About unlikelyprofessor

Now in my mid-40s, I've been teaching in some respect since I was 18 years old. I now teach history classes at 2- and 4-year colleges, have retired from a 25-year career in rock bands, have 2 kids born 11 years apart, love to read sci-fi, ride motorcycles whenever I can, and am saving up to buy my first house.

the Richmond Times-Dispatch ends candidate endorsements … for now

Ending the endorsements of political candidates in every election cycle is an interesting move on the part of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Their endorsements have never meant much to me – after all, they always endorsed the Republican, I hate the two-party system, so why would it matter?  (here’s the column by Tom Silvestri, president/publisher of the RTD)

In 2016 the RTD endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. They didn’t do it for any high-minded ideals (pun intended!), but rather because they were never going to endorse Hillary Clinton and they couldn’t bear to endorse Donald Trump. They felt like they had to endorse somebody because that’s the way it had always been done.  They even said Johnson could be a viable candidate if only people would give him a chance – which they have refused to do for other Libertarian candidates in the last two years. Indeed, Libertarian candidates are consistently left out of debates and media coverage by outlets both major and minor, including the RTD.

What the Richmond Times-Dispatch should have done was endorse nobody, and explained why. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you MUST do something.

Now, to another of Silvestri’s points, that they’re ending endorsements because it’s too difficult to explain the difference between the Editorial department and the News department in a newspaper, and to create an understanding that the News department can (and does) run opinion pieces that aren’t straight news.

I agree with Silvestri that this can be difficult, and one of the commenters even quipped that the Johnson endorsement caused him to cancel his subscription. There is clearly a disconnect between opinion and news is this country, with people – including many on Facebook and other social media outlets – conflating opinion with news.

When you can have pure opinion, news-based opinion, opinion-based news and straight news all in one publication, it can indeed be confusing to the casual reader. This is one of the greatest problems our society faces in the 21st century – we have become casual consumers of everything and as a result, we stubbornly refuse to put much thought into what we’re reading, watching or saying. Parroting the party line or screaming “fake news!” at every opportunity does nothing to further the discourse that drives our political system.

People forget that democracy, for better or worse, is less than 300 years old. It is still a fledgling system, and a difficult one to maintain at that. There will be ups and downs, highs and lows, bonuses and deficits, all to the benefit or detriment of much of the population.

Refusing to engage – as the RTD is saying it’s going to do in the future here – is abdicating one’s moral responsibility to the republic. That’s on us, the citizenship of the United States of America – every last one of us.

Frankly, doing something just because it’s always been done is the #1 stupidest reason to do something. If you’re not doing something because that’s what needs to be done, stop doing it. Traditions are worthless, because all they do is tie you to a past that may not be worth repeating or frankly, even remembering.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” The RTD’s Johnson endorsement in 2016 cause an identity crisis on many sides. Internally, I’m sure they struggled with it. Externally, the readership that had come to expect de rigueur endorsements of Republicans found themselves stunned at the change they saw before them, perhaps unable to process what had just happened.

Our society’s greatest problem right now is its utter inflexibility, the refusal of so many to even consider an alternate idea, opinion, practice or process. Think about it – if Copernicus had simply gone along, we’d have never accepted the idea that the Sun – and not the Earth – is the center of our solar system.

Finally, should newspapers even be printing opinion pieces at all?  Is it their job – their responsibility – to tell me how they think I should be voting?  Or is it their job to gather the facts, express them in a clear, concise fashion, and let me come up with my own reasons for voting for this candidate or that one.

One of the reasons so many people trash reporters and cry about this or that being “fake news” is because of the high opinion-to-fact ratio present in much of modern mainstream journalism. The difference between news and opinion has largely become obscured to the point of pointlessness. When opinion is mistaken for news, the result is what kids today refer to as “butthurt” – that is, a great sense of offense at the words being printed or spoken.  When news is mistaken for opinion, facts cease to matter and there is no viable path to Truth.

I wish I could solve this last problem with the snap of my fingers or the wave of a magic wand.  I know that is unrealistic, and especially so as long as some among us steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that their opinions are not fact and continue to refuse to regard the opinions of others as having any validity at all.

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some things we need to work on

A particularly unpleasant exchange on Facebook prompted me to write this. Stay with me, I think it’s important.

Calling somebody a pussy needs to stop being a go-to insult aimed at emasculating somebody. As we all know, pussy is a slang term for vagina, and it’s used in context to indicate your impression that the object of your derision is somehow weak, feminine and unworthy of your respect.

In all seriousness, if you want to see the strength and power of a pussy, watch a child being born. You will have a new and heightened respect for how powerful a pussy is. In a problem birth, instead of failing, the pussy holds strong, and sometimes the skin around it will tear. That’s how strong the pussy is – it forces other aspects of the body to fail because it refuses to fail itself.

If you call me a pussy, then, I refuse to feel weak. I will feel powerful. I will feel strong. I will feel resilient. Birthing a child is something no man can do, and it is the single most powerful expression of humanity there is.

Serving in the military does not make you a better person than I am. Holding a commission doesn’t make you smarter than I am.  Enlisting doesn’t make you more patriotic than I am. Being willing to kill somebody our government has decided is our collective enemy doesn’t make you more willing to kill than I am – it just means you got paid to do it by the government.

Serving in the military does not automatically make you a hero, nor does it automatically engender respect. You must still serve honorably to be respected for your time in uniform. You must behave heroically to be a hero. There are actual heroes in this world who have never served a day in uniform, and there are those who gave their lives for their country. Every country has heroes, dead and alive, and it’s not stripes on their sleeves or insignia on their collars that made them such.

I was part of a military family for 17 of my first 18 years. I grew up on military bases all over the USA and Europe. I have seen heroes and I have seen goldbricks, and I tell you this – there are way more goldbricks than there are heroes in the military forces of any nation. I have met men and women who, under orders and compelled by our government, have rained death and destruction down upon their fellow humans. Some of them are heroes, most of them are not. Doing your job does not make you a hero.

Having a different opinion about national events and policies does not make you smarter, more valuable as a citizen or more important than I am. It also does not give you the moral high ground. Disagreeing with you does not make me a traitor, nor does disagreeing with me make you one.

Having an opinion is one thing. Defending it with hurtful words and threats is something else. It takes a lot to offend me, but once I reach that point, you better believe I’m going to say something about it.

review of Ghost’s new album, Prequelle

If you haven’t heard of Ghost until now, Prequelle is a good album to get started with. It’s not their best album to date – that honor goes to their 2015 offering, Meliora – but it is both excellent and highly accessible.

I’m not going to get into the theatrical aspects of Ghost, because they are irrelevant. Ghost is a band, that band put out an album, and this is a review of that album. You can look up any number of articles about Ghost’s stage show, legal problems and the alter egos of their leader and singer, Tobias Forge.

prequelleThe minute-plus album intro “Ashes” is, unfortunately, pointless. I’m not a fan of intros in general and have already deleted “Ashes” from my computer (through which I listen to most of my music). The only saving grace of “Ashes” is that it delivers the motif that returns at the end of “Rats” in a crushing riff.

“Rats,” then, is when the album kicks off – and does so with greatness, pomp, circumstance, joy and harmony. I may sound effusive here, but seriously – from the crisp drum intro to the crushing outro riff (bringing back the motif from “Ashes”), “Rats” is quite possibly the best mainstream metal song to come out so far in 2018.

Note I say MAINSTREAM metal – by this I mean accessible, widely popular, likely to be played on the radio, etc.

“Rats” has it all – a fantastic hook, a great chorus, beautiful vocal harmonies, a great guitar solo, a tight end, everything you’ve come to expect from Ghost’s best songs.

Following “Rats” is “Faith,” possibly Ghost’s heaviest song to date. It’s wonderful to hear them laying down a heavy groove with the typical soaring vocals over top. I read somewhere that “Faith” is a slap at the former Nameless Ghouls who were part of the band in past years and are now suing Forge for back wages, but in all honesty, I rarely pay attention to the meaning behind the lyrics of any band. I care about melody, not meaning.

Prequelle slows down after “Faith,” with an early power ballad, “See the Light.” It’s a good song, with nice piano playing and some little industrial flourishes before the guitars kick in, but ultimately it’s still a third-song ballad when I don’t really like to see a ballad on a metal album until track four. Yes, that’s a picky nit to jab at, but who’s writing the review, you or me?

“Miasma,” the next song, builds slowly and ominously into a slick tune fueled by riffs that would be at home on any of Ghost’s previous albums. The fact that it’s an instrumental gives me a little pause, wondering if Forge is trying to make a point that he’s more than just a singer, more than just what the television industry would deem a “shot caller.” Forge may be trying to remind people that he’s a musician first and foremost, and that whatever mask and hat he’s wearing is mere adornment for the show. What propels “Miasma” over the top, quality-wise, are the extended guitar, keyboard and saxophone solos that build in intensity to the end of the song. The sax solo in particular is brilliant – fantastically played, excellently recorded and precisely what the song needed. Having been in the position in my own career as a recording musician where I suddenly realized the reason a song wasn’t coming together was because it needed a saxophone solo, I commend Forge for indulging that particular need.

“Dance Macabre” comes next, and this is the song that’s going to separate Ghost’s previous fans from their future fans. “Dance Macabre” is not a metal song. It is a pure-D, full breed POP song, complete with thumping drums, romantic longing and a disco undertone that is absolutely undeniable. It evokes “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and “Calling Dr. Love” by KISS, which is obviously one of Ghost’s biggest influences as far as their image and stage show go. I can absolutely see “Dance Macabre” becoming a Top 10 radio hit. It’s got a fantastic guitar solo, by the way, even if it is too short.

Back in the old days of LPs and cassettes, “Pro Memoria” would be the first song on Side 2, and it definitely has that kind of “reset” feel that flipping a record over had when you were a kid. It starts with gentle keyboard pads and strings, then turns into a beautiful, piano-driven power ballad reminding us that we are all mortal (“Don’t you forget about your friend Death,” etc.). Slick harmony guitars take over several times during the song, reminding the listener that Ghost is still a hard rock (at the least) band. It’s another ballad, but it’s a good one.

“Witch Image” gets things back to the harder side of the equation, with an almost grunge-like song structure (jarring intro, mellow verse, heavy chorus). It’s three and a half minutes of what Ghost does best – plus another harmonized guitar solo. I love Ghost’s guitar solos; in the fashion of bands like Queen and Extreme, they are often compositions within the composition and add to the overall musicality of the songs.

Did you know Forge is Swedish? In case you forgot, he includes another – much lesser – instrumental track called “Helvetesfönster.” Google Translate tells me this means “Hell Window.”

I think they’re right, too. The German word for window is fenster, and that’s pretty close to fönster. Further, the German word for Hell is Hölle, so if Forge was German, the song would be called “Höllefenster,” which is damn close to “Helvetesfönster.” I wonder if Ghost had it printed as “Höllefenster” on the German copies of the album.

Anyway, even though this is a campy instrumental, it brings back the melody motif from “Dance Macabre,” which is a nice touch. This song wouldn’t be out of place as the entreacte in the middle of a Broadway show. Excellent piano playing, though, no doubt about that. Still, it is the second instrumental on one album, when I’m not sure Ghost has done two instrumentals on the totality of its three previous full-length albums.

The last song on the standard version of Prequelle is “Life Eternal,” yet another ballad. YET ANOTHER BALLAD, I SAID!!! Three ballads on one album from a hard rock or metal band is a sure sign that they are angling for a more mainstream presence – and a million units in sales, no doubt. More power to them, I guess. At least it’s a good song – for a ballad. It’s very Ghost as well, with the typical guitar-driven tensions and vocal melodies (and harmonies) we’ve come to expect from the band. The best part of the song is the last minute, which features a gospel feel to it in a question-and-answer vocal part that is (in my opinion) too short.

Ghost then does another thing that drives me nuts on a CD – they insert 30 seconds of dead air before the bonus tracks start. I’m glad it’s only 30 seconds though, and not like what Tool has done on some of their CDs. Bands need to quit doing this. I dislike paying for dead air on an album.

At any rate – bonus tracks. I don’t know if I ordered the deluxe version or if this is just the typical CD that goes out to people who order the album from Amazon, but closing out my copy of the CD are two (bonus) cover tunes.

Before I tell you about these two covers, I have to say that Ghost may be doing cover tunes better than any other band out there today. I include Foo Fighters in that statement, and Foo Fighters do some excellent covers.

Ghost hasn’t put a cover on one of their full-length albums since their debut (Opus Eponymous), when they did an amazing, dark version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” They did an EP of five covers (If You Have Ghost, led by the Rory Erickson song of nearly the same name), and when they release their hit song “Square Hammer” as a single in 2016, they made it the lead track on an EP called Popestar, filling the rest of that disc with fantastic covers – including Eurhythmics’ “Missionary Man.” What I’m telling you is this: Ghost has a history of doing great covers of songs both obscure and common.

Chances are if you weren’t into Pet Shop Boys, a dance-pop band stupendously popular in the 1980s and – in case you didn’t know – still making music as recently as 2016, you never heard “It’s a Sin.” It’s a catchy song, no doubt about that, but when it gets the Ghost treatment, it’s elevated from catchy to downright addictive. It evokes everything keyboard and electric drum-heavy 1980s synthpop music was about and is a brilliantly executed cover song.

The CD closes with Ghost’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” I admit I know nothing about Cohen’s music beyond that song “Hallelujah” that’s been in just about every movie and TV show since it came out and has been covered both well and poorly by just about everybody, all over the world and YouTube. You can’t throw a rock in 2018 without hitting somebody who has either covered that song themselves or has a favorite version of it somewhere they totally want you to listen to. “Hallelujah” is like the Crossfit of cover tunes, and not in a good way.

Ghost could have (should have?) left “Avalanche” off the CD. It’s not a bad version, but it’s a bad closer. Closing on the upbeat “It’s a Sin” would have been greatly preferable, if for no other reason than listening to Forge struggle with the low melody on “Avalanche” distracts from the song’s appeal.

All in all, this is a good Ghost album. It’s a good album, period, and better than a lot of other stuff that’s come out this year. It’s not Ghost’s best album from my perspective, partly because of the weak instrumental towards the end of the album and the proliferation of power ballads. There are way worse things to spend $12 on, though, and if you like any kind of hard rock or mainstream metal music, you’d be well advised to get this album as soon as you can.

I give Prequelle an A, four stars out of five, an 8 on the 1-to-10 scale, and a hearty “buy” recommendation.

a chance encounter on the metro

The day started like many of my other commutes. Up at 5, out the door at 5.20, on the train at 5.50, train pulling away from the station at 6.

I slept fitfully on the two-hour train ride, relishing the chilly walk from the Amtrak station over to the Metro station. The brisk morning air counteracted the dour visages that greeted me on the Metro train platform. It took about eight minutes for my train to arrive, and I entered the second car from the front at the forward door, dutifully following the disembodied voice to “move to the center of the car.”

When I reached the center of the car, there she was, walking to the center from the rear door of the car. Lightning struck and a thunderbolt clapped when our eyes met, and everybody else on the train faded to a muted, mottled gray. All sound faded and the only thing I could hear was her voice as she said, “I’m Simone. Who are you?”

“Anthony,” I said, as sure of it as I was anything else in my entire life. “My friends call me Tony.”

“Well, good morning, Tony,” she said, her soft, blue eyes wrapping around my very soul and tearing it out. In an instant, we became one. I was Michael Corleone, she was Apollonia Vitelli. I was Romeo, she was Juliet. Lancelot and Guinevere. Paris and Helena. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Eloise and Abelard. Napoleon and Josephine. In the entire history of love and lovers, never had two souls connected so completely, merged so quickly.

“But I’m married,” she said.

“I’m married, too, and I have kids,” I countered.

“Oh my God, so do I. I completely forgot my kids,” she said.

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“I’ll ride the train with you to wherever you’re going, just … just don’t leave me behind. I couldn’t bear it,” I said.

We rode the train for hours, neither of us caring any more about family, friends, jobs or any of those important, life-defining things. All that mattered was that we were together. We discussed how difficult it would be to break our spouses’ hearts, disrupt our children’s lives – and yet, none of it mattered. None of it. All that mattered was the future – our future, together.

We discussed where to go and settled on Denver. She has family there, I have friends. It’s a good city, clean and modern and with lots of job opportunities. It’s in the middle of the country, sort of, so once the kids got used to the idea of us being together, it would be easy for them to visit.

“Stadium-Armory,” the train driver droned. “Last chance to transfer to the Orange and Silver lines.”

She looked deep into my eyes and said, “I at least have to go get my things from work, and tell them I quit.”

“Me, too,” I added.

“What stop do you need?” she asked.

“Court House,” I said. “Orange line.”

“I need a Blue line train,” she said, a single tear rolling down her cheek.

“There’s nobody else at this station. You’ll be lonely. I’ll wait with you,” I said. “I’ll wait with you.”

the transport net-youtube

“No, that’s OK,” she said, sadly. “I have a book. I’ll be OK.”

She broke our gaze to ruffle in her purse, finding what she was looking for and drawing a thick paperback from its depths.

“Pride and Prejudice?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I just love Jane Austen. I was even in a production of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in college.”

“Is that so?” I asked as I shoved her in front of the train speeding through the station at that very moment.

NO PASSENGERS, the sign on its marquee read.

hey, 2018? you best not suck!

I suppose it’s traditional in the last week of a calendar year to reflect on the year behind and predict for the year ahead. I’m certainly not immune to that impulse, nor am I immune to the predictable impulse to make promises to myself on how to improve the next year. Maybe we constantly think that the previous year’s sucktastic aspects were somehow our fault, and if we just change our attitude (or latitude), those problems won’t come back.

Instead of trying to come up with something on my own that I could implement as a resolution for 2018, I put the question to my Facebook feed. My Facebook friends – some of whom I’ve known for many years & some I’ve never met in person – chimed in with some suggestions. Here they are, with some commentary. At the bottom will be my actual resolution(s) that I thought up on my own.

REJECTED

  • Don’t make resolutions. I get this – don’t set yourself up for failure & you’ll have nothing to feel bad about, right? As a thought experiment, however, resolutions can be fun and educational. (Learning about yourself counts as educational, right?)
  • Manufacture jenkem in my basement. I had to look up what jenkem is, and I will not be fermenting human waste inside the house – or anywhere else, for that matter.
  • Throat punch more people. While probably morally satisfying, throat-punching people could lead to prison time. Not interested.
  • Kick a dog a day. Funny, sure, but not practical. Where I live in semi-rural suburban Richmond, Virginia, kicking somebody’s dog could get you shot. Plus I like dogs. Other people’s dogs. My daughter wants to get a dog in the worst way, but I know how much work it is to take care of a dog and I’m not ready to commit to that yet.

ABIDE

This one-word suggestion was probably my favorite. I’ve seen The Big Lebowsky just once, and honestly, while I thought it was funny, it didn’t resonate with me in the same way it has for many of its fans. My favorite scene was the beach funeral. So, so funny!

At any rate, abide is somewhat of a mantra for the movie’s main character, and it can in many ways be seen as the central tenet of Buddhism as well. No – wait for it – and trust me. Buddhist philosophy centers around the interconnectedness of all beings and all things. Enlightenment comes from glimpses of the true nature of this interconnectedness. We achieve enlightenment by opening our minds to the true nature of the world around us … and to do that, we must abide.

Most of the suggestions I received I can subordinate under abide, and so I have.

  • Don’t be a dick and Be kind. Google’s mantra used to be don’t be evil. They’ve moved away from that, but in general I think don’t be a dick is a great suggestion. The world would be a better place if fewer of us acted more in the interests of positivity instead of selfishness, and selfishness is the root cause of being a dick. Being kind is the polar opposite of being a dick, so these two suggestions work together. I love these suggestions, and I do hereby resolve to do my best not to be a dick (and therefore be more kind) in 2018.
  • Do something nice for someone I don’t know and Pay someone a compliment each day. Two more complimentary suggestions, and both will take me out of my comfort zone. I don’t consider myself a particularly nice person – meaning that I don’t feel I go out of my way to make other people’s lives better in meaningful ways. My family, sure. My closest circle of friends, sure. My coworkers, sometimes (when it benefits the company). In general, however, I am going to struggle with this, but I will try!
  • Add value to the space & lives around me and Find wonder, joy & beauty in the world. These were suggestions that struck me deeply and made me sit back and think a bit. The person the former came from has had a hard couple of years when it comes to family, with both unexpected gains and unexpected losses. Their family has had to move a few times in the past few years, something that can be quite stressful on kids. That they took this tack – adding value – is abstract enough to encompass many things, and I think that makes it easier to achieve. Find wonder, joy & beauty is something I will definitely have to work on, but I love the sentiment behind it. We read and experience negativity on such a large scale that it’s difficult to find the good things in life. I will try to see the positive.
  • Learn & do new things and Think more about being than doing. Another great pair of suggestions. When we stop learning, we stop growing. When we focus more on the experience of something than what it does for us, we harm our own growth. While I won’t be jumping out of airplanes, I think it would be fun and educational to try things in 2018 that I’ve never tried before.
  • Have fun. Duh, right? We often don’t think about life in this fashion, however, so getting a reminder from a friend to have fun is refreshing. I do a number of things that should be fun, but the fun in them is often lost or missed because I’m focused on other things. I need to work on that.
  • Wear great socks. I have terrible fashion sense, even for a fat guy. I should work on that.
  • Use fewer plastic items. This is a fantastic – and concrete – suggestion. Plastic comes from petroleum, and anything I can do to reduce the use of petroleum products is going to be good for all of us in the long run.

PLAY LIVE (MUSIC) WITH SOMEONE AGAIN

(also Play more guitar and Play guitar (nearly) every day) It’s no secret that I retired from being in bands several years ago. I do not miss being in a band. I do not, in general, miss playing live. I do not miss the constant, complex management of interpersonal relationships it takes to hold a band together.

I do, however, miss playing. I miss recording. I miss making music with friends.

In December, I committed to playing a show with one of my former bands some time in the first half of the year. I’ll post details when I have them. To make sure I don’t suck when that show comes around, I’ll be practicing and getting my chops back. In addition, I have a new guitar arriving the first of the year. It’s what people in the guitar world call a Partsocaster.

DRINK MORE WATER AND CONSUME LESS SUGAR

While I may have to soft-pedal Have cheese fondue more often and Eat waffles a bit, I think we can all agree that changing one’s diet is one of the resolutions people make the most often for the new year. It’s probably the one they fail on the most often, too. I am over 40 and overweight, so I know I need to pay closer attention to what I eat and how much (and how often) I exercise. I gave up soda on a lark in 2017 – I got tired of the constant caffeine headaches and sugar high-and-low cycles. I don’t drink coffee, but I usually have a cup of tea most days. I have been drinking more water, but I could always drink more.

CUT DOWN ON CLUTTER

This suggestion tied in nicely with Clean out & throw away one item a day. I’m not going to get into Swedish death cleaning or snuggle my stuff to see if it sparks joy, but decluttering a room is a great metaphor for life. We could all stand to declutter. I have too much stuff – physical stuff and metaphysical stuff. I need to engage in a thorough cleaning of my house, my space and my mind.

I’ve already started by clearing out thousands of old photos stored on my phone and organizing them so just the ones I want to see regularly are on there. The rest have been organized and move to a computer hard drive.

RUN TO THE HILLS

My friend who suggested this knows of my unwavering loyalty to the British metal band Iron Maiden, but I took his comment from a philosophical standpoint rather than a literal one. I need to Spend more time riding a motorcycle and Go somewhere I’ve never been. If I Have more adventures (see/do one new thing a month), I’ll easily be able to Run to the hills in 2018. I did zero travel in 2017 that wasn’t work-related, mostly because of my dire employment situation throughout the bulk of the year. It’s not that I didn’t have fun sometimes, but if I wasn’t going somewhere for work, I didn’t go. Period.

I already have a plan, something that was germinating in my mind. I’ve written it down, which lends things a more concrete aspect, and I’ll be working on a plan.

One of my friends suggested I Play more wargames – one of my hobbies that I’ve drifted away from in recent years for various reasons. He’s right, and I would very much like to liven that hobby back up a bit in the coming year.

THE THINGS I THOUGHT OF

I have to thank my Facebook friends for coming up with some great suggestions – even if I rejected some of them. Look at it this way, Paul – your suggestion I manufacture jenkem in my basement led me to learn something about the nature of hallucinogenic substances, the popularity of some of those things in other parts of the world, and how stories can explode on the internet despite little basis in truth. It was quite educational!

Before I asked for suggestions on Facebook, I already had three things that I wanted to work on in 2018.

PHOTOGRAPHY

I found myself using my phone more often than not in 2017, simply because I lost the desire to cart my big, heavy DSLR rig around. When I did lug it around – the work trip to Denver and Salt Lake City comes to mind – I hardly used it and subsequently resented the effort it took to haul it with me. Resentment led to less desire to use it, even though when I did use it, I still like it.

My friend & coworker Bill switched from Canon to Fujifilm a few years ago and has enjoyed his new cameras. He clued me in to a new camera Fujifilm was due to release in late 2017, the X-E3. I did some research and decided that could well be the camera for me, but when it came out, it cost over $1,000 to get the body and one of their kit lenses. After being savagely underemployed for most of 2017, I’m still a little gun shy when it comes to spending money, so I just couldn’t justify coming up off the money for the X-E3.

Instead, I did more research into Fujifilm’s X-series cameras and decided to pick up a used X100. It’s a fixed lens camera – meaning you can’t take the lens off and put another one on – and I got it for a couple hundred dollars. It’s not as powerful as my DSLR, but it’s just as flexible, and what’s more important is the thing weighs less than a pound. Early test photos are sharp and clean and I even pulled over while driving the other day to take pictures of something I saw on the side of the road. I haven’t done that in a long time.

I’m also planning to use up some of my remaining film stock in 2018, using my Fujifilm GW690. It’s looking like 2018 will be the year of the rangefinder, which I’m excited about.

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That’s the GW690 on the left and the X100 on the right. The GW690 is a big camera, which makes the X100 look even smaller.

USING LOCAL BUSINESSES

Like many people, I may be addicted to the (nearly) instant gratification afforded to us by Amazon. In 2018, I plan to back off from that – part of my decluttering process – and try to use more local businesses for my everyday purchases. Fewer chain stores, fewer chain restaurants, fewer chain gas stations, that kind of thing. It’s important to me to support my community – one of the main reasons I wanted to leave Fairfax County for someplace less developed and with less population density was to live in a community I felt needed my support. I live in such a community now, and I want to become more ingrained into its small business economy.

MOTORCYCLE TRAINING

My motorcycling skills are stagnating as I find myself riding for work more often than for fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but much of my riding in 2017 was just to get someplace, rather than to enjoy being on a motorcycle. I found myself confused in a number of situations, unsure what to do, and I decided to do something about that in 2018.

My primary serious, concrete resolution for 2018 is to take four motorcycle training classes – two for road riding and two for off-road riding. I’m sure I’ll write about it, so you’ll know about it if I succeed or fail in this endeavor.

DONE

Well, that’s it for the 2018 resolution cycle. I’m going to try to be less of a dick, simplify my life in a lot of ways (including photography), hold down a full-time job for the whole year, bring & find joy, use local businesses, get some training, and in general take better care of myself. We’ll see how it goes – and thanks for coming along for the ride!

(Yes, mom, I will Call my mother and of course I will Tell my children I love them every day. Those things are easy!)

Fist

time to change the name of lee-davis high school

It’s become trendy in the last couple of years to propose renaming schools that bear the names of Confederate figures of importance. I support this trend because it first and foremost allows those whose values have evolved since the 1860s and 1950s to put their stamp on their communities. In Hanover County, Virginia, people are starting to talk about renaming Lee-Davis High School, so let’s take a look at the school’s namesakes.

Robert_Edward_Lee_by_Julian_Vannerson

Photo of Robert E. Lee by Julian Vannerson.

Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 in Virginia, and he died in 1870 in Virginia. He lived in Virginia all of his life, except when he was off serving in the military. He served in the military forces of the United States from 1829 to 1861, and he served the Confederate government’s army from 1861 to 1865.

By the end of the US Civil War, he was the general in charge of the entire Confederate army, and resistance against the United States collapsed after he surrendered his command to US forces at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865. Due to what is widely attributed as a clerical error, his citizenship in the United States wasn’t restored during his lifetime. Congress restored his citizenship in 1975, backdating it 110 years.

Lee was a military officer of distinction, having excelled at the United States Military Academy (aka West Point) and served in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. He opposed the construction of memorials to his fellow rebels following the Civil War and supported the reestablishment of the pre-Civil War nation. However, he opposed racial equality and publicly spoke out against voting rights for former slaves throughout the remainder of his life.

Jefferson-Davis-by-Mathew-Brady

Photo of Jefferson Davis by Mathew Brady.

Jefferson Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808, and he died in Louisiana in 1889. He lived in various places in the south, including a stint in Richmond, Virginia, when he was president of the ill-fated Confederate States of America (1861-65). He continued to live in Virginia until 1867, when he was released from prison. Following his time in prison, Davis lived in Quebec, not returning to the US until President Andrew Johnson issued him a pardon in 1868. He then moved to Tennessee, where he ran an insurance company. He lived on an estate (bequeathed to him by a wealthy widow) in Biloxi, Mississippi, during his final years.

Davis continued to espouse racist and divisive rhetoric to the end of his days, though he did so primarily in private. His several attempts to return to legislative service following his pardon and return to the US failed.

In 1958, Virginia was caught up in the torrent of the civil rights movement. The US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision led to the forced integration of public schools across the country. The response to this legal order by the governor of Virginia, Harry Byrd, was the establishment of Massive Resistance. Instead of obeying the Supreme Court, Byrd and his supporters in Virginia’s legislature effectively shut down as much of Virginia’s public education system as they could as a way to prevent Virginia’s black school-age children from receiving an education equal in quality – and with equal access – to that of their white contemporaries.

Also in 1958, Hanover County, Virginia, was nearly finished constructing a brand-new high school along US Highway 360. The high school was the newest in the county; located in the town of Mechanicsville, the residents were justifiably proud of its construction. They chose to call the new educational facility Lee-Davis High School. At the time, naming public schools after Confederate figures was common practice across the southern states as a way to push back against the growing tide of the civil rights movement, and anybody that opposed the name of the new school would have remained silent about it, possibly out of fear for their personal safety. The Lee-Davis Confederates became a centerpiece of Mechanicsville life, and the school’s mission “to prepare students for success” remains, for all intents and purposes, a clearly obtainable objective in the 21st century.

lee-davis-hs

(To be perfectly honest, I find the naming of schools after any person to be ridiculous. New York City has the right idea with its Public School Number system. There’s no reason Lee-Davis couldn’t have been called Mechanicsville High School when it was built, or even Hanover County High School Number 2, both of which would have been both descriptive and adequate.)

Two of Hanover County’s other high schools – Atlee HS (1991) and Hanover HS (2003) – have simple, descriptive names that denote their location rather than singling out any individual for the honor of a name plate. The county’s other high school that opened in 1959, Patrick Henry HS, came about by consolidating four small schools into one. PHHS is named after Hanover County’s most famous resident, the American Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry – you know, the “give me liberty or give me death” guy. He was also Virginia’s first governor following the establishment of the United States of America. Henry was born in Hanover County – in Studley, as a matter of fact, which is about five miles from my house. He lived his whole life in the state and died in Virginia, and though he was a slave owner, he actively supported efforts to end the importation of slaves into the USA.

If you have to name a school after a person, Hanover County got it right when they named Patrick Henry High School. Henry was a prominent, positive figure in American history, one that – despite his status as a slave owner – we can all respect. He also is from the county of the school that bears his name. It’s as appropriate a name as can be found, although West Hanover County High School would have been perfectly acceptable.

It’s time to eliminate the names of Confederate figures from our public education facilities. It’s time to allow all students to have and show pride in their schools and their schools’ mascots. The idea of black students at Lee-Davis cheering on their schoolmates under the moniker of the Confederates disgusts me to no end. While I can see why Robert E. Lee’s name would be attached to a school in Virginia, there is no reason to put Jefferson Davis’ name on any public education building in the state for the simple fact that he’s not from here, he lived here only briefly, spent part of that time in prison, and the only reason his name was attached to the school in the first place was to reinforce the dominance of the white population of the state over its black population during a time of social upheaval.

Instead of continuing the support the legacy of those who fought to preserve slavery (Lee and Davis) and those who fought to preserve educational segregation (Byrd), it’s time to support the legacy of local kids and the hope for the future they hold in their young hands and minds.

Change the name of Lee-Davis High School to Mechanicsville High School and put the establishment of a new mascot to a public vote in the school’s district.

the year in music: 2017

Another bleak music year – which probably says more about me than the music industry. I have a hard time getting into new bands. I listen to what I listen to, and it’s just tough to break into that circle. I was also majorly underemployed for the first nine months of the year, which put a damper on my discretional spending.

Despite that, I have to call 2017 the year of Gojira. I had heard of this French heavy metal band in the past, but not enough to care to give them a listen. That changed when I saw a YouTube video of one of their songs, which led to me getting their From Mars to Sirius album in 2016. I liked that one enough to pick up the two albums that followed it this year, and all three albums are getting heavy rotation. I don’t even mind that they don’t play guitar solos, which is usually a deal-breaker for me when it comes to new bands.

Top 10 By Listens

10. Sarah Jarosz – Song Up in Her Head (2009). I went to see Jarosz play at what is basically a minor-league NASCAR track. They have a concert venue in one of the buildings big enough to hold a couple hundred people. Fantastic show, really pleased I got to see her play live at last. Even though her newest album (Undercurrent, 2016) is good, it’s still her first album that catches my attention every time. This album didn’t make the Top 20 last year, but I listened to it a lot in 2016, too.

9. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014). This was my #1 album of 2015 and ranked #8 in 2016, so clearly I am still enjoying this album a lot. I’m surprised it made the Top 10 given that Mastodon came out with a new album in 2017, but there it is nonetheless.

8. Eric Johnson – Europe Live (2014). I bought this album last year and it has quickly become my favorite EJ live album. His playing never ceases to amaze me, and I love a good live album. “Cliffs of Dover” still blows me away every time he plays it.

7. Pink Floyd – Animals (1977). I will not hide the fact that Animals remains my favorite Pink Floyd album, and I listen to it a lot. I have a half-dozen versions of it between LPs and CDs. I even had the 8-track once upon a time! The musicianship and songcrafting still amazes me after all these years. Back in the Top 10 after a year off.

6. Gojira – From Mars to Sirius (2014). I’m not the biggest fan of growly vocals and I don’t tend to like things from, about or made in France. I tell you that so you’ll understand just how hard it is for Gojira to break into my album rotation, let alone actually make it into the Top 10 of my annual list. This album is that good. The two albums that follow it, The Way of All Flesh and Magma are also excellent, but there’s something about the aggression and environmental awareness of From Mars to Sirius that resonates with me. My favorite track is “Global Warming,” an eight-minute song in which nearly the entire guitar part is finger-tapped.

5. Fear Factory – Genexus (2015). Last year’s #4 album is this year’s #5, showing that it remains strong in the rotation. Fear Factory’s precision metal and mix of growly and melodic vocals keeps bringing me back.

4. Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg (1988, 2008 remaster). I’ve had DCD’s “greatest hits album” A Passage in Time since I took a creative writing class in college in probably 1993 or ’94; the professor liked to use it to set a mood for our in-class writing exercises. I always dug that album, but found myself wanting to know what one of their regular studio albums sounded like. I chose the one that had the most songs on APIT, and that’s this one. It’s cool, mellow and thought-provoking, even if you can’t understand the lyrics. I think they sing in Latin, but it could be Dutch for all I know. Sometimes it’s English, but not usually.

3. Ghost – Popestar (2016). One of the things that Ghost does that I like is they like to put out singles – but instead of just releasing one song, they do an EP that has the new single plus a few cover songs. There’s no doubt that Popestar’s centerpiece, “Square Hammer,” was a huge, huge song for Ghost, but for me, the standouts on this EP are their covers of Eurhythmics’ “Missionary Man” and a song called “Bible” originally performed by Imperiet, a Swedish band that nobody has ever heard of. Ghost translated “Bible” into English, and it recounts the myth of God creating the heavens and the Earth in just six days. It’s a slow-building song, and its climax is worth waiting for. Ghost’s version of “Nocturnal Me,” originally by Echo & the Bunnymen, is also excellent.

2. Baroness – Yellow & Green (2012). Last year’s #3 album was Baroness’ Purple – a good album, but it didn’t even make the Top 20 this year. I reverted back to the album that drew me to Baroness in the first place. Their Red album was just outside the Honorable Mentions this year. This is a double album, and it’s fantastic. If you only get one Baroness album, this is the one to get.

mastodon_emperorofsand1. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand. Ever since I discovered Mastodon’s Leviathan, I have gotten everything they put out as soon as they put it out. They are as good a metal band as there has ever been. One of the things I dig about them is that whatever their next album is, it doesn’t sound exactly like their last album. That’s funny, because the thing I dig most about Slayer is that their next album sounds just like their last one. Anyway – Emperor of Sand is probably Mastodon’s most accessible album. The songs are mostly under five minutes and while there’s plenty of progressive influence still apparent, there are tons of hooks and catchy choruses abound. “Sultan’s Curse” is practically a pop song – sure, it would be a pop song about cancer, but still. There’s only two songs on the album over six minutes long and the longest of them is just under eight – compare that to “Pendulous Skin” from Blood Mountain at over 22 minutes long, “The Czar” and “The Last Baron” from Crack the Skye (11 & 13 minutes long respectively), and the nearly 14-minute-long, mostly instrumental “Hearts Alive” from Leviathan. This is an astounding album, topping 2015’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, which I called their best to date in 2016.

Honorable mentions (#11-15) on this year’s most-played list are AC/DC, For Those About To Rock (a perennial favorite, #5 last year); Black Label Society, Stronger Than Death (#6 last year); Enigma, Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi (what can I say? I had an electronica phase); Slayer, God Hates Us All (replacing their Repentless in my top rotation); and Ghost, Meliora (last year’s #9).

Albums Purchased in 2017

  • Darkest Hour – Godless Prophets & The Migrant Flora. I know DH’s bass player Aaron Deal. Great guy, fantastic bass player. I got in on their crowdfunding campaign to get their newest album put out, and if you like growly vocals and aggressive metal, you will probably love this album.
  • Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg (1988, 2008 remaster)
  • Eve 6 – It’s All in Your Head (2011) and Speak in Code (2012). I really love this band’s Horrorscope album and got the bug to hear what they’ve done since that album. While I wasn’t hugely disappointed or regret spending the money, neither of these albums is going to make it into heavy rotation.
  • Sarah Jarosz – Undercurrent (2016). Another solid album from Jarosz as she slowly moves away from her bluegrass roots and towards becoming the queen (or at least a princess) of Americana. I bought this directly from Jarosz at her concert. Nice lady.
  • Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman. I got this album after seeing a documentary about Jones; she was a late-in-life success story and cut down in the prime of her career by cancer. This is a mind-bendingly good rhythm & blues album that any fan of the genre or powerful female singers would be well advised to pick up. Think Ike-era Tina Turner, but with more attitude and a better horn section.
  • Kaleo – A/B (2016). My coworkers were playing this in the office one day, and I liked it enough to pick it up for myself. They’re sort of Zeppelin-esque with a modern sensibility, and at least one song on this album is in their native Icelandic language. I can’t understand the lyrics, but it’s a great song.
  • KXM – Scatterbrain. This is probably my biggest disappointment of the year, CD-purchase wise. On its surface, the blending of dUg Pinnick (King’s X), George Lynch (Dokken) and Ray Luzier (Korn) should produce music that is both forceful and memorable; unfortunately, this album is only the former. It’s good, but it’s forgettable, unfortunately.
  • Gojira – The Way of All Flesh (2015) and Magma (2016). My obsession with Gojira continues to grow. I will keep working my way back through their catalog one CD at a time.
  • Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (2015). I went to see Iron Maiden last summer. It was a great show – as expected – but Maiden’s newest songs are … well, competent. They sound like Iron Maiden, and I’m glad they’re still writing new music, but this double album goes on for too long – both in song count and in individual song lengths. The closing track is an endless, meandering piano piece that I would have been happy to never hear.
  • Killer Be Killed – Killer Be Killed (2014). I only got this album a few days ago, having heard about it right before Thanksgiving. It’s Troy Sanders (bass/vox) from Mastodon, Max Calavera (guitar/vox) from Sepultura, and a couple of guys I never heard of from bands I’m barely familiar with. The first few listens are promising – good, old-fashioned metal right here.
  • Mastodon – Emperor of Sand and Cold Dark Place. Cold Dark Place is an EP of songs that were left off the Once More ‘Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand albums. I manipulated the song info in iTunes to include them with the albums they were recorded for, and I think they play quite well in that manner. A nice add-on release from Mastodon.
  • Pinnick Gales Pridgen – PGP 2 (2014). I picked this album up simply for the sake of having both PGP albums – King’s X is one of my favorite bands and I love dUg Pinnick’s voice and bass playing. Eric Gales is a MONSTER guitarist, and Thomas Pridgen (The Mars Volta) is a fantastic drummer. This album isn’t quite as good as their self-titled debut, but it’s worth repeated listenings.
  • Joe Walsh – The Definitive Collection (2006). What can I say? I love Joe Walsh and decided to pick up this greatest hits CD that spans his career from The James Gang to his post-Eagles solo work. It’s fun. The dude can PLAY!

There is no Movie Top 10 this year because – well, I was unemployed for nine months and didn’t spend money on going to the movies. I saw Murder on the Orient Express last night because the power was out at my house and I was bored. Even though the movie was good, it did not cure my boredom. I’ll go see the new Star Wars movie next week, but other than that and Wonder Woman, there wasn’t much to catch my attention in the movie theaters in 2017.