Monday, August 31, 2009

Buffy's First Puppy Class

Buffy is a smart dog. She’s observant, a great problem solver and has an uncanny ability to sense how people feel about dogs. She knows instantly if someone who walks by likes dogs and is interested in interacting with her. Her potty training is going fantastic. At three months of age she has a strong aversion to going in her crate or her pen and does a great job of letting Diana and I know when she wants to go.

She knows her name pretty well. Even though she often gets distracted, Buffy can go on a half an hour walk and heel without too much difficulty. She knows how to fetch (doesn’t really get the part that she needs to let go of whatever she fetches), sit, down, dance (jump up), roll over (well, this one is a work in progress), paw and is pretty good at speak. Considering that in dogs year Buffy is only three years old, she’s doing quite well.

When we enrolled Buffy into puppy class my wife and I joked that she would be at the top of her class. Diana and I both went to Northwestern University so of course our dog would excel in her class. After our first puppy, Buffy wasn’t at the head of the class and I was a little disappointed.

Was Buffy’s performance in class really all that bad? Not really, she was nervous being in a new place which is normal for Buffy. Once other dogs were in the room though, she calmed down and did a fantastic job socializing with the other dogs. She gave us a solid 40 minutes of great focus but for the last 20 minutes she was pretty much done. She was distracted by the adjacent room and was just getting tired. As I saw the other dogs doing the heeling exercise that Buffy just wasn’t interested in doing, I caught myself getting frustrated with her.

The thing is that I want Buffy to succeed and for some reasons I felt that it was important that she be able to show off to the other dogs. The thing is that Buffy doesn’t really care. All she wants to do is play with the other dogs and most of all please Diana and I. Is it really fair to compare Buffy to other dogs? No, they are all different breeds, different ages with different owners.

Being in a class setting I revert back to this need to be the best and succeed at a high level and it’s easy to forget that success has nothing to do with being better than others and getting a high grade. Success is about how we feel about ourselves and the progress we make as learners. If Buffy only learns one thing in each class out of the numerous exercises, that can be success for her. It really isn't fair to project my own feelings of academic success on my puppy.

Puppy training class is more about training the owners to train the dogs and there is an immediacy and importance that Diana and I master these training techniques in this short course. Really, Buffy simply isn’t going to master everything that is introduced in class during the course of the class and that’s ok. We have plenty of time to train Buffy.

My feelings of disappointments have dissolved into feelings of pride after my wife reminded me how amazing Buffy performed even if there was twenty minutes in class she wasn’t focused. The whole getting frustrated thing, well, that happened again a couple days later.

One afternoon, I was trying to lure Buffy out from under our coffee table and I was loosing my patience.

When I finally got her out from under the table and had her in my arms, she looked up at me, licked my cheek as if to ask me what was wrong. Instead of putting her in her crate as I had planned, I laid down on the couch with Buffy next to me and to my surprise after not wanting to come to me from under the coffee table she crawled up on my chest curled up into a a ball of fluff and went to sleep.

Buffy knew exactly what to do to remind me that even though we didn’t always understand each other, the bottom line is that I make her feel loved and at home. The amazing thing is that Buffy makes me feel the exactly same way. In that moment my frustration melted into contentment and as I exhaled, I thanked Buffy for being part of my life.

I told you my dog was smart.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I Do Not Hook Up by Kelly Clarkson/Katy Perry

I’m not really sure what people mean by “hook up.” From my experience, a “hook up” can be anything from meeting a friend for lunch to a one-night stand. Whenever my friends use the term “hook up” it is usually followed by clarification questions, as this term has become a catchall rather then a description of a specific activity. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that Kelly Clarkson recorded a song called “I Do Not Hook Up.”

After enthusiastically getting Kelly Clarkson’s last album and listening to “My Life Would Suck Without You" (which I covered in this earlier post) for about an hour, I decided to delve into the rest of the album. Looking at the track list, I saw the name of the second song on the CD, “I Do Not Hook Up.”

Are you serious? “My Life Would Suck Without You” was an awkward name for a song but the spirit of this line is cute and this sentences was effectively used in the song. Now a song about not “hooking up,” refusing to get together with someone physically or otherwise? “I Do Not Hook Up” sounds more like the title to a song advocating celibacy to pre-teens than a mainstream pop song. It all made sense when I found out that this song was originally written and recorded by the queen of quirky, cute and tongue in cheek statements of feminism, Katy Perry.

In 2005 Katy Perry completed recorded solo debut (A) Katy Perry. Her record company planned to release this album later that year but was later canceled and never released because they could not figure out how to promote Perry. It wasn’t until One of the Boys released in 2008 that she released her first album. Katy Perry wrote and performed “Hook Up” which Clarkson recorded as “I Do Not Hook Up.”

The two recordings are more similar than they are different. Katy Perry’s sassy vocals lack the vocal strength of Kelly Clarkson, but they have just as much personality and attitude. The difference can be heard in the nuances that Perry adds in the verses and the high note at the end of bridge that Clarkson sails up to that Perry doesn’t attempt.

The statement of “I don’t hook up” in the mind of Katy is not a defensive explanation to the advances of a boy but a powerful declaration of self-confidence and self-respect. The lyrics start with asking the guy to stop drinking because he has “too much talent.” She asks him to “give up the game and get into me” focusing more on her as a person than the "thrill of the chase." The second verse has a cute line stating that “I can’t cook, no but I can clean up the mess you left” playing on the expectation of the woman’s gender roles denying the stereotype of woman being the ones who should be able to cook while embracing woman’s instinct to nurture.

The biggest difference in the lyrics is the chorus. Clarkson sings “I do not hook up, I go slow, so if you want me I don’t come cheap, keep your head on my hand and your heart of your sleeve.” While Clarkson’s line “keep your head on my hand” implied focusing on her a person, Perry’s original line “keep your thing in your pants” is far more humorous and to the point.

“I Do Not Hook Up” is not going to change anyone’s ideas about sexuality and hooking up, but it’s nice change of pace to have a song about the power of a woman to heal a man by helping him focus on the emotional part of the relationship.

One of the things I love about my wife Diana is that from the first day I met her she has had a clear idea about the way that she deserves to be treated and she has never been afraid to express this to me. It has made being her boyfriend, fiance and husband much easier than I ever imagined because I know she feels about herself and that she will let me know if I'm not off-base in my actions.

Sometimes we are afraid to make statements about who we are in fear that it will turn people away and the truth is that sometimes stating our beliefs about ourselves do scare people. But the people who turn away from true expressions of who you are never would have liked you anyways and the people who are attracted to that strength are worth sharing with the world the honesty in our hearts, even if that declaration is "I do not hook up!"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne

“I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.”
Xander from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 2: "Innocence"

Welcome to the mind of a teenage boy. It is a scary place to be.

While Xander’s comment is a little sarcastic, it has a grain of truth in it. Hormones often drive teenage boys beyond reason and logic. It’s not even about sexuality rather it’s about the idea and fantasy of sex, which is exactly what “Stacy’s Mom” is really about.

Even though there is little in my mind that is more disgusting and insidious than statutory rape regardless of the gender of the people involved, the idea of a boy having a crush on someone’s mom is funny. It’s such preposterous idea that we can’t help but laugh at it. At the same time we giggle at the ridiculousness of the idea of a boy being “in love” with someone’s mom, some people can relate to this idea. Not so much of the idea of having a crush on someone’s mom but having a unrealistic crush whether it be on a teen idol, model or actress.

Most of Fountains of Wayne’s music reflects the drudgery and depression of blue color America. Songs like “Hackensack” are melon collie reflections the failure of the middle class subruban dream.

While Fountains of Wayne’s other songs contemplates the reality of life, “Stacy’s Mom” reflects on a fantasy. The protagonist explains to his girlfriend that he’s more into Stacy’s mom then he is into Stacy. This premise has the potential for a Graduate style catastrophe but instead the ideas stay in the realm of fantasies.

Our narrator describes Stacy’s mom as “got it going on.” Who really uses that phrase anymore? It’s like this boy heard this line in a movie and is trying to awkwardly describe to his friends the prowess of Stacy’s mom. This boy’s hormones have clearly distorted his sense of reality as he interprets her criticizing his lawn mowing technique as a sign that she likes him.

Even though we know how realize how stupid this kid is acting, we celebrate along with his fantasy because deep down we all know what it’s like to excited about a dream. Sometimes living in a fantasy, even an idiotic one is makes us feel better about life.

“Stacy’s Mom” will always have a special place in my heart, not because I have memories of being infatuated with someone’s mom. I can say emphatically that that has never happened.

During graduate school at Northwestern University, my main job assignment as a graduate student was to direct the Northwestern University Basketball Band (NUBB). I conducted the band at every single men’s and women’s basketball games (the band was split up into two groups).

Conducting this group was an incredible learning experience as a musician and a one of the funniest jobs I’ve ever had. I had a blast getting to know people in the job Conducting is always fun and when it’s popular music arranged for pep band, it’s a unique joy that is indescribable.

One of my favorite songs to conduct was “Stacy’s Mom.” The verses build beautifully into the chorus and because of its popularity it was a song the cheerleaders made a dance to it and the crowd had a great time singing along with.

The last game I conducted was a packed men's game. We invited marching band alumni to perform along with the band. This was one of the most stressful games I conducting because the large crowds made it hard to heard officials calls (which is how I knew when to start the band) and it was a musical and administrative challenge to manage the alumni.

The last song we played before the end of the game was "Stacy's Mom." The combination of relief that I had made it through game and the sheer musical joy of the song made a truly unforgettable musical experiences.

I gotta say, for that two an a half minutes it really felt like I had it going on.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ode To My Family by The Cranberries

Diana, Buffy and I are a family. We are a small family, fairly new and one of us is a little fluffy, but we are a family. We aren’t held together by blood but by what’s in our hearts. If this was all the family I had in my life, I would count myself as being blessed, but luckily for my family is much more than the three of us.

When I was child, family was my mom, dad and brother. Living together, growing up together, these three people were my world. No matter what life seemed to throw at me, they were there for me. I never imagined there would be anything else in my life that would come close to that.

Now that I’m older my family includes my immediate family, Diana’s family, and both of our extended families. Do all of these people hold the same meaning in my life as my extended family? Of course not, but they do share that feeling, comfort and warmth that can only come being a family. It’s feeling that the Cranberries describe as, “my mother, she held me, when I was out there.”

I first listened to “Ode To My Family,” after buying the Cranberries’ album No Need To Argue because I found out was the favorite band of a girl I had a crush on in high school. Did buying this album get anywhere with this girl? That would have necessitated me actually making a effort to talk to her. But this crush did bring me into the musical world of The Cranberries.

“Ode To My Family” is a reflective song that questions, “does anyone care?” while finding peace in the thoughts of family and growing up. Dolores O’Riordan’s thick Irish accent crackles with emotion as she works through feelings of frustration “you did not find me” and inner joy “unhappiness where’s when I was young.” Her voice through her careful whisper in the beginning of the songs to her pleading moans may be unfamiliar in their sound but are instantly relatable in their emotion.

It isn’t clear who Dolores is asking questions to in this song. Maybe a boyfriend who broke up with her, “But I miss you, ‘cause I liked it, when I was out there. Do you know this? Do you know you did not find me?” Maybe it’s just a reflection of feeling misunderstood by the world. Regardless there is a sense of feeling alone and desperate and after each one of these series of questions, like the warm summer breeze, the chorus reflects on what it was like to be young and part of a family. Her mother held her and her father liked her. Even though these things seem simple through the perspective of a child, being held and feeling like means the world.

When things would get tough in my world I used to find comfort in the memories of being home with my mother, father and brother. Even though there will always be a special place in my heart for my immediate family, I now find that same solace in many place: a house in Indiana with Diana’s extended family, playing scrabble with my in-laws and brother in-laws and cooking with my wife, while Buffy fights her reflection in the dishwasher.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Joy Of Cooking Vegan?!?

Edamame Hummus with Toasted Nan Bread
Seared Tofu & Shitake Mushroom “sandwiches” with a Teriyaki Sauce & Black Bean Glaze

Roasted Tomato and Bell Pepper soup with Filoni bread topped with roasted pine nut and garlic “butter”

We had one of Diana’s cousins and her husband over for dinner the other night. They are both vegan. These means that they do not eat any kind of meat but they also don't eat any dairy products including milk, cheese and butter.

When Diana asked last week, if we could have them over for dinner it seemed like a great opportunity to catch up with them and take on the challenge of cooking a vegan meal. I didn’t think about it a couple days and then I started trying to conceptualize what we could make for them.

Let’s, what kind of meat-less dishes do I make. Stir-fry vegetables, well no, I use chicken broth for that. I could do a curry, well there’s the broth again as well as that dollop of sour cream at the end that really pulls everything together. Salads, I could make a salad with lettuce and napa cabbage, with some garbanzo beans, topped with bacon and uh. . . hard boiled egg. Pasta, that’s easy, just roast some red pepper flacks, add some garlic and shallots, then toss in some nice penne and top with um. . . cheese. Well, I can do a tomato soup, without the milk which will go great with some garlic bread, that I CAN'T MAKE because it uses butter . . . SIGH.

Ok so I’m hitting a lot of road blocks.

I like to think of myself as an opened minded cook. Growing up at home cooking with my mom in the kitchen I learned how to cook mostly Asian orientated dishes, which is why it wasn’t until last month that I cooked a burger for the first time ever (it was great, we mixed in some shitake mushrooms and sweet onions). I can’t think of anything that I cook that is vegan, even when I’m eating celery sticks I dip them in Ranch dressing. So why am I bothering try to hard to figure out a vegan dinner? Well, like many things in my life, it goes back to my parents.

My sister-in-law is vegetarian and she has some vegan friends and when my mom has cooked for them and they have said that it’s the best vegan food they have ever eaten. I’m not competitive with my mom. I don’t have any no need to outdo her but whenever I’ve faced challenges in my life one of the things that keeps me going to knowing that my parents has faced similar ones and come out successful. When I was lonely in college my freshmen year across the country from friends and family I think of how my mom and dad came to America from Taiwan. If they could get through moving to a different country than I could survive college, and if my mom can cook vegan, well so can I.

After talking to my mom, wife and sister-in-law and doing some research I came up with a menu. The idea for the starters I got from my mom. The edamame hummus, is just ground edamame beans, some vegetable stock and instead of Tahini (ground sesame seed pasted used in hummus) I used sesame seed oil. The tofu dish is an argument that tofu can be full of flavor and have a pleasing texture. I stir-fried some chopped shitake mushroms with some olive oil, and finished it with some soy sauce. I put that aside while I made 2 inch by 1 inch squares out of tofu and got the moisture out of the tofu by pressing the pieces between two plates (this helps the tofu brown easier).

With two pieces of tofu like sandwich bread and the shitake as the filling, I seared one side of the of the sandwich in a pan with some canola oil until the tofu had a nice crispy crust, flipped the sandwich over, basted the top of it with a mixture of Teriyaki Sauce, black bean and garlic paste and hot sauce and stuck the pan in the oven to finish.

Roasted tomato soup is a recipe Diana got online. Basically instead of cooking tomatoes in the pot to reduce to get flavor, you roughly chop tomatoes and a bell better, top with olive oil and let the vegetables roast in the oven. While you do this, cook down some onions, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic in a pot. After about 40 minutes of roasting and the onions have caramelized, throw everything in a blender and you got soup.

The Filoni bread topped with pine nuts and roasted garlic “butter” was not so successful. I wanted to do make something like garlic bread so I roasted some pine nuts ground them and mixed them with olive oil and garlic and then put it on bread and toasted it. It tasted kind of like pesto but looked kind of baby spit-up.

Even with the Filoni bread, the meal was a success and our vegan guest really enjoyed the meal. I put a lot of time into making this meal. I went to three different grocery stores (one twice because I forgot my wallet the first time) and probably spent about 3 or 4 hours cooking. Diana didn’t ask me to and in no ways did Diana’s cousin and her husband make me feel obligated to make that kind of effort. This was all my choice.

Sharing a meal with friends and family is an intimate and powerful experience. It feels amazing when you are the one that provides the food that is central to the experience that can make any ordinary night, special.

So mom, I did it. It was one of the more challenging meals I’ve put together and it turned our great. I know that I don’t need to prove that I’m you son, but it’s always nice when the little successes in life confirm that fact.

Up, Up And Away by The Men In Black

Here's a recording of the fateful performance that I discussed in the previous post (there is no video, just audio). The prelude to "Up, Up And Away" is a song "Behold Man" a song we sang my freshmen year in choir, which we didn't exactly love (ok, we hated it). Join me and experience the conceptual shift from the audacity of art music to THE FIFTH DIMENSION.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Up, Up And Away by The Fifth Dimension

Stories about those moments in college that you will never forget seem to be part of college experience for almost everybody. These are the moments outside of class doing things that can only be understood with “college logic” that define not only the college experience but who we are as people.

That may be laying it on a bit thick, because if that’s the case than The Fifth Dimension, an adult contemporary group from the late 1960s helped defined who I am. Now that’s a scary thought.

On December 2nd, of my Junior year in college a group of my fraternity brother and I performed “Up, Up And Away” by the Fifth Dimension (complete with choreography) in front of a full audience in Lutkin Hall at Northwestern University.

During college, I was a member of the Iota Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a music themed fraternity. We did similar activities to other fraternities but we also had a men’s choir, various other musical ensembles and put on recitals once a quarter. Many of us were good friends with the Beta Chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota (my wife was a member), which was a music fraternity for woman. They had a choir as well and other musical groups. Socially and professionally, the two organizations supported each other, going to each other’s events and having joint recitals and other events.

So when we found an men's choir arrangement of “Up, Up And Away” in a library sale, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do a parody of Sigma Alpha Iota’s a capella group, Ladies In Red. In that moment the group Men In Black was born.

Where Ladies In Red, worked hard to do legitimate a capella arrangements of current pop songs, we were working off a four part arrangement of a song that perfectly combined the watered down musicality of adult contemporary music with the bland non-offensive sound of easy listening. “Up, Up And Away” was an enormously popular song which won four Grammy’s including record and song of the year. This song clearly deserved it winning over other songs that came out in 1967 like “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones. Oh, Grammy's does your irrelevance ever fail to surprise us?

We enlisted the help of a couple more fraternity brothers and began rehearsing. This was not the easiest song to sing. Between the four key changes and thick harmonies there was quite a bit of work to do. Even though, as one of my friends put it, “the Eagles were more black than the Fifth Dimension,” they sang with a beautiful blend of and great harmonies.

Now you remember that I mentioned that the audience was full when were performed “Up, Up And Away?” That wasn’t the norm for our recitals. Usually the audience of Phi Mu Alpha recitals was primarily made up from woman from Sigma Alpha Iota. We were trying to figure out ways to get a bigger audience so we made a deal with the Northwestern School Of Music. We would promote their series of chamber music concerts and have two of the School Of Music chamber groups perform in our recital and the School Of Music would list us as part of their chamber music series.

Back then, there was a requirement that School Of Music, that all students had to go to certain number of performances as part of their grade. Towards the end of the quarter students would realize that they haven’t been to enough concerts and this joint venture between the School Of Music and Phi Mu Alpha was one of the last music concerts of that quarter.

It would have been one thing if we performed “Up, Up And Away” in front of friends but the fact that we did it in front of music majors was something different altogether. We performed right after a Beethoven string quartet and I remember right before starting the song, looking out at this audience thinking what a horrible idea this was, but once we started it was a blast and believe it or not the audience loved it.

Men In Black performed a couple more times, but nothing matched the magic of our first performance. There was something so spur of the moment and exciting about doing something fun for no other reasons but to be silly. Music can do a lot of things and “Up, Up And Away” helped me take myself less seriously as a “Music Major” and realize that sometimes the music itself isn’t the most important thing but it is the experience that you share with friends that is most meaningful.

On second thought, I think I would be up for performing this "Up, Up And Away" again, but only with the Men In Black.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rainy Days And Mondays by The Carpenters

I grew up on Mercer Island, which is a suburb of Seattle. When I tell people this, one of the first people comments people say is “it rains a lot in Seattle, you must like the rain.” arrgh.

There’s a couple things that irritate me about this statement, first off Seattle doesn’t even make the top ten list of rainiest cities. And really, even if Seattle was the rainiest city how does that mean that people from Seattle like the rain?

Who really loves the rain? It’s raining right now in Chicago not with the sprinkle of summer rain but the torrential “walk outside for 5 seconds to walk the dog and come in and need a complete change of clothes” kind of rain.

Most of us tolerate rain because we know we need it and it makes us appreciate the sunshine all that much more. Rain is the valley that makes the peak that much more amazing, but knowing this doesn’t mean you like being in the valley, it just means that you’ve figured out a way to look on the bright side of something that is innately depressing like rain.

Combine the grossness of rain with having a “case of the Mondays” and really could it get much worse?

I’m sitting here, it’s raining, it’s Monday, perfect time to listen to “Rainy Days & Mondays.” When you are in a bad mood and you listen to a song that is about being sad, it doesn’t make the bad mood go away, it just makes you feel better knowing that you aren’t alone in your feelings. However listening to Karen Carpenter, instead of feeling better about my bad mood, I'm realize I'm not feeling that bad.

Talking to myself and feeling old
Sometimes I'd like to quit
Nothing ever seems to fit
What I've got they used to call the blues
Nothing is really wrong
Feeling like I don't belong

“Rainy Days & Mondays” is one of the best descriptions of the feeling of depression in popular music. It’s wanting to give up, not because something is wrong but because you feel you don’t have a place. We’ve all had these times in our lives where we’ve felt this way and gotten through them but listening to this song you can’t help but wonder if Karen Carpenter ever did herself.

Karen Carpenter died of heart failure at age 32 of heart failure because of weakened heart muscles due to anorexia nervosa. In 1983, the year she died, the public knew little about eating disorders and Karen’s death raised awareness of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. I don’t know if Karen was singing about her own depression in her music or it was just part of her skills as a singer. Either way you can’t help but wonder.

I know that The Carpenters could not sound more adult contemporary but behind the squeaky-clean image was one the greatest voices in popular music. Her voice is like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. There’s a scene when her character Penny Lane finds out that she has been lost in a bet for $50 and a case of beer (3:30 in).

There’s a smile and a swagger on the outside but a pain on the inside that even when is hidden is in everything action. Optimism almost makes us forget the pain when shaking off tears looking into the sunlight, but the darkness haunts is never forgotten.

Listening to Karen Carpenter makes me cry. I don’t know why. She always gets to me and more than sad the Carpenter's music somehow makes me feel at peace. I just noticed that the sun has broken through the clouds and the rain has stopped. Rainy days and Mondays can’t last forever and it’s comforting to know that not only for myself but for Karen Carpenter.

Look like Buffy noticed that the sun came out too, well, I guess it’s time for a walk. C’mon girly, let’s go explore.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Take On Me by A-Ha

I listen to “Take On Me” every single day on the way to work, or at least the first couple seconds.

My wife and I listen to our iPods in the car and every day we update our playlists and podcasts. When we unplug our iPods from the computer the iPods resets and instead of starting from the last thing we were listening to it starts playing songs in by artist. So when we press play in our car it starts with A-Ha and plays “Take On Me.”

At least half the time, I’m not really thinking about what I want to listen to and I let my iPod play “Take On Me” and when I realize that I’m listening to “Take On Me” again, I grumble but once the chorus hits, I can’t help but smile.

My first exposure to “Take On Me” was the amazing music video. The rotoscope animation technique in which live action film is projected and each frame is traced over with pencil created a magical world bringing a comic book to life in a way that simply blew my mind.

The blend of live action and animation is reminiscent of the Mary Poppins with the girl in the diner being invited into the comic book. There is pure magic as she explores the world and the camera circles around a mirror with live action on one side and rotoscope animation on the other. A chase ensues, she makes it back to the real world and in the end the guy comes out of the comic banging against the walls shaking off his animated self in one of the most unforgettable moments in music videos.

Is “Take On Me” really about a comic book come to life experience? Not really, but what the music video captures is the sense of wonder and magic that comes from looking into eyes of someone you love. That’s really all this song is about.

Often in music, male protagonists are boastful and self-assured but in “Take On Me” the main character is shy and sweet. Here is a guy who sees a girl that he likes, doesn’t have any lines and is shy himself but is willing to push past this because as he states in the second verse, “it’s no better to be safe than sorry.”

Even more than the lyrics of this song, what sticks out in many people’s minds is Morten Harket’s lead vocals. The chorus of this song starts low and gets high, really high. From the bottom note to the top note Harket covers the range of two and a half octaves. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is often criticized for its difficulty to sing, only covers the range of an octave and a half. In case you had any doubts that this was a legit performance and produced with studio magic, check out this impromptu live performance they did in 2005.

Steve Perry of Journey ain’t got nothing on this guy. Harket’s heartfelt performance makes the angular coldness of the frenetic synthesized backgrounds seem at peace. They seem right, it’s hard to imagine this song any other way. Maybe it’s nostalgia. I grew up listening to this song any it reminds me of a simpler time but Diana didn’t. She’s never watched the music video in its entirety but she loves this song as well.

Great music transcends its genre. “Take On Me” is the perfect example of 1980s New Wave music, a cleaned-up synthesized reaction to punk music of the 1970s. If you strip away what characterizes “Take On Me” as New Wave you are left with a great pop song with honest lyrics and a simple but catchy chorus, that is hilarious fun is singalong with.

“Take On Me” is about seeing a possibility, hoping for the best and taking a chance. When you think about it, "Take On Me" really is the perfect song to start the day with.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bogoróditse Dévo by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Freedom to worship, freedoms of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble.

As American these are the freedoms promised by the Constitution of the United States. When we think of our right as individuals, these freedoms come to mind. There are many other freedoms we enjoy including the freedom to experience art. We can choose what television shows we want to watch and what music we want to experience. There are many societies in which, what we call “basic” freedoms are but a dream. And in Communist U.S.S.R. many freedoms were taken away including not only the freedom to create art but also the freedom to experience it.

Rachmaninoff composed “Bogoroditse Devo” as part of his setting of the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil ceremony for a capella choir. He composed this work in 1915 partly to benefit the Russian war effort. The Moscow Synodal Choir premiered this piece and it was performed five more times within a month because of its popularity with critics and audiences. With the rise of the Soviet Union, a ban was put on all religious music from the Marxist idea of religion being “the opiate of the masses.” The Synodal Choir was replaced by the nonreligious “People’s Choir Academy” marking the end of an era of Russian music.

With the fall of communism in Russia, people were finally allowed to worship in the open and embrace the culture that had been taken away. When “Bogoroditse Devo” was finally performed again, it was received as a long lost relative forcefully taken away. People in the audience wept as they were finally free to not only experience this music but to connect to their inner spirituality reminding them of all that was lost.

“Bogorodiste Devo” has almost medieval quality to it that captures the mysticism of the Russian Orthodox religion. It combines modern harmonic progressions with a variety of different textures. In the beginning, all the parts are singing the same rhythm (known in musical terms as “homophony”). This musical technique makes the voices feel as one unit with the deliberate and careful motion of a monastic chant.

The middle section of the piece that builds into the climax features the different choral parts singing different melodies (polyphony). Rachmaninoff creates a sense of motion as the alto lines meander while the other voices sing slowly rising sustained notes. The polyphony builds to a euphoric climax gently relaxes down until all the voices come back together in the last couple measures moving with homophony into quiet reflection.

One of the many pieces of advice Diana and I got when planning our wedding was to make sure we take a moment in the ceremony to take it all in. There is so much going on during the day it’s easy to forget to just stop and enjoy the day. So we decided to plan this moment during the ceremony and the unity candle lighting seemed like the perfect time for us to reflect on the service.

Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned. We didn’t bring a candle to the ceremony so we “borrowed” one from the church (or another ceremony that was going on, I’m not sure). The ceremony starts, we get to the candle lighting, the choir starts singing “Bogoroditse Devo,” and then we can’t get the candle lit. I think what you’re suppose to do for a wedding ceremony is have a smaller candle lit on the side and light the bigger candle.

We didn’t think of that so all we had a lighter, one of those 8 inches long deals that is suppose to light when you squeeze the trigger. Yeah it didn’t light after the first 5 tries. I was about to enlist the help of the groomsmen when the lighter decided to work. It was one of those things that you just got to laugh at and regardless it was beautiful moment.

Music has a way of taking us to different places, making the world dissolve away. Even though “Bogoroditse Devo” is less then three minutes it takes us on an incredible journey, from the smallest feeling of wonder to the incredible glory of spirituality.

Monday, August 10, 2009

“Buffy? Why would you name your dog that?!?”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) is one of the greatest television shows ever. Time included BTVS in their "100 Best TV Shows of All Time feature. Entertainment Weekly ranked this show number 10 on its list of top 100 television shows from 1983 to 2008 and TV Guide two BTVS episodes on its list of top 100 episodes of all time at #14 and #78.

To people who have never watched BTVS, it's is a campy show for teenage girls that features painful 1990s fashion, laughable bad special effects, and ridiculous plot lines. In reality, BTVS features an amazing ensemble cast, incredible writing and some of the most powerful stories about the human condition you will ever see on television. BTVS is a seamless amalgamation of almost every television genre including: drama, horror, soap-operas, comedies, suspense, mystery, science-fiction and even musicals.

Honestly though, the critical merits of the BTVS had nothing to do with why we named our dog after this show. If that was our plan our dog would be name Casablanca.

While we were planning on getting Buffy one of the questions I asked people was how they came up with their dog’s name. Some people name their dogs after someone they know. Others have a nonsensical name that they enjoy like Weebles or Bitsy. However, most people I talked to named their dog after something in their lives they were a fan of.

Before you conclude that it’s “geeky” to name our dog after a television show like BTVS or conclude that we are “dorky” for even enjoying the show, think about this. There are Cubs fans who can name every player on the team, who watch every single game, read about the team in the newspaper and spend time debating with their friends results and future predictions. Is that really all that different then being able to name the titles to all of the episodes of a show, know the names of the actors and writers, watch episodes, read analysis of episodes and debate the merits of different plot points?

Being fascinated and passionately engrossed in something like sports, music, television, books, is an beautiful thing. It connects us to people around us who share our passion and enriches our lives through meaningful experiences that define who we are. The only difference between being passionate about the Cubs and Star Trek is that for some irrational reason our society considers one “cool” and the other one “geely.” There is nothing innately “cooler” about sports, so let’s get our heads out of middle school.

Embrace what you love and embrace what your friends love. It’s a beautiful thing to hear about people talking about what they love and it’s a horrible feeling to have something that is very meaningful be degraded as not being “cool.”

BTVS is my wife and I’s favorite television show of all time, but there’s more to naming our dog Buffy than advertising to the world that we enjoy this show.

When I hear the name Buffy, I think of the my friend Jen, who harassed me for years to give BTVS a chance. I think of my favorite podcast Comic Geek Speak, that did an episode about BTVS that finally convinced me to give the show a chance, but most of all I think what it means to share my life with my wife, Diana.

I remember having to convince Diana to watch the first episode and watching her skepticism melt away into excitement. There were moments in the seven seasons like that made us cry, laugh and rejoice. I remember finishing the final episode and seeing the smile on Diana’s face and reveling in the fact that she loved the show so much that the next day she began re-watching the show. In some ways, Diana loves this show even more than I do and it warms my heart knowing that I was able to introduce her to something that has brought her so much joy.

We knew that getting a puppy would not be my thing or Diana’s thing, it would be something that we would share in our lives. So it only made sense that the name Buffy, a name that instantly reminds us of the meaning that comes from sharing my life with Diana would be the perfect name for our new puppy.

Anyways, someone has to stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. It might as well be the dog.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mad World by Tears for Fears/Michael Andrews & Gary Jules/Adam Lambert

1982-Tears for Fears, a British New Wave band releases “Mad World” as their third single becoming their first hit on the United Kingdom singles chart.

2003-Michael Andrews and Gary Jules covers “Mad World” for the Donnie Darko soundtrack reaching number one on the British charts.

2009-Adam Lambert sings “Mad World” as one of one of the finalists on American Idol.

It’s amazing to think that after twenty-one years after its original release “Mad World” would become a hit and even more mind-boggling that “Mad World” would help propel an American Idol contestants to become the runner-up and one of most popular American Idols contestants.

“Mad World” by Tears for Fears on initial listening is an unremarkable song. Its synthesized New Wave instrumentation instantly make the song sound dated. The driving tempo and pulsing drums sounds like s a dance club song, however if you listen past the “blips and bloops” and focus on the lyrics an emotional rawness is revealed.

The lyrics of “Mad World” express a bleak world view. The song opens observing “familiar faces” that are “going nowhere.” In reaction to this the singers is crying wanting to “drown my sorrow.” The chorus bring us deeper into the thoughts of the protagonist contemplating how he feels about his own depression.

And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I ever had
I find it hard to tell you ‘cause I find it hard to take
When people run in circles, it’s a very, very . . . mad world.

The idea that people are running in circles without meaning feels like insanity to the singer. The contemplating of dying engenders a feeling of humor and sadness, which evokes a sense of madness in the main character. The singer rather die than live life aimlessly. It is kind of funny and kind of sad to conclude that death is the only way to make sense out of the insanity of life.

Some lyrics are ambiguous enough in their meaning that imagining different interpretations is no problem. Even though the words in “Mad World” don’t seem to leave a lot open for interpretation different performer have found different meaning in this song.

Tears for Fears with their faster tempo and synthesized sounds has paranoid feel. The jagged instrumental lines have a feeling of insanity. Here there is a man sitting in an apartment in a futuristic distopia frustrated, angry and scared not so much of the world but what his emotions are doing to himself.

Michael Andrews and Gary Jules interpretation of “Mad World” is similar to Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’“Hurt.” The slower tempo and simpler background instruments expresses a feeling of solitude and quiet contemplation. Instead of anger, there is a feeling of letting go and giving up. It just doesn’t make sense. Shivering, tired and close to tears, he no longer has anything left.

Adam Lambert takes the arrangement of Andrews and Jules and adds the anger and bitterness from the Tears for Fears version. The purity of Lambert’s voice against the lyrics expresses a feeling of disappointment, an innocence lost. Here is a man in conflict struggling with the world around him near the point of giving up.

There is one more interpretation to consider that bring forth the soul of "Mad World." In 2006, in front of a choir and full orchestra, Curt Smith from Tears for Fears performed “Mad World.”

What instantly hits the ear is the sonic world that it revels to us that this song is not so much about the individual but the “mad world.”

Every interpretation is a different reaction to the same world. Within the constructs of the song there is universality in the meaning of this song, the idea that we all at some time see the world as being insane. These different performances remind us that we all react to the world in our own unique way. They challenges us to examine ourselves and questions whether what we find inside is kind of funny or kind of sad.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wake Up by Arcade Fire

I love movie trailers.

I regularly check movie trailer websites, multiple times a day. I wouldn’t say that I’m addicted to them, but I just really get a kick out of them. At their best a movie trailer is piece of art all by itself. In the same way I remember hearing pieces of music for the first time, I remember watching certain movie trailers. I vividly remember watching the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and just being awestruck. The moment when Qui-Gon introduces Anakin to Obi-Wan and OMG, seriously that moment when Darth Maul opened up both sides of his lightsaber: awesome.

Honestly some movies aren’t very good but have trailers that rock. The trailer for Seven Years In Tibet is amazing. I’ve never watched this film, don’t really care to, but man what a trailer.

Some trailers capture everything that’s in the film. If you don’t have the time or patience to watch The Lord of the Rings, watch the super-trailer. Everything’s there in under seven minutes.

One thing that almost every good trailer that I’ve seen shares is great music. I’ve discovered many songs from film trailers. The first time I heard “Heart Of The Matter,” (which I’ve done a post about), was in the Sex And The City trailer.

I recently saw the new Harry Potter film, and it was preceded by a trailer for the film Where The Wild Things Are, based on the book. I was never a big fan of the book growing up but the combination of the music and the images was stunning.

“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire is a beautiful mess of sonic energy. The chorus of the “ah” at the start of the song has a symphonic and epic energy. The sounds that are used, the rock band with strings is not a unique combination of the instruments but the arrangement of these ingredients has a fresh and unique sound. The primal drums and dirty vocals have a rawness that is both unusual and instantly relatable.

The title of the song “Wake Up” refers to a line in the first section in which the song calls for children to wake up and “hold your mistakes up, before they turn summer into dust.” The song also calls us to think about what it means to grow up and what we have to do make it through our lives: “We’re just a million little God’s ‘causing’ rain storm tuning every good thing to rust, I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

“Wake Up” ends with a feeling of relief. “With my lighting bolts a glowing, I can see where I am going” expresses a sense of clarity. Lyrics don’t always have a literal meaning or even a symbolic meaning that can be explicated but they can still express a feeling and a meaning. There’s not a lot of words in “Wake Up” but the the context of the melodies adds power to each word that is sung.

Movie trailers don't guarantee anything about the film they advertise but at their best they condense the emotional core of the film down to a couple minutes. Is the expressive journey of Where The Wild Things Are going to be the same as "Wake Up"? I don't know, I hope it is and even if its not I'm sure that it's going to be an interesting journey.

If the film disappoints, I can live with that and I'll always be thankful to this film for introducing me to the world of Arcade Fire.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Joys of "walking" Buffy

Buffy is cute. I mean c'mon she thinks her reflection in the mirror is another dog:

I’m not saying this to brag but nearly to state the simple fact that like many baby animals Buffy is pretty adorable. There is a biological imperative for baby animals to be cute because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t have the patience or motivation to take care of them. Everything Buffy does from her sneezes to her groans is cute except for those choice moments when she farts when I’m holding her.

Now if you’re walking a puppy (or in Buffy’s case, alternating from walking to carrying the puppy) in a place that has a lot of foot traffic people will take notice of your puppy. I don’t know what it is about puppies, but they engender an array of reactions from people.

More often than not, people are polite, they wait for Buffy to approach them and ask Diana or I to pet them. Whenever you see a dog the best thing to do is wait for the dog to approach you, it’s a lot less intimidating for a dog. As friendly as some dogs are, sometimes they don’t want to be pet by a certain person for some reason and its best to let them feel comfortable on their own terms.

Sometimes puppies just don't feel like saying hi:

Then there’s the whole asking to pet thing. I guess it’s not essential, if Buffy goes up to a person and starts licking their feet and the person pets her it’s fine. Most people when they do this try quickly look at Diana and I to make sure its ok and most of the time it is.

A puppy is like a baby. You would never touch or hold someone’s baby without asking so when people try to pet Buffy when she doesn’t approach them and she isn’t in the mood I get pretty annoyed. People who do this aren’t so much who don’t know better but rather people who claim to be “dog people,” who know SO much about dogs that they feel like they can treat a puppy on the street likes its their own dog. I put “dog people” in quotes because people who do this really are not people who get dogs and respect dog owners. I like to think that I’m really good with kids. Through being a teacher and studying the adolescent mind I have a great understanding of them but that doesn’t mean I can see some cute kid on the street and start hugging them or strike up a conversation without the parent’s approval.

The scariest moment was when a lady who claimed “to love dogs” and be a “dog person” picked up Buffy without asking. First off, this lady could have just stolen Buffy and the other thing is that in this lady’s arms, it’s a lot harder for me to protect Buffy from a traumatic experience. Puppies need to have consistent positive interactions with all kinds of people in order for a puppy to grow to up friendly and secure dog. For example, if a puppy doesn’t have positive interactions with men as a puppy he or she will likely grow up to be a dog who is fearful of men and be more likely to bite one. Like with human children it only takes one bad experiences to emotionally scar a puppy. If someone is petting Buffy in a bad way or approaches her in a way that scares her I can just pick her up and walk away but if someone picks her, it’s a different story. That lady was unbelievable and had REALLY long finger nails [shudder]. Thank God, she handed Buffy over when I asked and that Buffy didn’t seem to mind the experience.

The majority of people are the street are great about wanting to meet Buffy. Often times parents will be walking around with children and the kid will notice Buffy and want to pet her. All the parents I’ve encountered take this as a teachable moment, telling their children how them ask politely if they can pet Buffy and then will teach their children how and where to pet Buffy. It’s really cute to see how exciting this is for little kids.

The other day I was out with Buffy and approaching me was a nurse who was pushing a elderly man in a wheel chair. The man was non-verbal and had significant issues with his motor control. As I approached, the nurse got excited about Buffy. Buffy ran towards the man and so I picked her up so she could meet the nurse and the man. The nurse was great with Buffy and as she petted her, Buffy turned her attention to the man. I brought Buffy a little bit closer to the man and she proceeded to lick his hand. Even though the expression in the man’s face didn’t change you could see the excitement in his eyes. As we walked away, the nurse said thanked us and said that this was the highlight of the man’s week. I got to admit it, that was one of the highlights of my week as well.

And yes, Buffy is a “chick magnet.” Out of all the people who come up and want to meet Buffy, maybe 98% are woman. Once there was a woman almost got hit by a car running across the street to meet Buffy. I don’t totally understand it, I just got to remember that when they are swooning over the cute-ness of Buffy that they aren’t talking about me . . . or are they?