As I Was Saying…

Chatter, memories and rants. Please, don't stop me if you've heard this one before.

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Archive for May, 2008

This Myth Rated NC-17…

May 7, 2008

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Algernon Swinburne, from Atalanta in Calydon

One day when she had nothing to do,
Sing rickety-tickety-tin,
One day when she had nothing to do,
She cut her baby brother in two,
And served him up as an Irish stew,
And invited the neighbors in, -bors in,
Invited the neighbors in.

Tom Lehrer, from Irish Ballad

So, where the hell are the hounds? Today was a nice day, but the forecast calls for drizzle again in the next few days. Something about it made me think of poor, boozy Swinburne, or perhaps it was only my own “hang-dog” look when I realized I was going to have to spend hours at the computer today doing a mindless, numbingly repetitive task.

Whatever the cause, Swinburne fits my mood this evening. I’ve always enjoyed the way he forces high and low sentiments upon one simultaneously. In these few lines, for example, his suggestion that the procession of the seasons is rather like a fox hunt (“Tally ho, old chap…”) leads straight into his recollection of King Tereus of Thrace.

For those who slept through mythology class, Tereus, husband of Procne, ravishes her sister Philomela and then cuts out Philomela’s tongue to keep her quiet. Philomela, clever girl, manages to rat out Tereus through some sort of narrative needlework (the story is apparently set in pre-literate times). In revenge Procne and Philomela murder Itylus, Tereus’s son by Procne, and serve him up for Tereus to eat. The gods, appalled by this savagery, turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.


You just can’t beat Greek mythology for the down and dirty. But the business of cooking and eating poor Itylus has left me with Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad on the brain. Probably the thing to do is to eat the carrot cake I’ve just been offered and try to forget about myths and Irish ballads.

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Blogging in the Alternative

May 6, 2008

One of the things that was supposed to happen to me as a result of going to law school was an irreversible change in my way of thinking.

It’s entirely possible that I was never happy as a lawyer because my way of thinking in fact did not change.

The legal system, for those of you who have never wrestled with it, is a parallel reality. It is governed by one sort of logic (the need to end disputes) while speaking exclusively in terms of a different logic (the search for justice and fairness).

My experience as a lawyer, however, was unvarying: I never had a client who really wanted justice. Every single one of them wanted victory. If victory were to be called justice, that was even better, but the actual goal was always victory.

My headline is a take on what is called “pleading in the alternative.” The principle is neatly illustrated by a hypothetical claim for damages. You claim that I borrowed your pail and that when I returned it to you it leaked. Pleading in the alternative, I answer you as follows: a) you don’t own a pail; and b) if you do, I never borrowed it; and c) if I did, it didn’t leak when I returned it; and d) if it did, then it already leaked when I borrowed it.

The example is amusing, if you’re in the mood for logic so twisted it will give you a headache. The social implications of a system that runs this way, however, are sometimes horrific.

National Public Radio reported yesterday that in the Dallas area, where evidence in criminal cases is preserved indefinitely, DNA testing by modern means is turning up something like a 40% wrongful conviction rate in rape and murder cases. Forty percent. One man who was interviewed had been freed after 27 years in prison.

In every single one of those cases, the court ended the dispute, and the State “won.” Those victories, however, have appallingly little connection to justice.

This may be a problem peculiar to Texas, but I doubt it. I do have one question for Texans about this, however: With a 40% error rate in convictions, do you still think the death penalty is a good idea?

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Donald and Me

May 5, 2008

I’ve been a Steely Dan/Donald Fagen fan for more than 30 years, but I never was the sort of fan who gets into biographical stuff. I never cared where Fagen grew up or who his girlfriends were. I just knew I liked the music without wondering much about why that might be so.

This morning, however, my e-mail included one of those you-might-also-enjoy… messages from The suggestion that interested me was a book called Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years—part biography of Fagen and Walter Becker, part discography and part band history. As I sometimes do on, I clicked on LOOK INSIDE!™ and read some of the book.

The selected passage was the story of Fagen’s high school (class of ’65) and college years (class of ’69). It was like looking into a mirror. In high school, Fagen was this alienated kid, more interested in jazz than Top 40 fluff, who hurried home after school every day to play the piano by ear for hours on end.

I did the same thing (high school class of ’64, college class of ’68).

Fagen could read music, I guess, because he played a horn in the high school marching band.


Fagen settled on majoring in English in college because he just didn’t want to be the kind of professional musician the music department was determined to produce.


There were some important differences, of course. Taken together they explain why, 40 years later, Fagen is an internationally known star who has sold millions of records, while I am an amateur musician who sings barbershop in nursing homes. Here’s a partial list of those differences:

  • In high school, I played a couple hours a day; Fagen probably played six or eight. It makes a difference.
  • My father hated my music, and I couldn’t play it while he was around. Fagen probably wasn’t constrained in quite that way.
  • In those days, the radio station choices in Portland, Maine were Top 40, country and “easy listening.” Fagen lived in New Jersey, just south of New York City where jazz broadcasts were all over the radio dial.
  • My alto sax teacher had been on the road with a well known big band and was a hell of a jazz player, but he was my only direct contact with jazz. Fagen had all the jazz clubs in NYC in which to soak up the music, the personalities and the life.
  • In college, I found the dope smokers to be self-important and boring. Fagen apparently joined in the fun and found fellow musicians and an audience in the process.
  • I was damn good, but Fagen in my opinion was and is a genius. That also makes a difference.
  • But I’m still better looking. I’ll give you six out of seven, Donald.

While still in high school, I learned to play many of the chord voicings Bud Powell had pioneered. I’d love to write about what made those harmonies so unexpected and new. You’d have to know some jazz theory to stay with me, however, and if you know some jazz theory you already know about Bud’s harmonies. Bud was the guy who figured out, for example, how to play a C7 chord that sounds like a C7—except there’s no C in it anywhere!

You still hear Bud’s chords, now at least 60 years old, any time you listen to piano jazz. My father, however, considered these harmonies to be particularly egregious, and he sort of had a point. Bud Powell, according to many accounts, was crazy, and his harmonies were crazy for their time.

Bud Powell also wasn’t the whole story, of course. I knew about Dave Brubeck, but no one told me about Red Garland; and I didn’t discover him on my own until many, many years later. Fagen, however, was a huge Red Garland fan from the beginning and apparently spent long hours trying to learn Garland’s rhythmic sense, his particular style of using his right hand to hang languidly behind the beat that his left hand maintained scrupulously.

Fagen’s cover of Ruby Baby on The Nightfly turns Dion’s silly puppy love ditty into a jazz-infused R&B classic and shows that Fagen did his homework. Listen to Fagen’s piano solo, starting about 1:45 into the track, and see if you don’t hear Red Garland inspiring Fagen’s wonderful melodic line. I certainly do.

No wonder I’m a fan.

Posted in Chatter, Memories | 1 Comment »

A Flood and a Funeral

May 2, 2008

Fort Kent lies at the northern tip of Maine. This morning’s paper brings more news of the flood there, perhaps the worst since record-keeping began. The combination of melting snow and two days of torrential rain brought the St. John River so far over its banks that much of the town is still under water. Recovery from the flood will be expensive, slow, messy and sad for a lot of people.

Aunt Frances
Aunt Frances

My own associations with the town are sad anyway, and they come from long ago. I haven’t been to Fort Kent since 1959, when my aunt Frances died at the age of 47. Frances was my mother’s sister and my favorite aunt, the one who always seemed glad to see me, the one who could always make me laugh.

Whether by choice or not, she never had children of her own. Instead, she charged into the business world in a way few women of her generation did. She paid the price for it and died young from a “Type A personality” heart attack. She and my uncle Carl had 22 years of marriage, and then she was gone.

I was 12 at the time and just beginning to notice adult behavior. We were sitting in the living room after the funeral, and Carl was reading aloud from the condolence cards he had received. One of them contained that James Whitcomb Riley poem with the line “She is not dead – she is just away.”

Carl stumbled through the poem, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he kept trying to read it aloud. When he reached the end, he put down the card and dissolved into sobs. I had never seen an adult do anything like that. The words of the poem must have been intended to comfort, but they seemed to have the opposite effect.

“It’s a lie,” I thought, ” She is dead, and no matter how long I live I will never see her again.” I also somehow understood that Carl would never stop grieving, and he never did.

Now, nearly 50 years later, I still loathe that poem.

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