Saturday, December 23, 2006

Not With A Bang, Nor A Winter 



Family, finally.


Emotively speaking, the middle school holiday break begins midweek, somewhere between the multifaith and snowman-heavy decor and the calendar's end.

By Friday morning, the kids are a mess, and so are we. Learning has gone out the window, to be replaced by so much sugar it's not even funny. In my case, this meant cookies, gummi bears, and enough chocolate covered goodies to overload the nervous system. At 7:40 in the morning. After the usual six cups of coffee.

Of course, you just have to have one of everything, lest some kid feel left out. Not even the gift of a half dozen buttery, smooth pierogi, boldly requested in compensatory jest from the kid who took Thursday off from school to make 'em with his family, could take the edge off the sugar high.

By midmorning I'm practically hallucinating. I've given my morning lab classes the option of free play on the computer; the best and brightest choose to make holiday cards, or fiddle with the snowflake-maker courtesy of my mother in law, but most play mini golf while they munch on their cookies. The rest flail around the classroom, hurling gift wrap at each other, laughing uproariously while I make snide comments that keep them -- barely -- on this side of appropriate behavior.

I save the last few minutes of each class for a comprehensive crumb-cleaning and lab shutdown, finish my own classes by ten thirty, spend the afternoon wandering the halls, wideeyed and jittery. The kids are in their teams, watching holiday films; most won't finish, but the point is to be eye-glued to the screen, given the potential for havoc. Their teachers look frazzled after their own morning of containment. Their classrooms are clean, and ready for a holiday break floorwash in their absence.

By 2:15, I'm on the road, surprisingly relaxed, ready for a long winter's break. No snow in the forecast this year, but the rain begins as I crest the mountain. It hardly makes a dent in my serentity.

Back home, the kids are charging around the house like angels, pantless and gleeful. Elderchild and I present mama with her gift: some rose-scented bath lotion, the plaque above, and a commitment to moving the bedtime ritual into our mutual corner, that mama might have more time this year. The wee one throws cotton snow from window display to couch; everyone smiles, and no one asks her to stop.

We light candles, trade a last night of Channukah gifts, eat fresh challah warm from the oven. Darcie calls some old friends, making plans for a New Year's in our old prep school haunting grounds. The air is full of holiday shufflesounds. By nine, I'm asleep beside the elderchild, wiped out from a whole year's worth of bustle.

Holiday, here we come.

posted by boyhowdy | 11:47 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In Short 

Pre-holiday Wednesday is a bit like the bitter, poisonous taste of biting into an orange rind -- you can take it, even as your lips grow numb and itchy, because there, unfolding before you, is the Fruit, leaking onto your hand.

I was going to write more, but now it seems unnecessary.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:26 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Unca Jesse! 



My little brother and his nieces frolicking over the holiday weekend. They grow up so fast, don't they?

posted by boyhowdy | 10:59 PM | 1 comments


Back To Appalachia 



Oh, one of those: an appalachian dulcimer


Hanukkah was a rush this year, as always but moreso, a perennial crunch of eight days into concentrate made both necessary by our family's inevitable diaspora. In eight hours or less, a whirlwind of eventhood: lunch with my brother, our spouses, or father, my children; a rush back and forth in various combinations to get the right people in the right places to prep for the party, and to pick up my brother's car in the shop.

By six, we were singing songs around a dozen menorahs with my parent's oldest friends, now joined at the kitchen island by their own grown children holding children of our own. By seven, the family left behind was deep in a gift exchange, the kids burning off the evening's sugar rush rapidly among a blizzard of bright orange toys and wrapping paper snow.

By the time we arrived home, it was past ten. The kids had fallen asleep miles back to the story of the Maccabees, the lullabye rush of the holiday traffic on the turnpike; Darcie put them in their beds, and stayed up to clean and read a bit.

And instead of heading right for the computer, I used the sudden, rare silence to take out this year's present from mom: a dulcimer, in cherrywood.

The perfect instrument for the mellow and melancholy. Sure enough, I spent an hour in the firelight, faking my way through the Sufjan Stevens Christmas songbook.

Since then, I've managed to sneak in a few moments here and there, away from grubby fingers and eager minds unused to fragility. And, after wanting one for years, I'm pretty happy.

The dulcimer sounds a little like a banjo, and a little like one of those autoharp things that were popular when your mother was a hippie. You've probably heard it on a bunch of old Joni Mitchell songs without realizing it -- though it's much easier to play.

Want proof? Less than two hours total, and I can play the full set of blues chords, but more than that, after years of flute, I can find the intervals in the music, play melody and twang-harmony alike. I've mastered a dozen songs, and can play them at speed, and all without having to run through the usual gradated boringness that is the learner's workbook.

And thank goodness. Because it did come with a book, like instruments do. And, typically, the book is called You Can Teach Yourself Dulcimer. Which is the dumbest name for anything, really, because either it's true, in which case what do I need a book for? Or it's not, in which case maybe this isn't going to be the best book to start with, seeing as how they don't think you need one.

Also, the picture on the cover isn't promising. It depicts a guy wearing a dorky vest and a tall, blackbrimmed, turn-of-the-century hat. He seems to be working at some sort of faux-authentic outdoor museum; all around, perfectly normal children pull at their equally normal parent’s hands, point and laugh and this poor goofy-smiled guy who...well, darned if he doesn’t look just like me, beard and all.

I've decided I don't need the book. I can be me better at home than I can in a crowd of overcharged gawkers. No, it's enough to play along with the radio, and with the songs in my head, and finally and so rapidly be an agent of the full, chorded sound that fills my universe. And to be given such peace, such autonomous peace, out of the midst of such chaos. Thanks, Mom. It's what I've always wanted.

posted by boyhowdy | 7:05 PM | 0 comments

Friday, December 15, 2006

Home Sick 

Sinuses strained and fever at 101. An earache, a swollen backache, and -- since the coffee pot seems to have blown a fuse -- a headache growing behind my eyes. Last night I passed out on the couch in my winter coat, slept for three hours, and staggered upstairs to toss and turn until 4.

Not much of a way to end the week, what with the elderkid performing tonight in her preschool holiday show, tomorrow's hanukkah party at Mom's. But what goes around, comes around, and this one's been going around.

posted by boyhowdy | 11:53 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, December 09, 2006

O Come, All Ye Faithful 

It's coming on Christmas, and up on the ridge the family farms sell cut-your-owns to send their kids to college. Ours consumes the living room, though we took it off four feet up to clear the ceiling; five hundred tiny lights and a wife's lifetime of ornaments spread sparse against the tapered balsam.

Tonight was meant to be a full-fledged traditional Christmas with the intimates, all four parents, their only grandkids, our longsettled selves. Darcie made a duck and all the trimmings: beets, stuffed game hens, a cheese and a balsam reduction, three sorts of sauce, and for an hour or three the house was just full enough, almost comfortable.

The intention was to follow this with a true turn-of-the-century Christmas, complete with roasted chestnuts and a host of recreated otherthings for the reenactment fan at Sturbridge Village. But tiny Cassia's cold made her too cranky to drag into the stilldry winter, so Dad and I stayed home to drink endless tiny cups of imaginary tea in front of the unattended television. By the time her bedtime had come and gone, so had Dad; all that was left was to bathe the fogheaded child, and wait for mama.

Tomorrow the elderchild will play Mary in our Church pageant. Smalltown Unitarian being what it is, there's been no rehearsal; Joseph will be played by the minster's child; between them they make up half the kids in the congregation. She was encouraged to dress up as anything she likes, "from fairy to lobster"; Darcie being what she is, there's sure to be a costume hanging in a closet somewhere already.

For most of my life Christmas was a cultural thing, everywhere but here; of the public sphere, and faintly imagined in other people's houses. Our Jewish lot brought presents, and the lights were bright, too.

Somewhere in those years I fell in love with someone who loves Christmas, and ceremony, and peace on earth. Christmas came into my house, and nestled in me.

I was thinking about Christmas songs the other day, and I finally realized something: what I love so much about Christmas has always been the way the music is something we all share in common; how with universal song we can belt our joy out together, and do; how it brings the world a little closer every year, if only for these darker days.

There's little else so powerful, and so sustained, in this world.

Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Pagan, let us celebrate together anything at all, so long as it can bring smiles of familiarity and memories of gingerbread to even strangers. Merry Christmas, everyone. God bless us, every one.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:39 PM | 1 comments

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Top Songs of 2006 

After a handwringing elimination process, this year's top ten songlist runs the gamut from brazilian hiphop to americana, from emocore to indiecool.

It also contains eleven songs, because I just couldn't winnow the list down any further without going into full-blown OCD mode. And five covers, for which I make no apologies.

Eligibility requires a 2006 release date. All songs are downloadable.* Enjoy.
*to download a song, merely click the songtitle as you would any link, and you'll be directed to the Yousendit page for downloading.



10. (tie)
When Doves Cry
The Be Good Tanyas (site)

Mountains O' Things
The Duhks (site)

Two Canadian bands with female vocalists from opposite ends of the trad-alt-folk spectrum cover black American songwriter hits from the mid eighties. Exceptionally well. With banjo.

Ironically, though their playing styles are disparate, the originals were conversely so. The rough backporch plucking of Doves reframes the beatperfection of Prince's original; the crisp, bright acadian-rock turn of Mountains brings the distance of a greek chorus to folkie Chapman's raw, plaintive lament. And so on.


9.
Upside Down
Jack Johnson (site)

Okay, it's from a kids movie, and I can't help visualizing an animated Curious George painting handprints on an elephant's butt at the end, but I'd like to think that even if this weren't my daughter's favorite song, I'd still appeciate the sheer childlike joy of this and the better half of this year's soundtrack. More full than some of this ex-surfer's previous efforts, and less storytold, but for me this finally pulls together all the elements in one from Johnson. Who knew the jungle drums and the bounce of the animated flick were just what that distinctive strumstyle needed?


8.
Summersong
The Decemberists (site)

Recent release The Crane Wife is still growing on me, but this song stands out, and not just for a production value that finally showcases that quirky, nasal lead as powerfully distinctive, rather than just plain awesomely weird. I still have no idea what this song is really about -- there seems to be some eastasian fairytale backstory -- but the catchy universality of getting swallowed by a whale quietly sticks like gravy in the mind. And oh, those crashing accordian choruses like waves.


7.
Handle With Care
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins w/ Ben Gibbard, M. Ward, and Conor Oberst (site)

Finally, a song that pretends to be nothing more than a fun wheeze almost accidentally transforms a chestnut into one of the catchiest songs this side of January. The original supergrouping from which sprung this poppy hit featured distinctive voices from Orbison to Petty, and Lewis plays the song true to form, bringing in the next generation of Traveling Wilburys with great success, proving once again that the best covers bring new light and life to even the cheesiest of originals.


6.
Heart of Life
John Mayer (site)

Me and a billion twentysomething housewives, I know. But I'm not in it for the top forty hits. There's something about John's simplest songs, the way they capture inner adolescence so perfectly, the sheer joy of hope, the claptonesque guitar, the boy genius. Heart of Life rivals Daughters on my sentimental playlist, and that's saying something, since my first daughter was born when that one first came out. And, hey, Dave Chapelle thinks he's cool.


5.
Mas Que Nada, Sergio Mendes featuring Will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas (site)

Everybody's collaboratin' across the genre line these days. Sometimes it even works (see number 3 below, for example). This hiphop samba, featuring the always askew Black Eyed Peas over tradlatin beatmaster Sergio Mendes, is so crisp it teeters on the good side of overproduced, but that's half its charm. The other half is the universally stellar, almost disparate performances. The mix is clean, the players rock, and the whole is better than the parts -- what more could you want? Who knew the samba was so deep?


4.
Tonight We'll Be Fine
Teddy Thompson (site)

Another cover, this one by an avowed addict with a voice and style that transcend his pedigree (say what you will about Richard Thompson's songwriting; his voice really isn't my cup of tea, and nor is Bob Dylan's voice). Originally performed live in 2004 for this year's tribute flick to Leonard Cohen, this plaintive reworking rivals the best of Teddy's album work -- a nice turn from the oft-cheesy coversongs so often cluttering up the soundtrack racks. Thanks to Dad for turning me on to Teddy.


3.
Crazy
Gnarls Barkley (site)

It was tempting to pick the throttled rage of Ray lamontagne's cover, or perhaps Nelly Furtado's scared little-girl lisp. But the success of the covers only demonstrates just how universal the sentiment, how plastic the motif of insanity. In the end the original reigns supreme: from the phat beats and funky bass jumpstart to the raspy vocals of out-of-nowhere Cee-lo, this one had earworm all over it, and I'm always grinning-glad to see it rise from the shufflechaff.

Incidentally, major props to me for introducing dozens of middle schoolers to this song long before it hit the summer beach boombox crowd. Thanks, blogosphere, for setting me in the groove.


2.
Paperweight
Joshua Radin and Schuyler Fisk (site)

Joshua Radin was kind of a dark horse for me this year; it was September, I had never heard of him, and then, within a week,
  • this song popped out of nowhere
  • someone passed me a live cover of Yaz's Only You
  • his originals turned out to be universally quiet and catchy
  • I fell in love.

A quiet gem off The Last Kiss soundtrack, Paperweight's poetry was supposedly written the night before it was recorded, and I believe it; musically and lyrically, it is one of those perfect, raw, sparse songs that come out whole cloth on those rarest of inspirational nights long past bedtime. We hear Zach Braff's second film is no Garden State, but this song makes it all worthwhile. No idea who Schuyler Fisk is, incidentally, but it's her lyrics that rock.


1.
World Spins Madly On
The Weepies (site)

A nightsong about waking, a mystical spinner about motionlessness and impotent loss: sweetness and light from a harmonic pair of solo-folkies-gone-indieband that took the blogging world by storm this year. Talk about earworms; according to iTunes, I've listened to this song over 120 times since downloading it in April. My daughter knows all the words; she's fallen asleep to it, once or twice, in my arms on the couch, when Mama was out.

I cry to this song sometimes, in the dark.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:30 PM | 4 comments

Monday, December 04, 2006

Towards A Top Ten 

Finally managed to pare down to a clean top ten songs of 2006 list, though it hurt to make those last few cuts. Thanks to those who sent along suggestions. Honorable mention, in no particular order:
  • Roll On, Little Willies
  • Manifest Destiny, Guster
  • Cell Phone's Dead, Beck
  • Little Sadie, Crooked Still
  • Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol
  • The Needle has Landed, Neko Case
  • Thirteen, Ben Kweller
  • The Heart of Saturday Night, Madeleine Peyroux
  • Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, Flaming Lips
  • Springtime Can Kill You, Jolie Holland
  • Blue as You, Shawn Mullins
  • My Strange Nation, Susan Werner
  • Heist, Ben Folds
  • Waiting, Glen Philips

Thanks to the wonders of Yousendit, the final top ten songs will be available in mp3 form. Give me a day or two to upload everything, and I'll have an early holiday present for you and yours up before you know it.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:27 PM | 1 comments

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Tracking Tuneage: Towards a 2006 Top Ten 

Been trying to make a top ten songlist for the year, but the pickins are slim. Plenty of albums by great musicians this year just never stuck a track in my ear. Ray Lamontagne's new album? Eh. Madeline Peyroux? Neko Case? Good, but nothing quite so catchy as their last few. Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springstein and a house full of banjo players? Worth having for posterity's sake, but not worth featuring.

More frustrating, I find to my chagrin that much of the music I discovered since January was actually released in 2005. Feist's Mushaboom, Jose Gonzales' Heartbeats, an amazing half an album by Teddy Thompson, even the newest Death Cab For Cutie singles first showed up a year ago or more. So much of my overplayed 2006 favorites have been out for ages, there's little competition for the top spots.

Makes you wonder what's out there already, just waiting to be loved.

I'll post full mp3s once I've finished the list. In the meantime, since it would embarrasing to end up with a top ten list with only nine items on it, feel free to drop me a comment with any must-have suggestions I might have missed. And don't be afraid to point out the obvious. I don't get out much.

posted by boyhowdy | 6:25 PM | 3 comments

Friday, December 01, 2006

Marlboro Lights, Part 2
What were the students like during your time there? 

Bring the second in a series of interview questions for old collegiate co-conspirator and amateur historian Shaw.

What were the students like? Not one was like the next; each was a busted stereotype in and of himself. Find commonnality between the ruralmaine carpenter down the hall, his classically trained homosexual roommate, my quiet ex-Deadhead athelete of a roommate and the RA huddled next door studying the TV Dinner culture of the american fifties? Typifying them is night impossible, Shaw; even on the smallest scale, your second question is a null set.

True, the small group I drifted towards were primarily older students, back at school again after a few semesters and a few more soulsearching. If we were all anything, it was that we were more defined than eighteen year olds, and perhaps that was why, in the end, I find them a pack of remembered individuals, rather than a group to explain.

As underclassmen, however, we were framed together by our similar status. We lived as classmates and co-explorers more than anything else -- strange bedfellows, all, sharing co-ed bathrooms and party basements thick with smoke and life. The upperclassmen were half invisible, barely present. Even those who did not live off campus were wraithlike in the social world, focused on plan and higher order questions.

By the time we became those upperclassmen, of course, what had once felt defined was now just overfocused. The reason upper classmen were invisible was that they spent much of their time in solo pursuit of The Plan, a solitary and anticommunity activity of the mind.

When we met in those last years it was more to talk crosspurposes at each other, using each other as objects and soundboards for our own necessarily one-track minds, trains passing in the night, and I appreciated how bright, how different we were then, because is validated our own unique pursuits while simultaneously offering of and in each other the one totally new perspective, however off track, that we would have in a month of single-question thought. If we started as individuals in type, we ended up individuals in mind.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:50 PM | 1 comments

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tidbit Thursday: Yet Another Damn Sonnet 

Tonight the moon looks like an ear
Silver and pocked behind strands of cloud.

It's been warm, but it was cold before.
The chrysalis that never hatched
Turned black, transparent, glittery, dull,

A shriveled fruit among the strawberry plants,
The unmistakable orange marks of a monarch
Just visible through its dark walls.

It's snowing tonight where my sister lives.
But it's warm here, and damp in the air.

We'll hide the chrysalis from the children
passively, leave it there, dead
among the browning leaves and dark.

Quiet. The moon is listening.

posted by boyhowdy | 8:49 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Marlboro Lights
Question 1: Why did you choose Marlboro? 

As part of his ongoing obsession with all things Marlboro, old college chum Shaw is interviewing me via email. I'll be posting my responses here as I can get to them. Got no time for othermusing anyway.


We were living together off and on for a couple of years by then, most recently in a shared Somerville, MA apartment under the world largest willow tree. My fellowship at the Museum of Science was coming to an end, and the time felt right to go back to college.

But I also knew that most educational models didn't work for me. You've seen me in the classroom, Shaw -- I'm a bright guy, but I really need to be engaged with the material in order to get much out of it. And I got lost in those long, inevitable hours of background and knowledge that spun out time eternally between every subjectively resonant image, every mind-altering epiphany, in a classroom. It wasn't just a need for small class size, I also needed an environment where everything I was asked to do was, ultimately, something I asked myself to do.

Thank God Marlboro was that place.

I mean, sure, I was in a different place, too. When Darcie and I had dropped out of Bard together halfway through our Sophomore year, it was partially because the only thing we were really getting out the place was each other. Since then, my time as a public programs and school programs fellow at the Museum of Science had taught me that I had some mad skills, but more than that, it gave me a real curiosity about the relationship between the content of our presentations and the mass media models which lurked behind us, audience and presenter alike, and the way this shared awareness of narrative modes framed the ways we developed our demonstrations.

'course, I couldn't have said it like that at the time. That's what Marlboro was for.

Why did I choose Marlboro? Because it was ten miles up the hill from Darcie's parent's house. And Darcie had decided to move back home. And I needed one myself. And Marlboro was perfect.

posted by boyhowdy | 11:02 PM | 1 comments


Busy, Busy, Busy 

No time to chat today; I'm busy creating a presentation on the state of technology at my middleschool workplace for tomorrow's PTO Tech Committee meeting.

I'll pop back in sometime soon, and you can hear all about how I backed into my mother's car pulling out of the garage. I promise.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:37 PM | 0 comments

Monday, November 27, 2006

Draftpoetry: November Sonnet 

Here's a little draftsonnet fluff from an hour's respite, typed directly into Blogger while the kids watch A Muppet Christmas Carol.


November

Some mornings the fog rests over
the city like snow in a hollow.

A barely sealevel something
must trap the air, the humidity,
something about heat convection

and I wonder whether it evaporates or rises
or if the city just sucks it up somehow
in the collective gasp of awakening.

The rest of the world is tilted green.
There's just that downhill strip of road
Cutting through the farmland

And Springfield in the distance
Poking through her fogblanket
Like Spring rising from the earth.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:25 PM | 0 comments
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