Category Archives: Not at all Writing Related

Monday Musings: In Defense of the Grateful Dead

Hi, my name is David, and I used to be a Deadhead.

Yep. I saw them some twenty-five or thirty times in my youth. I slept outside, on line in front of arenas, in order to get the best possible tickets to shows. I traveled to different venues during tours to see them multiple times. I learned to play lots and lots of their songs on guitar, and I knew which were Jerry tunes and which were Bobby tunes. (That was a thing. It related to who sang lead and, often, who wrote the song. Really, you don’t want to know.)

I was not as devoted a fan as many I knew, but I was pretty devoted. I had t-shirts, bandanas, lots and lots of records, even more tapes of live performances. It is possible – possible – that I got stoned a lot and listened to tape after tape after tape.

Gradually, during my graduate school days, my ardor for the group diminished. Eventually, I stopped listening to them almost entirely, my tastes shifting in a number of different directions. One or two of their studio albums remained in my listening rotation, but otherwise, I let them go.

When my oldest brother died a few years ago, he left behind a massive music collection that included several Dead disks, including some in what’s known as the “Dick’s Picks” collection. These are CD versions of those old concert tapes I listened to in college (curated by a guy named Dick Latvala). At least I think I listened to them. Did I mention that I might – might – have been stoned? Anyway, my other brother didn’t want the disks, and neither did Bill’s widow, so I took them. For more than two years they sat on my CD rack gathering dust, but finally, a few days ago, I took them out again and gave them a listen.

Here’s what I found:

Let’s start with the bad, because where the Dead are concerned, people often do. Yes, the vocals are shaky. Squeaky harmonies, flat melodies, the occasional forgotten lyric. Then again, the vocals are no worse than Dylan’s, or, frankly, Mick Jagger’s later live efforts. Not everyone can sound like the Eagles. And yes, the musicianship is sloppy at times. The Dead played a huge number of shows – well over two thousand. They rarely had hit records. They only broke into the top forty once, and that came late in their run, only a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. So they made their money by touring. And there were nights when, let’s say, their attention wandered. The spacey jams that were their hallmark sometimes spilled over into tunes that had no business being spacey. Guitar solos spiraled out of melodic control, band members went off in separate directions mid-song, and, on occasion, they fell into the trap of playing the same songs – especially encores – night after night, leaving the songs punchless and at best ordinary.

But there was good as well. Great even. At a time when most rock bands played the same songs – the same setlists – night in and night out, the Dead were remarkably eclectic. Part of the reason Deadheads like me went to so many shows and listened to all those concert tapes was that nearly every concert was different. We never knew what they would play, or what song might seque into another. Deadheads used to compare setlists the way naturalists compare wildlife sightings. Hearing a rare song, like finding a rare bird, was a true thrill.

And despite the aforementioned sloppiness, their musicianship could be truly stunning. The band’s sound revolved around Garcia’s guitar work which was, at times, spectacular. Jerry Garcia played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, appearing on not just rock albums, but also bluegrass, jazz, and country recordings. His pedal steel guitar work on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children” remains some of my favorite guitar playing of all time. His live solos, when he was on, were innovative, powerful, even mesmerizing. He did way too many drugs, and later in his life and career his health suffered, as did his performances. But if you’re interested in hearing what he was capable of doing, I would encourage you to listen to this (beware — the graphic spins slowly). And to this. The man could play.

Yes, the Dead were an acquired taste. But there was a reason they inspired such devotion and passion from their fans. They were imperfect – some nights they simply couldn’t be bothered to play a decent note. On other nights, though, they were utterly inspired. And at all times they were unlike any other band that has ever been. I’m glad to have their music back in my life.

Have a great week!

Photo Friday: Rain-fed Streams

Sometimes we take photos for the sake of art, other times to commemorate events – times with loved ones, special occasions, etc.

And on occasion we snap pictures simply to document something unusual. This week’s Friday Photos are of this last sort.

My brother and sister-in-law came to stay with us for a few days this week, and their visit coincided with soaking rains, thunderstorms, and flash flooding. These two streams, in the woods just below the top of the Cumberland Plateau, usually flow as trickles. By midsummer, they sometimes dry up entirely. Yesterday, they were torrents, their waters frothing, their roars filling the forest. The photos don’t do them justice. But I promised to get out with my camera every week. This week, this was the best I could do.

Enjoy! And have a great weekend!

Stream 2, by David B. Coe Stream 1, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Superbowl and the Reach of Sport

I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach.

Last summer, while Nancy and I were in Ireland, traveling and sightseeing before WorldCon, we discovered the Irish national sport. We had just reached the Midlands city of Birr and were getting a Guinness before dinner. (A lot of our sightseeing resulted in us seeing the inside of a pub…) While we were enjoying our stouts and chatting with the locals in the bar, we noticed that the game on the small, wall-mounted television was not anything we’d seen before.

Ireland’s national sport is not Gaelic football, as one might think, nor is it soccer. It is a sport called hurling, which, along with its sibling sport, played by women, called camogie (and actually that night we were watching a camogie match) has a history dating back approximataely four thousand years. As an organized sport it is some 800 years old.

Hurling/camogie is called by many the fastest game on grass. To the untrained American eye it appears to be a blend of lacrosse (it is played with a stick – the hurley – and a small hard ball – the sliotar) and Gaelic rules football (the pitch is set up much the same way, with goals and goalposts at either end). The action in hurling/camogie is breakneck and non-stop, the game is rough and dangerous, and the skill required of its players is mind-boggling. The wooden hurley ends in a flat blade on which players catch the sliotar and then cradle the ball as they run. Read that sentence again. The stick is bladed. There is no net in which to catch the ball as there is in lacrosse. Players catch and carry this hard, slightly rubbery ball on a slat of wood no bigger than the palm of one’s hand at the end of a stick 30 inches long.

Hurling/camogie is as fantastical as Quidditch, except it’s real. And, in Ireland, the fanfare surrounding the hurling championship is no less frenzied than that surrounding our Superbowl. Sure, there is less money involved. Companies don’t spend millions for a single advertisement during the match. But for the duration of that championship game, the nation slows down to watch. Other concerns are briefly set aside and a huge swath of the population is caught up in the immediacy of the moment.

This seems a good day (I’m writing this on Sunday) to reflect on the power of sport in culture. I am a huge sports fan. I love just about any sport, although, I will admit on this Superbowl Sunday, American football might well be my least favorite of all the major league sports, not just in the U.S., but anywhere (and not just because I’m a New York Giants fan). I much prefer baseball (even with all my complaints about the way it’s played today) and soccer and basketball and even hurling. I won’t take much time to explain why – I’m not looking for an argument. But I will say that I prefer games that rely more heavily on finesse and refined skills (like basketball and soccer and baseball) to the brute force of football. (Before you get on me for this, I fully acknowledge that players like Pat Mahomes and Raheem Mostert, Tyreek Hill and George Kittle have incredible skill and talent. But to my mind, as someone who has been watching for literally 50 years, the game itself is one that emphasizes brute power and violence.) And for all the talk about how exciting football is supposed to be, the ball is actually only in play for about 12 minutes per game (the figure is only 18 minutes for baseball, so I realize that I’m not being entirely consistent here).

That said, I will watch today’s game. Because it’s an Event, and even the commercials will be talked about for days to come. Because even the dullest sporting event can have moments of unbelievable excitement, suspense, and surprise. And not least because the vast majority of the rest of the country will be watching as well. That might seem like an odd reason – conformity for conformity’s sake. But we live in a country of 330 million people. We live in cities and tiny towns, blue states and red states, mansions and cramped apartments. We come from different nations, different religious backgrounds, different races, different gender identities. Even with the power of today’s media and popular culture and technology, how many experiences do we as a country actually share in real time?

The Superbowl is big business. It’s glitzy and crass and ridiculously over-hyped. I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach. Viewership of the game is actually on the wane, and still we can expect that close to 100 million Americans will watch tonight’s game. That is as significant and telling as it is insane.

So I’ll watch, tolerating the hype and the flash, hoping for an exciting game filled with twists and turns. I’ll marvel at Mahomes’s feathery touch  and Mostert’s ungodly agility. I’ll enjoy the big plays and get caught up in the inevitable controversies. I’ll even watch the commercials with interest. In other words, for this one evening, I’ll be a typical American. And I’m okay with that.

Photo Friday: Reflections (Also Not the Last of the Year…)

Anyone who is familiar with my photography knows that I love to play with reflections: the imperfect rendering of a sky or mountain or forest on the surface of a lake, the echo of coastal cloud formations in wet sand.

This week a friend and I went birdwatching on some farmland not far from our little town. The distant fields were filled with Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese, their calls echoing, flocks coming and going in loose formations. It was great seeing the birds, but I was taken with the reflections of the sky and trees in the farm ponds on either side of the road. I snapped a bunch of photos. These were among my favorites.

I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you a wonderful weekend.

Farm Pond Reflection, by David B. Coe Twilight Pond Reflection, by David B. Coe

 

Photo Friday: A Walk Around Town

Today’s photos come via my phone rather than my big SLR. I took a walk around town the other day, enjoying the late afternoon light. I wound up at Lake Cheston, a local spot I go to often this time of year for birdwatching and for the reflections, which, on a calm day, can be magical.

Not much more to say other than that. Except that I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, filled with unexpected pleasures and moments of reflection.

"Winter Reflections I, Lake Cheston, Sewanee," by David B. Coe "Winter Reflections II, Lake Cheston, Sewanee," by David B. Coe

The South Australia Coast — Photo Friday

Good morning and welcome to the first installment of Photography Fridays, my new 2020 blogging feature. The point of this is to share with you my passion for photography, which is nearly as strong as my passion for writing. I also hope the feature will encourage me to get out and use my camera even more than I already do.

Today, though, I begin with a few photos I took during my family’s recent trip to Australia. We lived Down Under for a full year back in 2005-06, and returned there late this fall to see our younger daughter, who was completing a semester abroad in the Brisbane area. After joining up with her, we traveled to Adelaide in the state of South Australia, and drove out to Innes National Park, at the very end of the Yorke Peninsula (our route altered by fire-related road closures).

Innes is an amazing place. It includes some of the most dramatic coastal terrain I’ve ever seen. It’s a haven for kangaroos as well as emus and scores of other bird species. It has also been, over the past century and a half, the scene of dozens of shipwrecks, the remains of which still lie on beaches and reefs around the park. The surf was stunning while we were there – huge waves crashing down on rocky shores and sending plumes of foam and spray thirty-plus feet into the air. The water was deep blue and amazingly clear, the cliffs a palette of warm earth tones. And yet, I found that my favorite images worked best in black in white – stunning contrasts of light and dark, of patterns and textures and shapes. Here are three. I hope you enjoy them.

"View From Cape Spencer" by David B. Coe "Water and Sky -- Innes Coast" by David B. Coe "Innes Coast Breaker" by David B. Coe

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2020

Happy New Year!

I wish all of you a 2020 filled with joy and laughter, good health and good fun, lots of love and friendship. I also want to thank you for your continued support of my work. It means more to me than I can say.

I wanted to let you know about something new that I’ll be starting this year. Or, in a way, something old that I’ll be restarting. I have neglected my blog for the past several years, as blogging has gone from “THE THING that writers do” to “a thing that many writers used to do.” To be honest, I miss blogging, and with the projects I have on tap for this year, many of which may wind up with smaller presses or even — gasp — self-published, I want to re-establish my online connection to readers.

So, I will be posting regularly (or as regularly as proves possible and feasible) throughout the year, aiming for three posts per week. Mondays will feature general posts — musings on work, or life, or music, or sports, or (if I dare) politics, or whatever else happens to catch my interest. Monday Musings, if you will. We’ll see if the name sticks…

Each Wednesday, I will post a writing tip — craft, business, whinging, whatever. Writerly Wednesdays. Or not. We’ll see about that name, too. But I promise that the content will be geared toward writers of different levels. I will be open to suggestions as to subject — more on that as the year progresses. I can tell you, though, that some of the Wednesday posts will be basic, others more advanced. All, I hope, will be informative and helpful.

And finally, Fridays… As many of you know, I am a dedicated amateur photographer. I love capturing images almost as much as I love writing. And for a while now, I have been looking for some way to motivate myself to be more intentional about taking photos. I tend to use my camera extensively when I travel, but when I’m home, I allow work and other day-to-day stuff to get in the way. So, as a way of forcing myself to use my camera more, I will be posting a new image every week (after this coming Friday, which will likely include an image from my recent trip to Australia). Photography Fridays. Maybe. I suck at naming stuff…

Anyway, that’s the plan. Musings on Mondays, Writing Tips on Wednesdays, Photos on Fridays. I hope that you’ll keep up with my posts and enjoy my renewed dedication to blogging.

Again, Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.

— David

For Melanie

Which brings me to today’s Quick-Tip. It’s a terrible cliché, but clichés arise because on some level they convey an essential truth. As much as I would encourage you to write, to devote yourself to improving your craft and following your ambitions, today I want you to do the opposite. Put away your computer, your writing pad, your pen. Kiss the person you love — not a peck; kiss with passion.

Today’s post on Magical Words — a Quick-Tip post of a different sort — is for my friend Melanie Otto, who was taken from us far too soon.

Read it, share it with someone you love, please take it to heart.

We live in a time of division, of conflict, even of hate. Let’s try something a little different today. For Melanie.

The post is here.

Wikileaks, Bernie, and the DNC

To all my friends who are Bernie supporters:

Please forgive me if I don’t share your outrage at the DNC emails made available by Wikileaks. Bernie was running an insurgency campaign; he joined the party for that express purpose after having been an Independent throughout his entire career. He criticized the party’s rules, he questioned the integrity of the party’s leaders, he railed against the party itself, claiming that it perpetuated a corrupt political system. Anyone who is surprised to learn that DNC officials favored Hillary Clinton either wasn’t paying attention or is spectacularly naïve. OF COURSE they favored her.

That doesn’t change the fact that Hillary received more votes than Bernie — than any other candidate running in either parties’ primaries. It doesn’t change the fact that she will be our nominee against a man so divisive, so uninformed, so egotistical as to be completely unfit for the office.

But I’ll tell you want this episode does do: It demonstrates the underlying worthlessness of all those polls that purported to show Bernie running stronger against Trump. Why? Because such polls don’t take into account all the GOP attacks that would have been leveled at him the moment he became the nominee. Hillary has been taking fire from the right for a quarter century. She has been called a murderer, a traitor, an agent of genocide (seriously). Over the years, conservatives and rabid Clinton-haters have questioned everything from her sexuality to her fitness as a mother. And she just soldiers on.

These emails that have Bernie’s supporters in such an uproar are something out of a high school class officers election. They’re nothing compared to what the Republican attack machine would gin up in the first week of a general election campaign. If this is enough to get Bernie supporters’ panties in a wad, think of what those real attacks would do. His campaign would wilt in no time. He’d be crushed.

We Americans love to hate politicians. They’re crooks, they’re liars, they’re driven by ego, they’re all in it for themselves. And a lot of that may be true. But it’s not a job I’d want. Politicians put up with grueling, cruel campaigns, putting themselves and their pride on the line every day. And ultimately they do it for a chance to serve the public — sometimes well, sometimes poorly — as our elected leaders. They have learned that sometimes they have to compromise their ideals for the greater good. They have learned that in an imperfect world, sometimes getting some of what they want is better than getting none, or worse, getting the antithesis. One need only look as far as Donald Trump to see the dangers in rejecting politicians for some other electoral solution.

Bernie Sanders, for all his progressive ideals and plain-spoken charm, is a politician. He’s not going to #Disavow because of this matter. He knows that when the alternative is Donald Trump, we can’t afford to let ideological purity or bruised ego obscure the big picture. Bernie, unlike many of his most ardent supporters, gets this.

Were the DNC emails revealed by Wikileaks disturbing? Yeah, sure. Do they reveal bias on the part of some in the party? Absolutely. Should anyone be surprised by this? No. Does it mean that those of us who voted for Hillary should now have our votes discounted? Of course not. She won the nomination; nothing revealed in the last 24 hours changes that. And she must win in November, because the alternative is unthinkable.

Guitar in the Evening

So, I’ve started giving guitar lessons to my younger daughter. She loves music, she sings beautifully, and she’s a talented writer and poet. I think that if she can learn guitar, she’ll start writing songs, which will give her an outlet for dealing with some of the stuff that comes with being 15.

We only started this week, and she’s just learning basic chords, while at the same time nursing sore finger tips on her fret hand. But we work on it a little bit each night before she goes off to sleep, and I have to say that it has been a wonderful way to end these past few days. Looking forward to tonight’s lesson.