Musings, Nits, and Praises: January 2006

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Faith and Works

Since I've been teaching/facilitating the interactive class on James at BOCC, I've been forced to examine James's teachings closely, and I've found them more convicting than ever. Much of our class discussion has centered on James's well known passage on faith and works in Chapter 2. Of course, reactions to the passage have been quite dichotomous over the centuries, ranging from Luther's rejection of the entire book based on what he viewed as "salvation by works" in contrast to Paul's teachings, to the conservative CoC interpretation that replaces James's illustrations of faithful acts with worship traditions or the 5-step plan to salvation. Rather than attempting to provide a comparative analysis of James 2 and Romans 4:1, I'll simply say that it's clear that when Paul writes that Abraham was considered righteous by his faith and not by works, the "works" he speaks of are matters of Jewish laws and traditions that Jewish Christians were trying to impose upon their Gentile brothers (see Ch. 3). Just as James asserts that faith (defined as mental assent) must manifest itself in our actions in order for us to be genuinely faithful, Paul defines faith in the same way--Col. 3 and Galatians 5:22 are a few examples.

Okay, I'll find get to the point I want to make. In our class discussions, some people have rejected the notion that what James says regarding the co-working of belief and deeds is a "salvation issue," interpretating it as James saying, "Now that you are already saved, here's how you ought to be living." While I agree James intends to convey such an idea, it's unwise to diminish the significance of our faith manifested in our actions. To do so is to ignore Christ's teachings in Matthew 7:21 and 25:31-46. I think some people are wary of suggesting we earn our salvation through meritous deeds, and understandably so as it contradicts scripture and negates the necessity of Christ's sacrifice. However, if we are "saved by grace through faith" (and I readily admit there's plenty of mystery in how God's grace covers us), and faith is belief in action, then James is indeed discussing a salvation issue. Again, we do not earn our salvation, we respond to God's grace through our demonstration of faith, a faith that must be accompanied by action. I'd like to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

"The nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, fever, sleep better, feel high medicine"

I'm in the midst of the fifth straight day of a head-throbbing, mucus-laden, sinus medicine high-induced fog. I've mauled over a few blog topics, but I haven't been able to muster enough concentration to write about them. However, I leave you today with this little health fact: According to the Denver Museum of Health and Science's "Grossology" exhibit, the human body can produce over a gallon of mucus per day during a cold or infection.

And the Grammy Goes To . . .

Although I fancy myself a connoisseur of rock/pop music (classic and contemporary), I normally view music award shows much in the same way I viewed attractive but vacuous girls in college--worth a few glances, not worth a lot of time. Typically such awards cater to whatever artists sold the most albums, made the most headlines, etc. Even the granddaddy of them all, the Grammy Awards, have increasingly deteriorated into a celebration of what's trendy in a given year, often overlooking some truly memorable music. Nonetheless, I've decided to temporarily resign some of my music snobbery and to follow this year's Grammys from the nominations through the ceremony itself. So without further ado, I give you my 2006 Grammy Nominations Breakdown (the scope of my knowledge doesn't extend to all categories, so I've chosen to concentrate on just a few).

Album of the Year:

Mariah Carey - The Emancipation of Mimi
Why she'll win: Even as her outfits become more revealing, she proves she can still sing and hit notes that allow her to communicate with dolphins.
Why she won't win: Alter-egos are for superheroes, not pop divas, and some voters were disappointed to discover "We Belong Together" is not a Pat Benatar cover.

Paul McCartney - Chaos and Creation in the Backyard
Why he'll win: It's his first solid record since Flaming Pie. And he's Paul McCartney, for cryin' out loud!
Why he won't win: After thirty years, voters still haven't forgiven him for "Silly Love Songs."

Gwen Stefani - Love, Angel, Music, Baby
Why she'll win: She's the decade's Madonna and Cyndi Lauper wrapped into one.
Why she won't win: She contributed two excrutiatingly obnoxious songs in the same year.

U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Why they'll win:
The album lacks an anthem as bombastic as "Beautiful Day" ("Vertigo" rocks, but it's not really an anthem), but it's more solid from start to finish than All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Why they won't win:
Voters fear a Bono diatribe-like acceptance speech.

Kanye West - Late Registration
Why he'll win:
His rap exudes an air of sophistication, and the Grammy voters don't hate black people.
Why he won't win: Voters may have seen his sad attempt at free-styling during his Barbara Walters interview.

Record of the Year

Mariah Carey - "We Belong Together"
Why she'll win: The song ruled Billboard's Hot 100 for two months.
Why she won't win: Again, the disappointment over it not being a Pat Benatar cover

Gorillaz - "Feel Good, Inc."
Why they'll win: The song is an eclectic mix of pop, dance, and rap.
Why they won't win: Voters are weirded out by the bands anime personas and the song, though catchy, isn't as good as 2001's "Clint Eastwood."

Green Day - "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"
Why they'll win: The song is the biggest hit from the obsequiously lauded American Idiot and vied with The Killer's "Mr. Brightside" to be the most over-played song in five years.
Why they won't win: See reasons why they'll win.

Gwen Stefani - "Hollaback Girl"
Why she'll win: Her song taught adolescents to improve their spelling: "b-a-n-a-n-a, banana!"
Why she won't win: It could trigger a Toni Basil comeback ("Oh, Mickey, you're so fine . . .) and the lyrics are inane enough to include the spelling of "banana."

Kanye West - "Gold Digger"
Why he'll win: Cool lyrical delivery and features Jamie Foxx reprising his role as Ray Charles
Why he won't win: Grammy Commitee isn't confident their camera man can cut away quickly enough should he accuse someone of hating black people or should he make another attempt at his Barbara Walters free-style

Best New Artist (ie. The Artist We'll Forget Ever Existed in Two Years)

Why they'll win: "Somewhere Only We Know" is a great song and the title may prove portentous of the band's whereabouts in two years and because I've never heard of any of the other nominees ;)

Best Rock Album:

Rolling Stones - Bigger Bang
Why they'll win:
Grammy voters like to award artists posthumously.
Why they won't win: With yet another mediocre album (one could argue they haven't had a good one since 1980 although 1989's Steel Wheels is good at times), they prove they should be shooting commercials for Fidelity retirement investments, not writing new songs.

Coldplay - X&Y
Why they'll win: No band combines lyrical cliche and ambiguity with emotionally stirring, atmospheric music better than they do.
Why they won't win: The album is solid but falls short of A Rush of Blood to the Head and the literal-minded voters insist birds can't fly at the speed of sound.

Foo Fighters - In Your Honor
Why they'll win: As someone who generally likes Foo Fighters, I still have no earthly idea.
Why they won't win: After making two alternative rock gems--the near-perfect Color and the Shape (1997) and There's Nothing Left to Lose (2000)--2002's One by One left some fans to wonder if Dave Grohl wasn't losing his touch; this double album--one disc of mostly noise- ridden, melody-starved songs, the other an acoustic disc with a few memorable tracks but mostly languid, somniferous tracks--does little to allay their fears.

U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
See the "why's" and "why not's" for Album of the Year.

Neil Young - Prairie Wind
Why He'll Win:
Young wrote the album after facing a life-threatening illness, creating some heartfelt, poignant tunes.
Why he won't win: The album doesn't particularly "rock." Of course, that didn't keep Jethro Tull from winning a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Album.

Best Heavy Metal Album:

I wasn't aware they still had this category; however, I hear a heavy metal bands fossil exhibit is coming to The Smithsonian in June.

Weeping and Gnashing of Envelopes

Forget Guantanamo. There's cruel and unusual punishment going on right here in Austin. It's not Chinese water torture. It's not starving people and beating them with hoses. It's worse. It's the Blue Bonnet post office. From the outside, the office looks like dozens of other large post offices, but once you step through the two sets of tinted glass doors into the low-lit lobby permeated with the smell of cardboard packaging materials and b.o., brace yourself for the third circle of hell. Once you draw a number from the ticket dispenser, you join the masses poor, haggard folks (some with screaming children) who made the drastic mistake of wanting to mail something. (Your appearance actually deteriorates as you wait for service. If you're lucky enough to escape Bluebonnet, your friends will likely recoil in fear: "God have mercy! What happened to you?!" -- "I, I went to the post office."
The dearth of employees is the main cause of customers' suffering. On one of my trips to Bluebonnet, two people worked the service counter (out of a possible six) while close to forty beleaguered customers waited. A few of them were nearing the point of tearing their clothes, scraping themselves with packaging-tape dispensers, and cursing the day they were born. (On more than one occasion I've feared I'd living out my remaining days waiting to send a piece of certified mail.) I thought, "Why aren't there more employees? Are they at lunch (odd for 2:30 in the afternoon)? Are they taking a team-building smoke break? " Now I'm convinced missing employees hide in a secret room where they laugh with malicious glee as they watch customers waste away their day.
So, since the problem stems from an employee shortage, the post office would naturally just hire more clerks, right? If you think for a moment the answer is "yes," then you obviously don't grasp the sadistic nature of the office's supervisors. Two years ago, rather than hiring additional people to work the counter (or just dragging the existing ones from the secret room), they hired a lady to be a greeter of sorts. From what I could gather, her job was to make small talk with people in line and offer false assurance their families wouldn't need to file a missing person report. She only worked there for a few months. I suppose the supervisor thought her salary was a waste of money, or perhaps she was ripped to shreads by an angry mob of customers who were in no mood for her perkiness.
Bluebonnet has tried a few other stop gap solutions over the past few years, but all have failed to mitigate the hassles. I'm considering just delivering my mail in person from now on, even if it entails reviving the Pony Express. So I'd face fatigue, inclimate weather, and possible robbery-- that still beats Bluebonnet.

Firewall (the movie)

At age 64, Harrison Ford is starring in yet another action-thriller-- Firewall. If you haven't seen the trailer, he's the designer of some bank who is strongarmed by a bad guy to rob the bank once the bad guy kidnaps his wife and daughter. Despite some roles in more dramatic pictures--American Graffiti and Regarding Henry being the only two of real note--he's a star because of the action-thriller. Now, I like plenty of Harrison Ford movies (the aforementioned dramas, Witness, Frantic, Patriot Game, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.) but at some point does any actor get to old to star in action flicks? I mean, Clint Eastwood had the good sense not to continue shooting Dirty Harry movies.

And, of course, the latest Ford thriller is replete with his obligatory, overacted "I'm a ticked off tough guy" line, which nearly always center on his character's wife or family: "I want my wife!"--Frantic, "I didn't kill my wife. You find that man!"--The Fugitive, and in the latest film "You get your money when I get my family!" Of course, there's "Get off of my plane!" to the painfully un-Russian Gary Oldman in Air Force One. (Since he's protecting his family in that one, it counts with the others.) I suspect that if one were to read the script of an action movie not starring Ford, one would find "to be read like Harrison Ford" beside intense lines.

Incidentally, Indiana Jones 4 is slated for 2007.

Just Say "No" to Sharpies

If you plan on purchasing a Sharpie from Wal-Mart, be sure you have your driver's license with you. That's right, Wal-Mart cards people for Sharpies.
A while back when I was purchasing some items for my classroom at the self check-out, I noticed the Sharpies appeared in a different color than the other items on the screen, but I didn't think anything of it. Then as I was pulling out my wallet to pay, the clerk came over and explained that he needed to check my ID before I could buy the Sharpies. Apparently, Wal-Mart cards would-be Sharpie buyers because kids have bought them to sniff for a high. Now, I know folks will sniff all sorts of weird stuff looking for a buzz--rubber cement, magic markers, paint, etc.-- but should I really need to show an ID to buy a writing utensil?!
Imagine the kind of anti-drug commercials they could make about Sharpies:

"Parents, talk to your kids about Sharpies. It could be the most important thing you ever do."

"Kids, if a stranger offers you a Sharpie, just say 'no.'"

Or, does anyone recall the old commercial where a bald man with a mustache takes a box containing drug paraphernalia into his son's room and confronts his him about it?

"Son, where did you get this? Where did you learn how to use a Sharpie?"

"I learned it from watching you label stuff dad!!! I learned it from watching you!"

If Wal-Mart is concerned about people sniffing Sharpies, it's just a matter of time before you get carded for buying deodorant, air fresheners, or any other scented item. Of course, maybe Wal-Mart doesn't card all Sharpie buyers. I might've have appeared as the shady kind of fellow who lurks in dark alleys and pushes markers and pens.

Polarizing Laureate

No contemporary poet is as polarizing as Billy Collins. To some avid supporters, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate is the quintessential "everyman" poet, bringing accessibility and wit to the obfuscatory world of contemporary poetry. To his detractors, he's a banal hack whose popularity threatens to spread like a literary pandemic, killing complexity and good taste.

The truth is he's a talented poet who, when he's at his best, possesses the ability to engage readers with subtle, perspicacious observations sometimes embedded in humor, but his work lacks a consistent spark and sometimes reeks of self-absorption. For a reader who believes a good poem is tantamount to chewing on glass, Collins' work is trite and spiritless. However, for a reader who prefers a metaphorical tap on the shoulder to a punch in the face, Collins' best work--"The Dead," "The Art of Drowning," "Nostalgia," "The Best Cigarette" to name a few--will prove poignant and enjoyable.

The trouble with his latest collection, "The Trouble with Poetry," is that his best work is in short supply. Throughout his career as a champion of accessible poetry, Collins has often found something extraordinary in the ordinary. Unfortunately, with this book he explores everyday experiences in rather hackneyed, unimaginative language, leaving many of the poems incredibly dull. For example, here's a short poem called "Carry":

I want to carry you
and for you to carry me
the way voices are said to carry over water.

Just this morning on the shore,
I could hear two people talking quietly
in a rowboat on the far side of the lake.

They were talking about fishing,
then one changed the subject,
and, I swear, they began talking about you.

Collins has always exuded a light, nonchalant tone, which he has likely developed through years of honing he's craft, but I question whether this poem (or some others in the new book) took any longer to write than it takes someone to scrawl a lewd remark into a bathroom stall. "The Trouble with Poetry" is the literary equivalent of a mediocre album by an ordinarily excellent band--a few really good songs, a few duds, but mostly songs you forget two minutes after they end.

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