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December 2007

Acting Like Talk Radio

I'll try not to be obnoxious about it, but I'm going to keep talk radio in mind tonight when I do my lecture for MacCall's class.   The first time I did one of these, using Wimba, which enables voice, live chat, and the ability to present powerpoint slides to the class, but no visuals of each other, I found it to be very disconcerting.  I hadn't realized until then just how much I rely on visual feedback from the audience that I'm presenting to.  I modify the pacing, the tone, even the sequence of what I'm doing, even when I'm working with a pretty well-structured lecture.  I've always viewed it as performance, not much different than when I'm playing guitar and singing -- there's always a setlist, but it's never written in stone, because it's dependent on how well you're connecting with the audience.

So the next time I did the lecture for MacCall, I kept NPR's news programs in the back of my mind.  Those folks are getting no feedback from the audience at all, and yet they're able to make it sound very informal, and conversational, as if you're right there.  That's the effect that I wanted.  And I felt much better about that second round.  (It was also enhanced by the fact that the students were much more comfortable with the technology as well.  And I expect the group this evening to be even more savvy than those from a year ago.)

My favorite part of lecturing or presenting live is always the discussion.  It's a lot more fun for me, and I think it's more useful for the audience.  So as I was thinking about getting into the right mindset for tonight I realized that what I want is not All Things Considered, but Rush Limbaugh.  That is, I can pontificate about what I think the important issues are, but allow a lot of time for comments, questions & suggestions from the group.

Well, maybe Limbaugh isn't exactly the model that I want to use....   I'd actually like to encourage real discussion, diversity of opinion, and informed critical thinking, which is pretty much the opposite of what most talk radio is about.


Fat Free

I was staring, sort of dumb-founded, at the dairy case.  I'd stopped to pick up some cream for a pumpkin dessert that Lynn was planning.  These days, in America, there's a million varieties of everything, so I was scanning the shelf to see what my choices were.  Tucked among the rest, I came across the fat-free half-n'-half.

I thought I was inured to the idiocies of food marketing, but it seems they can still make me drop a step.  Fat-free half-n'-half?  What in the world can that be?  Wouldn't you have to make fat-free cream first?  And how can it be cream if you've taken out all the fat?

Turns out that it's milk loaded with corn syrup and a variety of chemicals.  No fat, fewer calories, lots more sugar.    Better living through chemistry.

I'm generally opposed, on principle, to fat-free foods, particularly when you get into the dairy areas where part of the point, it seems to me, is the fat.  Reduced fat cheese?  There's a better solution if you're concerned about the amount of fat you're ingesting -- eat less of it.  Better for you all 'round.  But consuming less is un-American.

A decade ago I was suffering from chronic gastric reflux.  Occasional heartburn had gradually developed into nearly daily discomfort, which I was treating principally with Tums (which turned out to be the main culprit in an attack of kidney stones around that same time).  I went to the doctor and he stuck the scope down my throat and said, yes, I can see that there's some scarring there, so you're definitely doing damage to the tissue of the lower esophagus.  He gave me a prescription for a short course of prilosec and then maintenance pepcid.  That would be two tablets a day -- forever.

"Is there anything that I need to change in my diet?"  I figured I was going to have to start cutting out some of the really spicy foods I like or he'd tell me to cut back on coffee or whisky...

"Oh, no.  The pepcid should take care of it."

And it did.  Better living through chemistry.  And for two years I dutifully took my pepcid and didn't have any problems.

When I hit forty-five, it seemed to me that I really wasn't feeling, in general, as good as I ought to at that age.  I was overweight, sluggish, easily winded, with lots of little body aches & pains.  I started a modest exercise program and cut back on portion sizes.  I didn't change my diet at all -- I just quit eating as much. 

I lost twenty pounds and between the weight loss and the exercise I was feeling much better.  I experimented with not taking the pepcid.  No more reflux. 

I imagine that the doctor knew that if I lost twenty pounds, the reflux would go away.  But he also knew that if he told me that I had to make lifestyle changes I'd be very unlikely to be able to stick to it, and I'd keep doing damage to my esophagus and stomach lining.  Better to just give me the drug.  The odds of my remembering to take my two pills a day were much higher than the chances of my actually changing the patterns of my life.

And so it goes.  I don't know what the answer is.  Lifestyle changes are tremendously difficult.  In Alabama 20% of the population is diabetic.  Much of that is directly related to the obesity epidemic.  Losing weight isn't complicated -- it is just incredibly difficult, particularly in this country where so much of our economy is driven by overconsumption. 

When you're bombarded on every side with messages to consume more, the challenge of simply eating less is overwhelming.  Better to convince people that they need fat-free half-n'-half. 

Not that it seems to be working.



Ratliff on Coltrane

I don't even remember when Coltrane became a huge force in my life.    The only vinyl I have is A Love Supreme, so that gives me a bit of a point in time to refer to.  Mid-nineties, I suppose, is when I acquired most of the CDs.  I don't quite have everything that's commercially available, but I've got most of it.  There's certainly not a week goes by that I don't listen to some of it.

I've read all of the full-length biographies that are available and I've been disappointed by every one.  None of them brought me closer to the Coltrane that I hear.  Not well written, or carrying too much of an agenda, or, frankly, not dealing too well with the fact that Coltrane was a pretty boring guy without any particularly dramatic incidents in his life.   He was the furthest thing from a prodigy, so it wasn't until he was 30 that he began to be recognized as a player of the first rank.  He drank too much and was a junkie in his twenties, but so was just about every other jazz musician.  Then he went cold turkey and that was that.  His first marriage ended, and he married again.  Surely a personal story there with plenty of hurt and heartbreak in it, but whose life doesn't have plenty of that?  Lives in a nice house on Long Island, drives a Jaguar, makes a bunch of records and dies of liver cancer at forty.  Not very much for a biographer to work with.

Oh, and in the ten years of his prime, he created some of the most astonishing music that has ever sounded, transformed the world of jazz, and had a profound impact, by extension, on all of popular music & culture.   

When I saw that Ben Ratliff had a Coltrane book out, I was hopeful.   I've been reading his criticism in the New York Times for years and think very highly of it.  He's an excellent writer, very perceptive about many forms of music, seems to approach his work from the stance of an acute listener without any particular agenda to push.  Even if it turned out to be a disappointment as a book, I couldn't imagine that reading Ratliff at length on Coltrane could be less than enlightening and fun.

By the end of it, I was madly underlining passages and writing notes on the back pages -- "Yes, yes!  Exactly right!  Very perceptive on Branford's early response to Coltrane!  Yes, yes -- it's about the band!"

Ratliff makes it clear up front that he's not writing a book about the life.  He divides the book into two parts -- first is the biography of the music.  He traces the route that Coltrane took musically, from his very early derivative and unformed experiments, through the mastery of balladry, the shifting into modal forms, the interplay with the classic quartet, and the continuing search to go past formal boundaries to find out what's next.  He is particularly acute on discussing the nature and importance of Coltrane's sound and what that very word means within the context of jazz.

Ratliff is remarkable in his ability to describe, in very specific ways, what is going on technically with the music, without requiring the reader to have a detailed knowledge of music theory.  Surely, a little bit of theory helps, but I can't imagine that any passionate music lover wouldn't be able to follow Ratliff's description and argument.

The second half of the book is about Coltrane's influence, and this is where Ratliff's acumen, knowledge of contemporary music, and skill in weaving excellent sentences, really shine.  He's trying to sort out what Coltrane has meant to music and musicians in the forty years since he died and through very deft sketches and a fine arrangement of quotes & bits of interviews, he makes a very compelling case.  It doesn't matter whether or not I agreed precisely with every point he was trying to make or not -- it was a thrilling ride.

James Breslin's biography of Rothko (about whom I am as passionate as I am about Coltrane) is one of the finest books I've ever read, and I was thrilled to discover that when he moved on from Rothko he started researching a book about 'Trane.  Alas, he died too soon, and I was crushed to know that his book would never appear.

The perfect biography of Coltrane may be beyond anyone's grasp, but I'm pretty sure that I've just finished the finest book about his music.


Conference Marathon

I see that Clare has put the Conference Call 2007 blog to bed.  As I've said here previously, I consider it to be the very model of what one can do with a conference blog and I think I'm even more impressed with what she did after the meeting than prior to it or during.  For over a month after the close of the meeting, she continued to post regularly, with well thought out summaries, full of links, to many of the sessions and events from the meeting.   Not only was it an excellent way to provide content to those who hadn't been able to attend, it was a great review for those of us who were there and wanted to go back and revisit sessions we'd attended or check sessions we'd missed.   

I wish that there was something similar for the conferences I've been to over the past couple of weeks.  It was a fluke of the calendar that put the annual Southern Chapter meeting in Charleston the week after the Charleston Conference, which was immediately after the AAMC/AAHSL meeting in DC, but the result was that we spent a full two weeks on the road.  Over the years I've learned that the maximum amount of time that I can comfortably be away from home seems to be twelve nights.  This has been remarkably consistent, whether I've been off on one of my long solo driving trips, or taking an extended business/vacation trip overseas.  I love traveling and I do just fine for the first dozen days, but I wake up after that twelfth night and I just want to be home!  This trip was fourteen nights so I was gritting my teeth getting through the last two days.

This was so even though the content of the Southern Chapter meeting was excellent and of course I was hanging out with friends and colleagues that I've known for many years.  And if one must be stranded somewhere for an extended stretch, one can hardly complain about Charleston being the place. 

I had to pace myself a bit differently on this trip than I usually do when going off to a conference, making sure that I got out for regular walks, making sure to pay better attention to how much sleep I was getting, squeezing in some extra time every day to keep up with email so that I didn't have a pile of stuff to plow through when I got home.  I was still pretty exhausted at the end of it, but when I got back into the office on Monday, I didn't feel terribly disconnected and it didn't take me too long to get back into the swing of things.

I did a better job than I usually do of writing up daily notes.    Maybe it was just luck, but I seem to have attended fewer dud sessions at these three conferences than is my norm, and I got quite a few recommendations for books I want to check out or other resources that I want to follow up on.

In general, I sensed a greater degree of optimism overall among my colleagues.  Maybe it was just luck -- as I mentioned to a number of people, the Charleston Conference is so over-scheduled with concurrent sessions that it would be possible for two people to have extremely different experiences depending on what they chose to go to -- but there seemed to me to be less gnashing of teeth and worrying about the imminent disappearance of libraries and more excitement about the potentials for exciting services and programs than I've seen at conferences in the past few years.  It'd be great if there really has been a bit of tide turning and we can start following the dictum on the benchmarking project buttons that were being handed out in Charleston -- "Quit whining!  Just do it!"