Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Favorite Christmas Song

You won't hear it much on the radio, but if you go here and scroll down to the Youtube vids at the bottom of the page, you'll get it along with a very appros slide show.

It's called "Christmas in the Trenches" and it's by folk singer John McCutcheon.
It's based on a true story. It goes like this.
On December 24, 1914, somewhere on the front lines near Ypres, Belgium, British and Germans huddled down in their cold trenches and foxholes, shivering and keeping their heads down.
The Germans started hanging candles on the trees that were left standing in the area, and at some point, one of them started singing carols.
The Brits responded with a few carols of their own, and before long they were trading songs across the blasted no-man's land. Eventually one of the officers came across under a flag of truce, and the men met in the middle.
There wasn't much, but they exchanged gifts of brandy, jam, cigarettes and warm clothing. They talked about their families, had masses for the dead and, according to some of the letters home, set up a soccer match (3-2 Germany).
This reportedly went on across the Western front, in some spots lasting through the new year, for some places only until Christmas afternoon.

It's hard to imagine something like that happening today, even at the time, headquarters was furious on both sides. As McCutcheon sings, "the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame"
Still, we could wish for it.

It was a brief, strange moment, but the story is, for me, the perfect antidote for the over-commercialization of the holiday.

Learn more about the Christmas Truce here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hobbits and Compasses

Wow, I've been neglecting this site. Since I got the day job as a reporter, the "writing for fun" seem to happen less. Not 'cause I don't enjoy writing, but mostly because I have less free time.
In any case...

I just read the good news that Peter Jackson (you know, the guy who did the Lord of the Rings movies) will be in charge of the film adaptation of the Hobbit.
This is a good thing, he shouldn't piss off the fans as much as some others.

Now, the Golden Compass. I went to see it last weekend, it was good. I've read Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, and enjoyed it very much.
Yes, in case you were wondering, there is a strong element of dissastisfaction with organized religion in there, as well as a general disrespect for (most) authority.
I'm really not too upset about it, personally, I've got a bit of a subversive streak myself.
Will reading the books upset Christian Fundamentalists? Oh yeah. Will it upset people who may or not be devoted to a particular system of beliefs, but who have a strong, personal spirituality that they are comfortable and at home with? No, they'll love it. Atheists and agnostics will also enjoy, I think.

So about the movie, it's pretty good. It's not perfect, it's very rushed and it tries to cover a lot of plot in far too short a time (a movie that's too short? can it be?) If you've read the books you'll have an easier time keeping up.
But on the upside: it was visually amazing. I mean, really, really amazing to look at. And the casting was pretty much perfect, especially in the case of Sam Neill as Lee Scoresby. Not enough cowboys in the Sci-fi/fantasy films these days (three Star Wars movies and no Han Solo, why bother?)

As an avid reader of fantasy books, and books in general, I'm happy to see so many of them being made into movies, but it's a little worrying to me as well.
Two things in particular:
One- why does every hero in fantasy stories need to be some lost king or pawn of destiny or something like that? Does only royalty get a happy ending? And by "royalty" I also mean "heir to some magical inheritance/ secret/ spectacular destiny." What about the poor schmuck who just happens to be standing in the wrong place and gets sucked into some crazy adventure and just keeps trying to do the best he can? You know, someone I can identify with us. As much as I'd love to think that I'm the rightful heir of some ancient Irish lord or Italian prince or something, I'm pretty sure I'm descended from a long line of farm-hands.
So why, in an already escapist medium, do we have go and alienate anyone who actually stops and thinks about what their place really would be in that other world?
Two- yes, fantasy is fun,escapism is fun, it's all great fun, and we want to see wonders, but here I am sitting in my tiny little room with a tiny little box on my lap putting down words that, while they have no more physical presence than a thought, you may be reading from across town, or the other side of the world.
Isn't that a wonder? How about space travel? How the hell does it become a matter of routine, back-of-the-paper news that we have work going on at the space station?
For that matter, have you ever thought about the centuries of scientific advancement and vast organization of resources that have gone into a simple jar of peanut butter?
Or how about this? In an infinite universe, full of empty space and nearly absolute cold, interspersed with clouds of deadly gas, speeding rocks, places hot enough to vaporize diamond, unimaginably crushing gravity, seas of ammonia, whatever else you can imagine, and many, many things you cannot, we two exist. In this vast, hostile universe, dear reader, you happen to be sheltered by the same onion-skin atmosphere on the same mid-size ball of rock that I am, and you coincidentally have a close enough view of the world that you can understand the symbols on this page (which, as I mentioned before, isn't really a "page" or really anything at all except for some blips of electricity).
How does something dull as a magic ring stack up to that? Do we really need a bunch of CGI tricks to feel any sense of wonder, or can we stop and actually look at the world around us and feel the same way?

OK, rant off, Peace, Love and Joy to each and every one of you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Autumn again

Last night, as I walked through the chilly rain from a meeting to my car, I thought it really felt like Autumn for the first time this year.
Something, a combination of the nearly deserted Flemington streets, the wet leaves on the ground, the chill and the smell in the air, made it real. The feeling always triggers a sense of what, for lack of a better word, I'll call nostalgia.
Autumn always awakens a mood in me that, although strange and wild, is not at all unpleasant. I think it's really my favorite time of year.
I was born in November, and I wonder if that has anything to do with it.
I wonder if there is anything to the notion of astrology after all. Maybe not so much the idea that the alignment of the stars affects our temperaments so much as the time of year. Maybe it's the climate, the length of days and the particular quality of light in those first months, while the early neural connections are forming, that affects who we are, at least in part, for the rest of our lives.
Certainly, I have at least some of the characteristics that are supposed to be typical to my sign, Scorpio.
Why not? I've read that cognitive psychologists believe infants may be synasthetic, that is, their senses may be blended together. Touch and sight, smell and sound and taste may not be clearly differentiated for a while. If that's true, that how could the weather not have an effect?
If the climate in those formative months affects personality, then, how does the change in climate change it? It seems, at least here, that winter starts later than it used to, although the leaves have already turned in many spots. If December is the new November, will Saggitarius be the new Scorpio?
Who knows, but it's an interesting thing to think about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter and racial tolerance.

So I had it pointed out to me that in the most recent Harry Potter movie Young, White, British Harry shares a kiss with a girl of obviously Asian descent (that would be Cho Chang of Hufflepuff, yes I know this stuff).
Yes, cool, I didn't think that it was a big deal, really, if I were fifteen, I'm sure I'd have thought she was cute (me being about twice that age, I'd go for Tonks personally, I've always been a sucker for the funky hair) but I didn't see it as any big deal.
But after thinking about it, I guess there is a certain percentage of the population who find a Euro-Asian pairing to be kind of exotic, and there are some who will see it as "if it's OK for Harry, it's OK for me."
Great. I also realize that, although the population of minorities at Hogwarts is small, it's probably relatively representative of the population at large. I seem to recall Ron going out with a girl with the last name Patel (somebody correct me if I'm wrong, it's been a while) and various other ethnic mixings, all without the bat of an eyelash.
Of course, when you deal with giants, centaurs and the like, minor differences in skin tone probably seem pretty insubstantial, and the cultural difference between the wizarding world and the normal one are pretty broad.
Actually, the obvious treatment of racism comes in there, more than any regional difference, with the whole concept of "Pureblood" wizards, again, though, the bad guys are the ones that care about that sort of thing (and does anybody else see something Hitler-ish about this Voldemort guy? Really.)
So, while in the real world, people blow each other up over the way they worship what is essentially the same god (and no, it's not just one particular group, think about that for a minute) in the most popular English-Language fiction on Earth, teenagers are telling the racist grown ups to stuff it, friends are friends.
Impressive. Although I still think getting people to read anything is the biggest accomplishment Rowling's had.
As for myself, I'm not sure that I never remarked on Harry's relationship because I'm so accepting of such things, or because I'm so unobservant that I didn't notice.

Monday, July 16, 2007

So, it's been a while...

I've been neglecting my corner of the Blogosphere these past many months, mostly because I've been busy writing for a living as a newspaper reporter.
But, in any case, I've had some pretty interesting experiences over the last few months, and learned a lot about writing not as an academic pursuit, or an artistic endeavor, but as a trade, more akin to carpentry than painting.
And one of the things that I have noticed in the world of the working writer is the tendency to fall into cliches.
It's easy, we all do it sometimes, when you've got to slap together a story before deadline and, to be honest, it hardly captures your attention, let alone fires your imagination, it's easy just to plunk some words down on the page.
But I've decided to start compiling a list of cliched leads. A few examples, so far:

X isn't just for Y anymore.
Y is the new Z.
Did you ever wonder where X comes from?

and many more, I'm just starting, but I'm going to be keeping a close watch from now on!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Roger, go at throttle up: A crisis of imagination

I read a lot of science fiction. I always have. I grew up in the era of the space shuttle and remember when the idea of a space station was just speculation. I was young, but as a little boy, the concept of space travel and worlds beyond our own seemed like an incredible dream. The idea that we could actually make that dream a reality left me awestruck by the pure potential of the human race.

Then there was the Challenger.

When you say "The Challenger," nobody thinks of the missions she flew successfully, of the experiments completed, the safe landing. All anyone remembers is the explosion, the knotted plumes of smoke, the shock, the disbelief.

For a long time after that, too long, the space program was put on hold. The bright, shining dream lost its power. NASA's miracle machine was broken.

A new theme emerged in science fiction writing. Instead of looking at the eventual conquest of space by the United States, authors started to ask "what if we never go back?" Or, far worse to some, they asked, "what if America gets left behind?"

Maybe it's because I'm older and I hear more of such talk, or maybe not, now I hear people question whether or not the space program is worth the money, whether or not taxpayer dollars could be spent on something "more important."

Another space shuttle blew up, and the seven souls who were lost on the Columbia were duly honored, but the sense of shock was not there.

When the space shuttle Atlantis experienced minor issues during a recent flight, the crew went to wait at the space station while things were checked out.

They went to the space station...to wait. I remember when the idea of even having a permanent orbital station was pure sci-fi, let alone actually using it like a rest stop! Yet, the lack of apparent public excitement was disappointing.

I was reminded of this, and thought of this genre of science fiction writing when I read a recent story "Titanium Mike Saves the Day," by David E. Levine. It's in the current issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It's a good story.

I'm rambling a bit, but right now I'm consumed by a sense of regret about how the glow has faded on the space program. On another night, I could tell you why I think it's important, why I care, and why losing that sense of wonder is such a terrible thing for America.

Right now, I just think of the last recorded words of Commander Dick Scobee. They were part of the standard procedures, a call and response between control and the vehicle. When mission control informed him that they were "go at throttle up," Scobee responded with, "Roger, go at throttle up."

Not very dramatic, but he was on a spaceship, on his way out of the atmosphere. He was headed into a place that those of us who still dream only dream of. He was going to the stars.

All in all, not bad last words after all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

But how "civil" will they be?

As of tomorrow, same-sex couples in New Jersey will be able to register for civil unions, by Wednesday they'll be able to have ceremonies and be legally recognized as partners.

For those not familiar, last year our state Supreme Court voted that same-sex couples were entitled to all the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex couples. They left it up to the NJ legislature to decide whether to call these legal partnerships "marriage" or find some other term. NJ lawmakers chose "civil union," shying away from the potential controversy of the word "marriage."

New Jersey is a fairly liberal state, even many of our Republicans are relatively moderate compared to the rabid dogs down in DC, so the concept of civil unions actually didn't seem to meet too much resistance (there was some, of course, there always is, but I never really got the impression that it was as widespread as some of the louder dissenters wanted us to believe).

The hang-up on "marriage" is still an issue, though. There is a lot of criticism from the gay community that civil unions are no better than any other "seperate-but-equal" measure and still mark them as second class citizens (note: the only situation where seperate-but-equal has been considered universally appropriate has been the division of public restrooms into Men's and Women's.)

One of the biggest arguments against same-sex marriage comes from religious conservatives. Marriage, they argue, is a holy sacrament, defined as between a man and woman only.

That word, "holy" is the key to my personal opinion in the matter. If marriage is indeed a sacrament, it comes under the authority of the church. We have this prevailing myth in the United States that there is some seperation of the Church and the State, that we make laws based on legal and ethical considerations, not church doctrine.

So, if marriage is a sacrament, then the government has no right whatsoever to control it at all. Government can't tell you who you can or can't marry, but on the other hand, the government can't pronounce you married either.

Now, as for the legal and financial issues of forming some sort of official domestic partnership, well, that brings us back to the civil union. A civil union would fall under the domain of the state. Two men, two women, a man and a woman, should be able to incorporate themselves in a civil union, regardless of what kind of gender combination they want to get up to.

No more marriage license at Town Hall, you register your civil union and you're done. Now, if you want to get married, go to the church. They have the right to be bigoted or not. That's up to them. If they say you can't marry your boyfriend because you have the same plumbing as him, that's their business. Of course, if your church says you can marry a lamp post, I suppose you could do that too, but I doubt you'd get any sort of legal recognition for it.

Now, there would be the mass of marriages which would be legally recognized unions that were in turn blessed by the church, there would be civil unions that weren't blessed by a church sacrament, either because the church said no, or because the two parties didn't care to bring Organized Religion into the mix, and there would be a small minority of Religious Marriages without legal recognition, for whatever reason (I can think of a few, but really don't feel like going there right now).

Church gets to deny who they feel like, state gets to create more paperwork, couples get to fill out taxes together, everybody's happy. Or at the very least, miserable in a non-discriminatory manner. It's all good.

Now, for my part, I'm still trying to figure out a better set of generic nouns for all this. Husband and husband, husband and wife, wife and wife? "Partner" is too vague and makes it sound like they co-own and auto parts store with you. "Spouse" is just not a word anyone uses in conversation (if anyone actually says, "let me introduce you to my spouse," you can safely assume that they are a disguised alien life form and take appropriate action.)

For those who are really, really upset and angry and get all Fred Phelps-ish about the horrible sinful abomination of "Gay Marriage", I have one thing for you to ponder: if we are finally legally recognizing "gay marriage" can "gay divorce" be far behind?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neologism of the week: quirkyalone

In shameless imitation of William Safire, I'm going to take a look at some new words or new usages of words that have entered the American English lexicon.

This week's word "quirkyalone". In honor of Valentine's Day and the general relationship obsession of the moment.

Quirkyalone (noun or adjective) is a word coined by writer Sasha Cagen in 2000 to describe a person who is happy being single but not opposed to being in a relationship. To put it another way, a quirkyalone does not see being part of a couple as essential to being satisfied with their life. Generally they are picky about who they will date, and will walk a way from a potential relationship if they don't think it will suit them.

More women than men who identify themselves as quirkyalone, possibly because recent cultural history has presented unpartnered men with more positive archetypes than it has unpartnered women. While they are comfortable being single, the well adjusted quirkyalone sees a healthy relationship as a good thing and happily get involved if the partner and situation is right. If they do commit to a relationship, they keep a lot of their individuality. This tendency means that quirkyalones tend to do best with other quirkyalones, who won't feel threatened by their partner's refusal to immerse their own identity in coupledom.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "quirk" as "a peculiar behavior, an idiosyncrasy." Ms. Cagen's choice of "quirky" to describe the personality type carries connotation of individualism and somewhat cheerful nonconformity. The pairing of the two adjectives to make a noun gives the word itself a playful feel, which suits the self-image of the personality type. Being quirky means being in rebellion against the prevailing standards to begin with. By being happy to be single, Ms. Cagen claims, the quirkyalone is rebelling against the cultural assertion that a person is not complete until they are half of a couple.

The quirkyalone community has several other related terms that have followed the original neologism. When two quirkyalones form a successful romantic partnership while still retaining their individuality (their "quirkyness") they are "quirkytogethers". A person who holds high standards for serious relationships, but is willing to lower their standards for a one-night-stand or fling is referred to as a "quirkyslut".

Of course, every movement must have its opposition. If the community has chosen the term "quirky" to symbolize individualism they use the term "perky" to connote shallowness and plastic conformity. So the natural opposite of the quirkyalone is the "perkytogether". The perkytogether is the perpetually coupled person who looks on the quirkyalone as incomplete and somewhat crippled because they don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend. It's interesting to note the the term "perkyalone" seems not to exist.

While quirkyalones are hardly a new phenomenon, the term is, and it hasn't made its way into mainstream use yet. For the last several years, however, the word has been kept alive by a small group of readers and Internet surfers who read what it is and say to themselves, "hey, that's me!"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Today's Holiday

For those of you who aren't aware, today is an obscure American holiday. While many of you celebrate it in some way, shape or form, the lack of media coverage and difficulty in finding any sort of commercially produced products may make it easy to overlook.

I'm speaking, of course, of Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is held every Feb. 14 in remembrance of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on this day in 1929.

On this morning, nearly ninety years ago, seven members of the gang led by George "Bugs" Moran were lined up and executed by members of Al Capone's gang.
Of course, many of the familiar trapping of Valentine's Day have their roots in this incident. It's a well known fact that we get the term "Love-Bug" from Bugs Moran, but fewer people know that the now-familiar image of puckered lips on so many Valentine's Day cards is in remembrance of Frank "Tight Lips" Gusenberg who was among the slain that day.
People often send each other flowers to reproduce the funerals that took place because of the bloody rivalry between Capone and Moran.
St. Valentine's Day Massacre cards are often covered in gruesome symbols of the slayings. There are exposed hearts, pictured on the page as if they were ripped out of a dying man's body, and the cards themselves are often colored either the deep red of arterial blood or the pink color of the blood splattered on the white-painted garage wall.
After the massacre children used to throw things at each other, flinging rocks or stale candies much like the gangsters pelted each other with bullets. This practice has toned down as time has gone by and is symbolized by the giving of gifts (jewelery for rocks, and chocolate for the stale candy) to one's worst enemy. North American culture being what it is, the recipient of these gifts is often a wife or girlfriend. Of course, because the killing was based around the competition in the bootleg liquor industry, a bottle of expensive wine may be among the gifts sent to one's enemy.

I hope this history lesson was interesting. I was very excited to discover this obscure and fascinating holiday several years ago. I highly recommend that you research it more on your own.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln

So much has changed since your time, so much has not. In the man's own words:

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

It is for us, the living...

Sunday, February 4, 2007


If it seems like I've fallen off the face of the earth the last few days, well, it's been pretty crazy. For once though, it's been in a good way.
I started my new job as a news reporter last week, and have been running around trying to learn everything I need to know before my head completely explodes. It's going to be a tough race for that one.

But that brings me to what really is on my mind.

As a reporter, I need to carry stuff. I need to carry notebooks, usually more than one. I need to carry pens, I carry my passcard, I carry a digital camera and possibly a small tape recorder. I also tend to carry a small Leatherman tool, because I'm that kind of guy, an address book and, this time of year a pair of gloves. I have a nice tweed sportcoat that has lots of pockets to carry some odds and ends, but, lets face it, if you're in a jacket-and-tie kind of world, having stuff bulging out of your jacket pocket doesn't look all that professional. Backpacks are out too. I've got a briefcase to carry my laptop, but that doesn't leave my hands free and is relatively bulky.

Enter the murse.

Not, in this case, a male nurse. I'm talking about the male purse. AKA man-bag, man-purse, satchel, shoulder bag, european carryall, possibles bag, courier bag, whatever. In this particular case it's the bag I used to use to carry my fishing stuff, a greenish-khaki canvas bag styled after a military map case. Pretty macho, really, lots of pockets and brass and all sorts of rugged looking. It was sold in the men's department at Target.

But it's still a purse, dammit. It's just so much easier to deal with than the big briefcase, and cramming everything into pockets would be impossible to do neatly. So I've got my murse.

I would feel like I was selling out and turning into a flaming metrosexual, but there will always be one reason why I can still feel macho with a shoulder bag...

Thursday, February 1, 2007

"More Than a Feeling" of paranoia.


In a classic example of an ad campaign gone horribly wrong, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky placed electric light boards promoting Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim," in various locations around the city. Of course, like many such reckless stunts, this caused mass panic and sections of the city were shut down for hours while bomb squads dealt with the potentially hazardous devices.

Each device is roughly the size of a checkerboard, with colored pegs on it and...well, lets face it, they're Lite-Brites. They're Lite-Brites with pictures of moon men making an obscene gesture on them.

According to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley "It had a very sinister appearance, it had a battery behind it and wires."

Perhaps the moon men (Moonenites to ATHF initiates) were too close in appearance to the Martian invaders featured in the 1938 "War of the Worlds" hoax. It's hard to tell.

Turner Broadcasting, the owners of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, said that identical devices have been up around New York, Seattle, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia for two or three weeks, as well as several dozen in Boston. Interestingly enough, there have been no bomb scares in any of the other cities due to the devices.

The two men, when questioned by reporters, replied that they would only discuss hairstyles of the 1970s. They face potential felony charges for their placement of the advertising materials, and could each serve up to five years in jail.

Boston's sense of humor could not be located for comment

For more info see CNN's coverage

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How to waste time on the Internet

...other than reading TMoMD, that is.

Check out The Surrealist for some completely randomly generated fun. Kevan Davis and Holly Gramazio have created a site full of word toys to keep you out of trouble for at least fifteen minutes.
Most of the "toys" on the site are the type of mindless amusements that allow you to input any sort of noun and have it inserted into a randomly selected advertising slogan, movie quote or trivia fact.
For you Livejournal users, there are also a couple of generators that allow you to input your LJ screen name, or that of a friend, and get, for example, a dungeon adventure using your interests and LJ friends.

Here's a few that I got.

From The Advertising Slogan Generator:

Promise Her Anything, But Give Her Matt DeBlass

Every Kiss Begins With Matt DeBlass

If Only Everything In Life Was As Reliable As Matt DeBlass

Just Do Matt DeBlass

And from The Movie Quote Generator:

"This Matt DeBlass attracts Those We Do Not Speak Of. You must bury it."

"You had me at 'Matt DeBlass'"

"No Mr. Bond, I expect Matt DeBlass to die."

"When there's no more room in Hell, the Matt DeBlass will walk the earth."

Of course, you can use any noun you want, but your own name is usually the funniest.

There are a number of things to play with on The Surrealist web site. If you're looking for a time waster, or something obnoxious to post on your home page (they very considerately give you html code for the results) it's good fun


Monday, January 29, 2007

Fashion Models, Body Image, and Food

Take a look in the mirror. Do you like what you see? No? You're not the only one.

According to a survey done by Dove 90% of women over the age of 15 want to change something about their appearance. The most common "problem"? Weight.

Dove, a manufacturer of soap and body care products, launched their Self-Esteem Fund, aka "The Campaign for Real Beauty" in 2006. The campaign has focused on promoting a healthy, achievable standard of beauty. Dove has run ads for their products featuring attractive women who don't fit the current media standard of beauty (ie, they have curves). One of the most striking features of the campaign is a short video called "Evolution" which shows a fairly average looking woman walking into a photo shoot, being primped, made up and styled by a small army of hair and makeup artists, then being photographed. The image then goes through some impressive manipulation on a computer before being put on a billboard.

Another blow was struck for healthy (or at least healthier) standards last September during Madrid's fashion week. Show officials decided, for the sake of providing better role models, and keeping participants from passing out backstage, that any model with a Body Mass Index of less than 18 (18-24 is considered healthy) would be banned from the show unless she passed a physical.

London's Fashion Week didn't institute any such bans, a fact which the news media has recently delighted in pointing out. Heroin Chic isn't dead yet, it seems, but changes may be on their way.

It's very interesting to note that much of the negative self-image that women suffer comes from the media or from other women. What men think seems to be far less important than what women believe that men think of them. Men, for the most part, seem to actually like women with hips. Words that men often use to describe attractive women are usually along the lines of either "curvy" or "athletic". Fashion photographers may be shocked to hear how seldom the word "bony" comes up.

Speaking of men, it seems like the gender gap is closing in the realm of neurosis, at least. Men are becoming more obsessed with their body image every year. While many women are concerned about losing weight, men appear to be more concerned with getting more muscular. The "ideal" male is now muscular, has perfect hair, a chiseled chin and doesn't actually sweat. Oh, and body hair is out too (where's Magnum P.I. when you need him?).

Negative male self-image increases with the amount of time a man spends watching television. While nobody should be shocked by that, what is surprising is that young men with poor body image are more prone to engage in high risk activities, particularly unprotected sex.

So, in a country obsessed with being skinny, why are we becoming more and more obese? According to a recent article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times magazine, our obsession with "nutrition" may actually be a contributing factor. According to Pollan, separating the "nutritional value" of a food from actual food may be making health problems worse.

Processed foods and food-like substances (nutrition bars, for example, which nobody who's ever tried them can really call "food") focus on barely-understood nutrients, as opposed to the complex interactions that happen when, say, you eat an actual salad. Pollan explores the political and economic factors that have shaped our culture's nutritional habits more than any hard science has.

Mr. Pollan's point, to sum up, is that we should eat a reasonable amount of food, most of it plants, and preferably lots of stuff with leaves. Or, as he puts it, don't eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn't recognize as food. Vegetarianism is OK, but flexitarianism seems to work really well (Flexitarian-lots of veggies with occasional meat, like the diet of many omnivorous primates. We are, scientifically speaking, an omnivorous primate).

Exercise is good too.

As for me, I'll make my salad, go for a run, and enjoy life. If not waxing my chest means that I'll never date a 90-pound fashion model, I think I'm OK with that.

Dove's Campaign For Real Beauty
Article on Male Body Image
Skinny Models Banned!
Skinny Models Not Banned.
Article on Diet

Northern Ireland

Lots of stuff going on in the world this week, but this one caught my eye:

Sinn Fien Endorses Plan For Ulster Police Reform

Northern Ireland, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, has been in a state of conflict for a very long time, it was partitioned from Ireland in the beginning of the 20th Century. The population is divided between those who consider themselves British (Protestant) and those who consider themselves Irish (Catholic).
The Irish Unionists want Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and the British Loyalists to either accept it or go back to England. The British Loyalists want to stay citizens of Great Britain, but don't want to leave what have been their homes for generations. This has led to bitter political disagreement and plenty of violence from both sides.

While there is still violence, it has declined, and the most prominent figures on the Catholic side have begun to speak in terms of working from within the system and establishing a peaceful compromise. While agreement is not totally unanimous, it's a step.

The latest development has come when the Catholic party known as Sinn Fein came out as officially backing a reform of the Ulster Police Department. For a long time the Irish have been at odds with the British-staffed police department. Now they are taking steps to work with them to make sure that Catholic and Protestants are represented proportionally on the force (the population is split almost half-and-half, with slightly more Protestants living in the territory in question).

It's a complicated situation, with tempers and grudges flaring on both sides, but it would be good to see Northern Ireland establish it's goal of peace with justice for all of its citizens whatever their ancestry.

It would do well for Ireland, which has long been a bastion of art and learning for Europe (see Thomas Cahill's excellent How the Irish Saved Civilization for more on that) to stand as an example of how to finally end the cycle of terrorism and oppression caused by ideological divides.
It may be a bit naive and very idealistic to think it may someday come about, but stranger things have happened, especially in Ireland

Friday, January 26, 2007

Housekeeping notes

There is now a "Subscribe" button in the upper right corner. If you want e-mail updates, that's where to go!

I'm trying to clean up the look of the page by only displaying the two most recent posts, as well. If you missed anything, or are extremely bored, feel free to browse the archives, also listed to the right.

For those of you who say love doesn't last...

From the "Random News I Find Interesting" file:

Jim Hamm (70) and his wife Nell (65) were hiking in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, in California on Wednesday when Jim was attacked by a mountain lion.

The lion wrestled Jim to the ground and began chewing on his head. Nell ran over to her husband with a four-thick log and began to beat the animal, as well as attempting to stab it in the eye with a pen. Eventually the mountain lion gave up and left the couple, who then went to the trail head to get help from rangers.

Next month, Jim and Nell Hamm will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They're planning to head off to New Zealand, with it's stunning scenery, laid-back atmosphere and, the Hamms should be happy to note, lack of large predatory wildlife.

I think that Nell is fully entitled to remind her husband that this is their golden anniversary, as in gold, jewelery, "you owe me your life pal", etc.

All kidding aside, kudos to the Hamms for making it 50 years, and kudos to Nell for standing by her husband in about the most concrete and unambiguous way possible!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Blogging for Dollars!

It's amazing how much money there is out there for poor, underemployed bloggers. No, I'm not talking about advertising space, syndication or any sort of aspirations of journalism. I'm speaking of a peculiar form of "corporate sponsorship" that seems to be popping up lately.

The most recent example doesn't involve actually blogging, but editing Wikipedia. Imagine, getting paid to post your edits to a certain web page! That's exactly the offer allegedly made to software engineer Rick Jelliffe by none other than Microsoft. Jelliffe claims that he was offered a contract by Microsoft to edit entries regarding Microsofts OOXML vs. the competing ODF format. They wanted the entries to reflect "more balance".


Another example of how to profit from that time spent in front of the computer comes from bloggers Jim and Laura, on their blog Wal-Marting Across America. This couple travelled the country in an RV, stopping along the way to visit their favorite megastore, chat with employees and, presumably, shop.

Of course, this totally spontaneous trip needed to be funded somehow, so, out of the goodness of its great, loving corporate heart, Wal-Mart bought the couple an RV, planned their itinerary for them, and even paid them just for posting blog entries.

And who says that the Wal-Mart corporation is a huge, heartless robber baron that will do anything for a buck and has no ethics or honesty?

Well...a lot of people, apparently. When BusinessWeek.com exposed the real story behind the blog, it was regarded as something of a PR setback.

I always thought that if I were going to be writing for a living, I had the choice of being either a journalist or a novelist. It looks like there are new options opening every day.

I wonder if Exxon is hiring?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Count on Me

It might not surprise you to know that "the" is the most commonly used word in the English language, but did you know that one of the least commonly used words is "conquistador"? Actually, it ranks at 86,800th.

The source of this information is www.wordcount.org, a website designed by Jonathan Harris. Harris compiled the 86,800 most frequently used words in one long strand. The words are presented in order of frequency, with little red numbers appearing next to each entry telling the reader its rank.

Not surprisingly, the beginning of the list is dominated by basic, utilitarian words. It starts off "the, of,and,to,a,in,that" and continues on with prepositions, articles and basic pronouns until at least number 66-"time". "people" doesn't come until number 81, and the "government" has shown up by number 140.

It's hard not to scroll through the list and wonder what our word usage says about us as a culture. The word "love" comes in at 384, well ahead of "hate" (3107) but still behind "war" (304). "Man" (142) still leads "woman" (393), but it's hard to tell if that has more to do with the battle of the sexes or the use of "man" to mean "mankind"(7981).

For all of the claims by various pundits that "fuck" is the most versatile word in the English language, it only ranks 5598th, well behind "hell" (1927) and "damn" (4225) but well ahead of that stereotypical British expletive "bugger"(9939).

Those of a less profane bent will find "God" high in the running at 376, while the "devil" is lagging behind at 4802. "Angel", at 5283, shows we've still got enough optimism to keep away the "demon" (15586).

Even though I came across Wordcount fairly recently, it has been up and running for quite a while, and various neologisms aren't anywhere to be found. This isn't really a weakness, I think there's a lot to be learned by what is there.

On the other hand, I did get a "not found" message when I typed in, of all things, the word "blog"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Original Slacker: Thoreau's "Walden"

Many years ago, in a small New England town, by a small pond, a man lived in a small house that he had built with his own two hands. He grew beans on a small patch of land.

This is a very simple story, and, when condensed into this form, not very exciting at all.

However, it is the basis for one of the great works of American literature, Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau didn't have any great adventures during his time at Walden Pond, nor did he really exert any great influence on the world at the time. He didn't dedicate himself to literary or artistic pursuits, or anything else, for that matter.

Thoreau was an intelligent and talented young man at the time. He wrote well, when he put his mind to it, and actually dabbled successfully in matters of engineering and manufacturing. On the other hand, he didn't care about making money, social advancement or leaving a lasting legacy.

In short, he was a stereotypical slacker.

This is not to say that Hank Thoreau was a bad person, or that his choice of lifestyle was in any way something to be looked down on. It's just that he didn't feel compelled to live up to the standards set by his contemporaries. His desire, in his two years at Walden, was to see how little he actually needed to survive and be happy. It turned out that a man, or at least a man like Thoreau, was capable of leading a very satisfying life with hardly anything at all.

Since Thoreau's time, we like to think that we've come a long way. However, maybe if Thoreau were around today, he'd point out that we really haven't gone anywhere. We're just spinning around the same circle in a bigger, faster vehicle.

Walden is kind of a travelogue. Although Thoreau never actually goes more than a few miles, he takes the reader through a foreign land. That this exotic locale happens to be the village of Concord Mass. and the surrounding woods rather than some far off kingdom is irrelevant. Thoreau looks at familiar surroundings with a sense of wonder, and relays his adventures to us as a seasoned travel reporter, chronicling his discoveries with triumph and his setbacks with wry humor.

Although the language may seem a bit dense to the modern ear, and full of archaic measures and references (how far is a "rod" anyway? Look it up, it's about 16.5 feet, or the length of a typical canoe), Thoreau's prose is still lively and vibrant to those willing to dive in.

Walden is on my short list of books to read every year. It's entertainment, food for thought, and most of all, a reality check. Well worth the price of admission.

Monday, January 15, 2007


I Run.

One of the shortest possible sentences in the English language (not the shortest, that's another blog though). However, this simple subject-predicate pairing has taken on a lot of personal meaning lately.

I've been a runner for many years. Once upon a time I was even fast and in good shape, and I dreamed of the New York Marathon.

After a long time of making excuses and avoiding it, I've started running again. The usual excuse, although I never articulated it, was that I was too busy and didn't have time.

Of course, the fact that I'm busy, stressed and don't have the personal time is probably the biggest reason that I need to run more than ever now.

Running isn't really a way of escaping my problems. It's more of a tool for dealing with them. Somewhere in the simple repetition of one foot in front of the other, I'm finding some sort of balance. I'm becoming more grounded in physical reality, which is giving me more mental clarity.

I'm having an in-body experience.

As I get in better shape, my mood and attitude are improving. As I gain better balance between my body and mind, I'm better prepared to seek balance in the rest of my life.

In motion I am finding strength and peace of mind.

The funny thing is, it's always been there, I just forgot about it.

So, with all the complicated sentences I sort through every day, the one that I'm finding more and more important is the simplest sentence in the English language. Good advice, short, easy and to the point.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lawyers, guns and money

A bit of background: Since 2001 there have been several military prisons throughout the world where hundreds of suspected terrorists are held.

OK, so terrorists are bad, they kill people, they should go to jail. Most of us can agree to that.
Of course, being an American, I was brought up to believe that there is a certain system of justice involved. Terrorism is a crime, so catch the criminal, try him and send him to jail. We have this "Constitution" thing that talks about all that.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the way things are working right now. Suspects have been rounded up and thrown into chain-link cages and kept there for years without even being officially charged with anything, let alone being tried as criminals.

Yeah, I think that's kind of repulsive. There are lots of reports, essays, documentaries and the like that discuss how the people in charge of this are behaving badly and violating the US justice system and basic human rights, etc. I'm not going into detail, you can find it all over the Internet.

Let me, just once, make my stance on this clear, and move on to my point: There are bad guys out there. I would like to see the bad guys caught and locked up. I would also like to see all this done properly and legally, with some sense of ethics and honor on the part of my own government. I don't want to feel like we're the bad guys. Do it right, get it?

So, on to Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba (you know, Cuba, where US citizens aren't allowed to go?) There are around 500 prisoners there, many have been held for five years without being charged of anything specific, or granted the right to a trial or legal representation or anything that your basic child-molesting serial killer would get.

There have been lawyers from prominent firms in the US volunteering their time to represent the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay prisons who have actually been given the right to trial. This is not because they support terrorism, this is because they support the American Ideal that everyone who is charged in the US justice system should be given a fair trial.

We have rules, we have standards, we do things a certain way. And, dear Reader, if any of you are inclined at this point to say "Well, they wouldn't do the same for us." let me point out that we are supposed to be the good guys, which means doing the right thing even if others don't.
Last week, Charles D. Stimson, who will hereafter be referred to as "Stimpy" had a bit to say about this. Stimpy is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs. He publicly attacked these lawyers who have volunteered their time and knowledge.

He named the firms to which these attorneys belong, and suggested that corporate clients stop dealing with them. He claims that their work is somehow undermining America and damaging their business interests. After naming about a dozen of the top law firms in the country McCarthy...er, I mean, Stimpy was quoted as saying:

"I think, quite honestly, when corporate C.E.O.'s see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those C.E.O.'s are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out."

Do you notice how Stimpy used the term "alleged terrorist" there, in reference to all those individuals who have not yet been proven guilty, or in many cases even formally charged? Yeah, me neither.

Sorry for ranting today, but I find this whole thing, and Stimson's comments in particularly, nauseating. Most of all, I'm ashamed for my country.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do I really need high-tech running shoes?

As part of my new years resolution, I've started running again at least five days a week. Just 2-4 miles at an easy pace. This is good, and I'm enjoying it.

While I'm already beginning to see the benefits of running regularly, even after just a week or so, I'd started having questions about whether my $100 and something dollar New Balance stability shoes are really any help.

I'm a big guy, and over the years that I've been running I have been very conscious of the possibility of injury. I've been pretty lucky so far. The worst injury I've ever had, I have to admit, I got while running, but that had less to do with the shoes and more to do with the Chevy that hit me.

Once upon a time, when I was semi-serious about racing, I used to mix the occasional barefoot session at a rubberized track into my weekly running schedule. It was always fun and, although I went a little slower, it never actually hurt in any way.

Skip forward ten years, and now there's a lot of buzz about shoes like the Nike Free, which allows the foot to move like it would without the benefit of a running shoe. On the other hand, we have shoes so advanced that they have computers built in to adjust the cushioning as you go.

I did a little research and found arguments on both sides. Some argue that it is impossible to run without artificial assistance, and that to do so risks serious injury and biomechanical inefficiency. The other argues that the human foot is a complicated machine which functions best when allowed to move naturally.

Now, although I'm neither a biologist or an engineer, I can see a certain logic emerge from this. The concept of the high-tech running shoe, the very idea on which a billion dollar industry is based, is that human feet are evolved for something other than walking and running. Interesting.

Now running barefoot is fine and dandy on a well groomed lawn or rubberized track, but I've lived in neighborhoods where I actually had to step over used needles on the sidewalk during my morning run, so I figured I'm not entirely ready to abandon the idea of shoes.

As an experiment, yesterday I put on a pair of black Chuck Taylors and headed out for my usual route, a nice packed-dirt path with a block of my house.

Nothing hurt, I wasn't sore, no pain, after the first five minutes I didn't even feel and major jarring or jostling. I found a nice, smooth pace and didn't try to overdo it. In spite of having no EVA foam, elevated heel, torsion bar, motion control, air pockets or any sort of claim to major technological advancement, my Chucks didn't seem to hurt me at all. In fact I felt better than I did the day before.

And I got them for $19.99


Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Real Men Don't Coast

For many years now I've been an avid cyclist. I've raced bicycles, commuted by bicycle and fixed bicycles for a living.

I started out with the usual single-speed kid's bike with a coaster brake and training wheels, worked up to bmx-type bikes and old ten-speeds, and finally, in high school, got a mountain bike with shifters on the handlbars.
Years later, when I was "grown up" with a kid of my own, I graduated to grip-shifters and triple front chainrings, giving my mountain bike 21 gears or more. On my skinny-tire road bike, I had shifters that were integrated into the brake levers so I never had to move my hands from a riding position. The rear wheel featured a cluster of 9 cogs, each one accessed in crisp, accurate clicks by a twitch of my fingers. My bikes had grown progressively more complicated, from heavy steel to aluminum and carbon fibre, with more and more gearing options.

Then, somehow, something changed.

Out of curiousity, I built up a mountain bike with only one gear. I used a catalog-clearance frame and spare parts, and made it as cheap as possible, with the intention of having a no-maintenance city bike.

But I made the mistake of taking it off road. I was hooked on "single-speeding". No shifters, no shocks, just muscle, skill and a willingness to occasionally walk the bike uphill. It was good, muddy fun.

Then came the fixed-gear road bike.

Single-speed bikes are fun, like a cruiser or bmx bike. It's easy to understand how, if you're not in a hurry, the low cost and durability of a super-simple bike can be appealing. It's pretty easy to understand, after all, and pretty easy to explain.

Why anyone would want to ride a fixed gear, on the other hand, is much harder to explain to the uninitiated. A fixed gear bicycle has only one gear combination, it's a type of single-speed bike. The "fixed" part is what makes it different. The rear cog is screwed directly onto the rear hub with no freewheel mechanism. Without some sort of ratcheting freewheel, the rear wheel cannot move unless the chain moves too, and the chain can't move unless the pedals go 'round, and the pedals can't go 'round unless your legs are moving too. In short, you can't coast.

Nonstop pedaling isn't that bad. If you watch racing cyclists, or even serious recreational riders, you'll see that they hardly ever stop moving their legs. You won't go fast, after all, if you keep letting your bicycle slow down. The tough part about riding a fixed-gear bike, or fixie, is that there is only one choice of gear ratio. That means that if you have a low enough gear to get up a hill, you're going to have to spin like mad going down. On the other hand, if you have a gear ratio that lets you spin comfortably going fast on flat stretches, or down hills, you need to do leg presses to get up a hill.

As hard as it can be to ride a bicycle like this over Central Jersey's rolling hills, it's even harder to explain to non-cyclists, or sometimes even other cyclists, why this is fun. Why throw away a century of innovation and technological adancement so you can work harder to go slower? Why ride a silly, risky, evolutionary throwback like a fixed-gear bicycle?

Probably the best answer that I, or any other fixie aficianado, can come up with is the same answer that people who hike the entire Appalachian Trail, run marathons, swim the English Channel or enjoy any of a thousand other difficult, dangerous and unneccesary challenges give:

"Because I can"

Wikipedia article on fixed-gear bicycles

Monday, January 8, 2007

Your REAL Resume

Job hunting, it's been said, is the worst job out there. I've come to see the truth of this firsthand in the last couple of months as I've been shipping out a small forest of resumes and wading through a mountain of applications.

The resume, of course, is your chance to sell yourself, and you spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to present yourself as a smart, polished professional. You toil and sweat over each sentence as you try to re-frame that job you had swamping out bathroom stalls as a position as a "Facilities Maintenance Professional", and you load your "Skills" section with so many keywords that even you are no longer sure what you actually know how to do.

But consider the radical idea that an employer might actually be interested in you, the actual person. You know, the one sitting there in their boxer shorts reading this. Yeah, you. By the way, you just dripped salsa on the front of your t-shirt. Very professional.

So, what would you put on your real resume?

Let's experiment, shall we? Of course, being the altruistic soul that I am, I'll volunteer to be the first victi...er...subject.

Matthew DeBlass
New Jersey, United States

To obtain a job that pays my bills and is either fun or not too demanding. To actually have something to look forward to when I get up in the morning. Also, I wouldn't mind meeting a nice woman who is willing to put up with how weird I am. If you could help with that too, that would be great.

Job History:
Do you really care? I mean, I've got this stupid string of pointless retail jobs which all went nowhere, who cares. I've learned to put up with a lot of crap from people and keep smiling, if that's what you want to know.
Actually, I had one job, years ago I really liked. I worked for a children's theater company. But it didn't pay well enough so I had to quit. Now I'm all depressed and nostalgic, thanks for asking painful questions. If you want a reverse chronological listing, it'd look like this:

Job that cut my hours so I'm talking to you - Present

Job I hated - Last year

Job I hated but didn't even pay as well as the job after that - Three Years Ago

Dead-end job that I left for something that initially seemed more promising - Four Years Ago

Job I really liked but couldn't live on the salary - Five Years Ago

Pizza Delivery

I'm on the twelve-year plan! I go to community college. I'm poor. I mean, really, if I weren't desperate for cash, would I be applying for this job anyway? Once I finally work my way through that degree, I'm leaving your company anyway. Oh, I get good grades because I'm thirty something and don't go out drinking every night.

I generally get along with people. I can cook a little. I know four verses to "Auld Lang Syne" and can sing them in an authentic-sounding Scottish accent. I can juggle, but not that well. I can play the drum part to "Wipe Out" on any remotely flat surface, even if it wasn't actually intended to be a percussion instrument. I've been told that I'm pretty good in bed too, so if that will help me during the interview process, please, let me know.

Awesome, Totally Awesome, Hire Me, Desperate, Rock Star, Will Work For Food, Please Give Me A Job, Team Leader

Sun Sign:
Scorpio: The eighth sign of the zodiac is intense, passionate and loyal to the death. Scorpios thrive on challenges and creativity, but can fall victim to jealousy and self-indulgence. Compatible signs are Cancer, Pisces, Virgo and Capricorn.

So, that's the Matt DeBlass resume. The challenge, if you're bored or need yet another excuse to procrastinate, is to post your own version in the "comments" section. Tell us who you really are.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Loreena McKennitt's "An Ancient Muse"

An Ancient Muse, gives fans of Loreena McKennitt's "eclectic Celtic" music exactly what they expect, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. McKennitt picks up right where she left off with 1997's The Book of Secrets, this time with her songs inspired by the Silk Road, English poetry and classical mythology.

The sound of An Ancient Muse continues down the path McKennitt started on with 1994's The Mask and The Mirror. While she hasn't completely abandoned her roots in Celtic Folk, the songs are heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Arabic traditions, and feature instruments that many American and Western European listeners would be hard pressed to pronounce, let alone identify.

The worst that can be said about this album is that it doesn't give us any surprises. The songs, for the most part, follow the formula that McKennitt established on her previous two studio albums. Like previous albums, there is an opening piece featuring almost arrhythmic instrumentation and wordless vocalizations by McKennitt. There is the mandatory setting of a classic poem featuring ill-fated lovers that end up dead in the end. There are a couple of lively instrumentals, and the album ends with a meditative ballad. McKennitt's harp is regrettably scarce.

Of course, one of the best things to be said about the album is that it is very much familiar ground. Fans who waited nearly a decade for new material are getting exactly what they've been waiting for. McKennitt has created a genre of music all her own, with elements of folk, classical, world music and pop rolled together and backed by some phenomenal instrumentalists, such as Hugh Marsh and Nigel Eaton on fiddle and hurdy-gurdy respectively.

One of the few, and most interesting changes from past albums is a greater use of the western-style drum kit. The drums add a certain degree of punch to songs like "The Gates of Istanbul" and "Caravanserai".

The tracks

Incantation-An airy, shapeless instrumental that sets the mood and beckons us into McKennitt's world

The Gates of Istanbull-An upbeat and rolling piece, the drum kit gives it an almost reggae-like beat that you can tap your foot to

-Possibly the strongest track on the album, after the typical long intro, it breaks into a powerful, rolling gait, pulling us along on the back of a camel towards the titular caravanserai

The English Ladye and The Knight-A setting of a poem by Sir Walter Scott about, what else, ill-fated lovers. Very pretty, but it drags somewhat compared to the songs before and after it.

Kecharitomene-Another brilliant instrumental that builds slowly and solidly until Marsh's pyrotechnic fiddling puts the last minute into overdrive

Penelope's Song-A piano driven track that takes the perspective of Odysseus's wife, who waited for him at home all those years.

Sacred Shabbat-Yet another quality instrumental, this time with it's roots in the traditions of Jewish music

Beneath a Phrygian Sky-The longest track on the album. A haunting call to arms for the forces of love and unity.

Never-Ending Road (Amhran Duit)-McKennitt sends us on our way with this gentle benediction. About the never ending journey that is life. "Here is my heart, I give it to you/ take me with you across this land"

For more information go to Loreena McKennitt's Quinlan Road site

Friday, January 5, 2007

The Heros of New Amsterdam

New York City, never a town to do things small, has kicked off the new year with a couple of pretty amazing acts of heroism.
On the first day back to work, subway commuters were given a pretty amazing display by 50 year old Wesley Autrey. Tuesday morning a 19 year-old college student named Cameron Hollepeter suffered what appeared to be an epileptic seizure, and fell off the platform right in front of an oncoming train. Without time to think, Autrey jumped down onto tracks, leaving his two young daughters on the platform.
Autrey decided he wouldn't have time to haul Hollepeter back up, so he pinned the young man down in a drainage ditch between the tracks and hoped that it would be deep enough. Apparently it was, by about two inches.
After the train came to a halt over top of the men, anxious spectators heard Autrey shouting that "There are two little girls up there, let them know their daddy is OK."

While Tuesday's rescue was underground, Thursday's drama started four stories above the sidewalk. Three-year-old Timothy Addo had somehow slipped past his sitter and gotten out onto a fire escape. Timothy had gotten trapped and was dangling above the street, with his grip loosening. His guardian angels came in the form of two passers-by named Julio Gonzalez and Pedro Neverez. The two men positioned themselves under the toddler and did their best to catch him. The 43 lbs Timothy (what are they feeding these kids?) bounced off Neverez and onto Gonzalez, knocking both to the ground. All three got off with only scrapes and bruises.

I'm sure that in the same week there were a thousand tragedies in New York City. I'm sure that there are many other stories to be told all across the region that affected more lives than these two. But I think, with all the examples that we see of people behaving badly, lying and taking advantage of each other, it's important to stop and acknowledge the ones who step up and help. All three of these men were just ordinary guys on their way to work, who saw someone who needed help and put themselves on the line to save a life.

That's called a good example, we could use a few more of those!

See you all on Monday.

Good Samaritan on the Subway

Passers-by Catch Tumbling Toddler

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Music Blog: Chris Batten and the Woods

Chris Batten and The Woods have a mission. They have come to tell us the soul of Rock and Roll is still alive and kicking in New Jersey.

Ever since Bruce Springsteen tore through the disco era with his fuel-injected "Born to Run" more than thirty years ago, Garden State rockers have been more than happy to act as a reality check to the music world. The Woods are a worthy heir to this tradition, their music is unpretentious, soulful and fun. These are the kind of songs that make you want to roll down the window, turn up the volume and hit the accelerator.

In addition to their acknowledged debt to Springsteen, The Woods also draw inspiration from The Stones, Van Morrison, Elvis (Presley and Costello) and Otis Redding, among many others. Batten's songwriting isn't an attempt to do anything radically different with the genre, just an effort to write good rock songs with craftsmanship and heart.

The band's lineup consists of Chris Batten on the lead vocals, guitar, piano and harmonica, Dustin Packard on guitar and backing vocals Richie Pearce on drums and Al Radice on bass and backing vocals. Pearce and Radice work together to provide a solid rhythm section, holding the songs together nicely. Pearce's drumming is particularly well suited, being varied enough to provide texture and the occasional pleasant surprise, but not so busy as to distract the listener from the other three quarters of the band.

The dual guitars of Batten and Packard provide a loud, full sound that is well suited to The Woods' particular brand of roots-rock, but things really get going when Batten sits down at the piano. They keyboard fills out the sound nicely, and gives an extra lift to the faster songs and a degree of sensitivity to the slow ones.

Batten's lyrics reflect life in the shadow of New York City. They range from the narrative ("Riot in the Streets", "Swagger") to the confessional ("Driver","By Your Side"). They're full of places, names, and descriptive metaphors. They often reflect on a sense of loss or missed opportunity and offer up some great twists of phrase, such as in "Old Soul Station":

"And some will run from love, but they just fall into the pocket of some inattentive stranger"

Chris Batten and The Woods are definitely worth checking out, live or on the web. They're frequently on tour throughout the Northeast, and make semi-regular appearances at New Brunswick's Court Tavern. They've got plenty of songs to hear on their web site and on their Myspace page.

In a music scene dominated by artists that seem to be trying to one-up each other with cleverness and cynicism, it's refreshing to hear some good solid rock like The Woods. Somewhere in the wilds of Jersey, they remind us, there are a few honest souls who are not interested in re-inventing Rock and Roll, they just want to actually play it.

Chris Batten and The Woods can be found online at www.andthewoods.com or on Myspace at http://www.myspace.com/chrisbattenandthewoods

In the beginning...

In the beginning, there was the blog, and it was good. I'll have more to say tomorrow, but for now, it's just enough to know that it exists.