Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Live from the Cactus Cafe

New song on the YouTube channel. It’s called “Ledger,” and it’s about the record-keeping we all do in our heads. 

The lyrical idea comes from a Kacy Crowley prompt: a hundred mistakes. The idea is that at the Cactus Cafe’s songwriters’ open mic, Kacy will toss out a phrase to stimulate song ideas. If you write a new song from that prompt by the next week’s open mic, you get a free drink at the bar, which is a fun incentive to write. “A hundred mistakes” led me to ponder the notion of taking internal inventory, all the wins and losses, and how to make sense of them.

I went to that open mic a bunch this last summer and had a great time. Kacy is, besides being an excellent writer and performer herself, a terrific host! 

The space is historic and legendary. It’s literally the stage where Townes, Lyle, Ruthie, and any number of great Texas songwriters used to regularly play in their early days. It’s a thrill to play on that stage, even in an open mic situation. No delusions of grandeur here, but it connects me, loops me in as a small part of a beautiful tradition. I recommend it.

Now that the school year has imposed earlier mornings on our family, it’ll be a rarer thing for me to go play, but I’ll be back. 

Meanwhile, here is “Ledger.”

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Hamlet: three cool but not super-deep observations

My youngest son played Hamlet in a theatre production this past summer. That meant that (a) I spent a lot of time running lines with him and (b) I saw the play four times on four consecutive days. So I spent a lot of time with the play and noticed some things. Before it all fades away, I want to capture a few of the thoughts I had about the play.

Here are three of them . . .

1. I’m stealing this one from the literary critic, essayist, and communication theorist Kenneth Burke, from his essay about literary form. He uses Hamlet as an example, noting that when Hamlet is about to first encounter his father’s ghost, there is a distraction right before the big moment. As noises from the castle drift down to where Hamlet and his friends keep watch, Hamlet begins to kvetch about how much he hates the waste and rowdiness of the king’s parties. The ghost we’ve been waiting for then arrives, startling the group of friends. It’s a great example, Burke notes, of how form works, creating an anticipatory desire (seeing the ghost),  delaying the fulfillment of that desire (Hamlet’s rant about the stupid king and his stupid parties), and then fulfilling the desire (oh shit, that’s a GHOST!) to maximum effect.

2. We get a glimpse into Hamlet’s complexity right away, by seeing three versions of him in his first scene. First we see him talking to his mother and uncle. As they push him to move on from grieving for his father, urging him to adjust to the new normal, Hamlet steps to the edge of politeness in his responses to them, and we see him being smart and controlled, even as we understand that he is suffering and angry and struggling. Secondly, when he is left alone, we get his deepest thoughts, see how he is scorched with grief and rage. It’s a powerful moment of dropping the public mask and seeing into the private soul. And thirdly, when Horatio and friends appear, Hamlet gets it together and kind of bullshits with his buddies for a minute, engaging in dark humor as they catch up on all that’s been going on. So: the first appearance of the protagonist gives us three views of him, establishing that there’s way more to Hamlet than meets the eye any given moment.

3. The funny stuff is really-really funny. There is a bit of hilarious double entendre dirty talk with Hamlet talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where they are ostensibly saying it’s good to be not too happy and not too sad. They personify Fortune as a woman, and make jokes about how not being at the top or bottom of Fortune, that is, neither her cap nor shoes, would mean that one was near, um, Fortune’s waist, you know, near her secret treasures, and so on. It’s a funny bit of schtick, comic relief from a heavy theme, and right on point for these university students goofing around with wordplay.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: three cool but not super-deep observations

Spoilers below. You have been warned.

1. Brad Pitt’s deadpan dopey sort-of-amused reaction to people breaking In with weapons and threats is a fantastic callback to his very fine but brief performance as Floyd in the Tarantino-penned 90s movie True Romance. Well played, all the way around.

2. The thing Pacino tells Dicaprio, that having a daunting hero from the past lose a fight as a way to boost the new protagonist‘s cred, is exactly what is going on with the Bruce Lee scene. That bit of dialogue is a funny moment of inside baseball, Tarantino referencing a method he himself is using.

3. There are a couple of  instances of beautiful and glamorous women snoring. This is close to the heart of the movie’s theme about reality vs depictions thereof.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Design thinking and making things better

I work at the City of Austin’s Office of Design & Delivery. We recently designed a new website and form for police oversight.

The form gives people a chance to lodge complaints, of course. However, it also offers a chance to recognize officers who are doing good work. By making it easy for people to give feedback, we encourage input.

I just learned that an officer earned recognition from the department for having gone above what was expected in handling a recent sexual assault case. The survivor felt that the officer was excellent in really listening and helping her feel supported and safe to talk about what had happened. She felt that way strongly enough that she took time to fill out the feedback form, which is remarkable.

Everybody knows this approach hasn’t always been the case for how these kinds of cases have been handled (everywhere).

The chain of feedback has been significantly shortened. The officer got that positive feedback quickly. This creates a virtuous circle for the department, pushing back harder and sooner for negative behavior, and giving due credit sooner and better for officers doing good work.

Proud to be working there. This is part of how the world gets better.

Here’s my recent blog post regarding the form we built and the design thinking that informed it:

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web . . .

Hello reader, how's it going?

Thanks for stopping by! If you're enjoying what you read here, you might also like some of my writing elsewhere around the web:

Fiction (Short Story):

Essay (about a favorite Grateful Dead song):

Fiction (Romantic Comedy novella):

Song (the most recent addition to my youtube channel):

Monday, October 22, 2018

One Step Ahead of the Storm

New song on my YouTube channel, click the link!

I remember a friend of mine, years ago, saying that it’s a miracle anybody lives to be five. We were talking about all the crazy risks that little kids take on account of fearless ignorance, stuff like being drawn to high and treacherous places, or how toddlers will automatically reach for shiny bright blades, and all the other things like that. 

And it continues! As a species, we drive too fast, don’t always wear seatbelts, play dangerous games with fire, and who knows what all else. We take chances. This is one of the deep truths about being human. I bet there are people who still smoke in bed. What the hell, man? We are slow to learn our lessons. Mostly we get lucky, till we don’t. 

This past summer, my youngest son Harrison and I went on a beach trip with my cousin Lynn and her family, and while we were at the beach, we went out on boats a couple of times, to go fishing. On one of these trips, we were on Topsail Sound, on this relatively small boat. We were near the south end of the island, getting ready to head through the inlet and out to the ocean, when the boat’s captain said, hey y’all, my radar shows a ton of weather coming right at us, like right now. So we hustled back, made it to the dock just in time, with dark clouds right on top of us, and I mean two minutes after we were off the water, the sky burst open and the rain hit as hard as you can imagine, so much force! The title line for this song just jumped out at me . . . Wow, we were just one step ahead of the storm! That afternoon I started noodling with the guitar, and had a lot of the chorus done right away. 

My cousin’s husband, Tyler, is a really good musician, and also a good friend of mine,  and he chimed in with a few ideas. The conversation turned to all the close calls we’ve all had. He was remembering going out with friends in high school, walking across these slippery rocks at the top of a steep waterfall, how easy it would have been for anybody to make one wrong step and plummet to their death. Or maybe someone eventually DID make a misstep on those kinds of risky misadventures, but they were miraculously okay, just broke an arm or whatever, and had to wear a cast for six weeks. I can think of many times my brother drove his Buick at insane speeds on dangerous roads, with me and my friends in the car. And you, reading this, I bet your mind is bringing up example after example of times you had close calls. So our conversation, and Tyler’s suggestions on some of the lines, as well as a couple of musical ideas, very much informed the song. 

The whole trip was largely launched from the fact that my cousin and I used to spend a lot of time every summer at Topsail Beach at our grandparents’ cottage. Our moms were sisters, and we’d all vacation together a lot. We'd be there with all our siblings -- my older brother (who passed away in 2003; proof positive that some storms do in fact catch up to us) and Lynn’s two younger sisters. Then, you know, time passed, and all of our adult lives got going, and we scattered, and our grandparents sold their beach place, and life kept moving forward. Of the people that used to be on those family trips, we kids are now middle-aged, and most of the adults have passed on to whatever comes next. 

Anyway, there we were, working on this song, when Lynn remembered something the captain had said about Topsail Sound, that while the water seems pretty placid, this current runs through it, just like a river. And Lynn suggested that line for the end of the third verse, and it’s my favorite line in the song. 

I like the way “current” means more than one thing, you know? And this idea that in the midst of all these other lines about close calls and change and risk, danger bearing down on us all the time, the way all of us are lucky to even still be here, that there are also these steady forces moving everything forward, even when they’re hard to observe. What we see and notice are the big storms that blow in. But this other, subtler, steadier stuff is always happening too.

On our way back to Texas, Harrison and I stopped for a night at their place in Atlanta. Harrison is pretty tight with their kid, Ty, which makes me happy. I had finished the song by then, and Tyler and I recorded it in his home studio (Tyler is SUCH a good player, singer, and recording engineer). This song is very much a family effort, and my daughter Cassidy, who is a filmmaker and makes the videos on my channel, put the visuals together on this. Thanks, Cassidy!

And so here it is, a new song that comes out of an old truth about danger. Sometimes we court it, sometimes we find it, and sometimes it finds us. This literal storm happened, but of course I also mean it as a metaphor for all the things we’ve all survived ... coming in off the water, one step ahead of the storm. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Science does not cling to tradition!

You know how you might not think of something for years and then it comes back with a powerful force?  I was in a conversation the other day that turned to long-runway projects versus quick, reactive projects, and I was nudged to remember writing this video script. It was made when the science curriculum I’d been writing was suddenly in need of revision due to Pluto’s being kicked out of the planet club.

We turned this video around ridiculously fast, and I’m still proud of the work. Not only does it explain WHY Pluto is no longer classed as a planet, it ties the change to a broader way of thinking about science: change is good! It means we’ve reached an improved understanding of something. Sometimes we’ve got to Change Some Definitions!