Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From the Vaults: Arts and Crafts

When we were kids, my brothers and I used to make things for each other's birthdays. Ben made a couple great birthday cards that I still have:

The front of the card...

Inside the card!*

Here's the other one:



Ah, good times...

*Yes, we are apparently giraffes.

**Apparently he was worried I wouldn't know which 'Ben' had given me the card...?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Memory Lane: Sandwich Nostalgia

In honor of Veteran's Day, here's another story from Afghanistan.

I will be the first to tell you that I had a cushy deployment.

Don't get me wrong: it was no luxury vacation. But I wasn't lugging my weight in supplies on foot patrols. I never fired my weapon. Being aircrew while I was there, there were restrictions on how many flight hours I could log in a 30-day period, so I had occasional days off.

I'm happy to tell all the fun stories about roughing it, like the slimey feel of the heavily bleached shower water, but at least we had showers. In a combat zone, all this adds up to 'cushy.'

But since stories of minor deprivation are fun to hear...

I hope you enjoy this one.

It’s the little things.

I didn’t have anything to take with me for lunch one day last spring, so before my first class I stopped at the coffee shop and got a tuna fish sandwich. I put it in my little soft-shell cooler with the ice pack I brought from home for this exact purpose, and stuck it in my backpack. Two hours later, during the ten-minute break before my next class, I took the sandwich out to eat it. It had smushed itself to one side a little, but that’s ok. I picked up one half. The bottom piece of bread was soggy. Not completely, but enough.

When I was in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field – everyone called it BAF – the main cafeteria was called Dragon Chow. They served four meals a day and had a sandwich bar between meals so everyone had access to food of some kind 24/7. I was filling in for an aircrew position over there. Between the flights themselves, the pre-mission briefs and pre-flight, checking gear in and out, the trip to and from the flight line, and post-mission paperwork, you ended up missing a meal or two each time you flew.

We had the licky-chewy,* of course, but you can only eat so many Poptarts. At some point, you need some semblance of real food. And that was what the sandwich bar provided: a semblance of real food.

At the sandwich bar you could get white or wheat bread (the cheap stuff), and your choice of three cold cuts: turkey, ham, or roast beef. Since turkey isn’t supposed to be that shade of gray with rainbow shimmers, and ham isn’t supposed to smell like that, I always got the roast beef. Every single time.**

In addition to meat, there was cheese and some vegetables. I remember iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato, specifically. The cheese and vegetables were fine, so they weren’t as memorable. It does make me wonder in hindsight why I never opted for a vegetarian sandwich.

At any rate, you told the guys working there what kind of bread you wanted, and they put two slices in a white Styrofoam to-go box – the standard square kind with partitions for different dishes. One slice went on the flat surface of the top of the open box, the other on the partitioned base. They put the heavy cold cuts on the top piece and the lighter vegetables on the bottom one, and handed you the box, still open.

Off to the side there were condiments and you fixed it up the way you wanted or grabbed the little packages to go. Then, if you were smart, you put the bottom portion of the sandwich on top of the top portion and carried the closed box upside down, so your sandwich didn’t get completely dented and smushed by the partitions.

There was another table with small bags of chips and some drinks – water, canned soda, maybe Gatorade. A pretty decent selection, really.

The problem was the cold cuts. Beyond their questionable edibleness, they sat in a tub of their own juices. Or water – whatever they’re packaged in. When the guys behind the counter grabbed a chunk of cold cuts with their tongs, they just reached in, grabbed it, and slopped it onto the bread, juices and all. They never tried to shake or squeeze or drip any of the fluid off. They may as well have scooped it out with a ladle.

In the 45 seconds it took them to make your sandwich and hand you the box, that top slice of bread under the cold cuts was getting wet. The best you could do to salvage the sandwich was immediately dump the cold cuts in the box and relocate that slice of bread to a drier area before it was completely soaked through.^ But the damage was more or less done – I never had a dry sandwich.^*

I don’t know how many of those soggy, disgusting things I ate over there, but it was too many. When I picked up that tuna sandwich at college two and a half years later – two and a half years later – I was right back at the sandwich bar.

I’m shuddering at the thought of it, even now.

*What we called the snack bar in our operations center (there was also one out on the flight line). Basically an assortment of energy bars and junk food pretending to be real food, like single-serving sugary cereal bowls.

**After the first two times, when I made the mistake of trying the turkey and ham.

^And absorb the loose liquid in the box with a paper napkin. It only took a few drenched sandwiches to figure all that out.

^*Or a fresh one. I think, on average, these got eaten about four hours later. And they weren't refrigerated during that time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday Review: Floodplain

Today I'll be talking about my favorite artist's brand new album:

If you're my friend on Facebook, you already know about this album. In fact, you're probably sick of hearing me talk about it, so I won't be offended if you choose not to read on. :)

Introduction: I did a review of Sara Groves' music in general some time ago. Her last album of all-new music, Invisible Empires, was released back in 2011. Her 2013 release had four new songs but was otherwise a compilation of material from her previous albums.* So it's been quite a while since we had a full set of new music from her. According to behind-the-scenes information via song commentaries, interviews and her profile on Fair Trade Services, the reasons were various, and included a period of artistic paralysis. The overarching themes, imagery, and tone of this album reflect that reality.

My Review: Floodplain is a relatively quiet album. I happen to be a fan of Sara Groves' quieter songs: They tend to be really impactful. Sometimes that impact is not apparent on the first listen or two, but I know that if I give them a chance, not only will I grow to respect, appreciate, and love them, but some of them will end up blowing my mind.**

I said one time that there's something healing about Sara Groves' music, and this album is a great example of that.

My first listen to Floodplain was like that; the impact of certain songs wasn't immediately apparent. So I listened to it again. And again. I listened to it on the bus ride to school and I listened to it on the bus ride back. I listened to it when I went for a long walk. I listened to it a couple of times at home while sitting still in a chair, concentrating on listening.

I listened to Floodplain and nothing else for over a week.^ It started out as an exercise, but I was right: Those more contemplative songs that Sara Groves writes? They're amazing, and this record is full of them. As a result, the entire album is amazing. I mean, I didn't think it was actually possible for her to create a record I'd like as much as Invisible Empires, but Floodplain is pretty darn good.

Let's take a look at the tracks,^* shall we?

1. This Cup. This is a lovely song; relaxing and well-written. Content-wise, it's an apt introduction to the various themes that crop up throughout the record.

2. Expedition. If you study this song and are not floored by the lyrics, you're doing it wrong.

This is one of my two favorite tracks on the album. Musically I like it a lot. It's one of those rare songs Groves does that's a little darker in sound. I also like the production, especially the slightly grainy quality of the verses.

As for the lyrics...

This song is poetry of the finest sort. The verses are excellent, and the way they interact with each other makes me giddy. The chorus is great and I love the bridge, usually my least favorite part of any given song. This is just superb writing. Hashtag ProfessionalJealousy.

3. Second Guess Girl. This is one of the more uptempo songs. It's got a nice rhythm and the lyrics invite the listener to consider their own responses to the issues of our day - it's thematically quite timely. There are some great turns of phrase in here, too.

4. Floodplain. This is a more melancholy song. Once I actually took in the lyrics, I liked it a lot. It might be my second-favorite song on the album (after tracks 2 and 7). It's really quite beautiful, and again, this one has a bridge I absolutely love.

5. Enough. Another quiet one, this song's not a favorite, but it's pretty and I like it. I find myself particularly drawn to the music and imagery in the chorus.

6. Native Tongue. This one's lyrically a bit more obtuse to me, even having listened to Groves' commentary about it. I enjoy the song, though, especially the chorus, and I trust it'll make more sense to me later.

7. I've Been Here Before. Another uptempo number, and my other favorite song on the record (sharing the honor with track 2).

I really enjoy the rhythm, I like the production, the tune is great, and I just absolutely love the content and the lyrics that convey it. So good!

There's a subtle ironic, self-deprecating humor in the first and final verses that I'm personally drawn to. The middle verses carry their emotions beautifully. Each verse is poetically tight and contributes to a nice thematic and emotional arc, and the chorus is excellent.

As a bonus, it's also just really fun to sing along with.

8. On Your Mark. This one's quiet and lyrically a bit mysterious. The style is a little different, too; a little jazzier. The extended metaphor of the verses is awesome, and I like the chorus.

9. I Feel the Love Between Us. Groves sometimes writes songs about her marriage, and this is one of those.

It's a nice song, with that darker musical quality that she so rarely delves into (and here it is, twice in one album!). It's also a simple song: Two short verses and an oft-repeated, one-line chorus.

Not being married, there's a thematic-emotional barrier for me, but man, I love the bridge, anyway. Again with the stellar bridge work on this album, Groves. #WhatsUpWithThat #MajorProps

10. Signal. Ever the mom, this one's about her kids. Again, bit of a barrier for non-mom me, but it's a nice song, and I love the creativity of the signal metaphor.

11. Your Reality. This is an interesting, understated, pretty song with some weighty content and nice turns of phrase. Beautiful verses.

12. My Dream. This song retells a story from Groves' grandfather. Like What Do I Know and Prayers for This Child, it deals with uncertainties and peace in a life of faith. Thematically it's a nice close to the album.

13. Expedition (Reprise). Basically a partial remix of the second track, it's a second close to the album that leaves you thinking about the themes from that beautiful song. That gives the record a nice aftertaste, if you will.

Put all these songs together and you have what I think is the most sonically and thematically cohesive of Groves' albums to date. It's also the most consistent in terms of stellar writing - each verse, chorus and bridge is extremely well-crafted, and I like all the melodies, too.

And I suppose I'd better stop gushing at some point...

Release Date: 6 November 2015
Music Tracks: 13
Run Time: 51 minutes
Record Label: Fair Trade Services

My Rating: 5 Gold Stars

*Hence its title: The Collection.

**Case in point: The Long Defeat, one of my all-time favorite Sara Groves songs. Before I "got it," I used to skip past it!

^I'm still listening to it almost exclusively. It's just so good!

^*Which you can preview in their entirety at New Release Today.