2011 Year in Review
2013
2014
40
Astonished
Bass
Beck
Birthday
Blue Whales
Christmas Carol
Cool
Duty to Object
Evangelism
Evenhanded Pursuit of Truth
evil
Flood and Bush
Foxes
Jennifer
Moon
Music
Never There or Here
Old
Parables
Playlist
Review: Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz
Snobbery
Space Flight
Success With Values
Terrible Kids Music
The Nineties
Vanity
Wife
Year in Review
water

Parables - Water

You know what a parable is, right? It’s the name we give to the stories told by Jesus, usually employing familiar subjects to explain a spiritual truth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are full of them; you can’t throw a rock while reading those guys without hitting a parable.*

*Yeah, just don’t think to hard about that analogy.

Of course, there’s an issue any bible student encounters, not just with parables but with any part of the text: what was a familiar subject 2,000 years ago is not so familiar any more. Take for example, the parable of the wineskins, found in all three synoptic gospels. Here is Luke’s version, as translated by the New American Standard Version:

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” Luke 5:37-38.

Ye olde wineskin.

It’s impossible for a modern reader to fully understand a parable like this. Show of hands: how many of you drank wine out of a wineskin today? Last week? How many have seen a wineskin? How many have any idea what a wineskin even is?

I can “explain” the parable to you: Ancient people stored wine inside an animal skin. When the skins were new, they were flexible, and would expand as new wine continued to ferment, but older skins would become rigid and would burst if new wine was placed in them. The spiritual application, generally, is that you cannot place the message of Jesus within a rigid pre-existing worldview, for Jesus’ message will not be so contained.

But, you can see how the parable would have a great deal more punch to someone who handled wineskins every day, had felt the difference between a supple new skin and an old, cracking one, and had, perhaps, made the mistake of losing both wine and wineskin after placing the new wine in the old skin. It’s easy to imagine such a person listening to Jesus tell this story, nodding along, and perhaps smiling ruefully to him or herself over spilled wine.

I got to thinking about this, and I wondered to myself what sort of parables a modern Jesus would tell to people of my generation and background. What common language do we share that could be used to powerfully communicate and symbolize deeper truths?

The (somewhat startling) conclusion I came to was that pop culture makes up a large part of our generation’s shared language and would likely be a substantial part of Jesus’ storytelling were he roaming the earth today. This may not be the most flattering truth about our generation, and it’s hard to picture Jesus saying “Look, guys, the kingdom of God is like that Seinfeld episode with the soup nazi . . .,” but I think it’s true. When we hear something like “May the force be with you,” or “To infinity and beyond,” a world of context and powerful emotions is tapped into for many of us.

And I shall say to them on my right hand, “no soup for you!”

Jesus is acknowledged as a genius (and more), in part, because of the incredible insight and profundity that is revealed in the parables. They are at once simple, memorable, and inexhaustible. They are also deeply engaged in the life, culture, and worldview of Jesus’ audience. And they lie at the center, rather than the margins, of his spiritual teachings. What sort of stories should his modern-day followers tell? What is the shared language of our audience that will have the most impact and clarity? Are we putting the gospel in the proper wineskins?


 Water
 Associate Attorney
 Hydrogen, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, L.L.P.


This post has 2 responses.
water

2011 Musical Year in Review - Water

Programming Note: I’ve changed the format for this year’s review. Last year I wrote a longer post about each of the songs on my playlist, but this was laborious to write and, I’m sure, boring to read. If I don’t enjoy writing something, I can’t believe that someone else will enjoy reading it. So, I’ve changed the format for this year’s review. I hope it’s better.

“Chill out, everybody.”

Have you ever thought about how music works? I don’t mean, you know, soundwaves making your eardrum vibrate or that it’s the arrangement of sound and silence in time or anything, but, more, how does it work – what is it about music that affects us so strongly, that speaks to us directly like nothing else?

Along those lines, have you thought about what makes for a good or powerful or affecting piece of music? What differentiates the good from the bad? The substantial from the disposable? What are the hallmarks of musical excellence? What makes for a good song? A good album? Are they the same thing? Do all good songs share something in common? Is there something objectively good about music or a song or an album or is it just in how the individual listener responds to it? Is our appreciation for music or a song inextricable intertwined with our personal experience, or can we talk coherently about the quality of a piece of music?

Well, I’m not going to answer any of those questions, of course, but I’ve thought a lot about them throughout the year. Really throughout all of the years, but this year’s album of the year has made me think about these things a lot.

To sort of address the first question, I think music is the most direct way we have to communicate emotionally. This is not an inconsequential thing. The more we learn about human nature, the more we learn that, rather than being thinking creatures who happen to have emotions, we are really emotional creatures who happen to be able to think. The clearest expression of this I’ve heard is that humans are like elephants with riders on the top.* Your elephant is your passionate, instinctive, emotional side, and it’s “controlled” by your rider, who is your cognitive and intellectual side. But, your rider is no match for your elephant when it’s really stirred up, and you can’t accomplish anything of consequence without engaging the power of your elephant. Music is powerful because it’s the language that speaks directly to your elephant, bypassing the helpless rider.

I’m taking the rider-elephant concept from the book Switch, but I think they borrowed it from someone else. Switch is worth reading – it helped me lose about 30 pounds — though the authors are very obviously ripping off Malcolm Gladwell’s style. That’s okay; I rip off lots of people’s styles.
Careful with that whip, guy.

Well, “bypass” is a little strong, since a good song gives the rider something to do as well. Ideally, the music is interesting enough to keep the rider engaged, and the lyrics provide a narrative or thematic framework for the music’s emotional content. Most good songs tell about something that happened and how it made the singer feel:

  1. I just had the worst day and this is how it makes me feel
  2. I did my baby wrong and this is how it makes me feel.
  3. My baby did me wrong and this is how it makes me feel.
  4. I just met the most incredible girl/guy and this is how it makes me feel.
  5. I like big butts and this is how they make me feel.

Ordinarily it’s the musical content that does the heavy lifting. This is why so many nonsense songs have maintained enduring popularity. “Louie Louie” is moronic, but hearing those three chords makes your elephant dance every time.

At its best, music creates a connection between singer and audience on a deep, instinctual level. Something happens to the singer, triggering a strong emotional reaction, the singer finds a suitable musical expression for her emotions, the listener hears the song, and, if the alchemy’s right, the listener feels the same emotion as the singer. Two elephants are able to talk.

We’ve all felt this at one time or another. Maybe you were moved to tears by the majestic beauty of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, or were thrilled by the joy of James Brown, or heard your pain and confusion expressed through the distorted guitars of a grunge song. Recently, I was driving home after a difficult and dispiriting day at work and I happened upon a song that seemed like it was written for that exact moment. This is the power of music: for the entire expansive spectrum of human emotion, there is a way to express it through music.

If music is fundamentally about expressing human emotion, about feeding the elephant, than it is necessarily not about a number of other things. Music is not about being clever, or having a ridiculous band name, or being rebellious, or showing off your virtuosity, or even advancing the form. Not that cleverness or virtuosity or an edge or originality can’t add substantially to a great piece of music, but they’re not what music is about.

Music goes through cycles where many musicians lose sight of this. Gradually the sideshow comes to dominate the stage and virtuosity or being “punk” or something else becomes the cardinal virtue of musicianship. Recently, cleverness has taken center stage. Driven by the hipster aesthetic, many artists steep their music so thoroughly in irony that they seem to be saying “isn’t it cute that people used to feel things like love and anger and sorrow?”* No, it’s not cute; it’s the essence of being a human being. Love, hate, grief, envy, despair, and disillusionment are not a punch line, they are the most profound experiences of life. Great music always has and always will recognize this.

There are legion bands guilty of excessive cleverness. One that comes to mind for me is Best Coast, whose Crazy for You, features a seventh grader’s diary entries delivered with a knowing wink. Horrible band names have also reached a new depth recently. My two (least) favorites from this year are SBTRKT and tUnEyArDs. I was crushed to discover that SBTRKT is pronounced “subtract” rather than “subtercat.” Subtercat at least sounds like some awesome alter ego for Liono in Thundercats, Subtract just sounds like a dubstep version of the Cure.

So, to sum up, the first rule of good music is that it powerfully engages the emotional side of our nature. But, eliciting a strong emotional response is not enough. The sound of a child crying out in pain will produce the strongest emotional response imaginable, but unless you’re Jerry Sandusky or something, you wouldn’t consider it “music.” So, we need to add a second rule, that good music should actually sound good.

This should go without saying, but anyone familiar with the critical success of Yoko Ono can tell you that it does not.* This is so basic and seems so self-evident that it’s hard to discuss without sounding like an idiot, but much of what gets labeled as good music fails this simple test. But isn’t this what makes something music? That it sounds good? That it’s beautiful, or powerful, or tuneful, or aurally enjoyable in some other way? Isn’t that why we listen to music? Because we like the way it sounds?

The Plastic Ono Band’s 2009 release, Between My Head and the Sky, received an 8.3 rating (out of 10) from Metacritic. I kid you not.

This is where I part ways with most critics, who value innovation over sonic beauty. Look, innovation can be a wonderful thing, and one of the great joys of listening to music is hearing something different or unexpected, something that engages your rider as well as your elephant. Moreover, a marker of great musicians of any tradition is that they are innovators who are willing to take chances and are not content producing derivative art.

But, innovation is not a good thing in and of itself. You can experiment with new sounds and different arrangements all day long, but if it ends up sounding like garbage, it still sounds like garbage. You don’t get points just because no one else thought to record those garbage sounds before you did. All you have is the sonic equivalent to the “jump to conclusions” mat. Which brings me to my album of the year, Adele’s 21.

“I’ll take my Grammys now, love, if you please.”

Given my well-documented views on popular music, this is an unusual selection for me, but 21 reminded me why I fell in love with music in the first place.

Everything about Adele and 21 acts as a rebuke to the excesses of contemporary music. Instead of adopting a ridiculous stage name, Adele is just . . . Adele, a name so old-fashioned it should belong to your great aunt. Instead of either dressing like a hobo or wearing costumes made of stuffed frogs, she comes on stage in a simple, elegant gown. Instead of relying on autotune, gimmicky instrumentation, or studio trickery, she relies on simple instrumentation and the voice of a young Aretha Franklin. Finally, in an era of snark and cynicism, 21 exudes emotional honesty and intensity and is utterly devoid of irony.

21 is about Adele’s breakup with her ex. Breakups have always provided fertile ground for songwriters: it’s easy to imagine our prehistoric ancestors struggling to find a melodic outlet for their angst after breaking up with their cave-dwelling sweetie.

Yet, few albums have explored the range of emotions involved in a breakup as thoroughly as 21 does. From the hell-born fury of “Rolling in the Deep,” through the resignation of “Turning Tables,” the pleading of “Don’t You Remember” and “Take It All,” the misguided hope of “One and Only” and “I’ll Be Waiting” to the final crushing despair of “Someone Like You.” In 21, we see Adele going through the seven stages of grief following the loss of her love, and, through the magic of her songs, we suffer, exult, and despair along with her.

The emotional content is matched by the beauty of the music itself. 21’s music is classic in the best sense; though it would have been perfectly at home in the ‘60’s, it doesn’t sound outdated now. There is tremendous forward motion; each song builds rhythmically and dynamically to an emotional climax. Memorable melodies abound, and the instrumentation is varied enough to engage.

The music is brought to life through excellent performances. The musicianship is first-rate throughout. Listen to the piano part on “Someone Like You.” After the bridge, the vocal comes in and the piano plays a single chord under each phrase, accenting the vocals. Then, slowly, the pianist adds notes until it rebuilds to the arpeggio from the beginning of the song. Throughout, the playing is tasteful, musical, and just so.

Of course, the other performances serve simply to underscore THE performance. On 21, Adele gives the most compelling vocal performance in popular music since . . . who? Jeff Buckley? Marvin Gaye? Aretha herself? From the force of nature she unleashes on “Rolling in the Deep” to the wounded yelp of “Don’t You Remember” and the final defeated lament of “Someone Like You,” Adele’s vocal is searing and majestic from beginning to end.

One of the great joys of music is finding the perfect moment in a song: when a performer does something so right in the musical context it just makes you want to jump up and down on the couch cushions.* There are at least two of those moments in 21. One comes at the end of the musical break in “Waiting for You”: the piano player does a run up the scale that all but exclaims with the joy of getting to play music. The other, the big one, comes at the beginning of the second chorus to “Rumour Has It.” In the pre-chorus, the instrumentation falls away, leaving only Adele’s vocal and a fantastic hand-clapping part. Adele concludes with the question, “haven’t you heard/the rumours?” After the briefest pause, she storms back in with a double vocal part: her voice breaks as she squeals, “Bless your soul,” and the echo comes in like a tidal wave crashing into the chorus. If that doesn’t give you chills, you’re just not listening to music the right way.

To borrow an image from one of my favorite music critics, Andy Whitman.

What of the lyrics? Clearly Adele is no Dylan, but that can be as much a positive as a negative. Her lyrics are simple, but that simplicity should not be confused with a lack of quality. Simple and direct often works best for pop/rock songs. “Satisfaction” was voted the greatest song in rock history, but Mick’s lyrics will hardly be confused with Wordsworth. It’s great because it’s simple and direct: he can’t get no satisfaction. Aretha can’t get no respect. Wild thing makes my heart sing. That is a healthy butt. Keep it simple, guys!

Adele keeps it simple: We could have had it all — I heard you miss me — I’ll wait for you — I’m tired of these games — What did I do wrong — I’ll always love you — I’m still not over it. Yet, the simplicity of the songs holds the secret to their power. We connect with them on an elemental level. Because we’ve all been there; we’ve all felt like that.

This is what great trial lawyers do in the courtroom. Though an informational and intellectual appeal is important, you cannot persuade a jury unless you also connect on an emotional, instinctive level.* That is because you have to convince the jury to act, and you can only do that by tapping into their fight or flight response. By speaking to their elephant.

Confusingly, this is called the “reptile” method, since you are appealing to the primitive “reptile” brain. But, I don’t want to confuse anyone by mixing up the reptile and the elephant.

You do this through simple, powerful words, vivid imagery, and compelling storytelling. You make the jury feel what the victim felt, and you motivate them to act on the victim’s behalf. Adele’s songs are compelling in the same way as a great jury argument. They are simple and direct; they tell compelling stories, and they connect on a fundamental level.

So, yeah, Adele’s 21 is my album of the year. Is it a great album? Time will tell. I think it is though. I think it’s the greatest breakup album since Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. I feel certain that future generations will keep breaking up with people and getting their hearts broken, and, as long as that is the case, I think people will find solace in 21.

My 2011 Playlist

  1. “Don’t Carry It All” by the Decemberists

    After the epic Crane Wife and the epicker Hazards of Love, the Decemberists dialed it back considerably on The King is Dead, which proved a wise decision.

  2. “Black Night” by the Dodos

    If you like these guys, wait ‘til you hear the Passenger Pigeons.

  3. “Federal Funding” by Cake

    Sounds like Cake at their best; sadly the rest of Showroom of Compassion couldn’t live up to this gem.

  4. “I’ll Be Waiting” by Adele

    Adele + horns = yes, please.

  5. “Infamous Love Songs” by Over the Rhine

    An absolute graduate course in songwriting. There is no better songwriter working right now.

  6. “Poison and Wine” by the Civil Wars

    Does anything sound better than a great male-female harmony? Nosir

  7. “Bedouin Dress” by Fleet Foxes

    I love this song, but the refrain kills me. Loses all momentum, and the allusion to Innisfree brings to mind Yeats, and any lyricist will suffer by that comparison.

  8. “Holocene” by Bon Iver

    See below

  9. “Wild Window” by Fool’s Gold

    Wild windows are three times as energy efficient as tame windows and can withstand hurricane-force winds.

  10. “Weekend” by Class Actress

    Does she really say, “you make me late for church?” Uh, she doesn’t exactly sound like a church-going girl in the rest of the song.

  11. “True Loves” by Hooray for Earth

    Sure.

  12. “Heavy Abacus” by the Joy Formidable

    My third most favorite song about abaci, just behind “Subterranean Abacus Blues,” and “Sympathy for the Abacus.”

  13. “Stomp and Holler” by Hayes Carll

    Oh man, I would be the biggest fan of country music if it all sounded like Hayes Carll. Can we elect him the Secretary of C and W or something?

  14. “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)” by Portugal. the Man

    You bet.

  15. “Smile” by Smith Westerns

    Love these guys. That George Harrison guitar tone is just so sweet.

  16. “Rumour Has It” by Adele

    See above

  17. “Cheerleader” by St. Vincent

    St. Vincent has always been in the shadows of other artists, having performed with Sufjan Stevens and Polyphonic Spree, but she really came into her own with Strange Mercy this year.

  18. “Breaking Down” by Florence + the Machine

    Florence’s songs are ridiculous in a Twilight sort of way – lots of ghosts and devils and whatnot – but they sure do sound great.

  19. “Surfer King” by A.A. Bondy

    Ode to Kamehameha

  20. Bonus Tracks:

  21. “Parenthesis” by the Antlers

    Brackets. . . Braces

  22. “’Til We Get Home” by Sheriffs of Nottingham

    This is my cousin’s band, and it’s good stuff! So back off.

  23. “Left Hand Rock” by Brian Olive

    Sandy Koufax’s song of the year.

  24. “Screws Get Loose” by Those Darlins

    Phillips-head screws mostly.

  25. ”Everytime You Go” by Release the Sunbird

    A beautiful, mournful song.

Some Albums I Don’t Like Enough

Here are a few albums that some people I trust like a lot, but I don’t for whatever reason. You should listen to them, because I’m probably wrong.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver

This is album of the year in some quarters. I am not the biggest fan of Justin Vernon’s muppet falsetto, and that’s kind of his thing, so it’s hard for me to really embrace his music. At times his voice can be affecting, but more often I find it to be affected. Worse, it garbles his lyrics, which is a shame, because he is a thoughtful and evocative songwriter.

“If you can’t understand what I’m saying, just assume it’s profound.”

Hurry Up We’re Dreaming Hurry Up We’re Dreaming by M83

Struck me as overwrought, and that’s before we even get to the “song” with the little girl talking about the frog that’s going to bring world peace or whatever. I know that’s the ultimate hipster fantasy, for everyone to hold hands and live authentically in peace and harmony with the Wild Things and spontaneous dancing and so forth, but I’ll pass.

The Whole Love by Wilco

Man, I don’t know. It just feels like a chore to listen to Wilco these days.

Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay

It’s hard to tell if they’re trying anymore. They still have the big hooks, but what are the songs on this album even about? A girl couldn’t have the world so she dreams of paradise? Is hurting like heaven better or worse than cutting like a knife? Actually, I think I like this album the proper amount.

My Albums of the Year

  1. 21 by Adele
  2. The Long Surrender by Over the Rhine
  3. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
  4. Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars
  5. KMAG YOYO (and Other American Stories) by Hayes Carll
  6. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  7. Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns
  8. The Big Roar by the Joy Formidable
  9. In the Mountain in the Cloud by Portugal. The Man
  10. Ceremonials by Florence + the Machine
  11. Burst Apart by Antlers
  12. Leave No Trace by Fool’s Gold
  13. The King Is Dead by the Decemberists
  14. Believers by A.A. Bondy
  15. True Loves by Hooray for Earth
  16. Come Back to Us by Release the Sunbird
  17. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
  18. Belong by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  19. Cults by Cults
  20. Two of Everything by Brian Olive
  21. Have Mercy EP by the Sheriffs of Nottingham
  22. England Keep my Bones by Frank Turner
  23. Deerhoof vs. Evil by Deerhoof
  24. J Roddy Ralston and the Business by J Roddy Ralston and the Business
  25. Life Fantastic by Man Man

 Water
 Associate Attorney
 Hydrogen, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, L.L.P.


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water

Duty to Object - Water

We have a concept in the law called preservation of error. The basic idea is that, if you want to complain about something on appeal, you have to raise that issue with the trial court rather than waiting until you appeal. So, for example, if you think the witness’s testimony is hearsay or you think the other side’s expert is not qualified because he got his PhD as a prize in a Cracker Jack box, you have to object during trial and get a ruling from the judge before you can gripe about it on appeal.

The underlying reason is a practical one: courts don’t want a party to prove their entire case only to be reversed because of something the trial court could have fixed during trial. All in all, it’s an admirable attempt to streamline the seemingly-interminable litigation process.

This is part of a broader movement in the law away from letting parties ambushing one another and toward making litigants put everything on the table. So, whereas in the old days, you might just show up in court on the day of trial and try to surprise the opposing party with a damning piece of evidence, there’s really very little of that any more.* Now, you have to produce all of your evidence and present all of your witnesses long before trial, so everyone has a pretty good idea what to expect.

* Well, there are very few trials at all any more, but that’s another blog.

In light of this, the thought occurred to me the other day: can we take the concept of preservation of error and apply it to our lives? That is, do we, or should we, have a general “duty to object” in life? This may take some explaining:

I spend most of my working hours talking to, emailing, responding to, and otherwise interacting with other attorneys. They are an opinionated lot. In fact, a big part of an attorney’s job is having opinions. What happens if your client does this? What if you make this argument to the court? What effect will this new statute have on your practice? What do you think of this judge? That attorney? This expert? All day long, you’re evaluating the facts of a situation, applying the law or logic or your gut, and giving your opinion.

This has an effect on most attorneys after 20 or 30 years. Most seasoned attorneys are walking opinion dispensers, indiscriminately offering you their take like so much Pez candy. It doesn’t matter if you asked for their opinion, or if the attorney knows anything about the subject, you’re going to get his opinion one way or another.

Hearing so many opinions every day, I get to hear more than my share of extreme, crazy, or questionable ones:

“Frivolous lawsuits are ruining this country.”

“Insurance companies are ruining this country.”

“You’d have to be a communist to vote for Obama.”

“You’d have to be a fascist to vote for Perry.”

“That judge is an idiot.”

“That lawyer is an idiot.”

“If I was in charge, I’d slash taxes in half.”

“If I was in charge, I’d just double taxes to pay off the debt.”

Honestly, this wears me out. I generally don’t have extreme opinions on things; I think most things are neither the best or worst thing in the world. Also, I usually try to believe the best in people and keep and optimistic outlook, and predictions of doom tend to grate on me.

My usual reaction to these pronouncements is just to smile wryly and maintain silence. In my head, I think of a reasonable response:

“Well, since attorneys usually work on a contingent fee, it’s not in their interest to file frivolous lawsuits. . .”

“There’s usually a lot of different reasons that people vote for a given candidate. . .”

“The judge may not have understood the law in this case, but I’m sure he tried to make the right decision. . .”

“I think tax policy is a little more complicated than that. . .”

but I rarely ever say offer this response out loud.

I usually justify my silence by telling myself that nothing I say is going to change anyone’s opinion anyway, and maybe I don’t have all the information on the subject, and who am I to tell them that they are wrong, but I’ve been increasingly unsatisfied with these justifications. The fact is, they are just lazy, cowardly, and selfish. And, in consigning the person to their “wrong” opinion without at least trying to reason with them is really showing contempt for that person and their open-mindedness and their ability to grow and change and be challenged. And, maybe, I just don’t want to have my own ideas and presuppositions challenged.

Which brings me to back to my question: do we have a “duty to object” in our daily lives? Do we have some sort of moral obligation to express our difference of opinion with others, particularly on more substantial matters?*

* I mean, it’s probably not a big deal if you think Tim McGraw is better than Dwight Yoakam. You’re dead wrong, obviously, but it’s not that big a deal.

I’ve decided that we do, or at least that the more virtuous choice is for us to live forthrightly with one another and try to reason together, difficult or pointless though it may seem. I have resolved, then, to be more courageous in addressing those I have a difference of opinion with. Not just to be argumentative, but to try to reason with them and see why our opinion differs and where we can find common ground.

Besides, I wouldn’t want to get thrown out on appeal for failing to object.


 Water
 Associate Attorney
 Hydrogen, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, L.L.P.


This post has 4 responses.
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