When I make a playlist I give myself constraints. This list had to fit on a now anachronistic medium: the CD. Sometimes a playlist can only consist of songs I own. Other times I will buy a song. I bought “American Girl” by Tom Petty for this list. This time I allowed only one song per artist. It does include three Brown(e)s though. And one Canadian and one Irishman. Still, good songs are left for another day or for your playlist, including: “American Tune” (Paul Simon);” America “(Simon and Garfunkel); “New York, New York” (Ryan Adams); “4th of July, Ashbury Park (Sandy”) (Bruce Springsteen), and “Good Ol’ USA” (Billy Joe Shaver).
There is some darkness in these songs, but in that darkness lives some hope, too. Pollyanna never challenged the status quo.
Making a playlist doesn’t either.
[ The Songs ]
1- “Almost Independence Day”
The perfect opener for the list.
It is almost Independence Day way up and down the line…
Even in Baku.
2- “American Girl”
I like the longing for something more (a slice of the American dream?) in the opening stanza:
Well she was an American girl Raised on promises She couldn’t help thinking’ that there Was a little more to life Somewhere else
3 – “Fortunate Son”
Todd Snider’s transformative cover of John Fogerty’s 1969 song repeats the truth about who fights our wars.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one
4 – “City of New Orleans”
I love trains, America, Steve Goodman, and this line:
Good morning, America, how are you? Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
5 – “4th of July”
I like the upbeat music and the images Brown evokes here. At the 1:40 mark Bo Ramsey plays some sweet licks.
We went went driving past the edge of town With the windows down We stopped to dance by a field With the music up loud On the fourth of July
[This song is not on YouTube but it is on (out out damn) Spotify.]
6 – “Pink Houses”
Broken American dreams.
Well there’s a young man in a T-shirt Listenin’ to a rock ‘n’ roll station He’s got a greasy hair, greasy smile He says: “Lord, this must be my destination” ‘Cause they told me, when I was younger Sayin’ “Boy, you’re gonna be president” But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams Just kinda came and went
7 – “Democracy”
From Leonard Cohen, Canadian and “a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Play this song loud.
It’s coming to America first, The cradle of the best and of the worst. It’s here they got the range And the machinery for change And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst. It’s here the family’s broken And it’s here the lonely say That the heart has got to open In a fundamental way: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
8 – “I am a Patriot”
I wrote this to a friend on Facebook this morning in response to his thoughtful post on patriotism:
Nice work, Phil. And if I may add, we should not allow the word “patriotism” to be hijacked in the service of nationalism. This is why I admire Steven Van Zandt’s “I am a Patriot” which Jackson Browne covered with élan.
“I am a patriot, and I love my country Because my country is all I know”
9 – “Freak Flag”
The most patriotic thing we can do is to take care of “our big family” and dear Mother Nature. The opening two lines are perfect.
I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb Come of age during Viet Nam Many thousand gone – I never did know why Well look around – it’s so hard to see What’s happening to our big family I’m an American – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly Well my dad preached a message of love I heard him say on the day he passed on above He said “Use what you got, son, to raise a hopeful cry” Dad, I heard what you had to say I try to hold to it every day I’m your boy – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly – fly Flag of green, flag of brown Leaves in the sky, roots in the ground I’m singing and stomping by the dawns early light For every soul being beat down For every child who sees the light and turns around Come on now – let’s let that freak flag fly – fly – fly
10- “American Skin (41 Shots)”
Springsteen wrote this song in response to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
A patriot addresses what needs to change in America.
Is it a gun, is it a knife Is it a wallet, this is your life It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret) It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret) No secret my friend You can get killed just for living in your American skin
11- “The Bourgeois Blues”
Ry Cooder covered Lead Belly’s 1937 song on Chicken Skin Music.
A patriot addresses what needs to change in America.
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs We heard the white man say “I don’t want no niggers up there” Lord, in a bourgeois town Uhh, bourgeois town I got the bourgeois blues Gonna spread the news all around
12 – “Fourth of July”
The world grinds on. “The small dark movie*” of our lives can break our hearts and sometimes we forget what day it is.
On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below And hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July
We forgot all about the fourth of July Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July Hey baby, hey baby, hey baby
Have a good 4th.
Your native son,
* Greg Brown from “Small Dark Movie” on Further In, 1996.
I enjoy the edgy contrast between listening to the Kinks (“Village Green Preservation Society”, “Muswell Hillbillies”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, “Lola”, etc.) and being in the chaos of Baku as it prepares for the Formula 1 race later this month.
I am making my way through the Parker novels by Richard Stark (pen name of Donald Westlake). I am on the 5th one, The Score , which was first published in 1964. There are twenty-three Parker novels and all have been handsomely re-published by the University of Chicago Press.
Here’s a short interview with Westlake in which he discusses why he takes on the Richard Stark writing persona. Westlake says that he wanted the language to be “stripped down, bleak, no adverbs, stark. The name will be Stark to remind us what were doing here.” The first name of Richard was from Richard Widmark, a hero of Westlake’s.
I enjoy Stark’s straight forward prose that moves the story forward with clocklike precision. And as this clock ticks, the tension slowly rises in these stories. Stark created in Parker a anti-hero who is smart, wary, and as tough as a box of nails. Here’s a conversation between Parker and a gun dealer.
“Machine guns,” said the blind man. They’re expensive, machine guns.
”I know,” said Parker. “And hard to come by.” “I know.” “The government tries to keep tabs on them. It’s tough to find one without a history.” “I need three. And three rifles. And eight handguns.” “Rifles, handguns,” said the blind man. “No problem, Machine guns, that’s a problem.”
Ah, an United States where buying machine guns was a problem. Those were the days.
Parker bought three Tommy guns from the blind man.
It is 6:34 in the morning and the muezzin has begun the morning call to prayer. Usually there are five calls to prayer each day, but in Azerbaijan, there are three. The nearest mosque is a 20 minute walk from our place so the wind has to be right for us to hear the muezzin in the morning. The other two calls are muted by honking horns and the general Sturm and Drang of city life.
Azerbaijan is 95% Muslim, but it is a secular society, and an amazingly safe city for its size (2-3 million people). There are a lot of bars, clubs, and general nightlife. You even see images of Santa and other manifestations of Christmas in stores and on the street.
I like hearing the morning call to prayer, comfortable in the knowledge that I will never have to answer it.
My esteem for the artist Ai Weiwei grew after I read about him in Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. Clearly, Ai Weiwei is industrious, smart, worldly, and funny. I like him and his art. I would love to meet him and to photograph him at work.
“Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.” — Al Weiwei, BBC News | 25 October 2015
His beef with Lego for not selling him a bulk order, however, is not censorship. Lego, for good or ill, has the right to not sell bulk orders to him. No one is currently stopping Ai Weiwei from creating his Lego projects so no one is censoring him. Lego’s refusal is not even discrimination because Lego refuses to sell directly to anyone who uses Legos to make a political statement.
The worldly Ai Weiwei likely knew that Lego does not sell directly to those who use Legos for political statements. This makes me wonder if Ai Weiwei isn’t having fun producing some stagecraft by using Lego’s refusal to generate news. If so, it is pretty damned clever… and funny.
Now, around the world, Ai Weiwei Lego Depositories have been established and people are giving him Legos. I follow him on Instagram and I am impressed by how many people have rallied to make sure he gets his (now free) Legos.
Ai Weiwei has been censored in China so he does know what it is and how terrible it can be. But in regard to Lego, he is calling “wolf.”
Few readers would find fault with these Emily Dickinson lines:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away
Readers won’t argue with this because they know the transportive powers inherent in those frigates. Books can change lives. They changed mine.
It was books that delivered me to a rich world of ideas and to a career in school, public, and academic libraries. And then, eventually, to this photo collection called Frigates: On Reading, a collection of photographs representing my interests in books and reading. They can can be viewed here.
This is how I got to these photos.
For 29 years I gladly toiled in libraries because I love to read. But I wasn’t an avid reader as a child. I can not tell tales of a childhood rich in reading. However, I do remember going to our town library (it is a tavern today) on occasion. I don’t recall what books we read in junior and senior high school other than Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. Although, I do remember the pleasure I had in reading Up Periscope by Robb White and Instant Reply: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer.
Those books came from the school library because our house was nearly bereft of books. However, we did have one book at home that I fondly remember: The Story of the FBI (1965) by Earl Schenck Miers. I loved this book because it gave me a glimpse into the mysterious, heroic, world of the FBI. (Okay, it was an overly sanguine book, but I didn’t know that then.) It was probably published to cash in on the popularity with “The FBI” TV series (1965-1974) starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. The Story of the FBI was “Illustrated with Photographs” which I pored over repeatedly. One photo was of a fake, hollow coin that you could pull apart and then, I imagined, stuff with nickel-sized secrets.
We did get the Des Moines Register delivered daily so I read it for the sports, the Jumble word puzzle, and to prepare for a weekly current event quiz in our high school social studies class. We read the paper at school, too. It was much more interesting than the history textbook.
I left high school aliterate; I could read well but I wasn’t inclined to do it much. It was not until I got to the University of Northern Iowa that I became serious about reading. It was there I realized how much I did not know. The thing about reading is that you really don’t understand the extent of your ignorance until you start reading. When professors mentioned something in a class I did not know (a frequent occurrence) I would go to the library to learn what they were talking about. I chipped away at ignorance, and in turn, gained a better understanding of literature, history, and the contemporary world.
My heuristic roving was not limited to cues from my classes. Music also lured me toward greater knowledge, too. For example, I learned about Oscar Wilde from John Prine’s “Forbidden Jimmy“ which includes these lines:
Ginger Caputo And Dorian Gray Oughtta stay out of pictures If they got nothin’ to say
Ginger who? Dorian who? I could not find anything on Ms. Caputo, but I soon discovered that this Gray fellow was a creation of Oscar Wilde. So I checked-out The Picture of Dorian Gray from the UNI library and read it. I still have not figured out Ginger Caputo, but I suspect she is a product of Prine’s prodigious imagination.
In a UNI English class we read Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare, short stories, and poems. Outside of classes everyone was reading Kurt Vonnegut so I did too. “False Karass” has been part of my vocabulary since reading Cat’s Cradle in the 70s. I also remember the crude, but evocative illustrations from Breakfast of Champions with great pleasure. Later I met Vonnegut – a shake of the hand only – when he came to campus at the behest of his friend Lori Rackstraw, a UNI English professor.
And I continued to read the Des Moines Register. We were proud of that paper with it’s great Peach sports section, prize-winning news stories, Donald Kaul’s columns, and Frank Miller’s brilliant front page cartoons. I remember billboards posing this question: Which newspaper had won more Pulitzer’s than the Des Moines Register? The answer: The New York Times.
After graduating from UNI I discovered Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, William Sayoran’s The Human Comedy, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, and Eudora Welty’s short stories. Somewhere in there I binged on Jerzy Kosinski. The savagery of The Painted Bird lingers to this day. Shades of Kosinski’s Being There echoes in our politicians still. I went on Esquire and Atlantic magazine kicks about then, too. My “frigates” were not limited to books.
I taught for a few years and then went to graduate school as an English major. I sputtered there under the kind, but demanding tutelage of Robley Wilson, Jr. and soon realized this line of study was not for me. At the end of one semester I left graduate school to work on the railroad. This third stint as a gandy dancer taught me that a life of back-breaking work was also not for me. Good to know. But I was a reader by then. That I knew.
When winter came and track maintenance work ended for the season, I started work at the Cedar Falls Public Library as a clerk. I was a typical library factotum: I checked out books, I shelved them, and I “read” the shelves (putting books in Dewey order and then straightening and edging them on the shelves). If Sisyphus gave up his boulder he could make a lateral move to “reading shelves.” It too, is a never-ending task. Still I found joy among those stacks. I was then reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Tony Hillman, and Jonathan Gash so I would look over the ones I had not yet read. I was highly distracted by those books, alone, and out-of-sight in those stacks. I learned about many subjects in that library collection. Poetry books were a delight to dip into. I shelved historic tomes and thick biographies about events and people I didn’t know about. But I took note of them for future reading. I also began to learn about different publishers. Knopf often had nice deckled pages and Little, Brown and Farrar, Straus Giroux consistently published books that interested me. I was willingly pulled into the world of books and knowledge.
Working at the CFPL got me interested in being a librarian. “They pay you to be around all of these books?” I thought. So I enrolled in UNI’s Library and Information Service course to see what Library Science was about. I enjoyed the class, and the professor, Dr. Leah Hiland, so I applied for and was given a graduate assistantship. In the fall of 1982 I began studying library science full time.
My first library job was at the Parkersburg, Iowa, Jr/Sr High School and it lasted for three years. From there I went to Cedar Falls High School. Lucky me. It was there I worked with Linda Waddle. Linda is still my friend, online-Scrabble nemesis, and retired über-librarian. I learned a lot about what a library should and can be from Linda. One day we were talking about libraries and technology and she said that we should always “dance with them that brung us.” She meant books. I took that to heart and throughout my career, while staying current with technology, I found the most joy and solace when promoting books and reading. After a few decades I got pretty good at it. This spring, two school years after leaving Warsaw, a parent at the school I worked at there sent me a message requesting a list of books for summer reading.
Educators are too often drawn to the refulgent baubles of technology which distract them from their chief dancing partners: books, reading, writing, thinking, and questioning. In the technological tumult of life, reading anchors and connects us to the larger possibilities of diverse ideas and poetic joys. Reading is the yardstick by which we measure (and conquer) our ignorance, plot dreams, and fuel curiosity and imagination. Technology is too often a tool of distraction that pilfers valuable time from reading, writing, thinking, and questioning.
On Jason Isbell’s new album he sings about fighting “the urge to live inside my telephone.” I have witnessed too many students and teachers “getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” Leonard Cohen said that about TVs in 1992, but it works for phones, tablets, and computers, too. Oh my how it works for those.
We now have costly frigates called devices: eReaders, phones, tablets. They are expensive and burdened with what Dickinson called the “oppress of toll.” This fact makes public libraries more important than ever because “the poorest” also need access to “frigates” for the sake of personal growth, enjoyment, and yes, democracy.
I never thought I would read a book on a phone, but when your vademecum is a phone, reading a book there becomes a natural progression. Still, I prefer a paper book… especially the handsome trade paperbacks published these days. Some, like Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering and Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage have those lovely deckled pages. I remain a fool for deckled pages.
While I was learning to love reading at UNI I picked up a 35mm camera (Pentax K1000) for the first time as a student in class called Applied Photography.
I learned how to develop film, make prints, and become conversant with the rule of thirds. I learned about DIN (now ISO), shutter speed, and f/stops. Since then I have always owned a decent camera. However, in the late 90s when I was constructing a post-divorce life I decided to become a better photographer. I practiced and challenged myself again and again. I sought a mentor via a photography forum and found Ted Grant, the great and generous Canadian photojournalist. Ted agreed to critique my work and with his guidance I gradually improved. Ted’s recommendations still inform my photography:
If you can see it, you can photograph it.
Shoot from the shadow side (Rembrandt light).
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).
This is an email excerpt from Ted commenting on a photo of mine:
Not bad at all, good exposure. A slight tweaking and it’ll be on the mark. Improvement: Maybe a wider angle lens & slightly lower position to the ground to strengthen the effect of the corn stalks and snow. Unfortunately the horizon line is dead center and with such an interesting foreground the camera could have been tilted down to take in more of the foreground or as I mentioned, getting the camera lower to the ground would’ve strengthened the over all effect of the field. But in doing this you must use a small aperture to keep everything as sharp as possible creating the feeling the viewer can step right into the frame and walk across the field. If the foreground is out of focus it creates a visual block to getting into the frame. The clump of trees in the background are a tiny bit too close to center, so by swinging your camera slightly to the right, providing there isn’t something there out of sight which might be more distracting, would move the clump of bushes more to the left third composition placement.
There you have it: An original Ted Talk.
This is the first “book” photo I made. I like how the woman found a perch under FDR’s smiling face. He seems to approve of her reading there, below him on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago at the beginning of this century.
In this gallery you will find photos of readers, stacks of newspapers, magazine racks, books, devices, authors, and more. They date from 2000 to 2015 and can be viewed here.
They are my dance partners.
Baku, Azerbaijan | 11 July 2015
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters Dance, Dance, Dance till you drop. W.H. Auden
There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away, Nor any coursers like a page Of prancing poetry This traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of toll – How frugal is the chariot That bears a human soul –