Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Tuesday Night Memo: A few thoughts on turning six

Michael Dickens / A selfie.
Hooray! A Tuesday Night Memo turns six today.

Here's some background about my blog:  I started writing A Tuesday Night Memo in January 2010 as a means of sharing musings about my life filled with music, sport, and urban travel, and to foster community with my friends, family and Facebook acquaintances while giving me an opportunity to hone my writing skills. People who know me well know that I'm passionate about music, sport, and urban travel. Additionally, I have used my blog as a vehicle for writing about art, food, fashion, religion and gardening. Sharing news and photos about our flower gardens at home always seem to generate great interest and enthusiasm. Perhaps, it's the pretty shapes and colors of our flowers that others find appealing?

Up to now, I have "blogged" 309 entries for A Tuesday Night Memo, which collectively have received over 63,000 page views. Among many subjects I have written about include: my appreciation of tennis champion Roger Federer, a history of the world as seen through 100 objects, classical music conductor Gustavo Dudamel, validating our travel through our photographs, Jerry Seinfeld's Internet comedy Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and a profile of Issues, my favorite news and magazine shop that's located in Oakland, Calif. I have included my interest in digital photography within my blog, which has enabled me to illustrate my posts with nice visuals to match the words I write.

The feedback you have given me after reading my blog posts is not only very much appreciated, but I also find it very useful. Most of it has been positive, but sometimes it's also been critical. Whether good or bad, I've found the feedback you provide to be a valuable learning tool. From time to time, I like to sneak a peek at my blog's statistics, which are the key indicators that show how many total "hits" my blog has received, which stories have been read the most, and what countries comprise the blog's readership. While modest, the numbers are nevertheless interesting.

Here are a few fun facts about A Tuesday Night Memo I thought you might enjoy:

Since May 2010 (the earliest date data is available), my blog has been read in dozens of different countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Morocco, Turkey and Hong Kong -- even Brazil, India, Vietnam, and Australia. The top five countries reading my blog include the U.S, Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

* The most widely-read blog entry in terms of "hits" was one I wrote back in December 2010 about "CNN International: Connecting the world," in which I explored the intelligent -- albeit sometimes irreverent -- manner that CNN International delivered the news and how it different from it's American cousin based in Atlanta, Ga. Other top "hits" include musings about the artist Pablo Picasso and the British comedian Ricky Gervais. Go figure!

Looking ahead, I hope to explore many different topics including:

* Connecting our world through digital music and media.
* My ongoing fascination with British television.
* What we can learn by visiting museums.

In the meantime, I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you throughout the past six years, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts about another exciting year that awaits all of us.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The pleasure of our winter gardens, El Niño edition

Our calla lilies are the stars of our winter gardens.

One of the simple pleasures of homeownership in northern California is being able to maintain a garden year-round, including wintertime.

Occasionally, daytime temperatures climb into the low-to-mid 60s, mixing cloudy with sunny skies. With apologies to my dear friends back east and in the Midwest, who've put up with more than their share of sub-freezing temperatures and snowy blizzards, we do get spoiled this time of year by our moderate climate.

Here, however, we've been waiting what seems like an eternity for a good El Niño season to arrive. Having endured a long drought the past couple of years -- last January we had zilch for rain -- since the beginning of 2016, we've received several quality inches of much-needed precipitation. Maybe, it's been too much of a good thing.

The green grass covering our modest-sized yard has grown so tall that it's beginning to resemble the rough of a British links golf course. Not exactly pristine. Hopefully, one of these days, once it dries out, I'll have a chance to mow and edge the lawn and pull some weeds. The upside to all of our much-needed rain -- yes, there is an upside -- is our winter flowers are having quite the season to remember.

In taking stock of what all of January's rain has meant to our garden, consider this: our camellia bush, which has consistently bloomed since November, still has many pink and white camellias; ditto for our azaleas, which have enjoyed a tremendous rebirth. Our fuchsias are experiencing consistent growth thanks to the abundance of this month's rain, and a few of our rose bushes are still producing blooms.

Finally, the first of our calla lilies, which grow on the usually shady east side of our house, have arrived on schedule. One of them has begun to open its spathe (the part of the lily that is white and shaped like the bell of a trumpet) while a couple of others are about a week or so away from blooming. By spring, we should have a couple dozen fully-bloomed calla lilies.

Each of our plants and flowers has its own growth cycle during the year. Luckily, nature is our ally and there's always something in bloom.

Photos: By Michael Dickens ©2016.

Friday, January 15, 2016

David Bowie was a pop genius who kept getting it right

David Bowie
A truly great artist, beautiful melodist, and elegant gentleman.

Like so many of my generation, waking up to the news of David Bowie's death was a shocker. The first words I heard when my clock radio alarm sounded at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, the start of a new work week, came from the voice of Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, who said matter-of-factly -- and without any hesitation -- "David Bowie is dead."

With these four words, "David Bowie is dead," immediately I sat up in bed, confused, my head spinning. Fight back tears, I began remembering the many faces and sounds of this most innovative, iconic and illustrious artist and musician.

The 69-year-old Bowie's career had staying power -- five decades and 25 albums -- stretched over two centuries. Imagine that. His hits were many. "Fame," "Heroes," "Young Americans," "Changes," "Let's Dance," "Modern Love," "China Girl," immediately come to mind. But there are so many more, too. Bowie excelled at mixing rock, jazz, disco, pop, soul, glam, art rock, hard rock, metal, punk, electronica with ease. He bent genres with his music -- and was gender-bending with his many personas.

David Bowie ~ 30 essential songs:

David Bowie / His artistic breakthrough came with
the gender-bending persona Ziggy Stardust.
In remembering Bowie, The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "Bowie's artistic breakthrough came with 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, an album that fostered the notion of rock star as space alien. Fusing British mod with Japanese kabuki styles and rock with theater, Bowie created the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust."

Rolling Stone called the influential Bowie "One of the most original and singular voices in rock & roll for nearly five decades" noting that the British artist and musician "championed mystery, rebellion and curiosity in his music. Ever unpredictable, the mercurial artist and fashion icon wore many guises throughout his life."

A Tuesday Night Memo explores David Bowie's "Where Are We Now?" 

Soon, after word of Bowie's passing spread through social media, the tributes and accolades began pouring in, both from musicians and music critics.

"The right words would be written in ink on card, not to be suddenly and brutally, like the news. In acknowledgement, the lights on this particular and peculiar little theatre will be lowered for a while. With deepest gratitude and respectful condolences to the family and friends of a truly great artist, beautiful melodist and elegant gentleman," wrote Elvis Costello on his Facebook page.

Sting on the passing of David Bowie wrote: "Trudie and I were totally captivated by his energetic charm, his extraordinary music, his art and his unique spirit. We will never forget him."

The Rolling Stones issued a statement: "The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie. As well as being a wonderful and kind man, he was an extraordinary artist and a true original." Added Mick Jagger: "David was always an inspiration to me. He was wonderfully shameless in his work. We had so many good times together. He was my friend. I will never forget him."

Peter Ames Carlin, the author of several books, including biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, wrote on his Facebook page: "I am both crushed and awed by David Bowie's death. That he knew he was dying, that that fact informed everything about this epic work of art he unleashed hours before he died. That 'Lazarus,' the song and especially the video, are such beautifully rendered works about his own life and death. He turned death into a creation. It's kind of the ultimate act of artistry, that he could transform the dousing of the lights into such a spectacular life-affirming event."

On the PBS News Hour, Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis said: "He continually reinvented himself. David Bowie never seemed old." Added British Prime Minister David Cameron: "David Bowie was a genius. For someone my age, he provided a lot of the soundtrack of our lives."

Indeed, Bowie wrote anthems for the alienated, mixing rock music and theatricality throughout his career. Think Major Tom, think Ziggy Stardust, think Thin White Duke. He influenced generations of musicians and fans. I remember the thrill of spinning his early eighties album, Let's Dance, as a college DJ in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It remains my favorite David Bowie album.

On the occasion of his 69th birthday last week, Bowie released a new album called Blackstar, made in collaboration with a quintet of jazz musicians. Said NPR: "Bowie's work often addressed inner truths and existential questions. He was always morphing his sound and his look."

David Bowie / His new album, 'Blackstar' showed him
to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.
Like so many, immediately after learning the news of Bowie's death, I began exploring his life and career. That afternoon, I purchased Blackstar via iTunes. Not surprisingly, it has been the most downloaded album on iTunes throughout the world this week. That evening as I sat down to dinner, I listened to it in its entirety for the first time after hearing "Lazarus" a few times in recent weeks on the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show via KCRW.com.

I enjoyed what I heard from start to finish, and like the chameleon Bowie had been his entire career, I'm not surprised he avoided rock & roll. Instead, Bowie surrounded himself with a group of very bright and talented jazz musicians and created a jazz fusion album, a throwback to Miles Davis circa early seventies. It's very listenable and I think longtime Bowie enthusiasts will applaud his sound and direction.

"It could've gone so terribly wrong," wrote NPR music critic Barry Walters in his review of Blackstar. Fortunately, it didn't and Blackstar showed Bowie to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.

David Bowie / "What I'm most proud of is that I can't help
but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music."
As the subject of countless interviews, Bowie once said: "My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety -- all the high points of one's life."

Bowie will be remembered as a musical master of reinvention, a pop genius who kept getting it right.

"What I'm most proud of is that I can't help but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music," he said. "For me, frankly, as an artist, that's the most satisfying thing for the ego."

Video of "Blackstar": Courtesy of YouTube. Photos: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Kendrick Lamar: Mirroring the energy of his music

Kendrick Lamar is a 28-year-old poet and lyrical genius whose body language during a performance mirrors the energy of his music.

Lamar's raps incorporate elements of funk, spoken-word poetry, and jazz. He prefers to label his music simply as "human music." His sense of freedom and willingness to explore many music genres, such as jazz fusion, sparked and inspired the late David Bowie as the musical icon worked on his final album 'Blackstar.'

Lamar's new "Untitled 2," which he recently debuted on NBC's The Tonight Show, explores a backstory of his life and his view of America.

"Music moves with the times. It's not something we have to consciously do," Lamar revealed in an interview earlier this month in The New York Times. "This is what's happening in the world -- not only to me but to my community. Whenever I make music, it reflects where I'm at mentally."

Lamar's critically-acclaimed concept album To Pimp a Butterfly (which was ranked by Rolling Stone as the best album of 2015) has been nominated 11 times in nine Grammy categories, including Song ("Alright") and Album of the Year (for the second time). According to Nielsen, it has sold more than 750,000 copies and been streamed 375 million times -- all without a hit single. However, it should be noted that "Alright," which garnered four Grammy nominations, has become a unifying soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.

On being chosen as the best album of 2015, Rolling Stone wrote: "Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece -- a sprawling epic that's both the  year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes."

Kendrick Lamar / His 'To Pimp a Butterfly' is
part bumptious party music, part gripping therapy session.
"Being acknowledged for your work is always a great accomplishment," said Lamar, "whether it's people in my city, kids in the street, all the way up to the Grammys." The Compton, California native, born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and also known as K-Dot, added: "This album did what I wanted it to do. That's not necessarily to sell tons of records -- though it didn't do bad at that either -- but to actually have an impact on the people and on the culture of music."

I'll admit, I'm not a big follower of rap or of Lamar's career. However, as a devoted viewer of late-night television, I took notice when Stephen Colbert anointed Lamar to be his first musical guest when he took over as host of CBS's The Late Show from David Letterman last September, and I tuned in with great interest to see him perform. From that appearance to last week's performance on The Tonight Show, it's easy to see why critics make a point of saying "make sure you're watching and not just listening" to Lamar's raps because of the way the movement of his body relates to the energy of his message. His raw voice and self-interrogative style have its pleasure and rewards.

Kendrick Lamar / "Make sure you're watching and not
just listening." His raw voice and self-interrogative style
have its pleasure and rewards.
As I watched and listened, I warmed to Lamar's personal style of simple braided hair and attire that included non-baggy jeans, white kicks and a plaid long-sleeved shirt over a dark t-shirt that said "Faith Love." He was unconsumed by expensive chains and did not fit the mold of most hip hop artists.

As Lamar performed "Untitled 2," one could see a building intensity that one critic the next day called "absolutely mesmerizing."

To see the lyrics to "Untitled 2": http://genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-untitled-2-blue-faces-lyrics

Another critic, writing for Slate.com, wrote: "Lamar's emotion builds throughout the song and reaches its triumphant peak at the end, as Lamar repeats, 'You ain't gotta tell me that I'm the one,' and finishes with 'Yes, I'm the one'."

To learn more about Kendrick Lamar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kendrick_Lamar

Video: Courtesy of YouTube. Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My New Year's resolution? Read more books!

To read or not to read / So many books ... so little time.

Happy New Year everyone!

We're less than a week into 2016, and just as everyone is writing out their New Year's resolutions, I've jotted down a few of my own.

One resolution that's near the top of my list each year is to read more. "So many books ... so little time," reads the slogan printed on one of my tattered, well-worn navy-colored t-shirts that I bought a few years ago at The Elliott Bay Book Company, one of my favorite independent bookstores in the country, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle /
One of my favorite independent bookstores in the country. 
When I say "read more" I mean books. Oh, sure. I stay abreast of current events by reading The New York Times, both in print and online, on a daily basis, and I enjoy giving a good read to periodicals like Monocle, the London-based monthly that covers world affairs, culture, food, and design. 

And, of course, there's always perusing my Facebook news feed, to stay current on what's trending, too.

But, what about books, you ask?

Roger Angell / This Old Man: All in Pieces.
This book is on my reading list for 2016.
Yes, books, remember them? It's the foundation behind what made Amazon.com one of the most successful online retailers. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Netflix, before texting sapped all of our intellectual energy, there were books. I have several bookshelves at home lined with hundreds of titles that I've bought or received as gifts over the years. I'm proud of my collection of books by The New Yorker writers Roger Angell and Calvin Trillin, among many. However, a few years ago, in a space-saving and budget-cutting effort, I trimmed back on the number of new titles I bought and, instead, decided to start making better use of the local public library.

Looking back on 2015, I can say without boasting that I made good use of my Oakland Public Library card. I checked out seven books at our local branch library. One thing I've learned about libraries is this: If you're willing to wait for a popular best-seller or a new title to become available, checking out library books is a good way to save money (and, I might add, bookshelf space) while also showing support for public libraries.

Watching Comedy Central's The Daily Show, I've found, is a pretty good barometer about good books to read, and before he left the show last summer, former host Jon Stewart always brought out the best in authors. You could judge by his interest in a book if it was worth reading. Fortunately, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah is carrying on the tradition begun by Stewart.

Among the books which I read during 2015 were:

Mark Bittman on food / A Bone To Pick 
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
Midnight in Siberia by David Green

A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter

The Children of Willesden Green: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

You Can't Make This Up by Al Michaels

Mona Golabek / The Children of Willesden Lane:
Beyond the Kindertransport:
A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival
A Bone to Pick: The Good News and Bad News About Food by Mark Bittman

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland

Among the ties that bind these titles are my interest in non-fiction, memoirs, sports, food, travel and public radio personalities, as well as interest in world religions. And, of course, good writing and good stories always garner my attention.

Looking ahead, I wonder if it's possible that I can increase my output to 12 books, thus reading an average of a book a month? Let's see, I've already started a wonderful memoir by the gifted New Orleans actor Wendell Pierce, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, and I received Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by award-winning adventure writer Richard Grant as a Christmas gift from my brother. Plus, I can't wait to begin reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the acclaimed 674-page memoir by Elvis Costello that spans his almost four-decade music career. So, yes, reading a book a month seems like a reasonable goal.

I'm optimistic.

Now, if I can just somehow find a way to unplug my TV set and turn off my iPhone.

Photos of Elliott Bay Book Company by Michael Dickens © 2015. Book illustrations: Courtesy of Google Images.