Archive for Family

2019 in Music: Year of the Full-Album Project, My Top 20 & Honorable Mentions

Okay, I’m going to move beyond the fact that most of my usual readers couldn’t care less about this, and just write what I want anyway.

It’s my blog after all. 

It occurs, typing this, that speaks to all my writing. If I worried too much about people reading it, or “liking” it, I wouldn’t have the heart to continue. You have to move forward regardless of approval. Like life, I guess.

Back to music: I listened to a lot this year. Always have, but this was the first year I kept track. My sons, Nick (26) and Gavin (20), came up with a “full album” project; I tagged along for the ride. We each approached it somewhat differently, but the basic agreement was to listen to at least a full album a day. I got to 778 full albums, in addition to all the other random-scattered listening I do.

It was Nick’s idea, motivated by the realization that the album is an underappreciated art form. For most listeners, and quite a few musicians it seems, music has increasingly become a singles and playlist experience. Nick’s rule was to never repeat artists, to listen to 365 albums by 365 different artists, because he wanted to expand his palette. I didn’t limit myself in that way. (Yes, I see now that I listened to 43 different Bob Dylan albums this year — hey, I was trying something — along with every album by Kanye West, including “Watch the Throne” and “Kids See Ghosts.” Overall, I’d say that my discovery of the year was Bill Callahan/Smog: I went deep there.)

I listened to 125 new albums that came out in 2019. I liked most of them, and loved a lot. There’s so much outstanding new music that comes out every single week. My success rate was high because if I didn’t like an album, I usually either 1) knew to stay away in the first place; or 2) didn’t bother to sit through to the bitter end. So when I listened all the way, it was because I enjoyed it or felt compelled to finish for some reason.

Personally, I enjoy reading lists like this. They help me find music I missed, or prod me to listen again, more closely, to albums I may have dismissed too quickly. I’ll paraphrase something Jeff Tweedy once said. When he doesn’t like an album — especially one that others might be enjoying — he doesn’t begin with, “This music sucks!” Instead, he asks of himself, “What am I missing here? What am I not hearing?”

That is, the problem might not be with “it,” but with the attitude of the listener. For me, that’s an interesting and a humbling notion.

ONE LAST THING ABOUT MY LISTENING HABITS/TASTES: Because I’ve now got this large file on my desktop, I noted the artists I listened to most widely (by the measure of at least 3 different full albums). Those included in 2019: Aimee Mann, Arcade Fire, Avishai Cohen, Beach House, The Beatles, Beth Orton, Big Star, Big Thief, Bill Callahan, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Byrds, Cass McCombs, Charles Mingus, The Clash, Courtney Barnett, David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie, Don Cherry, Drive-By Truckers, Elliott Smith, Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley, Florist, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Gillian Welch, Grateful Dead, Hayes Carl, Hot Tuna, James Blake, Jason Isbell, Jeff Tweedy, Joe Henry, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Kanye West, The Kinks, Laura Cannell, Laura Marling, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Magnolia Electric Company, Miles Davis, Mitski, Mountain Goats, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Nick Lowe, Paul Simon, Pavement, Penguin Cafe, Radiohead, R.E.M., Rolling Stones, Ryan Adams, Sam Amidon, Silver Jews, Smog, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Sufjan Stevens, Sun Kil Moon, Teenage Fanclub, Thelonious Monk, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, War on Drugs, Waylon Jennings, The Who, Wilco, William Tyler, Van Morrison, and Yo La Tengo. Safe to say that I love them all, and more.

 

TOP 20

Purple Mountains: s/t

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising

Big Thief: U.F.O.F

Lana Del Ray: Norman fucking Rockwell

Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep

Aldous Harding: Designer

Julia Jacklin: Crushing

Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club

Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka

Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow

Brittany Howard: Jaime

(Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar

Solange: When I Get Home @ 2019

Joe Henry: The Gospel According to Water

Better Oblivion Community Center: s/t

Sudan Archives: Athena

Tinariwen: Amadjar

Lankum: The Livelong Day

Nick Cave: Ghosteen

Rhiannon Giddens: there is no Other

 

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS (35)

 

World

Brighe Chaimbeul: The Reeling

Ye Vagabonds: The Hare’s Lament

The Gloaming: The Gloaming 3

Mdou Moctar: Ilana

 

Hip-Hop/Rap

GoldLink: Diaspora

Summer Walker: Over It

YBN Cordae: The Lost Boy

Freddie Gibbs, Madlib: Bandana

Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy!

Tyler, the Creator: Igor

Little Simz: GREY Area @ 2019

 

Jazz/Experimental

Avishai Cohen: Playing the Room

Penguin Café: Handfuls of Night

Jamie Branch: Fly or DIE II

The Comet Is Coming: Trust in the Lifeforce

Caleb Burhans: Past Lives

Nivhek: After its own death … spiral

1000 gecs: s/t

 

Indie/Folk

Kacy & Clayton: Carrying On

Bill Callahan: Shephard in the Sheepskin Vest

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Out of Sight

Florist: Just Emily

William Tyler: Goes West

Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs

  

Indie/Rock/Pop

Mannequin Pussy: Patience

Jay Som: Anak Ko

Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel

A.A. Bondy: Enderness.

Helado Negro: This Is How You Smile

James Blake: Assume Form

Big Thief: Two Hands

Wilco: Ode to Joy

 

Country/ Americana/Songwriter

Tyler Childers: Country Squire

Caroline Spence: Mint Condition

Hayes Carl: What It Is

 

CONCLUSION: Forget what I like or dislike, whether I have “good taste” or bad. The interesting thing for me was keeping track. So, come 2020, for the first time I’m going to do it with BOOKS. Yeah, it scares me a little. 

REPOST, UPDATE: “Watch Me, Dad!”

Here we are, that odd little stunted week before Thanksgiving. Of course we want to work hard and be good citizens, but the holiday approaches. Thoughts of family, mostly. And in my case, the Prellers are a bit scattered these days. Nick down in NYC, drawing the short straw at his new job, asked to work on Wednesday and Friday; we won’t be seeing him this Thanksgiving. Gavin is in France, working on an organic farm, opening his heart and mind to the world. Figuring it out, we hope. And Maggie, our youngest, is back home from her first semester at college. 

Gavin and Maggie and one of our black cats. Long ago.

 

It can be a lot, college. My wise friend referred to it as “adjustment fatigue.” It’s all new: a roommate, a new town, dorm life, classes, eating in a cafeteria, away from home, all of it. So now for a few days she’s back with us. You think we’re happy, you should see the dog. 

Anyway, found this Maggie-centered post from 10 years ago and thought I’d share it again . . . time, it flies.

Lisa went out with Maggie last night to buy a new pair of basketball shoes, as they call ’em these days. Used to be sneakers, but whatever. Maggie was thrilled; she’s very excited about playing hoops on the grades 3/4 travel team. She practiced dribbling all night — in the kitchen, in the living room, wherever it might give me a headache. Lisa and I watched and said, “Good, good, keep at it.”

At bedtime, Maggie asked if she could bring her basketball to bed with her. She wanted to sleep with it. Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, just don’t forget to brush your teeth.

This morning I drove Maggie to school. We were running late. Maggie, of course, wore her spotless new kicks. Just before climbing into the car, she said: “I can run faster now.”

“You can?”

She nodded, smiled. Oh yes.

“Put down your backpack,” I said. “Let me see.”

“Where do you want me to run?”

“I don’t know, across the front lawn to Don’s driveway.”

She walked to the far end of the lawn, methodically got herself into running position, and said, “Tell me when to go.”

“Go,” I said.

She raced across the yard.

“Good,” I said. “Now run back on the street. Let’s see how they do on cement.”

So she did, just as hard and determined as she could.

“Wow, Maggie, that was a lot faster — and I mean a lot. Those are pretty fast shoes.”

She smiled, proud and happy, pleased with her new powers.

Don’t you just love being a parent?

College drop-off day. Not all grown up . . . but I’m getting there!

 

Shucking Corn: Memory’s Golden Haze

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky”

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’

by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers


We all have them, the sights and sounds that trigger memories, connect us to our past. The old times. Our long gone days.

For some, it might be the sight of an old red wagon, the bells of an ice cream truck a block away, or the aroma of fresh, baked bread. We see it, hear it, smell it and are magically moved, transported, to another time, another place. Our former lives, the past.

J.K. Rowling plays with the idea of the transporting object in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire, when she introduces the concept of the portkey. It is an object that, once touched, holds the power to warp space, shifting a body to another place — a portal not unlike Proust’s light, spongey madeleine cakes. In the case of Proust, the experience takes you to another time. One sniff carries you away.

I experience a reliable portkey whenever I shuck an ear of corn, an act which always evokes memories. The stripping away of outer leaves is similar, in affect, to peeling back layers of time. I instantly (and involuntarily) recall being a boy again — standing barefoot at the side of my old red house on 1720 Adelphi Road, that narrow strip of property just outside our kitchen door abutting the Esteps’ place, literally our next door neighbors. I am handed a brown grocery bag and pushed out the door, tasked with the chore of shucking the corn.

There are seven children in our family and this is a job that even the youngest child can’t screw up too badly, though I don’t recall ever having a perfectionist’s patience while pulling away each fine strand of corn silk. I loved tearing away the rugged green leaves, layer by layer, revealing the bright kernels of sweet summer corn. So delicious and suddenly in season, piping hot on our kitchen table in a great steaming bowl, wrapped in a kitchen towel to keep warm.

I still love that job today — shucking the corn — and always volunteer. I even love the word itself: shuck. Aw, shucks. That wonderful “uck” sound: truck and cluck and who knows what else. It’s as fun to say as it is to do. Each time I’m brought to a simpler moment from the past, a childhood ideal. Our family, bustling and busy, together. A time before any of the hard stuff ever happened.

We even had a dinner bell my mother would let me ring. And I’d shout: “Barbara! Neal! John, Al, Billy, Jean! Dinner’s ready!”

And then we look up and the leaves have turned, we blink and they have fallen, and soon we’re wearing sweaters and tramping off in heavy boots. The harvest season is over. The corn spent, the stalks cut, the fields brown and barren. But the golden memory persists.

Some folks talk with disdain about living in the past, as if it were a bad thing. We’re told that we need to focus on the here and now, the life that’s lived in front of our senses. And I suppose they’re right about that. But the older I get, the more past I gather. There are people I love who exist only in my past, exclusively in that long gone time: two brothers, Neal and John, a father, some absent friends. I visit with them only in memory.

Richard Ford, one of my favorite writers, has his most well-known character, Frank Bascombe, make a casual comment about dementia. Frank opines that it’s probably not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps not for the circle of loved ones, but for the dementia-sufferer herself. Living in that white-blue haze, staring off at the television screen, watching something or some time, misty and uncertain. The chair my mother sits in becomes a portkey and the crumbling architecture of her mind lifts off, roams and wheels like seagulls above the surf. And there in the lambent light steps forward a flickering image, her youngest child struggling with a heavy brown bag filled with corn, tasked with shucking, peeling away the outer leaves and silky tassel to reveal, once again, those yellow rows of tasty kernels, a bright golden haze on the meadow.

 

 

 

Brutally Honest 93-Year-Old Critic Raves About BLOOD MOUNTAIN: “I’m Sure It’s Wonderful.”

Thanks, Mom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baseball Comes Round Again: Recalling “Six Innings” and How Cancer Came Into Our Lives

I sometimes tell this story on school visits, if I am in the right mood and have the right group before me. My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. First diagnosed at age two. It was a hard time. The nurses at the pediatric oncology unit at Albany Medical Center would say to me — and let me tell you, those are truly inspiring human beings who will always have a special place in my heart — “You are an author, you should write about this.” At the time, I couldn’t conceive of it, happy to just navigate the parking garage without getting into an accident. Mentally, just gone. Nick recovered, only to relapse again in 4th grade. All he wanted to do was run with the pack, play travel soccer, be a kid. I watched him face it all with strength and courage; and let us remember, there is no courage without fear leading the way, linked hand in hand. I watched Nick’s friendships, the way certain boys rallied around him. And to this day I can’t think about any of it without tears streaming down my face. 

Nick with Lisa holding him tight.

Around that time I started writing a book called Six Innings. A book about a Little League baseball game, and moreso, about the kids who played it. A lot of characters to dream up. As a useful storytelling device, and as a faithful recording of how things worked at my local Little League, I wanted there to be a kid announcing the game. “Now batting, Cleon Jones,” that kind of thing. And I vividly remember sitting in my chair, staring at the computer, when the thought came: What’s this kid’s story? And it hit me, Oh, he’s sick. He’s very sick. And so I gave that kid cancer. 

Six Innings is a baseball book, full of plays and on-field drama. But it is also about those kids, their lives and hopes and conflicts. I mean, there’s a lot of baseball in this book, so it’s not for everyone. Below I’ll share one scene that comes directly from our experience. When Nick relapsed, and we had to go through it all over again, our doctor came to our house for a family meeting. We sat together in the living room, stunned and serious and scared. She laid it all out before us, Nick included. While many details were altered, Nick’s response was the exact response I gave to the character, Sam, in the book, almost word for word. 

Six Innings was named an ALA Notable, and I’m proud of that. And it’s still in print, and I’m grateful for that. And Nick is strong and healthy and living in NYC, and goodness, I don’t even have words for it.

Here’s a scene from Six Innings. Thank you for reading: 

 

And now they gave it a name. Sam had osteosarcoma. Or, well, osteosarcoma had him. The two words — Sam and osteosarcoma — were joined now, entangled, entwined, forever linked. Buried inside the big word, he discovered the letters to his own name, s-a-m. It was there all along.

Doctor Shrivastava looked from one to the other: Sam, his father, his mother. Mostly though, and to her great credit, the raven-haired doctor with milk chocolate skin spoke directly to Sam, kept meeting his eyes, looking at him with sharp-eyed clarity and infinite kindness. She was nice. There was goodness in her. Sam felt it.

So. That was that. But what did it mean? It was as if doctors spoke only secret words no one could understand: biopsy, retinoblastoma, metastasize, limb salvage, and chemotherapy. Somehow all those words were stuck into Sam like darts, but they didn’t seem real. All Sam really knew, judging from the way his mother kept chewing on her lower lip, the way his father reached for Sam’s hand and squeezed, was this: Not good.

Sam’s mother kept scribbling on the legal pad, flipping pages, writing furiously. In Sam’s family, she was in charge of facts. For reasons no one could explain, Sam had contracted the most common type of bone cancer. It usually appeared in teen boys, often during growth spurts. A tumor grew in Sam’s leg. Doctor Shrivastava wanted to remove the bone before the cancer could spread. She said that they would replace the bone with a metal rod.

How weird was that?

This surgery, she said, would take place in about twelve weeks. During that time, and for nine months afterward, Sam would have to take some very strong medicine. The medicine, or chemotherapy treatment, would destroy the bad cancer cells in his body — but they would also make him feel very sick sometimes.

At a certain point, Sam stopped listening. He closed his eyes. It was dark, and he was swirling in an inky sea of words, drowning in the dark, mystic language. He needed to get away. Fly to some other place. He was tired of listening, tired of hushed conversations, of doctors and their white coats.

Dr. Shrivastava looked at Sam. “Most patients fully recover,” she assured him.

Sam stifled a yawn. He had been stuck in this office forever.

“Can we go now?” he asked his parents.

“Sam? What?”

“I want to go to Mike’s house,” he announced. “He just got the new MLB game on PlayStation. He says it’s awesome.”

“Mike’s house?” his mother repeated. “Sam, I . . . ?”

“It should be fine,” Dr. Shrivastava intervened, checking her wristwatch. “Perhaps that’s enough for one day.” She looked at Sam, smiled warmly. “Mike is your friend?”

Sam nodded, yes, of course. Mike was his friend.