Kim Shattuck of The Muffs was awesome and died too young

I don’t know where my old Muffs cassette is these days, but that band carved out a little space in my music-loving heart, and I was so sad to learn that their frontwoman, Kim Shattuck, has died way too young — age 56, of ALS.

It’s not just their catchy little snarky/world-weary/get-over-it ditties. It’s the delivery, the embodying of those tunes, that expression of attitude through Kim’s huge, raw, roaring, gloriously fed-up and totally whole-hearted singing, shouting and screaming.

Gods, what a voice!

Though she wore her cutesy-L.A. punkette style with panache and flavor, Kim Shattuck’s voice was physically huge. Louder than just about any other rock’n’roll shouter that I can think of except, maybe, I dunno, Robert Plant? Paul McCartney belting it out in “Oh! Darling”? I mean, there’s no shortage of big voices in rock’n’roll, and I don’t intend here to diminish them. Specific to genre and gender, for example, Courtney Love, certainly, can bring it as viscerally as Shattuck did.

Yet they are different singers and different musicians. And Love’s songs have a depth of despair and anger that The Muffs never really plumbed.

But then again, The Muffs didn’t really need to plumb those depths; that wasn’t what they were about. Not knowing details of their personal lives, The Muffs did not come across as a band about life as a train wreck. Their songs were about moving on, about rising above, about living it and getting over it through sheer gumption, gusto and a game face. The mundane indignities of life’s stupid imbroglios, the scorn-worthy behavior of one’s self-absorbed, oblivious or just-plain-petty peers — you can deal with it all, and grab hold of some beautiful rock’n’roll catharsis along the way, by singing it all out as loud and as hard as you can.

And on any Muffs album, Shattuck’s voice is all the way on, all the time.

She was by any reckoning a top-notch guitarist and bandleader, and wrote great little tunes, but she took herself to another level by putting her whole being into every note she sang.

R.I.P. and thanks for such tremendous sound and feeling, Ms. Shattuck.

Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush

Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush, on the occasion of his passing.

In 1990, on a meandering cross-country road trip, I drove out of Yosemite National Park to see an enormous column of smoke reaching into the sky, so titanic and towering I at first wasn’t able to make sense of it or understand what it was.

The park was on fire, one of the epically huge fires of our times, and listening to the radio as I drove down out of the park, this gigantic pillar of sacrificial smoke and flame pouring in slow-mo up into the sky, I learned also that Operation Desert Shield had commenced.

Desert Shield … setting the stage for all the war and terror that has consumed the Middle East and the world since. If only we had given up oil and the carbon economy 10 years earlier, none of that military intervention would have been deemed strategically necessary by President George Herbert Walker Bush.

I ended up in D.C. and became a bike messenger for a spell. The big march on Washington happened and I participated. It seemed like a very happy event, full of drums and facepaint and all such. My thought was that if everyone were marching silently instead of banging drums — wearing black with tears painted on their cheeks instead of clown faces — that would have been a stronger statement, but, I get it. Joyous resistance and all.

A year later I moved west, to San Francisco, and I saw pictures of the Highway of Death, a chilling and grotesque monument to the blood we’ll shed to protect American access to oil resources. And around that time my car was parked on a hill and got hit and totaled by a driver that lost control … I collected the settlement, and haven’t owned a car since.

Many patterns were set in motion that are still playing out today.

I can still hear his strident, pinched tones decrying Michael Dukakis as a “card carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union” during his successful presidential campaign.

And those are my memories of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“How Many Black Male Teachers Did You Have Growing Up?”

Black Enterprise Magazine poses the question: “How many black male teachers did you have growing up?”

(h/t Nettrice Gaskins for posting the article in her social feed.)

In WASPy Caldwell/West Caldwell, N.J., the faces of ethnic diversity were Irish and Italian Catholics, Greeks (Orthodox, natch) and the occasional Jew.

At James Caldwell High School, George Harriston, who taught Latin and Honors English, was AFAIK the sole African American teaching at the school and possibly the school system at the time.

He knew his classics cold, adored Thomas Mann, and made us sit through “Death in Venice,” his favorite movie, the subtleties of which were utterly lost on us. But his reaction at the movie’s denouement has been stuck in my mind ever since … a long, wistful sigh and an expression of longing for something lost and gorgeous.

His Honors English class was one of the few times I got an A in anything, because his class was one of the few I gave a damn about.

He was universally loved, his Latin students called him “Georgibus Rex,” deliberately misusing the conjugation (which I only know because he told me, I never took his Latin class, though I wish I had), and he would wave his hands in exasperated dismissal of the wiseacres while smiling slightly as he turned back to the blackboard.

I remember once, a shocked rumor went around the school … Mr. Harriston had been pulled over by Caldwell police en route to a faculty party for something that would later be called in mass media “driving while black.” That terminology wasn’t commonplace in that town at the time.

We (the students) couldn’t believe it. Pulling over MR. HARRISTON? WTF???

He never discussed it, never shared any of his experiences as an African American with us. It was never a topic of discussion and I never heard — or heard of — any derogatory racial discourse about him

While racism against African Americans undoubtedly existed in my home town, no one expressed that around me. Ditto for slurs against Asians or Latinos. It all seemed quite taboo. The derogatory jokes I did hear were largely aimed and Poles and gays, occasionally Jews, and were mostly told in elementary school.

I have come to understand now that racists, even today, are pretty careful about whom they express their views around; they ‘test you out’ with a few mild key phrases to see if you respond, and if you don’t, they clam up. Perhaps that’s why my ears were so virginal in those tender years.

I imagine today, knowing what we all now now about race in post-racial America, that Mr. Harriston probably dealt with racism on a fairly routine basis.

It haunts me, that this brilliant, kind, sarcastic man, with his faint smile and love of letters, should have been subjected to such behavior. That it would be a common denominator in his life and in the lives of millions of other African Americans.

George Harriston died in 1999 and any donations in his memory were put in a college fund for JCHS.

He was one of my favorite teachers and one of the people I credit for profoundly deepening my appreciation of English language and literature.

The 19th anniversary of his passage is this coming Saturday.

R.I.P. and thank you, always, Mr. Harriston.

http://www.obitcentral.com/obitsearch/obits/nj/nj-misc15.htm

HARRISTON – George E. Harriston, died on Aug. 11, 1999, at St. Barnabas Hospital. The cause was heart failure. Mr. Harriston was an English and Latin teacher in the Elizabeth and West Caldwell school systems for 37 years. He had been an advisor to the school newspaper at Caldwell and served as coordinator of foreign languages. A graduate of Montclair State College, he pursued graduate studies at Rutgers, Seton Hall and University of Minnesota. Mr. Harriston served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Orange Public Library. He also had been an adjunct professor at University College, Rutgers Newark for 20 years. He was a member of the New Jersey Education Association. Mr. Harriston served in the Army Transportation Corps during the Korean War. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., he lived in Newark, Orange, Montclair and Bloomfield during his professional life. In lieu of flowers, those who wish may make contributions to College Scholarship Fund of James Caldwell High School, West Caldwell, N.J.

New role at KALW

Over the past year, as the KALW News digital editor, I was constantly knocked out by the first-rate, frontline coverage produced here of communities and neighborhoods that are usually overlooked by local mass media.

I’m refocusing now on audience and community development via two new newsletter initiatives. One for the newsroom, and one for the station as a whole.

I’m thrilled to continue working with this incredible public-media outlet, helping to build their own engaged Internet audience beyond the grips of ad-saturated, data-gobbling social platforms.

On that note … If you are in the Bay Area and would like to get a different view of the news and issues of your home region, let me encourage you to sign up for our Friday newsletter wrapping up the week’s headlines from KALW News.

So go ahead and push the button …

Sign Up Now

Tree rings, milady

I saw the oldest woman in the world yesterday getting on the bus. She wasn’t the stereotype of a “bag lady,” however. Not odoriferous, nor ranting, drooling, twitchy, etc. She was, rather, the embodiment and definition of age.

She was a continent of wrinkles. She was like a fairy tale of an old woman. She could have been an oak tree that was already old when the pilgrims first made landfall. So gnarled and crinkly.

She could have been a forgotten goddess of some ancient mountain chain, once as high as the stratosphere and now worn down by wind and water to stubs and nubs.

Her hair was a huge flyaway mass of gray and a pale, washed-out color that may have once been yellow.

She was enshrouded by skirts and jackets and scarves and fabric, like the curtains of an old manor house.

And within this mobile agglomeration of antiquity was a face and a voice.

As the driver put down the ramp, we all leaped up to make room for what we assumed was a wheelchair. Everyone moved back a row, and I flipped up the right-side seating, where the wheelchairs go.

Then I saw it was in fact a walker she gripped, not a wheelchair.

I flipped the seats back down and apologized to her for assuming. She looked at me and her eyes were bright sparks.

She smiled and said, “Not a wheelchair, but we appreciate your effort,” and her voice was completely clear and fresh, like the dew on blossoms in the morning.

[I rescued this from Facebook; originally posted there on May 15, 2013.]

Introducing: The Watershed Media Project

The Watershed Media Project is an initiative to research and develop grassroots funding, production and promotional models for independent, public-interest journalism and media.

Watershed is a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media; it is also a slow-media project that will eschew the frantic pace and expectations of today’s digital startup culture in favor of small, simple, incremental goals achieved over longer periods of time.

The “watershed” metaphor is inspired by Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group that advocates for building human societies designed for sustainability at the watershed and “bioregional” level.

From an essay on mass media I wrote for their newsletter:

Information is like water. Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests. Mass media is a toxic mess, awash with false memes, fear mongering, destructive double-standards and routine ethical compromise. Media equivalents of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima happen all the time. Pollution accumulates in the mental environment like mercury and PCBS in the water tables.

My first significant publishing gig, back in 1992, was as editor of Planet Drum’s annual journal Raise the Stakes — issue No. 22, which in retrospect was a somewhat prescient edition.

We dug deep on topics such as cultivating native food crops, seed saving for diversity, permaculture “food forests” that bear diversely all year long, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA farms), organic and least-toxic farming — topics that would in subsequent decades end up inspiring marketing and political campaigns alike.

That linkage — between ecology, sustainability, culture and history — has stayed with me over the years, and when Judy Goldhaft from Planet Drum asked me this past summer to write something for their print newsletter, the dots began to connect up.

Having just returned from the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, I was impressed by how Planet Drum’s vision of sustainability had so much resonance with commonplace media-reform and future-of-journalism metaphors such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology.”

These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions. What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability?

The questions run deep, the terrain they open up is broad. Watershed Media will serve as home base for a few hopeful expeditions and surveys.

Noted: “A third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems”

The freedom to audit. In addition to being free and forkable, open-source systems also have to be accountable:

“The open-source movement champions an approach to product development in which there is universal access to a blueprint, as well as universal ability to modify and redistribute the blueprint. Wikipedia is perhaps the best-known example of a product inspired by the movement. Open-source advocates typically emphasize two kinds of freedom that their products afford: they are available free of charge, and they can be used and manipulated free of restrictions.

“But there is a third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems: the freedom to audit. With open-source software, independent security experts can scrutinize the code for vulnerabilities — whether accidentally or intentionally introduced. The more auditing by the programming masses, the better the security. As the open-source software advocate Eric S. Raymond has put it, ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.'”

Source: “Let’s build a more secure Internet,” NYTimes, Oct. 9, 2013.

Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/12/tom-stites-taking-stock-of-the-state-of-web-journalism/
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.