Me, Pat and the governor

In August, Gov. Bill Haslam attended one night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, where he was accompanied on the grounds by State Rep. Pat Marsh.

I had taken a number of photos that night, when Pat — who I’ve known professionally since we were in a civic club together, long before he entered the General Assembly — playfully suggested that since I was always taking photos, I needed to be in a photo him with the governor. I went along, and posed for a photo with the two of them. Someone took it on my T-G camera, and the state photographer who was with Gov. Haslam also took it.

The photo from my camera turned out nicely, and I printed out a little snapshot of it at home and shared it with the family, but I didn’t post it anywhere. Posting a photo of myself with an elected official, of either party, just seemed like a bad idea, even if it was just taken on a whim. People might take it differently than it was intended.

I do not wear my political heart on my sleeve — I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalists to do so. I have always endeavored to be fair to both parties, and I like to think I have good relationships with both parties locally. (I think of myself as a centrist, and I’ve voted for candidates from both parties over the years.) My work should speak for itself, and as long as it does then my private political opinions are my own business. Getting too chummy with one side or the other is just an invitation for people to criticize.

I had the day off work yesterday, but my editor e-mailed me to confirm that I would be in the office at 11 a.m. today, saying only that the reason I needed to be here was “a surprise.”

At 11 a.m., a number of T-G employees were summoned to the front office, where Pat Marsh was waiting with a beautifully framed, and autographed, copy of the state photographer’s photo of him, me and the governor. Pat’s autograph thanked me for being “fair and informative.” It was a very kind gesture; I know the spirit in which it was given, and I was moved by it.

All that is a roundabout way of saying I don’t guess it would hurt too much to show you this:

framed photo

For my out-of-state friends, Rep. Marsh is on the left and Gov. Haslam is on the right. Bill Haslam and his brother Jimmy (now owner of the Cleveland Browns) built a small company started by their father into the Pilot truck stop chain.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

chili grind

I went into Walmart after work today, to pick up one or two things – and you know how that usually works out.

I was at the meat case and became unreasonably happy to see this:

chiligrind

Chili grind meat! Which I normally can’t find at all in Shelbyville, and not only did Walmart have it but it was on sale! I snatched it up. I could have made chili from scratch, but I wimped out and bought a Carroll Shelby’s kit, a can of tomato sauce, two cans of Ro-Tel and a little tub of sour cream for garnish. The chili is simmering even as we speak.

What you see in the photo above is two pounds of meat. As you can see, it’s ground much more coarsely – it doesn’t look like yarn but like rope. It’s intended for use in long-simmering chili recipes. It can survive long cooking and still give you nice-sized little chunks of meat in the finished product.

I first learned to make slow-simmered Texas-style chili, without beans, many years ago by using the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit and the Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit. At the time, they were competitors – the Wick Fowler product came on a cellophane-wrapped cardboard tray, while the Carroll Shelby product came in a little brown paper bag. Now, they are both made by the same company and they come in identical cardboard boxes. They’re both good. The main difference between them is that the Wick Fowler product comes with the various ingredients broken down into separate little packets, so that you can monkey around with them if you like – a little less of this, a little more of that. The Carroll Shelby kit has all of the seasonings except salt and cayenne in one bag.

Since both kits have the cayenne in a separate packet, you can adjust the heat level to your family’s liking – add it all, or some of it, or leave it out.

Both kits come with a separate little packet of masa flour, to be added near the end of cooking as a thickener and for its wonderful corn flavor. I belive the Carroll Shelby kit has a little more masa than the Wick Fowler kit.

When I first started using the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby kits, the main package directions called for either coarse ground beef (like what  you see above) or, lacking that, beef cut into little chunks. They also had, as an afterthought, separate directions for a quick chili recipe using regular ground beef. But those directions were in smaller type and were not as prominent.

Now, the quick ground beef directions are the only directions appearing anywhere on either product. The original, long-cooking directions are nowhere to be found. Even so, they’re still good products, and you can still use them slowly with coarsely ground beef or little chunks. Since I can never find chili-grind beef in Shelbyville, I usually buy stew meat and then cut each big chunk into several smaller ones, using a pair of scissors. So I was delighted to see the genuine article in Walmart today, and hope they’ll keep carrying it, even if it’s not always on sale.

Most big supermarkets now carry both the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby products, side-by-side in their boxes, but Walmart, at least today, only had the Carroll Shelby product.

It feels like a wonderful night for a bowl of chili. I’m glad I happened to wander over to the meat case.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

dear santa ….

I haven’t blogged in a while about my weekly time at Learning Way Elementary School as a volunteer with the Raise Your Hand Tennessee program, but I think I’m finding it more satisfying this school year than I ever have before.

Today, Regan gave me three different worksheets to use with the kids, but I really only had time for the first worksheet with each of my three groups. The worksheet was a letter to Santa, with spaces for three gift requests and then three reasons why Santa should bring you things.

Of course, in my actual job, we’re in the middle of processing the scores and scores of Santa letters which the T-G publishes each year (as we have for generations), so it was kind of fun to watch the thought process of such letters being written. Some kids knew exactly what they wanted to write and just needed a little help with spelling. One girl needed a little extra help, and I ended up writing some things for her to trace.

It was just a great time and really put me in the Christmas spirit.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”

Coming soon: This year’s audio Christmas card

I’m not very good about sending out Christmas cards.

Two years ago, on the spur of the moment, I decided to do an audio recording of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” post it to Soundcloud, and send a link by email to family and friends.

People seemed to enjoy it, so last year I did the same thing with Francis Church’s famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” newspaper column.

I’ve tried to figure out what to do this year. It has to be something in the public domain. I think I’ve found something – it’s short, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I may try to record and edit it tomorrow.

One of these days, I’m going to try my hand at an original story – but I never think about it early enough.

Anyway, whenever I send it out I’ll also be sure and post a link in case I don’t have your email address.

The first two recitations are still online, and you can find them on the Soundcloud web site (my user name is LakeNeuron) or embedded below. Feel free to share them if you like.

2012:

2013 (Sorry about the very slight hum):

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

silver lining

Bad news, versus thing for which to be thankful:

I’m not due at Dad’s until this afternoon, so I ran to Walmart just now to pick up a few groceries. (I won’t be doing any of my holiday shopping until later.) On the way back, I realized I had to break a $20 so that I could get change so that I could do laundry.

I stopped at a convenience store, and when I got out my front driver’s side tire was completely flat. And this wasn’t a fix-a-flat flat; both front tires need to be replaced. I had trouble with one of the lug nuts, and a stranger was nice enough to stop and help me with it. I have the temporary spare in place now’; I’m not sure whether my tire store is open tomorrow or whether I’ll have to wait until Monday.

I’ve already had to get a new battery this month, and I was not planning on the expense of two new tires.

But on the bright side, it could very easily have gone flat last Friday, on the Interstate, and prevented me getting to Nashville. So that’s a thankful note for the day.

best. night. ever.

Here, my friends, is the story of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.

The thing I’m talking about happened this month, but in order to appreciate it we have to jump back a few decades, to the early 1980s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at what I sometimes refer to as Famous Televangelist University. Christian college can be a stiflingly-conformist environment; I had a dorm director once proclaim in a devotion that it was one of the hardest places to be a Christian, because it was so easy to just drift along with the crowd and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.

Then, as now, there existed both really bad Christian music and really good Christian music. I had the quirky sense of humor to latch on to several artists with satirical sensibilities – songwriters who could laugh at themselves and poke at the foibles of both the secular world and the imperfect church. During my years at ORU, I became a particular fan of the band Daniel Amos, singer-songwriter Randy Stonehill and singer-songwriter Steve Taylor.

Daniel Amos, by the way, played a concert at a church in Smyrna three or four years ago – the first time they’d toured in ages. But I couldn’t go; I was in camp that week, as a volunteer in Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program in Grundy County.

About a year and a half later, my wonderful sister, who had drawn my name for Christmas, gave me a ticket to a nostalgia-themed all-star concert of Christian entertainers from the 1970s and 80s which had Randy Stonehill as one of the headliners. But the concert (which was going to be taped for a TV special) ended up being canceled for some unknown reason.

i-want-to-be-a-cloneFor purposes of this story, then, let’s get back to the third member of that troika. Steve Taylor’s 1983 debut EP, “I Want To Be A Clone,” had a blistering, new-wave title song. That song, and the EP, were a perfect antidote to Christian college conformity. The song was all about Christian conformity, and how some within the church seek to impose their own private beliefs, practices and even language upon others.

By the time that album came out, I was using my own sense of humor to help keep me level at ORU. My good friend, the late Kendall Durfey, and I produced parody radio ads which I played over the public address system prior to on-campus movies (I spent 2 ½ years as ORU’s campus film chairman, and then my senior year I was vice-president of the Student Association in charge of campus activities). I wrote the spots, we both voiced them, and Kendall used his production expertise to make them sound great. In many of the spots, Kendall played a funny character, “Dr. Herb Zimmerman.”

I also wrote a humor column, “Speed Bumps,” for ORU’s campus newspaper, the Oracle, and was in charge of a special April Fool’s edition of the paper my senior year, setting the stage for the April Fool’s story I now do each year at the Times-Gazette.

Time marched on. I graduated in 1984 and moved home to Tennessee a year later. Steve Taylor released several more of his own albums. He was also a member of a crossover band, Chagall Guevara, which had a secular record deal. I went to see Chagall Guevara in Nashville in 1991, the only time I’d ever seen Steve perform live. Steve became a record executive, and played a key role in the success of Sixpence None The Richer, among others.

He directed a number of videos – for himself, for Sixpence and for other artists – and that gave way to him becoming a movie director. I and my girlfriend at the time went to Brentwood Baptist Church to be in the crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie Steve directed starring Michael W. Smith.

More recently, Steve directed a movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

Now, after a 10-year absence, Steve is making music again. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil. Their new album was released earlier this week. A few weeks before that, Steve started releasing videos to promote the new album.

I enjoyed all three. While watching the last one, “Goliath,” I happened to click the “like” button on YouTube. Because of the way my YouTube account is configured, that automatically generated a Twitter post stating that I had liked the video.

Right away, the official Twitter account for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil favorited and retweeted my post. No real surprise there; any artist with a good social media team might have done the same.

But then, almost right away, I got a message from the account asking if I was the same John Carney who had attended ORU in the 1980s.

I had to admit that I was. I was also, at that moment, pretty curious.

The message came from Steve’s manager, Nick Barre. Nick was a few years behind me at ORU. He remembers the funny fake radio ads and the humor column. He said that Kendall and I inspired him, and made him want to be creative too.

We could stop the story right there and it would be pretty darn amazing. This guy remembers my humor – 30 years later! – and actually calls me an inspiration. He took the time to introduce himself and tell me so on a social media site. I was deeply flattered. That compliment alone made my night, and it’s probably the most amazing thing about this story.

But then, Nick continued. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil would be playing Nov. 21 at the Cannery, a Nashville nightclub. The band was billing it as their album release party.

“I’d love to put you on the guest list,” wrote Nick.

Nope; sorry. Not interested. I mean, why would I want to be an invited guest for a show by one of my long-time favorite artists? That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Two of my ORU friends, Emory Stagmer in Maryland and Darrell Grizzle in the Atlanta area, went to earlier concerts on the tour and gave them glowing reviews.

I arrived at The Cannery early enough to get one of the last few free parking spots, before people started having to park in the paid lot next door. I must have gotten there about 20 minutes before the doors opened at 7 p.m.; it was an 8 o’clock show.

While I was waiting outside, a man in a plaid shirt darted out, and we instantly, if hesitantly, recognized each other from Facebook profile photos.

“John?”

“Nick?”

Nick was busy with his managerial duties, but he stopped to introduce himself and welcome me to the concert (as if I were doing him a favor rather than the other way around). He mentioned that The Perfect Foil’s lead guitarist, Jimmy Abegg, was “under the weather,” which I mistakenly thought meant he’d have to miss the concert. It later turned out he had gotten severe food poisoning while the band was in Atlanta for that show earlier in the week. (Darrell, do we need to educate you Georgians on food safety?) He was still not feeling well at show time, and Steve made reference to this, but you couldn’t tell it from his playing.

Nick did, however, tell me that there would be “surprises” during the concert.

I made polite conversation with a few other people standing there on the porch – a lot of them, not surprisingly, were my age, and the porch looked like Old Fart Jubilee, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs.

The Cannery Ballroom is one of those big open standing-room-only nightclubs. There are no tables around the perimeter or anything like that. I was there early, and so I was thrilled to be standing very, very close to the stage.

WP_20141121_007The opening act was the husband-and-wife duo Fleming & John – not a coincidence, since John Mark Painter also happens to be the bass player for The Perfect Foil. I’d heard the name but wasn’t really familiar with their work. I was blown away – they were great, melodic and entertaining. I will definitely be checking out their catalog. I posted a photo to Facebook after their set, and was tickled when my former castmate Sharon Kay Edwards responded by saying that “I’m Not Afraid” had been her “high school jam.”

Later, during his set, Steve said his goal next year is to release a new Fleming & John record.

WP_20141121_017Then, of course, it was time for Steve and the new band. They were every bit as good as I thought they’d be. I was worried about standing for three hours. Steve, who is 4 ½ years older than me, rubber-legged and skinny as a rail, bounced around the stage, flailing and crouching and spinning and leaping with the same energy I’d seen at that Chagall Guevara concert in 1991. He has an incredible stage presence.

The set was a perfect mix of new and old songs.

They opened with “Only A Ride,” which had been the first video released from “Goliath,” but “I Want To Be A Clone” popped up early in the set as well.

I was lost in the music throughout.

When the show was over, we screamed for the encore. Steve, true to form, came back out and performed – so help me – a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Then he launched into the real encore, “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” I had seen reference to this having been the encore at one of the previous concerts.

But it wasn’t the only encore.

After that, Steve brought out Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols and Mike Mead from Chagall Guevara. Mead displaced Peter Furler at the drum kit, but Abegg and Painter stayed on stage, and The Perfect Foil / Chagall Guevara peformed a cover of “Gloria” and then “Violent Blue,” off the Chagall Guevara album. That was the surprise Nick had hinted at, and what a surprise and thrill it was.

Steve-Door

Steve had promised to hang out and meet people after the show, and he was as good as his word. I had brought a 1984 issue of The Wittenburg Door with Steve on the cover, and he signed it for me. Nick was standing nearby and was kind enough to repeat his compliments in Steve’s presence, but the fact of the matter is that Steve was just as gracious to every single person who wanted to speak to him.

I’m an idiot, by the way, for not getting a photo of me and Nick as well.

WP_20141121_042

By this point, it was after midnight. I told Nick I had to get back to Shelbyville so that I could get up early for a Relay For Life fundraiser at the Times-Gazette. Nick repeated his story of how Kendall and my parody radio spots, and to a lesser extent my humor column, inspired him, and how seriously he took it when he got the chance to program ORU’s campus radio station.

At this point, I’m wondering to myself: If I was really as talented as Nick perceived me to be, what happened? How is it that I’m now 52, overweight, single, seemingly at a career dead end, and fighting my way out of poor financial practices from earlier in life? I was kind of grateful that Nick didn’t see my white 1995 Geo Metro with one red door, the one I literally prayed before the trip would make it to Nashville and back without incident.

But this wasn’t a night for dwelling on the negative. This was a night to accept a great compliment, enjoy a great show, relive some memories and get to know some great new songs. This was, in short, one of the best nights I’ve had in some time – one of the best nights ever.