America Drinks and Goes Home

The Bumble’s Thumbs allow her to manipulate Scrabble tiles far better than most cats are able. She was actually having a fine game of Scrabble tonight, until Marcia nailed her with a bingo and gloated (see photo below), forcing The Bumble to get all puffed up with indignation and chase The Nervous Orange Cat into the linen closet. I finished out The Bumble’s game for her, and got stomped:

Never challenge a cat with thumbs . . . if The Bumble says “QIJKUORX” is a word, then it is . . .

Strictly Genteel

1. I have written before about the Loneliness of the Long Distance Royals Fan, so after 18 years of being the only Kansas City Royals follower in the state of New York, it seemed that one of the benefits of moving to Iowa might be living in a part of the country where folks might conceptually like the same baseball team I do, since it’s the closest major league franchise to Des Moines. This sense of possibly being able to connect with others was heightened during Spring Training this year, when the Beloved Royals inspired a good number of sports writers to opine that 2012 might be the year that they would finally arise from the American League basement. There was hope! And maybe someone to share my enthusiasm with! Huttah! Three weeks into the regular season, however, these optimistic thoughts have been thoroughly dashed, as the Royals sit at a Major League worst record of 3-13 (.188), after a twelve game losing streak. Oh well . . . at least I have extensive experience in how to handle the Royals’ failure in solitude, which is helpful, since it appears that Iowans don’t care much more about them than New Yorkers do. Sigh.

2. I lived in the Washington, DC suburbs in 1974 when the Washington Capitals hockey club took to the ice the first time. They were one of the southernmost National Hockey League (NHL) teams in the nation at that stage, and there wasn’t a whole lot of pent-up anticipation and interest in the sport as best I could see. But the marketeers of the day did a good job whipping up enthusiasm, and they captured my attention and held it, so the Caps have been the one and only professional hockey team for which I’ve ever held a manly sports crush. Which, for the record, has been even more futile than my aforementioned life-long love of the Kansas City Royals, as the Caps have zero Stanley Cups in their history, compared to the Royals’ one World Series title (now almost 30 years old). Over the past few seasons, the Caps have been particularly aggravating, racking up record-setting regular season records, then folding up like tacos when the postseason arrives. This year, they had a fairly marginal regular season, and I was actually rooting for the Winnipeg Jets to pass them for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, since missing the playoffs might actually force management to disassemble the skilled, but generally heartless and gutless teams that the Capitals have put on the ice for the past half decade or so. Unfortunately (?), the Caps made the post-season, and now they are within a game of knocking off the defending Stanley Cup holding Boston Bruins. They will probably go on to win the Cup this year, just to aggravate me. I do not intend to notice, unless they win the whole shooting match, in which case I will claim to have loved them all along, through thick, thin and thoroughtly gutless.

3. The new Jack White solo album, Blunderbuss, is superb. I resisted his most well-known band, White Stripes, for many years, because I disliked their whole schtick of no-bass, drum-and-guitar bashing about, played by a divorced couple who pretended to be siblings. Jack was clearly a world-class talent, sure, but drummer/partner Meg was not, and it was just uncomfortable to watch her play the same couple of patterns over and over again. I always felt bad that she had to play so many high-profile gigs with so few chops after the group broke huge, and it didn’t surprise me that she had a breakdown after a few years of that. So I was relieved when she stepped aside, and I hope that she is happy and healthy in her post-rock band life today. She deserves that. I have enjoyed Jack’s other band gigs with Raconteurs and Dead Weather (especially the latter), but was excited to finally hear what he might do on a disc released under his name. My excitement was rewarded with Blunderbuss, which stacks up great song after great song, many of them arranged for keyboards rather than guitar. While it seems weird to say this, the album that this new disc most clearly evokes for me is the Grateful Dead’s masterpiece American Beauty, which merged great folk and blues songs/arrangements with stellar instrumental performances and weedy, but compelling, vocal tricks. While Jack White doesn’t really sound like Jerry Garcia, exactly, his singing voice does crack and wobble the same ways that Jerry’s did, and when you mix that tenor/treble warble with fantastic lead guitar or keyboard lines, magic happens.

4. It occurs to me that I should explain the title of this post, since the stats page tells me that there are a lot of Indie Moines readers who might not have read Indie Albany before it. During my years of blogging at my own website and at a commercial site where I wrote, I often titled omnibus posts (like this one, covering multiple topics) with the title “Odds and Sods,” riffing off the classic Who compilation album of the same name. When I realized that I was over-using this title cliche, I started titling omnibus posts with the names of other Who songs, until that got old, and I went through a phase of titling such posts with Bee Gees song titles. Then that, too, got old, so I started titled omnibus posts with Emerson, Lake and Palmer song titles. Until (yes, you guessed it) that got old, too, so I started using Frank Zappa song titles, including the title to the post you are reading right now. So for newer readers, there is method to my madness, even if there is madness to my method . . .

The Fine Art of Presidential Failure

With the suspension of Rick Santorum’s campaign, it has become overwhelmingly likely that the nation’s voters are going to be choosing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this fall for the Presidency of the United States of America. Come sunrise on November 7, one of these men will be on the way to four years in the White House — while the other will be consigned to that very special circle in (living) hell lined up for those who aspire to the biggest job in America, and fail to win in.

Alf Landon

While Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Alf Landon and Barry Goldwater (just to name a few relatively recent examples) all carved exceptional careers in the service of their nation, each of their legacies carries the hard-to-shake whiff of “loser,” based on the varying degrees of stomping that they received at the hands of their presidential opponents.

When historians write these statesmen’s biographies and critics or pundits synopsize them for popular consumption, it will undoubtedly be their failed campaigns that garner the most attention public attention. But despite their dubious lack of achievement in the most scrutinized contest in America, these recent Presidential losers are actually in pretty good company, when one takes the long view of electoral history.

Henry Clay

Consider the era between Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, a period when most casual students of history would be hard pressed to name many of the largely undistinguished (with the possible exceptions of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk) line of Presidents who led their nation on its inexorable march first to the Pacific, and then to the War Between the States. The three greatest political minds and forces of that era, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay managed to pull together precisely zero successful presidential campaigns between them, with Webster losing to Martin Van Buren in 1836, and Clay falling to John Quincy Adams (in 1824), Jackson (1832) and Polk (1844).

Calhoun, for his part, managed to be elected as Vice President during Jackson’s first term, and should have been King Andrew’s heir apparent — except for the fact that he was unceremoniously dumped as Veep before Jackson’s second term, replaced by Van Buren, who rode his boss’ coat-tails to his own victory over Webster four years later. Nevertheless, the legacy of their age was, in large part, shaped more by these three Presidential failures than it was by the men who defeated them for the biggest prize in the land. History has certainly been kinder to them than it has to Presidents Fillmore, Buchanan, Taylor and Pierce. And history could have been kinder to Van Buren, too, who could also be listed as one of the most influential power-brokers and policy makers of that same era, except for the fact this his Presidency was the most marginal part of his career — and that’s what tends to be remembered, his other accomplishments paling in hindsight into insignificance.

In the twentieth century, we have been graced with a series of habitual presidential losers, largely from outside of the traditional two-party system. Socialist Norman Thomas ran (and lost) six times, in each campaign between 1928 and 1948, inclusive. He never captured the big prize, but he did get to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt implement many of the policies for which he had advocated during his early campaigns, and his insightful thoughts, writings and speeches against the Cold War arms race, poverty, racism, the war in Vietnam and the military-industrial complex in general were often prescient, and frequently pilfered by major party opponents.

Eugene V. Debs

Thomas followed in the oft-defeated footsteps of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate from 1900 to 1912 (inclusive), and again in 1920 — when he ran his campaign from his prison cell in Moundsville, West Virginia, to which he had been convicted for speaking out against American involvement in the Great War in Europe, in violation of the war-time espionage law. While Debs never slept in the White House, he was the lightning rod of the labor movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is still regarded as one of the most eloquent and passionate orators of his era.

Third party losing candidates Theodore Roosevelt (1912), Robert LaFollette (1924), Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) all merit mention for actually having managed to win electoral votes, a feat that Debs and Thomas never achieved. Then former-President Roosevelt, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate in 1912, actually managed to win more electoral votes than incumbent William Howard Taft, who rebounded from his humiliation at the hands of Roosevelt (his former mentor) and Woodrow Wilson (who won the election because of Roosevelt’s maverick campaign) to ultimately become Chief Justice of the United States — the only man ever to hold both positions. All things considered, Taft would have been happier to be a failure in his first Presidential campaign as well: “I don’t remember that I was ever President,” he remarked late in his life.

Ross Perot didn’t manage any electoral votes, but he did pull enough popular votes to materially impact the outcome of the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton unseated George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, Ralph Nader’s Green campaign sucked enough votes out of the Democratic side to throw a squeaker of an election towards the Republican George W. Bush, leaving Al Gore to bear perhaps the heaviest tang of failure in recent electoral memory: like Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Grover Cleveland in 1892, Gore actually managed to lose an election despite getting more popular votes than his foe. Perot and Nader lost like gangbusters, sure, but they made a difference in tight campaigns, and that difference has helped spark additional interest in third party candidates and causes — and the impacts (intended and unintended, good and bad) that they can have on the nation’s discourse and governance.

Pat Paulsen

Our prior President, George W. Bush, appears to have studied past failed presidential candidates as well, and taken to heart some of their policy proposals. One such failed candidate once proposed an amendment to the Constitution that read: “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the office of the President. He shall have power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the common defense and general welfare of his family and friends. If the country is in peril for the lack of essential minerals, oil and land necessary for its citizens, he may encourage incursions into other lands not belonging to the United States for the procurement of these valuables.”

The losing candidate in question? Sad-eyed actor/comedian and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer Patrick L. Paulsen, a fringe candidate of the furriest variety from 1968 to 1996, proving that even the biggest losers sometime manage to influence the winners — even if no one knows (or wants to admit) that they’re doing it.

The King of Tests Strikes Out

Our fabulous globetrotting daughter, Katelin, recently expressed an interest in taking the Foreign Service Exam this summer as she looks forward to college graduation in 2013. I totally applaud her interest in this most excellent course of career paths, even though it reminds me of a less-than-stellar chapter in my own life, which I wrote about in 2003 for a print outlet in Albany. I reproduce my article on this topic below, with a few updates, in hopes that my own spawn (and everyone else) can learn from my experience . . .

Once upon a time, I was the King of Tests. I was a marginal student, at best, and would generally spend more time and effort trying to get out of studying or doing work than it would have taken to actually do the work — but any time anyone put any sort of standardized test in front of me, the vast seething library of arcana and noise that’s rattled around in my head since childhood would suddenly click to order, files and data organizing themselves for the dump, and the test would be mine.

Lest you have any doubts about how test driven our society is, let me assure you that a marginal work ethic and high test scores carried me further than most of my hard-working, low-testing peers. Elementary school standardized tests placed me in a variety of gifted and talented classes, where we spent all sorts of quality creative thinking and processing and analyzing time that masked the fact that we really were working far less hard and having far more goof-off time than the kids in the regular classes. Junior high aptitude tests indicated to guidance counselors that I was college track material, and advanced placement tests later ensured that when I got to college, that I would be able to skip all sorts of typical first and second year courses.

And the SAT’s? Oh, the SAT’s! My SAT scores, with no advance effort to prepare whatsoever, overcame tepid grades and a marginal extracurricular record to get me admitted to one of the most prestigious colleges in America, where I spent four years as the King of Cram, leading a posse of like-minded slugs in the “Late Night Study Club,” packing just enough information into our heads to barf it onto the test forms the following mornings. And then we slept. After college, I spent a year in a postgraduate program, drinking and sleeping and drinking and sleeping, only occasionally coming up for air to take the tests that would get me selected for a prestigious position in a high profile government organization in Washington, DC.

When that gig was winding down, my girlfriend and I decided that we would take the Federal Foreign Service Examination together and, once we passed it with flying colors, we would jet off for an exciting, cosmopolitan life abroad, doing our best royalty waves at the natives, eating in the world’s finest restaurants on expense accounts, hobnobbing with the intelligentsia, and sleeping really, really often and well. My girlfriend, being a serious academic sort, did all sorts of research into the Foreign Service Exam, took sample tests, boned up on political science and economics and history, talked to people who had taken and passed the test. I, on the other hand, slept really, really well the night before the exam — figuring that if all night cram sessions had work well for me all those years, then a “well rested, well tested” approach should really reap spectacular dividends.

The test itself seemed no harder or easier than any other standardized test that I’d ever taken, and I was one of the first in the room to finish, not bothering to go back and check my work since, hey, I never went back and checked my work. My girlfriend, on the other hand, worked diligently through the entire testing period, while I sat thinking patronizing thoughts about how cute it was when she worked so hard on things.

Six weeks or so passed, and my girlfriend called me at my office to tell me that, yay, she had gotten the results of the examination, and she had passed! I congratulated her, and congratulated myself, since (to my mind) the only thing that could have caused us to not spend our lives jetting around the world together was for her to have failed the test. I was so glad that her hard work and preparation had paid off, and that our lives would now unfold the way we’d planned them — and I told her that.

Wait . . . you are supposed to PREPARE for this test?!?! Whoa!!!!

But I’d spoken too soon, since when I got home that night and opened my own test results, I discovered to my shock, horror and dismay that I had not passed the Foreign Service Examination. In fact, I had not even gotten close to passing the Foreign Service Examination. I had failed in a fairly spectacular fashion, and now I had to call my girlfriend and eat crow of a variety that I’d never tasted, with a healthy slab of humble pie for dessert.

And I had to reassess two basic personal premises in my life. Firstly, I could no longer waltz in to a standardized exam setting without preparation and have it carry me forward to whatever next step I had in mind. And second, and perhaps more profoundly, I had to stop acting like I was the smartest person that I knew  — because a lifetime of tests telling me that I was in the 99th percentile of this or the top decile of that had imbued me with an arrogance about my own intellectual capabilities that made me certain that I was always right.

So there I was, hoisted by my own hubris, planning a life that wasn’t possible because the King of Tests had struck out. The logical reaction, then, perhaps would have been to take the test again and redeem myself as Lord of All That I Multiple Guessed, but my reaction was, instead, to turn my back on such tests entirely for many, many years, to let my failure be the victor, to let that moment be a benchmark for a different approach to life.

So I didn’t take a standardized test or a college exam for 20 years after that day, and instead focused my energies on actually doing and learning things in practical, hands-on fashion, trying to earn tangible kudos rather than bluffing my way into paper victories. I didn’t become a Foreign Service Officer, but that didn’t stop me from traveling abroad, and bringing up my daughter to value the international experience as well.

And the girlfriend in the story? Well, I figured that the only way to deal with people who were much smarter than me was to stay very, very close to them, just to see what might rub off. We’ve been together for some 25 years now, and I’m still learning from her, gratefully . . .

I Like the Bee Gees

May 20, 2012 Update: Very sorry to hear of Robin’s passing today. Off to listen to “I Started A Joke” now. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I like the Bee Gees. A lot. And because of my affection for the group’s music, I was saddened to hear of Robin Gibb’s failing medical condition this week, just as his Titanic Requiem was being unveiled. Robin’s chin-quivering vibrato, earnest delivery, over-the-top lyrical and songwriting style, and charming penchant of singing with a finger stuck in one ear made him a truly delightful and unique stage presence. Check out this sublime live version of “I Started A Joke” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. He was a singer’s singer in his heyday, and an electrifying performer, in his own eccentric way.

I will admit that I rarely listen to the Bee Gees’ disco-era blockbuster albums Spirits Having Flown, Children of the World or Saturday Night Fever, since those discs really are relics of their time, and have not aged well. I’ll dance to them if I’m out a club and enjoy their songs in that context, but that’s about it. And after the hysteria that accompanied those albums, it seemed that the ensuing flame-out that accompanied the Bee Gees’ ill-conceived Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film permanently knocked Robin, Maurice and Barry off their stride, and I don’t think they ever made a truly, consistently great record after their pop supernova imploded. Which is sad, since the bile and abuse heaped upon them when disco died was truly unfair and undeserved.

My favorite Bee Gees album.

All that being said, the 13 studio albums that the Brothers Gibb issued before their disco trilogy still make for very enjoyable, very rewarding, and very high-quality listening, for the most part, and they play often in our household, since all three of us enjoy them. The Bee Gees were once performing prodigies with great taste, covering the Beatles on television before Beatlemania had really reached their own antipodean corner of the planet. If you haven’t seen them singing “Please, Please Me” in 1963, then you need to. The 1976 Bee Gees Gold compilation album provides a good summary of most of their hits (in America, or elsewhere) between their precocious Australian era and the disco trilogy, but it doesn’t do justice to the depth of their distinctive catalog through those years. All their albums from that period deserve a hearing, even 1970’s Cucumber Castle, recorded without Robin when he briefly quit the group for a solo career.

The Bee Gees albums I listen to the most these days are To Whom It May Concern (1972) and Main Course (1975). The first is something of an obscurity in the U.S. at this point, since it only spawned one semi-hit (“Run to Me”), but it really is an important disc in their canon, as it marks the last record they made with Bill Shepherd, their producer since 1967, and has often been cited by the Brothers Gibb and critics alike as a farewell to the old Bee Gees sound. It offers an incredibly wide range of song styles and moods, and the material is exceptionally strong and well performed. Closing track “Sweet Song of Summer” is one of the weirdest things in their catalog, a nearly tribal/ambient chant with a fabulous Moog solo by Maurice. Highly recommended.

Main Course was the last album before the Bee Gees’ disco trilogy, and it features three hit songs (“Jive Talkin’.” “Fanny Be Tender With My Love” and “Nights on Broadway”) that casual after-the-fact listeners might assume came from the Saturday Night Fever era. But this disc managed to integrate the Bee Gees’ earlier vocal and songwriting styles into a sleek American R&B format without crossing the line into precious disco period cheese, and it remains a high-water mark in the group’s catalog. It’s a pity that this album often gets tarred with the same brush that so easily paints the records that followed it. Check out this live clip of “Nights on Broadway” to see what a great band these guys were at that point in their career, with Maurice on bass and Barry on guitar. It’s masterful, truly, and it’s interesting to see that the high-end vocal parts were being handled by Maurice, just before Barry’s falsetto became the quintessential hallmark of the disco-era Bee Gees sound. I also think that this song should be taught in music theory classes, as the prolonged “I will wait, even if it takes forever/a lifetime” bridge is such a dynamite tension-builder, a perfectly counter-intuitive example of exactly how to kick a song into a higher gear by slowing it down for a spell. Brilliant!

So I’m going to queue those two albums up on the iPod tonight, as wild plains weather roars outside here in Iowa, and think good and kind thoughts about Robin Gibb. I wish him a full recovery, but if that is not to be, then I also hope that when his time comes, he flies away peacefully and painlessly in the presence of his loved ones. He made a lot of people happy in his lifetime, me among them, and I’m not really sure that there’s any better legacy for a man to leave behind than that.

The Lifestyle You Deserve

I am a deeply-committed music geek (as if that’s not obvious enough, duh), and there are very few things in my life that don’t feature background tunes when they’re happening. There is one major exception to this rule, though, and that would be cycling. I am pretty serious about the act of getting on a bike and taking to the road, or the trail, or the hidden deep-woods zones, and I never, ever, ever, never, ever do anything when I am on a bike that impedes my already damaged hearing, since the ability to perceive incoming sounds is a key to safely negotiating the path on a two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle. So I always shake my head disapprovingly when I pass cyclists with headphones on, and have been doing so for many years. That’s dangerous and wrong. This year, however, I have been dismayed to discover a new source of sonic distraction on the bike trail: people riding with actual speakers on their bikes, so not only are they distracted from the dangerous world around them, but anyone else anywhere near them is also subjected to the tinny din of their trebly iPod-quality speakers. A few weeks ago, I was walking a trail with some family members, and the bucolic nature of our hike was disrupted three times by cyclists roaring up on us with speakers cranked, which (they seemed to believe) also mitigated the need for them to verbally notify us of their passage, via the courteous “on your left” or “bikes back” declarations that I always offer to pedestrians on the trail. Instead, we got bad Bon Jovi delivered with maximum volume and distortion, pushing us off the trail, and making conversation impossible until the owners of those odious musical rigs were well past us on the trail. This strikes me as a terrible evolution in the field of communal, public cycling, and I am hoping that these recent events are short-lived anomalies, though in my heart, I suspect they aren’t. I guess once you get to the point where you can carry on private conversations in public with a Bluetooth device stuck in your ear, then your ability to render courtesies to the other human beings within your sonic sphere atropies quickly, on foot or on bike. This seems a pity to me.