Rethinking Rolling Stone’s Boston Bomber Cover and the Way We Discuss Ideas in America

Rolling Stone Cover on My Desk

My copy of the now infamous Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover photo has been on my desk for a week.  Living in Maine, it got to me days after it initially hit news stands, so by the time I pulled it from my mailbox, this country was in a full throttle yelling match over the ethics of placing this nineteen-year-old terrorist on the cover.

Facebook was riddled with riotous posts damning the music magazine.

Twitter was hashtagged to its binary gills with anti-Rolling Stone Tweets.

I even engaged in this discussion, having not read the article or actually held a copy of the magazine in my own hands.

Here’s a comment I wrote supporting a friend who posted a scathing assessment of the Rolling Stone cover: “Yeah, the Rolling Stone cover makes this guy look like an iconic rock star.”

Here I was engaging in a public discussion forum without having directly engaged with the copy of the magazine.  Most people I spoke with who were angry — I mean, really, really angry — also hadn’t read the article.

After a day of social media uproar and madness, I began to wonder if the way we were discussing this cover was truly American.  I mean, I didn’t read one post where someone directly quoted the article.  Nor did any of the caustic remarks dig far under the surface of the topic.

140 character comments can be dangerously sexy and titillating.  Facebook posts can be pithy, whittled, and pointed.  But rarely have I seen these forums inspire authentic discussions.

Instead of broadening the discussion on issues, the internet and specialized news organizations hinder discussion.

Rolling Stone CoverBy the time my copy of the Rolling Stone cover landed on my desk, I felt like I needed a shower to wash off the flimsy, thin discussions I’d engaged with.  I felt intellectually dirty.

During the three or four days this country was fully engaged in damning Rolling Stone magazine and anyone who might say the cover wasn’t a mistake, a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America kept floating through my head: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

He wrote this in 1835, and in a lot of ways, it’s applicable to the United States of 2013.

If you read the article, you know that Rolling Stone in no way glamorizes Dzhokhar.  There’s a quote from the nineteen-year-old’s wrestling coach that sums up the article for me: “I knew this kid, and he was a pretty good kid.  And, apparently, he was a monster.”

The article is a profile piece examining how this kid had fooled so many people who were close to him.  After reading the article, the cover is frightening and powerful and appropriate.  He doesn’t look like a young Dylan or Jim Morrison.  He looks like bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh.

For me, saying the cover was a mistake without reading the article or fully engaging with the edition of the magazine is fantastically sloppy thinking.  If you still think it’s a mistake after reading the article, then godspeed.  What I yearn for — what this country should yearn for — is the full discussion of ideas in an informed manner.

Isn’t that the most American thing we can do?


Concert Review: Lake Street Dive at the LL Bean Concert Series (7.20.13)

The name Lake Street Dive doesn’t exactly invoke classy connotations.  The band name makes me think of smoky bars in backwoods towns where shiftless people drink cloudy beer and think shiftless thoughts.

The band that hit LL Bean’s outdoor stage on Saturday night (7.20.13) was anything but shiftless.  With lush, tasteful harmonies, beautiful pop grooves, and soulful gravitas, Lake Street Dive captivated the Freeport audience with everything good about pop music.  By the end of the first song, it was clear that we were in the hands of four musicians who knew their instruments and were all pulling in the same musical direction.

Lead singer Rachael Price is magnetic.  Few frontmen/women are able to hold court the way that she does.  With only her big, soulful voice and her arms planted firmly on her gyrating hips, she had us eating out of her pop diva hands.  Her voice is a nuclear power house one moment, and a sultry whisper the next.  It’s the kind of voice Homer had in mind when he envisioned his Sirens.  I might drive my boat into a jagged shoreline if it meant getting closer to that voice.

Here’s the deal with Lake Street Dive, though, every member of the band is adept at his or her instrument.  Bassist Bridget Kearney played funky, jazz-laden bass grooves song-in and song-out.  Her version of “I Want You Back” had James Jamerson smiling in bass player heaven.  Mike Calabrese held it down on the drums, playing a four-on-the floor beat when appropriate, and opening it up and letting it rip when the song called for big playing.  And who has a guitarist who also kills it at the trumpet?  Lake Street Dive does in Mike Olson.

It’s no surprise that these guys met at the New England Conservatory.  They do not disappoint in the musicianship category.  What’s most impressive about this classically trained band, though, is that they don’t overplay and they don’t get in each other’s way.  When Price pushes on the gas pedal of her voice, the rest of the members pull back to let her vocals shine.  And that goes for every member of Lake Street Dive.  The band listens to each other and steps back when someone else steps up.  So refreshing to see, especially from a band comprised of such real-deal talent.

You want more props heaved upon this band?  Here you go.  They all seem to share songwriting duties.  It was common for Price to say, “This next song was written by our drummer” or “Here’s one Mike Olson wrote.”  They kill it on their respective instruments and they write songs.

You want even more?  Their harmonies are so tight, so present, so heavenly that at times it sounded like they had an organist.  Apparently, singing brilliant three-part harmonies is a prerequisite to get in this band.

Don’t let their name fool you.  This is no backwoods band comprised of half-drunk schleps.  Lake Street Dive is armed with conservatory chops and soulful pop music, and they’re ready to take on the world.

(Buy Lake Street Dive music and merch.  Listen on Spotify.)

Pliny the Elder Vs. Heady Topper: A Fight for World Dominance

Heady v PlinyDrinking Pliny the Elder a few weeks ago with Tim, we got to musing over whether or not there’s any reason to rank beers.  If a beer kicks your palate’s ass, then why start rating it against other beers?  Why do humans feel the need to categorize and make best-of lists?

As humans, we like to order our world, even if our orderings are erroneous. Just look at how many times science has had to correct itself over the past 10,000 years.

Being the human I am, I’m going to try to answer the question: Which beer is better, Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder or the Alchemist’s Heady Topper?

In recent posts, I attempted to pin down each beer’s respective taste notes.

Here’s a recap of my Pliny experience:

Pliny Label 1The best way I can describe the drinking experience of Pliny the Elder is saying that there is a taste wave the drinker experiences.  First, of course, is a hop insurgence that gives a full-bodied citrus wallop to the tongue, but not an obnoxious wallop.  There’s a moment in Pliny’s taste wave, like when a surfer first hits a big wave, where everything feels like it might go wrong.  I’ve had plenty of imperial IPA’s that start off magical only to land hard on a sour taste note.  Not Pliny.

The next part of the taste wave is a fresh bittering flavor that lingers on the back of the tongue with a clean pine taste.  It’s different than that first citrus hop hit.  What you’re left with is wonderfully different than the taste you started with.

The citrus-to-pine taste wave makes you want to go back for another flavor ride.

Now for my summation of the Heady Topper taste ride:

What hits your tongue first is a hop wall.  Like the brewer decided to bring in all of the artillery in the first lines.  As the flavor spreads across the tongue the finish is clean.  The hop feel at the back of the tongue lasts long, but isn’t offensive like some over-the-hop West Coast IPA’s.  Every moment of this drinking experiencing is world class.  Comparisons with other IPA’s is challenging, because this beer truly deserves the nods it’s getting for originality.

Heady ManI poured my second Heady Topper into a glass.  It has a yellowish color and is filled with sediment.  I wonder if they want you to keep it in the can not to maintain the “essential hop aromas that [they] have worked so hard to retain,” as the can suggests, but, rather, to keep the feint of heart from seeing the unruly brew they’re imbibing.

Now that you’ve read the two descriptions, here’s my choice as the tastiest imperial IPA in all the land.  It’s an East Coast vs. West Coast showdown.  A battle of two beers nearly impossible to stockpile in your fridge.  Beers whose tales of unavailability make them mythical in the beer world.  It’s 8% alc/vol vs. 8% alc/vol.  Goliath vs. Goliath.  It’s…

Ok, I’ll stop.

The winner: Heady Topper.  It’s more unique.  It’s stranger.  It’s got a little bit more magic.  For me, these factors inch it past the mighty Pliny.  It’s a photo-finish, and the Topper just noses past the Elder.

Of course, being from New England I’ve had many more cans of Heady than the one bottle of Pliny I’ve imbibed.  Oh, and I grew up in Vermont.  So, like any best-of list, you should take my answer with a grain of hops.  I’m just another human trying to make sense of the beer world he lives in.

Both beers are first-rate.  Both beers are worthy of putting on a last-meal list.  You know what, for my last meal, I’ll have a Pliny for dinner and a Heady for dessert.

My suggestion?  Drink as much of each of these beers as you’re able to get your hands on.


The Dangers of Being Passive Aggressive: Take Heed Husbands and Writers

I can be passive aggressive with the best of them.  I can mope, make snide comments, and indirectly be an ass to someone without ever addressing the real issue.  If I’m mad at you, you might not even know it, unless you’re tuned into my subtle, ninja-like passive aggressive behavior.

I grew up in a very loving, but very passive aggressive household.  In a short story I recently finished, two kids are talking about their parents.  Here’s a clip:

                “All my parents do is scream at each other,” Collin says.

                “You think that’s messed up,” I tell him, “my parents never fight.”

                “What do they do when they’re mad?”

                “Nothing.  They’re just silent.”

                “That is messed up,” Collin says.

My younger brother and I both admit that our significant others had to teach us how to properly fight and debate in a relationship.  Early on in my marriage, Anna and I would be arguing about whatever, and I’d say, “Fine,” and walk out of the room.

She’d respond, “Where are you going?”

I’d say, “Isn’t this how couples fight?”

I’m getting better at staying in the conflict, but we all know healthy assertive behavior, like Rome, can’t be built in a day.

Passive aggression is the slow relationship killer.  It’s like huffing cigarettes: the first few won’t kill you, but do it long enough, and you’re a dead man.

The only place more dangerous for passive aggressive behavior than a marriage is in fiction.  Yeah, it’s that dangerous.

Yesterday I was giving a reading to a short story about a married couple who need to kill a tyrannous rooster named Joseph Stalin.  I know, ridiculous, but stick with me.  I wrote the story, aptly named, “Killing Joseph Stalin,” a year and a half ago, and it wasn’t until yesterday that it dawned on me: these characters are so damn passive aggressive.  The entire drama of their relationship takes place in the subtext of what they’re saying.

It’s only at the end when the wife takes the gun, walks to the backyard, and shoots the rooster that someone acts assertively.

The biggest problem here: I didn’t know they were being passive aggressive until yesterday.  That’s how deeply ingrained my passive aggression is.  I’ve read this story thirty times in editing, and I didn’t clearly recognize this behavior in my first twenty-nine readings.

So why is it so dangerous to have passive aggressive characters?  Good fiction is about characters having desires (however deranged they may be) and going out and actively pursuing that desire.

Imagine if Captain Ahab passive aggressively pursued Moby Dick.  What if instead of yelling for the crew to drive the boat towards the beast, he made snide comments until Ishmael finally had to say, “Do you want us to go get the whale?  Is that what you want, you mopy bitch?”

Or, what if Gatsby took the passive aggressive approach to getting Daisy Buchanan?  I can assert with confidence that the book would be much longer than 180 pages.  It would take an eternity to get to the novel’s climax if the characters passive aggressively pursued their desires.

As we’ve clearly seen here today, kids, passive aggression is a killer–both in your marriage and in your fiction.  Avoid it at all costs!

A Philistine Considers the Question: What Makes Something Art?

When I visit art museums, I have to work hard not to be a cynical dick.

I mean, real hard.

My recent visit to The Museum of Modern Art in NYC was a test of my dickery.  If you’ve been to MoMA, then you’ve seen some of the garbled junk that passes as capital ‘A’ Art.

Maybe you’ve experienced the glass-encased wet/dry vacuums from the ’80’s.  How evocative!


Or perhaps you’ve stood in front of the steel girder someone hung with some chairs.  Triumphant!

Steel Girder

Oh, wait, these pieces aren’t evocative or triumphant — they’re stupid.

You see?  I am a total lowbrow dick when it comes to art.  If it’s not photorealism or if I feel I could have created the piece, I struggle to see it as ‘Art.’

Standing in front of one of these pieces, I grunt to my fellow museum-goer, “How is this art?”

To which the reply, usually coming from my patient wife, is a tired, “I don’t know.”

Looking for answers, I read the small placard next to the painting or sculpture, and I see that the artist is reacting against some artist movement.  Or that she is working in a specific artistic tradition.  The placard gives the piece context.  At this point, I look at the single blue line painted across the canvas, and I think, Ok, I get it.  But I still think it looks stupid.

I’m beginning to accept that a piece’s artistic context holds some weight in lieu of its classical aesthetic shortcomings.  If one of the purposes of art is to push the boundaries of a form and take the form to a new level — be it, painting, television, or literature — then the ‘stupid’ pieces must be ‘Art.’

I’m trying to accept this.  I’m trying to broaden my artistic horizons.  I know that the growth and aesthetic impact of my art — mainly, my fiction and songwriting — depends greatly on my ability to push boundaries and take chances.

MoMA does punctuate their modern art installations with some heavy hitters.  For instance, here’s a photo I snapped of Starry Night.

Starry Night

I found myself breathing a sigh of art-going relief standing in front of this painting.  Now here is a piece of art!

But then again, why is this ‘Art’?  Why has this achieved greater aesthetic acclaim than say the vacuum cleaners pictured above?

If I’m to be honest, when I think back to my MoMA visit, I think about the vacuum cleaners (entitled, New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker) as much as I think about Starry Night.  The vacuum cleaners affected me.  Is that the point of Art?  Is the point to get human beings to feel something, even if what the viewer feels is anger or bewilderment?

I’m pushing aside the cynical dick who lives behind my eyes.  It’s challenging.  He’s a persistent dick.

Though a white canvas painted beige might never seem beautiful to me, I’m beginning to understand how it fits into the slippery definition of ‘Art.’

Don’t worry, however, I’m still holding on to a smidgen of my dickery.  I mean, one can’t be completely uncritical of what one sees.  That doesn’t seem fun.

Does Pliny the Elder Stand Up to All the Hype?

Pliny LabelThe story of how I got my greedy mitts on a bottle of Pliny the Elder is almost as integral to the mystique of the imperial IPA as the complex taste wave the beer possesses.  In some camps, there’s an argument that Pliny’s stories of inaccessibility — it’s only available in parts of California — are what’s driving its monumental success in the beer world.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  After one gulp of the stuff, it’s clear that Pliny the Elder is a world-class beer.  Period.

Let’s take a moment to look at the story of my bottle of Pliny, before I try to pin down the beer’s mystical taste wave.

Tim, a friend of mine, was in LA two weeks ago.  I hatched a plan.  I sent him a text that read, “If you find some Pliny, and I have faith you will, can you mail me a bottle?  I’ll pay you double whatever it cost.”  Tim’s a badass, so I knew once I planted this challenge, he’d get a bottle of Pliny across the country to Maine.

PlinyAs has been the story for any human on an odyssey, however, it was an arduous road for Tim to travel.  Maybe it wasn’t filled with Cyclopses and sirens, but it was peopled with ornery store clerks and signs like this one.

A day into his great quest, Tim texted me, “0 for 3 so far, but I have a lead, hopefully tomorrow.”  I said a prayer to Silenus, the ancient god of beer, for Tim’s lead to pan out without him having to fight off a mob of suitors pining for their own bottle of Pliny.

The next day, Tim responded, “During my last minutes, at the last possible spot I could look before leaving LA, I found The Elder.”  Cue the triumphant symphonic music!  We had a bottle of the elusive Pliny the Elder!

Said bottle then traveled from LA to Vegas for a week then on to a slew of layover stops on Tim’s flight home, and finally, as if it had survived a ten year journey, the bottle, a little worse for wear, settled in Tim’s fridge in Portland, Maine.

The story might seem superfluous.  But is it?  Does the fact that this beer is so hard to get make it taste better than it might if I could easily grab a bottle at my local Hannaford?  I’m torn here.

In any case, it’s time to discuss the taste.  Was all of this anxiety to procure a bottle worth it?

The emphatic answer, Hell yes!

Pliny BottleThe best way I can describe the drinking experience of Pliny the Elder is saying that there is a taste wave the drinker experiences.  First, of course, is a hop insurgence that gives a full bodied citrus wallop to the tongue, but not an obnoxious wallop.  There’s a moment in Pliny’s taste wave, like when a surfer first hits a big wave, where everything feels like it might go wrong.  I’ve had plenty of imperial IPA’s that start off magical only to land hard on a sour taste note.  Not Pliny.

The next part of the taste wave is a fresh bittering flavor that lingers on the back of the tongue with a clean pine taste.  It’s different than that first hop hit.  What you’re left with is wonderfully different than the taste you started with.

The citrus-to-pine taste wave makes you want to go back for another flavor ride.

And then another, ad infinitum.

I have no idea how they make that taste wave so complex, yet pleasing for the entire ride.  Maybe some magical yeast? An eye of newt?  However they do it, the drinking experience is surprisingly pleasant and easy compared to many double IPA’s.  It clocks in at 8%, but it doesn’t assault your palate with alcohol; rather, it does an intricate dance in the mouth.

So, is it the best tasting beer in America, or is it the best storied beer in America?

I vaguely answer: Yes.

I say, put in the Odyssean effort to get your hoppy hands on a bottle.  Or, if you want the real challenge, try to find some Pliny the Younger!  Though I’m pretty sure a Cyclops does guard that beer.