Sunday, January 31, 2016

How to Develop the Habit of Writing Every Day

“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”
~Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Having recently finished reading The Power of Habit (one of my habits being a habit of listening to audiobooks) it caught my attention this past week when I saw an article about a man who has been writing daily for 52 years, mostly in journals. Near the end of this Wall Street Journal piece was a sidebar on how to build a daily writing habit. The title of Clare Ansberry's January 27 story was 52 Years and Counting: The Power of Daily Writing.

I've been writing daily myself for many decades, with the exception of my most productive "artist years" during college. I often try to help young writers as much as I'm able, and this sidebar was by far one of the most concise set of instructions on how to develop the habit of writing. My definition of a writer is one who writes. If you've had trouble lighting the spark, here's a pretty good regimen to get you going.

How to build a daily writing habit.

One. Write 500 words every day for 28 consecutive days, preferably at the same time and same place, to create a routine.

Two. Don't worry about grammar or punctuation. Be willing to write badly. Authenticity is more important than excellence.

Three. Use prompts to get you going. Make a list of six of the stories you commonly tell. Get a photo and tell the story of that picture.

Four. Keep it private. If you show it to others, you might worry about what they will say and never start.

Five. If you can't think of what to write, describe the room you're in it you are in, what you are wearing, or a room from your childhood home, or what it felt like to brush your teeth.

Six. Carry a notebook to jot down ideas or a recollection, conversation or image.

Sidebar Source: Narrative Journaling: 28 days to writing more or less happily for the rest of your life, a workbook by Charlie Kempthorne.

* * * *

I myself have written a manuscript for parents who homeschool to help them teach writing. The approach I offer is both original and effective. The appendix includes 100 writing prompts. The book is tentatively titled Writing Exercises: How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else. If you have suggestions regarding a potential publisher or agent, I'd be most appreciative.

Meantime, if you're a writer, write on.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Random Recollections: Paul Kantner, R.I.P.

Paul Kantner passed away this week, and with all such passings there are many memories associated. Earlier this month we lost David Bowie, Dallas Taylor (drummer for CSN&Y) and Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, and it should now be apparent that until we ourselves make that final goodbye we of the Boomer generation will be tipping the hat to many others who made an impact on our lives through music, film, prose and other media.

As for me Kantner and the Jefferson Airplane were part of this fabric that formed the musical backdrop over which a portion of my life was played. Their "golden years" were the late Sixties and early Seventies, golden in part because we were young and naive. Birthed from the womb of the San Francisco music scene they were a symbol of counterculture rhetoric and lifestyle, and instrumental in the formation of our notions of acid rock.

I first saw the Jefferson Airplane at Wall Stadium in New Jersey, 1971. The weather was beautiful, the skies blue, the stadium packed. Earlier that spring it was rumored the Airplane would be in Washington D.C. for the anti-war rally on MayDay weekend. They were a no-show, proving that rumors are unreliable, though the Beach Boys performed and Phil Ochs turned out after midnight.

For several years I identified with the messages in my of their songs, including "Lather" (Crown of Creation) and "The Other Side Of This Life," which opens side B of Bless Its Pointy Little Head. Some of the music was escapist, and some clearly tapped into the nerve of youth's confusion and rage against the machine.

The Wall Stadium concert featured many of the songs from their Volunteers album, and introduced the crowd to Papa John Creach, who began playing bars in 1935 Chicago, entertained us with some sizzling electric violin licks. I have many good memories associated with that summer afternoon.

In the early Nineties, while walking around the Douglas County Fair with our kids I heard a band playing "Crown of Creation" in the Superior Speedway. It sounded like the Airplane and stopped me in my tracks, causing me to go check it out, see who was performing. It seemed strange for me for it was indeed them, or a pale reflection of what was left of them. A young dark-haired clone took the place of Grace Slick. Marty Balin had left in the early Seventies around the time Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy split to create Hot Tuna. It seemed like there were only fifty or so people in the speedway stands and a couple dozen more on the dirt track where stock cars usually run. Pathetic turnout. I couldn't help feel an emptiness as I recalled the concert twenty years previous, when our ideals were inflamed to believe that love would win and materialism would be overturned to be replaced with a new world.

Drugs and fame knocked off quite a few of the rock heroes whose names were familiar to all of us. Janis, Jimi, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones... Fame casts a harsh spotlight. Those who achieve it aren't always comfortable with what it brings.

As Jim Morrison himself observed, "no one here gets out alive."  It's what we do while we're here that matters. Paul Kantner made music. He tried to deliver a message that he believed was needed: hope. It's something everyone needs, especially when they are young.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Why We Like Lists (Six Years Ago Today)

Why are we so fascinated with lists? You can't turn around without seeing them. I'm talking here about the kinds of lists that we read in magazines and newspapers or see on television.

For example, you're watching a football game and they show the ten greatest plays of the most recent NFL season. They could just show great plays, but no, they give you a countdown. Number 10, number nine, etc. Rolling Stone will have the 100 Greatest Rock Albums of all time... The 100 Greatest Male Vocalists.... the 500 Best Album Covers. Forbes annually does profiles on the 400 richest people in the world.

Our fascination with lists never ends, and we keep making more of them. Perhaps it's because we have an innate desire to organize the universe. I mean, if you just had everything out there in piles of information without lists, what would that be like? So we number things and rank them, greatest actors, greatest films, most beautiful out of the way places to hike, most exciting places take a romantic vacation, most helpful websites, shortest NBA professionals, best golfers, greatest battles, top party schools... There's no end to it. And the appeal seems equally endless.

Here are two sites that assemble unusual lists. Some in the previous paragraph came from http://www.toptenz.net/, a site that seems to exist solely for the purpose of assembling lists of ten. Today's list of lists begins with Top 10 Mind-Blowing Movies.

Maybe that's the fun part, just trying to guess which films or items will end up on their list. We can even argue with them about it. "Why wasn't Psycho on the list?" you want to ask.

http://listverse.com/ is another website that lists lists. Listverse differs from TopTenz in that they don't just have lists of ten. The second list here today is Top 15 Greatest Silent Films. Other lists this morning include, 10 Male Supporting Actors w Deserved Oscars, 10 Fascinating Facts About The Gift of Life, 10 Gamblers Who Beat The Casino and 10 Places With Morbid Names. (You always wanted to know, didn't you?"

So, why do we love list making so much? Here are the top ten reasons inquiring minds want to know...

Originally posted six years ago today here at Ennyman's Territory. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: Theme Song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly




Jeff Rosen's Essay on John Henry's Rage Against The Machine

How old memories, and an even older folk song, reinvent the human struggle." ~Jeff Rosen

This past week a friend passed along a link to a thought-provoking essay by Jeff Rosen titled "John Henry’s Rage Against The Machine." It begins with our need for heroes, then walks us back through time to the reason(s) why folk music had such power and resonance. Finally he zeroes in on his target, the familiar John Henry, and what that man's story was really all about.

Each paragraph in the essay offers something to chew on and dissect. Rosen begins thus:

"America seems in desperate need of heroes. It may be impossible to be a hero in our current era. There is too much news, too much information. Heroes need mystery. They do not need 24-hour news channels, muckraking websites or ironic television talk show hosts. Could Winston Churchill be considered heroic today? Overweight, elitist, cigar smoking, pompous and mannered, but his acts of single-mindedness and unshakeable conviction led him to a heroic stand against one of the great military juggernauts in history."

Yes, and yes. In the subsequent paragraph he talks about how fake and transparent the modern attempts, by means of media machinations, of fabricating heroes has become. How unsung our real heroes are.

"So where are our great men and women? Where are our heroes? Let us look at the relatively recent tragedy of September 11. There was a feeble attempt to make a hero out of Rudy Guiliani, but the public did not buy it. They knew the real heroes of September 11 remained nameless and faceless. The firefighters, policemen, security guards, who raced back into the burning building. The passengers on the airplane who overcame the terrorists in the face of certain death. But these heroes remain completely unknown, faceless … unsung."

Rosen makes an interesting observation about one of the things that has changed over time, that is, how the ability to record music and distribute it has changed the way we hear music. The old folk songs that were handed down have reached us because they were all good in one way or another. Who would want to keep sharing the crappy ones?

Then he describes a rare piece of videotape that he watched, a recording of Woody Guthrie along with the harmonica and guitar duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry singing "John Henry." It moved them powerfully, because though decades had passed, "This song for them is still completely full of meaning. Woody, his eyes closed, his head thrown back. Sonny Terry, his hands cupped over the harmonica. Brownie McGee leaning in towards Woody to sing the chorus in unison, 'Whomp that steel on down.'”

The real takeaway for Rosen is why John Henry, both the song and the man, really mattered. In the telling of the story we understand that ultimately it's about human dignity.

Two recent books have been written about John Henry, each trying to find the real man who lived these deeds. But Rosen states these authors have missed the point. "The point is that John Henry is a hero, not because he was willing to lay his life down by throwing his body on the hand grenade of the industrial revolution, but because he refuses to let the meaning be drained from his life. His life is his work."

The industrial age has now yielded to the digital age, and in a variety of new ways technology is stripping still more lives of their meaning. Numerous writers have addressed this in the past hundred years. I think of Hesse's Benath the Wheel, Ellul's The Technological Society and Huxley's Brave New World. And I think of Dylan's Dignity, a song about a narrator searching high and low, far and wide, to find any vestige of this essential human trait.

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Read Jeff Rosen's essay and tell me what you think. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Gary Rue Joins The Travelons and Todd Eckart for This Weekend's Winter Dance Party

This coming Saturday the Armory Arts and Music Center is playing host to another Winter Dance Party. For this special occasion Gary Rue will be joining Lonnie Knight & The Travelons for a special evening of music to move your feet and make you smile. Here are just a few highlights from Gary's very special career:

~ Composer and songwriter for many artists (There are 2 compilations of Rue material, with performances by The Honeydogs, Helen Reddy, Nick Lowe, Butch Thompson, Laura MacKenzie, Maria Jette, The Rose Ensemble, Leslie Ball, Dan Chouinard, Bradley Greenwald, Christina Baldwin, Rio Nido (featuring Prudence Johnson), Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Debbie Duncan, Pat Donohue, Arne Fogel and many others).

~ Founder of the internationally acclaimed pop quartet Rue Nouveau

~ Creator and co-creator of more than 85 music theater scores with over 2000 regional, national and international performances.

And much, much more.

EN: You've had an impressive career. Who are the most interesting people whom you have worked with over the years?
Gary Rue: Gene Pitney, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Shirelles, Ben E. King, Dion., the Crickets (yup), Billy Joel's horn section, Curtiss A, ALL of my musician friends, too many to name, but God bless 'em.

EN: What years were you band leader for the Platters, Shirelles, Coasters and Marvelettes? (I ask because I saw them all in a Rock n Roll Revival with Chuck Berry, and Sha Na Na among others at Ohio U in the early 70s)
GR: My first music directing gig was at the DECC in Duluth in 1979 with the Shirelles. No rehearsal, no sound check. The first we saw of the Shirelles was when they were introduced to the stage. 3000 people. I gave a loud 'Ahem!' Doris Jackson turned around and said, "Everything is in (the key of) Bb, honey, just watch me." From there, I guess it was opportunity by association, all the bands that did the circuit, I got passed around. Not working with any of them on a regular basis, but I certainly did meet some great talent. I imagine that's partly how I came to music direct for Gene Pitney on a permanent basis.

EN: What did you learn from this experience?
GR: That I had an innate sense of how to organize and direct, even though I had very limited experience as a music director, per se. My success within this framework was mostly due to having my brain hammered with these songs when I was very young, so I had all the parts, stops and starts burned into my brain.

EN: When did you first realize that music would be your life?
GR: Beatles. Ed Sullivan, 1964. Period.

EN: How did you connect with The Travelons?
GR: I got a call from Mike Boterman (whom I had worked with many years before) of The Smokin' Section. They needed a sub for performance. I said, "Heck yeah, I'll do my best to keep up to Lonnie Knight." (Lonnie was one of my guitar heroes in the 60s. When I was still too young to gain entrance to a Tracy armory concert (my home town), I remember looking at tall, lanky Lonnie through the back door summer screen. Loud and proud, he was. Now, Lonnie and I hope to work together more frequently, and I seem to have secured a somewhat regular slot with that quartet.

EN: Where does your inspiration come from when creating something new?
GR: My career has been mostly based on commissions, so I rarely have the time for my own initial inspiration, but when it does, well, I read a LOT, I love history, especially Paris in the time of Chopin (1840 or so) and the Belle Epoch (again, Paris, 1890 or so). My most recent labor of love is called Chopin's Heart, about a brave little start-up cabaret in Warsaw, Poland, immediately before the Nazi invasion... August, 1939. We received a MN State Arts Board grant to present that show. Oops. Got to finish the review report for the Arts Board the morning I get home from the Winter Dance Party!

* * * *
Gary, Lonnie, The Travelons and Todd Eckert promise to get the joint rockin'. It's the 100th Anniversary Year for the Armory, and 57th anniversary of the original Dance Party. (See yesterday's blog post on that ill-fated tour.)

FWIW, this is a dress up event. That is wear your Fifties Finest.... even if you weren't born yet. There will be prizes for dancing and best costume.

Check out this story from last year's intro to the Dance Party, a little history about the Day the Music Died.

For more details about Gary Rau's career and achievements, visit garyrue.com.

As for next week, hope we'll see you on the dance floor.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

History and Nostalgia Embrace at the Winter Dance Party

It's remembered as "the day the music died." His name was Buddy Holly, and by age 23 he was making music history. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the hottest thing in rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, prodded by a financial pinch, they went on ill-advised, mid-winter road tour across the Northland that ended in an Iowa cornfield.

57 years ago Holly and his band signed on for a Winter Dance Party Tour that involved taking a bus on a zig-zag path between various cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I'm not sure whose brilliant idea this was because mid-winter can be pretty inhospitable in these parts. When the bus broke down in Wisconsin it was 20 below, something Texans like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings weren't quite used to. At least those who live here know how to dress for it.

According to a Pamela Huey account written on the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party Tour, it was a tour from hell. When the band pulled out from the Duluth Armory, their 9th gig in nearly as many days, they were exhausted and pretty tired of sleeping on hard seats sitting upright. The only thing worse would be not sleeping at all and that's exactly what they got when the bus broke down while heading through the Wisconsin darkness about ten miles south of Hurley. The temps had now plunged to 30 below with a wind chill on top of that.

To say Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Waylon Jennings, Dion and crew were underdressed is an understatement. They built a fire and tried to stay warm enough to stay alive. Huey describes it as "the day the music almost died."

This breakdown probably played a significant role in the decision a couple days later that cost Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens their lives. "The heck with this bus. Let's rent a plane," someone must have said.

Having done a fair share of winter flying out of the Duluth airport, I know that the airlines take great pains now to make sure the plane is safe for travel. Once everyone is boarded, the plane taxis over to where it can be hosed down with de-icer. I'd put money on it that Buddy Holly's plane had not gotten that kind of attention.

The dance parties were fun, but all that winter travel took its toll. Valens, who was from Califronia, hadn't even packed a winter coat. He knew music better than he knew geography.

You can read more here about that Tour From Hell.

Bob Dylan was in the crowd the night Buddy Holly and the band performed in Duluth's Historic Armory. Unlike the performing visitors from down south, Dylan and the others knew how to dress this time of year. They'd lived here all their lives. And unlike the band, which rolled off into the brutal darkness in an ice cold bus, Buddy Holly's fans went home to warm beds, made even warmer by memories of the music that moved their feet and their souls.

Front ro L to R: Amy Grillo, Gene Lafond, Lonnie Knight, Gary Lopac
Next weekend is the 57th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party concert that took place here in Duluth's Armory and once again the lineup is stellar with music by Lonnie Knight and the Travellons. The concert is a fund-raiser for the Historic Armory. Once again the Dance Party will return to Sacred Heart up on Positively 4th Street. If you need a place to park, the Damiano Center lot is available across the street.

In addition to Lonnie and friends, Todd Eckart is also on the bill. Congrats to Todd for being voted best local band/musician in the 2016 Reader Awards poll. He's in his stride now.

You can read about last year's Dance Party here.

For more about The Buddy Holly Story visit this MPR page.

Here's the place to go for tickets to next weekend's event.

If you're planning to go, add to the fun by inviting your Facebook friends.

It will be another great event not to miss.

EdNote: Lonnie Knight performed with his band in the Historic Armory back in the day. His dream is to perform there once again.... 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Local Art Seen: Duluth Art Institute Membership Exhibition Is Impressive


Ed, North Shore Fisherman
Thursday evening I attended the opening reception for the Duluth Art Institute's Member Show, which moved into the closing for Sarah Brokke's Portrait of an Artist which has been on display in the Morrison Gallery since late autumn. The Member Show makes an impressive statement about the caliber of our local artist community. With a little help from the weather the Depot collected an large swath of artists and friends of the arts here in the Northland. It was a special treat to also walk through the Steffl Gallery and see the (Self) Portrait of the Artist exhibit which has been a nice companion to Sarah Brokke's show.

One feature of the show is the People's Choice Award and this year when the votes were tallied Edie Michalski's watercolor piece titled Ed, North Shore Fisherman received the honors. There were over 175 entries and you owe it to yourself to make your way to the Depot when you have a little time in the next month or so. If you need to return something to the library, it's just across the street.
Mary Bue brings a good vibe to any occasion.
Yahya Rushdi's Countdown to Star Wars 
Countdown to Star Wars, detail
I had a near impossible time picking a favorite but there was plenty to catch one's eye. The contributions were in all manner of genres from ink and crayon and acrylic to thread and wood and various kinds of prints. Sculptures, drawings, paintings, photography -- it's all represented and represented well.

Annie Dugan moderated a members meeting beforehand where Duluth Art Institute business was addressed and an annual report handed out. Afterwards, singer-songwriter Mary Bue provided the musical accompaniment for the show.

Here are photos of a few of the pieces that I especially liked, though there were many, many more. You'll have to visit in person to really grasp the variety and quality of the works themselves.

Looking Back, by Mary Beth Downs

John Steffl's Sick (Self Portrait with Blue Bird)
Ann Klefstad's Sleepers 
Robb Glibbery's Vessel: Navigating The River Styx
Left panel of Robert Repinski's Diptych, Tempus Fugit
View from the balcony. Can you find my Blonde on Blonde?
Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Quick Peek at Bob Dylan: All the Songs -- the Story Behind Every Track

Dylan fans and followers are more than familiar with this book that came out near the end of October last, by French authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon, two men who previously assembled a similar tome about all the Beatles' songs. Weighing in at just under three-quarters of a ton, it matches p pretty nicely with The Lyrics, which was released the year before.

The book advertises itself as "the most comprehensive account of Bob Dylan's work yet published with the full story of every recording session, every album, and every single released during his remarkable and illustrious 53-year career." The book is indeed "the most comprehensive" if you are referring to the number of songs written about. It skims across the surface of every recording from the covers on Bob Dylan in 1962 to the Bootlegs and the outtakes. If you've ever wondered, "What was he thinking when he wrote that?" the authors have something to offer up in response.

One way to get a feel for the book is to read the reviews at Amazon.com.
Kirk McElhearn writes


It’s a light-hearted book, designed to be skimmed rather than read. You might be listening to a Dylan album and want to read up on the songs it contains; or you might want to just flip through it and look up information about your favorite songs. There are lots of pictures, and the texts are short. It’s much more interesting than the recent Dylan: Disc by Disc (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), by Jon Bream, who simply transcribes interviews with mostly C-list musicians and unknown journalists about each album. And it’s a lot less dry than Clinton Heylin’s Revolution in the Air (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Still on the Road (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which present similar information in a pretty boring manner.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in this book; the “stories” behind every track don’t explain what the songs are about (as if that were possible), or try to interpret Dylan’s inspiration when he was recording them. But for Dylan fans who are curious about the creative process, it does give some insight into how the songs were recorded and how, in many cases, they changed throughout recording sessions.


The book is only useful as a reference up to a point, however. This review by DuluthGirl casts some doubt on the authority of their scholarship by writing...

I am concerned about the accuracy of this book because I looked up Desolation Row, and the authors got pretty much everything wrong in their recounting of the details for the inspiration for the lines about "painting the passports brown." Like details that anybody could look up on Wikipedia or anywhere else online and find out about them easily. I mean, the only thing they got right was the date of the lynching.

So, if the authors got these simple facts wrong, then I wonder how many other things they have just pulled out of nowhere. Dylan has always been notoriously evasive and cagey (like most poets) about how and when and where their words come from. SO, it seems probable that a lot of these notes about what the songs mean and where they came from are simply author speculation, and maybe not so well researched.

As I was reading various selections I did note that they sometimes make statements in an authoritative voice while other times indicating that "that's how the story goes" and no one really knows. In that regard the book attempts to be honest and not pretend to be more than what it is. And what it is certainly is a lot, drawing from more than 170 books by other Dylan writers as well as additional sources. Kudos. And thanks!

Some of my personal favorites are on this album.
The 700+ page book is chock full of photos, but unless you know Dylan through other books and a lifetime of listening to his music you would wonder why certain people are being shown. Here's one of Gordon Lightfoot. Here's Joe South.

The authors do bring insight a-plenty to the book, though. Here in the section on John Wesley Harding (which they and others cite as the "first Biblical rock album" they note how Dylan must have had tremendous confidence in what he was doing to release this at the same time as the Beatles were releasing Sgt. Pepper and the Stones put Their Satanic Majesty's Request into play.

My personal take is, Bob Dylan: All the Songs is a great addition to any Dylan fan's library, a nice gift for anyone who's been a follower for any length of time.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.


EdNote: Photos on this page are from the book All the Songs.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

DAI Member Show Is Tonight. So Is The Reader Best of the Northland Party

The Depot will be a busy place tonight. First, it's the annual Duluth Art Institute Member Show opening. Simultaneously there's a reception fo Emerging Photographers, and as if that were not enough, the closing for Sarah Brokke's portraits project is happening. Meanwhile, The Reader is hosting a party of its own to celebrate The Best of the Northland 2015. Where? Right downstairs in the Depot's Train Museum. If you go to the art opening, you won't have to get in your car or go find parking for The Reader's party. You'll be all square.

A Member Meeting will precede the opening, at 5:00 p.m. with an overview of the annual report and an opportunity to vote on the 2016 board of directors. The Great Hall will then officially open, with musical accompaniment by Mary Bue.

If you do not know where the Depot is, maybe because you're new to Duluth, you've been remiss in not discovering it sooner. It's located at 506 W Michigan Street, across from the Duluth Public Library. Looking East, you can see Bob Dylan Way is fairly well marked, and when the weather is nice again you can take a stroll the eighteen or twenty blocks to the Armory.

The exhibition reception begins at 5:30 p.m. with about 175 contributions this year. A requirement is that member can show something new that was created this past year. After strolling about and hobnobbing with friends, be sure to take the elevator upstairs to check out the galleries there.

The DAI is also highlighting a year of local artist books with readings and signings by Sarah Brokke, Elizabeth Lapensee & Jonathon Thunder, Catherine Meier, John Pastor, Robert and Diane S. Petoletti, and Tim White. Guests can also vote on the People's Choice Award.

The Reader party starts at 6:00 p.m. with awards being distributed beginning at 7:00. The $10 cover charge includes a pair of drinks and Bob Boone does his best to give away plenty of swag make it worth your while.

So.... all this is just a reminder that there's plenty happening tonight. Maybe we'll see you there.

EdNote: Yes, I will have another Dylan painting there again this year, though not the one you see here at the top of the page. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Should We Be Concerned About Our High Tech Talking Barbie? Yes, Maybe We Should

Anyone with an iPhone is familiar with Siri, the friendly, "intelligent assistant" who you can interact with for information, advice and help finding answers to nearly everything. Or at least, a lot of things.

Now, in this age of interactive devices, we have an interactive Barbie. Yes, she's for real.

I remember the interactive toys that were around when we were kids. You pull a little string in the back of the neck and Chatty Cathy would scratchily deliver one of their prescribed scripts. Check out this Mattel commercial for Chatty Cathy and her chatty family. I never realized (till I saw this commercial) that they had a hundred different things they could say, such as, "Te amo means I love you."

But these weren't the first talking dolls. Thomas Edison created a talking doll as far back as the 1890's.

I came to learn about the advances in talking doll technology via an article in the Shelly Palmer eNewsletter, Five Things You Should Know About the Talking Barbie. Essentially, Palmer warns us that Talking Barbie is more than a talking doll. It is a connected device, and you may want to keep that in mind. In other words, watch out for hackers, among other things.

As I thought about this new interactive technology I stared wondering what kind of world we're creating, where dolls can become surrogate friends and surrogate parents. Are there any psychological dangers here? I dunno.

This current Talking Barbie has 8000 things she can say. Here are just a few of her scripts:

"Yay! So how many stars between zero and five would you give your day so far? An okay one star? An awesome five stars?"

"I have to say, my good thing is talking with you! Now my day's gotten a million times better!"

"One of the best things about friendship is that everyone has different interests... it's pretty awesome when a friend shares a new hobby ... something you didn't even know you liked!"

"Let's give it a go."

"Okey doke. Maybe another time..."

"Remind me again, what's your favorite color?"

"Red's a rad color! What do you like about it?"

"So if you were a popstar, what's a song that you'd like to sing?"

"Yay!"

If it sounds a bit like Disney World, that shouldn't surprise you. That's what we want, right? Perfect weather, sunshine and smiles? Maybe a little Soma to smooth out our days? I suspect, however, that it won't be long before someone begins to capitalize on a Crabby Barbie.

"Ken and I just had a fight. So just leave me alone."

"Bug off. And don't let the door hit you on the way out!"

For the record, if interested, here's a comprehensive list of things Talking Barbie can say. I haven't read them all, but I'm guessing there aren't any that would suggest she'd like to play doctor.

Just passing along the latest news. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Weird Al Loves Rocky Road... And Having Fun

This weekend while cleaning my office and listening to YouTube videos I came across Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N Roll." It was fun, not because I was a Joan Jett fan when she was popular, but because my kids had a Weird Al Yankovich album of pop music parodies. The guy obviously had a blast making money by pursuing his creative passion. He applied the motto "Follow Your Bliss" to his own life, believing that it could be possible to make a living doing "whatever makes you happy." His albums have sold over 12 million copies.

So, when I heard the Joan Jett song, I immediately thought of Weird Al's spoof, "I Love Rocky Road." What's fun is how much the Weird Al version of the music video is a take-off on the original. I remember years ago getting a kick out of his version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Yesterday, while walking through the Superior Public Library, I saw this picture of Weird Al on a poster promoting reading. It's apparent he's enjoying being Weird Al.

Here's the Joan Jett vid, followed by the parody. If you're not in the office, turn up the sound and enjoy. Or put your earbuds on. Happy listening.

I Love Rock N Roll

I Love Rocky Road

Do you have a part of your life where you're pursuing your passion? Go for it.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Five Minutes with Screenwriter Matthew Dressel

In 1993 I had the opportunity to be an extra in a Hollywood film, Iron Will. It was indeed exhilarating, with the result that I ended up pitching a script idea to the Disney producer here in Duluth. He ultimately said he would read what I wrote, which lead to a second screenplay in a different genre. Though he flattered me and encouraged me to come to Hollywood, I declined as "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." I had a job and I've known a few people who were lured away to pursue dreams than eventually turned to ashes. 

Even though the competition is fierce, there are still opportunities for serious writers who wish to produce films or see their stories translated to film.

Last week I met Matthew Dressel, a local screenwriter here in Duluth who has been involved with the industry for more than a decade. I asked him. I asked if he might be able to share part of his passion and offer suggestions to others with film making aspirations.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in screenwriting?

Matthew Dressel: I’ve always been interested in telling stories and filmmaking. I know it’s cliche to say that I’ve been interested in filmmaking for as long as I can remember, but it’s true. When I was five years old, I used to relish the times my dad would borrow my grandpa’s VHS camcorder (the massive kind you’d lug over your shoulder.) I’d look for an opportunity to use it and even tape myself doing banal things like reading the Movies section from the newspaper. Eventually I realized the camcorder could be used to tell actual stories, and so I started making short films. This desire to tell stories carried through high school and into college. If I could find a way to incorporate a short film into a class project, you’d better believe I did it (even when it wasn’t entirely appropriate.)

While I enjoyed being behind the camera, I found that my strength and passion was really with the storytelling. I wanted to tell stories that really resonated and struck a chord with people. And the best kind of stories to do that with were comedies, because I would get instant gratification. With any other genre, you need to wait to hear what people thought of it, but with comedies, there’s no real ambiguity. And because comedy is so subjective and personal, whenever I am able to make someone laugh with a joke or a story, I feel like I’m connecting with them in some way.

EN: You’ve had a measure of success. What kind of training did you undergo to prepare? What has been most valuable?

MD: I was entirely self-taught, and didn’t bother to read any books or take any classes. Whenever I would open a book on screenwriting, I would just get really anxious and close it by the end of the first chapter. The reason is because every single book I ever read starts with a couple chapters detailing why you WON’T make it in this industry. I know the authors are trying to “be real”, but honestly, eventually it just feels like they’re trying to scare away the competition.

So I turned to reading professional scripts. I figured the best way was to read what was selling, and just copy that. I also involved myself in an amateur screenwriting message board, and traded work with other aspiring screenwriters. This was essential in my training: learning to take criticism. The people I ran into on this board were some of the toughest critics I’ve ever handed my work to; most of them were downright trolls. But, in the end, it just gave me thicker skin, which is absolutely essential for this business.

EN: You mentioned an appreciation for the Coen brothers and their work. What is it about the Coen brothers that resonates with you?

MD: I love the Coen brothers’ versatility. There isn’t a genre those guys can’t knock out of the park. And I love how they take each genre and inject so much meaning into it. Their movies are never base level. They always have a lot to them, which inspires repeat viewings. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen Barton Fink. In fact, I just watched it a month ago and noticed something I had never noticed before that changed my entire interpretation of it.

From a story standpoint, I love how their movies are about people making decisions (usually bad, and usually involving money) that lead to a whole host of ever-mounting problems. And depending on the genre, that can either lead to hilarious misunderstandings and confusion or a horrifying amount of death and destruction. And either way, it’s entertaining to watch. Their movies are never boring.

EN: What are you currently working on?

MD: I’m currently finishing up a thriller with a director from Australia. Drawing inspiration from the Coens, it’s about a guy who makes a very bad decision that leads to many, many problems for him. It was interesting because the decision this guy makes is very bad, but he’s put through the ringer pretty bad throughout the entirety of the film, so I really had to think about type of ending that was right for him. Do I absolve him of his sins with a happy ending, or show that his wrongdoings set his fate in stone? It was tough. Honestly, I wanted a downer ending, but I don’t think that’s how it’ll go.

I’d love to stop writing about death and people killing each other for awhile. My last two scripts have centered around it (one a comedy, one a thriller), and it’d be nice to write something fluffy for a change.

EN: Movies take an incredibly long time from idea to silver screen. Why is this?

MD: It’s hard to boil this down to a simple answer but I’ll do my best. In the end, there are just so many people involved, and each time someone comes aboard, the project (and its trajectory) can change drastically. Couple that with the fact that movies need two things: (1) money and (2) actors. Actors won’t sign onto a script without money, and the money usually won’t come without actors. So it’s a long process of waiting one or the other out. It can take years.

EN: Is the screenwriting group that you are part of an open group that others interested in screenwriting can attend or be part of? Can you describe the group and what you do?

MD: Yes, the group is entirely open to everyone. It’s for both filmmakers and film lovers alike. It’s called The Duluth Film Collective, and it’s mainly comprised of three sections: our official meeting, Creative Coffees, and screenings. Our official meeting (once a month) is a chance for everyone to get together, have some food and drinks, and talk about movies. The Creative Coffees are a chance for creatives to come together and discuss works-in-progress, share scenes and just provide feedback. It’s a fun chance to watch the process of someone working on a script from conception to the finished product. And finally, we get together to watch screenings of recent films and discuss them afterward. It’s a great group and I’d really like to see it flourish even more than it already has.

* * * *
Learn more about Matthew Dressel and his work at MatthewDressel.com.

Photo credits: Top left, courtesy Matt Dressel. Lower right, Ed Newman. Painting by Ed Newman.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

How Do We Know How Far The Stars Are?

Photos on this page courtesy NASA. 
My grandparents were into astronomy. Back in the 1950's there were part of the Sky & Telescope Society. The members not only talked about the mysteries of the universe, they also made telescopes to study the night sky. These were very sophisticated telescopes and various members contributed in various ways. One man, for example, ground the lenses.

When the Internet came along, a girl from my sixth grade class contacted me to say she still remembers the night the class came to our house to look at the planets through a telescope. My most vivid memories revolve around the counting of moons on Jupiter and looking at the moons and rings of Saturn. The constellations, nebulae and manifold wonders of the night sky make an impact that stays with you.

Many questions arise when you look at the stars. How did such a vast universe come into existence? How far does it go? Is there life on other planets? Will we ever know?

One question I don't recall ever asking was how did scientists figure out far those stars are from earth? I mean, we constantly hear people say things like, "The nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away," as if this is a certainty like the weight of a pound of butter. How did they determine this?

Planet earth is part of a solar system that resides in the Milky Way. It's like being a cell in our body. We're a small part of something really big. Andromeda, which scientists call M31, is the Milky Way's nearest neighbor. Andromeda has only a few hundred billion stars. Since the distance light travels in one light year is 6 trillion miles, it becomes really difficult to grasp how far 2.5 million light years is. And that's just the distance to our nearest neighbor-galaxy.

What's amazing to me again is how scientists make these statements with such certitude.When we see the stars of the Big Dipper or Orion or Cassiopeia, how do we know which ones are ten light years away and which ones are five, or fifty, light years away?

Essentially, it's simple mathematics. Scientists used the basic principles of trigonometry that many of us learned in high school. The scientists would view the star from two different places on earth's orbit, say during midwinter and midsummer. This would form a triangle, or what they trigonometric parallax.


It's the same principle used for observing distances and depth with our eyes. Our eyes are set apart so that our brain automatically registers depth without our even thinking about it. Imagine your nose as the sun and each eyeball is on the two sides of the sun during the two parts of the year. Obviously more calculations have gone into determining how far Saturn and Andromeda are than the distance to the tree out front, or the mailbox. But it's pretty interesting when you think about it.

We live in an amazing universe. Take a few minutes to see some of the incredible images captured by the Hubble Telescope, along with interpretations of what we're looking at.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Celebrate it.

EdNote: The seed for today's blog post was sown by a passage from Mario Livio's The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved

Friday, January 15, 2016

Weighing In On Dylan Bootleg #12: The Cutting Edge

If I've learned anything after listening to new Dylan albums for half a century it's that I don't want to adopt an opinion until I've listened to it about ten times. Granted, some albums pierce the heart the very first listen, but some have taken a deeper listen to really grasp, or fall in love with. Bootleg #12, The Cutting Edge was one of these.

I have to explain why on this one. Yes, there were some songs that were immediate gems on the first listen. The first song on Disc 1 happened to be the song I walked my daughter down the aisle to at her wedding this past summer. Still get moist eyes thinking about it. A number of other songs, like "Farewell Angelina", are so warm and beautiful that they also stand out first time around.

But others jarred me. Most prominently was my first reaction to a faster-paced "Visions of Johanna." Why was this? Well, it's easy to explain. Fifty years of hearing "Visions of Johanna" have become embedded in a section of my brain as the near epitome of perfection. How respond to an entirely different interpretation of the song that has buried itself so deeply within my neuro-anatomy?

Over the course of time I have been asked on several occasions to name Dylan's greatest album. That, to me, is an impossible question. But on a couple occasions the inquirer was trying to impress on me that there is a "correct" answer. Or at least an answer that satisfies many who propose such a question. That answer is Blonde On Blonde. I myself would assent to the album being a candidate, but doesn't claiming that one album is "best" diminish the significance of that trilogy of albums that began with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited? No doubt this was remarkable period.

Well, that's the period of history that Bootleg #12 covers. If you get the 6-CD Deluxe Edition or full, comprehensive limited edition set, you are getting into it deep.

So why purchase The Cutting Edge? I got mine because I have all the other bootlegs, and they've all given a measure of satisfaction. For some reason this time I was hesitant, but I've not been disappointed.

Let's turn to "Visions Of Johanna."

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

"Don't Look Back"
The laconic, melancholic version that you find on the original album cuts so near to the nerve that you can't imagine any other interpretation. And then when you hear the purposely fast-paced recording on Disc 2 of The Cutting Edge, one's first reaction might be to be totally dismissive, that it doesn't work.

Then, after you've heard it again, and again, you become almost dazed by how it vibrates, resonates, captures the lyrics in and spins them into a newly corkscrewed opening in your brain, heart, soul. It's unbelievable good. It dazzles.

That's how it is with so many of the songs on Dylan's bootlegs. Compare the original "It Ain't Me, Babe" with the visceral version on Bootleg Series #5, 1975

This has been one secret to Dylan's popularity amongst his loyal fans, the shape-shifting performances and re-interpretations that have marked his career. When you listen to the outtakes from his early albums, like many here, it's apparent that all this shape-shifting was happening at a very early stage in his career.

Not every song achieves this effect, and it's clear that the final decisions regarding what to leave in and what to leave out were usually good ones. But there are certainly some gems here.

And not every Dylan album requires ten listens to hit home. Modern Times and Together Through Life struck a chord with me on the first listen, as did Tempest, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. Some of the best material is subtle and requires a little chewing to get the best flavors out.

* * * *
To find various versions of this special release, visit BobDylan.com.

For what it's worth: word on the street is that things are coming together for Duluth Dylan Fest 2016. As many of you know, Bob will be 75 this spring, and some very special events are being planned. You can follow along at the Duluth Dylan Festival Facebook page

Dylan paintings and illustrations on this blog were created by ed newman unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Space Oddity, A Nod to David Bowie

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown,
engines on
Check ignition
and may God's love be with you

[spoken]
Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff


These opening lines from David Bowie's Space Oddity were such a radical departure from the contemporary pop of its time. Contrast this to Honky Tonk Women (Rolling Stones) or Build Me Up, Buttercup (Foundations). The space race was in full swing when this was being written. The title is a transparent take-off on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had been continuously playing in New York for years. But the song is clearly about something else.

This is Ground Control
to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it's time to leave the capsule
if you dare


You can picture the astronaut, out there alone, cut off from the world floating beneath and away from him, separated not only by space but by his strange experience, uniquely disquieting because how many people can understand or imagine what he is thinking, feeling, going through at this moment, his fears, his anxieties... and that strange comment about his fame... "the papers want to know whose shirts you wear" as he ponders the meaning of his life.

I don't always sleep well, with so much on my mind so much of the time. You have to wonder how these astronauts got any rest at all, wrapped in Mission Control outfits that can't possibly have been as comfy as being in one's underwear between sheets.

As with all great poetry, a rose is not a rose. And the capsule Major Tom is to emerge from is more than a capsule. He is leaving the security of what he knows for the uncertainty of the unknown; he is leaving the domain where he is in control. He is letting go.

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating
in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do


Tom Wolfe's bestseller The Right Stuff is one fat book, but it's a fascinating read and a great picture of the audacity of the space program and the space cowboys who made it happen. Not everyone has what it takes.

There are many endeavors to which we are suited or unsuited based on our personal dispositions. Career choices, if at all possible, should not only dovetail with our interests but also our personality. Some people have to be outdoors and find office space stifling. Some are more social, and others most comfortable in solitude. Some like being active, others prefer contemplative tasks.

Wolfe made it clear that The Right Stuff is more than physical toughness. There's a mental facet involving courage, risk taking and steel nerves, among other things.

Wolfe made them out to be America's heroes, and on one level they were thus. But if you trace the aftermath of their space walks, moon walks, multiple cycles 'round the globe, you find that they were mortals, just like you and I. They struggled with the basic needs we all struggle with, how to make peace with ourselves in a world that often fails to understand us. Learning to overcome the loneliness of our isolation and find peace within our solitude.
Listen to the culmination here.

Though I'm past
one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
she knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead,
there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you....

Here am I floating
round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do.

Is it tragic, or beautiful? Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward Angel, and not to be confused with Tom Wolfe above) once observed, "The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence."

Perhaps Space Oddity makes a connection because nearly all youth feel to some degree a measure of disconnection with friends and family, leading them to feel themselves misfits. When we recognize that nearly all have struggled with self-doubts, uncertainty, apprehension, then we understand we're not so alone as we imagined.

Of these things much more can be said. Have a thoughtful day. For those around you struggling with their isolation, reach out and share your ray of sunshine.

This blog post originally appeared in April 2010. R.I.P. David Bowie.