The “Right” Kind of Hero

Credit: Carrie Devorah (

I was listening to the breathless coverage of Rex Tillerson’s firing, and how various people from news show talking heads to Deep State prognosticators were discussing how it would effect Iran, North Korea, Russia, and pretty much the entire globe when Mike Pompeo takes over.

With that understanding of the Secretary of State as super important, I want to talk about Condoleeza Rice for a moment.

Condoleeza Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 14th, 1954. That’s the same year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. The Montgomery Bus Boycott started when she was one. She was the same age as the four black girls who were incinerated in the church bombing in her home town. This was Bull Connor’s and George Wallace’s Alabama.

I want that to sink in for a moment, because I think it matters when you consider that she became the third most senior individual in the United States government, and served as the face of US diplomacy all over the globe.

A black woman born in Alabama, named Condoleeza.

It’s too easy to understate how monumental of an achievement that is, partly because there’s not much understanding of what the State Department does, but also because black and brown people generally disagree with her politics. I know that I do, but I did come across an interesting quote from her speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention:

“The first Republican that I knew was my father John Rice. And he is still the Republican that I admire most. My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did.

Yet there’s something more to the dismissal of Rice than just her politics, because she actually has a contemporary that is still held in higher esteem despite similar politics and culpability in the George W. Bush administration: Colin Powell. He’s always been a Republican, and until his speech at the UN to make the case for the Iraq War, was incredibly popular with black people. The Iraq lies damaged him too, but where it only dimmed his star, it completely snuffed out Rice’s.

Did you know that Rice is an amazing pianist? I’m going to post her performance with Yo-Yo Ma here, because you should hear it:

No one talks about Condoleeza Rice, at all. She barely gets mentioned in the national security and foreign policy podcasts I listen to. She’s not a contributor to any of the papers I read or shows I watch. There were no stirring tributes to her during Black History Month, and I doubt there will be during Women’s History month. Despite her excellence, intelligence and achievement, she committed the sin of being a black woman, and that makes it easy for everyone, even her own people, to ignore her because of this or that reason- her politics, her effectiveness, her lies, etc. News flash: they all lie. They’re all political. That’s how this system works.

This is not to say, at all, that Rice is not responsible for terrible things on the world stage. She was right there, repeating the “smoking gun/mushroom cloud” line during the run-up to the Iraq War. But Henry Kissenger was a terrible person, and so was Robert McNamara, and a hundred other evil white men whose names we are forced to remember. Why not hers too?

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The School Walkout

On the morning of March 14, 2018, students all over the country participated in a school walkout to protest gun violence and to honor the seventeen children killed in Parkland, FL. In a lot of ways, this was inspiring, seeing thousands of kids believe in a cause and actually try to do something about it. But I couldn’t help but think of two questions posed by Hannah Arendt in her “Reflections on Little Rock”, “Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in our school yards?” The answer to both of those questions seems to be yes, which is just wrong. Every adult needs to be ashamed.

There are lots of reasons why there is a distinction between children and adults. I don’t think I really need to get into them here, but I’m thinking of things like the fact that, typically, children are not emotionally or intellectually ready to make political decisions. But having this distinction between children and adults has consequences. Children have fewer rights than adults. For example, they cannot vote or work. But there are consequences for the adults, too. In creating this distinction, adults are assuming responsibility for doing the things that children are deemed unable or unprepared to do. It is the responsibility of adults to make political decisions, to care for the children, etc.

It isn’t the first time, and sadly it probably won’t be the last, but it appears the adults of the United States have abdicated their responsibilities. While I agree with the students and admire their courage, I can’t help but think that they should not be in a position where they feel that they need to do this. It’s our job, not theirs. They are covering for us. I find that embarrassing.

It’s not just important to let children be children. Adults need to be adults at the same time. It’s our duty to be political, to make difficult decisions and to protect the children. On the issue of gun violence, we have failed completely. When this issue comes up with my daughter, I will have trouble looking her in the eye as I try to explain that failure.

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Your One & Only – A Book Review

Your One & Only is the debut novel by Adrianne Finlay. It was released on February 6, 2018. It’s young adult, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I have to say the standard shpiel about spoilers, so in this opening paragraph I’ll just say that I really liked it. I recommend the book, five stars, etc. If you’re worried about spoilers, go out, get a copy, read it and then come back and finish reading this. I’ll wait for you.


There. Now that you’ve finished it (or if you just didn’t care about spoilers to begin with) we can move on. Full disclosure, I should let you know that I know Adrianne. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I knew her. We were good friends in college, but we really haven’t talked in twenty-plus years. It would have been nice to keep in touch, but we were nowhere near each other and it was before social media and cell phones. In fact, I didn’t even have my first email address yet. It was tough keeping in touch in the mid-nineties. Don’t think that my knowing her influences my review. I would have enjoyed the book no matter who wrote it.

The story itself is compelling. The plot moves at an incredible pace, and each new thing comes logically from the previous thing, which is all to the good. Nothing feels contrived or like a twist for the sake of a twist. Basically, Homo sapiens has died off from “the slow plague.” The story is set three hundred years later and the world is populated by modified clones, Homo factus (made man). There are nine different clone models and ten copies of each model in each generation. There are ten generations at a time, so each city has 900 individual clones. Only they don’t think of themselves as individuals, they think that each individual from a certain model is interchangeable with all the others of that model. The clones superficially seem human. But, no one has been born from sexual reproduction in over three hundred years. They are just copies of copies of copies. And they have the ability to “commune” with each other, it’s a form of telepathic communication that always keeps their emotions in synch.

Add to this mix one real human, Jack. Technically he was cloned, but he is an unaltered clone of a real human from around our current time. When Jack is a teenager, his “father,” Sam, tries to integrate him into society. It does not go well. All of the clones are either afraid of Jack or hostile to him. Only Althea-310 is somewhat sympathetic and intrigued. When there is a series of thefts and sabotage, everyone blames Jack, even though Jack is innocent. Althea and Jack solve the mystery, but it is too late for the society, it is falling apart. The story ends with Jack, Althea and a group of clones leaving the city to start a new life in a new way.

Jack and Althea-310 are the main characters. They are well developed. I cared about both of them as I was reading the book. Jack is obviously an outsider, but he is a good kid. Like any kid, he wants to fit in, but can’t. I think everyone had at least a moment of not fitting in as a kid, so he is easy to relate to. Althea is more alien than Jack, but she is also a bit of an outsider. She has a scar on her wrist, so she is visually distinguishable from her sisters. This seems insignificant to us, but it is the thing that allows her to understand Jack so they can fall in love.

The point of view is interesting. It is always third person, but the chapters alternate, chapter one is Althea and chapter two is Jack and it goes that way for the entire book. The Althea chapters tell the story from her point of view while the Jack chapters tell it from his. The Althea chapters make the lives of the clones seem normal while the Jack chapters make humans seem normal. It is effective for this book. The only downside is that almost none of the other characters are fully developed. We only get snippets of what Jack and Althea think about them. I’m honestly torn as to whether that’s a downside or not. I was certainly curious about Sam and the Nylas, but I really appreciate a tight point of view.

The language works well for the book. It’s unobtrusive, not overly flowery or ornate. But it does have a distinct style. It’s very visual and the images are nice. They are often unexpected, no clichés here. My favorite is, “Jack noticed how the word mother rolled in Sam’s mouth, foreign and strange. Not unpleasant, just something to work his tongue around, like a sour candy,” from chapter two.

The few quibbles I have with Your One & Only, I think, come down to the fact that I am not the intended audience, I’m way too old. The relationship between Jack and Althea seems more like Romeo and Juliet than Anthony and Cleopatra. I absolutely understand how this would be more appealing for a younger audience, but I would have liked to see some deeper conversations. At this point in my life, I’d rather read about a relationship built on mutual respect and shared values than one about passion and curiosity. I’m also torn about the pace. It is relentless. A huge part of me loves that. There is no waste. It’s the type of book that could be read in one sitting if you’re not careful. But there’s another part of me that wanted some pauses, some quiet moments to reflect and feel the consequences of the action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Your One & Only. It’s exciting and interesting. She did a nice job of building a new world. The ending is deserved. And I really cared about the characters. I just hope they don’t mess up the movie. (I have no idea if someone’s going to make a movie of it, but I would go see it.) I can’t wait for Adrianne’s next book.

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Music Collecting – The Blues

A long time ago, I wrote this piece about collecting classical music. It was so long ago that it was on a different blog. I’m still working on the project of cataloging my record collection. After I finished classical, I moved on to blues. It’s taken me a while to get everything in, but now I’ve finished blues and am ready to move on to something else.

Blues took a lot longer to catalogue, partly because it’s bigger than my classical collection. I know I’m missing some, but I put 675 blues albums into the catalogue. It’s funny, that doesn’t even sound like a big number to me. It also took a long time because the database is woefully incomplete when it comes to blues. Probably a third of my collection was not even listed and I had to add the releases to the database. And more than half that were in there were incomplete, bare bones entries that I had to update. I know that no one was making me do it, but it takes a long time to add a complete entry.

Like classical, it was fun going through my blues collection. There were some that I distinctly remembered where, when and why I got them. There were others that I had completely forgotten about. Mostly, it gave me a good excuse to listen to a bunch of things that I haven’t listened to in a while. It reaffirmed that blues is my favorite style of music.

My taste in blues pretty much runs the gamut. I’m not a big fan of blues rock. Otherwise, East Coast, West Coast, Delta, Chicago, Texas, New Orleans and even some British are all good with me. I’m definitely not a purist or a snob about it. I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues. Good country is just blues by white people. Jazz is blues with a different set of instruments. Rock is non-country blues by white people. But for this project, I pretty much stuck to what is typically labeled as blues. I kept what most people call rock, R&B, country, zydeco and jazz out of it.

Blues is a really misunderstood genre. People have this image of it being depressing. But, like any other type of music, it covers all the emotions. There are plenty of songs about heartbreak, but there are also songs about being in love, about partying, about traveling, about politics and anything else you can think of. Some of it is for listening, but a ton of it is for dancing.

For me, it all started with John Lee Hooker. I didn’t know anything about the blues as a kid. It wasn’t exactly pop music in the 80s. I had heard some blues from guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, but I didn’t even really recognize it as blues. Then, I read an interview with Keith Richards where he said something to the effect that if he inspired one person to check out John Lee Hooker, his career has been worthwhile. That got me curious, so the next time I gathered my paper route money and went to the record store, I blindly grabbed a John Lee Hooker album, 20 Greatest Hits. It was a bargain bin collection. There were no liner notes, no credits. It just had a picture of him on the cover and a list of songs on the back. I had never heard anything like it. The guitar was so idiosyncratically personal. The voice was so deep (not in the pitch sense, but in the profound sense). If this was the blues, I had to learn more.

Since the album I had didn’t give me anything to go on, I started with the famous artists, the B.B. Kings and Muddy Waters and whatnot. When I turned sixteen, I also started looking for blues artists who were playing nearby. Through that I rediscovered B.B. King and discovered Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Robert Cray and such. I also started reading the liner notes on every new album I got. I noticed that Junior Wells kept showing up on Buddy Guy releases, so I checked him out. I also paid close attention whenever the notes mentioned an influence and bought those, guys like T-Bone Walker and Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Finally, I started reading magazines, Living Blues and Blues Review, and became familiar with all of the new artists. It’s funny, what took me years of study and trial and error as a kid could be done in an afternoon now with the internet.

It’s hard to pick, but I think Muddy Waters has to be my favorite. I didn’t even discover him in the normal way. The first record of his I got was I’m Ready from 1978 on the Blue Sky label. I loved it. It was only after that that I found his classic, famous records from the fifties and sixties on Chess. I think if I were stuck listening to only one album for the rest of my life, I would want that album to be Folk Singer. It’s from 1964 and features Muddy on guitar and vocals, Buddy Guy on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.

Muddy Waters’ stiffest competition may come from Mississippi John Hurt. Their styles couldn’t be more different. While Mud is all swagger and usually played with a full, electric band, John Hurt is gentle and played by himself. It’s just him and a finger-picked acoustic guitar. And it’s brilliant. He made his first recordings in 1928. Then the depression hit. He didn’t make another recording until the sixties during the folk boom. Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me is basically perfect. I’ve often had the thought that if you’re not listening to Mississippi John Hurt right now, there’s something better you could be doing.

Willie Dixon is the most credited person in my collection. Between his songwriting, producing, bass playing and singing, he’s on nearly a quarter of all the releases I have. If you’re not a blues fan, there’s a good chance you aren’t familiar with him, but you know his songs. He wrote Seventh Son, I Just Want To Make Love To You, Spoonful, Hoochie Coochie Man, You Shook Me and probably a thousand others. He was also a fascinating person. He sat out World War II as a conscientious objector. He said that until black people were treated like citizens in America, he couldn’t justify joining the army and fighting for the country. He worked tirelessly later in his career to recover money that had been stolen from black artists by their white producers and managers. He’s really worth learning about.

While going through my collection, I couldn’t help but notice how the music has changed. Now, blues is a guitarist’s genre. That wasn’t always the case. In the early days, there were cornets and clarinets, banjos and accordions, harmonicas and mandolins, washboards and pianos and fiddles and kazoos. Those instruments still exist, but they are mostly used in other genres now. It really bums me out that blues piano and blues harmonica are lost art forms now.

Like Keith Richards, I’d like to think that maybe this will get someone to check out the blues. With YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, it’s really easy to do. The music is truly wonderful. If you check it out, I promise you won’t be sorry. And if you want any guidance, I’d be happy to help.

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Mass Shootings

The other day, I ran across this headline in The Onion: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Of course, the story is about a mass shooting. This story originally ran almost four years ago, but they repost it every time it’s appropriate. I feel like I see it at least once a week. Which means they don’t post it for every mass shooting that happens, only the big ones.

When I saw the headline, my first thought was, “Oh, crap, not another one.” It took me a minute to realize that there was no real feeling behind the thought. I feel terrible about that. What does that say about me that seventeen people can be killed at a Florida high school and my reaction is about the same as when my baseball team loses a regular season game? I think what it says is that mass shootings have become a normal part of life in America.

According to The Guardian, the Florida shooting was the eighth school shooting in the first seven weeks of this year. In other words, it’s a weekly occurrence. And according to Business Insider, there have been thirty mass shootings this year. That’s more than one every other day. That’s just crazy.

I think there are two reasons for my lack of feeling. One is that I just don’t have the emotional capacity to grieve a few times a week. I’m not sure anybody does. The other is a sense of hopelessness. While the solutions are really pretty easy and obvious (adopt the same sorts of gun laws as every civilized nation on Earth), with this administration and this congress and this judiciary, there is absolutely no chance that any solutions are implemented. I just don’t have the energy to get all worked up about something that will never happen.

As I said, I feel terrible about this. I really wish I could feel more. I really wish I weren’t so hopeless. I wish someone could give me a reason for optimism. Optimism feels a lot better than cynicism. But until someone can do that, I’m stuck thinking that The Onion’s article isn’t a joke. There really is nothing that can be done in the only nation where mass shootings have become an almost every day occurrence.


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Keep It 729

In the Republic, Plato sets out to answer the question, “What is justice?” Along the way, Socrates* and his interlocutors raise the question of who leads the more pleasant life, the just or the unjust. They bring it to extremes. They assume that the unjust person gets away with it, so to speak. People don’t recognize his lack of justice, he reaps great rewards and much praise. They also assume at points that the just person is unfairly punished. She’s** accused of crimes, poor and destitute. Socrates says that even in this extreme case, the just person leads a more pleasant life than the unjust person. He then lays out a proof to show how much more pleasant the life of the perfectly just person, aka the King, is than the life of the perfectly unjust person, aka the Tyrant. He determines that the King lives 729 times more pleasantly than the Tyrant and that the Tyrant is 729 times more wretched than the King (587 e).

To modern readers, this comes off as a bit strange. I recognize all the problems. What is a unit of pleasantness? How is it measured? Isn’t pleasure subjective? But this proof has stuck with me ever since I first read the Republic. I don’t know about the number 729, but it seems intuitively true, to me, that a just person leads a more pleasant life, a happier life, than an unjust person, regardless of the consequences. I don’t take this to mean that there is somehow joy in suffering and I’m not talking about rewards and punishments (Heaven and Hell). I mean that I believe that Gandhi was happier, even during his hunger strike, than his British oppressors. I guess I find Plato’s arguments convincing when he says that knowing The Good is more pleasurable than satisfying desires.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot while living through the current Trumpian dystopia. I find it comforting to know that I am leading a more pleasant life than Donald Trump. I don’t know if it’s 729 times more pleasant. I’m not perfectly just, I give in to my impulses and desires from time to time. And Trump isn’t a perfect Tyrant. More than half the country recognizes him as a sad, pathetic loser and didn’t vote for him. But I think it’s safe to say that most of us are much more just than Trump. Therefore, most of us are much happier than Trump.

I want to stress that this in no way excuses, mitigates or forgives Trump’s horribleness. He is simply a nightmare of a president and a nightmare of a human being. We need to stay focused on removing Trump and the Republicans from power and repairing the damage they’ve caused. I just hope that this small bit of comfort can help us get through the day. The constant march of bad news is more than a bit overwhelming, especially coming from such an inept media. We need to take comfort where we can find it. And Plato has shown me one small place to find it.


* This is Socrates, the character in Plato’s work, not the actual Socrates. It seems clear, to me at least, that this character is the mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. In discussing this work, it is easy to use Plato and Socrates interchangeably. I just want to make sure everyone knows that when I say Socrates, the character, I still attribute the ideas to Plato, the author.

** In Plato, they are talking about just and unjust men. He came from an amazingly sexist society. But, since the Republic gives a rather lengthy argument for why women should be equal, I think it’s OK to update the language and use she as well as he.

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As a White Person. . .

As a white person, I feel like any opinions I voice on race need to be heavily discounted.  As a white person, I’m not sure I have the right to say much of anything at all.  The thing is, because of the social circles I’m in and because one of my jobs is at Capital Community College in downtown Hartford, I find myself frequently involved in discussions about race.  At least I’m present for those discussions.  My level of involvement varies greatly depending on whom I’m with.  With just my writing partner, Jamil, I’m as verbal as I get.  (Although that’s not very verbal.)  I know that he knows that whatever I say, even if it’s wrong, is coming from a good place.  And I know that he won’t treat me in a “white people are so stupid” kind of way.  He will fill in my knowledge gaps, and there are plenty of those, but never in a condescending way.  With everyone else, there’s a sliding scale.  I’ll answer any direct question I’m asked.  I likely won’t volunteer anything else.  I always err on the side of keeping my mouth shut.

There are two things that I worry about.  One is that when I’m the only person not talking, I’ll come off as aloof or arrogant.  People sometimes mistake quiet for judgey, when I’m honestly just being quiet.  The other thing that worries me is that maybe I should be talking more.  We’re always hearing about open dialogue and exchanging ideas.  Am I doing something wrong by not sharing my thoughts?  Am I interrupting the open dialogue?  Am I inhibiting the free exchange of ideas?

My instinct is that I’m not interrupting or inhibiting anything.  I’ve heard white people talk about race.  I’ve read what white people have written about race.  The one conclusion I always draw is that white people are so, so, so, so, so stupid.  Even the well meaning allies come off as pretty darn stupid.  As a general rule, I like to avoid being stupid.

I think we’d be better off if more white people were like me.  Whenever possible (which is almost always), defer to the people with actual lived experience of the situation.  Remember that there’s no need for more opposing viewpoints.  There are more than enough already.  By keeping our mouths shut, we allow others to speak.  And by listening to those others, we may all learn something.

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How Do We Stop Hartford Residents From Dying in Car Accidents?

Image Courtesy of NBC 30

What were you doing when you were 22 years old? You may have been looking forward to graduating from college in a few short months, or you were working in a dead end job that you hated. Perhaps you were falling in love, or cursing your ex’s name. Whatever you were doing, if you’re reading this, you thankfully survived that youthful, reckless year in your life.

That unfortunately can’t be said for Hector Rios, who may have been the first person to die in Hartford in 2018. Just three hours after New Years, his car slammed into a brick pillar near Trinity College, killing him and seriously injuring his passenger, Natasha Cruz.

How about at 23 or 24? Had you finally found a good job? Were you in a better relationship? Was there a movie you were looking forward to, or an album you really liked? Some of those things might have been true for 23 year old Catalina Melendez and 24 year old Tina Fontanez, both of whom were killed by a hit and run driver on Vine Street two weeks ago. 

Imagine yourself at twelve years old, gangly armed, covered in pimples and dealing with your body going haywire as you begin to notice the other kids around you are developing too. Now imagine losing your mother during that time, in a violent instant, right before your eyes. That’s the reality for the child of Deidre Gray, who died in a four car collision on January 25th. Her child was a passenger in the car.

One month. Three accidents. Four deaths.

Hartford has a serious traffic problem. I’m a pedestrian; I don’t have a license, much less a car. But even as someone who walks around the city, I’m acutely aware of the lawless way some people drive in this city. I cross the intersection of Capen and Main Street almost every day, and cars run the red light there so frequently that I don’t wait for the walk signal to cross. Instead, I try to wait for there to be no traffic at all. I still make my ten year old son hold my hand when we cross streets. Not that it’ll make a difference when a speeding vehicle shoots through a stop sign, we’d just die together after getting hit, like Catalina and Tina did.

Or maybe not. After all, I was hit by a car late last year while riding my bike. It was just a tap, but the woman pulling off of Battle Street didn’t even look up until she felt her car bump me and heard me shouting obscenities at her. Death isn’t guaranteed in a car accident, but accidents are guaranteed with the dangerous way basic rules of the road are ignored.

It was ten years ago that Hartford made the national news for the hit-and-run accident that paralyzed, and eventually killed, Angel Arce Torres. The conversation that came out of that accident centered on Hartford resident’s supposed “toxic relationship with ourselves,” due in part to the bystanders who allegedly refused to help Mr. Torres. The city’s residents pushed back against that characterization, and rightfully so. Yet the argument about our toxicity prevented the discussion from going to the place it should have: what do we need to do to make Hartford’s roads safe? Everything needs to be on the table, including more enforcement. I know that isn’t a popular opinion, especially given the well deserved critiques of policing policies against people of color. Four people died this month though, all people of color. We need to talk seriously about whether more cameras and more patrol cars could have saved those lives, and whether they can help prevent the inevitable deaths that will follow if we don’t change something.


CORRECTION: There was a fifth car crash this month which claimed the life of 61 year old Miriam Garcia.

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A Football Conundrum

When two unlikable teams are playing each other in the championship, how do you decide which to root for?  That’s the problem we’re facing with the 2018 NFL championship game.  It’s the Eagles against the Patriots, which means that nobody wins.  There was so much potential.  We were so close to the Jaguars playing the Vikings.  Then everyone would have won.  Alas, we’re stuck these two teams.

I know, the easy answer is to not watch the game.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  But I’ve watched more football this year than I have in ages.  I don’t know why exactly.  At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think I would watch while Colin Kaepernick was unemployed.  But, then Trump told me not to watch the NFL while there were players protesting and I changed my mind.  I’m still unhappy about Kaepernick, but at least I can support the players who are still protesting.  So, if I don’t watch the championship, the season will feel incomplete.  Also, the game is one of the few big cultural events that I partake in, so I feel bad when I miss it.

But we have these two teams.  The Patriots are just impossible to root for.  They are like football’s version of the Yankees.  They win all the time and they’re incredibly smug about it.  Their fans are insufferable.  Their owner is the worst.  And Tom Brady is the face of their franchise.  How can you root for a team led by a robot?  Especially a robot that appears to be so stupid.  A bag of flour has more personality.

The Eagles are a bit harder to pin down why they’re unlikable.  I think it mostly comes from their fans.  This is a group of people who throw batteries at people and famously booed Santa Claus.  I’ve never been to an Eagles game, but I’ve been to a Phillies game, and I believe all the stories.  It’s not just that they aren’t friendly.  They’re openly antagonistic towards fans of any other team.

Ultimately, it seems that the Eagles are the right answer to this question.  At least they’re underdogs.  When in doubt, always root for the underdogs, right?  That’s the best I can come up with.  Hopefully we can all forget about the game shortly after it’s over.

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Go Johnny, Go!

It’s rare to be able to point to someone as definitively the best at anything.  Chuck Berry is the greatest of all time when it comes to Rock and Roll.  When you look at his body of work, it’s staggering.  It’s not just that he had a lot of good songs.  He had a lot of great songs and a handful of perfect songs.  He created the template.  Everyone from The Beatles to Rush to U2 to The Black Keys to anyone else who falls in the category of Rock Music is just playing variations on a theme.  And that theme was created by Chuck Berry.

Even if the only thing he had ever done was Johnny B. Goode, he might still be the greatest.  Talk about a perfect song.  It’s been sixty years since it was recorded and it absolutely jumps out of the speakers.  It’s a B-flat blues with breaks and no turnaround, but it is so much more.

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens/There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood/Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode/Who never ever learned to read or write so well/But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell.  These may not be the type of lyrics that win a Nobel Prize, but they are really great.  They practically sing themselves.  The rhymes are effortless.  The story is natural.  And the details bring it to life.

The song is fast, but doesn’t feel rushed.  I count it at about 170 beats per minute.  In the Rock world, 120-130 beats per minute is pretty standard.  Most rockers just can’t keep up with Chuck and his band.  There’s Fred Below on drums.  The backbeat is so strong no one is white enough to miss the two and four.  Willie Dixon’s walking bass line is the heartbeat.  It’s simple and understated, but exactly what serves the song best.  Lafayette Leake’s piano fills provide the counterpoint.  They keeps things fresh and exciting no matter how many times the song gets played.  And Chuck’s rhythm guitar, power chords, of course, makes the feet tap and the body shake.

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack/And sit beneath the trees by the railroad track/Engineers would see him sitting in the shade/Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made/People passing by they would stop and say/Oh my well that little country boy can play.  The lyrics are so visual.  Anyone listening to the song can see the action unfolding.  They show rather than tell in a way that should make any writing teacher happy.

The vocal is understatedly brilliant.  Chuck doesn’t oversing or undersing.  He hits that sweet spot in the middle.  You can understand every word.  He’s telling a story like a folk singer.  There’s hope and joy and optimism in his voice.  As I said, it’s brilliant.

His mother told him, “Someday you will be a man/And you will be the leader of a big ol’ band./Many people comin’ from miles around/To hear you play your music when the sun goes down./Maybe someday your name will be in lights/Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”  The lyrics are somehow very specific while being universal.  Anyone can see themselves in Johnny’s place in terms of feeling, but the story is his own.

The lead guitar is so good that there’s almost nothing to say about it.  It sounds like the past, the present and the future all at the same time.  Chuck manages to evoke Louis Jordan and T-bone Walker.  There’s Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore.  There’s even Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.  But it all combines into Chuck Berry.  It’s so original and so familiar.  It’s literally amazing.

When you take great lyrics, a killer rhythm section, a wonderful vocal and an amazing guitar and put them together you wind up with perfection.  Johnny B. Goode is a song we’ve all heard a million times.  It’s about time we stop to really appreciate it.

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