20 July 2009

Nature, Nurture, Maturity & Morality

Recently, I had a debate with my 14 year old cousin vis a vis some decisions that someone we both know has made of late. The person in question (who shall anonymous, because it is entirely irrelevant to the point I'm making here) has not, shall we say, had particularly healthy choices of a romantic nature. When I posited that this person has grown up without any real examples of what a healthy relationship is, my cousin responded that it is entirely a cop-out to blame one's environment, that we each know right from wrong. Does any of this sound familiar? I thought so.

While washing dishes a little bit ago, I re-visited this debate as I am wont to do while cleaning. I think most people, if pressed, will confess that they have many chore-inspired epiphanies. Why this is, I cannot say; I only know that it happens. Anyway, I was amused to consider what my 14 year old self would have said concerning the issue. Partly my younger self has been on my mind because of the ongoing, Make Sense of Turning Thirty issue that has played out in this very blog, and partly I've considered the contrast betwixt my younger and current selves because I revisited Eyes Wide Shut the other day to mark the 10th anniversary of seeing it during its theatrical release.

I went into Eyes Wide Shut having been told it was an artistic triumph, that it was brilliant, etc. I walked out of the theater in that Chicago mall where my friends and I saw the film on vacation convinced that the whole thing was really just an overlong excuse to put some flesh on the screen. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I have come to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the film. As a 20 year old guy with precious little dating experiences, I grew impatient with Tom Cruise's performance as Bill, wanting him to get on with things. My 30 year old, married self instead sees the depiction of a man coping with the unforseen devastation of his wife's confession that she would have discarded their life together to act on a lustful impulse had she had the opportunity. I cannot fathom experiencing that in my own marriage, and so where my younger self was bored, my current self stares in empathetic anguish at Cruise's masterful performance.

Getting back to the point at hand, I considered that my 14 year old self would have quickly sided with my (our?) cousin on the issue. He was a much more black-and-white, judgmental guy than I am. He had little sympathy for the circumstances that influence how people's lives can divert them from where they intended or desired to be. He almost relished the idea of people paying maximum penalties for their errors, because it confirmed his thesis that doing the right thing ought to earn a reward and doing the wrong thing ought to similarly bring about consequences.

My cousin argues that we somehow know right from wrong, and that that inner guiding voice calls out to us regardless of what we have been taught or exposed to in our formative years. I think my younger self, again, would have agreed with this. After all, he did not grow up around drug abusers and he knew that substance abuse was wrong. Surely, there are no people out there unaware of this fact; ergo, anyone who uses gets whatever they deserve. Sounds like right and wrong and justice to me, I would have said.

Social conservatives share this worldview, and dismiss the more accepting, liberal approach as naive and destructive. "Spare the rod, spoil the child," they say. And yet, I have to ask: How do they raise their own children? I would suspect that, time after time, they re-iterate the household rules, they try to lead by example, they give lectures and other disciplinary measures as needed to reinforce their childrens' understanding of the expectations placed on their behavior.

But why?

If we, in fact, know right from wrong inherently as they insist, then surely that is all wasted effort? Aren't their children hard-wired to already distinguish right from wrong? Of course they aren't; they must be taught what behaviors are accepted and which are not. Why, then, can we not acknowledge the role that failure to properly instill these guidances in a child played to lead one to poor decisions as a teen or an adult?

I am not so leftist I believe these unpleasant conditions ought to excuse one from the consequences of one's actions; rather, I challenge the judgmental nature of those who wish to ignore the relationship between past and present. Maybe it's the historian in me, but I cannot isolate an event in the present from those that precipitated it. I consider it necessary to properly understand a situation; why is it naive to pursue such a level of understanding prior to passing judgment on someone? More over, can we not agree that the failure to provide healthy guidance and role models for our youth is directly responsible for unacceptable choices made later in life? That is, after all, why we try to teach our youth right from wrong; why are we so harsh toward the youth whose parents did not and were unable to provide those things for themselves?

My younger self would say I've sold out, that I've become a wuss. He'd say that I'm guilty of philosophical treason to ourself and that I am not the person he ever wanted to be. On the former point, I would certainly agree with him. I just don't know that he would be experienced or mature enough to pass that judgment on me.

iTunes Essentials

As I indicated in my June playlist post, I've recently begun exploring the iTunes Essentials playlists. These are constructed around three basic themes: 1) Artist-specific, 2) Year or era-specific or 3) Mood-specific. Each list varies in length, but the two most common sizes I've seen are 45 or 75 songs, broken into sections: The Basics, Next Steps and Deep Cuts. Theoretically, the relevance of a song to the playlist theme is suggested by the section in which it appears. For instance, if they had an MC Hammer list (and I'm a bit bothered that they don't), one would expect "U Can't Touch This" to be among The Basics, a cut from the Funky Headhunter album in the Next Steps and "This Is What We Do" from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack among the Deep Cuts. Get how this works? Good.

Now, what I've been doing is printing their lists and then constructing as much of them as I can with what I already have in my library. I've completed several so far: George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Gary Allan, Dixie Chicks and Waylon Jennings. I'm one song shy of completing Toby Keith ("A Woman's Touch") and two shy of Tim McGraw (a pair of cuts from his ignored eponymous debut album). I have yet to complete any of the year or mood-specific themed collections, though I've gotten as many as 62 of 75 on one list ("Contemporary Country").

Why would I, who has a long track record of diligently compiling my own playlists, defer to something manufactured like this? There are two reasons. Firstly, they are a measuring stick for my library. I took some small measure of pride in knowing my Waylon library is developed enough that I could completely create their 75-song playlist (even more so since I was able to take many of the songs from their original albums rather than the subsequent compilations from which iTunes selected them).

The other reason I have been fascinated to explore these lists is that they are guiding me as I re-visit the 1990s and begin exploring music that I had previously ignored. I can't say why, necessarily, but I have of late been drawn to compiling a collection of songs that I recall hearing on the mainstream, Top 40 radio stations that played in kitchen when I worked at Cracker Barrel in the late 1990s. Some songs I recalled; others I'd forgotten entirely until reminded by their appearance on the year-specific lists. I don't intend to track down all 225 songs on their 1998, 1999 and 2000 lists, but they have been helpful to me as I work to expand my own library.

I do have some remarks concerning the lists I have seen so far, and I wish there was a convenient way of bringing these to the attention of someone at Apple. Firstly, there are a handful of instances of song duplication within a list. For instance, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" appears within both The Basics and the Deep Cuts sections of the Kenny Chesney list. This isn't a common problem, but I think in the 30 or so lists I've printed I've run across three or four such duplications. That's about 10 per cent and that's way too high.

I was surprised by the Alan Jackson list because it does not include "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Set aside the fact it was a six-week #1 hit; there is a unique, historical context to that song that transcended Jackson's already solid career to that point. The historian in me balks at its omission, and yet I confess: I was oblivious to its exclusion not only as I pored over the list, reconstructing it within my library, but I didn't even notice its absence as I played all 75 songs! That they could take 75 songs and arrange them so that I didn't even notice the absence of what may well be the biggest hit of his career is a testament that they did get something right, I should think.

Other omissions are not as easy to accept, much less forgive. For instance, their Dwight Yoakam list is simply invalid. I would love to know who approved any playlist entitled "iTunes Essentials: Dwight Yoakam" that includes neither "Honky Tonk Man" nor "Guitars, Cadillacs." That the remainder of the list is quite impressive is irrelevant; those two recordings are the very definition of "essential Dwight Yoakam." Still, Dwight fared better than George Jones, whose list is stunted at a mere 54 songs, none of which are "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," "Choices" or "Beer Run." All three songs are available from the iTunes store, so their absence is particularly conspicuous. Granted, I favor streamlined playlists; but I find it egregious that George Jones, in his fifth decade as a recording artist, has but nine more songs on his "iTunes Essentials" playlist than Norah Jones, who has yet to release her fifth album as a recording artist.

My final gripe is the inconsistency of the Deep Cuts sections. iTunes describes this as the songs that are worth hearing, despite not having been released as singles--or even on the artist's own albums. One would expect to find, for instance, "Designated Drinker" among the Deep Cuts section of the George Strait list. It was a duet with Alan Jackson from his 2002 album, Drive. It appears on Jackson's list, but not on Strait's. The aforementioned Norah Jones list includes many of these miscellaneous recordings, and that's one of the reasons I think it's one of the better lists I've seen. Conversely, though, one can easily imagine an entire, 75-song list of just the "Essential Miscellaneous George Jones" recordings from over the years. Most artists' entire discographies aren't as large as the volume of guest appearance work that The Possum has turned in over the decades, and yet these are entirely missing from his list.

One failure I can forgive, though, is the absence of Garth Brooks from these playlists. Brooks, to date, has resisted efforts to bring his catalog to the world of digital distribution and as the biggest act since Elvis his songs are sorely missed on playlists such as "'90s Country." That said, it is impressive that the 75 songs on that list that iTunes selected manage to hold up despite missing the undisputed king of that era. We can only hope that The Beatles catalog reaches the digital world, because certainly that would bait Garth-zilla into following suit.

13 July 2009

Monsters: A Celebration of Horror Classics from Universal Studios

atThe Louisville Palace's summer movie series is up and running, having begun this weekend. Sorry for not posting sooner, but they are notorious for waiting until the last minute to post anything on their website about this annual series. I simply forgot to check back with them last week. Anyway, here is the lineup:

Friday July 10 (7:3o) & Saturday July 11 (2:00) - The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Saturday July 11 (5:00 & 8:00) - Dracula (1931)
Friday July 17 (7:30) & Saturday July 18 (2:00) - Frankenstein (1931)
Saturday July 18 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Mummy (1932)
Friday July 24 (7:30) & Saturday July 25 (2:00) - The Invisible Man (1932)
Saturday July 25 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Black Cat (1934)
Friday July 31 (7:30) & Saturday August 1 (2:00) - The Raven (1935)
Saturday August 2 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Friday August 7 (7:30) & Saturday August 8 (2:00) - The Wolf Man (1940)
Saturday August 8 (5:00 & 8:00) - Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

I already missed Dracula and we won't be home until late the night of the 2nd, so I'll miss The Bride of Frankenstein. That only leaves Frankenstein this weekend on my Must See list.