system. There is considerable traffic. It is one of the most congested spots in Atlanta, just two lanes each for north and southbound traffic that are fed by larger, much more efficient by volume widening of the roads a few blocks from this area. The street here is no wider now than it was when Song of the South premiered in 1946. There was nothing close to an accident occurring though. Everything is orderly here due to the very low speed limit.

Jennifer and I got a nice buzz, talked and laughed while watching the very modern urban people and traffic at the corner of Peachtree and
Ponce de Leon Avenue. The early summer sun was defused by the heavy clouds. You can see it in the haze of the pics accompanying this post. But it didn’t rain on us. It was nice.

Then we crossed to the concert, again early. A casual checkout of the wonderful Fox entrance and main lobby area. The restrooms in the Fox have a tremendous luxury. They are true lounges. The spacious, nicely appointed Turkish-style sitting room is larger than the restrooms themselves. It is truly extravagant. After you come out of the washroom you could comfortably sit in the lounge and enjoy a glass of wine.

We went for the beer though, right after doing the consumer groupie thing and scarfing up t-shirts and a program that were all overpriced but very convenient and as authentic as you can get. We enjoyed watching the influx of people into the great Fox lobby. The activity picked up considerably and we went to find our seats in row BB.

Bert Jansch opened and was folksy and bluesy. I went to the men's lounge about 20 minutes into his performance. He wasn’t bad. We chatted off and on with a couple from Birmingham sitting next to us. They had the same story as Jennifer and I do. He was a fan of Neil all his adult life. She loved Neil but had only been listening to him the last ten years or so. She was enthusiastic during the performance.

Neil follows a 25 minute intermission. By now the Fox is packed and the audience is highly attentive and excited. It’s Neil worship time. Though the majority of the crowd is over 50 there are many younger people there. Some young chick behind us yelled “I want to do your laundry!” several times at one point. It was nice to be with 3,000 like minded people about an artistic experience.

That’s what this was. It was Neil solo but not Neil acoustic. Although it certainly started out that way. All his career Neil has split his live shows in half. The first half was always acoustic and piano stuff. The second half was always the loud, rocking, Old Black Neil. It gave the audience a full appreciation for the subtitles of the soft Neil while allowing yourself to let go to the rocking Neil.

There are many different Neils.

He opened with My, My, Hey, Hey from Rust Never Sleeps in 1979. I remember the first time I sat the needle down on this song. It was literally a couple of days after the album came out. I bought it my sophomore year in college. It is the first song of side one, the acoustic side. It sounded so great right from the beginning back then, and still now, especially live, to an audience loudly applauding the opening chords as they are played in the Fox.

Neil had two acoustic guitars, one of which was amped. He played some
brand new material on it. It sounded awesome. Love and War was a highlight. The solo fingering, the tune itself, and the lyrics, biting. Very hot new stuff. Peaceful Valley was the best of the new material, I thought. I’m looking forward to his next album. In addition to the acoustics, Neil played on an upright piano, a baby grand, and a pump organ. On the upright he played a new, minimalist song he just wrote called Leia. I like that song. On the baby grand it was I Believe in You, which the audience applauded for at points during and continuously after, loud and long.

On the organ he performed After the Gold Rush and the crowd exploded with its loudest appreciation so far in the evening. The changed lyric “look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century” symbolized how relevant Neil’s original music remains and got a lot of applause, many perhaps thinking of the tragic
Gulf Oil spill.

Neil also had two electric guitars, both famous. The White Falcon and
Old Black. Hearing Old Black solo made the concert special for me. He performed Down By The River on it and Jennifer actually teared up. Old Black vibed the vast performance hall and we felt the guitar in our chests and the arms of our seats. Have you ever seen a solo performance of nothing but an overamped electric guitar from 1953? It doesn’t happen that often and, to my knowledge, it has never happened with Old Black, the guitar that Neil rocks you with on most of his best metal songs.

Old Black carried Neil through The Hitchiker, a long-known unrecorded song. Hearing it live and (for the first time) electric was a real treat. Then he sat the guitar down on-stage briefly. He just let it sit there and reverb into the audience for about another 30 seconds while he walked around on stage drinking bottled water. Shades of grungy Neil. The crowd adored it.

Unlike the acoustic guitars, Neil didn’t allow Old Black to remain on stage when he wasn’t using it. A crew member always came and carried it off. They brought it back for the last portion of the concert. He did an amazing version of
Cortez the Killer solo on Old Black. At times the song wasn’t recognizable except for the lyrics he was singing, but oh how it sounded on the guitar by itself was unique for me and wonderful. Old Black creates a space unto itself. I knew I would probably never hear Old Black played publicly like this again. Neil might bring the guitar back out on future tours, for future solo rocking but it won’t be for a solo tour I bet. Old Black will always be, as it has always been, accompanied by a band.

Cinnamon Girl closed out the show, again on Old Black, with most of the crowd clapping the beat. Hands and guitar rocked the place. It became a sing-a-long when he got to the “Mom send me money…” part. Then he ripped off a lead and much of the audience screamed. It was Neil worship.

In the end Neil still knows how to rock a place, even solo. Jennifer told me this morning she had no regrets about the outrageous amount of money we blew on the evening. I felt the same way, mostly for the Old Black solo appearance, though we both wish he had played a little longer than 80 minutes for our money. Three more acoustic numbers at the end wouldn’t have worn him out and it would have made me fully satisfied.

Still, how many more times am I going to see this guy live? As one older gentleman in the audience told us during intermission, “You got to catch these old guys when they get around.”

A highlight for me in the Now. Thanks Neil.

Evidence of Neil. Jennifer snapped this pic of the back of Neil's bus parked outside the Fox Theatre. The significant connection of Zuma and Lincvolt would be known only to true rusties.

Historic marker in front of the Hotel across from the Fox.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"You Can Let Go Now"

Well, after six seasons of critical acclaim and a worldwide following, the Lost series concluded last night. It kicked off with a better-than-expected two-hour “pre-game” show that reviewed all the high points of the series from the pilot episode all the way up to the point which the finale began. I guess it was kind of a “super bowl” thing. Let’s talk about the thing as much as we can before the thing happens so we can generate as much ad revenue as we can. And ABC charged a boatload for advertising during the finale itself.

But, that’s a bit too cynical for the moment, really. The truth is there are legitimate reasons for celebrating the success of the past six seasons and for the work everyone from the producers to the actors to the technical crew put in to making what was, for me, the best show on television.

The sixth season of Lost was much like those preceding it. Plenty of twists and turns, surprises, complex puzzles, great character moments, action sequences, and multiple story lines weaving in and out of one another. If nothing else Lost was engaging television. As a viewer you had to pay attention, to commit yourself, and to discuss the show between episodes. It was just a natural extension of watching each week and it is the best sign of “great television” – a phrase you won’t see me write very often.

Certainly, I talked more about Lost with friends, family, and work colleagues than I ever have regarding any other TV show. The series was intellectually challenging, philosophical, metaphysical, dealing with the nature of reality, with fate versus free will, with love and loss and transgression and redemption. Plenty of material to ruminate over. But, more than any of that, I found that I discussed the characters.

As I have mentioned before, there has never been a TV series with more character depth than Lost. Even though in the last couple of seasons the focus shifted a bit toward the action, the mysteries, and the major plot developments, the various character arcs were still prevalent as the multiple storylines drove relentlessly toward conclusion.

Along the way I had this nagging fear that they would blow it. That the series would end up dull and muddled and uninspired like the last couple of seasons of The X-Files. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because, unlike The X-Files which FOX tried to milk beyond dry for additional revenues without any additional, genuine story to tell, Lost announced an end date three seasons ago. The producers knew where they were going, what they wanted to accomplish. They remained fully invested in the characters while exploring larger themes. They began resolving many issues throughout season six and left just enough tantalizing details dangling before us to make the finale meaningful and possibly worthy of the rest of the series.

Did the finale live up to expectations for me? Well, yes and no. No to the extent that, try as they might, two and a half hours still seemed a bit rushed to deal with all the towering issues still in play. Also, the producers almost went overboard to give us a happy ending. Almost.

But, the concluding episode was fitting in many ways and was grounded just enough that “they all lived happily ever after” is not really an accurate description of how it all turned out. Perhaps “they all died happily ever after” would be more fitting. (You’d have to be a fan of the show for that to make any sense at all.)

The “formula” for almost every episode of Lost was to propel the primary story line forward by use of flashbacks into a given character’s past – at least until, a few seasons ago, they shocked us all with a flash forwards in time. After that the whole time thing of where and when everything happened got a bit blurred. This season the producers decided to introduce the audience to a different kind of subplot technique known to us cultish-like Losties as “flash sideways.”

In Season Six the flash sideways was an alternate storyline directly paralleling and competing with the primary storyline. In the sideways story, Oceanic 815 never crashed; the characters were the same, but not exactly the same. It followed a possible storyline involving these slightly different versions of otherwise familiar characters.

Initially, many Lost fans responded negatively to the sideways storyline. It seemed pointless to them and many opined that it was “filler.” This infuriated the producers who, of course, knew what they intended and couldn’t fathom how anyone who had stayed with the show this long could believe they would do anything just to fill time. After all, every little detail of this series has been scrutinized and found pregnant with meaning for six years. Filler? Come on.

In the finale, the sideways story and the prime story began to meld together. This was handled very well by the producers. As the characters in the sideways Lost began to “remember” their experiences in Lost Prime, the differences between what was happening in one storyline and what happened in the other began to breakdown.

This is a difficult thing to describe to someone unfamiliar with the series, but it is a method of storytelling I’ve never experienced before. The terrific job done by the writers and cast totally sold it and made it believable, if somewhat disorienting and incomprehensible. But then, so much of the series challenged us as viewers exactly this way. So, in that sense, the finale was the fullest possible expression of how Lost felt as an experience more so than what actually was happening in terms of plot details.

There were several powerful, emotionally charged moments throughout the finale. These were not cheesy. The actor in sideways Lost experiencing a “memory” from Lost Prime was always shocked. They expressed a range of emotions depending upon who the character was. Tears of anguish, tears of joy, outright fear and denial, or just simply an “oh wow.” Watching how the melding of the two stories affected the characters was really the highlight of the episode for me.

As the two stories fused, the importance of the action within each one simultaneously disintegrated to some extent. What was happening became less and less important as to the effect it had on the characters. In the end, Lost became all about viewer’s relationship to what the characters experienced more so than about the action sequences or heady mysteries. This was as it should be. For all of its strange complexity and dramatic tension, Lost remained a show about people.

This melding of the two story arcs was never absolute, however. The arcs remained distinct, yet obviously connected. Finally, in the sideways Lost we experience this grand reunion of all the characters in a church of all places. In the end the show was about friendship and community and faith, both spiritually and in one another as a group. With the sideways conclusion we get plenty of those qualities from the characters in what amounts to a feel-good celebration of who these characters were and what they became – together, in the end.

Meanwhile, in Lost Prime, we experience some salvation but, more importantly, the sense of finding one’s purpose, of never giving up despite uncertainty. The final shot of the series is almost the same as the first shot in the series six years ago. Jack Shepherd is lying on his back, wounded and bloody in a patch of tall bamboo, waving in an island breeze. He is looking up through the bamboo, watching the stands shift with the wind. In season one the first shot of Lost is a close-up of his eye opening. In season six, the last shot is his eye closing.

Sure, tons of unanswered questions remain. To mention them here is pointless and, without context, they would all seem absurd anyway. The point is, in the end, everything isn’t neatly tied up, everything isn’t resolved, and some significant story elements still seem bizarre and unconnected. But, that’s OK. In fact, that is what I wanted. The essence of the mystery wasn’t solved. In many respects, it wasn’t even mentioned. Because the mysteries and questions raised ultimately were not as important as the characters themselves and the joy of watching what they took from the circumstances of the story.

In the sideways Lost, Oceanic 815 goes through some severe turbulence but does not crash. When the turbulence passed and the passengers started to relax the character of Rose looks across the aisle to Jack and, noticing his tight grip on the armrest of his seat calmly says “You can let go now.” That sums up the entire series in one moment, both from a story perspective and from the experience of watching this wonderful tale unfold.

As human beings we become so attached to the circumstances of our lives that we simply forget to just Be. Instead we grip whatever our passions or fears might be as if they are what being is about, forgetting all the while that our Being was happening before any of our passions or fears manifested themselves. It becomes so easy to lose focus, to forget others, to remain fixated in our little worlds of trouble and desire.

How much more rewarding it is to see all that in a bigger perspective. To open to the world around us, to other ways and other beings that are happening just as much and as real as any private realm we ever discover. And in opening up we discover something, the whole fabric of humanity is greater than the sum of its parts. This is known as “emergence." I think this is the heart of Lost. In discovering this simple truth, all the complexity doesn’t matter as much as the sheer joy of experiencing it. Or, in this case, the joy of remembering the experience.

So it is with six seasons of Lost. So, too, are these characters and we as viewers, now Found...even though - as it turns out - Jack is dead.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Bear is back

Three days ago Richard Russell wrote: "First, we saw the recent April highs in the Averages. Then we saw a plunge in both Averages to their May 7 lows -- Industrials to 10380.43, Transports to 4298.12, next a short rally. If ahead, the two Averages turn down and violate their May 7 lows, that would be the clincher. Such action would signal the certain resumption of the primary bear market."

The bullish confirmations of
Dow Theory (the last and strongest one was on March 17) have now reversed themselves. Today the Dow closed at 10,068 (down 376 points, 3.6%) and the Transports at 4,161 (down 214 points, a dismal 4.9%) - well below the May 7 lows. The selloff was global.

According to Dow Theory, this now means we will most likely retest previous lows set in February. The internal structure of the markets has been deteriorating rapidly for several weeks. Last week's so-called "
flash-crash" was not a glitch so much as a zealous indicator of where we are headed.

does not bode well for the Obama Administration - as the president will, of course, be tagged with the blame for what is likely to become a continuation of the Great Recession. (He will learn that his brave social agenda resonates with no one other than his most liberal supporters. His stimulus package and the health care reform bill will seem like bad jokes - which is what they are.)

For the record, the government stimulus did nothing but
increase our national debt. It did not get us out of the original recession. It merely delayed the recession from fully expressing itself. As Ned Beatty says in the great movie Network: "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature and you shall atone!"

So, my guess is the severely oversold markets will have some sort of short-term bounce before something resembling a crash occurs. Advisor
Jeff Cooper seems to think the new bottom will be somewhere around 8,000 for the Dow. Russell seems to think it will be lower.

debt situation is far worse than anyone has acknowledged. In the coming months, unemployment will likely rise, the number of foreclosures will likely increase again, the trouble in Europe will likely spread, and the Fed will be in an all-out battle against deflation. All this, while the Fed reading of the situation borders on delusional. (The markets are the definitive source on what we can expect from the economic "recovery".)

It was announced today that the so-called Leading Economic Indicators were
down for the first time in a year even though Moody's says the recovery is now nationwide.

Deflation will hurt gold in the short-term (and, consequently set-up a great buy-in opportunity for additional accumulation). But, the Fed will fight deflation tooth and nail. The reason why is our national debt. To reiterate something I have harped on before, in a deflationary environment the price of everything goes down but the debt remains the same so it is experienced as greater, heavier, in relation to everything else. The Fed will ramp up the money supply again, more worthless fiat Federal Reserve Notes will flood the capital markets and gold will shoot up again. The third phase of the gold bull market should show us unprecedented, historic prices.

No one knows for sure, of course. But, that's where I'm betting my money. And that bet is largely based, as it has been since 2003, on Dow Theory.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Silence of the honeysuckle blooms

Marcel Proust’s brilliant, sprawling novel In Search of Lost Time is about a great many things, indeed one might say it is about the full spectrum of human life and not exaggerate the truth too much. Fundamentally, however, it is about memory and the experience of memory through time. Proust’s theory of memory is complex but it includes the fact that unexpected memories emerge often from the most subtle things.

Perhaps the most famous episode in his 4,000 page novel actually occurs near the beginning, in Swann’s Way, when the narrator bites into a madeleine tea cake. A flood of childhood memories return to him in a powerful, life-affecting moment for the character. Proust expounds (as he always does) upon this moment.

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

For me, every year at this time, I experience this “more fragile but enduring” phenomenon specifically in smell. When the honeysuckle and privet are in bloom and sweetness pervades the air, almost intoxicating at times, I recall a particular moment of my youth. It is the spring of 1981. I am living in a duplex apartment in Athens. I am a student at the University of Georgia. I am walking back from my final class of the day and I breathe in the aroma of honeysuckle. It hangs heavy about me, thick with the buzzing of bees, hovering in my open-windowed apartment, as I read the rules for a role-playing game called Chivalry and Sorcery.

In high school I played what was then a new type of game, a role-playing game, called Dungeons and Dragons. It had just been published. A group of us played after school and on weekends. Not obsessively, but regularly. D&D was (and still is to some degree) a cultist market. Many people who play tend to live in their fantasy world as much as in the real world.

Later, in college and for a couple of years afterward while residing and working in Athens, Ted, Jeffery and I would get together and play Chivalry and Sorcery, which seemed to me to be superior to D&D.

C&S is set specifically in 12th century Europe. The human elements are entirely medieval. The character traits are more sophisticated than D&D and the combat system was much more realistic, though admittedly tedious. Thrown in the C&S “role-playing world” is J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves, dwarfs and halflings along with the usual mix of monsters, magic, and fantasy.

Ted, Jeffery and I went on many adventures together through our characters. Actually, we spent a lot of time just fighting each other and various other beings and creatures, just doing the combat aspect of role-playing. It was a lot of fun though, once again, not obsessively so. We played every couple of weeks for awhile. After about two years we stopped, though Ted picked it all up again later with his children and played for many more years than I did. He even developed a home-brewed, simplified version of the C&S combat system.

Last weekend, Ted and Jeffery came over for grilled burgers, some slow-paced conversation over a few beers, and to reminisce about days gone by while generating some new C&S characters just for old-time's sake. Character generation is a lot of the entertainment of C&S. You make 20-sided and 100-sided die roles (yes, there are some funky dice involved) on such “prime requisites” as Strength, Dexterity, Appearance, Charisma, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc. In turn, these variables are used to calculate such things as combat skill, carrying capacity, leadership ability and so forth.
Each generated character usually ends up with some strong points and some weak ones. The heart of role-playing lies in trying rationalize these variations into a cohesive mental map of your character’s abilities and personality. We sat around the table and discussed who these freshly generated characters might be. They were mostly serfs, naturally. For all the fantasy C&S is grounded in a medieval reality, after all.

Jeffery had one of the more interesting ones. His character was puny and witless (these are actual names for the levels within certain prime requisite categories) but had exceptional charisma and “bardic voice” (the ability to sing or hold attention with your voice when speaking). The character also rolled as a servant for his vocation. So, we figured he might perhaps be a personal attendant, maybe for a royal family, that tended to cleaning his master’s rooms and perhaps entertaining the family or at least the children with story and song.

This type of projected fictionalization of characters makes for a lot of the amusement to be had in role-playing. We didn’t do anything with our characters that night. Just generating them involves understanding about 30 pages of C&S rules just to accomplish what little we did with the system. Full-blown adventuring entails a great deal of planning and understanding of the entire rulebook, which runs well over 300 pages. We were happy just to stick our toe in formerly familiar waters and experience a bit of what we used to do so long ago. The character discussions were often humorous. Since it was Jennifer’s first exposure to role-playing she found all the rules a bit bewildering and spent a good bit of the evening asking what page we were on. Still, she enjoyed the talking about our characters, who they might be, weaving little personal stories into them in the best spirit of role-playing fantasy.

Before we settled down to generate the characters, right after our cook-out we went for a short walk on our property. Jennifer wanted to show off our rather robust growth of honeysuckle in the upper field. Ted and Jeffery both brought their cameras and took numerous pics of our gardens, flowers, and shrubs as we meandered along. May is really one of the best times of year on our property in terms of how nice our landscaped, mowed, mulched and weeded property looks.

As we approached the highly invasive patch of honeysuckle in our upper field, taking in its sweet succulence combined with the tall white blooming privet, I pointed out to Ted and Jeffery a peculiar absence. There were no bees. All this sweetness in any other year would be covered with various bees roaming for nectar. This year there are none. Absolutely none. The honeysuckle was as sweet as ever, but silent.

I mentioned my recent idea about how the biggest disasters are happening in slow motion. For years the bee problem is well known among scientists and environmentalists, but the general public (even astutely caring individuals like Ted and Jeffery) are largely unaware of such a surprising alteration in an ecosystem. This is known as Colony Collapse Disorder and it is no small problem when you consider how vital bee pollination is to plant life.

The reality of honeysuckle without bees can’t be read about. To truly come to grips with the rather shocking nature of the change you have to actually stand there and experience the buzzless silence – which is what we were doing Saturday night, as the sun went down, before we ventured off into the fundamentals of a fantasy world. In the real world there were no bees. And this left a deeper impression than, perhaps, anything else that evening.

Meditating later on the fragrance of my land at this time of year, on the carefree college days of learning C&S in what seems like another lifetime ago, I recalled that back then there was the sound of plenty of bees. So many you might get stung on occasion. And you could hear them if the breeze was quiet, outside my open window, amidst the thick honeysuckle, buzzing contentedly as I read that first edition rulebook.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Well.....Dog Gone

We put Parks down today. (In the pic to the right, taken two weeks ago, he's already looking kinda ethereal.) The cancer that was supposed to have been his demise back at the beginning of 2009 finally got to the point where the poor guy was in obvious pain. These past two days he whined constantly. He woke us up barking in at 2 a.m. He refused to be comforted when we checked on him. His lips became increasingly swollen and he started staggering around with his head oddly cocked to the left, which I took to be a sign that he probably had an irritating growth in his sinuses or someplace thereabouts.

I never wanted to see him suffer and, until recently, he didn't suffer much. Last night he was as spirited as ever at feeding time. But, otherwise his whole demeanor had drastically changed. He was running into things. Walking under bushes and rubbing the side of his head into the ground. There was a constant grumble. So, enough.

We did all we could, longer than any one expected and far longer than most people thought was reasonable. But, I don't regret doing any of it. We gave him the best (and longest) life we could and - consequently - the best death we could.

Parks is buried at the edge of the woods at the far end of our back yard. Charlie and Nala came to watch as Jennifer and I finished shoveling the dirt over him. They briefly sniffed around the fresh mound as we walked away, then they followed us back to the house.

Rest in peace Parks. You were a lucky stray. We were lucky to have you. Good-bye.

Note: Parks is mentioned throughout many posts tagged as "Home Life" in this blog. But, the story of his last year of life is basically told in posts on February 12, 2010 / August 1, 2009 / April 19, 2009.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Great Fifths

Note: This is a continuation of a monthly series on what I consider to be the greatest symphonies in western classical music.

There is probably no more recognizable piece of classical music than the opening to Beethoven’s Great Fifth Symphony. The stirring four opening notes are the first classical composition I recall hearing. Naturally, the first movement is my favorite. It has been described as death or fate “knocking at the door” of the individual human being. Yet, the work does not give me so much a feeling of doom or inevitability as it does heroic individualism in the face of rather stormy circumstances. To that extent I find Beethoven’s Fifth to be very inspirational. Almost three-quarters through, the opening movement slows and softens in to calm meandering oboe before a punctuated resolution.

The second movement develops two themes, with a series of crescendos. It equals the opening movement in terms of intensity and boldness. It is more stately and regimented, a march at times, a passionate plea another, rather than being rambunctious like the first movement. Strings and winds are balanced. Beethoven uses the entire orchestra very well throughout this great symphony.

In the third movement, winds and horns eventually rise up to equal the string section, developing yet another theme. The movement reminds me a bit of Haydn/Mozart and shows their influence on Beethoven I think. But, it proclaims uniqueness in the piping, skipping, and dexterous orchestration. Sweeping strings giving way to flutes and other winds growing suddenly quiet. The entire orchestra is explored by the composer at a very delicate, verging on silent, orchestration. Really amazing to listen to and probably my second favorite part of the symphony after the opening.

The finale begins without pause after the third. It is triumphant; the orchestration very balanced, with a splendid build up of tension and ultimate resolution, an immediate triumph. There is no Mahlerian struggle here, this is splendid pristine heroic victory. The initial climax of the movement is a magnificent moment for the loud string section. After a few more such moments the movement, near the end of the symphony, tones down slowly into another solo bassoon and small winds section soon overwhelmed by the bold strings. A grand, emphatic, heart-pounding, pulsating end.

Beethoven’s Fifth is in many respects a bridge between the technically “classical” style of Haydn and Mozart and the more emotional style of the romantic composers that followed Beethoven. It is, therefore, a work of transcendence that not only sat the classical world on its ear at the time (1808) but became universally respected and followed later. Part of the composition’s greatness lies in how many composers were influenced by it.

As great as it is, however, Beethoven’s Fifth is not my personal choice as the best Great Fifth. In fact, it is surpassed in my mind by two other fifths. Certainly, these other fifths do not equal Beethoven’s work in its place in history, but they do surpass Beethoven at an intimate level with me. Please note, however, that I find many moments where the two symphonies I place ahead of Beethoven’s fifth are favorably comparable to (an influenced by) Beethoven.

Beethoven is certainly a strong standard, but the greatest of the Great Fifths belongs to Dmitri Shostakovich. More complex than Beethoven, at times perplexing, the themes of this symphony are examined by the whole orchestra, then clever subsections. There are long, extended high strings throughout, sometimes deeper and driving.

For me, Shostakovich captures a feeling of expanse, of distance, a great distance or openness to semi-melodic uncertainty. That is my best description of it. The crescendo about 3:30 minutes into the opening movement gives way to a slow soothing rhythmic sophisticated orchestral experience. This is followed by another masterful build of strings and horns, racing now, transformed into, first, a military march, then the main theme returns to a disintegrating and disoriented orchestra slowly giving way to a blossom of clarity, the horns guiding the strings, higher and unto a visionary moment of proclamation at about 10:20 (listen to the first 5 minutes of the link) into the movement. The main theme is restated until we reach an episode of percussion and deep horns. Then, once more, there is a sunny, valiant flute and horn supported by rhythmic strings. There are many featured solos parts throughout the course of this wonderful movement. At times beautiful, haunting, difficult, the first movement is a masterpiece all by itself. I find it emotionally rewarding and intellectually very stimulating. It ends rather quietly, with the tinkle of small bells on keyboards.

Then, deep bass strings, deep horns and suddenly high clarinets, absurdly. That’s how the second movement starts, giving way to sweeping strings again. There are moments of boldness, almost a march, then a waltz by various solo instruments. The wall of strings returns with the main theme before bass winds, strings plucked, keeping the same rhythmic beat we’ve known from the beginning. It ultimately gives way to a very Russian sounding conclusion.

The Largo features restless, searching, longing strings that go on until the whole orchestra is wrapped in this heavily romantic build, accented by the very high notes from the strong violins. Then there is a flute and harp, softly alone, creating this small quite space where once there was fullness and richness of sound. Violas and basses emerge then give way to another rich full orchestral moment, highly romantic yet tinged with agitation. Again, solo sections take root. An oboe, a clarinet, a flute, each supported on a subtle tension of light nurturing strings. The Largo finally becomes string heavy, a variation on the first movement’s theme, passionately orchestrated but ending, softly, gently fading.

The fourth movement begins bombastic, quick, intense, unrelenting, and loud, ultimately expressed very percussively until at about 3:30 a French horn brings some control amongst troubled orchestration. Strings dominate for several moments with a stirring bass undertone. Then the main theme returns in a varied incarnation to bring us to another crescendo with strings pitted against horns, unharmonious until about 10:25 when everything is resolved triumphantly with heavy percussion and the entire orchestra contributing a distinct boldness similar to Beethoven’s heroism.

Shostakovich’s Great Fifth is melodic enough to easily tolerate its modern expression. Composed in the summer of 1937 this symphony does not sound like a museum piece as Beethoven’s does to me. Shostakovich is/remains fresh and listenable. The piece is timeless, its relevance still very apparent.

Jean Sibelius wrote a Great Fifth (1915) that also surpasses Beethoven’s in my opinion. The opening is the use of light winds and horns harmonizing upon the support of bass elements with only a light touch of strings, which are soon used to raise the intensity to a full expression of orchestration. Suddenly, things are bright; a trumpet declares itself and is answered by other solo wind instruments. The strings again play with Wagnerian subtlety underneath a lovely, complex Rimsky-Korsakov-like exploration of winds. The strings are used to transform every soft moment up again into a more vigorous juxtaposition. Sibelius’ first movement also has a wonderful way of provide glimpses of the main theme, which doesn’t come until the last movement of the symphony, in the form a loud trumpet notes. Several crescendos punctuate the movement, but the climax is a reprise of the opening theme, with proud triumphs, percussion, string solidity whipping itself unto a height with which Sibelius ends.

The second movement is soft, yet rhythmic, like a fluttering butterfly, lightly drifting as it guides its flight. This becomes a very warm and rich wealth of orchestration, proceeding rapidly at times, stately at others until again elements of the finale movement’s theme come to us in a much fuller orchestration using full string sections and horns. Yet again, this gives way to the rich, romantic composition. Sibelius conveys the pristine openness of Scandinavian landscapes in such brilliant music.

The final movement is the highlight, delight, and full expression of this Great Fifth. It begins almost without pause after the middle movement, briskly racing but soft, not loud. Strings rapid, building upon to the main theme’s first magnificent expression, conveyed in confident horns on a solid string bedding. A sweet wind piece is stated just before, at about 2:10, the movement comes into the full expression of the symphony’s main theme, a call to assurance, intimate self-belief. It is one of my favorite moments of musical experience, easily matching any moment in Beethoven’s fifth. After this the orchestra almost fades away for an extended period into a muted repetition of the start of the movement, until there is a clear, soft expression of the main theme in the entire winds, ultimately wrapped in a full luscious string section performance. The final build toward the climax of the symphony is delicately constructed, pushing through a moment of troubling creation, and then bursting through to a bright, promising, hopeful climax, punctuated very effectively by a series of hard silence.

The Sibelius Great Fifth does not meander much, it is exacting, tightly constructed yet richly detailed, lasting about 30 minutes. It has more brevity than any of the other symphonies mentioned here. Its compact nature in no way diminishes the absolute pleasure I always attain from hearing it. I discovered this symphony later in my classical life. Certainly, the continual new finds of great compositions drives my taste for this musical genre.

Mahler’s Great Fifth is perhaps is his most disjointed effort. The movements don’t seem to fit together very well although, as usual with Mahler, each one has distinctive qualities that merit its elevation above most other fifth symphonies. The symphony was not well accepted in Mahler’s time and the composer despaired that it was a misunderstood work, wishing he could conduct it 50 years in the future when he felt it would be more appreciated.

Composed in five movements, the greatest moment in the symphony, which warrants repeated enjoyment, is the fourth movement Adagietto, which is also the source of a great Mahlerian controversy. The Adagietto was written by Mahler as a wonderful “love letter” to his future wife Alma, and is one of Mahler’s most famous musical passages. Though written out of love, passion, and hope to his future wife, in more recent times the movement has been associated with funeral music. It was prominently offered as part of the services at the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. It is today performed more somberly than perhaps Mahler intended.

The controversy comes with exactly how fast or slow the movement should be performed. I have three versions of this symphony in my collection and the Adagietto ranges from slightly under 9 minutes in length to just over 13 minutes in length. All of them are enjoyable experiences but I prefer Benjamin Zander’s faster interpretation, which he justifies in the excellent lecture that accompanies each of his Mahler recordings.

Beginning in 1909, this movement was performed by itself, apart from the rest of the symphony, which conductors felt was too sophisticated for contemporary audiences. Today, of course, the typical classical audience is more sophisticated and the symphony is widely accepted. Despite its seeming lack of cohesion Mahler’s fifth remains a treasure, like all his symphonic works.

Tchaikovsky composed his Great Fifth over the summer of 1888. I find it to be essentially an optimistic work. It begins solemnly enough before the orchestra moves through a series of dramatic rather violent outbursts. Many critics have interpreted the opening orchestration as a variation of the "fate" theme in Beethoven's fifth. This is followed by a movement that resembles an extended love song, my favorite part of the symphony. A French horn commands a lovely melody that is developed through rich composition. The main theme interrupts the reverie about halfway through. The third movement is a wonderful, graceful waltz and reveals how Tchaikovsky can take even the simplest musical idea and compose it into complex, full and balanced orchestration. The final movement once again establishes the main theme before resolving it in a brightly conceived triumphant march.

Critics recieved the symphony with mixed results at best. Tchaikovsky himself was not pleased with his composition and labeled it "a failure." But, the work is a solid one and has held up well through the test of time. Today it is a recognized masterpiece and performed by orchestras all over the world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Slow Motion Disaster

The recent major oil spill off Gulf Coast made the news cycle. We’ve seen daily coverage of the “disaster”. Anytime you can use that word you increase media consumption, which drives advertising, of course. Luckily, we have yet to see massive stretches of beaches soaked in black oil, with dead marine creatures adrift in the tide, and shore birds soaked in the residue unable to fly.

For this reason the “disaster” is not quite the news item that it could become. It is a bad situation and still getting worse every day, but it is still very much a “pending” situation as far as human experience is concerned. The oil spill remains something off the coast somewhere, relatively far away, even as congressional testimony on the matter began yesterday.

Like so much happening in the world today, the gulf oil spill is in human terms happening in slow motion. Everyday the spill gets larger, the resolution to the environmental disaster so far eludes us, yet the significance of it remains abstract. As of today it is just a bunch of oil floating out in the gulf. So, the enormity of the tragedy (as evidenced by satellite photos) remains distant to human experience. You can still go to any beach you please for vacation.

We live amidst an accelerating pace of life and change. Our world reinvents itself on almost an annual basis through technology, public and personal media, the machinations of late capitalistic consumerism, and increasing worldwide socialism (among many other influences). Late in their lives, it was impossible for my grandparents to understand and keep up with the world. It is just as much of a challenge for my own parents. At times, it is difficult for me as well, more so with each passing year it seems. Everyone manages to cope by using that marvelous human capacity for indifference. I hope I haven’t become that numb yet.

In spite of the acceleration of life, however, some things happen very slowly and the slower something occurs the more disconnected it feels with the flow of life. Thus, its impact is blunted, its effects dulled, and, instead of indifference, the majority of humanity fails to acknowledge it at all.

This is why the gulf oil spill has yet to cause genuine rage. But, the spill itself is, for me at least, symbolic of a greater series of slow motion concerns that fail to resonate with humanity as a whole, though that will inevitably change at some point. Because the concerns are real, their unfolding is happening as you read these words, and their future effects are far more certain than anyone wishes to acknowledge.

Besides the oil spill we have the whole issue of global warming, which I have posted about before. The common analogy among environmentally aware minds is boiling a frog by placing him in cool water to begin with. Turn up the heat gradually and the frog won’t notice its impending demise.

Here our fast-paced life works decisively against us. We expect experience to happen quickly. It is a consequence of being nurtured for decades in bountiful world of convenience. Global warming is unfolding at a pace of years and decades, far beyond the periphery of the news cycle. Global warming is a dry season here, a wet season there, a seemingly random killing cold season, a period where everything appears normal, followed by years of record high temperatures skipping through time like a stone thrown on the calm surface of a pond. We simply don’t connect the dots because it is too complex and too damn slow (well, and far too political too).

The other slow motion disaster that comes to mind is the massive, seemingly unstoppable rise in worldwide public debt. The recent concern in Europe over the possibility of insolvency in Greece seemed to surprise everyone. Suddenly, it was in the news cycle. Major headlines. But, like the latest gulf oil spill and global warming, it has been unfolding for years. This is also true of other European nations.

The same is true for the United States. It was announced today that April produced a record federal budget deficit. The US debt is a train-wreck waiting to happen. We are in no way immune to the Greek crisis. Slowly, more discerning people are seeing this. They see that this massive debt, based entirely upon worthless fiat currency, will lead us to significant public distress if not national bankruptcy. The minority of individuals who see this happening know that gold is the ultimate refuge. Which is one reason the price of gold has skyrocketed again and will continue to do so.

Gold will continue to rise as long as nations feed the slow motion deficit crisis with more fiat money.

So, I wait as the world shows indifference toward debt. I buy on the dips and accumulate more gold. I watch the world far outspend its means with no mechanism for slowing the rate of debt down let alone stopping it. I watch the world continue to warm up even as a growing number among us deny that it is even happening. This in the face of the fact that 2000-2009 was the warmest decade ever recorded.

And I watch that massive oil spill, growing each day as congress tries to untangle who is to blame. But, I have my own ideas on that. It is the same guilty party as with the human aggravation of global warming (not necessarily the cause of it). The same as who is responsible for the unprecedented rise in public debt. It is our collective human hunger for oil that drives us to disaster. It is our inability to care about subtle changes in weather conditions over time that causes us to do nothing to mitigate the effects of our use of oil. It is our need for easy convenience and entitlement that drives up the debt in public welfare programs we have not been able to afford since Ronald Reagan was president.

We have met the enemy and they are us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Escobar out at the plate

I continue to play the latest version of OOTP in what spare time I have these days. The game allows you to play any baseball season in history from 1871 to the present. It is very entertaining to replay the 1927 Yankees or any of the other great teams from baseball’s deep rooted past, making comparisons between the chemistry of the teams, their lineups and pitching staffs.

You learn a lot about baseball that way.

Or, of course, you can create a completely fictional baseball universe to your liking, but I’m not much into the fictional aspects of the game…yet. I have put myself in as a player and simed way into the future (say up to the 2019 season) and that can certainly be fun.

Not only does OOTP allow you to span the decades of baseball lore or create some version of baseball that never existed, but – more importantly perhaps – it allows you to get inside the individual game; play a season out virtually pitch-by-pitch, if you so desire.

The in-game experience of OOTP is worth noting because it is here that much of the fun of the baseball simulator can be found.

I have now simed the 2010 season (with complete rosters, schedules, and actual minor leagues) a dozen times over the last couple of weeks. Being an Atlanta Braves fan, I focused predominately on how the game engine handled that team during the season. When you combine all the variable factors of injuries, player aging and development, coaching and trade decisions, etc. it is little wonder that no two seasons come out exactly the same way.

In my dozen sims of 2010 the Braves never won the NL East. They also never finished last. They finished 5th once, 4th twice, 3rd five times, and they managed to come in 2nd four times – taking the wild card three out of the four times. In their three trips to the playoffs the 2010 Braves won the first round of the Division Championship Series only once. They never won the NLCS. No World Series trip. Overall, they averaged about 83 wins for 12 sims.

Simulation number 7 (lucky number 7 as fate might have it) gave the Braves their best finish, with 90 wins and a wild card slot, 5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies (who won the NL East in more sims than any other team – no surprise there really). By delving into that 2010 season a bit deeper you can see the true depth and breadth of OOTP.

Let’s start by detailing how the Braves evolved as a team in 2010 version 7. As usual, there were all kinds of injuries and guys placed on and off the 15-day disabled list. The biggest blow to the Braves came when Tommy Hanson was placed on the 60-day disabled list with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (elbow). It is not yet known how badly this injury will affect his career.

The Braves made a number of trades during the season. The biggest was sending starting first baseman Troy Glaus to the Cleveland Indians just before the trade deadline for set-up pitcher Joe Smith. This trade was made possible by the rather rapid development of Braves minor league first baseman Freddie Freeman. More on Freeman in a moment.

In 2010 version 7, the Braves fifth starter Kenshin Kawakami, had a disastrous performance, with an ERA way over 6.00. Hopes of the Japanese player stepping into Tommy Hanson’s shoes were dashed and Kawakami was sent down to AAA to make room on the roster for a couple of other young pitchers which the Braves acquired through trades.

In July the Braves sent 22-year-old minor league starting pitcher Mike Minor to the Cincinnati Reds, getting 26-year-old starting pitcher Matt Maloney in return. Maloney would end up anchoring down Hanson’s position on the staff.

Also in July, 18-year-old minor league catcher Christian Bethancourt (who I saw in Rome in real-life a couple of weeks ago) was traded to the Florida Marlins, getting 25-year-old second baseman Chris Coghlan in return. This would turn out to be a trade of significance although it seemed pretty routine at the time.

Well, thanks to the OOTP player development gods, Coghlan’s bat got hot in August and by September he had replaced Nate McLouth in the Braves starting line-up. Coghlan’s performance along with Freddie Freeman’s were two keys to the Braves going on a tear late in the season, dominating the division in September to secure the Wild Card birth (the Phillies had a 15-game lead over them on September 1 and were uncatchable).

Freeman started the 2010 campaign with the Braves’ AA farm club in Mississippi but quickly moved up to the AAA Gwinnett Braves where he batted .302 with 5 HR’s and 17 RBI’s in 20 games before being called up to the Show. Freeman already possesses excellent defensive skills. He took Troy Glaus’ place after the previously mentioned trade.

After adjusting in July with a .222 batting average, the rookie proceeded to bat .419 in August before cooling off to a mere .382 in September, the hottest bat on the team, winning NL Player of the Month honors and placing him into contention for Rookie of the Year. He and rookie Jason Heyward, along with the surprise performance of Coghlan proved to be the prefect chemistry for Braves standard players like Chipper Jones, Brain McCann, Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, and Matt Diaz.

Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, and Jair Jurrgens all held up their part of the bargain and turned in solid, though not spectacular, performances. Billy Wagner regained his form of old and contributed a ton of K’s in over 30 saves while keeping his ERA well under 3.00.

So, the Braves proved good enough to win a trip out to San Francisco to play the Giants in the Division Championship Series.

Before we get into that, let’s back up a moment and talk about the in-game experience of OOTP. The game is text-based, which means you read the result of each pitcher-batter confrontation. The style of the text is excellent. I find myself sometimes just reading it out like a tele-prompter because, along with the in-game crowd sounds, it really gives you a nice feel of watching a major league baseball broadcast.

But, beyond the text, you can observe the speed, location, and result of each pitch delivered in a visual format very similar to what you can get from many online baseball reporting services such as ESPN. Here are some examples…

Here's how the pitch-by-pitch mode of the game looks. Chipper Jones is facing Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins. Each pitch in the sequence is numbered. Green is a ball, red is a strike, orange is a foul ball. Blue is a ball hit in play, but that didn't happen here as Chipper drew a walk, despite a rather generous strike one call by the umpire. Yeah, players can get tossed out of games for arguing with the umpires in OOTP too.

Later in the same game against the same pitcher, Chipper went down swinging.

In this game against St. Louis, Chipper welcomed a mid-season call-up middle reliever in style by connecting on a 2-1 pitch.

Occasionally, the batter and the pitcher can get into a real battle. Here Braves rookie Freddie Freeman faced the Giants' ace Tim Lincecum in a 9-pitch sequence. Freeman managed to foul off four pitches before striking out on a tight fastball.

So, back to 2010 version 7. The red hot Braves beat the Giants rather handily 3 games to 1 in the Division Championship Series. So, they ended up playing the Phillies (who swept the Cardinals in their playoff round) in the NLCS. The Phillies took the first three games, all one-run affairs, the third game going 11 innings. In separate games, the Braves lost Chipper Jones (fractured rib) and Matt Diaz (shoulder tendonitis) for the rest of the season. It did not look good for the Braves.

But, Atlanta (behind the hitting of Coghlin, Prado, and Escobar with 3 hits apiece) crushed Philadelphia 12-4 in game four. That game hurt the Phillies badly as their ace pitcher, Roy Halladay, blew out his elbow in the first inning. He was scheduled for "Tommy John" surgery and would miss at least 11 months. Ouch. McLouth drove in the winning run with a sac fly in the bottom of 13th inning in game 5, the Braves won 5-4. “Lucky 13” was all over the news. Then the Braves bats ate Phillies pitching alive in game 6, winning 10-3 to set up the seventh game of the series.

Phillies pitching was decimated. The whole staff was tired. They turned to their number four starter J.A. Happ (10-10 with a 4.65 ERA) to face Braves ace Derek Lowe (14-11 3.50) for the rights to represent the National League in the 2010 World Series. It was a tight game. The Phillies held a 2-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning when the Braves managed to load the bases with two out. Rookie Jason Heyward came to the plate. Heyward drove a 2 ball 0 strike 86 MPH fastball into left field for a base hit. Prado scored from third, then OOTP paused to ask me if I wanted to send Escobar, who was on second with two outs, to the plate. I didn’t hesitate. Hell yes! Send him! Send him! Tie the game! Sliiiiiiiide! Phillies left fielder Ben Francisco threw home….

Out. I was as frustrated as I would have been if the damn game had been “real”. That’s the real fun of OOTP. You can do all this stuff with all kinds of baseball history and all this stuff with trades and salary negotiations etc. But, in the end, an actual game of baseball is what it is all about, pitch-by-pitch, batter-by-batter. Escobar was out at the plate. My heart sank.

The Phillies went on to win the game 2-1. Then they beat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series 4 games to 1, even without Roy Halladay.

Maybe the best part of playing OOTP is that you don’t have to say “Wait ‘til next year” when the season’s over. You simply reload the game (pick a season, any season) and “wait ‘til next sim.” I love this game.