I’ve Heard That Sound Before: the 1950s Sound in Modern Music

Note:  I write about 1950s music on the “Fifties Culture” page of my book web site The Longest Night, but those posts can be hard to find. So here are my most recent thoughts on fifties music, and I’ll put them up on The Longest Night in a few days. – Andria

Sometimes, when performing her 2011 hit “Rolling in the Deep,” British singer Adele opens with her own rich, glossy vocals: “There’s a fire burning in my heart…”

But other times, the stage stays darker a little longer, and the voices of her backup singers lead in, with a crisp,  haunting a capella–“Rolling in the deep… tears are gonna fall…,” sounding for all the world like a Top 40 hit from 1959 or the early sixties, and you’re tricked into listening for the voice of, say, Martha Reeves or Diana Ross to come in and join them.

It’s a one-two punch that works: “Rolling in the Deep” was Billboard’s top single of 2011, and, receiving my much-smaller-scale personal nod of approval, is one of the few Adele songs I listen to voluntarily. You’ve got the distantly familiar, strong-but-feminine backup sound combined with the steamrolling vocals of Adele busting in on top, fully intent on beating your poor heart like a pinata. (“You had my heart inside of your hand,” she sings, “and you played it to the beat.” Ouch!)

Simon Reynolds, writing for the New York Times the year of the song’s release, notes

The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield.

And he’s right; this is where I think the song gets its power. Reynolds, however, is not a fan of this development. “Once pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year,” he complains, “but listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” This sounds a little funny now that it is 2017, of course (although people like me may still be behind the times enough to be searching for a song that screams that it’s 2011), but Reynolds (author of the interestingly-titled Shock and Awe, which is not about Bush-era military decisions but rather about the rise of glam rock) is serious about his concern with the “atemporality” of today’s pop music, a lack of a clear and definable 2000’s sound, which he sees as stemming from both the staggering backcatalog of music available on iTunes, You Tube, and so forth, as well as our Spotified ability to tailor our listening to sounds and singers we already know we like. (Intelligently, he links this to our fondness for instant-nostalgia apps like Hipstamatic, which grant us a shallow ability to artistically channel the past, perhaps without understanding it.) All the musical epochs are getting jumbled up, he seems to say, and it’s diluting whatever could have been a clear and distinguishable 2000’s music.

Reynolds could not have predicted the rather ominous cast his concern with dilution would take in today’s neo-fascist political environment. And, as a music geek/snob, it’s practically Reynolds’ job to disparage the listening public for their broad tastes and to lament something about modern music; I almost appreciate him for it. But from the production end, I think most modern bands worth their salt still know their influences.  The Bleachers sound like the late seventies and early eighties to me, The Weeknd often channels Michael Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen sounds like Debbie Gibson. One smart blog I found by pure coincidence– the humorously-titled “Trip to the Outhouse,” whose Texas-based writer seems to be former Air Force, for what it’s worth!– caught the similarity, intentional or not, between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and the heavy, pounding beat of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Kaw-Liga” (a connection the blogger made, Mr. Reynolds should note, by listening to Sirius Radio). Now that’s a throwback influence! Perhaps there are just more influences than ever before.

Nice connection, “Trip to the Outhouse,” whoever you are!

In any case, I’m not wandering this world searching for the song that screams that it’s 2011 or even 2017; for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in 1950s music, which has, happily for me, already happened. And it’s music that continues to reverberate through what we hear today, in ways that may be “throwback” but which I’d argue are also innovative. Such nods to the past can be campy, like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats; mass-market-calculated for an emotional teenage audience, as with Taylor Swift; or an intelligent and moving homage, in the case of Leon Bridges.

I’ll start with Bridges–a staggeringly talented 26-year-old (!) singer/songwriter from Ft. Worth, Texas — because his sound and style unabashedly, and most consistently, channel the 1950’s and ’60s:

Interestingly, he’s the same age as Taylor Swift (also born in 1989, a year she must find significant in, hopefully, some way other than her own birth, for she titled an album after it).  While Swift crisscrosses genres and musical epochs like Spotify on fast-forward, perhaps exemplifying the Hipstamatic syndrome Reynolds laments, one thing is consistent to my ear: her yearning, egocentric, emotionally overblown lyrics. Sometimes they focus so intently on her own reflection-in-the-mirror regarding a relationship (multiple songs reference her “cherry lips”…she’s “standing in a nice dress” — the English teacher in me wants to write, “Be more specific, please!”) that they feel quite genuinely like the thoughts of someone who was born in 1989.

But other times, her pure, almost senseless longing, and vague but affectionate descriptions of her young-man-of-the-moment, feel quite directly channeled out of 1950s music.

“He’s so tall, and handsome as hell,” she sings, in “Wildest Dreams. “He’s so bad, but he does it so well.”

Where have I heard that before?

Try the Shangri-Las, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”:

Well what color are his eyes?

I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.

Is he tall?

Well, I’ve got to look up.

Yeah, well I’ve heard he’s bad.

Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.

Or try “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons:

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
That handsome boy over there
The one with the wavy hair

He’s a “soft-spoken guy, also seems kinda shy.” (Well, that’s refreshing! At least he is not just the bad boy. And though he goes unnamed, it’s better than just calling him “Mr. Lee,” which, now that I am a parent, creeps me out to no end.)  But in any case, the young man’s vague description, coupled with the singer’s intense desire, is a recipe for mass-market dollar signs that perhaps no one has used as successfully as Swift. She’s so bad, but she does it so well.

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How about some fifties-inspired camp?

There are several influences at play here in the video for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’s “S.O.B” (though the lyrics would never have made it on the 1950s airwaves), but the idea of rockin’ in a jailhouse was perhaps done most popularly by Elvis Presley in 1957.

Rateliff also riffs on Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom Prison and San Quentin performances, but the addition of self-deprecating humor shows he doesn’t think he is the Man in Black, nor is he trying to be. He and the band perform with a sort of blank absurdity–the group-therapist drummer in an utterly depressed blue sweatshirt amuses me in particular– that feels modern and very funny, while also hearkening obviously back to musical predecessors.

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Last of all: This is not a 1950s reference, but I’m adding it in from a storytelling perspective:

“Cleopatra,” by the Lumineers, uses an older mode of storytelling that I enjoy very much. I have to credit my 11-year-old daughter with pointing the song out to me, because in general I find the Lumineers a little saccharine. “Mom,” she said, “this song is interesting, because it’s a man singing like he is this lady Cleopatra. I mean, he’s singing the words the way Cleopatra would tell the story.”

The poor child probably regretted this observation instantly because I launched into an excited, annoying, possibly pretentious monologue: “Well, Nora! That’s from a folk singing tradition! Men and women often sang from the point of view of one another. And you know what? I bet we can trace that to the Bible. Like the Psalsms: people basically stand together in church and recite each other’s confessions and stories. They know that they are not King David, of course, and yet men and women alike recite his words from his point of view. Or like Paul: ‘When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’ Men and women both say that. Right?”

And she was probably like, “Fine, Mom. Can we listen to some Taylor Swift?,” once again proving that she is probably smarter than me, and that Taylor Swift may be smarter than us all.

I don’t think this video really adds much to The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra,” other than a typical high-def commercial-type tearjerker thingy-ding . But the song itself is quite lovely.

I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans

And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet
And it hardened like my heart did when you left town
But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant
Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

There’s a storytelling, even tonal similarity, I think, between, say, some of the best Joan Baez and this particular Lumineers song. Sometimes the feel is what matters, and you don’t need a fancy music video to get to it. Sometimes, like my daughter Nora, I just hear something and think to myself, I like that.

If You See Me, Say Hello: AWP War Writers, 2017

Originally, I wasn’t going to attend the AWP conference this year: I thought maybe I’d save some money, stay home. Then, sometime around December, I felt very strongly that I wanted to go. There was a political aspect to it, sure; I was feeling as apocalyptic as anybody else with a brain; I wanted to connect with like-minded, literary individuals; and I was enticed by the notion of a hotel room and continental breakfast (I am easy to please). But even more that that, I just thought: All these people will be together, and I like them, and I want to say hi.

Not saying “hi” suddenly seemed like it would be really depressing.

So I went, and I said hi. Boy, did I ever. Happily, I was able to reconnect with old friends — including the one writer-pal I once had here in Colorado Springs, Angie Ricketts (author of the terrific memoir No Man’s War), who left CO last year because some strange glitch in her brain makes her love Indiana. The fun, sarcastic, slumber-party energy of rooming with Angie, who had me doubled over laughing many times and who has a cool-girl tip to solve my every problem (“Put your hair way up high on your head while you sleep and you won’t get a line in it! Higher than that, higher! Here, I have dry shampoo you can use! Here, I poured you some wine!”)  was equalled only by the delight of sharing the room with another mil spouse writer whose work I admire tremendously: Marine wife and poet Lisa Stice, author of the collection Uniform, who turned out to be as sweet and smart as anyone can be and, even better still, loves dogs. We talked about our dogs late into the night. I mean, in case my kids read this someday, we talked about how much we love our charming and well-mannered children. But also we talked about dogs.

(Also, this should reassure my husband, who must imagine that writers’ conferences are scenes of crazy debauchery, that I spent my wild, wild nights whispering to my roommate in the dark, like a middle-schooler, about dogs.)

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Lisa Stice, Marine wife and poet, dog-lover, posing here with vertical rectangles

But, wait, this was a literary conference. And on that front, it delivered, to a degree that surprised me even more than I’d hoped. There was something liberating about AWP17 — maybe the way we were all blowing off political steam, but equally, I think, because of a change in the face of war writing, a move away from the stricter “first-person-shooter” narratives and into creative fronts that feel freeing, energizing, inspired. At a panel moderated by Peter Molin (“From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt”), Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust) talked about zombie films and read what Molin described as “an intriguing scene about the peeling of an orange”; Jenny Pacanowski filled the room with her “Combat Dick” [bad pun? I’m in a cafe right now. I don’t feel like being academic -Editor]; Brian Turner led us in a group hum that, from a performance standpoint, had surprisingly respectable results; Jay Moad put his hat on backwards and channeled a disgruntled, bitter, and ultimately moving character from his play Outside Paducah. At another panel (“Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap,” led by Randy Brown), Air Force pilot and poet Eric “Shmo” Chandler got gutsy and read a poem that rhymed! We were liberated from stuffiness, from overcritical hyperthink. The feeling seemed to build as the conference went on, and panel-wide I felt like audiences were responding to it. At Molin’s panel the crowd laughed, applauded, asked questions; it was the best panel I’ve attended (take note, AWP majordomos!), and I’m sure I’m not the only one who left mind-abuzz with possibilities.

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“From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt,” with Peter Molin, Benjamin Busch, Jenny Pacanowski, Jay Moad, Brian Turner

So the veteran-writing world seems full of vitality, with collections like The Road Ahead bringing many of the most-respected veteran writers together again for an encore literary tour, and an exciting forthcoming anthology, It’s My Country Too!, by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow, promising to, finally, tell the story of female veterans in a comprehensive way.

But, because this is my little niche here on the Mil Spouse Book Review, I was thrilled to see that military-spouse writers are also entering new frontiers of creativity and quality. We were a rare breed a couple of AWPs ago, but I’m seeing signs that mil spouse participation in publishing and literary-scene-making is on the rise.

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Yours truly; Army spouse/daughter/writer Angie Ricketts; veteran Kayla Williams; Navy wife and memoirist Alison Buckholtz, with whom I wish I could have talked longer!, author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War

Inside the book fair, I met Abby E. Murray, one of the editors of the new online lit mag Collateral, which is affiliated with the Unversity of Washington, Tacoma, and which showcases “high quality creative writing and art that explores the impact of the military and military service in spaces beyond the combat zone.”

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Marine wife & poet Lisa Stice, left; Abby E. Murray, of Collateral, right

This mission statement makes me very happy; while the “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul”-style writing that comprises the bulk of mil spouses’ publishing contributions certainly has value for many people, Collateral‘s emphasis on quality and creativity underscores a desire on the part of many military-spouse authors to join the more artistic eschelons of literature. Collateral‘s first issue features fiction by Stephen O’Shea and poetry by the likes of Lisa Stice, Jehanne Dubrow, Jennifer Conlon, and more, and there’s so much in it that is so good, I might have to write about it here separately. Not all contributors are military spouses, but the bulk of them seem to be, and in any case, it’s exciting to see more avenues open up for the literary-minded mil spouse writer. The fact that Collateral had so many high-quality contributions is exciting as well.

Mil spouse writers are continuing to put out works of longform as well as their own poetry collections; just off the top of my head, I can cite Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent (March 2017);  Kathleen M. Rodgers’s Seven Wings to Glory (April 2017); Siobhan Fallon’s upcoming novel, The Confusion of Languages (June 2017); and Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes (August 2017), the description of which already has me wriggling in my seat:

Looking to Sappho and Emily Dickinson, the poet considers how the act of writing allows her autonomy and agency rarely granted to military spouses, even in the twenty-first century. Dubrow catalogs the domestic life of a military spouse, illustrating what it is like to live in a tightly constructed world of rules and regulations, ceremony and tradition, where “every sacrifice already / knows its place.”

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On a more personal note, AWP17 granted me the opportunity to meet some writers I’d been hoping to cross paths with for ages: literary giant-with-a-heart-of-gold David Abrams, who is refreshingly humble and very funny; he gave me hopeful insights into the possibilities for married and family life post-military, as his wife, Jean, and his three kids were along for the whole ride of his Army career. (It will be the same for me, having married my high-school sweetheart long before he joined up, and for our kids, our oldest having been born while he was still in Intel school. We’re only halfway done, gosh darn it!). (David’s second novel, Brave Deeds, comes out in August and you can pre-order now, like I did!)

Another generous literary citizen, Matthew Komatsu, and I talked spirited children, literary agents, and literary gambles. Jenny Pacanowksi and I connected, though briefly, over (this will not surprise anyone by this point) our love of dogs, although I have yet to get a tattoo of my Springer spaniel on my shoulder to compete with her striking likeness of a former pet Mastiff. I was so happy to finally meet both Matthew Hefti (my book-b-day buddy; his gorgeous novel, A Hard and Heavy Thing, came out about the same time as my own book, and, p.s., his short story in The Road Ahead is terrifically scary and thought-provoking, worth the price of admission on its own) and his delightful rideshare, See Me for Who I Am’s David Chrisinger, who told great funny stories with a self-deprecating wit.

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Angie Ricketts, Teresa Fazio (wish we could have talked longer!!), David Chrisinger, Matt Hefti, Benjamin “Don’t Judge a Book By its Movie” Busch, Mary Doyle

Of course, I also got to hang out with some of my old favorites again, especially Peter Molin, blog-inspiration-extraordinaire, smartest man in the room; the wry and funny Mary Doyle; Brian Turner, the world’s most brilliant teddy bear; weird and wonderful Benjamin Busch; fierce, intelligent Kayla Williams; Coast Guard vet Tenley Lozano and her beautiful service dog, Elu; Rachel Kambury, who wrote a war novel while in high school!; sweet and delightful nonfiction writer Lauren Halloran and poet husband Colin Halloran, whom I got to see perform for the first time, and he’s terrific!; inspiringly-dedicated Jerri Bell; talented-as-heck Jay Moad who made me a kickass Bruce Springsteen CD, which in my little world is like a secret handshake of kindred-ness. I hope these folks don’t mind my characterizations; these writers are all so distinct individually, but so much fun as a group. They are committed to their craft–to pulling others up along with them instead of falling prey to pettiness or competition–and to working for change and doing good in the world.

It’s pretty remarkable. I’m glad I got to say hi.

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–> Hey, war-writers: I put all my photos from AWP up on a separate blog for you to see and download as you like. Enjoy!: https://awpwarwriters2017.wordpress.com/

For some other recaps of the AWP17 war-writing experience, here’s Peter Molin on “Time Now,” Eric Chandler on his blog “Shmotown” (that title alone makes me very happy),  and Matt Komatsu.

AWP: War Writers, Day 1

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Tenley Lozano and Elu, of courseawp_elu_tenleyvwp_booth_firstawp_vwpbooth1

Jerri Bell, Eric Chandler:awp_vwpbooth2awp_randy_citizensign

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Frances Richey, Tessa Poppe:awp_randy_room_tessa

Suzanne Aspley, Eric Chandler:awp_randy_room_ericawp_randy_room

Lisa Stice, with colorful background:awp_lisa1

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Peter Molin, Benjamin Busch, Jenny Pacanowski, Jay Moad, Brian Turner:

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T-Shirt Throwdown:

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Brian Turner makes us laugh,

awp_brian_podium_groupand then makes us hum:

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David Abrams, rockstarrin’ it and signin’ books:

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Collateral Literary Journal, for family members of military, out of Tacoma, Washington:

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Mary Doyle, Matt Hefti, Eric Chandler:

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Kayla Williams, David Chrisinger:

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An Unconventional Review of ‘Uniform’ by Lisa Stice

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Rodgers (novelist, Air Force wife and Army mom)

In the introduction to the new collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press 2016), poet Lisa Stice says, “For Marines and their families, speaking up about frustrations is viewed as unsupportive and, sometimes, as unpatriotic. My husband can even face consequences for my speaking up.”

And so begins what Lisa calls “the long-needed conversation.”

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The moment I heard about this new book over at the Military Spouse Book Review, I knew I wanted to read it. Although my husband, an Air Force fighter pilot, retired twenty-five years ago, I still identify myself as a military spouse. Like they say, once a military spouse, always a military spouse.

If I could add a subtitle to this book, it would read, Uniform: How to Make Do. Because the military lifestyle requires that we make do with what we have…and sometimes with what we don’t have.

Instead of writing a traditional review, I opted to pull my favorite lines from the collection into one compilation, in no certain order, starting with the one line that caused me to sit up and take notice:

but where was my training?

 

the bugle will cry

 

because we never know

what might hurl

through our doorways

 

so we hesitate to answer

the knock on the door

the unexpected phone call

 

we want to thank you for your sacrifice

wine glass upside down

 

the gold star spouses answer the roll call

childcare will not be provided

 

you get military discounts–

you should be happy

packing and unpacking

suitcases, boxes

In your wooden fearlessness

 

You don’t have to be a poetry snob or aficionado to appreciate this collection. Both the military spouse and the service member will relate to each offering. As for civilians, I highly recommend Uniform to those who care about our military and wish to understand our culture.

About the author:

stice_profileLisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications here and on Facebook .

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About the reviewer:

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Kathleen M. Rodgers is a former frequent contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. Her third novel, Seven Wings to Glory, releases April 2017 from Camel Press. Keep up on Kathleen’s news at http://www.kathleenmrodgers.com.

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Homefront Journal: Not Invisible

By Amy Bermudez (Army)

“What’s that?” A scrawny sixth grade boy asked me in the middle of class. Don’t they always ask things unrelated to the topic at hand in the middle of class?

“It’s a pin,” I told him in my authoritative teacher voice.

“I know,” he rolled his eyes. “What does it mean?”

My hand instinctively traced the outline of the pin worn on the collar of my shirt. It’s a tiny rectangular flag, red outline on white, blue star in the middle, yellow ribbon at the top.

“It means that someone I love is deployed,” I told him, in a softer, less exasperated tone.

“Oh.” This answer seemed sufficient. But after a long pause he said, “What’s deployed mean?”

My heart swells and sinks at a response like this. How wonderful that this child doesn’t know, hasn’t been touched by the reality and pain of deployment. He’s so protected from it that he doesn’t even know that the word means. In the greatest irony of my life, I briefly wish that I was a middle school boy. (Don’t worry, it was very brief.)

And how lonely for me, and all of us muddling through deployments, that we can feel such weight and fear and struggle. Our pain invisible. This is why I wear the pin. I don’t want to be invisible. I don’t want to be a secret. Others can forget that somewhere many time zones away a soldier shivers in the dirt waiting for something to happen, waiting for nothing to happen.

*

In November my best friend flew from Texas to Tennessee so we could spend time together. We walked my dogs and watched Friends and went to a concert. We went to the Farmer’s market. It was what I needed. It was normal.

Walking between aisles of vacuum sealed tempeh and candles made out of wine glasses I got a text from my battle buddy, a coworker whose husband is also deployed.

“Did you hear what happened?” she asked

I hadn’t.

What happened was a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killing Americans participating in a 5k at Bagram Airfield.

I froze, standing still while peopled milled around looking at handmade crafts and raw milk. That was me one minute ago, shopping and happy and normal. The reality of war doesn’t stop. I felt sad and scared and overwhelmed. I swallowed my tears.

My best friend saw my distress. I told her what happened. My voice was too loud. People looked at me. My husband isn’t even in Afghanistan. My friend’s husband was safe. But other people’s spouses weren’t safe. They were injured. They were dead.

“Are you ok?” She asked me.

“Yeah.”

But am I?

*

Deployed means that everything is normal until it isn’t and I don’t know if or when, so I wait.

Deployed means I don’t know if the person I love is safe. I’m sad about spending holidays apart and sleeping alone each night, but I’m intensely afraid for his safety. He’s been safe so far, but safe is an illusion, so I wait.

Deployed means I am alone. Sometimes it’s a little alone, and other times it’s a lot. I have people who love me and take care of me, but they are all far away. I’m alone in this town and in my experience, so I wait.

Deployed means I am starting over by myself. We arrived here together only two months before he left. I’m trying to find my way at work and friends and I don’t want to be here, but my worries feel trivial in comparison to weeks without a shower or hot meal. I want it to be over, I want him to be home, and all I can do is wait.

*

I felt hot with anger when someone told me, “oh only 6 weeks left? That’s not that bad.” My smile tight, I changed the subject.

What I wanted to say was, “Would it feel ‘not bad’ if you had to spend the next 6 weeks without your spouse? Now multiply it by infinity, and take it to the depth of forever, and you will still have barely a glimpse of what I’m talking about.” Okay, so that last part was from Meet Joe Black (I have a lot of time on my hands to explore the recesses of online streaming), but I felt the chasm between us was so wide, military families and civilian families.

That same day my mom made almost the same comment about it being not much longer, but in the pause that followed she added, “But I know it doesn’t feel that way,” and I wanted to cry with happiness that someone, somewhere understood.

I am not invisible.

But to stay this way, visible, I have to tell my story, even the painful parts.

Like the fact that I haven’t mowed the lawn in too long. In my defense, I went from living in an apartment to living in a town with rocks instead of grass, to living in a house with too much grass while my grass-cutting expert is on the other side of the globe. I can never get the mower to start. I tried so long one day that I got calluses and started to cry before giving up.

Two lightbulbs in the kitchen need to be changed but I can’t bring myself to haul in the ladder from the garage and buy new bulbs from Home Depot. I know it’s not hard, but gravity feels so heavy, and I can’t imagine climbing up the ladder rungs.

I live in fear of the dashboard lights coming on in my car. I got a blowout on the interstate two days before my husband returned from his last deployment. I’m not sure what I’ll do if something like that happens again, only this time I’m stranded in a place with no friends, no back-up.

This is my struggle. This is my deployment experience.

This is me, no longer invisible.

 


Amy Bermudez is a teacher, writer, distance runner, avid reader, and blogger originally from Texas, currently stationed in Tennessee. Her husband serves in the Army.

She has written previously for the Mil Spouse Book Review’s “Homefront Journal” and has also reviewed several books, including We Are Called to Rise and Alice Bliss. And [this is yor Editor speaking], she may be one of the hardest-working military spouses I know (though she would deny it); I believe this is her family’s third long deployment just since the time she began contributing to this blog.


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‘Rogue One’ Plays it Safe. But ‘Clone Wars’ Took Chances

[Contains spoilers]

Two weeks ago, I saw Rogue One in the theater with two of my kids. The theater was packed; excitement was high. One guy brought his dog. Folks clapped and whistled when the opening credits started. Even when the projector broke down halfway through the film, causing a thirty-minute delay, people were cheerful; we all got up for more popcorn and drinks and returned for the rest of the film, and the guy next to me unwrapped a gigantic, oily, meat-filled sub sandwich he’d smuggled in from somewhere and ate it, with a wink at me like “Look what I got away with,” and the whole thing took so long that by the time it was over we all felt like we had been though something together.

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So that was all good and well. The kids and I returned home at midnight in a driving snow, and they liked the movie and they were happy. (Which is kind of weird, considering how incredibly grim parts of it were, but it ended on a well-played high note that had classic Star Wars fans lapping out of the director’s [Gareth Edwards’] hands.)

But in the days since, I’ve heard almost nothing but praise for Rogue One. And that is fine — I’m not in this business to dampen anybody’s joy. But I’m hearing people say they thought Rogue One was dark, “meta,” current in its referencing of international conflict and quasi-terrorist warfare. They’re saying they’ve never seen this side of Star Wars before. But an alternative Star Wars ethos and storyline has existed for nearly a decade, and I think whatever space-hotdish Rogue One has served up looks flabby and insipid in comparison to its much more subversive, much more moving, and far more entertaining predecessor: the Clone Wars animated series.

[Let me clear this up now: I am talking about the Clone Wars television show, not the movies: those almost-universally-despised Episodes I, II, and III, directed and written by George Lucas in an orgy of ridiculous computer-generated imagery, with Canadian Mullet Anakin and sad, weeping, dead-in-her-freaky-childbirth-cage Padme. I am talking about a cartoon — can’t believe I just wrote that — yes, a kids’ cartoon that aired on the Cartoon Network for six seasons, from 2008 to 2014. And before this knowledge alone sends you packing, please meet me halfway by acknowledging the long artistic history of embedding some of our strongest subversive messages in childrens’ literature and film, and in cartoons and drawn images.]

I am not talking about this:

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(They had Olan Mills photography on Coruscant!)

I’m talking about this!:

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Clone Wars Season 5, Ahsoka and Anakin

Now, I’ve blabbed on about the Clone Wars series for years to anyone who’ll listen, like a nut job on a wooden crate in a town square. My demographic — thirtysomething suburban women — is not really the ideal place to voice such obscure and dorky passions, though I will occasionally swing through Facebook screeching about the show’s value at some innocent virtual-bystander and then shrink back in horror at myself, as well I should.

And I should make it clear that if it were not for my own children, raised on Star Wars like it was Flintstones vitamins, I would probably never have sat down to watch Clone Wars at all. Their love for it has certainly affected me, as has the fact that my 11-year-old daughter and I watched all six seasons over one winter, one night after another, 7 nights a week, until we finished the whole series. It was a lot of fun to share that with her, so I’m sure this plays into my love for the show, too.

But I stand by my assertion that Clone Wars does something no part of the Star Wars canon has done before or since– yes, I said “since,” and I am looking at you, Rogue One. Clone Wars looks inside American culture, and the recent American wars, in particular, with a harsher judgment, a tougher sense of complicity and even guilt than Rogue One — in its sloppy mire of tropes and action scenes — can muster.

— Clone Wars Basics: When, Where, and Why

The Clone Wars series takes place in the brief span of time between Episodes II and III. For those who know Star Wars, that alone makes it interesting. This time period has a very different sense of evil than most casual viewers are accustomed to in Star Wars. Whereas the evil in the original episodes is very clear — a stomping, hyperventilating, despot-in-his-heyday evil — it is much more diffuse in the Clone Wars.

It’s an evil that is gathering in a way even the Jedi can’t predict. They do not know that their closest allies, the Clones — created to be an army willing to fight and die without a second thought for the lives of their Jedi — have been secretly corrupted. They’ve been implanted with a chip that will cause them, at a specified time, to betray their Jedi all at once — and to think it’s the Jedi who are betraying them — and follow the Sith lords, primarily Darth Sidious.

— But it’s a Cartoon; How Dark Can it Be?

 

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The bombed Jedi temple in Clone Wars

There is much to appreciate about Clone Wars, from its terrific graphics (especially in later seasons) to the way it revitalizes characters you thought you knew and had already dismissed. (Weepy, chemistry-of-a-potato Natalie-Portman-Padme has been changed into a smart, savvy Senator whose devotion to intergalactic diplomacy and alien-and-human-rights takes precedence over her marriage to needy man-child Anakin, though even he is oddly likable here.)

I would love to go into Clone Wars’ more fanciful aspects — like the whole storyline where His Royal Space-British-ness, Obi-wan Kenobi, gets to inhabit (literally!) the body of a tough-talkin,’ tattooed, incarcerated bounty hunter — a changeup so delightful no one could have seen it coming.

But I don’t have all day here, and neither do you, so let me get to the punch: If you think Rogue One is dark, you simply haven’t seen Clone Wars. And unlike Rogue One, Clone Wars won’t let you morally off the hook.

-You Will Not Be Let Off This Hook.

In Clone Wars, the Separatists (bad guys) have upped the ante. The Jedi, though struggling to maintain their code, are growing increasingly desperate. They begin to sanction forms of guerrilla warfare and aid underground fighters (such as the young, pre-cyborg Saw Gerrera — he’s one of the few Clone Wars characters who was brought into Rogue One — and his sister, Steela). The cost to civilians caught in the crossfire is clearly shown.

There are direct and timely references to terrorism, such as a fatal bombing in the Jedi temple hangar — basically a VBIED; can you get more timely than that? The attack — with fatalities — is initially blamed on a maintenance worker, whose name, Jackar Bowmani, manages to transcend your usual space-gibberish with its potentially non-western undertones.

But it’s the storyline of the Clones that I find most timely and — I’m not even embarrassed to say this — most moving about the Clone Wars. The Clones’ arc is not only superbly done, but it feels to me, at every turn, like a direct commentary on the War on Terror, the culture of warfighters, and the tragedy of the military-civilian divide.

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Captain Rex

— Yeah. What’s So Great About the Clones, Weirdo?

When writing began on the Clone Wars in 2007, the US was still heavily involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 2007 was the year of the “surge” and also the deadliest for American soldiers, and there was no end in sight.

While civilians remained at home facing their own not-unwarranted, but vague fears, a tiny fraction of the 1% who served in the military were riding in the bellies of cargo planes, off to face actual danger. Long before Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk brought the military-civilian divide home (and longer still before “military-civilian divide” became a household phrase) the Clones of Clone Wars lived a lifestyle of harsh chosenness.

It’s the clones who do the bulk of the fighting (and killing) that the Jedi, per their code-of-the-elect, could not always do.

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The clones start out as mere servants, unquestioningly obedient to their Jedi commanders. They will go anywhere they are sent; they will die willingly. Because of their programming, they endure accelerated aging that their human masters do not. This is all moving, I guess, to the extent that one could be moved by, say, a robot, or maybe Where the Red Fern Grows. (Okay, that book is pretty damn moving.)

But then the Clones begin, gradually, to develop a sort of true consciousness. They start to differentiate themselves. Instead of being called by their numbers — CT-7567 for Rex, for example — they begin, amongst themselves, calling each other by nicknames. CT-27-5555, for example, becomes “Fives.” There’s Tup, and Hevy, and Echo.

Then they begin to differentiate themselves with tattoos, and even hair. (Tup gives himself a little prison-style teardrop under one eye, and starts wearing a man-bun. Dogma tattoos a mosaic of burgundy shapes across his face, forming a large V over one eye and his forehead.) Rex even gets creative with his own armor and helmet, welding pieces of old armor to new.

They show compassion for others, even outside of battle! We see them lounge around in their red pajamas!

Clone Wars spends a lot of time with its Clones, to the point where I’d cringe every time they went into battle and become quite irate with generals who gave them reckless commands. The loss of Clones, which initially seems to serve a larger purpose, begins to feel wasteful and even tragic. Even the Clones themselves start to analyze some of the battles they’re sent into, and to realize that they are being sacrificed. “Live to fight another day, boys,” says Hardcase, because that’s all they can do.

One of the most fascinating episodes, “The Deserter” (Season 2, Episode 10) features a former Clone soldier named Cut who is discovered living on a remote planet with his “native” wife and adorable mixed-species children. Disgusted with killing for a living, he’s now a farmer. Captain Rex, troubled by this discovery, tries to convince Cut that leaving the Army was a betrayal of his brothers and his duty. The show might have decided to paint Cut as a coward, but later in the episode he saves Rex’s life in an ambush. Having seen Cut’s happiness in his new, peaceful life, Rex decides not to turn him in, though he declines Cut’s offer to stay, saying, “My family is elsewhere.”

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Who would not want to stay with this hot Twi’lek wife and charming little kids?!

Okay. So that’s kind of heavy stuff, right, for a kids’ cartoon? I mean, afterwards, I had a discussion with my children about whether or not Cut was a traitor. What if the military had asked their daddy to do something he believed was truly wrong? Would his duty be to stay in, or seek refuge with his family? [For the record I should insert here that my husband would STAY IN. This is all hypothetical, in case Uncle Sam is watching.] [That is a fantasy; three people read this blog.]

Things get even heavier when one Clone, “Slick,” not only leaves the Army but defects. “It’s the Jedi who keep my brothers enslaved,” he says. “We do your bidding. We serve at your whim. I just wanted something more.”

Wait — what?! The Jedi, keeping their army enslaved? This goes against anything from Episodes IV, V, or VI. The Jedi are the good guys, right? I mean, if they’re fighting for truth, justice, and the Jedi-American way, how can they be wrongly-using anyone?

With all this humanity given to the Clone Army, by the time some of their implanted chips (the ones that’ll cause them to betray the Jedi) start to trigger early, and you watch the Clones agonize over what is happening to them, thinking they are losing their minds, becoming paranoid — well, it’s heartbreaking. They’re not losing their minds! They’ve been used! The parallels here for post-traumatic stress, or Gulf War syndrome, could fill an entire essay. But what I know is that the Clones’ distress is so well-done, so moving, that when the most tormented and aware among them meets his sad fate, I sat and cried a big fat tear. This completely freaked out my daughter. “Mom….are you okay?” she said.

Yeah, yeah. I was fine. But I’d been rattled by a cartoon.

— Now Back to Rogue One.

In comparison to Clone Wars, Rogue One dishes up most of the same ol’ Star Wars philosophy: If you’ve lost someone you love, you can spend the rest of your life on a hellbent bender-for-justice, a la Braveheart. There is nothing more profound than to sacrifice yourself for the cause. Even though one’s tactics may be suspect, there is an essential truth and goodness that always remains the same.

This is all perfectly fine, but while Rogue One may suggest that some methods are suspect, it never insinuates that the Jedi could be suspect. It stops far, far short of that. In fact, it continues the philosophy of Republic supremacy. Nothing revolutionary to see here.

I have other quibbles, such as the extreme visual blandness of the film — it’s sort of like the horrible Matrix II and III, where they’re stuck in space but everybody’s lost their sense of humor and they can only wear earth tones and cry all the time — and its utter lack of attention to non-human species, which is a sentence I cannot believe I just wrote but, there you go: and I stand by it, too. In the original Star Wars, no matter how campy and silly it got, at least it was fun. Sometimes that fun is spot-on — think Mos Eisley Cantina –and sometimes it veers into the realm of near-torture, like Jar-Jar Binks. At its best — as with Clone Wars’ Ahsoka Tano — the non-humans are given exciting, rich storylines that cause you to forget they’re not even people. Rogue One is so thoroughly populated by humans that when some puppet does pop into the screen it’s jarring and goofy. They feel inserted.

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As Rogue One draws to a close, and [spoiler!] everybody is dead, it’s hard to know what to take from the story. That a death for one’s ideals is a noble one? Sure, I’ll go along with that, but since the notion of me, myself, blogger Andria, getting into a situation where I had to die for any cause sounds so far-fetched, I’m not really pressed to think about it.

But me, supporting a system that’s started to grow corrupt to meet its ends? Or me, cheerleading a diffuse and nebulous war out of some sense of loyalty or obligation? Or me, letting other people do mine, and my country’s, dirty work? That sounds like something that could happen, or may have happened, or may be happening. That sounds like something I might want to think about.


For a humorous and entertaining take on why Clone Wars is so great, I agree with everything The Cosmonaut Variety Hour has to say. And it’ll make you laugh. But there’s casual cursing, so it is not for young kids.

And for a more serious read, the brilliant and occasionally-infuriating Roy Scranton wrote an essay in the NY Times that inspired my train of thought on this topic in the first place. It’s definitely worth your time.

From the Discard Pile

by Terri Barnes (Air Force)

It was part of a pile of books left in a cardboard box outside the door of my son’s elementary school library. A sign on the box said, “Free to a good home.” Apparently, the shelves were being purged of old books, perhaps to make room for the latest shiny new paperbacks from the book fair. When I showed up for volunteer duty, I saw it lying among the rejects, a hardcover copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson.

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Deemed expendable at the library, it is a treasure to me. I had been reading my paperback copy for years, so I am happy to have the hardback version, even a tattered one. Each one of its faded green end papers is stamped “DISCARD,” in large block letters, as if marking it once was not enough. The pages are stained and worn, and I hope that’s because they’ve been turned by many eager and possibly grubby little fingers.

For me, it’s worth reading again every Christmas, the story of the Herdmans, six unruly brothers and sisters who show up at Sunday School because they heard there were free cookies. To the chagrin of some and the confusion of others, the riotous tribe ends up snagging all the starring roles in the annual Christmas pageant.

The narrator is a young girl who knows firsthand the terrors inflicted by these infamous siblings, whom most in their small town consider irredeemable.

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” she says. “They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and they talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the Lord’s name in vain.” They were also known for setting things on fire. For the pageant the flames are metaphorical – mostly – though the town’s firefighters do show up at the dress rehearsal.

In The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the Herdmans encounter the biblical story of Christmas for the first time. They have no preconceived ideas about holiness, or euphemistic images of well-groomed cattle in a clean-smelling stable. When Imogene Herdman hears for the first time that “there was no room at the inn,” she shouts out:

“My God! Not even for Jesus?”

Imogene and her siblings encounter a church full of people with plenty of preconceived ideas about who is clean and holy enough to share in the story of Jesus or take part in depicting it. These people, sure of their place, their standing in the hierarchy of local piety, know the Herdmans don’t belong. The truth is stamped all over their dirty faces, their ill-fitting clothes, and untamed behavior. The Herdmans don’t know the rules for church conduct, the words to the songs, or even the basics of the Nativity.

“You would have thought the Christmas story came right out of the FBI files, they got so involved in it,” says the young narrator. “(They) wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary having her baby in a barn, and called the wise men a bunch of dirty spies.”

Maybe the Herdmans didn’t know they were unlikely Christmas pageant cast members, or maybe they just didn’t care. At first they came for the snacks. They stayed because they were captivated by the story and its mystery, a quality overlooked by those who had heard it all their lives.

The Herdmans horned their way in to the re-telling of the story of Jesus and inadvertently became part of the story themselves. It never would have happened if it had been up to the majority of the church congregation. But then, if it had been up to the local congregations in ancient Bethlehem, a group of poor transients who lived among smelly animals would probably not have been on the guest list for the celebration of Christ’s birth. As it happened, the inviting wasn’t left up to the congregations in either story. Unlikely people are part of the story that changed history, and that’s kind of the point. For the shepherds and for the Herdmans. For all of us.

In Barbara Robinson’s book, the church people who were willing saw their pageant and Christ’s story with new eyes. Those who weren’t willing remained blinded by their self-satisfied and pointless version of the holiday. They forgot the reason for Christmas pageants, the reason for Christmas: to redeem lives, to redeem stories from the discard pile.

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 Terri Barnes is a third-generation military wife and mother of three. She founded and wrote the popular “Spouse Calls” column for Stars and Stripes until last year. The column was so well-liked that it was made into a book