Cold Wars and Queens

I was recently watching an old television show from 1967, when one of the characters asked, “What kind of men are always above board?” The answer: chess men. Never mind that the program was Batman or that the character was Frank Gorshen’s irrepressible Riddler. In theory, chess could be considered the ultimate meritocratic competition. In practice, for a quarter century now and counting, human beings have lost their standing as the rulers of the game as computers have far outpaced us in this arena. However, this development has served both to reveal the depth of the game and to refocus our attention on the human significance of chess on several levels. Through stories imagined and true, it is possible to see beyond wins and losses to understand how chess paired with culture can serve as a window into human agency and progress.

At the end of 2020, I joined the mass of people around the world who watched Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. As an unskilled but enthusiastic player and observer of chess, I’ve always enjoyed seeing on-screen portrayals of this competitive form. The Beth Harmon character in Gambit (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) was realized with appropriate gravity and naturalness, and the sport as a whole was given a remarkable canvas despite the deft avoidance of deep chess strategy. It’s a credit to author Walter Tevis that his novel of nearly forty years ago could provide a period piece that felt fresh and relevant and also seemed to capture both the past and future of the sport.
 
For decades television and film creators have used chess purposefully in their art. In old cat-and-mouse detective shows such as Columbo or Banacek, chess might come up as a peripheral device to show the intellectual capacity of the antagonist or as a marker of the foresight of the hero. In the series The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet played chess with his communications director in order to maintain his mental sharpness. Perhaps its most strategic use was in Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which chess plays an altogether different role: a communication device that shows how two people transcend a language barrier between English and French. As it turns out, in most cases the best filmic explorations of chess originate from the lives of real players — often featuring storylines that are as surprising as anything found in the narrative of Beth Harmon.
 
In the documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, we are given a ringside seat for the ultimate man vs. machine moment as one of the most outstanding chess performers of all time, then-world champion Garry Kasparov, loses in his much publicized rematch with the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997. Kasparov’s frustration in this film is both palpable and completely understandable, as he competes with a faceless opponent and an equally opaque team of IT developers. The film turns on a conceit referring to “The Turk” — a legendary unbeatable chess-playing automaton that conceals a hidden human player. The tone of this film is somewhat like a potboiler in contrast with more typical documentary approaches, but the story is a worthwhile precursor to the present, in which the current FIDE World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his fellow grandmasters consistently use a combination of digital chess engines and human play to develop their abilities.

Photo credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com

In 1984’s Dangerous Moves (La Diagonale du Fou), an old Russian grandmaster must defend his championship title against a younger master and defector to the West. In one of my favorite moments of dialogue in the film, the aging champion, who is in declining health, tells his second to do away with his cigarette during a practice game. “But it’s not even lit!” is the reply. The old grandmaster intones, “But you threaten to smoke it; in chess, threats are more serious than actions.” The story delves into psychological advantages and suspicions between opposing sides that are a hallmark of the sport’s history in the cold war years. The movie draws on a similar real life confrontation, a 1978 match between Anatoli Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi (who had defected), in which a number of bizarre extracurricular tactics and accusations took place. It may be necessary to point out that in fact, not all chess men are above board. However, Moves goes beyond its historical precursor by examining the deeper motivations of its two competitors, unlocking influences of not only the national tensions but tribal and emotional ones as well. It was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of the year.

When it comes to the American milieu, the obvious standout figure in our chess history is Bobby Fischer, and in the surprisingly well-crafted 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire adeptly embodies the brilliance and brittleness of the late grandmaster. In fact, the film is challenging to watch at times specifically because of how volatile and disagreeable Bobby Fischer could be — especially the closer that he came to the world championship. In the supporting role of Father Bill Lombardy, actor Peter Sarsgaard serves as a layman’s chess translator and a conscience in whom the viewer can invest when Fischer’s anti-social and anti-semitic tendencies manifest. When high value pieces are exchanged in one sequence, Lombardy reassures Fischer’s agent that everything is fine because it merely “simplifies the game.” Later on Lombardy uses the story of the brilliant 19th century American player Paul Morphy to serve as a warning about the pressure that chess at the highest level of competition can put on a person’s psychological wellbeing. In the role of the Russian champion Boris Spassky, Liev Schreiber does a wonderfully understated job — conveying at the ending a moment that seems to be the historical influence of this match on a pivotal gesture in The Queen’s Gambit

In the collective memory of our culture the flaws and inconsistencies of Bobby Fischer tend to be outshone by his early years of brilliant play and the success of that moment in 1972 on the world stage in Reykjavik, Iceland. It is that memory and the void created by Fischer’s desertion that serves as a challenge to be answered in the outstanding feel-good film Searching for Bobby Fischer — the true story of a boy named Josh Waitzkin. It’s a child prodigy sports film that manages to celebrate winning while also putting victory in perspective behind the concerns of childhood and most importantly, being a decent human. One of my most prominent memories of this film comes back to me from my years as an inner city high school English teacher. I used the film as a culminating visual partner to reading Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds, a straightforward but challenging drama about a dysfunctional family and a little girl who is discovering her love of science while learning to bloom in her own way.

Laurence Fishburne and Max Pomeranc in a scene from
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

My students didn’t need to be skilled in chess to be reeled in by Josh’s story. Director and Screenplay author Steve Zaillian makes the most of both Fred Waitzkin’s original story and a vintage 1993 cast boasting the likes of Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, and Joe Mantegna. The minor roles of William H. Macy as an excitable chess dad and Laura Linney as an elementary teacher show their consummate skill years before their well-earned fame. Fishburne is dangerously close to being a trope (long before The Matrix) as a chess “street guru,” but he is so engaging that we look forward to every second his character can be on screen. As Josh’s mother, Joan Allen embodies the moral center of the story. The cinematography by Conrad Hall is music to the eyes, somehow making an ancient game of 64 squares into a centerpiece of timeless childhood and the effort to prove oneself. If you have not seen the film, tonight or as soon as you can would be a good time to watch it from the first move to the last.

For many young people (and their mentors) chess has served as a validation of intellectual ability and a proving ground for self-worth. It had been years since I had seen John Leguizamo in a film, but his 2020 passion project Critical Thinking brings to the screen — with his younger co-leads — the experiences of a brilliant Miami chess team made up of Black and Latino high school students whose academic prospects and futures might not have looked particularly rosy at first glance. The movie undeniably has a Dangerous Minds kind of quality as it introduces real life teacher Mario Martinez, and the violence of Miami’s streets is made clear early on in the story. When Mr. Martinez’s students ask why the deck feels stacked against them, he explains that the accomplishments of people of color have been written out of history in many cases, and in chess history he refers to the fact that players like Kasparov and Fischer are well-known figures, while Raul Capablanca, an all-time great world champion from Cuba, was a name unknown to these teenagers. Mr. Martinez is the person who anchors these students to tap deep into themselves to change the nature of the conversation.

In discussing what spurred him to make the film, Leguizamo reveals a negative inspiration: he found the underdog success story of these boys and their teacher to be what he termed an “antidote” against one of the most infamous works of sociology written in the past century: Charles Murray’s 1994 work The Bell Curve. This text aggregated research on intelligence across broad racial categories with the (intentional) effect of propping up reactionary views of race and society. Mr. Leguizamo felt that the story of this group of students in Miami at the turn of the 21st century was one way to counteract the racist assumptions lurking behind Murray’s decontextualized data and generalizations. The inescapable Russian influence on the game takes an interesting form here as well when the protagonists are joined by a savant-like Cuban immigrant who has had the benefit of the Soviet Union’s influence and chess training back on his home island. 

During the fall of 2016, the Walt Disney Company teamed with ESPN to release a memorable story in the genre of this game on screen. The film Queen of Katwe brought the world the adventures in the life and chess of Fiona Mutesi. As I anticipated rewatching the film I looked forward to seeing the crisp photography and the nonstop symphony of prismatic images from Fiona’s home village in Uganda. In one of my favorite sequences, a young player named Gloria introduces Fiona to the game, bluntly but mischievously telling the newcomer while moving pieces, “They kill each other!” Gloria also teaches Fiona the game’s most inspiring rule: if the lowly pawn traverses the board to the final opposing rank, it can become a queen, the most capable piece on the board. This movie follows a familiar arc of growth and a heroine coping with privation en route to emergence with her individual brilliance, but the work by Robert Oyewolo, Lupita N’yongo, and Madina Nalwanga are true to the urgency of the lives they portray, and the aforementioned iridescent colors of central Uganda are humanly magnetic.

No catalogue of this topic would be complete without the mention of one more documentary. 2012’s Brooklyn Castle demonstrates how the pursuit of excellence in chess can align with academic growth and a sense of teamwork among students who are just breaking into their adolescence. I first became acquainted with New York City’s I.S. 318 and some of its students and teachers in Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed, which spends several thoughtful chapters describing chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel’s devotion and effort to fully developing the various abilities of her middle school chess students. The game is often used to teach about life off the board. Seeing Brooklyn Castle provides a useful framework for understanding just how rewarding and martialing it is for young people to have a rigorous source of engagement and tutelage in disciplines such as chess, art, and music.

These matches and films bring me back to 2016, the first year in which I actively followed the world championship. I was curious about the mystique and the dominant record of the titleholder, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, who achieved the highest rating of any player in history in 2014 according to the sport’s evaluative algorithm. Ordinarily, I would pull for the challenger in such a situation. However, this match was held only weeks after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Carlsen’s challenger was Sergei Karjakin of Russia, and so I followed each game with an unspoken hope that Carlsen would retain his title rather than giving Russia an additional feather in its national cap, especially in this sport, after Putin’s latest exploits. It may have been unfair to Mr. Karjakin to hold the machinations and geopolitics of his country against him personally, but in some ways, I was merely revisiting a longstanding and aforementioned role that this sport has played as a proxy battleground between political systems, ideas, and symbols.

Squaring off in New York City for the world title match, Carlsen and Karjakin played game after game with no victories for either until the Russian broke through in the 8th game. Carlsen then survived with yet another draw and tied the score with his own victory in game 10. The match remained even after games 11 and 12, leading to four deciding games of rapid chess — shorter, time-pressured matches in which Carlsen was more at home. After two stalemates, Carlsen captured the third face-off playing black, and then in the final frame and Karjakin’s last hope to draw it out further, Magnus set up and successfully launched a late-breaking sacrifice of his white queen to checkmate Sergei in dramatic fashion and defend the title. Two years later in 2018, the United States narrowly missed the opportunity to claim a new champion as Italian-American challenger Fabiano Caruana lost a similarly close match to Carlsen.

Carlsen (left) vs. Caruana, FIDE World Championship match, November, 2018 in London. Photo credit: Bart Lenoir / Shutterstock.com

The significance of games is multifaceted. They entrance and energize us, and to the extent that we are fully invested in these competitions, they validate us — even in defeat. That is the message of Kasparov vs. Deep Blue in 1997. Against the computer, the grandmaster represented us in a voyage to our limits, and what we take from it is to remember that we are not merely artificially intelligent. Our mental power is part of an emotional range. As in life itself, the process of adjusting and improving is key. Drawn matches can be beautiful displays of patience and fortitude, and victories sometimes emerge from winding pathways of uncertainty. That is the wisdom to be found in the narratives of Joshua Waitzkin and Fiona Mutesi, and it is the inspiration of the story of Beth Harmon.

Your move.

C.S.

The Reckoning

Over the past four years in my writing, I’ve only touched on politics at the margins, but with the witches coming out and only days from the final decision, it was time for me to discuss what’s happening for the record.
 
I’ll start off with two fathers, John and George. My father John was a musician who loved sports and lived a life that defied the typical 9 to 5 structure. Big George, on the other hand, was always much more practical: an electrician and property owner who has become a devoted grandfather and one of the most handy guys I know. At some points in the early 2000s, both John and George expressed insights about Donald Trump as a public figure that have aged perfectly. Around 2003, John explained to me that Trump had cultivated a reputation for wealth and success while mostly borrowing money as a route to capital and then walking away from projects while claiming paper losses after having lined his pockets. In recent years the New York Times and Trump’s niece Mary have confirmed and continued to add detail to this understanding of Mr. Trump and the chicanery that is his business model. Some years prior to that when Trump ran as a Reform Party candidate in 2000, he made noises to the effect that he and other rich people should pay more in taxes. I remember talking with George about it at the time, and he looked me right in the eye and said simply, “I wouldn’t believe a word that Donald Trump says.” That position turned out to be good advice. Twelve years later, when Trump engaged in a campaign of disinformation about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, I had a final confirmation that John and George had both been right about Trump and that he could never be trusted on any serious matter. So, as clichéd as it may seem, almost everything I needed to know about the current President, I was informed more than a decade in advance by my dads.

In the role of president, Trump has done the only thing he knows how to do: hollow the marrow and value out of everything he touches in order to make it into his own personal currency. Appropriately enough, before his January 2017 inauguration, he settled to pay 25 million dollars to people who had been the victims of his fraudulent Trump University. Then he installed his daughter and son-in-law in unpaid senior advisory positions for which they were unable to be cleared by the FBI in the normal course of vetting. The two of them have subsequently gained far more in capital in these positions with access to foreign loans and favors than they could ever have earned on a government salary. The most astounding aspect of the 2016 election for me was the fact that Trump had been chosen by some number of voters as a rebuke of corruption on the part of the Clintons. Four years later, the amount of self-dealing, bilking of money out of the Secret Service budget for Trump resort rentals, and acceptance of foreign money and profits in exchange for favorable policies have shown how this presidency and campaign have been a Trojan Horse for one family’s financial interests. 

The pattern was set early on: a grand announcement or some spectacular break with norms that would eventually lead to not just abject failure but a worsening of the status quo. See, for example, the way in which Kim Jong Un used Trump to gain previously unimaginable photo ops for his own purposes and then went on to expand North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities. At the same time, the Affordable Care Act has been weakened with no remotely plausible Republican healthcare policy in the wings, and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has not notably increased the average American’s savings despite contributing to a record $3 Trillion budget deficit. Trump views everything in purely selfish terms, and he regularly misses the most important points. He sees Covid-19 not as a genuine public health crisis but as something that happened to his presidency and for which he deserves special accommodations. He believes that the economy is primarily the stock market. His thinking is so transparently simplistic that he has assumed that if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were to reach 30,000, it would guarantee his reelection, and so when the coronavirus began to spread in the United States, he sought to protect the Dow instead of the public.

I am in no way pretending that previous presidents such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton didn’t show highly problematic patterns of personal corruption. Neither am I ignoring the colossal failures of the George W. Bush administration nor the sometimes questionable decisions that came out of Obama’s presidency. However, these few years later with no less than three of Trump’s former campaign chiefs (Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Brad Parscale) either in jail or facing felony charges, it is embarrassing beyond words for the United States of America that we promoted and rewarded people this lacking in character to have sway over our republic. And of course, let’s not forget the pardons for unrepentent criminals like Joe Arpaio, Rod Blagojevich, and Roger Stone—a sideshow and warm-up act for when Trump and Pence may need to pardon members of the Trump family. Perhaps the most damning statement about Trump’s character comes very succinctly from his niece Mary in her book Too Much and Never Enough: “If he can in any way profit from your death, he’ll facilitate it, and then he’ll ignore the fact that you died.” When we examine his coded, mafia-like speech, his incitement of violence toward his opponents, and his handling of Covid-19, including externalities like the death of former presidential candidate Herman Cain, it’s clear that Mary Trump is not exaggerating.

In the 21st century, our globe has entered a phase of some truly problematic trends that will adversely affect food production, migration patterns of both animals and humans, the safety and security of an increasing number of habitats, and the financial security of people in a growing number of regions both here and abroad. Artificial intelligence and automation continue to disrupt the labor market without a clear endpoint or a counterbalancing set of innovations in our infrastructure, safety nets, or affordability of healthcare. American rates of disproportionate incarceration, gun violence, maternal and infant mortality all lag behind our Western peer nations. The opioid epidemic has reached staggering proportions, and to exacerbate these matters, we live in a world in which seemingly magical technology has helped to put false information into the minds of billions of people on an hourly basis. We do not have any more time for bad faith actors who were born into wealth and act only out of the narrowest self interest at the expense of public health and democratic solidarity.

We are living in a time of anti-police protesting, and there is a lot of commentary posted on social media about these protests with the outbreak of violence and destruction of property. A great deal of this commentary implies or states racially biased tropes and puts forth the old warhorse that Trump has been trotting out during his perpetual campaigning: the need for law and order. However, law and order is often another name for the war on drugs, which is the most spectacular policy failure in the history of the United States. The lack of a humane and honest policy for the use of psychotropic drugs and stimulants has gone hand in hand with redlining of neighborhoods and policing strategies that are clearly detrimental in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Chicago among many others.

If we want to initiate a reversal of the dysfunctional behavior within communities and between people and police, it is imperative that we end this horrible policy of arresting people and criminally prosecuting them for drug offenses. Decriminalize it, legalize it, tax it, and regulate it. Pull the rug out from under this illicit market so that we can get to the business not of defunding the police but rather de-militarizing them and reimagining what the appropriate scope of policing should be. It will take years to fix these entrenched problems, but we can’t wait on the party of Trump any more because they don’t support or budget for any meaningful reforms that would improve matters in these cities.

I want to pull back for a moment to look at a wider view and a more enduring perspective. In addition to the closest relatives whom I’ve lost, there are certain people whose deaths invoke in me the deepest questions and exhort me to insist on a better path in my life. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one such person. I also think of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and George Floyd. In some cases, it might be actors and athletes like Patrick Swayze, Elizabeth Peña, and Walter Payton, whose deaths came from  intractable illnesses as they were living the only lives they had. Most recently I have felt this kind of sympathy and inspiration about another great actor: Chadwick Boseman, a person whose zen-like perspective and generosity of spirit outshone even his fantastic screen presence and craft. I think about the idea as Yogi Berra put it colloquially that it can get late early, so to speak, and given that this phenomenon can happen in one’s life itself, I want to spend my time in a world with leaders that at least have the potential to embody goodness and not this exercise in daily denial of what we all see to be true. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald speaks through Nick Carraway the expectation that people should be capable of standing “at a kind of moral attention” in the context of mortality and life-altering events. I think that a growing number of people in this country are feeling exactly that way.

One very prominent bright side to this time for me is the incredible response of activists, neighbors, community leaders, and yes, a wave of newly emerging politicians from a variety of walks of life who care enough to engage in a massive movement that is fundamentally decent and future-oriented. I am speaking of U.S. Senate candidates such as former military pilot M.J. Hegar in Texas, astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, Dr. Barbara Bollier in Kansas, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa among many others. Our U.S. House candidates from Texas show remarkable talent as well, including military veterans such as Gina Ortiz Jones and healthcare finance expert Julie Oliver. As a life-long registered Democrat who has voted for candidates of every party over my lifetime, I am ready to go forward with Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris and this blue wave of leaders and innovators. Make no mistake, I am going into this election in a guarded way because the evidence is overwhelming that this President is acting completely in bad faith and attempting to poison our democratic process, but I am prepared for this test of our nation and its fraught aftermath. Having witnessed these last four years and what led to them, I know that it will take more than one election to fix the harm that’s been done and institute lasting change for the better. November 3rd is only the next essential step in that journey.

On Work & Life: Transitions

It’s almost the last time to go through that door. For more than a year now, my life at work has been a waiting game. I knew when they announced the move to an office building right near the highways that I probably would be looking for my way to parachute out at about the five year mark in my role here as a specialist. After my two year stint as something between a contractor and a full employee for an education publishing behemoth way out in Williamson County, working at this office just adjacent to center city Austin has been a godsend in many ways.

I’ve been able to open the door, go down the steps, and embark on temporary escapes from the desk, long walks in every direction, and excursions for a plethora of fantastic lunches. As a music fan, being near Waterloo Records has been a convenient delight. As an avid reader and writer, the same can be said of being close to Book People as well. The presence of both the Shoal Creek walk and the Town Lake trails have been incalculably beneficial–and as I write that I know I’ll miss them. I liked the Shoal Creek and Pease Park trails so much that I put some of my dad’s ashes in various spots along there. Maybe it wasn’t where he thought he would’ve ended up, but it was the closest I could come to sharing it with him.

The work itself has varied from a perfect fit with opportunities to be creative to something (in recent years) that felt a bit too repetitive and derivative of what we once did. Our team, which was a total of four people when I was hired, was subsequently cut to three, and recently in the midst of threatened defunding of our office, our supervisor departed for bigger horizons. Now my lone coworker and I sit and plunk away at our computers and do our best to navigate being a “head-less” office. Yesterday was supposed to be our official moving date to go to our new open-concept office space, but the night before it was pushed back another two weeks. So to celebrate that momentary reprieve, I went for my first visit to a wonderful little Italian bistro called Cipollina located near the edge of the long-ago gentrified Clarksville neighborhood. If you’re looking for a stylish but not too expensive vibe with good Italian staples and classic jazz playing, it’s a perfect spot.

Office politics can range from annoying to hilarious to soul-crushing, and this particular job began with a very quirky example of it that ended up benefiting me personally for more than five years. Shortly after I started working here, we had to move to a new office within the same complex. This change gave my supervisor an upgrade to a former CFO’s office space, and it also presented one more mid-size work area that had (drum roll please)…a door. I was pretty relaxed and not really expecting or hoping to get this space, but that’s where the unusual politics kicked in. we had a disgruntled woman on the team who was kind of a self-appointed hierarchy policewoman, and this woman…let’s call her Kathy…decided that since I was the only person in the office with a Masters degree, I should get the second office with a door, Q.E.D. as the math folks might say. I accepted the office without immediately realizing what a convenience it would be for me. And now as I sit here a scant week or two before we vacate, I have to admit that I really lucked out with this spot. That M.Ed really paid off!

A number of tremendously important life events happened while I made
this office my home for work. I started the position nearly a year after my dad’s death. The work was very engaging in those first few years, and I was overhauling our bank of test passages and test questions with great satisfaction. In 2015, I would go on to write some original texts, pleasantly surprising my coworkers in curriculum with the quality of my work. On the personal side, Meredith and I planned and successfully carried out our amazing trip to Sydney, Australia. Sadly, a few months later came a terrible aftershock from John’s passing. My uncle Danny, only 52 years of age, passed away in an astonishing act of misadventure.

One of the bright spots of this job has been that by virtue of its rhythms and schedule, it helped to create the space for me to begin writing and sharing my blog essays, of which this piece will be a part. Writing and doing voice recordings for work were forms of professional goals coming true, and their effect seems to have contributed to the quality of my personal writings. During these years, I made it beyond the beginning stage of understanding the Italian language through an assortment of learning formats and most importantly with the guidance of a gifted teacher and some wonderful classmates.


In 2016, I was firmly settled in to the job, and using the spring break paired with vacation time, I took a brilliant 15-day trip to Italy with my wife. That trip was a magical experience–made even more memorable by the fact that we shared it with my parents coming from Philly and my sister’s family coming from Ireland. That journey resonated until about two months later when the political environment of 2016 really kicked in. When I look back on it now, my most important work in this job was finished right around that juncture–when I was only about halfway through my time here. I had written an original short story for 4th grade reading, and it came out quite well and gave our repertoire a much needed dash of energy and freshness. But then I remember that a few months later a very exhausted version of myself came into the office on that infamous November morning in a state of disgust after the outcome of the election. However, at the end of the year, we had the most exciting of news: we learned that we had a child on the way. I slipped into a mode at work in the ensuing years that was almost like auto-pilot. My focus from then on was mostly the larger world and my home life. Our importance as a department was being devalued by the decisions of those above us, and I just had too much on my mind to be particularly inventive.

I think that it was in the first few months of 2017 that a really great friend and kindred spirit whom I met on the job decided to move to the Midwest and return to teaching. He had been preceded and would be followed by other favored teammates jumping ship and retiring, and this in its sum put to me the question: “When will you go too?” However, to be fair, the location, the office with the door, the reasonably good pay for an educator and the truly great schedule all meant that I wasn’t going to leave precipitously.

Some jobs are just for a spell or a season, but for most of my life the jobs have tended to last for a while. I worked in medical billing for five years and then I followed that with seven years of teaching. In some ways, this job has been almost as if I had combined those two former jobs into one. It was somewhat creative, but it also required a kind of mathematical logic and scrutiny. And now it’s almost over. I became a dad of a little girl while I was on this job (in addition to our tiny wolf). My wife and I made many trips and journeys during this time. As a fan of tennis during a historic era, I followed six French Opens and six Wimbledons while at this desk. I went through two challenging home sales and one home purchase as well. I stole moments in my own way in exchange for all of the work and mental juggling that I did here.

As for the next step, something’s in the works. The phone could ring any moment. I’ll keep my eyes open, even when I arrive wherever I’m going next. I feel as if I’m a member of a team that hasn’t yet been formed. Maybe it never will be, but I will hope that I can find my people and my workplace. In the meantime, I’ll have to learn to be present at work again in order to serve in a new role. One of these days, I’ll take one last lunchtime walk along Town Lake or over in Old West Austin, and pretty soon the very place where I’m sitting won’t even exist anymore. Imagine where you’ll find yourself tomorrow.

C.S.

The Blockbuster, the Stars, and the Farm

I don’t go to church. But I do recognize and feel that need to connect at a big conceptual level through art or with my fellow living beings in my own choice of rituals. Sometimes when I want to immerse myself in a topic or escape into a story, I do it through the act of seeing a film in the theater. I can be a bit of a film elitist, but I’ve been known to see my share of popcorn pictures. With certain films, being part of an audience is an electric feeling. Just before the summer arrived, I saw two films from the gigantic Marvel Comics film franchise in the theater as well as a pair of documentaries that in some ways proved to be just as cosmic and captivating as their big budget competition.

Captain Marvel and Avengers Endgame are the concluding chapters in a more than decade-long arc of storytelling that brought the creative work of Stan Lee and his fellow artists and writers to a giant-size, reverberating, and almost unstoppable existence on the big screen. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers on these films and simply share some reflections.

Captain Marvel proved to be both ridiculously implausible and surprisingly energizing in its appeal. I’ve always felt that the fight scenes are overdone in these Marvel superhero films, but if you can go along for the ride in this one, it turns out that Brie Larson (in the starring role) and Samuel L Jackson end up having a rapport that creates various kinds of momentum in the film. The story hinges on a riddle of identity, and it becomes most interesting when the characters of fighter pilot Maria Rambeau and her young daughter are officially introduced. This movie doesn’t make itself out to be political at the outset, but the husband and wife team who directed it do a superb job of bringing out the inherent feminism and some cosmic social justice as part of the superheroics and twists of the plot. At the core, the film is about facing the past and finding the truth as the initial steps to unlocking the potential to be a hero(ine).

Captain Marvel Star

After the credits comes the teaser for the finale: Having become a galactic champion with a safely inspirational backstory, Brie Larson will reprise her character in Avengers Endgame, a three hour film that is by turns convoluted, self-indulgent, tear-jerking, and crowd-pleasing. With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, and Chadwick Boseman among many others, this cast is about as good as it gets for a saga essentially about demi-gods in constant competition and planet-size brawls. This film is in fact the kind that calls for being seen with the hum and excitement of a full(ish?) theater.

As a fan many years ago of the comic book print version of Tony Stark and his alter ego Iron Man, I don’t think that the producers could have chosen a better actor than Mr. Downey Jr. for this role. Over a decade it seems, he showed the energy, confidence, and versatility to bring the character to life, aging into the persona without flagging in terms of energy or authenticity. My one issue with this Tony Stark was that he was written as too glib and cocky in a sometimes mean-spirited way. In the comics, Stark was confident and polished, but he also faced a terrible run-in with alchoholism, which absolutely added depth to the figure as he lost his business and his armored identity for a time.

Avengers Endgame is in some ways the ultimate human fantasy for an audience young enough at heart to be excited about super-heroes but experienced enough to know that life is rich with tragic potential and unavoidable realities. As has been the case in so many science fiction stories and films (and probably too many), events hinge on cracking open time itself and finding a way to rewrite what has happened, and in so doing, risking even greater dangers. Digging beneath the semi-apocalyptic plot, the most resonant element of the film is its focus on relationships between peers and legacies from parents to children.

The idea of changing the past for the most personal of reasons can be found in probably the first ever truly great superhero movie: 1978’s Superman, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Transgressing the dictum of his father (played by Marlon Brando), the hero puts all of his power into flying beyond light speed into the recent past to stop Lois Lane from dying. The scene is acted with incredible skill by Reeve, and to their credit in Endgame, the closing work by Downey Jr. and Chris Evans (as Captain America) turn out to be comparably remarkable.

Super hero sagas and science fiction epics can be great fun, but I also yearn for great nonfiction stories in my moviegoing. Earlier this year, I saw the brilliant Apollo 11 found footage documentary, a story of technology and human triumph that provides the inarguable example of what actual ‘iron men’ look like. Seeing Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong carrying out this mission from start to finish in 90 minutes was a superb filmic experience. There are no talking heads from the 21st century, only well-placed contemporaneous voice-over audio and a subtle but appropriate symphonic soundtrack to accompany the mind-blowing images of the journey.

Returning to the Earth for a moment, I’d like to report on another documentary that I saw the day before seeing Endgame. The film is called the The Biggest Little Farm, and it is a cinematic journal that spans about 10 years in the life of a husband and wife who undertake the ambitious project of starting an organic farm essentially from scratch in a location of several hundred acres an hour outside of Los Angeles.

The story begins with an adopted dog and a seemingly eccentric farming consultant who advises the couple to embrace nature and plant dozens of different crops in an effort to create a teeming campus of natural produce and vibrant animal husbandry. However, it turns out that a farm is a hell of a difficult thing to manage, especially when attempting to be as responsive and gentle to the environment and the animals as this couple seeks to be. It turns out that adversity and loss and the effort to change seemingly irreversible odds are not just the province of violent epics. These challenges are part of giving and caring for life. Watching the story of John and Molly Chester deal with the adventures and risks of growing their farm and their family was as satisfying as any story I’ve seen in 2019.

There is no one formula for either entertaining or educating, but I’ve long felt that our best artistic works serve to do some combination of both of these things. I was only along for the ride for certain parts of this extended eleven-year supra-franchise, but whether a casual fan or a devotee, it’s hard to deny that the final 30 minutes of Endgame are crafted perfectly. And so, somewhere between the final reckoning, the splashdown, and the much anticipated harvest, I connect with experiences imagined and real. So if an armored hero or a superhuman woman aren’t your speed, there are always (I hope) the stars to guide us and the Earth to ground us.

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C.S.

True Stories and Policing Justice

In Western culture, we have proudly affirmed that justice is blind. The operative idea is that a truly fair arbiter does not focus on personalities or appearances but rather weighs real acts and assesses deep motivations. While facts and objectivity are critical for science, progress, and ultimately survival, it is good storytelling that is often what changes people’s minds and moves them to action. In an effort to remove part of the collective blindfold and see and hear what is happening with policing and law enforcement, I want to share some of the true crime narratives that have struck me because of both their complications and implications for fairness and justice to all in our society.

I recently watched the 2015 release of the documentary film The Thin Blue Line by Erroll Morris. Originally presented in 1988, the film told the story of the highly problematic investigation of the murder of a Dallas policeman in 1976. Four decades later, the movie remains a powerful testimonial about the concerns over human error and biases of perception in a serious criminal investigation. The idea for the film came about as an outcome of the directors examination of a Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who worked on behalf of prosecutors in over one hundred criminal trials. Grigson had loosely come to be known as “Doctor Death” as a result of his overwhelming tendency to present the opinion that any defendant in a murder case was an incorrigible, sociopathic killer who should unquestionably receive the death penalty.

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From a 1988 promotional poster for the film

Apparently, Dr. Grigson challenged Erroll Morris to test out any suspicions or concerns the filmmaker may have had about his professional opinions by speaking directly with death row inmates. Grigson was confident that Morris, a former private investigator prior to his career in film, would find that interviews with any of his examined death row convicts would support that every one of them was absolutely guilty. Morris did exactly as the psychiatrist prescribed, and one of these interviews was with a Randall Dale Adams, convicted of that 1976 murder of officer Wood of the Dallas PD. Morris’s eventual film would reveal that multiple witnesses had apparently committed perjury and that key prosecutorial assumptions about the case were in error. The movie represents a brilliant piece of investigation that dismantles Grigsons testimony about Randall Adams. In a recent retrospective interview on his film, Morris emphasized the importance of finding the objective truth of the crime—that it was not simply an intellectual exercise or a matter of one’s point of view.

Crime stories have held a magnetic appeal to us for centuries now. Maybe the oldest prototype of a crime story for many in the West can be found in the biblical record of Cain’s fatal attack on his brother Abel. The author Edgar Allan Poe is said to have introduced crime & mystery fiction with his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” followed by Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, and the appearance in 1887 of A. C. Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes. It was somewhat later when true crime captured the American public’s attention with the 1966 arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It was a brutal story of a multiple homicide in Kansas told with the creative and detailed touch of a gifted novelist—who became too close to both the story itself and one of the murderers. Capote chose to write about this particular crime and topic because he believed that “murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”

In 2014, the audio program Serial was born as a similar hybrid of journalism and cliffhanger storytelling to review the crime and evidence of the murder of a teenage girl named Hae-Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. Host Sarah Koenig’s dive into this case began with a simple appeal from a friend of the man who had been convicted of the crime when he was in high school. Koenig examines the who and the how of the case, including questions about a key alibi witness who was not called by the defense. Serial garnered a Peabody award for long-form nonfiction story and millions of listeners, and it was the beginning of a journalistic and legal sequence of events that culminated in the original murder conviction being vacated. After almost 20 years after the crime, a third trial is on the horizon for Adnan Syed, the defendant in the case. Unlike In Cold Blood, which was a story of certain malice, suspense, and gore, this case in Baltimore is a humanly uncertain story of violence for still hidden reasons.

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It is true that a risk is present when a criminal case becomes a sensational story that captures the public’s attention. It is not intrinsically good for traumatic events to become entertainment. The essential tasks should be an honest effort to find out the truth about a crime and to treat victims and suspects with appropriate fairness and humanity. This is exactly the theme of one of my favorite episodes of a true crime podcast called Criminal. In an episode titled “Just Mercy,” attorney Bryan Stevenson is interviewed about his work on behalf of people on death row. He provides moving accounts of representing people who are down to their last few molecules of hope.

In an episode titled “Angie,” a murder case in Philadelphia, PA is presented from a police detective’s eye view with the unusual twist of an ordinary citizen—a young soccer player—deciding to get involved and help solve the case. This is not the tired story of “cop irritated (or outdone) by nosy civilian,” but rather a collaboration in which people coordinated their talents and knowledge to uncover the truth. Criminal was created by Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer to dig into crimes of every kind (including both prosecuted and unsolved crimes) from a variety of perspectives. The cases and personalities that they uncover are often mesmerizing, and the outcomes are rarely the paint-by-numbers results of TV detective shows.balance-3665426_1280

Thanks to my wifes recommendation, the most powerful true crime stories that I’ve encountered lately have been those on the ominously and aptly named audio series In the Dark. In Season 1, host Madeleine Baran and her colleagues examined a famous and tragic Minnesota kidnapping case that took place at the height of the so-called “stranger danger” concerns in 1989. In Season 2 earlier this year, the stunningly flawed prosecution of a Mississippi man named Curtis Flowers was uncovered. Using the techniques of classic shoe leather, muckraking journalism, Ms. Baran and her fellow APM Reports investigators examined this 1996 multiple homicide case that went to trial an amazing six separate times. At every stage of this case, unanswered questions and unacceptable problems are revealed. A common theme over the two seasons is the way in which sheriffs and prosecutors in particular are able to operate with too little oversight.

As the specter of criminal wrongdoing has risen in relation to the occupant of the White House in 2018, it reminds me of one more story that I discovered via the wavelength of podcasting. In January of 2017, just scant days before the swearing in of Donald Trump as U.S. President, the Reply All podcast posted a story of eerie events from a century ago. It was about a man who was as ambitious and amoral as one can imagine, exploiting a newly emerging technology to promote himself at any cost. His name was Dr. John Brinkley, and the episode, to which I hope you will listen, was titled “Man of the People.”

In 2016, I had the opportunity to go see some of my father’s songs performed live in the former Broadway musical revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Fort Worth at the Jubilee Theater. This venue tends to focus on African-American stories and casts. While I was in the audience, I made the acquaintance of a man a little older than me whom Ill call Arthur. He was a great nephew of the highly accomplished blues musician and songwriter Willie Dixon. He grew up in Gary, Indiana in a neighborhood where the Jackson family and the actor Avery Brooks all lived in the 50’s and 60’s. Over the course of our conversation, he told me about his college age daughter who had just moved near Houston. Arthur mentioned that he had a cousin in law enforcement and said that he had asked this cousin to keep an eye on his daughter. He turned to me and said, “You know about what happened to Sandra Bland?”

I understood very well the reference to this woman’s experience and her tragic death. Every once in a while, a news story comes along and haunts me in an unexpected way. This one was one of those instances. In brief, during the summer of 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28 year-old black woman from Illinois, was driving in Prairie View, Texas when she was pulled over for a failure to use a turn signal. The Texas Department of Safety Trooper had tailgated her car (startling her and prompting her sudden lane change) and then pulled her over. After writing her a ticket, the trooper complained about her smoking a cigarette during the traffic stop, intentionally prolonging and worsening the interaction. The trooper ordered her to get out of the car. After he threatened to “light [her] up”—presumably meaning to use his taser, he roughly physically restrained her (citing her as resisting arrest), and she was brought to jail. Ms. Bland had come to Texas to  begin a new job, but she was never able make it to this next chapter of her life. She could not afford the cash bail in order to be released, and after three days in the Waller County Jail and likely fearing that she had lost her waiting job and feeling humiliated, she took her own life.

The Trooper in question was later indicted for making false statements about his actions during the arrest, and he was forced to resign. In 2017, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act, which requires county jails to provide access to services for people with substance abuse or mental health concerns and requires the independent investigation of any deaths in county jails. What’s more, as a result of the family members of Ms. Bland and citizens and journalists who investigated her story and have continued to push for reform, the law bearing her name may be strengthened in the future to stop arresting people for Class C Misdemeanor offenses. When I think of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile (a Minnesota man who was pointlessly killed during a 2016 police traffic stop), I think that it is incumbent on us to provide more oversight and better training for law enforcement officers.

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An undated photo from Alcatraz

On the topic of the so-called war on drugs and the policing associated with it, after reading two books in particular, Alice Goffmans On the Run (2014) and Johann Haris Chasing the Scream (2015), my objection to our federally mandated narcotics policies has been cemented. The United States has both the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. As a nation we have on the order of 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. Even if the percentage of people incarcerated for drug offenses is relatively low, our zero tolerance policies create a market in which the competition consists of violence and dangerously unregulated substances. The number of people behind bars does not sufficiently capture the harm that is done by these laws or their unequal enforcement.

In a piece published online by Harper’s in 2016, the writer Dan Baum recalled a stunning but perfectly logical and cynical confession from former senior Nixon policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman. In 1994, while responding to some wonky policy questions about Nixon’s rationale for his full-scale war on drugs, Ehrlichman told Baum the following:

 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black[s], but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Put plainly, bias and bad faith led to unconscionable policies. We have never had a comprehensive strategy to treat and reduce addiction, and so addicts become outlaws who face retribution, not necessarily justice, largely based on their demographics,  position in the hierarchy of U.S. society and their personal net worth.

Another important avenue for examining our commitment to justice and our culture are the accounts of dedicated law enforcement professionals. One such stirring narrative can be found in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, the story of Ron Stallworth, who during the early 70s became the first black detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Mr. Lee and lead actor John David Washington plumb both the historical context and present day relevance of Detective Stallworths efforts to root out the destructive prejudice of the local chapter of the KKK. The film probes assumptions and biases of many kinds and makes a powerful case for building real alliances based on our common humanity. The story manages to be bracing, inspirational, and troubling all at once.

At a time when objective news reporting is under attack by politicians both here in the United States and abroad, investigative journalists are providing vitally important profiles on how our justice system works both for good and for ill. In her brilliant, in-depth, two part story Blood Will Tell, reporter Pamela Colloff examines the murder of an elementary schoolteacher in the small town of Clifton, Texas back in 1985. It is a story about the twists and turns of homicide cases, surprising decisions by prosecutors and serious questions about the forensics that have become staples of criminal investigations.

We often overlook that stories of crime are typically cases of evolved impulses gone wrong. Our ancestors survived by engaging in a combination of self-protection, cooperation, reputation management, and risk-taking. Several of these modes of action can easily become violence or other transgressions. Despite the fact that policing is often political, the truth is that human society needs guardrails and well-trained responders to emergency. It is essential to have a philosophy and preparedness to face and put back into balance those whose impulses have gone awry. What may have seemed as an unreasonable focus on the flaws in our policing and our courts is also an appreciation of these things. Having high standards for how we treat accused criminals and victims also means valuing the difficult work of officers and investigators holding people accountable for wrongdoing. When we separate the stories that are true from those that are false, we are taking a step toward facing the human, criminal action and meeting it with real justice and life-giving compassion.

C.S.

Some links for listening:

Season 2, In the Dark podcast, on the 1996 Tardy Furniture homicide case in Winona, Mississippi.

Just Mercy and

Angie from the Criminal podcast (Philly area folks: you may enjoy this one in particular for the local participants—despite the icky murder part)

Man of the People from the Reply All podcast

Serial, Season 1

and

Undisclosed, The State v. Adnan Syed (Note: listen after Serial)

For further reading:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2015 by Bryan Stevenson

Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection, 2015 by Johann Hari

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, 2014 by Alice Goffman

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, 2015 by Jill Leovy

Blood Will Tell, Part 1: Who Killed Mickey Bryan? by Pamela Colloff in the New York Times Magazine

and Part 2: Did Faulty Evidence Doom Joe Bryan?

A Story of Technology and Us

In these days of 2017 as events unfold in clusters and with almost blinding speed, I often think about the way in which our usage of technology over the past two decades has shifted from a way of doing things to the thing itself that we do. Many of you reading this have expressed to me a diverse set of responses to both the politics of today and the way in which we engage with each other and/or technology. I would like to share a small inventory of events and some personal reflections.

When I think about my earliest memories of the internet, I recall a marginal behavior pattern that emerged in the late 90’s. During that first significant internet boom a small percentage of people engaged in vast amounts of online shopping and spending that far outstripped any savings or earning power that they had–sometimes in just one evening. While it’s difficult to forget the dreaded (and overblown) Y2K bug fears of those days, the internet of circa 1998-2000 ushered in something far more perilous and ultimately unavoidable: our online lives in both a financial and social capacity. Those people who engaged in online compulsive buying sprees are now barely a blip on the radar of the recent past, but their problem told a cautionary tale that has been fleshed out in staggering detail in the ensuing two decades: we are now dependent on and vulnerable to networked technology in a way that has transformed our psychology, behavior, and expectations.

Boats on the Horizon

I was a high school English teacher from the mid 2000’s through 2011, and this period of time and line of work provided me with a front row seat to teenagers experiencing the transitions of old cell phone technology to the earliest smartphones and My Space giving way to Facebook. We now have a vast online infrastructure that has maximized our desire for instant gratification, and yet, as societies and individuals, a substantial majority of people seem to have an unconcerned “we’ve got this” attitude about how we rely on and immerse ourselves in the world of our devices and online interactions.

I made a brief search and noted some of the big tech giants’ milestones of the past 25 years. Taken as a whole, it provides both anecdotally and numerically the effect of one long spike on a chart with no end.

1994: Amazon founded (originally named “Cadabra”)
1995: Yahoo founded
1997: AOL provided roughly half of all networked homes in U.S. with internet service
1998: Google founded
1999: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year
2001: iTunes and the iPod released by Apple
2003: Skype is developed
2006: Twitter is created
2007: Introduction of the iPhone
2008: Facebook reaches 100 million users
2010: Introduction of the iPad
2017: Facebook reaches 2 billion users

The internet and the social media revolution were hailed as great tools of democracy, weaponry that could be used to challenge the mighty and unjust, as was the case when the Arab Spring came to life and the networked, grassroots activism of Egyptians played a key role in unseating dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter allowed people to share their experiences of mistreatment at the hands of powerful companies or start Go Fund Me campaigns to finance inspiring projects or pay for dearly necessary medical care. This was the internet of promise and hope that seemed to be a full flowering of the freedom and empowerment only hinted at in the internet age of the late 1990’s.

The other side of the internet is a different story. Identity theft, scamming, pyramid sales schemes, and online bullying and shaming have all reached disturbing levels of frequency and commonality. We had to invent new terminology: “cat-fishing” described the fabrication of an online persona in order to carry on a relationship with someone. The term internet “troll” needs no explanation, and it is unfortunately all too familiar now that an occupant of the White House is engaged regularly in exactly that kind of behavior. Politics and technology come crashing together in terms like Gamergate, which referred to an outpouring of vitriol and multi-pronged harassment in 2014 by male video game players against female players and activists who were campaigning to increase awareness and reduce images of gratuitous violence against women in video games. One of the modes of attack used by these misogynous, antisocial video game enthusiasts was doxing, or publishing a targeted individual’s personal documents and information online with ill intent.

Eyes within the Storm

In light of this rapidly changing social and technological landscape, two creative works that I came across in 2016 had a profound impression on me because of the way in which they captured our fascination and dependence on technology. The first was the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. He examined the bizarre reemergence of public, open-forum mob justice that has occurred in recent years as a result of the reach and unguarded use of Facebook and Twitter in particular. Ronson discusses the way in which social media shamings could instantly transform a public figure into a pariah, and even more surprisingly, the way in which a virtually unknown person could become a notorious and hated punching bag on an international scale within a span of hours—typically for a poorly worded joke or an ill-conceived display of behavior. Ronson lays out very clearly that the inarguable usefulness of social media is what allows it to both lay bare and to shape human psychology and behavior.

The other source of content that captured my attention was the hip-hop CD titled Because the Internet by the artist Childish Gambino, AKA actor and creative personality Donald Glover. While I am not typically persuaded by the glib and profane idioms of this genre, I found the music, the storytelling, and the stagey theatrics to be an incredibly potent tableau of life in the information age at its most over-stimulating. On tracks like “The Zealots of Stockholm [free information]” Glover seamlessly flows from online dating to loss of identity to the availability of off-the-grid weaponry found on the internet. It’s a fairly dizzying display of the life of Glover’s generation and the way in which the internet is always present even when it’s only seething with possibility in the background.

Ronson and Glover were able to assess Twitter, public life, private behavior, and the uncontrolled nature of the internet each in his own insightful way—from within the fray itself. In our current situation, the voices and information streams have been expertly guided by algorithms designed to trigger contagious responses. As former Google programmer Tristan Harris has said in recent interviews, tech companies have perfected the art of addictive engagement, and it turns out that what often gets our attention is the hilarious, the catastrophic, and the morally outrageous.

What came next was difficult to see around the corner: the collapse of people’s faith in anything but their own chosen cocktail of information. The conservative author Tom Nichols has chronicled this trend, which has particularly picked up momentum post-2012, in his recent book The Death of Expertise. The internet is so eminently useful and indispensable now because it is fully capable of providing all things to all people. With the ever-present option to cherry pick information that supports gut-level assumptions on every topic, any point of view can be affirmed and will be, no matter how detached from reality or appropriateness. When you pair this phenomenon with the presence of fabricated news and a reactionary backlash against the shamings of bad behavior that Ronson chronicled, one can much more easily see the way in which the election of 2016 could be possible.

Discoveries and Exposures

So, ready or not, it’s happening. What’s the it? Not Marshal Law, not the end of civilization, not necessarily a descent into populism-fueled autocracy, and not a golden age of connection and technology. The “it” that’s happening is a change in the speed of life and the way our brains anticipate and take in stimuli. Technology has illuminated and magnified every moment, potentially, for maximum usage in this new “attention economy.” We are experiencing a sort of ‘uber-exposure’ fueled and facilitated by social media, global connectivity, and social change crashing against ancient traditions and long-held assumptions.

It’s happening. A political showdown. A social media storm. an actual storm in the form of a hurricane. A police shooting. The ambush of a policeman. A so-called honor killing of a woman. A protest descending into violence. A rare act of incredible heroism by a nurse or a pilot or a teacher. We will have the opportunity to see these events because virtually everyone has the technology in their pockets to capture them as they occur and follow the ready-made narratives. We are not in short supply of information or storylines; but what we need most is the presence of mind and the training to process what unfolds with more social and historical literacy.

In this age of instant internet discovery, I’m reminded of the following conversation from the movie Men in Black:

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Edwards: What’s the catch?

Kay: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I’ll give you to sunrise to think it over.
[starts walking away]

Edwards: [shouting after Kay] Hey! Is it worth it?

Kay: Oh yeah, it’s worth it…
[starts walking again, stops and turns back briefly]

Kay: … if you’re strong enough!

The internet has at some point in our lives made nearly all of us feel as if we are discovering some amazing conspiracy or newly emergent story that somehow changes everything. However, rather than agent K’s emphasis on the stamina to live a solitary life of secret knowledge, the strength that concerns me is the mental energy and ability to balance complex, contradictory, and sometimes painful information and interact constructively with others. Here in the United States, crime and homicide are well below the national rates of 20 or 30 years ago except for a small number of individual cities. This is demonstrably true, and it even takes into account acts of terrorism. However, many, many people assume uncritically that crime absolutely has to be up. This assumption stems from local news coverage and horrifying and salacious crime stories shared on social media. I don’t know how to fix this except to stress it as often as I can when people cite crime as a national issue. Really bad news, just like car wrecks and flashing lights, gets attention and easily skews our perceptions.

Life on and off the Web

Just a few days ago, I found my late uncle’s Twitter feed under his usual pseudonym. He had only posted a total of 11 times within a span of 3 months way back in 2009. That platform was still relatively new then, and he seems to have been experimenting with it before deciding to abandon it forever. Finding those tweets momentarily re-connected me with Dan as I pictured him in his apartment in Los Angeles, sporadically working on his music and navigating into the most difficult years of his life. As I was haunted by the terse intimacy of those previously unseen tweets, it reminded me of the power of the connected world: the more the technology develops and branches out, the more we find ourselves in it. These platforms offer a kind of control, an emotive megaphone, and an opportunity for self-invention that is quite powerful and magnetic.

The most pressing challenge here is to think critically and step outside periodically from all of these media. After all, as useful and attractive as these social media are, they have made us—through our own clicks and choices—into sources of free labor, information, and ultimately income. My wife has summed it up as follows: if you are not paying for a product like Facebook, then it is because you are the product. So for many reasons, we shouldn’t be flying on emotional and intellectual autopilot in these spaces. We can’t afford the kind of thinking that has caused people to opt their children out of vaccinations for crippling and fatal diseases based solely on narrow reading of a few internet articles. These kinds of behaviors have brought us to a very difficult year of opposition and moments of grave tribalism. In a time in which the President of the United States has trafficked in the most misleading and self-serving information imaginable (from birther-ism to mass voter fraud), it is of the utmost importance to insist on the most reliable path to separate fact from fiction and substance from superficiality.

Life under the heavy influence of technology will not be abating any time soon, and the information and images will keep pulling us into the next one in the algorithm. Create your own algorithm. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can stop at any time. Stop often. Take care of yourself. Don’t say what is assumed to be true. Do make a good faith effort to find out what is true, and recognize when another person in a given situation is factually correct. Yes, sometimes expert advice and skill doesn’t produce the best outcome. Grievances and deep-seated feelings about outcomes can short circuit our logic and our sense of fairness. So be prepared to change how you feel by facing complexity and uncertainty with honesty. Commit yourself to learning accurate information that will disrupt and fine tune your opinions. That’s my input for this time we’re in. Some or all of this advice may be wrong. I’m simply sharing the best model of action I see for a human who has to live in this future. It will be an ongoing conversation in all of our lives and our children’s lives as well.

C.S.

For further reading and viewing:

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017) by Tom Nichols

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (2017) by Jonathan Taplin

The Social Dilemma, a 2020 Netflix film

Jonathan Taplin: Sleeping Through a Revolution

Discoveries in South Italy

After one week in Italy, the time had come to make our way further south and experience the capital city of Roma. The name of the city reminds me of the Italian word romanzo, which refers to the literary form we call the novel in English. As a former English teacher, I can tell you that while it may not be easy to take in all of the cosmopolitanism, history, and culture of Roma (especially in a short visit), this city is a book well worth reading.

Mere and I stayed in an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood for our Roman holiday. Getting to this area of Rome involved some more typical big city run-ins, such as a group of kids swarming around my seat on the bus (with the likely intent of looking for an easy-to-grab wallet—a risk avoided, fortunately due to some expert advice I took) and a bus driver who vociferously yelled “attenzione!” and pointed to his eyes as an upbraiding for my failure to buy tickets in advance of the ride. Peccato!

I Piaceri di Roma

Our apartment was a cozy 2nd floor pad located on one of the neighborhood’s cramped little streets. We went through a giant old set of heavy wooden double doors and then through a dark old courtyard that had little gates that seemed to be from the 1970’s. There was a friendly black cat named Hillary walking about. Meredith helped me get my sense of direction on our first day by taking us over to see the famous Tevere, or Tiber river. As one would expect, we had delicious meals at a number of restaurants around the city. There were some memorable encounters with gelato as well.

Una donna felice con gelato

We took in a number of the cultural essentials. Meredith was my guida, since she had been to the city before, and her program did not come up short in any respect. If I recall correctly, we visited the Pantheon as one of our first sights.

Il Pantheon

 

The Trevi Fountain surprised me in the way that it majestically appears as if materializing before one’s eyes—incongruously tucked within dense and twisting city blocks. It was such a spectacular sight that we would go back for a second viewing later.

We saw the grand exterior of the Cathedral of Peter and explored the art and sculpture of the Vatican Museum. The Greek and Roman mythology on display was a highlight unto itself. The view down the spiral staircase to the exit caught my attention as we descended.

Spectacular front with Statues at Vatican

Le scale spirali nel Vaticano

We had clear and cool March weather for one of our most exciting days of the trip: the guided tour of the famous Colosseum and the exploration of the Roman Forum.

Il Colosseo

The architecture and the story of the colosseum are breathtaking. The tour engages both the eyes and the imagination because both are needed to understand the pageantry and mechanical functionality of what happened in that structure during the gladiatorial “games” and other public entertainments.

Sotto il coloseo

I’ve always been an avid walker, and the Roman Forum was one of my favorite places to embrace the role of the tourist and slowly walk around, absorbing completely my surroundings. I think that Meredith sensed that I would have this reaction because of the unique quality of the Forum as a kind of sprawling open-air museum of the ancient city.

Alta Vista del Foro Romano

The Roman experience is all about the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient worlds right next to each other. At one point, we found ourselves near a possible location of where Julius Caesar had been murdered more than 2000 years ago. It was a full city block of old ruins and columns, which were surrounded by private and commercial buildings from the 20th century.

Possible Giulio Cesare sito
Allegedly, the possible location of the murder of Giulio Cesare

The city itself was made to speak to us through its art and sculpture and also its occasional graffiti.

Un po di scritto sulle strade
A rough English translation: “It is time to get drunk! So as not to be slaves martyred of the time, be drunk always! Of wine, of poetry, or of virtue, as you please”

Il Piccolo Mondo Bello di Sorrento

After visiting several of Italy’s biggest cities, it was now time to coordinate with my Mom and George in preparation for the train ride to the smaller town of Sorrento. My parents arrived in Rome after their nonstop flight to Rome from Philly, and I have to hand it to them because they managed to make it through the long flight with sufficient energy to handle both the train from Roma to Napoli as well as the more dubious “Circumvesuviana” train from Napoli to Sorrento with us. Not to mention a bit of walking on winding streets to find our rental lodgings (which turned out to be delightful).

Sweet home marciapiede
The courtyard to Sorrento Sweet-home

On our first full day in lovely little Sorrento, Meredith and I took a guided food tour of the town and learned our way around while my parents decided to wing it and check out a restaurant near our rental. Both parties fared very well, and we were all looking forward to some folks arriving in a couple of days from Omagh, Northern Ireland.

In Sorrento, one must remember that Mt. Vesuvius is not so far away. The same destructive power that made Pompeii a site of tragedy all those years ago could be seen in other ways. Our food tour guide explained to us that an old, high-walled narrow street near the bay had been created by volcanic ash burning through tens of yards of rock down to the sea level. Mother nature, it turned out, was quite a city planner in her own way.

Una Strada del volcano a Sorrento

Of course, there was once again time for some proper study of gelato at its best, courtesy of a great little place called Puro located on a side street just a short way past the town center.

Puro Gelati

*****

Before our family from Ireland arrived, we made the unforgettable little gita (day trip) to the island of Capri. While we did not have the time to make our way across the whole isle or visit the famous Blue Grotto, we found that the 20-minute journey by high speed ferry was well worth the trip. The four of us rode the funicular slowly up the side of the mountain and then went for a memorable stroll on one of the most picturesque and famous islands in the world. It’s not hard to see why the reclusive Tiberius decided to make this his home during his time as emperor. And needless to say, the seafood was plentiful and delicious.

Il mio skewer fenomenale di pesci
an impressive grilled seafood skewer I enjoyed on Capri

Capri Montagna
*****

On the evening of the next day, the four of us waited at the train station for arrivals from the Emerald Isle, including our family’s only dual citizenship holder. After they had braved a succession of vehicles on land and air, Lisa, John, and Bronagh walked off their train to greet us. Marianne was unabashedly teary-eyed at the reunion, and maybe I was just a little bit too.

We went right over to a restaurant we had found a day or two earlier on the main street, Corso Italia. The owner’s name was Catello, and he had been enjoying joking around with George by giving him the French pronunciation of his name. When we all walked in his expression lit up, and he said “Zhaur-zh!” while preparing to get us a table. When Catello found out that John preferred beer to wine, he gave John the biggest glass of beer I’ve ever seen—it looked like about 45 or 50 oz.

The next day we would have one of the absolute highlights of the trip: a guided tour of the Pompeii scavi, or ruins of the fabled city of Pompeii.

Central Pompeii area
The town center of Pompeii with Vesuvius looming behind

My niece Bronagh approached the trip with the humor of an Italian and the inquisitiveness of an investigative journalist, asking superb questions about the ancient city. I also took opportunities to ask questions of our guide about the language in particular as we learned about the city’s life prior to the eruption of Vesuvio.

BB a Pompeii
A young student of history in Pompeii

The main grounds in the town center of Pompeii featured modern interpretations of Greco-Roman art in the form of busts and other sculptures—all intentionally done as fragments to coordinate with the identity of the city as a defunct hub of civilization.

blu-verde statua a Pompeii

We saw the old brick structures that were used as ovens for baking bread, the street signs in Roman numerals and the classic arches and pillars all around us. We even spied a few tragically preserved sets of human remains. I particularly liked the outdoor theater that we found among the many preserved structures.

 

***

When we got back to Sorrento Sweet Home at the end of the day, we knew that our concluding trip back up to Rome was approaching. Meredith and I shared with the whole group some of our favorite parts of Sorrento that the two of us had discovered earlier, including a famous Christian patron of wildlife named Francesco and some of the best views from this city on the water.

Francesco con uccello
Sorrento’s statue of Francesco of Assisi

Mia famiglia a Sorrento 1
These are some of my favorite people

Before long, we would say goodbye to the citrus trees rich with their ripe oranges and lemons and this small coastal town that had won us all over.

Noi nei alberi di citrus 1
One of our happy discoveries in Sorrento

Back in Rome on the last night for the whole group, we had the opportunity to have a nice dinner of pasta and pizza all together before Mere and I would be the first to leave the country next morning. Lisa had the opportunity to dust off her French language skills at my parents’ hotel. Meredith used her map skills and flair for getting the most out of the available time to navigate us all to a night viewing of the Trevi Fountain. We tossed our coins over our shoulders into the water, and posed for pictures along with the hundreds of other tourists.

Fontana di Trevi alla sera

It would be difficult to choose favorite parts of this trip since so many of the activities and days were vividly memorable. My first trip to mainland Europe and l’Italia in particular was everything I hoped for and more. At this point in my life, I do not have the comforts of a traditional religion. I am one who studies and appreciates the old stories but I do not venerate the biblical prophets and saints, which is certainly ironic in the context of discussing the land and the cultural history of Italy in particular. However, this trip with Meredith and my family of travelers provided a sense of exploration, connection, and the best of life—a true adventure for the soul. Arrivederci Italia, e spero che La vediamo ancora nel futuro (Farewell Italy, and I hope that we see you again in the future).


Sweet home citrus alberi
C.S.

Avventura in Italia del nord

Just before the arrival of spring in 2016, we journeyed to Italy. I would like to return to the adventure that I shared with my family on the Italian peninsula, a place which neither my command of English nor my nascent awareness of Italian will successfully convey. So with what words and images I have, please enjoy a story of l’Italia of the North (or at least the northern half of our journey) with some occasional use of Italian names and language.
………………….

At night, riding above deck on a mid-size boat known as a vaporetto, we experienced our first moment of vacation stress as we searched for a seafood restaurant called Al Covo. We originally had a reservation for 8:00 pm, but it was already 8:31, and we were having difficulty capping off our day of arrival in the country with a successful navigation of the island city of Venezia (Venice). We called the restaurant and found out that after 9:00 we couldn’t be seated. So after disembarking in what we hoped was the quartiere, or neighborhood, of the restaurant, we proceeded on foot with map in hand.

La Venezia at night is a place that instantly brought me to thinking of Shakespeare’s opening scenes in Othello. As we watched the boats and felt the damp air in the darkness, there could be no doubt that with Meredith’s help, I found myself in the Old World. With the assistance of a hotel concierge who spoke perfect English, we found Al Covo at 8:52 pm. The owners were an Italian-American pairing, the husband a native of Italy and the wife from Lubbock, Texas. Needless to say, she gave my wife a warm hug of greeting after learning that we hail from the Capital of Texas, and this felt like an apt celebration as well of our finding the restaurant just in time.

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The mixed seafood plate at Al Covo with Amarone wine

One interpretation of Al Covo is “The Hideout,” and we found the delicious fish and inviting atmosphere to be excellent. The restaurant offered me my first ever glass of Amarone Valpolicella wine, and its rich flavor was an appropriate pairing for their incomparably fresh and painstakingly prepared regional fish. The restaurant is highly recommended—if you can find it!

During the overcast and rainy weather, we explored Venice and witnessed the flooding and the tourism-based economy at work. As we walked about this damp and sinking city, we took note and captured some picturesque views from its bridges.

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A view from a Venice foot bridge

We toured the Palazzo del Doge (Palace of the Duke) where we saw the interrogation room and learned of the story of Casanova while visiting his cell in this secretive old structure. The Palazzo was the political center of the old kingdom of Venice, and the weaponry and armor of centuries past is on display along with many other artifacts from bygone eras.

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Armaments of the Palazzo del Doge

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An interior staircase at the Palazzo del Doge, featuring Greco-Roman guardian statues and the winged Lion of San Marco above the central arch.

For Meredith, La Venezia is not necessarily a city that she would visit regularly, and yet her sense is that anyone remotely interested ought to see it at least once. She was so right, and our adventure had begun perfectly. We concluded our trip with a visit to see the glasswares and other products of the craft-making artisans on Murano and Burano.

she-is-at-il-gatto-nero
She’s at the Gatto Nero on Burano

There can be no doubt that Italy’s cuisine was as brilliant as billed from the start of our trip. On Burano, after shopping for crafts and linens at the shops of several merchants, we went for a late lunch at the Gatto Nero (black cat), where we enjoyed the house red wine and fresh made linguini and seafood pasta.

The authentic culinary gesture of having extra virgin olive oil added fresh to my grilled fish plate was the perfect touch, and the dining room of the Gatto reminded me of Italian restaurants in South Philadelphia as well as the experiences I remember of eating pasta in the homes of my relatives during the 1970’s and 1980’s.


We rode the Freccia Rossa, or ‘red arrow’ train, south to Firenze (Florence). As was the case in Venezia, Meredith was eagerly awaiting my reaction to various sights in the city. Our Air BnB was located in the shadow of one such sight—a certain giant “cathedral in pajamas” called Il Duomo. This grand structure provided us with a challenging climb up 464(?) steps to picturesque views of the city in every direction. The climb from the bottom floor to the observation deck at the top is a circuitous route that requires a great deal of effort and patience as one paces and angles around the old, dark, stony interior with fellow tourists squeezing past on their way back down.

il-duomo
The top of the Duomo seen from our temporary apartment

The climb presented us with a brilliant look at the rust colored rooftops of Firenze and the distant mountains…

una-vista-dal-duomo

The climb up to the Duomo’s zenith led to one small problem for me. I became fairly tired and shaky and actually developed a fever that night. Una febbre per la gioia d’Italia forse? No it was an actual fever, and I was suddenly in a bad state of body and mind on the most rapturous vacation of my life. Lesson learned: adversity can strike any time. Meredith, equipped with a willingness to use her “Spagnolo dei bambini” (baby Spanish), set out to find me apple juice and chicken soup for my severely rattled stomach. (Fortunately, many Florentines speak English quite competently).

Each time I thought I was getting better, night-time would bring back the effects of the fever in full. However, there was a trip that I had no intention of missing: our guided tour of some small vineyards of the Chianti region.

Our tour guide turned out to be a delightful woman who was definitely our kind of person, a vegetarian from Sicily who had a fondness for fostering rescue dogs. As she noted my questions on the Italian language and my embryonic competency, she prompted me to speak in the language whenever I could.

12th-night-setting-a-greve-in-chianti
On this tour, we visited two vineyards of the town Greve in Chianti. At Castello Vichiomaggio, we tried a delicious “super Tuscan” as well as two varieties of Chianti while enjoying a savory pasta lunch. We were also shown a courtyard that had been featured in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s 12th Night.

We also visited the Solatione vineyard, where we learned about how they produce their vintages, and we sampled some of the most alcoholically rich and robust Chianti that I’ve ever tasted.   

 

In Città (in the city), we saw a great many sights of artistic beauty in places such as the Museum of the Uffizi. The statues, architecture, and cosmopolitan air of Firenze were quite engaging. As a former English teacher and religion major, I delighted in the presence of the Greco-Roman heroes and gods in their various forms.

neptune-a-firenze
A statue of Poseidon appears to survey Firenze’s tourists

When in Italy, one must take advantage of opportunities to have gelato, and in Firenze, Meredith and I found a suitably fantastic establishment for this pursuit. At Venchi, they spared no effort on either the pomp or the delicious flavors that could be offered.

muro-di-cioccolato-venchi-a-firenze
The flowing wall of chocolate at Venchi Gelato

One afternoon, Mere mapped out our path to a bustling and modern locale called Mercato Centrale. We tried out some fresh made gnocchi while I sampled an unusual lemon beer…

gnocchi-al-mercato-centrale

Just before our southward excursion to Greve in Chianti, we took in a delightful view of the main part of the city from just beyond the Arno river…

across-the-arno-una-vista-di-firenze
The transition from Venice to Florence was an exhilarating juxtaposition. From old and flooding streets, sea spray, and cozy restaurants to the sophisticated city of the famous Medici, we enjoyed the first half of our trip, and we savored every dish and sip of house wine that we tasted. (Not to mention the gelato).

Soon we would be headed for Rome with the memory of these two brilliant and contrasting cities in mind. Thanks for reading, and more sights and sounds from further south to come!

he-prepares-to-order-at-gatto-nero

 

2016: Political Discussion Then and Now

Every so often, it’s important to put a fresh perspective on a situation of any complexity, whether it’s as local as how to improve a 1,600 square foot home or as far-reaching as what to do about the condition and outfitting of a nation’s military forces. During this campaign of 2016, the politics of our Republic and the condition of our nation appear to need as many hands on deck and as many valid ideas and relevant facts as can be brought to bear on the task. We are witnessing the effects of people spending years on ideological auto-pilot and under the spell of dog whistle politics, and the effects are pretty frightening. What’s more, we are seeing on a daily basis the outcome of a continuing experiment in which social media has become the driver of how people take in information.

I was once a high school English teacher for 7 years of my life, and despite leaving the hands-on (or minds-on) work of the classroom several years ago, I still consider myself at the core to be both an educator and a student. I believe that there are a multitude of experiences and facts out there that would quite simply amaze us and in some cases change our lives if we knew about them. Many of us are having these experiences for good and for worse every day. As a teacher, it was my job to connect the larger world outside the classroom with my ostensible lessons in language arts and make this information relevant to my students. An essential part of my job was prompting the students to think critically and learn about art and communication. I was the kind of teacher who pulled down my map quite often to talk about literally where in the world certain ideas came from.

At this moment in my country, I feel as if I’m witnessing battalions of the nation’s skeletons emerging from long hallways of closets, and while I am not going to engage in the old trope of saying that this is the end of the Republic or such hyperbole, I do affirm my disgust with the presence of so many voices whose open intent is to stake out the narrowest interests and most simplistic ideas with an utter lack of realism and any capacity to value opposing ideas of merit. I write at this moment because I see a dearth of plausibility—much less wisdom—in ideas espoused by too many, and I feel a duty to go beyond the accidental or what’s worse—the forbidden conversation and push for an active discussion that takes into account the complexity of our ideals, actions, and demographics.

I came of age from a political standpoint at the end of the 1980s, and I remember very well the pride and supportive tone with which my grandfather had spoken about the Reagan presidency while he was in office. Every campaign for the U.S. presidency since the early 90’s makes me think about the political conversations on which I grew up with my father and grandfather. My dad was a musician who was as socially liberal as you could be. He believed in the legalization and taxation of narcotics, a strong social safety net, a woman’s right to choose an abortion, and in the importance of recognizing and opposing racism and sexism in this country. My grandfather, an accountant and later a postal worker who went by the name Bud, was a fiscally conservative, devoted Catholic who was opposed to abortion and high taxes. As far as I know, my dad never voted in a single presidential election. Bud voted for Nixon, Ford, Reagan twice, and George H.W. Bush. His old, by-the-book Catholicism imbued in him a reverence for Erasmus and Thomas Aquinas on matters of philosophy and theology, and his pragmatic American conservatism had made him skeptical of almost any Democrat after Truman.

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The conversations and arguments that we had across our three generations of views are now something of a legend in my memory. Every weekend was an opportunity to debate religion or politics with them in the “Main line” suburbs of Haverford Township, Pennsylvania. My dad often enjoyed watching me come armed with citations and analyses that often didn’t go over well with Bud. I remember in the early 1990s the indignant way in which Bud took issue with the authors Barlett and Steele for their criticism of trickle-down economics in their book entitled America: What Went Wrong? He bristled at their comparison of low tax rates for investment income in comparison with the higher rates for employee income. These conversations and disputes were formative for me, and I think that many of us have these revealing moments in our awareness of ideology and political history on a personal level. My wife has mentioned two conversations with her father that were bookends twelve years apart. The first talk was in the early 90s at the time of Operation Desert Storm. She remembers that the second conversation took place a decade later, during the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. For her, the rationales and objectives of these two wars seemed to be contradictory, and in making a case for the later military action, she felt that her father had changed some key assumptions and inadvertently made a case for neither of them.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve been making it a point to push the issue and have some of these conversations—in some cases with relatives and friends whom I see not so regularly since I live in Texas while most of my relatives are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My mom’s brother, a retired law enforcement officer, asked me a few months back what I think of the current political campaign. He was definitely kicking around the idea of voting for Trump because, in short, Clinton was “an Obama person.” He seemed to be bought into the general idea that President Obama was not a good leader, and I suspect he had some complaints about the Affordable Care Act. However, he asked me what I thought, and we actually had a good conversation. I acknowledged that some of Obama’s decisions did not work out that well in practice. When I mentioned the unhelpful crusade on the right against Planned Parenthood, my uncle acknowledged my point that it’s not a good plan to return to marginalizing women and putting them in a situation in which more back alley abortions take place. I don’t think that I changed his mind, but we negotiated some difficult issues and differing instincts in a very even-handed way.

I’ve been curious and attentive to political talk just about anywhere I’ve gone in the past year. During our trip to Italy earlier this year, we had a few conversations with native Italians who were definitely nonplussed by America’s flirtation with GOP nominee Trump. At the shore in Ventnor, NJ, I engaged the topic of crime and inner city violence with my mom’s husband, who has been just like a father to me since I was 5. We’ve talked politics and social issues all our lives, but I could tell that the conversation was making my mom and my older sister a bit anxious. George is a loyal Democrat (albeit a Reagan Democrat in the 1980s) and fairly centrist in his views. I was trying to bring the issue of federal drug policy into the conversation about crime and violence in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Miami. For George, this was beside the point. He was picturing night after night of newscasts back at their long time residence in Philly, in which a reporter would stand near an intersection in a long tan raincoat and describe a turf war or robbery-related murder, sometimes in multiples, and always disconnected from any overarching theme other than the idea of a bad neighborhood filled with irresponsibility and mayhem.

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City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When I brought up the crime in those other cities, George said, “I care about Philadelphia; I don’t care about Miami or those other places” and later, “I care about where you are in Texas, not the rest of Texas.” I challenged him, but I get it. George is a father and a grandfather who wants to see things get better where it’s close to him and those for whom he cares. My point was that there’s a connection—a bigger picture that influences Texas, Philly, and Florida. I think that Federal drug policy and red-lining play a big role in this while George is skeptical. A couple of times during the conversation, I took a minute to assure George that I wasn’t attempting to tell him that he’s wrong or that what he’s saying was not relevant. I was simply trying to add something, searching for a way to broaden the conversation and bring it closer to a possible solution. I had no idea of what the goal of this talk was, but I wanted to talk anyway. I turned to my mom a few times to get her input, and the expression on her face said a great deal. Her combination of staunch liberalism and practical experience came through as she acknowledged a few of my points. Then I did something that may have surprised them—I said, “Thank you.” It reminded me of conversations that we used to have 15 or 20 years earlier.

My mother has certainly been a major influence on my political thinking. While I appreciated the outright leftism of my father, my mom was the one who has always voted and participated actively in the community. During the fall of 1991, a major political storyline was the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for justice Clarence Thomas as nominee to SCOTUS. A significant piece of this politically charged event was Arlen Specter’s attack dog treatment of Professor Anita Hill during the hearings when she gave testimony as to inappropriate behavior by Thomas. In the following year, My mom decided to go beyond just pulling a lever in the voting booth, and she participated in the campaign of newcomer Lynn H. Yeakel, who was a surprise winner of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary election. My mom canvassed and raised money locally for Yeakel, who had been a founding member of the women’s fundraising and advocacy group named Women’s Way. I remember the energy and idealism of that campaign, and while Yeakel narrowly lost to Specter, it was an illustration for me of a real grass roots campaign as I watched my mom engaged in the process as an ordinary citizen who wanted to see better and fairer leadership.

Whether it was back in Southeastern Pennsylvania for much of my life or now in Texas, I’ve met and engaged with many people of different political persuasions. I once had an English department head where I taught who proudly claimed to be a radical rather than a liberal. He looked back fondly on the days of real teacher strikes in Philadelphia—not enjoying the prospect of the strike itself but rather the agency and unified action. At that same school I met a young social studies teacher who had and still has a passion for history and historical literacy. She is a conservative Italian-American and is married to a husband who is a Palestinian-American Catholic. I’ll never forget the flash of insight I had one day when talking politics with her and noting her views. I said, “I know what kind of conservative you are now! You think, like Patton did, at the end of World War II, that we should have told the Russians, ‘you’re next! We’re not going to divide Germany and give you control of half of it!'” She kind of smiled and said, “that’s right!” It’s conversations like those that have helped me to understand that every single person in this country is politically distinct, and in some way we’re all outnumbered. We have to make complicated choices about partnerships and provisional alliances.

These alliances can run the gamut from ironic to completely problematic. Not that long ago I learned that David Axelrod, architect of President Obama’s election campaign, had actually worked on the campaign of former Philadelphia mayor John Street. I enthusiastically voted for Republican candidate Sam Katz in two elections against Street. I and most of my family felt that Street was self-interested, corrupt, and possessed of a shameless political style. In the 2003 election rematch between the two men, Katz was doing fairly well in the polls, when a listening device was found in Street’s office. It turned out that the FBI had been investigating Democratic incumbent Street, and in a brilliantly sleazy, strategic play, Axelrod and co. turned this into a way to associate Katz with the highly unpopular (in Philadelphia) George W. Bush administration. The 2006 documentary film The Shame of a City tells the story of this bizarre campaign and the manipulation of local voter sentiment that propelled an unpopular mayor to a 16-point reelection win. I certainly can’t fault David Axelrod or Karl Rove for wanting to win elections, but I’m not going to condone dishonest tactics no matter which party is using them.

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The Texas State Capitol in Austin

We have many friends and relatives going through their own unique processes of figuring out where they stand in the current election year. We recently spoke with some of my wife’s very good friends from high school who hail from North Dallas and now make their homes in Austin. One of these friends is an avid supporter of a well-regulated militia and the right to bear arms, and in recent years he has felt more and more politically at home in the Libertarian Party. We had a great conversation with him and his wife in which we assured him with good humor that we Democrats do not have a plan or a desire for wholesale gun confiscation. We talked about the hands-off philosophy of the Libertarian Party—including on the topic of women’s reproductive rights, and in a very cogent way, our friend made the case from a very centrist point of view why it was essential not to revoke a woman’s ability to make this decision. He’s not the only one we’ve talked to who is thinking third party. I had a useful conversation on Facebook of all places, with a younger cousin who lives in Virginia and is also supporting and voting for Johnson. The former New Mexico governor’s pro-choice stance was a surprise to her when I mentioned it. Most of the time social media can be a disaster in terms of political discussion. In this case, with the right sensibility, I learned about who she was supporting and why, and she learned an important unknown detail about her candidate. We cannot and should not try to talk politics with everyone, but we need to do it at times with those in whom we have an investment—even when there’s a big risk of discomfort.

I want to go back to one day in 1994 for a moment. I remember being at my grandparents’ house with my dad and Bud when I learned something that really surprised me. I vaguely remember Newt Gingrich making a speech on television, and some political talk brewing between me and my grandfather. As if in a refutation of something I’d implied, Bud mentioned very casually but pointedly that he had voted for Bill Clinton in the ’92 election. I was genuinely amazed. I remember saying to my dad a little afterward, “I can’t believe it…he voted for Clinton!?” My dad caught the significance of what I was focusing on, and he commented that his father had always maintained his own way of doing things. Even to this day, I continue to be surprised at this strategic and understated political choice of variance from decades of his thinking. It turned out that this last presidential election in which he would be alive to vote was my first vote. Our debates within the family would never be quite as challenging and rich after we lost him in 1995. I’m glad that Bud was spared having to live through events like the September 11th attacks. I believe that he would have been exasperated at this insulting campaign by Trump as nominee of the party that he strongly favored. I think that he would have seen it as a vacant exercise of ego. Either way, I still wish I could have one more debate with him and with my dad as well.

These times have made me ask questions about the fundamental conditions and political assumptions in this country. My wife has very close friends who have worked in politics in the District of Columbia, and their insights and direct knowledge of the process have been particularly interesting. I’ve seen the wave of support for Bernie Sanders, and I want to ask the Sanders supporters, will you follow through on a long term effort to advocate for what he championed? Will you vote in mid-term, presidential, and local elections for credible candidates and work toward incremental progress when “revolutionary” change is unlikely? I wonder when religiosity and evangelicalism will stop being such a central driver of Republican party assumptions. When I look at my adopted home city of Austin, I wonder how long we can pollute the atmosphere and degrade the air quality with this gigantic and growing squadron of gas-guzzling cars on the road. I’d like to see less of an emphasis on thinly veiled partisan issues such as in-person voter fraud and more attention to rewriting our narcotics laws and reforming our criminal justice policies. We cannot incarcerate our way to a better country.

Ultimately, our political situation and the risk of electing a Trump represents a failure of education. We haven’t taught our citizens how to identify and rebuff flimsy emotional appeals. We are demonstrating a national failure of critical thinking. The situation may not portend the end of the Republic, but we still need to do a lot of work. Part of this work is talking about politics with realism, sincerity, and the willingness to acknowledge when the other side is right. I admit that I’m not open-minded about some topics. I have believed firmly since 2004 that gay marriage was constitutionally supported and that it was an inevitable and appropriate right in this country. I won’t be changing my mind on that topic just as I won’t change my opinion on the institution of slavery and the harm caused by Jim Crow laws. However, if anyone has a reasonable case to make on any of our emerging national or local issues, I’m open to having a conversation. To everyone who has talked politics with me over the years, thanks for sharing your experiences as well as your opinions. I believe that communication is essential to maintaining our well-being and our freedoms.

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The Many Sounds of Jazz – Part 2

Having shared in Part 1 a few of my favorite jazz albums from the bebop and post-bop period, I would like to share these selections that cover big band jazz and also albums that span the mid-’60’s through the 21st century.

To the Limits of Orchestral and Big Band:

 

1. Thelonious Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963, Columbia)

This is a double CD recording of Thelonious Monk with an outstanding band performing live at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Monk performs adroitly for what sounds like a packed house, and Butch Warren’s bass sounds golden. Drummer Frank Dunlop has some really crisp and rhythmically coordinated solos on the album, and the brass and reed soloists including Thad Jones and Steve Lacy are in superb form. One of my favorite cuts is Monk’s solo piano rendition of a song I’d never heard before or since, “When it’s Darkness on the Delta.” It is five minutes of good humor, philosophy and storytelling all delivered solely through the medium of black and white keys. For some it might be a stagey, inaccessible album; I think of it as a high-water mark in the history of the music.

 

2. Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Recorded 1949-1952, Verve)

These recordings are a treasure trove— a double album’s worth of legendary alto saxophonist and composer Charlie “Bird” Parker improvising and soloing with full symphonic support and the great Buddy Rich on drums. The sound of the harp creates an almost heavenly feel to the proceedings, and the material is almost exclusively pop songs and show tunes performed with Bird’s sense of aplomb and inventive faculties in full effect.

 

3. April in Paris (1956, Verve) – Count Basie and His Orchestra

While I don’t have deep experience with Basie’s impressive discography, this album has all the punch and sophistication one could ask for in big band jazz. One of the subtle delights is Freddie Green’s acoustic guitar giving the music a wonderful pulse (joonk-joonk-joonk), and the horn players can really rip with precision. Basie sounds right at home on piano, and the album is a classic that evokes a bygone era of vibrant music.

 

4. Focus (1961, Verve) – Stan Getz / Arrangements by Eddie Sauter

Focus cover

A year before his famous excursions in Brazilian jazz, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz recorded this album with a group of string musicians. Getz plays solos on this album like a man with wings, gliding and swooping as the violins and cellos bow and pluck in perfect coordination behind him. The opener “I’m Late, I’m Late” riffs on Alice in Wonderland’s elusive rabbit, and Getz imbues the music with grace and grit while the outstanding Roy Hanes drums like some kind of harmonizing sharpshooter. Building on the groundwork of Charlie Parker with Strings, this impressive album is almost cinematic in its sound and design—listening to it is the musical equivalent of watching a great Kurosawa or Hitchcock film.

 

5. Peter and the Wolf (1966, Verve) – Jimmy Smith / Orchestra Conducted and Arranged by Oliver Nelson

Full Peter & Wolf

This is Prokofiev’s classic symphony with no narration but plenty of inspiration and improvisation added by Nelson and Smith. Jimmy’s Hammond organ, the electric guitar, and the bass of Richard Davis all bring a classic rhythm and blues quality to these proceedings. Smith really revs up the engine on some blues-drenched solos, especially on “Peter’s Theme.” The whole album is a knowledgeable tribute and a genuine adventure in musical cross-pollination.

 

6. Movin’ Wes (1964, Verve) – Wes Montgomery

This album pairs the great guitar octavist (in my enthusiasm I’m coining words now) Montgomery with a full orchestra with arrangements by Johnny Pate. Wes’s guitar hums and sings on every tune, and the album is heavy on pop tunes and latin-flavored tracks. My favorite of the bunch is Wes’s philosophical take on the Streisand associated song “People.” Bobby Scott provides thoughtful accompaniment on piano, and the brass really gets it going on quite a few tracks. The album manages to be both fun and accessible as well as distinctly true to the musical instincts of the one and only Wes.

 

7. Change of Scenes (1971, Verve) – Stan Getz & The Boland-Clarke Big Band

Ten years after the amazing Focus recording, Getz teamed up to make an avante-garde big band recording with Francy Boland and Kenny Clarke’s gifted group. You read that correctly: avant-garde big band recording. This album is not for the faint of heart. It’s not a noisy, cacophonous wall of sound kind of thing, but rather a very strategic blend of melodies, moods, and dissonant sound sections. Basses are acoustic and electric. Reeds include oboes and soprano saxes. Boland wrote all six tunes—and they’re brilliant! Getz solos bravely and confidently in this strange world. Exciting and off the beaten path.

 

8. The Firebird: Jazz Meets the Symphony #3 (1995, Aleph) – Lalo Schifrin

Full Firebird

For an adventurous but well-constructed fusion of classical music with jazz, look no further. Lalo Schifrin, jazz pianist and composer extraordinaire provides a remarkable musical integration that brings together such selections as Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Jon Faddis’s trumpet sounds great in the service of Schifrin’s charts and adapted tunes. “Vignettes of Fats Waller” has lots of pomp and presentation to it, and the gifted saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera performs magnificently on the album’s extended finale “The Firebird,” which pairs Stravinsky’s work with the music of Charlie Parker.  a very complete and robust set of musical portraits.

 

 9. Concerto Grosso in D Blues (1968, Atlantic) – Herbie Mann

This album journeys through aspects of jazz from the traditional to the avante-garde but with a chamber music feel that in no way diminishes the passion and intensity of the themes. The title track is a full 28 minutes long, and features melodic opening and closing sections that bookend the “outside” yet contemplative middle section that features Sonny Sharrock’s electric guitar solo. Herbie’s flute solo on “My Little Ones” is full of improvisational fire. Also, along with Ron Carter’s resonant bass, the great Roy Ayers is featured on vibraphones in this genuinely accomplished recording.

 

10. Consummation (1970, Blue Note) – The Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra

Thad Jones is a richly creative trumpet/flugelhorn/cornet player who also happens to be one of Jazz’s greatest field generals in the art of big band arrangement. He and his drummer co-leader Mel Lewis are a superb team, especially with the buoyant support of pianist Sir Roland Hanna. This music has a blend of funkiness (apropos of the time), whimsy, and at times a strong sense of tradition and ceremony. “A Child is Born” is a landmark ballad and a highlight in Thad Jones’s career as a composer (as is the entire album—he wrote every single composition).

 

11. Close-up in Swing & A New Kind of Love (1961 & 1963) – Erroll Garner

I couldn’t resist the inclusion of this 2-for-1 CD released by Telarc Jazz in 1997. The ’61 session Close-up in Swing is a very delightful trio recording, but the music with Garner and orchestral support on A New Kind of Love is an outstanding work of big band jazz that expertly realizes this romantic soundtrack. The subject was the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film of the same name for which Garner composed most of this music. A New Kind of Love is an album that sneaks up on you—it is simply rapturous in its evocation and painting of nights on the town and lovers strolling in the park. I’ve never seen the film, but this music is worth more than the proverbial thousand words. The 5’4’’ Erroll Garner was a giant in the annals of jazz music, and in this pair of recordings, that fact is fully on display.   

 

Beyond the Conventions of Post-Bop

 

12. Sonny Rollins On Impulse! (1965, Impulse)

Full Sonny Impulse

What a great supporting group to back the masterful Sonny Rollins on this album. Nobody in this rhythm section is phoning it in. Ray Bryant plays some gorgeous piano, and Walter Booker plays a stunningly sensitive bass solo on the extended take of “Everything Happens to Me.” The opener “On Green Dolphin Street” has a probing, almost harrowing intro with Sonny’s horn saying, “Wake up! This isn’t your standard jazz album, folks.” Mickey Roker uses brushes and cymbals with such poise and provides the punctuating thwacks right where they’re called for. All this and there’s a calypso! Fifty years after it was recorded, this album still sounds as innovative and persuasive as ever.

 

13. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! (1966, Capitol) – the Cannonball Adderley Quintet

Josef Zawinul’s title track broke through with some radio airplay and brought Cannonball fame beyond just the jazz audience. Nat Adderley’s “Games” is a particularly driving tune, on which Nat’s cornet is full of power and swing. All of the material is original and penned by group members. Cannon’s alto saxophone and the performances serve as a bridge of soul music and jazz with vibrant results.

 

14. Light as a Feather (1972, Polydor/Verve) – Chick Corea & Return to Forever

This much-revered album is a thorough illustration of all the places that jazz can go. Corea’s electric piano is a repository of joy and virtuosity, and the vocals of Flora Purim are a superb complement to the instrumental skill on display. One of my favorite elements of the album is Joe Farrell’s flute, which really helps to make the track “Spain” the monumental work that it is—along with the superior bass performance of Stanley Clarke.

 

15. Miles Smiles (1967, Columbia) – The Miles Davis Quintet

This is a modern jazz super-group performing at peak creativity. Tony Williams is about 21 years old and sounds like a masterful veteran on drums. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter all contribute to an interplay along with Miles that fulfills the cliché “more than the sum of its parts.” This album introduced Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” and the rendition of “Freedom Jazz Dance” ripples with attitude and insight. Not always easily accessible, but it is vivid, transcendent music.

 

16. Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia) – Weather Report

Full Weather

There was no way that this album wouldn’t make my list. It’s hard to listen to “Birdland” without feeling great happiness, and it’s difficult to listen to “A Remark You Made” without wondering if it is the closest approximation to heavenly beauty that is available in musical form. Jaco Pastorius plays electric base like an avatar from the Platonic realm of forms on “Teen Town,” and Zawinul’s keyboards sound like science fiction and magic. Drummers Acuna and Badrena provide crisp textures and propulsion. Wayne Shorter’s “Harlequin” is attractively surprising, and his “Palladium” shines like a funky new element. An unassailable and enduring classic.

 

17. Changes One (1975, Rhino) – Charles Mingus

Full Mingus

This album, along with its sibling recording Changes Two, showed how much acoustic jazz still had to offer well into the era of electronics and r&b music. Bassist and composer Mingus had the personality and musical genius of an angry titan, and all of his seriousness, provocation, and depth come through here. Piano player Don Pullen is particularly important in his role as a rich melodist and a champion in the use of targeted dissonance. The 17-minute “Sue’s Changes” (titled in honor of Mingus’s wife) is an adventure in jazz—swinging, snappy, chaotic, and moving, each in different sections. Georgie Adams is the tenor saxophonist who also sings a raspy vocal on “Devil Blues,” which craftily sends up the new-agey notions of the time with cynical imagery and mocking lyrics. The closer, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” eschews all tonal harshness and provides one of the most gentle and beautiful jazz lullabies that you will ever hear. This song is a Mingus original that weds melodic elements of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” with Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life.” Mingus was one of the most intelligent and complicated minds in music history.

 

18. A Love Supreme (1964, Impulse) – John Coltrane

Full Supreme

One of the most spiritual albums of all time, this music has been a guiding light of influence on generations of jazz and rock musicians alike. One section of the album is called “Pursuance,” and this term perfectly captures the sincere and yearning quality to the music. There are very few stylistic tricks or recognizable, jazzy contrivances here. It’s pure music that feels like the voyage of a lifetime. Coltrane, composer of all sections, plays the tenor saxophone, and the rhythm section supports his spiritual transits with perfect empathy and skill.

 

19. Don’t Ask (1979, Milestone) – Sonny Rollins

This album introduced me to Rollins’s incredible ability to play tenor saxophone along with the astounding guitar mastery of Larry Coryell. The opener “Harlem Boys” is a perfect jazz-funk opus—ready made for dancing and fully equipped to improve one’s spirits. Coryell’s “The File” is a street-smart vehicle for a duet with acoustic guitar and tenor sax. The song “Disco Monk” was apparently an inside joke/throwaway tune. For me, it’s pure platinum complete with tempo changes, varied instrumentation, a monster sax solo, and my favorite electric guitar solo in any genre. The closer “And Then My Love I Found You” is high-powered funk-jazz romanticism. My rejoinder to the album’s title is, “Just listen.”

 

20. Night Passage (1980, Columbia) – Weather Report

Only Joe Zawinul could blend strange synthesizers and things called “Dream Clock” with Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and obtain very formidable and coherent results. This Night Passage is a very intimate journey into the heartland of jazz via electronics and cosmic atmospheres. Wayne Shorter’s “Port of Entry” and Zawinul’s “Fast City” have a sense of mystery and action about them that always has me coming back for more. My favorite track here is Jaco Pastorius’s “Three Views of a Secret” (what a great title!)—the tune really builds and comes from different angles, and Shorter lays down a saxophone solo that seems to channel exactly the feeling that Jaco wanted to create. This is a very good recording by a master group of artists.

 

21. The Pat Metheny Group (1978, ECM)

Full Partial Metheny

Pat Metheny is certainly one of the most accomplished and successful musicians in the history of jazz. This album was the beginning of his phenomenal and always expanding career as a leader, and it introduced both his lyrical guitar style and his decidedly moving ability to take his listeners on a journey, song by song. The opener “San Lorenzo” sounds like a radiant and arresting place to visit, and the electric bass of Mark Egan never lets us forget how pretty that instrument can sound. This album is the opposite of avante-garde in a very good and powerfully creative way. The music is folk and country tinged while also having great mini-hooks and riffs, yet it is somehow squarely in the jazz tradition—because jazz’s tradition is to grow and constantly show that creativity and improvisation have limitless places to go.

 

 

New frontiers in Music

 

22. Spaces Revisited (1997, Shanachie) – Larry Coryell

Full Spaces

On the original recording Spaces in 1969, Larry Coryell teamed up with the gifted John McGlaughlin for a cosmic-themed guitar summit meeting. Here, Coryell and the drummer from that earlier session, Billy Cobham, reunite and explore new quadrants of the jazz galaxy with guitarist Bireli LaGrene and bassist Richard Bona. The set list is astoundingly well-chosen, featuring Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo,” Bonfa’s “The Morning of the Carnival,” and Thelonious Monk’s gem “Ruby, My Dear” among other notable selections. The instruments sound vibrantly fluid in the hands of these players, and the guitars hum with celestial beauty. This album is quite an effective way to examine the deep spaces of true jazz improvisation.

 

23. Tango: Zero Hour (Recorded 1986, Nonesuch) – Astor Piazzolla

This masterful recording is the culmination of years of writing and orchestration by Argentinean Tango music genius Astor Piazzolla. It is a revolutionary, jazz-inflected approach to Tango music, and Piazzolla’s group famously enlivens the music with intriguing bits of percussion and sound effects via unorthodox use of the instruments. Piazolla plays the bandoneon, a smaller alternate version of the accordion, and the electric guitar in the group contributes to the modernity of the group’s sound. Piazzolla is the writer of all tracks on the album, and the music is positively electrifying, particularly if one enjoys music that conveys a sense of intense romance and adventure.

 

24. Earfood (2008, EmArcy/Universal) – The Roy Hargrove Quintet

Opening with a stirring rendition of Cedar Walton’s “I’m Not So Sure,” this album maintains a high level of artistry throughout the proceedings. Hargrove’s trumpet has plenty of beauty and bite to it, and the supporting cast really cooks up some great flavors with him. Immerse yourself in “The Starmaker”—it’s a composition of unwonted beauty. “To Wisdom the Prize” has wonderful shades of Freddie Hubbard, and the final tune blows things out with a Sam Cooke classic.

 

25, Don’t Follow the Crowd (2011, High Note) – Eric Alexander

Full Crowd

Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist Harold Mabern are a very skilled duo when it comes to melodizing in the jazz context. This album incorporates uncommon items such as the theme from the 1960s movie Charade with Gordon Parks’s somber gem “Don’t Misunderstand.” Mabern’s piano playing is excellent on “Footsteps,” and the tune is reminiscent of some of the soulful, modern craftsmanship of Cannonball Adderley’s superb groups. I once saw Eric perform live at the Philadelphia Art Museum in the early 2000s, and his musical instincts are well-honed. This album is a 21st century illustration of how great acoustic jazz can be.

 

26. Highway Rider (2010, Nonesuch) – Brad Mehldau

This album by the brilliant pianist Mehldau makes use of a gifted set of string musicians and the very capable tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman to deliver some serious high-concept jazz. It is a double CD that runs the gamut between very listenable, melodic tunes and somewhat more bracing and exploratory sounds at times with an epic soundtrack feel to it. On disc one, “The Falcon Will Fly Again” conveys a sense of hope and revelry as hand-claps and vocal la-la-la’s help to bring the number home. My favorite is “Sky Turning Grey (for Elliott Smith)” in which Mehldau’s piano, Redman’s tenor, and the drummer get to cooking on one of the catchiest melodies I’ve ever come across. This is truly intelligent music that makes a strong statement.

 

27. Gerald Albright Live at Birdland West (1991, Atlantic)

Mr. Albright has quite a way with the saxophone—both tenor and alto. His performance on the Coltrane tune “Impressions” is very potent and catchy, and the album is an interesting blend of straight-ahead jazz with some touches of r&b, strings and some atmospheric synthesizers on a few of the cuts that work pretty well. The performance of “Georgia on My Mind” is rich in musical passion and bluesy warmth, featuring a captivating organ solo by Patrick Moten and Albright’s balladry on reeds. Patrice Rushen and Joe Sample are also heard to great effect on keyboards on a few of the selections, and Albright’s playing is very confident and listenable.

 

28. Sci-Fi (2000, Universal/Verve) – Christian McBride

Sci Fi cover

As a fan of both science fiction and great jazz, this album works quite well for me. Philadelphia’s Christian McBride is a superior musician on both the acoustic double bass and the various forms of electric bass. This album provides a stirring look at his interpretations of the music of Sting and Steely Dan while also proffering very catchy originals. Dianne Reeves contributes a distinctive wordless vocal on “Lullaby for a Ladybug,” and Christian’s bass solo and overall performance on Jaco’s tune “Havona” are absolutely breathtaking. To put it in chess terminology, Christian McBride is an international grandmaster of jazz.

 

29. Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Recorded 1980-2007, Doxy / EmArcy) – Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is an inspiring artist who embodies respect and appreciation for the music’s pioneering forerunners while he also proceeds boldly according to his own muse. These selections from a period of two and a half decades of Sonny’s work put forth music that is scintillating and magnetic. The classic ballad performances are lilting and accessible. The mid- to up-tempo originals are revelatory. “Best Wishes” is the opener that bursts with enthusiasm and drive, and “Blossom” struts some of Sonny’s best stuff on tenor saxophone with a Latin flavor and superb interplay with the talented Mark Soskin on piano. I consider myself lucky to have this kind of musical document of the Rollins magic during the second half of his great career.

 

30. Tokyo ‘96 (1998, ECM) – The Keith Jarrett Trio

This outstanding trio recording is also thoroughly accessible. It can be played for the enjoyment of a wide audience because Jarrett does not try to befuddle the listener with virtuosity and technique at the grand piano. The group understands each other, and their takes of these standard tunes make for very rewarding listening. It’s a classic acoustic piano trio that builds on the great tradition of masters such as Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Tommy Flanagan.

 

31. Tango & All That Jazz (2005, Kind of Blue)
The Pablo Ziegler Quintet w/ Stefon Harris

Tango and Jazz

The music is spontaneous and yet rich in ceremony—a festival of sound with impeccable precision. 19 years after performing on Tango Zero Hour with Astor Piazzolla, pianist Pablo Ziegler anchors his own group and introduces several brilliant original compositions on this album. Pablo also has a secret weapon in the person of brilliant vibraphonist Stefon Harris as a special guest. On the Piazzolla classic “Michelangelo ’70,” Harris plays my favorite vibraphone solo that I’ve ever heard on a record. The whole affair is expertly conducted, and the passion, reflection, and creativity displayed in this album deliver a superb musical experience.

 

A Note:

No list can ever capture all of the greatest music, so I’m simply giving some special and sometimes unfair attention to albums that have captured my interest and moved me. Jazz is a very collaborative and disciplined music, and yet it is also remarkable for its skyways of freedom. In this way it will always be an important part of American culture for me. Jazz is not a superior form of music over others—it is a certain way of doing things musically. This way, this path is always new to me, and I am thankful to all of the musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Cannonball Adderley, and Art Blakey who have served as champions and ambassadors of this art form.

 

A Few Other Notable Jazz Recordings:

Study in Brown (1955, Emarcy) – The Max Roach / Clifford Brown Quintet

Time Out (1959, Columbia) – The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Ellington At Newport (1956, Columbia) – Duke Ellington and his Orchestra

We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1961, Candid) – Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln and Coleman Hawkins

Perceptual (1999, Blue Note) – Brian Blade Fellowship

The Dynamic Duo: Jimmy & Wes (1966, Verve) – Wes Montgomery & Jimmy Smith

Wandering Moon (2000, Sony Music Distribution/Columbia) – Terence Blanchard

Destiny is Yours (1989, Steeple Chase) – The Billy Harper Quintet

People Time (1991, Verve) – Kenny Barron and Stan Getz

5 by Monk by 5 (1959, Riverside) – Thelonious Monk with Thad Jones

The Grand Wazoo (1973, Rykodisc) – Frank Zappa

Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967, Reprise)

The Individualism of Gil Evans (1965, Verve)