Monday, January 23, 2017

Music review: SCAR LIGHT EP by Yuma Asami

This review is from a fan in the United States who does not read or speak Japanese, so there won't be any comment on lyrics or the liner notes, I have not yet asked my Japanese friends to help me understand them.  This review is about how her music speaks to me directly, without interpretation or lyrical overlay.

This is Ms. Asami's second release following her serious illness and it continues in the vein of renewal and recovery.  It contains a live version of her previous single which really highlights the power and maturity of her voice, so much more than the studio tracks, which seem engineered post-production to put her sound closer to a J-pop formula.  I hope I can see her in live performance one day, I like her voice so much more on this last track.

Overall, this EP is a major step forward for her musically.  Each track has an original feel, explores a different side of her talent, which is substantial.  This is truly a conceptual whole, not just a string of tracks released together for convenience.  It hangs together musically and tells the story of a young woman still coming to terms with the things that have happened to her.

SCAR LIGHT, the title track is up-beat and energetic.  I like her voice on this one too, she explores her significant vocal range and demonstrates her mastery of lyrical timing, her voice is a almost a percussive instrument on it's own.  The production is quite good.  I thought Re-Start, her previous single, was a bit over-produced, those mistakes aren't repeated here.  This is a highly professional pop music track, deserving of being the title of the EP, even though it is not my favorite track.

MY WAY ventures a bit more into being a dance track, it is quite upbeat and encourages movement.  The lead and coloring guitar work of her collaborating band is quite good.  The bridge is a pseudo-rap spoken interlude and provides a nice bit of levity to the intensity of the tempo, as if one needs a little break from the dancing frenzy the song otherwise inspires.

LET IT ROLL opens with a languid set of slide guitar work, and then jumps with a country feel into what sounds like story-telling to a non-Japanese ear. This is another toe-tapper which demonstrates again Ms. Asami's ease with musical performance and interpretation.  She makes performances like this one sound very easy to do.  There's a bit of chance for audience call and respond toward the end which should get her crowds going in concert.

TRY AGAIN is my personal favorite, it begins with a few contemplative chords, and then runs into a series of verses which include lyrics in English, but that's not why I like it most.  It's the chorus, a series of high straining phrases which drop into "keep on trying" and "try again," delivered with much sincerity, as if encouraging a discouraged loved one.   I find this song inspirational and I only understand a small portion of the lyrics.  The sound is up and hopeful, capturing the persistent optimism that has been a part of Ms. Asami's presence on screen since the very earliest part of her career.  In a way, this song captures what I like so much about her personality, she always displays optimism, kindness and concern.  You can find it in this track, that's why it is my favorite.

CERES is another favorite of mine because of the authenticity her voice registers as she sings more like a ballad crooner than a J-pop idol.  I hope this represents the direction her career is going, she really has a talent for authentic up-beat hopefulness and good cheer.  This track displays that as well as any on the EP, I think this one could stand as a single all on it's own, it feels a little buried at the end of this outstanding EP.

DON'T LOOK BACK opens with an urgency that distinguishes it musically from the other tracks.  She really has something to tell you here, and the message in the English lyrics is "Fly away,"  I presume from the things that hold you back.  It has the plaintive urging of such an imperative message and I am really happy with the relatively sparse production on this track, letting her vocal performance dominate.  This track is another example of the wide variety on this EP, she doesn't write or perform one kind of song.  This track has the feel of musical theater on Broadway in my home town of New York City.  It's a great way to wrap up this excellent EP.

Like I said in opening, this live version of RE-START which ends this EP is the best of any I have heard.  I am actually quite familiar with this tune because I sing my own version of it myself with English lyrics I composed.  This is a really nice recording with a responsive crowd.  I'm really happy as a fan, particularly one on the other side of the world, that she included this track.  There's much in this version that the more produced previous release lacks, in my view.  She seems to be taking control here, and her hand is steady and sure.

I bought the Premium package of the release, which included a bonus poster, a behind-the-scenes film production on DVD (fun for fans like me) and an admission ticket to her release events.  It also has a fold-out photo book, which is gorgeous.  Ms. Asami has always been very good in front of a camera and this package does not disappoint.

Buy it.  It's good.  It is available (and eligible for shipping to the US) on Amazon Japan.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

at the gun show.

I availed myself of the opportunity to attend a gun show in Dallas today.  I did so because it has been almost twenty years since I attended my last one and I was curious how I would feel being there, what has changed, and what hasn't.  I was particularly curious about what it would be like in this current political environment.

I haven't been to a gun show in about 18 years because I moved to New York City in 1999.  They don't have them here.  I've never owned a gun.  I don't need a gun.  I would never buy a gun.  I went to gun shows regularly when I lived in Texas because I could find things there that I couldn't find anywhere else.   

They have a feel similar to technical (HAM radio, and then computer) equipment swap meets, something geeks like myself used to do before the Intarwebs.  There's a clubby sense inside, like everyone is in on the same secret, namely, this stuff is really cool.

Gun hobbyists are clever with bags, they have to carry a lot of small, easy to misplace parts and yet have them organized well enough for quick inventory and use when needed.  I have a bag fetish.  I like things I carry around to be organized and easy to inventory.  "Range bags," essentially a briefcase for guns and bullets, make pretty awesome man-purses.  The popular manufacturers also cater (unintentionally) to my NYC fashion taste, making things like this in dark neutral colors.

The other side is
even cooler
I was looking for a small holder for my work cell phone, and I found one.  It's actually designed to carry a magazine of ammunition on your belt, and it's made to withstand abuse and adverse weather conditions.  Unlike a tough cell phone case, it has straps around it for attaching other things to it, and for attaching it to other things.  This is what comes in handy about it, like all military-style equipment, it is designed for improvised adaptation to the unanticipated.  It was $8.

I can handle any semi-automatic or revolver, even one I've never seen before, check to see if it is loaded, unload it, and then hand it to someone else in a way that makes it obvious that it is safe to take it from me.  This is basic gun safety, gun etiquette really, and I think everyone should know how to do this, just like everyone should be able to change a flat tire on an automobile.  My friends who own guns taught me to do this many years ago.

If you aren't familiar with American gun culture, you should know that this kind of interpersonal safety is a core value.  We all hear of toddlers killing siblings with home firearms,  What we don't hear enough is this requires that someone egregiously mishandled the weapon beforehand.  

Anyone can render a gun into a safe configuration for storage.  There's enough time to retrieve a safely stowed gun and ready it for self-defense in any scenario.  There's never an unpreventable reason for an unattended gun to discharge accidentally just by someone picking it up and pulling the trigger.   Take my word for that.  When that happens, the person who handled the gun before the accidental discharge got it very, very wrong.

So, despite the fact that there are thousands of guns just laying around on tables inside the gun show, it's a very chill atmosphere.  Most of the guns are displayed with a zip-tie through the barrel, attaching it to a security tether.  That's a very safe gun, and you can see that from across the room.

Even in a concealed carry state, which Texas is, you have to present a gun you intend to carry into the show to the off-duty police at the door and demonstrate that it is unloaded before you can enter.  No one inside is nervous, I'm sure everyone feels physically safer inside the gun show than anywhere else you go in public in Dallas.  I sure did.

Because the customers are mostly male, many of the sellers are female and dressed like they're selling expensive things to men.  Another thing you don't hear in a gun show is *any* cat-calling, "compliments" or other commonly-accepted ways for idiot adult boys to be publicly hostile to women.  I suppose a line of 25 assault rifles between you and the woman in Lulemon pants and a jog bra encourages the coarser customers to be respectful.  The entire atmosphere is one of genteel respect, even the kids behave.

Two things pleasantly surprised me.  First, I didn't see the word "Trump" anywhere.  There is typically a small amount of polemic bumper-stickers and t-shirts at gun shows, this one was no different, the usual gun-nut cliche's were on display: "Good gun control is hitting my target"  "From my cold dead fingers." etc.  

There were a very small number of "Hillary for Prisoner" mock-ups of her campaign logos, but I saw no targets with her face on them, no rolls of toilet paper with her likeness, no references to Second Amendment solutions to her victory in the election.  You would not have known that a Presidential election was looming by just looking around inside.

The other thing that pleasantly surprised me was this was not a white thing any more, it used to be.  It was not that long ago that you would see only white males at gun shoes, and a few girlfriends.  The mix of colors and ethnic backgrounds in the show very closely mirrored the community.  I'd say it was roughly a third black, both buyers and sellers, and about a quarter Hispanic.  I even saw a few Asian shoppers with their kids in tow.

This show was in East Dallas, in an area largely blighted by white flight now populated by working class blacks and Hispanics.  It's my Mom's neighborhood, less than a ten minute drive from her house, where it is easy to get a taco or some fried chicken, but impossible to find an espresso or a kale smoothie.  There's a Walmart down the road a bit, the exact same crowd was at the Gun Show.  I didn't expect that.  It was a very egalitarian atmosphere.  My Wu Tang shirt got a number of compliments.

As I was walking around, I realized I expected to be creeped-out by the Trumpy nuttiness of it all..  Nope.  These struck me as sane people who have a hobby enjoying some time mingling with other hobbyists.   The NRA was there, they had a table, but the closest it came to being weird was a handwritten poster that said "10 reasons to join the NRA:  1.  Hillary Clinton, 2. Barack Obama, 3. Nancy Pelosi, 4.  Tim Kaine....etc etc."  I've see much more offensive polemics at United Federation of Teachers tables in NYC.

I came away with a nifty cell phone case and hope.  In retrospect, I realize I harbored a kind of cartoonish idea of what to expect in there from the nut-jobs I see on MSNBC at Trump rallies, but the vibe I got there was that the election just isn't on these peoples' minds.

This bolsters my intuition that the Republican turn-out this year will hit historic lows.  There was no evidence of grass-roots enthusiasm for The Donald at this gun show, not even Trump stickers on the bumpers of the F350's in the parking lot.  Hatred of HRC clearly doesn't sell many t-shirts or bumper stickers in this crowd.  "American Infidel" was a far more popular polemic for the beer coozies and keychains.

There's hope.  Really.  Perhaps we're really not as different and divided as I thought.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

My inner Trump voter

In 2004 I published an essay entitled "My inner Bush voter" which cost me some friendships.  It wasn't Kerry voters I lost, it was Bush voters.  They saw my essay as explaining support for G W Bush as a kind of mental illness.  That's not what I meant, but I see their point.

As we close in on the 2016 election I want to turn again to find the qualities I possess which I project onto Trump voters.  I don't think I haven't any Trump voters as friends to lose this time.

I think people who have trouble understanding the Trump voter fail to appreciate the nuances of objecting to Hillary Clinton.  Sure, there are those who believe the alt-right nonsense about her, and there are those who over-emphasize the weight of the mistakes she has made because of the polemics which have targeted her for 30 years now.  There are those who simply don't respect women, and there are those who are sincerely against her policy positions.

I'm not talking about those people, and I'm not talking about those notions.  I don't share any of that.

What the Trump voter in me sees is that she comes from privilege that she married into, and while not without credentials and talent herself, she has been springboarded into fame and fortune because of whom she knows, yet she has never made a point of letting us know she knows this.  She seems to distrust me, the public.

She is worth hundreds of millions of dollars now from being First Lady, which then provided her a route to Senator, not because she has produced anything new or noteworthy, her policy positions are all adapted from other's original work, but because of the advantage of proximity to power.  In other words, to paraphrase the late Ann RIchards, she woke up on third base and thinks she hit a triple.

I do not want to reward this.  I think her meteoric rise and spectacular success, essentially for being married to Bill Clinton, is a very clear illustration of what is very, very wrong with our economic and political system, and there is very little reason to believe she will do anything about it.

I don't mean that she shouldn't enjoy success as a lawyer or government servant.  That doesn't bother me.  It's being worth hundreds of millions of dollars that turns my stomach.  She should perhaps have a comfortable living, but that kind of wealth is simply obscene in the dearth of any significant social contribution or achievement.  She's another version of Wells Fargo's John Stumpf.

She isn't to blame for that.  I don't want to impoverish or jail her or Mr. Stumpf.  I want them to still be saving for retirement like I am.  I want them to make choices between gifts and vacations like I do.  I want an American middle class again, and I welcome them to be a part of it.

The money that the middle class needs is not in the pockets of poor people and immigrants.  That's a brutal, terrible story that we've all been told.  The money the middle class needs is in hedge funds.  It's in the pockets of the ridiculously wealthy.

It's harming those people.  Consider the notion that NFL players would walk off if they made the money I do, and I make about 180% of the US median family income.  Not I, nor anyone else would subject their brains to intentional trauma for what I make.  These players actually should find something else to do, they owe it to themselves and everyone else who loves them.  Why don't they?  Ridiculous amounts of money.  That money is harmful to them, it clouds their judgment.

There are versions of this kind of wealth-induced perverse self-destruction in every direction one turns.  Extreme wealth is not a good thing, not even for the wealthy.

Hillary is going to do nothing about the problem of extreme wealth.  She is extremely wealthy.  She thinks she deserves it.  Her winking speeches at Goldman Sachs confirm it.  I do not want to reward this.  It absolutely enrages me.  If I think about it long enough, I am literally blind with rage.

Blind enough to vote for The Donald?  No, but I understand.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Trumped

Even though everyone keeps claiming nothing like this has ever happened before, Donald Trump's presumptive nomination takes me back to 1999.  I am from Texas, I worked in opposition research in two prior state office campaigns for which George W. Bush was the opponent.  I couldn't believe he would get nominated for the presidency then, and when he did, I couldn't believe he would win.

He didn't win, of course, but he got close enough so a politically-motivated Supreme Court majority could effectively appoint him the President.

We have an ignorant plurality in this country who have been denied a proper public education by greed-ridden authoritarian state government office-holders who are interested only in using the power given to them by the electorate to encourage large future campaign contributions.  This year this ignorant plurality is called "Trump supporters."  In previous years they've been "NASCAR Dads," "religious conservatives," and the "moral majority."

Perhaps because of the influence of commercial entertainment media and quasi-religious organizations which rely on donations and tax dodges to exist this plurality has not been challenged to think critically.  Perhaps because of the regressive tax policies promoted by (the spokesmodels for financial cheats who hold sway in) Congress, this plurality has seen their wealth and comfort decline in the midst of excessive fortunes for a few others.  Perhaps because of campaign finance laws rigged to serve the interests of wealthy benefactors only this plurality has seen their government become completely disinterested in solving their daily problems.

Like cells in the body that lose communication with the host system they have become toxic to the very thing that gives them life.  I don't know what is going to happen, but I do know this looks like the precipitous decline of this country.  I have been wondering since I was a child if I would see a world-changing event like the American Revolution, or World War II, in my lifetime.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Liking Las Vegas

I am in Las Vegas for a software conference.  I was last here in last 2013 for a basketball tournament.
While I enjoyed that trip, it was mostly because of my companionship and in spite of Las Vegas itself, not because of it.  I was way too cool for Vegas, and I looked down my nose at it and my fellow tourists.

This time, for whatever reasons, I find that I "get" Vegas in a way I never did before, and it has also simply improved, cleaning-up it's act a little.  Gone are the guys on the street handing out offensive porn flyers for sexual services, there's more than ever to do that doesn't involve gambling, and the architectural excess has gotten to the point where it is majestic as a fake.  That is, these buildings and edifices are clearly fake, but oh what a fake!

Vegas, it will come as no revelation, is a fantasy setting.  One can indulge in any number of fantasies; for a few hundred dollars I could pretend that a trim, athletic dancer is my horny girlfriend.  I could pretend that free money comes out of a machine.  I could easily convince myself that I'm having an experience something like an idealized stroll through Les Halles in Paris, or in the shadows of the Eiffel tower, or back in NYC, or the grand canal in Venice, or a fabulous plaza in Italy, etc, etc.

I could pretend that I am important enough to have a hotel staff at my beck and call, that I can go for sushi, Italian, prime steak or haute cuisine all within a short walk from where I make up my mind.  There are many young women here wearing clothes that suggest they believe themselves to be highly sought-after objects of desire.

It's fantasy, and as such, actually fairly harmless.  I don't know why I found it so objectionable before.

Perhaps because I am here this time NOT fantasizing myself.  I'm working, I'm interested in what I am doing, and I don't have some idea in my head that I want to manifest here.  I'm not coming here to fantasize, maybe it was my own failed fantasies before that made me dislike it so, maybe it just sucked more earlier, I really don't know, but somehow this is all no more distasteful to me now than a Halloween costume I'm not really into.  I used to really hate Vegas, now I think it's kind of clever in some ways, and I see it's role in a regular person's life--as a place to have a little fantasy experience.

I was out this morning at 3:30am (because of the time difference with the east coast), everyone that was out had been up all night.  They were stumbling around in a kind of friendly haze.  A couple of young women all made up trying to walk in heels while tugging down on the hem of their way-too-short in micro-mini's yelled "Hey sexy!" at me across the casino floor and then scattered away in peals of laughter as I looked up with a "WTF?" expression on my face.

On another trip, I would have been offended by that, but instead I smiled to myself and hope they enjoyed shocking this old man as a way to pass the time as they stumbled back to their room.  I was okay being objectified, because we're all a little part of everyone else's fantasy here.

So, congrats Vegas, I don't hate you like I used to.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I could not put it down.

I thought it would probably take me weeks of bringing this book along with me for my solo meals out, which is how I do much of my reading. I'd get through a bit here, chew on it, bite off a bit more, etc.

Instead, I read it from beginning to end in one sitting, staying up long past my bedtime because I prefered reading it to sleeping. I began the book as my accompaniment for a solo meal out, that meal ran into more than two hours, then I brought it home and continued to read it until I was surprised and saddened by the last page.

This is at once a beautiful, touching, moving and profoundly insightful book. It answered, in one swiftly deft sweep of elegant prose, questions about racial identity in America that have puzzled me since I realized that I was "white" and there were other people, mostly distinguished by skin color and economic class, who were "colored." I would guess I was around four or five years old when I first wondered why white and colored people were so angry with each other. It was 1964.

This book is written, earnestly and sincerely, as a letter to his son. There is no artifice in this. It is a letter from a black father frightened for his black son, who wants him to understand his situation and be able to discern lies from truth as he deals with it. He almost too-dryly lays out the dangerous situations over which his son will have no control other than over his own actions and mental repose, explaining each with simple equations of self-interest, power and brutality.

He then details his own struggle and evolution with all this, honestly unearthing his own now-abandoned limited views of the world, some left on the streets of Paris and some left on the boulevards of a now-gentrifying Harlem, now strolled by white women with strollers, the very neighborhood in which I live today and read this remarkable book.

He describes white people as "people who believe themselves to be 'white.'" This distinction is the central revelation of this book for me as a man of caucasian and European descent.  I was primed and readied for this view because I've never felt my "white" identity was something real.  I'm a little Northern European on my mother's side, a little Southern European on my father's.

I've had my DNA sequenced, so I know that my father's ancestors emigrated from Northern Africa to Southern Europe fifty-thousand years ago, about twenty-thousand years before my mother's ancestors came out of the Caucus mountains and moved to Northern Europe.  I have more in common genetically with people in the Basque region of Spain than any other currently identifiable region, but my father's family regards it's European roots as being in Alsace, we have record of a DeWald as a tax collector in the region in the eleventh century.

However, the name DeWald has it's richest history in South Africa, at least for the last couple of centuries, and in German, it means "of the woods."

So, WTF am I?  A German/English/Basque/Alsatian/Afrikaner?  I'm all those things, but according to the US culture, I'm "white" along with my friends whose ancestors followed an entirely different path.  We share a skin color and assumedly "not one drop" of the adulterating "colored" blood.   That's what makes us white, and it is the only thing that makes us white.  We believe we are and so does everyone around us.

This is the point that Mr Coates makes so eloquently.  "White" isn't a race, as such, it's an identity, and the degree to which one possesses the identity (in their view and in the view of others) determines which side of the racial dividing (white vs. non-white)  line one lives in the United States.  The United States has, in Mr. Coates view, a heritage of enslavement, a history of violent oppression, and a continuing practice of violating non-white personhood.  He points out, coldly and rationally, that non-white people, today, still lack boundaries and protections against institutional and state-sanctioned forms of systemic violence.

White people, or as Mr. Coates reminds us, "people who believe themselves to be white" take inviolable boundaries and protections against these kinds of institutional and state-sanctioned manifestations of systemic violence for granted.  This is what really makes them white.

I live in Harlem.  It would shock me to the very core of my being if a NYPD officer stopped and frisked me for drugs, weapons or contraband.   It would be a turning point in my life, a story I would tell for years, something I would pursue remediation for to the full extent possible, with no fear of further persecution because I chose to do so.

I walk by black men being stopped and frisked by NYPD on these same Harlem streets so routinely that I hardly take notice of it.

There's nothing rhetorical about that.  It's a fact of my own life.

If I had a black son, I would require him to read this book.  Today.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Coping with the loss of oppression.

A few days ago the morning paper was full of stories about the Supreme Court's decision concerning marriage equality. A number of those stories concerned wistful gay rights advocates who found themselves grieving the loss of their oppressed status and fearing the ramifications that the end of their legal repression will have for Art and gay culture. There was surprise expressed about this seeming disconnect between the joy of a legal victory and this discouraged outlook for the future of their community both in the stories themselves and by those they interviewed.

There is no disconnect. Even when one hates an identity it is hard to see it go. I've been through this myself.

When I shed one-hundred twenty pounds of excess weight in early 2010 I lost my identity as the fattest guy in the room. For the previous twenty years I had always been easily identifiable by that very tag. It was very, very very rarely not the case.

One of the most shocking moments of my life was when a work colleague I met in mid-2010 told me that "obese" was not a word he would use to describe me to someone else. I will never forget. I was stopped dead in my tracks for a moment. I remember the ochre color of the wall and the brown trim around the door I was looking at when he said this. He had never known the fattest guy in the room, but he knew me.

Over the years of living as a very large man in a world that largely shunned and ridiculed me I become adept at explaining to myself and others what my limitations were and why I had them. Comfort is a scarce commodity in a four-hundred pound man's world, but I could comfort myself with the notion that my isolation, celibacy and stunted professional success were the product of being in a world that unfairly and impersonally shamed fat people.

Similarly, I think, thought leaders in gay culture have used their status as an oppressed minority to explain their limitations. They now find themselves, as I did a few years ago, in a new situation now that the oppression, at least in this singular but important official sense, is being lifted. All of the advantages of operating as a legal repressed minority with regard to marriage and family have vanished.

Take it from me, this is profoundly disorienting in a way that is so subtle it is almost hidden. It is a time of reckoning, and it is not simple. I wish them well.