Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reading about writing

Reading about writing is like admitting you are a poverty-striken serf. You, unable to make your ground bear fruit, glean advice from the fields of the greats; you marvel at their estates; you are moved by their work. Each grain of wisdom glistens.

Upon sitting at your own keyboard, you wonder if you'll be able to make even a biscuit from this harvest. Then you wonder if, rather than pounding the grain, you should just resign yourself to your coffee and "The Three Stooges", the one where Moe gets a climber's spike stuck in his ear.

If you're more in the mood for an actual article on writing, try Po Bronson's Advice to Writers.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Greatest version of a great song

Right now, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill's great version of a great song, "How Great Thou Art", is going viral. More than 3 million hits in four days is impressive. Here's the YouTube clip, if you haven't seen it:

Who can deny her talent? And who can deny the guitar work of Vince Gill? They are extraordinary musicians, and I appreciate their artistry.

As good as this is, it is not the best version of this song I've ever heard.

Many years ago, I served as a drama coach with a group of teens from Michigan. One summer, I accompanied them on a trip to an area outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. They were there to run a two-part Vacation Bible School for a small church. In the mornings, young children came for teaching and games and crafts. In the afternoons, some of our teens would relax or go on sightseeing trips, but a few stayed behind with me and met with junior high students. Two older teen leaders taught, using a sketch from our drama ministry as a springboard.

This worked, but we ran into a scheduling problem. We wanted the whole group to go and see the Grand Canyon, but would have to leave before the junior high program ended. No one wanted any teen to miss the trip, so we invited the junior highers to come with us that day, and the teen leaders planned to share a lesson inside the park.

I don't remember the author of the sketch they selected for that day, but it was titled "Weeds.". In it, the main character (we'll call him Steve) is diligently removing weeds from the garden of his life, and has asked a garbage company to come and dispose of them. A man shows up to take a pile. Steve is delighted, but then the man hands a ticket to Steve. The weeds will come back to him as compost. This distresses Steve: he doesn't want this junk back. He wants to forget that these mistakes, these sins ever existed. The man tells Steve that's not how it works; that these weeds, transformed into compost, will now be of use to him and to God.

On the edge of the Grand Canyon, in front of a gathering crowd, two young men performed the sketch. I had directed them; I had watched the sketch many times, and yet I found (and find) this simple metaphor moving. I've made so many mistakes in my life. I've fallen short so many times, and yet when I return to God, He doesn't work around those things, but through them, for my growth and His glory. Was I trying to distract myself when I began to look around at the impromptu audience? Probably.

It's been years now, so I can't remember if the man I noticed was in a red or a pink shirt, but there he was, watching intently, hanging on the actors' words.

The teens finished the lesson; we saw other sights in the park. We ate. Someone told us the very best spot to view the sunset, so we decided to end our trip there. The area was full of people and the sky was glorious; breathtaking. We were awash in pink and orange. A voice began to sing "How Great Thou Art." Some of the people poked fun at the singing, but others joined in, including many of our teens and a group of students from Korea. I found myself looking around again, and again I saw the man in the red-hued shirt, now with tears streaming down his face, singing.

I doubt that in this lifetime, any version will ever move me more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beyond self-expression

It is a privilege to be on staff with Curator Magazine, a web publication of International Arts Movement (IAM). Today, I feel this more strongly than ever before. This post moved me. Written by IAM founder and visual artist Makoto Fujimura, it powerfully expresses a way to think about and respond to global catastrophe. A quote:

Artists are generative by nature, but our current obsession with self-expression truncates the experience of our full humanity. We need to listen to what our hands, our eyes and our ears are detecting. Through intuition, the artistic process often reveals surprises that not even the artist anticipates.
As I implore artists to go beyond self-expression, I implore the church to do likewise. For example, rescue efforts are not about our self-expression but about pouring the incarnate love of God into the lives of those suffering. We need to weep with them and 'waste' time by being there with them; we need a long-term commitment to befriend and follow up, rather than perform a 'hit and run' rescue effort. However, I am not dismissing the importance of people that provide for the basic needs of those in crisis.
The key to communicating our core message of generative work is to operate out of sheer love for people ...

Read the full post from Fujimura here. How will you be generous, move beyond self-expression, and impact the next generation?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cover Me

Is a great song defined by its arrangement and instrumentation, or is it something else?

Earliest version of "Purple Haze?"

Here's a lyric for you. Is it country/bluegrass, pop/r&b, or punk?

You say you stand by your man.
Well tell me something, 'cause I don't understand.
You said you love me, oh, and that's a fact.
And then you left me, said you felt trapped.
Well there's some things you can't explain away,
and the heartache's with me to this day.

If you know only one version, I think you're missing out. If you immediately recognized the lyric, check out a different genre:

The original.
A pop/r&b version by Annie Lennox.
The Dwight Yoakam version.

I think many great songs have the ability to transcend genre. What do you think? Do you have a favorite cover?

This is a part of my poorly named "song a day" series. For more, check out 
Rebel Yell
The Two-Hit Wonders

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Self-Centered Songs Revisited

Just read a recent article on our worsening narcissism and decided to post this again, originally from September 2009. Enjoy!

I've been thinking about some of the concerns with the Twitter and the Facebook. Is this self-centeredness unique to this generation, or are they just new ways to express an old truth?

For your consideration, here are my top 5 self-centered songs of all time:

5) Easy to be Hard by Three Dog Night (1969): Things seem alright at the beginning. 'How can people be so heartless?' the singer asks. 'How can people be so cruel?' But when we get into the 'splainin part, we realize that the heartless and cruel activities include caring about strangers and evil and social injustice. Maybe in context (the song is from the musical Hair), the lament makes more sense. In the context of Three Dog Night, it comes off like a guy trying to manipulate his date from the front of the protest line to the back of his van.
4) What About Me? by Moving Pictures (1982): Again, the song starts out reasonably, with the songwriter pointing to the needs of others. The big old chorus is the cry of the boy waiting at the corner shop, or the girl working there. The bridge asks us to consider the little people. But the neediness gets personal in verse three, and it is the singer himself crying out for more than he's got: 'What about me? It isn't fair. I've had enough now I want my share. Can't you see? I want to live, but you just take more than you give.' So much for the little people.
3) I Wanna Talk About Me! by Toby Keith (2001): My husband taught my kids this chorus when I went away for a week. That is a special present - kids proclaiming their need to be the center of the universe to their mother. But even if that awful scene had never happened, this song about a self-centered woman and her irritated, self-centered man would've made the list. To the characters involved: you two deserve each other.
2) Looking Out for Number 1 by BTO (1975): The song appears to predate the book of the same name by 2-3 years (but coming after the delightfully titled Winning Through Intimidation). Regardless of who came first, the sentiment was embraced by the period, an important thing to note as we wring our hands and worry about our children being raised in this time. I was in elementary school when this song came out, and it mixed an interesting musical style with these awful lyrics about success centering on self-preservation, John Sebastian conquered by Robert Ringer. Don't remember it? Lucky you.
1) Lightnin’ Strikes by Lou Christie (a #1 hit from 1966): Check the facts, all you cause-and-effect types - the National Organization for Women was founded in the same year. So, blame or credit Lou Christie as your politics dictate. This song is so much more than selfish, it is a pervasive evil. Every time it's played, a misogynist gets his wings - and an STD.

To be fair and balanced, a 'Hot Stuff' honorable mention t-shirt for Charlene, the purveyor of the 1977/1982 travesty, (I’ve Been to Paradise, but I’ve) Never Been to MeAnd a '#1' belt buckle goes out to Mac Davis. Naww, not for It's Hard to Be Humble - we're not going to hold tongue in cheek bravado against him. The 1970 hit Baby, Don't Get Hooked On Me, on the other hand ...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Two Hit Wonders

We were in the car, me and the breakfast guru, and "Twilight Zone" came on the radio.

(Not the show, of course, the song. Also known as "that other song by Golden Earring.")

We put forth the effort to sing along:

"Help, I'm slippin' into the Twilight Zone," we sang with confidence.

I have no idea what the guru sang next. I went with something about Ethan Frome.

We began to discuss the greatest two-hit wonders. Golden Earring's hooks come lavishly draped in entertaining instrumentation. The narratives in both of their hits ("Radar Love" being the other one), plus the intensity of the singer, bring that extra sense of drama. The songs have great titles too. Who could have two, and only two, songs that are better?

The only real competition we could think of was Greg Kihn Band, with "The Break-Up Song" ('they just don't write 'em like that anymore') and "Jeopardy", a groundbreaking video for both the fake guitar as a weapon, and zombies. See for yourself:

Maybe the key to being a two-hit wonder is a song title based on a TV show?

Do you have a better two-hit wonder?

For more music conversations with the breakfast guru, try Music Madness Tuesday.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Free, I often say, is my favorite price. It is also a fine condition, as The Soup Dragons recognized in the 1990's.

When you're a kid, 'free to do what you want' is the stuff worthy of a quest. One of my kids was dreaming of freedom. Sadly, the dream eliminated me:

What if we didn't have parents, what if your were dead? the child said with enthusiasm.
You would want that? I asked.
Yes! the child said. Then I could do whatever I wanted.
What would you do? I asked.
Paint the walls, the child said.

A little disconcerting that my little one would string me up for a couple of gallons of Benjamin Moore, but the child will learn of love; and I, for my part, will buy paint.

"You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." -Galatians 5:13

This is a part of my "a song a day" writing, which do not always occur daily. I'm working on it. Un-naturalism and Rebel Yell came first. For a fictional dialogue on parenting, try A Mom's Burden.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Literary scenes

I'm excited to share my new piece at The Curator, To Tame A Friend.

An illustration from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A little bonus information:

1) We named the untamed feral cat "Deck Kitty". DK is still around, watching us and taking small risks of getting closer, particularly when there's a patch of sun in which to rest.
2) When I first read "The Little Prince", it was as a third-year French student. I wonder if my memory of the scene was intensified by reading the story in a second language.

I'd love to hear about a scene from a book that's stuck with you. Feel free to share in the comment section below. Merci!