I read an article last week ranking the best entries in a book series about seminal albums in music history, and I got curious. The series is called 33 1/3 (RPM for LP vinyl, you whippersnappers) and it covers everything from the Rolling Stones to Public Enemy. The authors are different for each volume, and there are (as of this writing) 120 books in total. Intrigued, I looked through Amazon’s listings, found that Paul’s Boutique was rated highly, and bought a used copy.
The books themselves are small, but there’s a pleasing amount of information per page. Dan Le Roy, the author, starts out at the launch party for the album and then resets the clock to the end of the Licensed to Ill tour, explaining where the band was creatively, why they moved to L.A., how they eventually met the Dust Brothers and a man named Matt Dike (the unsung third producer of the album), smoked a mountain of weed, somehow recorded the album, and details the aftermath of the release (which bombed). The end of the book is a track-by-track runthrough of the album which goes into short detail about the stories, samples, and background of each.
I was not a fan of Licensed to Ill when it was released; all the proto-bros in my high school loved it, which didn’t compute (these were the same casual racists who hated rap and loved Slayer) and I couldn’t stand the nasal whine of their delivery.
Paul’s Boutique is a touchstone from my college years, after I’d been exposed to De La Soul, Tribe, and Jungle Brothers, and found that I did, in fact, like hip hop. The first time I heard it I was blown away by how different it was from what had come before. It was the soundtrack of most of the parties I was at in the latter half of college. It stands as a monument in my life for a time of optimism, poverty, boundless creative energy, and a sudden discovery of who I was and what I was good at for the first time in my life.
We went up to Syracuse to visit my folks last weekend and check out their new house, which is lovely. It’s the first time we’ve seen them since Finn’s christening. They bought in a 20-year-old development, so everything is modern, well-kept, and easily accessible, both in the house and in the town. The house itself isn’t huge but the floorplan makes it larger than it is. The basement is easily twice the size of ours. They are happy and comfortable, and that’s the best thing that could have ever happened to them.
The weather has finally broken from Seattle-like rainfall and temperatures to a balmy mid-80’s heat, and the Mid-Atlantic humidity is creeping in as I write this. I’ve got a list of summer prep chores to get to over the long weekend–A/C units in the windows, humping summer clothes around the house, setting up an attic fan–and pulling the top off the truck, which I’m looking forward to.
I’m about 300+ pages into The City Of Mirrors, the final book in the Passage trilogy, and I’m enjoying it so far. The first two books were engrossing and written much better than the standard post-apocalyptic/vampire novel, and I savored re-reading them slowly last month to prepare for this book. That’s about all I’ll say without getting spoilery.
I’m beginning to write down syllabus ideas for next semester’s class, and basing the structure on a couple of books: Alina Wheeler’s Brand Identity, David Airey’s Logo Design Love, and Debbie Millman’s Brand Bible. I’ve got a couple of old syllabi from previous classes and a handful of notes and ideas I’ve written down during the last year. This semester is going to involve a lot more workshop-style learning and hands-on work, which seemed to be the thing that made the light bulbs go on.
I’ve been speed-reading a lot of detective fiction on the train over the last year, but I took a break this week to crack open Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg, the Last Invasion. It’s a thick, scholarly tome which takes the first 250 pages (of my e-book version) to set the stage before the first shot is fired along the Cashtown Pike. It’s a good read, although I got weary of the buildup after a while and skipped to the opening skirmishes. I’ve got two volumes of Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt standing by; if I can downshift into history for a while, perhaps I can dig into these too.
Scales of Justice Dept.: A jury convicted all four Blackwater operatives of the Nisour Square shooting back in 2007. This is good news, but it should have happened seven years ago. The fact that it took this long to come to its conclusion is another sad postscript to the shit foreign policy of a shit Presidency.
Also, it was great to see they convicted this asshole too.
I’ve got another month or so of class left before the semester is over, and I have to admit I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule. Getting up at 5:30 to be in Washington by 7:15 two days out of the week has my sleep schedule completely out of whack. With all that’s going on at work, I need the time I spend traveling back to stay ahead.
There’s not much to report around here. I spent the majority of the weekend behind a desk working on an illustration, but we were able to get out a bit on Saturday to run errands with the girls and visit the Hoerrs’ barbecue in the evening. Sunday I ran the Scout up for the first time in two weeks and took her for a quick drive to the hardware store in beautiful fall weather.
While working, I’ve been doing a lot of research online about the battle of Gettysburg. My Dad has been talking about coming down to visit the battlefield, and this coming Friday we have plans to drive out there and see it. In preparation, I figured I’d find a copy of the Killer Angels, a historical novel based on the battle–something I’ve been meaning to check out for a while now. I got it on Amazon and started listening to it while at work, and it’s very good. I also had Netflix send me Gettysburg, which was made in 1993 and based on the novel. Certain parts of the film feel very dated (the production started out as a miniseries and from an aesthetic point of view it still feels very much like one) but the battle scenes are breathtaking and it definitely helped put faces to names and places (now I can only see Tom Berenger sporting a huge set of muttonchops when I hear of General Longstreet).
The novel focuses on several characters instead of jumping all over the battlefield, so it does a great job of personalizing the experience, but it fails to give a clear overall picture. I found several programs on Youtube dedicated to the overall battle, one of which was produced by the History Channel and which provides a broader view, and goes into detail about the technology and backstory. The show explains the design of the minié ball, different types of cannon ammunition, and reliance on Napoleonic tactics in the face of modern ballistics, helping make sense of the battle and why it was fought a certain way. It also sheds light on the incredible courage and waste of famous maneuvers like Pickett’s Charge; why else would thousands of men line up in neat rows and march straight into cannister fire from massed artillery?
There are also some podcasts available to help tour the battlefield, which I downloaded and put on my old iPhone for our trip. By the end of the week, I won’t be an expert on the subject, but I’ll at least know enough to be informed.
Monday we have plans to see Antietam, in Sharpsburg, which is another story entirely. I’ve done some preliminary research on this battle, but we’ll be joined by my cousin Brad, who I’m told is well schooled on the subject and willing to take us on a tour.
As noted earlier, we took advantage of mostly decent weather on Saturday to trim all of the branches off each of the shrubs flanking our front door. I spent about two hours digging out as much of the root structure as possible, but due to hard-packed clay 3″ below surface, I couldn’t get the first one to budge. I took some breaks to haul two loads of brush off to the dump and got a third load into the back of the Scout before calling it a day, but we still have ugly stumps to deal with. The plan is to rent a jackhammer next weekend and try to dig them out with brute force.
Sunday was cold, wet, and gray, so we made ourselves a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon, packed ourselves into the car, and drove to IKEA. There we found a shelving unit the perfect size for tucking into the wall between the back door and chimney, and bought eight wicker bins to go inside. The afternoon and evening were spent moving furniture to make way for a new arrangement; there’s a big shelf in the living room filled with toys and some long-hibernating books (stuff I’d forgotten I even had) across from the couch. The library table is now up against a wall with the carpenter’s chest tucked underneath. The den has a big empty wall waiting for some kind of decoration, and the new shelf holds a good portion of Finn’s toys with all the A/V equipment on top.
A conversation with my neighbor confirmed my suspicion that we’ll need a new head unit that will accept multiple inputs and upconvert all of them over one HDMI cable to the TV. I’m also going to have to bite the bullet and replace my speakers, a pair of Baby Advents that I bought before shipping off to college; the foam of the woofers has dried and degraded to dust in places. Either way, I’d like to get some unobtrusive surround speakers with a subwoofer and hide as much as possible instead of staring at two big cabinets on the floor.
Unpacking, I uncovered two dogeared books from my past that made me smile. The first is Building Speaker Enclosures, published by Radio Shack sometime in the middle 80’s. I bought this before college, and sourced all of the speaker components in the days before the internet, which dictated several trips to Canal Street in NYC to visit car audio outlets for 8ohm woofers, crossovers, and other electronic components. (Lugging two 15″ woofers through the subway and home on the Metro North was quite an experience.) Much of my current tool collection was started when I brought the materials down to my apartment and assembled the boxes on the dining room table. The speakers are still sitting in the basement, water-stained and yellowing, waiting for me to buy new birch plywood and cut clean new boxes to transplant the electronics into. Tucked into the pages are the handwritten notes and calculations I used to design and build the boxes, scrawled on the backs of scrap paper and envelopes.
The second book was stored in the carpenter’s chest under all our A/V equipment. It’s a blue sketchbook with a picture of Elvis duct-taped to the cover, and it’s a record of a trip to Graceland my buddy Pat and I took in March of 1992. We made it to Elvis’ house, then continued westward as far as Paris, Texas before swinging north and heading for home, for a total of 3,346 miles. It’s a rambling diary written by two guys stuck in a compact pickup truck for seven days, and as any diary should, my writing makes me cringe. Pat’s writing is funny and direct. The pictures we took are taped in and annotated as best we could, including stops at Manassas, the Waffle House, the St. Louis Arch, a land-locked submarine, and the Flying Tigers Museum. It contains some of the only documentation I have of that pickup and time period. I’m going to put it up on my shelf in a place of honor.
Finn and I slept about half the night on the guest bed after she woke from a nightmare. Waking this morning was made more difficult by the timechange and the fact that I’d stayed up reading the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. My two-second review: Not as good as the first one. This one had to do some catching up and then settled into a second act of boy A-vs-boy B angst. I stopped at the beginning of the third act, which is setting up for some ass-kicking. Bring on the ass-kicking.
Update: Sheesh. Not what I was hoping for. The main character goes from a motivated protagonist to an ineffectual, reactive observer. This book moved things along and set up the third book, but not in a logical, emotional, Empire Strikes Back way. Maybe the third book will wrap things up with more skill.
The weekend was filled with the completion of long-deferred home maintenance projects. Jen and I made a list and I knocked a bunch of them out after a trip to the Lowe’s and a minimal outlay of cash. Saturday evening we watched the original Let The Right One In, which was equal parts creepy and plodding.
Sunday we walked across the street to take in mass, and then continued working around the house. In the early afternoon I cut some access holes out of the TV mount and then pulled the top off the Scout for a ride over to look at a house with the in-laws. The verdict there was that it showed much better in the pictures than it did in person, and suffered from a lot of homeowner butchering. After some dinner and drinks we put the girl to bed and I transferred my latest batch of Chinook IPA into the secondary fermenter. The Dead Ringer keg is almost kicked, so there should be plenty of room to move it when it’s finished (another 3-4 weeks). The next beer in line is a saison, which is a pale French summer ale.
As if working until 2AM each night this week wasn’t bad enough, I had to start The Deathly Hallows on the plane ride home from Orlando last weekend. Which means I was up until 4AM last night, unable to put the book down.
Overall impressions, from page 350 or so: It’s good. Not having read any of the other books in the series besides the first (but having seen almost all the movies in the theater), I can follow most of the story arcs sucessfully. I’m enjoying the character development and the plot is beginning to pick up steam, although it dragged on a bit through the first third of the book.
Usually I’ll power through a book I like in one sitting (even books this big), but I made a conscious decision to slow down and savor this one as much as possible—it’s been a while since I had some good escapist fiction to read, and it’s a welcome alternative to sitting in front of an LCD for 3/4 of the day.
From the introduction of Imperial Grunts, by Robert D. Kaplan:
Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world, and in the process to become subject to all the world’s anxieties. …By the time an imperial reality becomes truly manifest, it is a sign that the apex of empire is at hand, with a gradual retreat more likely than fresh conquests.
(The first sentence is attributed to Erich Gruen, from The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome. )
There is a lot to learn from this book, both from the civilian noncombatant side and from the political realist’s side. I’m attempting to do some illustrations for this book as a self-commissioned project, and I find the conflicting messages it contains hard to boil down into digestible images. One one hand, the special teams we place in foreign countries (and there are a lot more than you think there are, in places you never imagined) are training indigenous armies, helping the local populations with health and sanitation projects, and providing security for government officials. On the other hand, they are severely limited by the Rules of Engagement to certain numbers of advisors, specific locations of operation, methods of training, and ability to engage in combat, which limits their abilities to influence real change. While these limitations are debatable on a case-by-case basis, the idea that narcotrafficking in places like Columbia could be severely curtailed by a 6-month field operation by one Alpha team (suggested by an SF operative in the book) is a tempting one.
That fundamental reality, in contrast to the wild west atmosphere of Mongolia experienced by the Alpha teams stationed there, is a jarring one. What I’m attempting to convey is a sense of ability and professionalism—I don’t think any of these soldiers is bloodthirsty or evil, even if I might not agree with the policy that put them where they are—with the underlying sense of frustration I feel from the stories they tell. These are guys who live in a storage container inside barbed-wire fences in 105° heat for months at a time, in constant danger of assassination, who then immunize the local population and help dig wells for their crops. It’s also fascinating to read about the newer generation of non Vietnam-veteran soldiers complain about the hangovers still lingering from that war—and realize that those lessons are important. I’d like to believe that the initial U.S. involvement in Vietnam (a handful of Special Forces advisors to the democratic government in the early ’60’s) was not begun with the eventual ramp-up in mind, but I also see increased combatant-level involvement in foreign countries as the slippery slope it is. Finally, it’s refreshing and humbling to read about the individual soldiers, who are handpicked because of their abilities, intelligence, and maturity—a far cry from the Rambo/loose cannon propaganda we Americans are fed daily. As mass-market entertainment, the solutions on the current TV show “The Unit” are tidy 45-minute happy endings, but they reflect a childish, immature view of real world problems.
I’m only halfway through the book now, but I’d recommend it for anyone who is interested in the way America is attempting to fight smaller wars on multiple fronts in the 21st century, based on the idea that a few men with the right ideas can force a major turn of events:
The notion that vast historical forces could be tipped by the right individuals exerting pressure in the right spot has always offered an attractive antidote to fatalism.
* * *
I’ve also been working on self-commissioned illustrations for an article that ran in the New Yorker a month or so back, about the Administration’s ignorance and subjugation of science for its own purposes. The New York Times magazine ran an article a few months ago on the same subject, and it’s something that resonated with me.
This is my first tentative set of steps back into the conceptual pool, and it’s going slowly and painfully. My brain was wired pretty well when I was in college to think editorially, but those muscles are weak and puny now. I’ve been hitting up against this wall for a week now, and while I have some things resolved I still can’t make the whole thing work correctly.
But now I’ve spent enough time writing and not enough time thinking. Back to work.