About Life as a Highway

I heard this song briefly on the radio the other day.  I say briefly because I had to turn it pretty much right away.

The problem for me with this song isn’t the sentiment, or the lyrics, it’s that it is such a bad cover version.  Rascal Flatts seems to lack any soul – they seem to be the epitome of corporate country in all of its very worst manifestations: bleached, Californian rather than Southern, overly electric, lacking any allegiance to the blues or bluegrass.  It’s brutal to listen to.

Compare it to the version done by Tom Cochrane, who actually wrote the song.

Cochrane’s original has so much more bite to it.  He’s got the sense of having actually travelled to these places, not just the ability to pronounce the names of the locales.  His guitar is sharper, and meaner.  And his song actually has the sex element still in it, while Rascal Flatts has made theirs pure vanilla.

That’s the main problem.  Here’s the chorus: “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long.  If you’re going my way, I’m gonna drive it all night long.”  Yes, these lines connote living to driving – to engaging with life in the fullest.  Rascal Flatts seems to have recognized that.  But that only gets you a low “C” in English class.  Nowhere in their version do they seem to recognize the baser allusion going on in the metaphor and the overall lyrics: the sexual attraction between the “you” and the “I” and the implicit sexual congress taking place “all night long.”

Cochrane wrote it.  He gets it – he still has sex in his version, in his growl and in his great “gimme gimme gimme” ad libs as the song progresses.  What’s most stunning to me is that Rascal Flatts’ cover is so bland and so lacking in imagination that the lead singer copies Cochrane’s “gimme gimme gimme” line.  But he does so as if he’s enacting a six-year-old in a lego store – “I want this, and that, and one of those.”

In the Racal Flatts version, that “gimme” is a pure expression of greed, of wanton desire for more stuff, of commodity fetishization.  For Cochrane, that “gimme” is about more loving, pure and simple.  There’s something wanton there, but it’s more primal – lust and plenty of it.

For Cochrane, it’s song about urgency, about engaging with everything that life offers – and that includes great sex (and why not?)!  The video gets at it a bit with the couple and the camera’s focus on the woman.  It’s not heavy in its visual representation, but it’s there, it seems to me.  (It’s totally vanilla in the other one.  Sex won’t get a PG-13 rating!)

That seems about as good a summary of the two bands, and perhaps even provides a fundamental way of thinking about corporate country, with Rascal Flatts as the prime example of it: a band constructed with the purpose in mind not so much to make interesting music but to make loads of money, which in turn sings about commodity fetishization and making loads of money.  And has success doing just that.

It’s depressing to think about really.  But here’s a surprise.  Rascal Flatts’ cover version went to #7 in the Billboard Top 200.  Cochrane’s?  #6.  Maybe there’s still hope out there!

Being Spoiled and Loving It

Seafood and Pigs.  Pigs and seafood.  And beer.  That’s always a good way to go.

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I was recently in Chicago for a night and decided I wanted to pursue an excellent meal, and so I began my planning with a previous experience.  A few years ago, during a conference in Chicago, I went with a friend to Blackbird and enjoyed a lovely meal.  Having recently watched Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations on television in which he went to Chicago, I knew that the proprietor of Blackbird, Paul Kahan, had opened another restaurant, avec, and that he was planning on a third in the same neighborhood.  This restaurant, The Publican, seemed interesting, and I called and made a reservation for a spot to eat at the bar.

A sidenote: When I lived in New York, I had often enjoyed eating a meal at the bar by myself, making small talk with other diners at the bar and those waiting for a table.  Sometimes I would go and nurse a good glass of wine and enjoy an appetizer and fantasize that I had received the full dining experience when I had only spent a fraction of the cost; no matter, I would say to myself, I would take what I could get – or afford.  I can now afford a full meal at a fine restaurant, but I still sometimes desire that same experience of eating at the bar for the camaraderie and the immediacy of the experience.

The woman on the phone when I called the restaurant told me that it could get crowded at the bar, and after asking when things picked up, I inquired whether it was possible to reserve a spot there.  Although they don’t normally do so, she relented after I told her I was visiting and just eating one dinner while in town.

Let me give you a sense of the place.  The Publican is spare in temperament and in décor.  The arrangement of the space reminded me of a Protestant church.  There were long wooden tables that dominated the room, with some smaller tables for four seats or so arranged closer to the door.  There were minimal table flourishes, and the chairs were high-backed wooden ones, with small and rather inconspicuous cushions on the seat.  The overall effect is one of virtual severity – the furniture calls to mind the wooden pews of old New England churches.  At the same time, the seating is in many ways democratic.  Different dining parties eat at the long wooden tables, so you may well sit directly next to someone you do not know.  There is little sense of hierarchy in the arrangement.

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The seating at the bar is very similar, with the same types of chairs and a bar that is rather industrial in its design and use of metal and wood and glass.  Diners there look up at the servers, seemingly beseeching them for a refill.

But there is no actual need to do this, as the service is outstanding.  Soon after arriving, and receiving an escort to my spot at the bar, a bartender joined me with beer and food menus.  She was incredibly attentive for the whole experience, though she never crowded me in the least.  She was well-informed about both menus, and like all the other bartenders quite generous with samples of beer to help me locate the one I would most enjoy.  The service rating would have to be truly excellent.  As a point of information, I would have to relate that the staff seems to truly enjoy working at The Publican, as they smiled often over samples of beer at the bar, egging one another on to try something new and discover a new taste.

The beer menu is extensive and includes local breweries and makes a point of emphasizing Belgium beers.  I decided on an Arctic Panzer Wolf and later tried a nice Wipeout IPA.  Both of these were very much further down the hoppy scale, which tends to be my personal preference, but I can report that the restaurant offers a very wide range of beers, as well as a broad selection of wines.

Let’s talk about the food.  Publican is a restaurant with an affinity for the pig and for the oyster.  These are two of the main themes of the menu, and the entrees almost all have some element of pork to them.  (To give you a full sense of its focus, there are four main artworks in the restaurant, one on each wall, and each is a portrait of a pig.)  As someone who enjoys oysters, I ordered the chef’s selection for my appetizer, and was not disappointed.  The chef chose three oysters from the East Coast and three from the West Coast.  Two of the three of the latter were from Washington state and reminded me of some I had enjoyed in Seattle about seven years ago.  The third was from British Columbia.

These three were nice, but I must say that I found that I was most attracted to the three from the East.  (Of course, I grew up in Massachusetts and have been to Cape Cod every summer for about the last 27 years!)  I loved the briny taste these three oysters, one of which was from Prince Edward Island, one from Nova Scotia, and one from Maine.  Great texture, great flavor.  And these went well with the beer.

For an entrée I ordered something not too large – a modest portion of Saucisson Sec.  This dish combined pickled green beans, endive, parmesan, and rough, thick-cut salami.  I had been a a bit curious how this dish would complement the oysters, and I can happily report that it did so quite nicely and that it really filled out what was going on with my palate in a complex way.  Overall, high marks all around.

Let me give you a bit of a sequel, though.  Upon the recommendation of the woman who was serving me, I went to Graham Elliot for a drink after dinner.  She told me that the mixologist working at the bar there was someone not to miss, and she was right on the money.  This young man was fabulous.  He listened to what I had told him about my meal and about the beer I had had earlier and what my plan was for the rest of the evening.  He then mixed me an excellent bourbon cocktail that I never would have imagined I would enjoy, let a long one I would have ordered following my meal.  A great drink, and an excellent end to the night.

It seems that this is also an excellent restaurant, based on buzz I heard at Publican and the vibe at Graham Elliot itself, but I did not eat here and so can’t say based on my own experience.  But have a drink there – you won’t regret it!

The Loaded Gun in the Drapers’ Parlor

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One of the recurring elements of Mad Men this year is the increased attention paid to Sally, the Drapers’ daughter.  In this past Sunday’s episode, Sally’s brother, Bobby, caught Sally kissing a boy and teased her about it.  Sally reacted with immediate fury, chasing her brother, catching him, and immediately smacking him around.  As one of eight children who often had physical altercations with my siblings growing up, I thought to myself, “Nice reflexes!”

Apparently, though, I should have been appalled.  Carla, the woman who watched the children while Betty joined Don on his quick trip to Rome, told Betty that Sally’s temper was out of control and something they needed to watch and probably address.  (By the way, I liked how Don totally excused himself from this conversation by giving the two woman a look of helplessness and heading into the kitchen to check the mail – in the Drapers’ home in the 1963, domestic problems are women’s to handle.)  Betty does speak to Sally, demanding that she apologize to her brother, which she readily does and which Bobby immediately and rather nonchalantly accepts.

And so the issue of Sally’s temper is resolved.  Or is it?

There have been other situations this season when Sally’s emotions have got the better of her and she has reacted rather strongly, either verbally or physically.  On one level, this scene just seems like another one of those, perhaps a stage in maturation that Sally is going through as she processes the death of her grandfather, the birth of a new brother, and the tricky realities of growing up in a family where the father is often absent, the mother is often surly, and expressions of love and support are rare.

But Carla’s suggestion that this is a problem that the Drapers need to address, it seems to me, serves the purpose of setting up Sally’s temper as a loaded gun placed in the parlor, all set to go off.  The writers of Mad Men have a tendency to introduce an element of the story in a small way and then to return to it and have it implode – I think of the birds that Betty shot at in the first season, Frank O’Hara’s book of poems, Meditations in an Emergency, in the second season, Connie Hilton’s cameo earlier this season which has become a major factor in Don’s work, and of course the John Deere tractor, which had such an “impact” a few episodes ago.

And so my prediction:  Sally’s temper will play a major role in the series later this season.  In what way?  I’m not sure, but I’d bet that at some point that gun goes off.  Moreover, I suspect it will have an impact on Betty, because she hasn’t done much to address Sally’s temper and her difficulties adjusting to all of the changes going on around her.  I can’t say exactly what will happen, but I’d watch out if I were Baby Gene!

Practicing Diversity?

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My school, like pretty much all educational institutions, is a place where “diversity and service to others is valued and practiced.”   It’s great that these elements are valued at this school and others: I believe they have much to offer in terms of broadening students’ educational experiences and enriching faculty and staff members’ work environment.

And I can see readily how service to others is practiced, both on campus and off, by a number of students, and hopefully by our staff and faculty as well.  This is a great thing for our community, and especially for our students, who I know learn so much through their service learning courses.

But in coming back to that phrase in our mission, I am left with a bit of a conundrum, because I am not exactly sure how diversity is practiced.  I’m not sure what it means, let alone what it looks like, when diversity is practiced.

Still, I’ve come think that I need to spend some time thinking about this topic.  I want to consider how diversity might be practiced, and in the end I want my students to not only consider this question but to go on to actually engage diversity in their practice (and practicing).

I’ll be working on this topic in the upcoming weeks, I suspect.  In the meanwhile, I’d appreciate hearing any thoughts you may have on what it means to practice diversity.