27 March 2013

A Man Alone

Life is full of ups and downs. Some we create for ourselves, some are unavoidable. We do the best we can and hope that things we can't control go in our favor. Being in a relationship complicates things. It's nice to have someone with whom to share the ups and especially nice to have someone with whom to face the downs. There's a quid pro quo arrangement, though, in which we take on facing the other downs brought into the relationship along with our own. That's how it works.

I've been fortunate not to face a whole lot of downs throughout these last fifteen months. I've had Crohn's flares, and most of late July/early August was spent in bed or the bathroom. It was scary at first, as they always are, because I never know how severe any given flare will be, but thankfully Prednisone once more did its thing. On the whole, I've been able to handle things on my own. I don't care to elaborate what's going on but that good luck streak has come to an end.

I'm facing something right now that has overwhelmed and terrified me, and I have to face it alone. I've confided in my closest friends about the matter and they've all been wonderfully encouraging and supportive but it's not the same. They don't have skin in the game, so if things go badly they don't have to live with what that means to me. Not in the way that a partner/lover/spouse does, anyway. For the first time since 10 October 2011, when I learned that my marriage was coming to an end, I feel completely alone. I've been so overwhelmed that I took two anti-anxiety pills in the span of six hours Monday night and they barely registered with me.

There were lots of times throughout our marriage, of course, when I felt guilty for dragging my wife through my downs with me. "If it was just me, I could handle it but knowing someone else has to deal with these things because of me is too much," I thought. And it was; I really was consumed by shame and guilt. Now that I'm again facing something much bigger than myself, though, I find that I very selfishly wish I wasn't facing it alone.

I don't write this as bait to discuss how I'm doing or what's going on with me. I write it instead in hopes that it may give you, Dear Reader, pause to reflect on what your partner means to you...and what you mean to your partner. If I had one thing to say to you, it would be this:
Never resent having to fight alongside your partner in his or her battles. Always be grateful that he or she fights alongside you in yours.

09 March 2013

"Strait Out of the Box" by George Strait

Strait Out of the Box
George Strait
Original Release Date: 12 September 1995
Date of Purchase: 2 October 1997
4 discs | 72 songs | 217:32

I only know the date I bought mine because last year, I came across the canceled check I wrote for it. I paid $36.21 (including sales tax). This was the first box set I ever bought, and it remains the gold standard by which I judge them all. Box sets have become extraneous in the digital era, where fans can simply throw an entire artist's discography onto their iPods and make their own career-spanning playlists, but in 1995, this one rewarded fans for re-buying so many songs they probably already had.

Strait Out of the Box surveys the entire first fifteen years of George Strait's recording career. Every album in his discography to that point is represented with the lone exception of 1987's Merry Christmas Wherever You Are, for obvious reasons. Every non-holiday single is included, with the lone exception of "Down and Out", his second charting single, which Strait himself disliked and didn't even want to release. There are quite a lot of album cuts, too, each personally selected by Strait, and another eleven rarities such as three songs Strait recorded prior to signing with MCA. It's this blend of radio favorites, album cuts and rarities that makes Strait Out of the Box so compelling.

Other box sets tend to be much lazier, opting to just collect radio singles and some B-sides. For instance, Garth Brooks's 1998 The Limited Series simply threw his first six studio albums in a box, adding one song to each. There was clearly more thought put into Strait Out of the Box.

Perhaps the most impressive work that went into this isn't even the music content at all, but rather the 72-page booklet. There's a 37-page, in-depth biography of King George penned by Paul Kingsbury that chronicles his life and career, chock full of photos from publicity stills to personal candids. That's followed by a cut-by-cut commentary organized by Kay West from her interview with Strait about each of the songs here. Completing the booklet is Dee Henry Jenkins's discography of the included material listing songwriter and performer credits, recording dates, etc.

It's as close to an authorized biography or autobiography as Strait has ever released and a valuable resource for his fans - particular at the time of its pre-Internet era. Remember, kids...there used to be a time when information wasn't just a Google search or Wikipedia visit away. Even now, it's a wonderful source. I consulted it last year when I penned a blog piece for Flickchart on the Pure Country soundtrack album.

What's remarkable about George Strait's career has been his consistency. There has yet to be a particularly conspicuous George Strait album, though that's not to say they're all repetitive. On the contrary, this box set demonstrates how comfortably Strait has explored his range of styles. It can be difficult to tell when listening to any of these four discs just when you've moved on from material from one album to the next, but pull back a bit and contrast any of the four discs and it reveals how much growth actually took place every few years. None of the songs here are embarrassingly dated, because Strait never followed faddish trends, but there are distinctive "phases".

My personal favorite of the four discs here has always been Disc Two. My favorite of Strait's albums from the surveyed years is Ocean Front Property, and it's represented on that disc. Plus, my favorite Strait song ever, "The Cowboy Rides Away", is also on that disc. So too is "The Chair", as well as "In Too Deep" and "Lefty's Gone", all three from Something Special.I thoroughly enjoy Strait's duet with Hank Thompson on "Six Pack to Go", a song recorded for Thompson's duets album.

I do wish they'd included more material from 1994's Lead On, my second favorite Strait album from the first 15 years of his career. That album was still charting and singles were still being released at the time this box was compiled, though, so I can understand why it wasn't a priority. "The Big One" is a fun song and I like it, but I'd have loved for "Adalida" or "I Met a Friend of Yours Today" to have made their way into this box set.

Each disc comes in just under an hour, because there was also a cassette version of this box set. I've long wondered what might have been included had they sequenced exclusively for CD, which could have added up to a full hour of additional content. In my idealized version, there were another four songs from Lead On included at the least, as well as the live recording of Strait's performance of "All My Ex's Live in Texas" at the Grammy Awards (included on Grammy's Greatest Country Moments, Volume II). There was also the George Strait Live! concert video. From that, I'd have selected "Dance Time in Texas", a song that even as of this blog post he has never recorded for one of his studio albums.

Also, at least one song from Merry Christmas Strait to You. I think I'd probably have picked either the title track or perhaps the forlorn "What a Merry Christmas This Could Be", composed by veteran songwriters Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. Perhaps "When It's Christmas Time in Texas", written by Benny McArthur, a longtime member of Strait's Ace in the Hole Band.

"Schindler's List" by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List
Thomas Keneally
Date of Publication: 18 October 1982
400 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Available from Oldham County Public Library
Read from 20 February - 9 March 2013

I've seen Steven Spielberg's film thrice, but only now finally sat down to read Thomas Keneally's original novel. I was struck within the first few pages of the ease of his prose, catching the novelist's mindfulness of audience that the historical expert sometimes lacks. I encountered the same thing when I read Robert Morgan's excellent Boone: A Biography a few years ago. Schindler's List (originally Schindler's Ark) was branded a novel but in truth it's merely a casually told work of historical research presented by a novelist.

I came to Schindler's List in hopes that I may find an answer to the one question I was left with by Spielberg's film: "Just when, and why, did Oskar Schindler commit to using his business as a haven for Jews?" It's one of the first points Keneally addresses, quickly noting that there is no clear answer to that question. I was initially disappointed by that non-answer, but later I came to appreciate it. I kind of prefer the ambiguity. Maybe it's because I've become burned out on origin stories over the years as a comic book reader?

Keneally clearly did his homework and rather than presenting to us a dramatization of his findings, he has instead organized and synthesized it for us. Like Morgan, Keneally makes a point to note when there's ambiguity or disagreement in the historical record about a specific event, allowing us to draw upon the available evidence rather than avoiding or, worse, arbitrarily filling in those gaps for us. The chief benefit to Keneally of not being a historian by vocation is that he was free to insert his own biases into his writing. He champions Schindler freely; admitting his character flaws with one sentence before downplaying or apologizing for them, the next. My inner historian "tsk tsk"d a few times, but only halfheartedly.

One of the most difficult parts of historical writing is citation. I personally loathe end notes; they're inconvenient and while they make allow the main text to be read without interruption, the fact that I have to thumb back and forth to follow up on a given point makes that format much too frustrating for me as a reader. Footnotes are best, but they do clutter the page. Keneally, though, avoided the entire issue by being a "novelist" here. Rather organically, he simply invokes the source of whichever account he's referencing as an omniscient narrator. It works very well, and I have to say I'm both impressed that he managed to shift from one testimonial to the next without becoming mired in redundant segues, as well as envious that he was able to sidestep the entire citation process!

The subject matter here is, of course, the darkest and most somber. I could only read a chapter or so at a time before needing to step away from it - and this despite my own familiarity with the events described through my studies both formal and informal. If I was periodically made squeamish, then I imagine the average person who pays only a cursory amount of attention to historical events must be overcome by anxiety and disgust.

Despite all that, though, Keneally as novelist manages to find the enduring humanity at every turn. He does not hesitate to describe to us the sadism and unfathomable cruelty inflicted by the Nazis, but he's does not allow the villains to dominate his narrative. Instead, Keneally remains focused on relaying to us the accounts of how people adapted and survived; the ingenuity, shrewdness and courage behind every scheme and daring act undertaken by those whose stories he was entrusted to share with us.

To wit, I never anticipated finding in Schindler's List of all places one of the most moving, romantic stories I've ever encountered. Yet there it was, the tale of Josef Bau insisting on courting Rebecca Tenenbaum properly in the prewar tradition. Each of them in love with the other, trying desperately to avoid attracting the attention of the erratic and sadistic Amon Goeth and his underlings. There, in the middle of Hell on Earth, bloomed one of the loveliest romances ever recorded. Per tradition, even though they periodically had opportunity for physical love, they showed restraint in a time where it must have seemed the most ludicrous matter in the world. All the same, the young couple proceeded as they would have had they met not in a concentration camp but as a free man and woman. They wed in secret in the women's dorm in Plaszow, officiated by one of the elder women in lieu of a rabbi. Rebecca walked around him seven times and he stepped on a burnt out light bulb for the ceremonial glass.

Their courtship boosted the morale of some of the older women in her dorm, recruited as their chaperones in the pageant. It was a direct continuity with customs and norms that had been all but snuffed out by the Nazis, and in its way perhaps the most defiant anecdote in all the accounts recorded by Keneally in his work here. Though I was affected by the entire book, I only came close to tearing up a few times. Once was when I read of Josef and Rebecca's courtship. Another time came later, when I learned that she and Josef's mother were both sent to Auschwitz and perished there, though perhaps I misread that because Wikipedia informs me that after they were liberated, the Baus and their three-year-old daughter emigrated to Israel in 1950. I'd like to think this wasn't an instance of Keneally "taking artistic license" and choosing to murder Rebecca Tenenbaum just to make me tear up a second time.

Keneally later wrote the memoir, Searching for Schindler, about his involvement with researching and telling this astounding story. I'm eager to get to that, though it'll be a little while because I'm just not ready to continue exploring the Keneally/Schindlerjuden narrative. For now, I'm content to say that Schindler's List was every bit as engaging, touching and overwhelming as I wanted it to be, and then some.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

02 March 2013

Things I Love: Cookie Monster

Like so many kids from the last few decades, I grew up with Sesame Street helping to introduce me to the alphabet, numbers and etiquette. In my later childhood I came to enjoy Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Babies, too. I love me some Muppets, but there's one Muppet who stands atop them all: Cookie Monster.

It cake made for me second birthday by me mommy!
I love everything about Cookie Monster. I love the actual look of the character, with that big round belly and long, thin neck and those mismatched eyeballs. I love the voice, first by Frank Oz then later by David Rudman. Cookie Monster sounds a bit like Grover, but not as wacky. No, Cookie Monster is more grounded than Grover. He's focused (on cookies, of course). I love that he has absolutely no self-consciousness about his obsession with cookies. Why should he? He's called "Cookie Monster"! He knows who he is and he's fine with that. I've long envied how comfortable he is with himself and if you're being entirely honest with yourself, so have you.

I don't ordinarily share a lot of video content on this blog, but Cookie Monster warrants it. Here are just some of the wonderful things he's done.

"C Is for Cookie"

Cookie Monster makes the case for why "C" is the best letter in the entire alphabet and it's a pretty compelling argument. Oh, sure, Ernie has the most famous Sesame Street song with "Rubber Ducky" and that's okay if you're into that kind of thing, but "C Is for Cookie" may just be the better song.

Cookie Monster and Count Cooperate

What happens when Count von Count and Cookie Monster encounter a plate of cookies? The Count must obey his OCD compulsion to count them; Cookie Monster has no choice but to eat them. It's the classic case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

The Origin of "Om Nom Nom Nom"

Can you imagine LOLSpeak without "Om Nom Nom Nom"? Here, its originator explains it. Side note: I would re-enroll in college if it meant taking a class taught by Cookie Monster.

Cookie Monster Answers Your Questions

In 2010, The Huffington Post recruited Cookie Monster to answer questions from fans. No, really.

Audition for Saturday Night Live

Fans flocked to the Internet to get Betty White to host an episode of Saturday Night Live, which prompted the greatest Muppet of them all to decide he wanted to do it, too. Here's his brilliant audition tape which, I might add, is better than most episodes of SNL from the last twenty years.

"Share It Maybe"

Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" was a pop music sensation last year, but it was really just the warm-up for this parody video starring Cookie Monster. This video justifies every single time you turned on the radio or walked into a store last year and you were instantly bombarded by Jepsen's inescapable single.

Cookie Monster Feels HAPPY and SAD

I leave you with this clip in which Cookie Monster grapples with some weighty existential issues about his emotions. Several of my friends have been going through a rough patch lately and I shared this clip on Facebook last week. Their feedback let me know it was the right thing to show them. It's brilliant.

Cookie Monster recently shared the following image on his Facebook page. If you've ever wondered what true serenity looks like, now you know.

My thanks once again to Nikol Hasler for inspiring the "Things I Love" series.