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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tom Waits as Ghost Buster

As promised, the long-awaited (well, about a week) story of how Tom Waits dispelled some of my old ghosts.

When Tom Waits took the stage of St. Louis’s restored “Fabulous Fox Theater” to a sell out crowd there were ghosts lingering in the theater.  

The Fox is near the campus of St. Louis University, where I received a BA in political science many years ago.  However, it was not campus life at SLU, which sent thrills of déjà vu down my spine.  I have been inside the Fox Theater only a handful of times; but those occasions included my stage debut, at the tender of age of four as a tap dancer.  Two more performances on stage and I was relegated to a tap-dance dropout by age six. 

My next and last visit to the Fox prior to attending Waits’ concert was at the almost equally tender age of fourteen, wearing my first pair of “kitten” heels for the St. Louis premier screening of “Sound of Music.”  Navigating awkwardly in tiny heels, I managed to stumble and tumble down a long flight of stairs at the elegant Fox Theater, only to land in front of a group of my older brother’s friends also attending the movie.  Obviously, the dance lessons had not equated to grace.

Returning to the Fox resurrected shades of my first awkward stage performance in shiny costume and perky dance hat and my bruised ego from the teenage humiliation on the elegant staircase at the same theater.

Tom Waits took the same, though now restored, stage on which I had once tap danced.  Waits is not elegant but he certainly has class.  How is it that Waits can sell out thousands of tickets in a matter of minutes and yet not one friend to whom I mention his name recognizes his name?  

Maybe because Waits is in a category all his own.  First, he is an amazingly versatile songwriter.  His songs have been performed by singers as diverse as Bette Midler (“Shiver Me Timbers”), and Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”).
The diverse crowd of college students and senior citizens amiably mingled before the performance began.  Maybe some of them had their own ghosts waiting to be dispelled. 

As a performer, Waits is strange but mesmerizing.  With his porkpie hat tipped back on his forehead, Waits stomped on the stage to accent the music, at the same time, causing clouds of smoke to billow forth.  His gravelly voice invites comparison.  I like to think Waits has been ordering scotch on the rocks, every day for the last thirty years and gargling with it.  And, also, someone has been bringing him real rocks for gargling. 

The next time I visit the Fox Theater it will not be my own awkward performances, but Waits’ gravel voice and weird but compelling singing and strutting of which I will be reminded.

Monday, August 15, 2011

21st Centruy Technology--Paleolithic Brain: The Dangers of

I know I promised my next post would be a tale of how Tom Waits dispelled some old ghosts.  But there is a goblin of more recent vintage I must dispel. Recently I was guilty of emailing without brain fully engaged.  I do that a little too often in speaking but this is the first time in awhile that I did it with email. 

A friend sent an email to a group of friends about a mutual friend’s good fortune.  Her family member was safe after being in a dangerous circumstance. My first reaction, a most primitive one, was an enormous sigh of relief.  But in truth, not for my friend but for me.  I did not want to have the pain, however attenuated, compared to what hers would surely be, of sharing in a friend’s enormous loss.  My own fears were foremost in my mind, rather than the enormous celebration and joy my dear friend and her family must be feeling.  And in my response, with laptop open as I half watched a baseball game, I let my visceral reaction of relief shape my hastily-written response. I then hit “reply all” without noticing my dear friend, who was in the midst of joy and relief I can only imagine, was on the distribution list.

I have been reading renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” about the many layers of unconscious neural circuitry we carry with us.  How so much of what we do every day really is “hard wired” into our circuitry, instinctual behaviors chosen by evolution for their properties of survival of our species.  I realize the best, and sometimes the worst, of what I do often arise from some place within my brain of which I am not conscious.  How many times my brain comes up with an answer before I even know there is a question.  In this case, my primitive brain was concerned first and foremost with my own avoidance of pain.  I was happy I had avoided the potential pain of having a friend suffering.  Not, by any means, the emotion appropriate for a home-coming celebration.

In a moment, the impact of my email hit me when other friends covered my response with their own good wishes of joy to our mutual friend.  By then it was too late to undo my hastily sent message.  I sent a more thought out note to my dear friend.  And I spent the night hoping I had not caused her pain.

If we are an instinctual species in many respects we also can be a species that cares and learns from its mistakes.  In the future before I use my twenty-first century devices to communicate with others of my kind I am going to make sure I have used the higher functioning part of my brain to check  my primitive gut reactions before hitting “send.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Concerts as Music Therapy

Over forty ago, just after I met the man who was to become my husband we went to the Simon and Garfunkel concert in St. Louis.  But we each went with a different person.  A couple weeks later we went on our first date to see a musical group, Brooklyn Bridge, a band I’d never heard before.   

If it weren’t for my spouse’s efforts I would still be listening to Simon and Garfunkle’s 1960’s album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”.  I don’t mean now and then.  I mean that is the only music I would be listening to.  At all. 

Instead, a couple of years ago, during a time of loss and turmoil for me, rather than lock me in the loony bin or put me in therapy, my psychologist husband, took me to concerts.  I saw live performances by a variety of musicians, some of whom I recognized both their names and some of their songs: including Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, David Crosby and Steven Stills.  Others were unknown to me: Steve Riley and the Mamut Playboys, Over the Rhine, Josh Ritter, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett.  In the process, I found my musical ears.

For example we enjoyed, and I mean really enjoyed, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.  Before the performance I knew Lovett only from the supermarket tabloid photos as the one-time fiancé or very brief spouse of Julia Roberts.  I’m not even sure which.  Lovett’s long face and bad hair style put him, if we are being generous, at about ten percent of Robert’s attractiveness quotient.  Their pairing left me wondering how the two had ever ended up together, albeit even for just a tiny fraction of their lifetimes.  After hearing Lovett sing I wonder how Julia ever let Lyle get away.  

Lovett’s hard-to-box-into-a-musical-category performance, ranged from country to bluegrass (though he denied being born to bluegrass), rock and jazz, and a whole lot of gospel.  His performance brought tears to my eyes and took me to places I had forgotten or didn’t know existed. 

And did I mention Lovett’s deadpan humor?  Shortly after Lovett took the stage with his Large Band, an audible buzzing sound mildly disrupted the performance.  Lovett asked that the lights be brought up and someone help with the sound problem.  

In the meantime, Lyle took obviously impromptu questions from the audience.  When someone called out Jimmy Buffet’s name as a total non sequitur, Lovett asked, “Are we playing word association?”  He then responded, “Kenny Chesney.”  Waiting a brief moment, Lovett added, “Your turn.”   Lovett then wondered aloud if the Q & A session should be added as a regular part to the program.  

Lovett has a special quality in his voice, his music and his deadpan humor.  Regardless of the style of his performance you feel the connection to Lovett as a person.  But you mostly feel it in his music.  My vote is yes on the Q & A’s, so long as they do not subtract from the musical performance. 

As noted in other recent posts, our concert going continues.  In my next post I’ll recount how Tom Waits exorcised some of my old ghosts.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Travails of the Traveling Gluten Intolerant

The circle is unbroken, to steal a musical titleDylan Groupies at our age (slight exaggeration—my husband and I went to two back-to-back concerts in different but nearby cities) endure certain hardships.  Made more difficult by my celiac disease: I can’t eat anything with even a trace of wheat.  Not only does that preclude most fast food restaurants, but most breakfast offerings are extremely limited for the gluten intolerant.  No pancakes, breakfast sandwiches, pastries, bagels or anything on a buffet that might be contaminated by sloppy diners who mix serving spoons. Plus, the friendly but completely perplexed stares from waitresses in Evansville, Indiana who had never heard of gluten let alone celiac disease. Made me feel a bit like a space alien traveling in human disguise.

After making do with a cup of yogurt and a banana at the Holiday Inn Expresses for breakfast and salads without dressings at other meals, I coped with my sense of deprivation by baking what turned out to be the best gluten-free banana bread ever. I used quinoa flower and the original recipe from “Joy of Cooking" for banana quick bread. I added a little baking soda, plus the baking powder the recipe called for, to give the bread a little lighter feel.  I also let the bread sit in the warm oven that I had turned off once the bread was browned. I find gluten-free baked goods take longer to bake all the way through but brown just as quickly as wheat-flour baked goods.  Letting the baked item sit in a warm oven for awhile solves the problem of a potentially gooey middle.  I also added raisins, dried cranberries and crumbled walnuts for a nice flavor and texture mix. Yummy bread, however you pronounce quinoa.


Dorothy’s Idea of the Day: Tune in for musical memories.  My next post will explore remembrances of a concert year. Or concert attendance as therapy.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dylan As Today's Prophet

The last two nights I heard a prophet.  I was not in Vatican City, watching a TV evangelical program or attending one of the many “Six Flags over Jesus” churches. 

I was following Bob Dylan.  On 8/1/11, he performed on the same stage at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where fifty years earlier Hank Williams had sung.  The next night Dylan played the Roberts Stadium in Evansville, Indiana

Dylan’s song writing is so prolific he could not have performed more than a small percentage of his songs on any night.  Many other examples of the prophetic and religious nature of his music could be given.

To name just a few, Dylan’s 1962 “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” describes the heart-rending 8/2/11 N Y Times photo of a starving child in Mogadishu

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number

Are there better words to describe half a million children who are on the verge of starvation in Somalia?

…how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
“Blowin’ in the Wind”, 1962.

It’s not hard to match a current news story, for example, “Reaping Millions From Medicaid In Nonprofit Care for Disabled”, 8/2/11 NY Times, (Phil and Joel Levy taking $1 million a year each for running a Medicaid “nonprofit” for the disabled) to even an old Dylan song:

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth 
“All Along the Watchtower” from 1968.

From Dylan’s 1980’s religious era the extent to which the traditional religious sector fails to provide guidance in modern times sounds if it were from the Bible.

Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep 
Ring Them Bells, 1989

The summer‘s record-breaking heat and drought in some parts of the country with floods destroying other parts brings a more recent song to mind:
Tryin’ To Get to Heaven, 1997.

The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

Blowing his harmonica as sweetly as Gabriel must have blown his horn Dylan still regularly performs the music that enraptured a young generation of baby-boomers.  It’s no surprise that at both locations large crowds of gray-haired men and women, students and children stood, cheered and clapped for the 70 year old singer and songwriter whose words are as meaningful today as they ever were. 

Listening to Bob Dylan is more likely to get me to heaven than going to church.  Call me a blasphemer and heretic.  I will be in good company.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dragonflies and Old Dogs Learning New Tricks

Do you ever have an idea or even a word, nestled so deep in your memory you can't retrieve it?  Often I do. In the last few years it seems to happen more frequently.  Recently, the word that seemed the hardest to retrieve, for some reason, was "dragonfly."  Not a word that comes up every single day unless you're a fly fisherman. Which I'm not.  But I do own a pair of carpi's and a sweater with embroidered dragonflies.  And every time I put either on, my conscious mind would root through the shelves of my memory as if the name for this insect has been lost irretrievably in the mess.  Sort of like how my desk or the contents of my purse usually look.  Perhaps "dragonfly" was misfiled under sci-fi instead of insect.

For some equally unexplained reason, the name of the insect now has returned to easy retrieval. Maybe I have moved it closer to the front of the cabinet. Or maybe wiht the hot weather and frquesnt wearing of the dragonfly capri's, I just have retrieved it often enough that the little neurons or whatever finally know where to look for it.

I've engaged in the  same struggle to recall names of character actors when they appear in a movie or TV show.  For actors I find their names come more readily on hearing their voices than when I just see their faces. Maybe actors' names are stored with auditory clues. Or with music and movies.  Who knows.

I go through some of the same type of struggle, only more so, to remember something new, like the  pronunciation of a strange wrod; particularly for a word where the spelling does not look anything like what the pronunciation would be in English. For example, the grain "quinoa" is pronounced "keen-wah," at least I believe that is correct. Quinoa is touted for its protein and healthy benefits, and, most important to me, the fact it is gluten free. But the word looks nothing like that pronunciation. So I struggle to remember how it is said in case I want to order it or look for it in the store.  I practiced saying the word aloud multiple times.  Finally, I now can look at "quinoa" and and say "keen-wah."  Unfortunately, I recently learned that is not the preferred pronunciation. There is an even more obscure pronunciation.

I won't say I'm too old to learn a new trick or pronunciation but if they have quinoa on the menu, next time I may just point and nod.