Archive for December, 2011

The end of the calendar year. Could 2011 have turned out different than it did? Could anyone have imagined any part of what happened at all? Tsunami in Japan. Arab Spring. Bin Laden. Occupy Wall Street. Penn State. The Last Space Shuttle. Not even Nostradamus could have guessed this year. And yet this time every year we take stock, look ahead, and set our sights on how we hope to shape the coming days.

And on a drive home from visiting in-laws this holiday season I began hearing the call-and-response that shaped up into the following poem.

here’s to fresh chances
budding romances
cosmetic enhances


here’s to new diet plans
self-imposed smoking bans
chemically produced tans


here’s to being less critical
promises political
the life analytical


here’s to better routines
sexy designer jeans
improved thinking machines


here’s to renewed respect
to the lives that were wrecked
through financial neglect


here’s to good education
the hope of the nation
social obligation


all these new resolutions
tax-free contributions
and familial absolutions
with a single conclusion


I find it odd that when I’m actually feeling good and hopeful overall that the dark and cynical are what come out. It’s a little like when a really good movie leaves one without the vocabulary to express it but a really bad movie invites excess expression. No, wait, that doesn’t work here. Because if it were a good year I’d be cynical, but if it were a bad year I shouldn’t be able to truly express it? Was this a good year or a bad year? Now I don’t know. Okay, so I don’t realy know what’s going on here, besides the fact that I got to use such a fun word like folderol as a refrain.

Hey! It’s the last Poetry Friday of 2011! This final exercise in poetry sharing for the year is being hosted by the fabulous Julie Larios over at The Drift Record and I really do think you owe it to yourself to imbibe freely in poetic excess this weekend.

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Or so says Terry Gilliam. Be sure to use the “snowflake” feature on the YouTube frame for that added blizzard-in-your-computer effect.

This goes out to all friends and family, especially since every year we fail to send out cards.



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I had a dream during my long winter’s nap last night. In it, I was a teacher attempting to get a class full of inner-city elementary school kids to perform an obscure play by Ionesco. I kept leaving my keys everywhere and the principal kept threatening to fire me for it (Please do! I implored him). After less than a week of rehearsal we had a performance in front of an audience and kids kept throwing up on stage. I didn’t so much wake from this dream as i sort of faded away while choruses and lines of the following verses echoed throughout.

The patron saint of Peace on Earth
Has come to deck the halls!
With deals busting down the doors
Of crowded shopping malls!

Let’s hack a sapling from the ground –
The shortening days are nigh!
We’ll give it ornamental life
Then happily watch it die.

The children hang up dirty socks
Or leave a boot outside.
They’ll dream of fairies crusted sweet
If not rodenticide.

Gretels can’t be choosers,
And Hansels never win.
The feasty ghosts have come to host
So let the Fat Man in!

Some crackers promise candy fire,
Some crackers become princes,
And some use food as weaponry,
Like cakes of fruit and minces.

With ginger roots and peppercorns,
With nutmegs and with maces,
To Winterize our Winterfoods
And spike our cheery faces!

Prepackaged cups of festive cheer
Begrudgingly be-toasted.
The fatted goose who chose to roost,
Rewardingly be-roasted!

They say this day comes once a year
But then that’s true for all.
The spirit’s given up the ghost
For festive shopping sprawl

A Hansel’s lousy witch food,
And Gretel’s never lost.
The Panto Horse has run its course,
The Fat Man’s hit the sauce!

It is safe to say I have had a lot of the holidays on my mind lately, but strangely it’s all been good. Only in the half-light of a half-awake winter morning do my thoughts run cynical. This is about as raw and automatic a poem I’ve ever written, where I couldn’t remember the words I could see the images. Seriously, I’ve been in the best mood this year-end than I have in many previous, and I don’t know why.

It’s Poetry Friday on the last school day of the year as my girls have joyfully pointed out – ah, the carefree life of childhood. Anyway, poetry abounds over at Dori Reads, so check it out. And now, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll take a nap and see if I can parse out the origins of some of those verses above!

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the long-play

It’s a full two months following The Great Hard Drive Meltdown of 2011 and the lingering reminders still pop up at least a couple times a week. Most of what I’m missing comes in the way of music, through some glitch in my iTunes folders, as even having an external hard drive failed to prevent the loss of nearly 4000 songs. Rebuilding the library has been a slow process, not helped by the fact that a good chunk of the source discs I no longer (or never) physically possess. As I flip through the master lists and playlists that were saved I am taunted that iTunes has kept file information and cover art for all these songs but not the actual song files themselves. It’s like paging through an album of lost relatives whose voices you can no longer hear.

Despite the initial shock and frustration, I’m not angry. Not anymore. Among other things, the loss and rebuilding has given me a chance to step back and reassess what my music is and means to me. It’s forced me to listen to songs that have long been overlooked in the grand shuffle, forced me to reconsider random shuffling of music in general, to rethink radio and my history of and with music, and made me a little sad over the loss of the vinyl album format.

The LP, the long-player. Such a strange evolution, both in format and in experience.

Early recordings began as cylinders of wax and then plastic holding between two and four minutes of sound. Leading up to World War I cylinders and early flat disk recordings were equal but the format that dominated a good chunk of the 20th century became the phonograph record. Originally 10 inches, then 12, the early disks ran at 78 RPM and would hold one song per side up of up to 3 minutes per side. This constraint established the 3-minute song as a standard that still rules pop music today, to some extent. Collections of 78s were sold in massive books with pages consisting of heavy paper sleeves that held three or four or even five of these two-sided records – up to ten songs in all! – and these were called albums. By the 1930s microgroove technology made it possible for disks to play at 33 1/3 RPM and allowed for up to four songs per side of a 10-inch record, an entire album’s worth of music on a single disk. The two-song, two-sided 78 became the 45 “singles” that filled jukeboxes and sold to a hungry post-war teen audience in the 50s while the 12-inch album collections of 8 to 10 songs became the standard for popular artists. Jazz and classical recordings were the first to utilize the expanded spaces on albums though rock and roll in the late 60s and early 70s would fully test the limits of continuous play. The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (or The Beach Boys with Pet Sounds, depending on preferences) first exposed listeners to the idea of the album as a conceptual whole instead of a mere collection of recent songs. The songs could stand on their own, but the albums were programmed with flow and progression and a grander sense of concept. Soon there were true concept albums, music with a theme or a mood intended for a specific effect.

I’m pausing here because it was at this point in the 1970s when music first entered my pubescent consciousness. It’s when I first heard many of what are now classic albums enter the world as new music, and perhaps why I find myself in recent circumstances mourning the loss of this sort of sonic development. Mind, this is not a nostalgia, but a sense of something lost as a result of our growing digital technology.

Leaving aside the actual genres (many of which will divide diehard fans on all sides) when music went digital we made two very large leaps that changed the way we used to listen. First, compact discs gave us seamless collections of songs for an expanded length of 80 minutes which doubled the space available on a single LP record. Second, digital players quickly gave the listener the option of programmability, to not play certain tracks or to rearrange their order so that they would always sound fresh. The carefully, sometimes artfully, artist-programmed album was now simply raw material for the listener. It falsely empowered the music lover to believe they knew better than the musicians which songs were best and which order they should be heard in. Digital programming encouraged impatience, encouraged intolerance, encouraged the entitlement of ownership. All of this control at the simple touch of a button promised to make every listener a DJ of their own custom music collections but instead it enslaved us to the idea of the infinite shuffle.

Shuffle is what we do, it is the current cultural default. It was so subtle a shift, but a sizable one. We got our MP3 players and loaded them up with only the songs we really wanted, mostly due to space constraints but also because the individual songs were more important than their original organic sonic environments. We put our player in shuffle mode and thrilled at the effect of always being able to hear our favorite songs, and in an unpredictable but not unpleasant order. Our iPods grew in memory, the diversity of our libraries grew, and we entered the era of the perfect and personalized portable commercial-free radio station. And when it came time to add new music, iTunes and Amazon made it easy for us to download only the songs we wanted. Musicians and bands still release “albums” of new material, and people do download entire albums, but the majority experience is still filtered through our library in shuffle mode.

Now here’s a nostalgic image, the kind you can see in movies from the 50s and 60s mostly. A person comes home after a hectic day, perhaps after work or some other activity, and they are transitioning between the day and the evening. They may be planning a quiet evening in, or may be getting ready to go out on the town – no internet addiction, no instant movie downloads, or any other digital distractions. They maybe kick off their shoes, make themselves a lovely adult beverage, and then go to the stereo and put a record on to play. Could be jazz, or some breezy lounge music, something cool and soothing to the soul. It could even be a lazy way for the filmmaker to get some music in the soundtrack to keep things feel like they’re moving along when little is happening. Then, as the album side ends, they either get up and change for the night out, or flip the record over, or put on a different one. Rarely do we ever get to see or hear the entire album side played, the idea is implied as a shorthand for what people watching the movie would recognize as a commonplace ritual: the conscious listening of music.

This is what I thought of as I internalized the loss of the LP.

Though technology has always defined and driven the restrictions and formatting of recorded music, up until the digital age I had this sense that there was a certain level of respect paid to the music. The reasons and the uses of the end product varied – dance music versus contemplative classical for example  – but from the listener perspective the music was given its own space. It’s that space that’s missing, that conscious decision to settle in and let the music deliberately fill our heads, our rooms, our lives with whatever joy music gives us. We program our phones with playlists for the gym, we run Pandora or Spotify stations to play in the background at work, we play plenty of music as a wallpaper soundtrack to our lives but we scarcely give it the attention we once did.

Another image. I’m in ninth grade, I’ve got a pair of headphones as a birthday gift (mostly so I can listen without disturbing my brothers in our shared bedroom) and I’ve gathered enough allowance to buy a new record. I didn’t have a big collection, nor the means to build one, so any purchase had to be carefully considered. I won’t go into specifics, but there was this band (Pink Floyd) who had a new album coming out (Animals) and it would be the first new album they released since I discovered them. I had to decide whether I wanted to spend my hard-earned lawn-mowing dollars on an unknown album of music or purchase an earlier disk that was chock full of songs I knew I liked. I decided to take the plunge, bought the new album, and took it home. I listened to it intensely that first time, just listened. I played both sides then flipped back to side one and played it again, reading along with the lyrics. After the second listening I had to take a break because plastic-covered foam “cans” on my headphones had matted down my hair with sweat. I listened one more time that evening and then went to sleep planning when I would next have the house to myself in order to play the music loud, to hear what it sounded like when it filled a room and could pound against my chest and rattle the windows.

When was the last time I did that? When was the last time a new album of music came out and I just sat with it? When was the last time I listened to any album of music from beginning to end, doing nothing more but listen?

You hear things in music, your head fills with images and races with ideas. I feel like there is something in that noisy meditation, something that has been lost. Though we still have the freedom to listen to the music as it was presented that very freedom has managed to abandon the long-play in exchange for the short-gratification.

As I rebuild my digital library I am taking note of albums I haven’t heard in a long time. I have a mental list growing that I may need to write down soon. One by one I intend to call up those albums when I have the time and simply listen to them as I once did. Perhaps I’ll grow impatient, or my attention span will wander out of a recently acquired habit and I’ll divert myself with some chore or task. But I want to give it a try.

I owe the music that much.

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We blew it again. Every year we say this is going to be the year we get out act together and pull together a holiday card to send out. We talked about it back in July, started researching options in November, vowing to get a great shot when the first snows came.

The snows never came. Our back-up plans kept getting back-burnered by this-and-that. And when the cards from friends started tumbling through the mailbox we thought we might be able to pull together something last-minute but no less heartfelt.

greeting card deluge
when it’s too late to reply
the holiday’s close

That was my poetic interpretation of our younger daughter’s observation, that whole frog in the pot of water thing, that when you see the deadline on the horizon it’s too close to change course. Of course, the fact that we didn’t manage to get our act together this year means we don’t have to think up something new next year.

all the ideas
that never reached fruition
are second chances

That’s a nice little bit of spin, but as I look around at everything involved with the holidays it suddenly comes to me that between cards and letters, decor and home heating, packaging and wrapping, things could look very different in an alternate universe.

holiday season
is impossible without
trees or paper

It almost seems like the more responsible thing to not send out holiday cards in that light. At least, that’s my reasoning for the seasoning this year. We’ll see what happens next year.

Poetry Friday, coming in on the end of the year 2011! Kate over at Book Aunt has the round-up for the week.

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Think back five years ago to 2006. What was your favorite book of 2006?

Is that a difficult question? Do you have to mine journals and blogs and run a Google search just to remember what was published five years ago? Now let me stop you for a moment so I can throw a number out there.


That’s how many juvenile titles were published in 2006 according to Bowker’s Books in Print database for the year. That number includes fiction and nonfiction, picture books and middle grade books, board books and young adult and everything in between. I cannot imagine any one person even reading a fraction of that number of books in a single year, but of that number what are the chances that a number of them of a lesser quality? What do you suppose the ratio is between a high-quality title and a book that is just plain boring?

And where do you think your favorite book of 2006 falls in the spectrum?

2006 was the year I began to take my writing for children seriously and when I started a review blog called the excelsior file to keep a record of the books that moved me to comment. I started the blog late in the year so I only have a few months worth of reviews, and I was still getting by blogging feet, so I can’t say it was a thorough accounting. But looking over the books I did review two of them stood out as books I still can recall and recommend to people today. One is the Barbara McClintock picture book Adele and Simon and the other is a middle grade books by Gary Paulsen called The Amazing Life of Birds. There were dozen’s of others, some older ones among the new, and many of those other books were easily forgettable and forgotten. No doubt there were 2006 books I eventually read and enjoyed (Gutman’s The Homework Machine, Portis’s Not a Box, Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, among others) but even of this shallow pool of titles how many of them were truly great, exciting books that turned me into a you-must-read-this evangelist? Compared with the total number of books printed that year, the percentage is pretty dang low.

Like 0.0002%.

But this isn’t a science, and with creative arts there is always room for varied opinion. Day after day I try to immerse myself in this world of books aimed at children and young adults and wonder why such a large portion of them are quite simply boring beyond all reason. Teen romances with cardboard stereotypes and predictable endings. Picture books lacking subtlety, some of them even ugly to look at, seemingly aimed at filling in short attention span bedtime reading with quantity and not quality. Rambling middle grade books that confuse bulging words counts with quality and spend more time aimed at providing readers hope rather than delivering believability a reader can identify with. And over all, books and books and books where heroics are more important than ideas.

Cue Tina Turner singing the theme for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Perched as we appear to be on the cusp of a digital revolution that will provide more content than ever before I think it’s imperative that those of us in the reading and writing game consider raising the bar. We should seek out and produce the difficult books, the ones that challenge a reader’s perceptions and cause a cultural stir. And perhaps we can consider talking less about good books and talking more about exceptional ones.

Five years from now when someone asks “What was your favorite book of 2012” there shouldn’t be a question or a hesitation, we should all be able to recall those titles that demanded our attentions and challenged readers to move beyond the comfort of the “good” books.

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Somehow I started getting a subscription to Harper’s Magazine. Not that I mind, it was just so out of the blue. As usual, I start from the back of any magazine and read toward the front. I don’t remember when I started doing that, but maybe it’s because many magazines have a “back page” that is usually some sort of high note to leave the steady reader with. Not quite the magazine equivalent of a happy ending, but not far off either.

This month the back page consisted of a collection of findings from various scientific studies, some credited, some merely random statements. “The nose smells what it expects” stood out, as did some statements that kept referring simply to “the poor.” I thought there might be a found poem in all of this, a cross-out poem. I circled, I crossed out, doubled back and looked for new connections. Where I might have been able to manipulate what was on the page into something with more political weight or social commentary I am, at heart, a purist when it comes to cross-out poems – I believe the words should be used in the order they appeared on the page.

And so here it is, the great query in the differences between The People and Science.

how great?

reduce their carbon footprints, and
wear appropriate shoes.

easily embarrassed,
the fatalistic are less likely to
spread selfishness through human history.
times of crisis the poor suffer
rumor-mongering, collegial sabotage,
and employ the past tense

ambiguous janitors are more likely to be seen
the nose smells what it smells

psychologists suggest that the poor
are overrated; the
broken will give their lives
when upset

avoid inbreeding
and the
existence of rainbows

Robyn is handling the hosting duties of Poetry Friday this week over at Read, Write, Howl. That totally sounds like a manual for daily life. Go, read a little, write a little, howl a lot!


I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner, but I realized that perhaps people might want to see the original page I worked over to achieve the stunning masterpiece above. Consider this a “show your work” or a source attribution if you will. I’m pretty sure if you click on the image it will grow to a more legible size.

In all it's green Sharpie glory

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