Maplewoods Mirror #28 - August 2008
Welcome to my monthly newsletter on life and
writing. If you want to see my website for past issues and other
news, please visit www.chrismeeks.com.
To see a three-minute video about my newly
published book, click
In This Issue
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
in Concert (review)
Rorschach Politics (a
Sandra Tsing Loh on Working
Parents Update (news)
The Greek Theatre
Robert Plant and
While I don’t believe in destiny—though it’s a
fun element to play with in stories—I do believe in synchronicity.
Sometimes a cascade of events bring remarkable outcomes.
Much of my news and music come through KCRW,
which anyone in the world can now get online at www.kcrw.com.
I soak in NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” as well as
the station’s own programming such as “Left, Right, and Center” and
“Morning Becomes Eclectic” with Nic Harcourt. Harcourt often offers
free CDs and tickets to the first five KCRW subscribers who call when he
gives the phone number.
A few years ago, I managed to be one of the
first five caller nearly whenever I tried—say, twice a year. In the
last year, I’ve always received a busy signal whenever I tried. Thus,
when I was driving into Santa Monica College in June—before the “hands
free” law went into effect for cell phones while driving—I called just as
Harcourt said, “I have free tickets for the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss
concert at the Greek Theatre….” I dialed before Harcourt gave the
phone number. It’s always the same phone number, after all.
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
at the Greek
When I made the call, I did not know Plant and
Krauss’s music together, and, frankly, I did not remember that Robert Plant
had been the lead singer for Led Zeppelin. I have one of Krauss’s
albums, so I knew of her sweet voice. Mainly, it was summer, and I
wanted to go to the Greek Theatre.
Lo and behold, I did not get a busy
signal. My call went through, and a KCRW person asked for my
subscription information. Victory! A pair of tickets would be waiting
for me at the Greek Theatre ticket office.
Ann wasn’t particularly interested in going,
however, but my friend Gordon was. In fact, he was in awe of Plant
and was thrilled to go.
Before we went, I researched the duo.
What were we about to see? The more I read, the more excited I
became. Led Zeppelin is well known, and the group’s first album came
out in 1969, just as the Beatles were starting to fall apart. Jimmy
Page, part of the New Yardbirds, was forming a new band and suggested a
singer from West Bromwich, Robert Plant. Plant in turn suggested a
drummer, John Bonham, and with John Paul Jones, the band was
In high school, I loved Led Zeppelin for its
range—from hard rock songs such as “Black Dog,” to delicate tunes with a
blues influence. Their third and fourth albums had a lot of acoustic
instruments, too, and some of their songs, such as “Going to California” (a
tribute to Joni Mitchell) and “Stairway to Heaven,” mesmerized me.
The group disbanded in 1980 when John Bonham
died after drinking too much. The surviving members and Bonham’s son
on drums united in December 2007 for a benefit concert in memory of Ahmet
Ertegün, the music executive who helped guide them. Some people spent
thousands of dollars for a single ticket to that show.
Alison Krauss, in contrast, has made a name for
herself as a bluegrass and country singer who plays a great fiddle.
Twenty-five years younger than Plant, she released her first solo album in
1987 when she was sixteen. She formed a band, Union Station, which
has been popular. She sang “Down In The River To Pray” and other
songs on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, which was
produced by T. Bone Burnett.
T. Bone Burnett
It turns out, Robert Plant has a huge interest
in American roots music—“Pity the fool who stands still,” says Plant—and
when he came to the states to sing in a tribute to American blues singer
Leadbelly with Harry Belafonte and others in Cleveland a few years ago, he
met Alison Krauss. On that visit, Plant and Krauss sang a few songs
together, and when they realized their voices worked well together, and
they loved much the same music, they decided to record together.
Krauss brought in T. Bone Burnett, who gathered
a huge array of possible songs the two might use, which, when winnowed
down, became the album Raising Sand. Plant credits Krauss
teaching him to harmonize as a duet, which he’d never done before.
Burnett, too, plays on the album and in concert with them.
Robert Plant (singing)
What’s incredible about the album and
witnessing them in concert is that they are such yin and yang: a delicate
country singer and a hard rocker known for his primal screams, and yet it
somehow works. She’s in her thirties; he’s in his sixties, yet they
I decided if they can work, so can men and
women in general. After all, Plant and Krauss each blend their
feminine and masculine sides into something as delicious as gazpacho.
In America, most people look at gender as black and white, but there are
plenty of shades between, which most people have. Krauss couldn’t
have come as far as she has if she wasn’t driven, which is typically
considered masculine. She’s had to deal with plenty of male music
executives and male band members, yet that hasn’t overshadowed or obscured
her lyrical music-making.
Plant in his younger years often strutted and
sang with his shirt off and wailed with the best of them. He was a
guy’s guy. Yet he’s had long blond hair for his whole adult life and
had never been afraid to delicately shade a song and use lyrics with
Robert Plant in younger days
with Led Zeppelin
Perhaps this is extreme, but when I hear them
sing, I sense all is right in the world. Husbands and wives can find
harmony. Israel and Palestine can be friends. Former Bosnian
Serb leader Radovan Karadzic can be found looking like Santa and
tried for his war crimes. Somehow Alison Krauss and Robert Plant show
that on this very odd planet, there is beauty.
One of my favorite pieces they perform is a
Gene Clark song called “Polly Come Home.” It’s slow, dirge-like, yet
somehow uplifting. It’s lyrics include:
Polly, come home again
Spread your wings to the wind
I felt much of the pain
As it begins.
Krauss and Plant are about contradiction that
works. To hear and see them, click on the links below.
For an excellent eight-minute documentary on
their partnership click
For a BBC morning interview that’s
For a few of their songs to watch and
hear, click on the song titles:
“Please Read the Letter”
“Polly Come Home”
“Gone Gone Gone”
I realized this week that everything I hear
George Bush do is either filtered through pundits or given in sound
bites. When I watch George Bush, my heart falls for how much our
liberties have been chipped away for the last seven years. His supporters,
however, will say that in this post-911 world, we’ve needed a leader like
George Bush. As he says in an interview with Irish journalist Carol
Coleman on the eve of his visit to Ireland in 2004, he’s not worried how
popular he is with the public. History will judge him.
Supposedly, the interview was banned in this
country, but clearly it’s available, and it’s George Bush talking at
length, being upbeat and in control, so you judge for yourself. It’s
ten minutes, but it’s important you see him talk without commercial or
pundit interruption. View him at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fze2J2Ve9is
Tell me what you think after viewing it.
Sandra Tsing Loh on
I just heard from one of two of my thesis
students, both of whom are in a special USC summer class at Pembroke
College at the University of Cambridge in England. Nasha Khan
writes that her plane arrived late at night, she got very little sleep, and
the next morning, “We were sitting in class—beat and jet-lagged beyond
belief. But things are wonderful. We LOVE it here. I'm working on the first
chapter of my novel.”
That made me reflect on my own student days at
USC, which were always stimulating, including a class led by playwright
Jerome Lawrence where we wrote eight-minute plays that were then produced
on campus. What I remember most was fellow student Sandra Tsing Loh’s actors on
roller skates roaming all over the Stop Gap Theatre, laughing because they
weren’t completely sure what to do. None of us were, but we grew as
Sandra now not only has a regular commentary
Loh Life on KPCC, but also she’s writing books, plays, and has been
contributing to The Atlantic. Her recent story on working mothers
(and a review of two books) shows how far she’s come since her student
One of the things Sandra does in the story is
compare real-world writers versus Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.
Says Sandra, “I want to spend my days like ‘writer’ Carrie, lolling in bed
in her underwear, smoking and occasionally updating her quasi-bohemian
equivalent of a MySpace page. In real life, female journalists
(particularly sex columnists) have frightening stalkers, dour editors who
begin phone conversations with ‘This is not your best,’ and paychecks so
thin they trigger not just an amusing episode in which some Jimmy Choos
must be returned but years of fluorescent-lit subway rides to a part-time
job teaching ESL at some community college on Long Island.”
For her Atlantic story click here.
Since I wrote about my parents last month, all
is fairly well with them. My stepfather Phil, after giving up his
month-old BMW, moved into assisted living in Minneapolis. He’s
My mother continues to live with emphysema,
having to focus on breathing when she becomes anxious, but two months ago,
her concentration to read came back after disappearing for eight months, so
she’s going through three or four novels a week presently. Those who
think reading is frivolous, think again. It’s keeping her going.
I sent her a dummy version of my novel The
Laughter and Sadness of Sex, which may not be published for two
years. I wanted her to read it now while she can. I’m working
hard on my next book to be published, The Brightest Moon of the Century,
which will be out March 7 with a reading and publication party at
Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. I’ll get her a copy of that as soon
as I can.
In order to pay for her assisted-living
expenses, she will have to sell her
Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Foundation-designed house. She'd originally had
Wright himself agreeing to design it, but he died later that year, so John
Howe, one of his associates, designed what was essentially a Usonian
home. It's the one in which I grew up, placed at the top of a small
hill on eight acres in Minnesota.
This is the front yard where I
grew up in Minnesota. The property will soon be for sale.
My father George continues to do well up in
Sonoma, and Ann, Ellen, and I will be seeing him and his wife, Abbie, at
the end of this week. Then we go onto Minnesota for six days.
That’s why this issue is out early.
A picture is a thousand words, and the one
below tells a lot. Ellen and I went to California Adventure, thanks
to Zachary and his girlfriend, Emily, giving us tickets that they
couldn’t use. California Adventure is the companion part to
Disneyland, and grown-ups more than young people might prefer it, what with
a lot of historical slices of California on display, a mini-vineyard, a
wine bar, fruit stands, and health food everywhere.
I succumbed to the one fast-food place I found
there, which sold corn dogs. Little did I know it was a gourmet corn
dog that was as large as an oak branch. “Would you like one, Ellen?”
“No,” she said. “You shouldn’t eat
one, either.” Such wisdom at age nine.
After I ate it, Ellen wanted to go on the one
roller coaster that was there called California Screamin’. How bad
could it be if it was at Disneyland? The line wasn’t too long, so I
agreed to go on it with her after making sure there were no loops. No
I saw grandparent-types and little kids get on
the ride, so I was reassured it was a gentle thing. After a steel
harness the size of lampposts came around our shoulders, the roller coaster
slowly took off, gliding gently around the first corner and stopping by the
lake. It was probably to build up the anticipation of that first long
incline up where all roller coasters go slowly to get you worried.
When you reach the top at the height of your anxiety, you zoom down,
screamin’. I looked above me and saw a lot of people at the railing
looking down at us. How sweet.
An announcer came on and said, “Welcome to
California Screamin’. Your countdown begins now. Ten, nine,
eight…” A countdown? Whatever for? Perhaps it was to not
startle the older and young people on board.
“…One, blastoff!” The thing took off like
a rocket sled, my cheeks surely ruffling with the tremendous G force.
My eyes were blurring, and we hit the first hill going sixty or more.
Thanks to the lampposts, I stayed in my seat as we hit the first
hill. Otherwise, I’d be in space. We sped even faster down the
My stomach lurched. “Please stay down,
corn dog,” I kept muttering.
For the life of me, I can’t tell you much about
the ride beyond being thrown in every direction at speeds that Buzz Aldrin
would puke at. I must have turned purple when I saw before me a
loop. Where the hell did the loop come from?
We plunged into the loop, and my head shot down
from the physics of it all. As we circled, I thought how this wasn’t
right. If people were meant to go on such things, they’d be born with
wheels. Stay down, corn dog, stay down.
We came out of the loop, went up another hill,
slammed right, smashed left, and pitched downward again. To add
insult to injury, a flash went off with the taking of a photo.
The photo is below. Ellen, as you can
see, loved the ride. How my corn dog stayed down, I don’t know, but
Ellen said, “I told you not to buy that corn dog.”
For the next hour I had to sit and not move
much as my stomach settled. Ellen was patient with me.
It occurred to me, this is a hard world to
master. Every day is a new challenge. First it’s driving with
hands-free phones, trying to make the Blue Tooth device work with the cell
phone. Then it’s changing passwords at work—one of five places I work
where each place has a different entry system online. Then there’s
Somehow, a golf cart at Leisure World now
appeals to me.
Lake Minnetonka, near where I
grew up in Minnesota outside of Minneapolis
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