Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Receiver -- Length of Arms

Columbus musical wizards Casey and Jesse Cooper (collectively, The Receiver) are about to release their second album, Length of Arms. It's a terrific followup to a terrific debut, Decades. Forget the Times New Viking hype. The Receiver is the best band to come out of Columbus in the past five years. Fans of Radiohead and yes, prog rock, take note.

Here's a video that showcases both the beauty of the music and just about every Columbus landmark worth filming (sorry, but I'm docking them one point for skipping the Dublin corn sculptures).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

I want to announce the good news that God, the God in whom I believe, never calls anyone to playact or pretend or silence their concerns about what's true. I want to break through mind-forged manacles that render us incapable of seeing truthfully for fear we might let in the wrong information. God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we're in.

I encourage the use of whatever strong language might be employed in tearing down these idols, these false conceptions of who God might be. Damn this demonic Uncle Ben business. Damn it all to hell. May we bear it no more. Be explicit in bearing witness against such hellishness. Or pray, if need be, as Meister Eckhart paradoxically prayed, "God, rid me of God."

"God, rid me of God." Does this strike us as scandalous? Eckhart's prayer is scandalous to us only to the extent that we still believe that our conceptions of God -- and not the grace of God -- are what will save and deliver. As if our intellectual consent to certain truths is what will redeem, as if our faith in our own faith is the price of admission to eternal bliss. This madness degrades both the biblical witness and the possibility of sane thinking. Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolotry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can't hold life-giving water. Nothing that we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or adults places us on the winning side of God's affections. Maybe we're only called to be honest. Maybe a vision of God whose love transcends the limitations of our visions enables such honesty.
-- David Dark, from The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.
-- Adolf Hitler

People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.
-- Malcolm Muggeridge

Two weeks ago one of my friends took part in a TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party/demonstration in Lansing, Michigan. He came home and excitedly blogged about the hordes who joined him. He noted, among other things, that event coordinator Amy Kramer had stated that over one million people took part in these protests, in 346 cities nationwide. That same day, CNN reported that “several hundred people showed up in Lafayette Park opposite the White House,” and that “in Philadelphia, a rally in Center City drew about 200 rain-soaked participants.”

I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. I do remember a bit about basic math, however, and I recalled that "one million" is a bigger number than "two hundred," and I found it curious that one side of this story chose to look at the event as a whole and report it as "over one million people" while another side chose to look at individual gatherings and report it as "about 200 rain-soaked participants." Not only were they small in number, but they were all wet.

I write that, and quote from several sources at length, only to say that David Dark's latest book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, ought to be required reading for human beings, regardless of their religious or political stripes. David Dark is one of my favorite Christian thinkers, and his earlier books Everyday Apocalypse and The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea have, respectively, outlined the in-breaking of truth in popular culture, and our national overconfidence in our own righteousness. For his third book, Dark pulls out all the stops, and surveys the stories that we hear on a daily basis, stories about God and religion, our nation and its history, our self-defined passions, our sacred cows, our morality. We hear these stories in a thousand places; in television broadcasts, in classrooms, in the books we read, in our choice of friends and the viewpoints we are willing to take in, in the magazines we subscribe to, the music we listen to, the web sites we frequent. To a large extent, they define our identity.

And David Dark understands that we are formed by our stories; by the stories we've heard, and perhaps taken in unconsciously. They are stories about who we are as a nation, about democracy, about our shared history, our values, our mythic figures. And, if we are Christians, they are stories about God, his character, his people, and how to live. None of these components exist in isolation from one another. Our understanding of our shared national history informs our theology; our theology informs our views on political and social issues. Our friends tell us about a new Arcade Fire album. That Arcade Fire album tells us about Joe Simpson, the father of Jessica and Ashley Simpson. Jessica Simpson appears on our television set, sings a song, and we either fall in love and run out and buy her new album or dismiss her as a talentless hack. None of this is particularly surprising or revelatory. What is surprising and revelatory is how much we are shaped by these shared stories without ever really thinking about the stories themselves. Question everything, David Dark tells us. Don't believe the hype. Don't believe anything -- whether anything is defined as trivially as the media's preoccupation with robodiva singing stars or as significantly as the weight of biblical teaching -- unless you've thought it through, analyzed it every which way, and owned it for yourself.

I was particularly struck by Dark's commentary on the need to question our images of God. In all too many cases individuals have been burned by the image of the punitive, sin-tallying, stern, judgmental vision of God. It's a vision of a false god Dark terms "Nobodaddy," the divine avenger, and Dark is right to suggest that the most appropriate response to those who have been scarred by such teachings is compassion. Throughout the book there is an admirable and winsome call to hold on to our views of truth lightly, to admit when we're wrong, to change our minds when the facts seem to suggest that an admission of stupidity and obstinate hard-headedness might be in order. It's an ongoing summons to constantly acknowledge that we don't have it all figured out. And it's a clarion call to admit to ourselves, and to others, that somebody's almost always lying. It is no small task to sift through the lies, the damned lies, and the statistics, to attempt to make sense of it all. All I know is that "one million" is not "two hundred," and try as I might, I can't put the two together. Dark suggests that it's still a good idea to ask two, basic journalistic questions: Who is lying? And why might they lie? Do yourself an invaluable service and read this book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bob Dylan, the Lazy Rhyme, and the Sublime

Over at the Paste website, it's all Dylan, all day. The occasion is the release of Dylan's 33rd studio album, Together Through Life, which drops today. You'll find videos, a streaming version of the album, and scads of features, including a ranking of the 50 best Dylan covers. Here's my contribution to the festivities.

--------------------------------

For the past seven hundred years, poets have been rhyming love with dove, moon with June, girl with curl, and boy with joy. Certain rhymes are so convenient and appropriate that their use had already become stale by the mid 1700s.
-- Stephen Fry, from The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

That big fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon
We’re gonna let it
-- Bob Dylan, Poet of a Generation, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”

Sometimes Bob Dylan gets lazy. Or maybe he doesn’t. That’s the dilemma facing longtime Dylan fans as they cozy up to Together Through Life, the 33rd studio installment in the greatest, most confounding string of popular albums ever released. The Poet of a generation? More like three generations now, stretching back almost fifty years. This is a man who loves words, and whose words have inspired more words than any other songwriter. Academics write 500-page tomes on how the themes of sin and redemption have been reflected in his songs. Music critics pore over every cryptic reference, and dutifully note the allusions to Rimbaud and Blake. So what do we do with the fact that the greatest songwriter of the modern era actually farmed out most of the lyrics on his latest album to Grateful Dead scribe Robert Hunter? And what do we do with these, uh, less than poetic sentiments? Here’s Bob Dylan (and maybe Robert Hunter) on Together Through Life:

Shake, shake mama, shake it ‘til the break of day
I’m right here, baby, I’m not that far away.

Okay. We’ve been here before, and sure, twelve-bar blues aren’t exactly known for their literary heft. Still, there are all those song titles that portend a potential weightiness – “Life Is Hard,” “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” – songs that seem to beg for the patented Dylan poetic approach, and which instead emerge with a seemingly all-too-clear meaning. Life sucks, but love makes it better. That’s all you’ve got, Bob?

But I’ve been here before, too; in that initial state of disappointment with a new Dylan release. Sometimes – as with Down in the Groove and Under the Red Sky – the disappointment never leaves. Dylan’s great, but he hasn’t been great every album. But other times I’ve simply had to wait. And that might be the case this time. I think about my initial reaction to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a song on John Wesley Harding in which the most gifted of wordsmiths had rhymed “moon” and “spoon.” It was a rhyme I had first encountered in the less-than-portentous work “Hey Diddle Diddle,” and I couldn’t believe Dylan had stooped so low. What sort of laziness was this? It wasn’t until years later that I bothered to listen to the following line – “we’re gonna let it” – and I began to understand. Let it all go, Dylan was saying. The important and the trivial, let it pass: I’ll be your baby tonight. And a line that had once seemed the epitome of the banal, the clich├ęd, took on a hint of the sublime.

And maybe that will happen again. After a few listens, Together Through Life sounds like a perfectly serviceable Dylan blues-rock album. Damn. Like everybody else, I had hoped for so much more. Still, I’m not ready to judge this one as a loss. Musically, it’s on par with the past few releases. Lyrically? It’s too soon to tell. Sometimes the moon shines brighter after you let the darkness settle in around you. I’m gonna let it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The La's

They were one-hit wonders, but what a hit. The world can never have too many three-minute jangly pop songs about girls. Echoes of the early Hollies and The Searchers abound. Rumor has it that they're about to record their second album, nineteen years after the first.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Look Ma, No Genre Boundaries Roundup -- Boston Spaceships, Antje Duvekot, Shane Dwight Blues Band, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

Five new worthy efforts for your listening pleasure.

Boston Spaceships -- Planets Are Blasted


Damn you, Bob Pollard. Pollard seemingly releases a new Robert Pollard/Cosmos/Boston Spaceships album every two weeks or so, and if I have to grudgingly admit that he's put out about three great albums since the demise of Guided By Voices, I'll still maintain that those three great albums are spread out over twenty official releases. So just when I'm ready to write him off, he releases another jaw-droppingly wondrous mashup of British Invasion jangle and lyrical non-sequiturs. Last year's Brown Submarine served notice that Pollard had finally formed another band that might be worthy of his superb Guided By Voices legacy. Planets Are Blasted is an improvement in every way, and although there's still a bit of filler, the big surprise is how solid this one is, front to back.

Antje Duvekot -- The Near Demise Of The Highwire Dancer

Boston folkie Antje Duvekot's undeniable trump card is her uncanny sonic resemblance to Patty Griffin, merely one of the greatest singers on the planet. On The Near Demise of the Highwire Dancer, Duvekot recruits most of the east coast's folk royalty (John Gorka, Richard Shindell, Mark Erelli, Lucy Kaplansky) to lend a hand. The first five songs are killer, and feature glorious melodies, sweet fingerpicking, superb harmonies, and literate, self-aware lyrics. The back end drifts into the usual folkie meditative reveries. None of it is ever less than pleasant; some of it is not quite memorable. But Duvekot is a talent, and she sings like a slumming angel.

Shane Dwight Blues Band -- Plays the Blues/Gimme Back My Money

The "Blues Band" moniker is a bit deceiving. California by way of Nashville gunslinger Shane Dwight does indeed play rocked-up blues, and fans of Stevie Ray and George Thorogood will find much to love. But he's adept at Dickie Betts/Allman Brothers southern rock jams, Stonesy blues rockers, and some Pete Yorn inspired chugging roots rock as well. Plays the Blues is, as you might expect, the more authentic of the two albums in terms of living up to the band name. But Gimme Back My Money is the more eclectic and the better release. He's all over the place. Nothing wrong with that, and quite a bit right.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears -- Tell 'Em What Your Name Is

Oh, how I love this record. Black Joe Lewis has been listening to lots of vintage '60s southern soul -- Joe Tex, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MGs. And if he doesn't break any new ground on his second album, that ground he's standing on is still holy, and he knows it, and he brings the incendiary funk. Tell 'Em What Your Name Is is half Godfather of Soul throwdown and half greasy Stax soul, with a little down-and-dirty jukejoint blues thrown in for good measure. Yes, that's 110%. That sounds about right.

The Ladders

There is a job search site called The Ladders. For the low, low fee of $49.95 per month the prospective unemployed slacker is provided access to a database of more than two jobs within the region ("region" being loosely defined as "Western Hemisphere") that pay more than $100,000 per year.

Alternately, said unemployed slacker can use the more traditional route (e.g., monster.com, dice.com, careerbuilder.com) and find up to three jobs in the more narrowly defined "Midwest" region. These jobs typically pay 25% of what the formerly employed slacker used to make.

Good times.

I note that The Ladders website currently features an article called "What To Tell the Kids After a Layoff." How about "Applebee's is hiring waitresses" or "College? Shit, those history classes cost money."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gary Lewis and the Playboys -- The Complete Liberty Singles

The first record I ever bought (as opposed to the Disney soundtracks my parents bought for me) was a 45 RPM single of Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Save Your Heart For Me." It was the summer of 1965, and I was mooning over 10-year-old Cindy Bechtel, a vision in pigtails and her Catholic school uniform:

Walk along the lake with someone new
Have yourself a summer fling or two
But remember I'm in love
with you and
Save your heart for me


Gary was the son of comedian Jerry Lewis, big in France, but largely despised in the U.S., and he is now widely disdained by arrogant music critics. I don't care. His music was part of my introduction to the wider world of rock 'n roll, and I will always maintain a soft spot for his many hit singles. Collectors Choice is about to issue more Gary Lewis music than anyone rightfully needs. I'll probably pick it up anyway.

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COLLECTORS’ CHOICE TO RELEASE GARY LEWIS & THE PLAYBOYS’ THE COMPLETE LIBERTY SINGLES COLLECTING 55 "A" and "B" SIDES PLUS TWO PROMO-ONLY TRACKS ON TWO CDs IN THEIR ORIGINAL MONO MIXES.

‘60s band’s golden era included “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In,” “Save Your Heart for Me,” “Everybody Loves a Clown,” “Sure Gonna Miss Her,” “Green Grass” and more. The hit team included Snuff Garrett, Al Kooper, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — In the tradition of Collectors’ Choice Music’s hits collections from Jan & Dean and Tommy James & the Shondells, the label will issue Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ The Complete Liberty Singles collection, featuring 55 songs — many for the first time on CD and all in their original mono mixes. The collection, due out on May 26, 2009, features such hits as “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In,” “Save Your Heart for Me,” “Everybody Loves a Clown,” “She's Just My Style," "Sure Gonna Miss Her,” “Green Grass,” “My Heart's Symphony” “Jill,” “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Loser (With a Broken Heart),” "Sealed With A Kiss" and many more, including B-sides, "Doin' The Flake" (from a cereal box-top offer), and the promo-only rarity, “Way Way Out.”

The set, annotated by Ed Osborne, is enhanced by interviews with Lewis as well as producer Snuff Garrett, arranger Leon Russell, drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner, and others who comprised the Gary Lewis & the Playboys creative team.

Gary Lewis & the Playboys were discovered by producer Snuff Garrett through a tip from Lou Brown, a friend of Gary’s father Jerry Lewis. Garrett had heard a demo of a song called “This Diamond Ring” co-written by Al Kooper and thought Lewis would be perfect to record it. In November 1964, the band — Lewis, drums and vocals; Allan Lawson Ramsey, lead guitar; Dave Costell, rhythm guitar; and Cordovox player John West — found themselves in the studio with Garrett’s arranger, Leon Russell. To the band’s initial dismay, the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians played the instruments, with Lewis promoted to lead singer and session singer Ron Hicklin (of The Eligibles) brought in to bolster Lewis’ voice. Liberty Records president Al Bennett reportedly “despised” the song initially, possibly because Garrett had left an A&R position at the label to go independent. But after the band debuted it on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 6, 1964, it roared to Billboard’s #1 position, bumping the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” out of the top spot and burying Sammy Ambrose's R&B version of "Diamond Ring" along the way.

After returning to the studio to record their #2 single “Count Me In” (originally written for Herman’s Hermits), the Playboys recorded a song exclusively for Kellogg’s cereal (“Doin’ the Flake”), which accompanied a special pressing of “This Diamond Ring” and Little Miss Go-Go" in a free box top offer. Next came the Top 3 summertime hit “Save Your Heart for Me,” the #4 “Everybody Loves a Clown,” “Green Grass” – which reached the #8 spot - and the Beach Boys-influenced “She's Just My Style.” And the hits just kept on coming.

That is, until New Year's Day of 1967 — a month after the band had recorded “The Loser” — when Lewis was drafted into the U.S. Army and eventually sent to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. Fortunately he’d banked a few recordings before he left, including “Girls in Love,” penned for him by Alan Gordon and Gary Bonner, the team that wrote the Turtles’ smashes. Unfortunately, Lewis’ attorneys had chosen that time to sue the label for back royalties, leaving the label with little incentive to promote the singles. Plus, the singer could no longer tour to keep up his visibility. “Has She Got the Nicest Eyes” — penned by Russ Titelman, Jack Nietzche and Lowell George — failed to chart at all.

While Lewis was overseas, Liberty Records released an earlier recording from the vault, “Sealed With a Kiss,” (originally cut by Brian Hyland and with Garrett back at the helm). It dented the Top 20, but Lewis never liked the production. After “Rhythm of the Rain,” which made it to #63, and “Hayride,” which went nowhere, Garrett told Lewis: “There is no more market for Gary Lewis & the Playboys.” Gary self-produced two more singles and then called it quits. “It was a terrible time,” recalls Lewis. Yet today he looks back with no regrets: “I was thrilled to be doing that. It was really so much fun.”

And fun, in turn, to roll back the clock to the halcyon age of ‘60s AM radio with the definitive Gary Lewis & the Playboys singles collection. The Collectors’ Choice package (list price $27.98) presents all the hits, B-sides and two rarities in glorious mono, remastered from the original tapes, along with extensive liner notes, picture sleeve artwork, and photos.

Global Warming?

Take a look at that chart.

This issue is fascinating to me, and highlights the problems of ferreting out truth in the midst of the information age glut. What is clear, even from a cursory Google search, is that both sides of the Is Global Warming Real? debate can marshal their statistics, can call upon an army of scientific experts, and can form convincing arguments to buttress their case. So who is right? And how do we know? And what are the possible consequences if we think we're right, and it turns out that we're wrong?

The religious component of the Pew poll is fascinating as well. Why is it that white evangelicals are disproportionally skewed in the direction of disbelieving in global warming? What might be behind such views? Is it because they have greater access to scientific data that is not available to other segments of the population? Is it because they tend to be Republican, and they can't stand the thought that the despised Al Gore might be right? I really don't know. But it's very curious.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Susan Boyle

No, I'm not going to post that damn YouTube video.

First, good for Susan Boyle. Really. Frumpy people can sing. Good for her.

Second, isn't it amazing that we should be shocked by this, as if one had the slightest relation to the other? Next thing you know we'll find out that people without fashion sense can dance, and that people with unhip haircuts can paint.

I so hate MTV and what it has wrought and rot. Thank God Van Morrison and Roy Orbison arrived before the age of the music video. Watching the smarmy, condescending judges before Susan opened her mouth, I witnessed something very ugly that had absolutely nothing to do with the woman holding the microphone.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Great American Petulant Pout

I have been subjected, yet again, to a diatribe from one of my friends on the evils of the liberal media.

Well, here's the real news: it doesn't matter what the liberal/conservative ratio is in the popular media. The problem is the popular media as a whole. When all the conservatives focus only on the Rush Limbaugh/Fox conservative spin, and the liberals focus only on the MSNBC/CNN liberal spin (or however you define it), then people simply talk past each other, and neither side is willing to consider the viewpoints of the other. We don't have news reporting. We have news shouting and histrionics, and the louder the better, or at least so the ratings would seem to indicate.

We now live in a nation where everybody majors in being offended. Me too, some days. It's our national character; the Great American Petulant Pout. And it comes because we take our cues from the media of our choice, which focuses on demonizing the other side. I think I'm going to quit paying attention, and I think this may be the most godly stance I can take. Turn if off. Start thinking for yourself.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who Dominates Your iPod?

I was fairly certain I knew, but the results were still a little surprising to me. Here's what I found, listing only the artists who are represented by more than 100 songs:

Artist -- Number of Songs

Frank Sinatra -- 347
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- 339
Guided by Voices/Robert Pollard/Boston Spaceships/Cosmos -- 319
Ludwig Van Beethoven -- 306
Bob Dylan -- 242
Vigilantes of Love/Bill Mallonee -- 213
Arthur Lyman -- 209
Johnny Cash -- 209
Sebadoh -- 199
Paul Simon/Simon and Garfunkel -- 188
Van Morrison -- 173
Miles Davis -- 166
Richard Thompson -- 162
Bruce Cockburn -- 157
Coleman Hawkins -- 154
Ray Charles -- 151
Bob Wills -- 150
Elvis Presley -- 144
Bruce Springsteen -- 143
Willie Nelson -- 143
Brad Mehldau -- 133
Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown -- 128
Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon/Mark Kozelek -- 124
Merle Haggard -- 123
Steve Earle -- 123
The Beach Boys -- 119
Modest Mouse -- 118
Genesis -- 117
George Jones -- 116
Joe Henry -- 114
Bill Evans -- 114
Thelonious Monk -- 109
B.B. King -- 106
John Lee Hooker -- 108
Old 97's/Rhett Miller -- 108
Dave Alvin -- 107
Lambchop -- 106
James Carter --- 106
Son Volt/Jay Farrar -- 104
Lucinda Williams -- 102
Matthew Sweet -- 102
U2 -- 102

Now all of this surely reveals something about my musical tastes. But it's still skewed. It doesn't, for example, account for any music I collected before, say, 1992, when I bought my first CD player and started collecting CDs. If I were to survey my music collection in terms of all music formats (CDs, MP3s, vinyl LPs, cassette tapes), I'm almost positive that the big winners would be Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bruce Springsteen, in that order. I believe I have more than 100 albums by each of those artists, but most of them are scattered among vinyl LPs, and vinyl and cassette bootlegs.

The iTunes count is slightly misleading as well. Arthur Lyman?, you might ask. So might I. Arthur Lyman made a bunch of easy listening/exotica albums in the late '50s through the '60s, featuring xylophone and bird calls. No, I'm not making that up. I had to review his entire catalog for Paste a while back. Hence the ungodly number of ersatz tropicalia songs on my iPod, which, for some unfathomable reason, I've never bothered to delete. Robert Pollard is listed so highly only because he puts out a new album every other week or so. I need to purge there as well. The classical composers are listed by name, not by orchestra/conducter. Sorry, but I didn't buy Beethoven's Missa Solemnis because it was conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. And I like Sebadoh, but not that much. They're listed so highly because they released approximately 30 one-and-a-half minute songs per album.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who Am I?

Most Christians shun horoscopes, believing them to be as useful as the wisdom found in fortune cookies. Me? I like the wisdom found in fortune cookies, particularly the one that recently stated "Your life will improve in the spring."[1]

So, instead of relying on horoscopes and fortune cookies, Christians tend to rely on personality tests. I don't know why this is. All I know is that I have taken half a dozen or more personality tests over the years, many of them in church settings. I've taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (INFJ for the curious, the same personality type as Carrie Fisher, Mel Gibson, Fred McMurray, and Tom Selleck, except, inexplicably, less photogenic). I've taken Tim LaHaye's Four Temperaments test, wherein I was categorized according to the four ancient humours: Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic. It turns out I am a Mel-Mel, which means I see the world through black-colored lenses. Best to slit my wrists and end it now. Praise God. I've taken the "Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts" inventory, wherein, after answering a bunch of multiple-choice questions, I found out that I was a Prophet (note spelling; Profit would be a uselessly cruel descriptor these days). I've taken others, too, the color-based tests whose names I have now forgotten, where I found out that I was Blue and Yellow, respectively. I have no idea what the colors signified now. This week I have taken yet another personality test, this one designed to uncover my ministry potential, wherein I found out that my dominant color was Green and that the biblical personality I most resemble is Thomas. Thomas, you may recall, is the disciple best known for his expressions of doubt and skepticism, but who, as Tradition has it, later ended up carrying the gospel to India and being crucified upside down. So there is hope.

True to my skeptical personality, I think most of this bullshit. Here is a poem I like, written by Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I don't know that I'm much like him, either, but I'd like to be.

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Who Am I?"

[1] China Garden Buffet, Westerville, Ohio, April 6, 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Bird

Baseball is a slow game. Most of the action takes place in short bursts. About one quarter of the time the batter puts the ball in play, and in the ensuing five seconds the game actually transpires. Three-quarters of the time the pitcher throws a pitch and the batter watches it sail by for a ball or a strike, or fouls it off. All of this takes about a second. Then thirty seconds go by before the next pitch.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, a former pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, turned those thirty seconds between pitches into an art form. Fidrych stalked the mound, flapped his arms (hence "The Bird" nickname), waved to fans in the crowd, slapped high-fives with his teammates, and occasionally held the baseball in his hand and lectured it when it wasn't ending up where he intended to throw it. He was a character, and God knows baseball could stand more characters instead of merely players with character issues. He was great for one year, mediocre for a couple more, and left the game all too soon. He left this life all too soon, too, dying in a freak accident on his farm yesterday. He was 54. I will miss him.

Monday, April 13, 2009

You'll Never Walk Alone?



April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
-- T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

One of the most terrible aspects of grief is the sense of isolation it produces. You'll never walk alone? Hah! You think that insipid Footprints poem is right? Hah! You subscribe to the "If you feel far from God, guess who moved?" school of comfort? Well, I am a fucking rock of immobility, and you don't know shit about either theology or human hearts.

Guess what? I haven't moved. I'm standing my ground, and I'm holding out hope for the God who has numbered the very hairs on my balding head, the one who is intimately involved in the everyday, mundane details of my life. And sometimes I catch fleeting glimpses of that kind of God, and sometimes I don't. But I figure that if "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me. The best, the most proper response I can offer right now is to cry out, to yell. That's the stimulus/response package that is shot through the Psalms. Shit happens, and you cry out. But you cry out to God.

Right now people are not cutting it. Even the most kind-hearted, well-intentioned people -- and they are out there -- are not cutting it. And it's simply because the words don't help. I appreciate them. They are meant to soothe, to let me know that others care. And I am grateful for the fact that they do. But the loneliness is suffocating. No one else can enter in to this. No one else can walk through this. It's the God-shaped hole. Humans cannot fill it. And, for whatever reasons, God sometimes chooses not to fill it. It's just a hole, a big, cavernous abyss that echoes with questions like "Why?" and "How long, O Lord?" Everybody dies. We live in a fallen world. I get the theology. But the theology doesn't help when I look at my sister, or her husband, or my 13-year-old niece. I'm willing to stand still and live with the pain. But don't you dare tell me that I moved.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

It's been a restless day in a restless week. I'm having trouble praying, mainly because I want to scream. Perhaps the presence of Stage 4 cancer in people you love does that to you. I don't know. I've also been listening to a wondrous album called Elephants by Aaron Strumpel. There is a song there, a setting of Psalm 137, called "In Babylon." "In Babylon, I put down my harp," Aaron sings, "In Babylon I forgot who I was." Then somebody shrieks for about two minutes. I think that shriek is about the most holy thing I've heard in a long time.

This is something I wrote a long time ago. I don't have the energy to write much today. But I still believe this, and it still captures what this day is all about.

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In a bizarre twist on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, thirty-nine people in San Diego, members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, committed mass suicide, hoping to catch an eternal ride on a UFO trailing in the wake of Comet Hale-Bopp. I heard about it for the first time this evening as I was driving home from work. This was apparently an express, non-stop USO, and the cult members had to time the suicide to coincide with the UFO’s closest appearance to Earth. When eternity comes near, you have to make yourself available. Otherwise, you find yourself left behind, stranded on this rock with a hunger in your gut and no way to fill it.

Tonight at church we tried to latch on to eternity. Fifty of us huddled together in the first four or five rows of pews in a darkened sanctuary and listened to the Passion of the Christ, and sang a few hymns, and ate the flesh and drank the blood of the Son of God. On Sunday the church will be festooned with lilies, and the lights will shine brightly and the sanctuary will be packed with C&E Christians putting in their semi-annual appearance. But tonight we met in the darkness, just a few of us, and tried to see.

I didn’t want to be there. I was tired, and it was a hellish day at work, and I skipped dinner so I could make it in time. I yelled at Emily, who complained about going, and told her that I didn’t feel like going either, damn it, but that we were going because it was important for us to go. Now there’s a wonderful message to communicate. Pious Father Screams at Kids, Then Takes Communion! The headlines in Heaven’s Gazette must make for some sorrowful reading.

But we went. And we knelt in the darkness, with just the reading light above the lectern lighting the church, and listened to the age-old story. Greater love has no man than this … In my father’s house there are many mansions … I am the way, the truth, and the life … I will send the Comforter … Abide in me … If you love me, keep my commandments … In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer … I pray that they might be one, as I and the Father are one … Now is my heart sick unto death … This is my body, broken for you …

Paula McNabb, a bright, vivacious mother of two in her mid-thirties, read those words. Paula has breast cancer, and all of her hair has fallen out because of the radiation treatments. Last night she wore a bright, shiny blonde wig, and the light from the lectern made her look like some kind of polyester angel with a rayon halo. She cried as she read the words, and I looked up from my reverie and saw an angel weeping. And eternity came nearer.

We sang an old hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” words by the ubiquitous Anonymous, music by that old showman J.S. Bach. This is what we sang:

O sacred head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded

With thorns, thine only crown:

How pale thou art with anguish,

With sore abuse and scorn!

How does this visage languish

Which once was bright as morn!


What thou, my Lord, has suffered

Was all for sinners’ gain:

Mine, mine was the transgression,

But thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior!

‘Tis I deserve thy place;

Look on me with thy favor

Vouchsafe me to thy grace.


What language shall I borrow

To thank thee, dearest friend,

For this, thy dying sorrow,

Thy pity without end?

O make me thine forever;

And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never

Outlive my love to thee.


I cannot sing that hymn, and I couldn’t sing it tonight. I make it to about the middle of the first verse and lose it, and then I kneel in dignified silence lest someone see a Strong, Competent Male Figure completely undone. But some of us sang, and some of us listened and prayed, and the night seemed very dark indeed.

A little later we took communion. Instead of the usual croutons and mini-shot glasses of grape juice, tonight we took communion by Intinction. That’s a fancy theological term that means that we all tore off a little hunk of bread and then dipped it into a cup of wine. We do this once a year, on Holy Thursday, and then we go back to the much safer, more sanitized croutons and shot glasses. But tonight I held that sopping bread, and I ate that bloody flesh, and eternity came nearer. For the first time in my life communion was both an act of revulsion and an agent of healing. I swallowed the broken body of the Son of God and I drank the blood from his wounds, and I could taste that flesh and that blood in the bread and wine, and it was sickening. But I ate death, pious, screaming father that I am, so that I might live.

And now it is 1:30 a.m. on Good Friday. The alarm will ring in four and a half hours, and the rest of the world will not care about bread and wine, or about a savior who died, and rose, and who still lives and abides with us, even weeping, cancer-stricken angels. The world does not care. T.S. Eliot puts it this way:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer's art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.


Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.


The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


The chill ascends from feet to knees,

The fever sings in mental wires.

If to be warmed, then I must freeze

And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

I am sitting in a darkened room, bathed only in the light of a computer monitor, and I can look out the window to the northwest and see Comet Hale-Bopp. It is shining there, just above the edges of the rooftops. I have never seen a comet before, and it is a wondrous sight. Thirty-nine people in San Diego saw it and decided to end it all. They stuck out their cosmic thumbs and waited to be swept up into something beyond themselves, beyond the mundane world that doesn’t care about the hunger in the gut, or dying saviors, or weeping angels. Have mercy on them, O Lord. Have mercy on pious, screaming fathers, and mothers with cancer, and that little band that sits in the darkness in order to see eternity. There is an unnatural light in the sky on this most unnatural of days, a day of sorrows that we still, impossibly, pronounce Good.

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* Painting by Emil Nolde, 1912

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Short, Reductionist Kiwi Pop Primer

There was something magical going on long before Peter Jackson transformed the rugged wilderness of New Zealand into Middle Earth. In the early 1980s, Dunedin music impresario Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records. The rest is history, although it's history that is surprisingly little known in the U.S. Perhaps it's time to change that. Because from the mid '80s through the early '90s, Flying Nun Records put out the best music on the planet. And yes, I'm looking at you, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.

As with any "sound" associated with a city (Seattle, Athens, Austin), there is far more variety in the Flying Nun roster than can be reasonably captured by reductionist labels. Still, there was and is a distinctive Dunedin sound, and it is characterized by the lo-fi aesthetic and minimalist drone of The Velvet Underground and the jangly guitar work of Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. The resulting hybrid is one that has proven to be remarkably resilient, in part because straightforward garage rock and an emphasis on melody never goes out of style. The Flying Nun bands embodied those values as well as anyone. Above all, these Kiwi musicians know how to write superb melodies. If you don't believe me, check out the music of Crowded House and the solo albums of Neil Finn, which remain the most visible exponents of the sound (albeit not on Flying Nun). There are many other Flying Nun bands who did it just as well. Here are a half dozen of the great ones.

The Clean

Here's where it all got started, and this compilation scoops up all the hard-to-find early singles and EPs. Comprised of brothers Hamish and David Kilgour and Bats co-founder Robert Scott, The Clean made quirky, angular punk music that owed as much to the Velvet's buzzing drone as it did to the bash-it-out approach of The Ramones. The music is noisy and discordant, but David Kilgour's pop hooks peak through again and again. Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Camper Van Beethover all cite The Clean as a primary influence, and, in fact, it's hard to image albums such as Slanted and Enchanted and New Wave Hot Dogs without the beneficent precedent of this early indie Kiwi band.

The Chills

The Chills and principle songwriter Martin Phillipps achieved a modicum of success in the U.S. in the early 1990s with the album Submarine Bells and its signature song "Heavenly Pop Hit," which it almost was. Phillipps was two for three, and that's not bad. But I prefer the slightly early compilation shown here, Kaleidoscope World, which again collects some transcendent singles and EPs. Here the music is an effervescent mix of chiming guitars, sweet harmonies, and Syd Barrett/early Pink Floyd psychedelia, and features the most infectious whistling this side of an Andrew Bird album.

The Bats

Here's the album that prompted me to pull out all those old cassette tapes and scratchy vinyl LPs. The Bats, headed by former Clean member Robert Scott, have been around for 26 years. They take their sweet old time, and their brand new release The Guilty Office, shown here, is only their seventh album. The most jangly of the Flying Nun bands, The Bats essentially make the same album over and over. That's okay because it's great jangle pop, with an undeniable propulsion that is lacking on The Byrds albums. Think early R.E.M. and you're in the ballpark, or soccer arena, or whatever sports venue can be found in Dunedin.

Tall Dwarfs

Now here's some seriously twisted stuff. Imagine two short guys, neither one of whom is named Gimli. The dwarfs, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate, respectively, make distinctly experimental, lo-fi bedroom symphonies characterized by buzzing guitars, Syd Barrett freakouts, and organ drones. You also get clarinets, tape loops, and cut 'n paste editing. If you're a fan of Robyn Hitchcock and his surrealistic nightmare imagery, or, for that matter, the inspired psych folk of Neutral Milk Hotel or Elf Power, you'll probably love Tall Dwarfs as well.

Straitjacket Fits

Here's the most dissonant of the Flying Nun bands, as well as the band most beholden to garage rock. There's a glorious din here, although the jangle and pop choruses still manage to emerge from the murk from time to time. This is their 1990 debut album Hail, which features a killer song called "Life in One Chord," which is both an accurate and impossibly incomplete summary of its contents. The rest of the album features songs with up to three chords, and lead singer/songwriter Shayne Carter's disturbing yelp. It's great, and not for the faint of heart.

Garageland

Originally touted as Flying Nun's answer to The Pixies, Garageland have never really achieved the acclaim that was their due. Certainly lead singer/songwriter Jeremy Eades has mastered the whisper-to-a-shriek dynamics of Black Francis (best heard here on lead single "Fingerpops"), but Eades is also a better-than-average balladeer, and his melodies never fail to impress. The album shown here, Last Exit to Garageland, is again a collection of early singles and EPs, and is arguably the band's best work. But the two followup albums are just as good, albeit in a slightly more commercial vein.

Not About Me

In the past eight months I've witnessed the deaths of my father and my mother-in-law, I've lost my job, and I've wondered if my marriage was going to survive. Yesterday I learned that my baby sister Libby (and it's hard not to think in those terms; I remember the day she first arrived in our home) has breast cancer that has spread to both her lungs and her bones. Some of this has been my own (un)doing. Much of it has not. It's just life, and death. But it's been the perfect shitstorm, the kind of nightmare scenario that I couldn't even fathom, and that I certainly didn't want to try to fathom. And here's something I've learned through this hellish process, perhaps the only thing I've learned thus far: it's not about me.

Oh, it affects me. All of it affects me. I'm not a stoic, or worse, some loony Christian who refuses to acknowledge the crap for fear of making some sort of "negative confession" that would sap me of my God juice. And this is some serious crap, certainly the biggest load of desperation and dung ever spread at my feet, and the cumulative effects of these events can sometimes seem crushing and overwhelming. I'm not trying to minimize any of it. But it's not about me.

My default setting -- perhaps all of our default settings -- is to interpret life through the lens of personal experience. How does this affect me? How am I coping? But the world is bigger than that, and God is bigger than that, and while I'm not trying to ignore the impact of these events on my life, I also don't want to get caught up in navel gazing. I also don't want to escape. I want to be fully present to these times, as painful as they are. And I think I have been, and I think I am.

Here's the current score: my father and mother-in-law are buried. I miss my mother-in-law, and experience some sense of relief about my father. My marriage is doing well. I still don't have a job, or any prospects of a job. And my baby sister is in for the fight of her life. Please pray for her, and for her husband Mark and daughter Helen. And if you manage to think about me, I'll be grateful for your prayers. If you don't, don't sweat it. Pray for my sister and her family.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Safe Inside the Days

Fuck the unemployment statistics, including the one that states that your personal unemployment rate is 100%. Let it go. Screw the 3.75 currently useless college degrees, the five-page list of accomplishments and the job applications that disappear into the yawning abyss of what once was American capitalism, the stimulus packages that don't do jack for you or your family, the euphemistic bullshit about rightsizing, restructuring, and belt tightening, all of which roughly translate to "You're screwed, dude. You may be a poet, and you may know it, but we're not paying for poetry or anything else these days."

Leave that all behind, at least for a while. Three days in Grand Rapids, Michigan are good for the soul. Not Grand Rapids per se. Grand Rapids as a city appears to be much like Columbus, Ohio. There are the interchangeable hotel and restaurant chains; the vaguely disorienting signs that one could be anywhere or nowhere. There are the same boarded-up shop windows in the "arts district" (note to self: there may be a sturdy, reusable metaphor somewhere there), the strip mall ghost towns, the homeless guys looking for handouts on the street corners. But within the decaying sprawl there is a little oasis of hope called Calvin College, a liberal arts college that, once every two years, hosts a gathering of musicians and music lovers called the Festival of Faith and Music. That happened Thursday through Saturday, and I was there, and I was very, very thankful to be there.

I could tell you about the music. There was a lot of it, and it was excellent. I saw The Hold Steady, again, and The Hold Steady never fails to delight and move me and rock my socks off, laying down poetry and power chords that are inseparable from one another. I saw hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco who, in the midst of all his cultural trappings, may wear the mantle of the true prophet. I saw Over the Rhine, again, and every time Karin Bergquist sings "Changes Come" I want to tear out the little hair that remains and wail and gnash my teeth. And yes, that's a good thing. Here is what Karin sang:

I wanna have our baby
Somedays I think that maybe
This ol' world's too fucked up
For any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone

Jesus come
Turn the world around
Lay my burden down
Turn this world around
Bring the whole thing down
Bring it down


It was probably the theme song for my weekend, a desperate little anthem that stares into the abyss and finds somebody staring back. I saw Americana artist Julie Lee sing her sweet songs of pain and hope. I saw a fresh-faced kid named Derek Barber and his band Perhapsy play his amazing jazz-tinged rock in front of about twenty people. I saw Boston singer/songwriter Katie Chastain sing her lovely, disquieting indie folk tunes. I saw Bandspotting winner Aaron Strumpel and friends wail the Psalms. And I saw a transgendered hermaphrodite and former circus carney named Baby Dee, pictured above, sing some of the damndest, most grace-filled hymns I've ever heard. She has recorded a superb and disturbing album called Safe Inside the Day. You should listen.

There was a lot of staring into the abyss. I went to a workshop on early bluesman Charley Patton, an alcoholic Christian who, I pray, philandered and drank his way into the Kingdom of God. I heard about a batch of new bands who have incorporated the southern Gothic sensibilities of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty into their music. I heard a couple of academic dissertations on the lyrics of Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. I heard marvelous, challenging, uplifting keynote addresses from Makoto Fujimura, Andy Crouch, and Dr. Cornel West. I listened to a passionate presentation from a Calvin English prof on the laments of David, Jeremiah, The Velvet Underground, The Sex Pistols, Fugazi, and The Psalters. I listened to revelatory interviews with Craig Finn and Baby Dee. And I mingled and ate and drank with a bunch of people I may never see again, but who left me with the unmistakeable impression that there are thinking, feeling Christians out there who are focused on beauty and pain and truth, and the intersection of those themes that have historically been shunted to the side in the conservative Christian world, and viewed as incompatible and unspiritual.

As always, three days was not enough, and there were the workshops I wanted to attend but couldn't, and the conversations I wanted to happen, but didn't. I waved to David Dark, and said hello and goodbye. I chatted for all of three minutes with Linford and Karin from Over the Rhine, and promised to visit sometime soon. I had fleeting snatches of conversation with Rob and Kirstin from Calvin, who are integrally involved with the festival, and who put out a wonderful little magazine called *cino (Cultural Is Not Optional). I had too-short conversations with Paste co-founder Tim Regan-Porter and with renaissance man Charlie Peacock. I chatted briefly with my Pittsburgh buddy Jason, said "Hello" and "We'll have to talk later" with my Seattle buddy Kevin (and then we never did), meant to catch up with a dozen or more people whose lives I value and for which I am thankful. It didn't happen. I wish there were more hours in the day.

But there were opportunities for extended conversation as well. And they were weird and wonderful. There was, for instance, the uncomfortable moment in which I realized that the person sitting across the table from me was mentally ill, certifiably, irrevocably insane, and full of crazy theology and even crazier art that could shake me to the core if I let it, and I decided that I was going to hang in there and that it might not be a bad idea if I let it. Kate and I had a wonderful dinnertime conversation with David Horace Perkins, a mainstay of some of the best Christian bands ever (and yes, there are a few), and one of the best blues guitarists you've never heard. David talked about simultaneously receiving chemotherapy treatments and putting together a conference/music festival in Nashville to honor the work of Flannery O'Connor.

We met, for the first time, and hung out with Emma Sapperstein, daughter of our old friends Andy and Kathy Sapperstein, who currently reside in New Haven, Connecticut and work with theologian Miroslav Wolf, and who have spent most of the past twenty years in Uzbekistan. Emma grew up in Uzbekistan, fed the family chickens, and now finds herself in a foreign culture called the U.S. of A., studying sculpture at Wheaton College. She was a spunky delight. We hung out with Calvin intern Marty Garner and his friend Matt. Marty loves The Hold Steady and indie rock, and we talked music, and church, and what it was like to change the states called home four times in 2008. We had dinner with Katie Chastain and her songwriting partner Nathan Johnson, and talked parenthood with rap artist Jeremy Bryant and his wife Hansi, who have received a grant to make hip-hop music with high school kids in Milwaukee. How cool is that? We hung out with Erin Keane, an English professor at a college in Kentucky, and someone who may be a bigger Hold Steady fan than I am. We hung out with Aaron Strumpel, from Colorado, and Todd and Angie Fadel, from Portland, Oregon, who somehow got together to lay down the most outstanding musical set of the conference, a raw, punk-like, discordant, and often strikingly beautiful take on The Psalms. Or, the Wail. It was so refreshing to encounter people who love God, and experience pain, and let it rip.

There was a lot of pain this weekend. That was the overarching message I heard. Boys and girls in America are hurting. They weren't melodramatic about it. They weren't simpering about it. They acknowledged that there were and are many blessings in the midst of the shitstorm. But the sorrow and the heartache were palpable on many fronts. And there was genuine, deep-down connection happening everywhere I turned. It was the best part of the Festival of Faith and Music, and it couldn't have been organized or orchestrated. It just happened.

I came out on the other side saddened, hopeful, energized, worn out, and very, very thankful. I am so grateful that this happens. My sincere thanks go out to Ken Heffner and the many staff members and volunteers at Calvin who tirelessly work to create an atmosphere where those unexpected and lifegiving moments can emerge. It will happen again, God willing, in the spring of 2011. You all should make an effort to be there.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Bad Hair Decade

I have the strangest hair. I hate it. I realize that this is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but I just wanted to point out that guys can have Bad Hair Days as well. Bad Hair Decades, even. I don't have that much of it to begin with, but when it starts to grow it grows, for whatever reasons, faster just in front of the crown of my head. The end result is something that looks like a shark fin one day, and a Dairy Queen Swirly Cone the next. It's not a winsome look.