In the dark midwinter…

I love December.

It’s the cold, gentle, dark.

It’s the rain, and the soft wind that follows.

It’s that the days are short, and the light falls obliquely to the earth, golden against the leafless trees.

It’s the Christmas lights, cheering and bright.

It’s the Christmas tree, reminding me of our family’s varied history.

It’s Christmas itself , with memories of sacred ritual.

It’s the Resident Shrink’s latkes, a recognition of another culture and the respect and love we have for each other.

It is celebration of the turning of the year; sweet sadness for the year past — leavened by relief that we made it through more or less unscathed — and trepidation for the year yet to come.

I love December.

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That time of year, and the music thereof.

I love Christmas music. I guess I should say I love “holiday music,” but that’s not really accurate. Other people in my house don’t, however, so I suspect I will be spending the next month wearing headphones much of the time.

I don’t know what I believe in anymore, but Christmas music pulls something deep inside towards the surface. It may be memories of growing up in the Roman Catholic church: the Lenten and Christmas rituals are special. (The service of Lessons and Carols is my second favorite after Easter Vigil. I experienced it once at Westminster Abbey and it was magical.) Or it may be that, objectively speaking, much of it is so beautiful.

Here are my favorite religous Christmas songs:

  • “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” The Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Machlachlan. (Best version of this song, period.) If nothing else, this version confirms that the chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” flows seemlessly into “We Three Kings,” as I always thought.
  • “Silent Night,” John Denver and the Muppets. (Yes, the Muppets, really. If nothing else it gives the history of the song.)
  • “What Child is This,” a lot of different versions, but the Andrea Boccelli/Mary J. Bligh gives me chills. (Even if he does substitute “mother” for “virgin,” one of my pet peeves with most versions of this song.)
  • “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Josh Groban and Brian McKnight. (Again, this one of my favorite hymns, so it’s pretty hard to screw up, but this is the best. Groban’s voice is so smooth, and McKnight’s raspy, they complement each other.)
  • “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Jordan Smith. (Yes, that Jordan Smith. The guy who won The Voice. His Christmas album is pretty good.) Sixpence None the Richer’s is also of note.
  • “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Darius Rucker. (I’m not sure if this is my favorite musically, but Rucker gets major props for singing all the verses of the song.)
  • “Gaudete, Gaudete,” El Duende. (I sing along with this — the remnants of my college Latin lets me know what the words mean. Mostly. Some. A little. Whatever. It’s still beautiful in a medieval, minor key way.)

Secular “Christmas” music:

  • “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Mariah Carey. (Of course. Even if it weren’t in Love Actually.)
  • “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” tie: Judy Garland (the original from Meet Me in St. Louis) and James Taylor. (Both sing the intact lyric from the movie, which is a darker song than it is the way most people sing it.) The Twisted Sister version was amusing for about two weeks, after which it simply became annoying.)
  • “Fifty Kilowatt Tree,” The Bobs. (I come from the South. I’ve seen houses like this.)
  • “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Straight No Chaser. (If you haven’t heard this, I am not going to spoil it for you.) Also of note: Straight No Chaser’s “Christmas Can-Can.”
  • “Elf’s Lament,” Barenaked Ladies. (I hereby dedicate this to the good people at the South Bay Labor Council, where I used to work.)
  • “The Christians and the Pagans,” Dar Williams. (I am not sure I agree with the theology of this, but it has good messages about the season.)
  • “Merry Christmas from the Family,” Jill Sobule. (Family is great, right?)
  • “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” Gayle Peevey (although Kacey Musgraves has covered this). (This drives my family nuts. Heh.)

Looking at these lists, friends introduced me to half of the songs. Which is pretty much in the spirit of the time.

It’s too early to wish y’all a Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah, or Happy Yule, so I’ll just wish all of you a good, relatively stress-free December.

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Movie Reviews.

It’s December, which means we’re into post-blockbuster season. Over the past four weeks, I have seen five new movies, two in the theatre, two on streaming services.

Herewith my (mostly spoiler-free) impressions:

Parasite: Oof. Described to me as a “dark comedy,” it was more dark than comedy. I can’t really say more than that, other than it was well-crafted, well-written, well-directed, and well-acted, and I’m kind of sorry I spent two hours and twenty bucks on it. Your mileage may vary, of course – the Rocket Scientist really liked it.

Knives Out: I wanted to see this because of the cast (Jamie Leigh Curtis! Daniel Craig! Toni Collette! Michael Shannon (who is a terrific actor who deserves to be better known)! And best of all, Chris Evans as something other than a Boy Scout! (Evans is a better actor than you would think if you had only seen him as Captain America.))   They did not disappoint. While the who-done-it was really pretty obvious from the beginning, it was a (essentially) a very pleasant version of Clue. 

Jo-Jo Rabbit: This is tricky. I was hesitant to go because, if you saw the trailer, it appeared to be making light of the Holocaust, complete with a goofy Hitler. It’s much more complex than that. Taika Watiti has crafted a thought provoking drama with occasionnal humorous moments.

Loving Vincent: Oh, my. The best animated movie I have seen in a long, long, time. It involves the son of the postmaster of Arles trying to deliver Vincent van Gogh’s final letter to his brother, and confronting the mysteries around his death. It is done in the style of Vincent’s work.

Echo in the Canyon: The story of the development of California-based folk rock scene, told by the people who were there, and the recording of a tribute album by Jakob Dylan. (One humorous moment was when David Crosby mentioned “and then Dylan came” and Jakob Dylan cheekily asked “which one?”) It was well worth seeing, and I couldn’t help but think about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the 60s, in comparison with the “alt-country” scene in Nashville in the 90s as chronicled by Ken Burns in his Country Music series.

So, four successes, one regret. Not a bad ratio. 

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I am now working for the 2020 US Census. Two things:

  • They’re hiring. The pay is reasonably good, and there are some part time positions with flexible hours. Check it out at Most importantly, the Census is a noble and Constitutionally-mandated endeavor.
  • Much like when I worked for the Elections Division, for the duration of my employment with the Census, I will not be writing political posts for this blog. Yes, I know what’s going on; I read the Washington Post. Yes, I know we are heading into an election year.

    The Census is Caesar’s wife: it must not only be impartial and nonpartisan, it must be seen to be impartial and nonpartisan. While I understand that I don’t have a big audience here, it really is the principle of the thing.

I wrote this on my sidebar, but I wish to reiterate that the opinions in this blog are my own, and that I do not speak as a representative of any employer, past, future, or present.

I’ll still be around, commenting on movies and what not.

See ya’ in the funny papers.

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Hijacking the Jukebox.

In the time I have spent hanging out in The Bar (aka the place with better wifi and better drinks than Starbucks, not to mention all the friendly people, aka my favorite local place to hang out), I have heard a lot of different music from the jukebox, except for country. That is, other than the time I played “Ode to Billie Joe” for a friend on day the grounds that everyone need to have heard this song.

I am thinking the next time I go in I will play country. I am currently on a country kick, after having been away from it since 9/11. Then it seemed everything was red, white, and blue, my country (i.e., the Bush administration) love it or leave it. (I’m looking at you, Toby Keith.) Although I did buy some country records, I was not really into it. (For example, I dislike Blake Shelton’s country records. That said, I was surprised when I heard the duet of “Fly Me To the Moon” that he and Adam Levine performed on The Voice. The man has a smooth baritone, and perfect phrasing.) There were some good women artists, such as Miranda Lambert, but it seemed to me that country radio played a lot of “bro country” songs. (It wasn’t just my imagination, either: a study recently showed that women were severely under-represented in country music.)

The Ken Burns series has rekindled my interest in country, partly since they stopped pretty much at about 2000.

So, my playlist:

I think I can play five songs without people getting too upset, so…

  • “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash (the live from San Quentin version)
  • “Pancho and Lefty,” Emmylou Harris (if the jukebox does not have Emmylou Harris, I’ll settle for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard)
  • “Streets Of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens
  • “Travelin’ Thru,” Dolly Parton (this song has become a personal anthem for me)
  • “Hurt,” Johnny Cash (Johnny Cash was a genius)

If I thought I could get away with another five…

  • “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobby Gentry (as I said, everyone needs to hear this song at least once)
  • “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
  • “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show (although I would settle for Darius Rucker)
  • “I Still Miss Someone (live),” Rosanne Cash
  • “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks (of course)

And just another five to round out the list:

  • “Crazy,” Patsy Cline
  • “Jolene,” Dolly Parton
  • “Deeper than the Holler,” Randy Travis
  • “Down at Twist and Shout,” Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • “Clown in Your Rodeo” (or “Asking Us to Dance” — aka, the most romantic song ever), Kathy Mattea

This does not even begin to scratch the surface, and I have a puny number of songs. I only have about 170 songs, ranging chronologically from “Mule Skinner Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers to “Space Cowboy” by Kacey Musgraves. My country playlist clocks in at only a bit over 8 hours.

So, maybe I could just keep making lists, and playing them five at a time… “Amarillo By Morning,” George Strait, “My Church,” Marren Morris, “Me and Bobbie McGee,” Kris Kristofferson (although I am sure no one would object if I played the Janis Joplin cover), “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the Brandi Carlisle and Emmylou Harris version…

Watch out, people.

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Yes, we know.

A few days ago, a friend was quite reasonably griping about the poor service she had received on a recent order from an online shopping service. Someone popped up to mansplain to her that the service in question treats its people horribly, implying that she was contributing to the problems those workers faced. She responded with the disdain that his arrogance called for.

Like me, my friend is disabled, and the guy who took it upon himself to “educate” her in her social responsibilities knew that.

I’ve heard it before. Lectures about how you should never use Amazon Prime Now, even if you are alone and that may be the only way you can get the food or OTC medications you need. How you should never use Uber or Lyft, even if you are prohibited from driving.

It’s like lecturing people about eating fast-food when there may be no grocery store within five miles. It’s like lecturing people on medication that the weight gain is bad for them, when the meds are what keep them alive. It’s like condemning the elderly who go to WalMart because they are running on a ragged economic edge and things are cheaper there.

I have been a liberal all my life. I hate to say that I, too, failed to see how the actions that we demand of others may not be possible. Twenty years ago, before my tremors got so bad I have to put whipped cream on my coffee so it won’t slosh and burn my hand on the way to the table, I would have been behind the straw ban all the way.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

I don’t presume to speak for all disabled people, but for myself:

I know the gig economy is dreadful for workers.

I know delivery services like InstaCart can pay their workers horribly.

I know that Amazon workers often end up quite close to the poverty line, and they can be fired by a computer if their productivity flags.

I know that Lyft and Uber claim their drivers are independent contractors rather than employees so that they don’t have to provide sick leave or worker’s comp.

I know Whole Foods (which delivers through the Prime Now app) just yanked health coverage from a whole lot of their part-time employees.

Google Delivery, GrubHub, DoorDash…. as I said the gig economy sucks for people.

And you environmental activists: I know that ride-sharing is worse for the environment.

And yes, I know that plastic straws contribute to plastic in the ocean, even if it is a minuscule part of the whole.

I know. We know.

Transit may or may not be a possibility. Here, it’s not. I have been told I am not to drive at all. Lyft makes it possible for me to get to dental and medical appointments, and get out of the house before I slit my wrists (Not seriously. I don’t think.)

The store is five minutes away. I was told NO DRIVING. The concussion specialist followed that instruction up with “this isn’t about you; this is to safeguard everyone else on the road.”

I am privileged: I have the resources to use Lyft. Otherwise it would take ninety minutes — or more — instead of the twenty it takes with Lyft to get to a doctor’s appointment. Furthermore, the last time I used transit, I was hit with a dizzy spell and had to stagger the block from the closest bus stop to my house unable to see straight. I was terrified the whole time that I would fall and not be able to get up.

So the next time you make pronouncements about how awful people are who engage in activities that activists decry, stop for a moment and think about the people who may have no choice in the matter. Understand that, and tone down the rhetoric.

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What I learned from “Country Music”

Since the series is so sprawling, I an only going to present thoughts I have arising from the last three episodes of Country Music:

Bluegrass banjo and mandolin players: how do they DO that? It makes my fingers hurt just to watch them.

This series is inspiring me to look up (and buy) music, both by artists I love (Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson) and ones I haven’t heard before (Townes Van Zandt, Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Monroe).

When I die, along with “Amazing Grace,” I want “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Go Rest High On That Mountain” performed at my funeral. And “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Good luck in finding someone to play that last one.

I really like how the series mostly relies on artists, songwriters, producers, and executives (i.e. people who have first hand knowledge of the events) to talk rather than historians.

I have always loved Kathy Mattea’s music, but now I want to go out to have coffee with her. Or a beer.

The number of singers following in the steps of Hank Williams — including his son — is sad. That quite a number of them survived it is reassuring.

Of all the remarkable origin stories in country music, the none was more so than Kris Kristofferson’s. Rhodes scholar, studying the romantic poets? Helicopter pilot and instructor at West Point who drops everything to move to Nashville to become a songwriter, and who becomes a janitor to make enough money to live, before getting his break and making it big? It sounds like an over-the-top drama from Miramax.

Also, how many country singers — or American singers in any genre, for that matter — have their most well-known song inspired by a Frederico Fellini film?

Dwight Yoakam is a handsome man. In the nineties he was totally hot. Sort of like Tom Petty if Tom Petty wasn’t ugly.

I have come to be fond of “Wagon Wheel” just from the snatch of it in the commercial at the front of the show.

I am even more astounded by Johnny Cash than I was before. I loved his music, but now I cherish his activism and concern for social justice. The trolls would call him an SJW, and I’m sure he would wear the label proudly.

Singing “I Walk the Line” when you’re having an affair with a singer you are traveling with (even if she does turn out to be the love of your life) is hypocritical, though.

Aretha Franklin may be the voice of God, but all the angels sound like Emmylou Harris.

John Denver may not have been a country singer, as people asserted, but he was definitely a country songwriter. “Back Home Again”? “Sunshine on My Shoulders”? “On the Road”? “Matthew”? If they had been sung by Vince Gill, everyone would say what great country songs they were.

I’m so glad they saved the Ryman. It is an irreplaceable part of American cultural history.

My second favorite story was how Willie Nelson’s label put out Red-Headed Stranger thinking it would crater and so in the future he would be more likely to do what they wanted. It spent over 100 weeks on the country charts, and is considered one of the best albums ever made. (His producer said that after that no one interfered with Willie, “including me.”)

My very favorite story is how Vince Gill’s bluegrass band was at the last minute signed to open for… KISS. Needless to say, it did not go well. As Gill said as he was laughingly recalling the story, you couldn’t script this.

I had a lot of other thoughts, but I’ll spare you.

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