John Prine And Roommate Music

I was very sorry to read of the death this week of John Prine, one of the great songwriters of his generation, from complications of the coronavirus.  At the same time, thinking about John Prine, and how I first heard his music, took me back to some happy memories.  I think John Prine probably would have liked that.

John Prine on campus of Georgia State College - November 12, 1975I first heard John Prine’s music in college.  My college roommate was a huge fan of John Prine, and in our apartment John Prine songs were an inevitable part of the playlist.  Sam StoneIllegal Smile, and Please Don’t Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground (which is probably not the actual title of the song, but is how I remember it) and a bunch of other great songs with great lyrics were all in the rotation.  John Prine was a good example of how actually going to college (as opposed to attending virtual school, which is what people are now forecasting might be the future) had the effect of broadening the cultural horizons of college students in those days in the long ago ’70s.

My roommate and I each had an extensive record collection, featuring both albums and 45s, and they fit together almost perfectly, with virtually no overlap — well, except for the Beatles, because everyone had the Beatles albums.  He had a lot of John Prine, Creedence, and every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as some great 45s from the ’60s, and I had a lot of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, jazz, and classical stuff.  We played it all, and quickly came to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.  When the college days moved behind us, I still listened to all of it, and even now, 40 years later, still think automatically of John Prine lyrics that suit the situation.

And the real acid test is:  what songs of an artist do you sing in the shower?  For me, that’s John Prine’s Bad Boy:

I been a bad boy
I been long gone
I been out there
I never phone home
I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been
I’ve been a bad boy again

I got a way of
Fallin’ in love
With angels that don’t shove
You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round
In a real fog
I was your best friend
Now I’m a real dog
I never thought that now
Would ever catch up with then
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy
I sung a wrong song
I took a left turn
I stayed too long
As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t
Just like all other men
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

RIP, John Prine — and thanks to my college roommate for allowing me to make your acquaintance and enjoy your music.

At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

From The Pre-Hugging Period

Tomorrow night I’m having dinner with my college roommate, who’s coming to town for work.  We’ve known each other since, like, 1976, and it will be good to see him and catch up on things.

hapa-handshake-300x300-1But as I was walking home last night, I was thinking:  how do I greet him when we first see each other?

You see, our friendship dates back to the pre-hugging period.  In those days, men simply didn’t give a friendly hug as a hello.  I don’t think I ever saw my grandfathers or my father hug anyone, male or female, and I don’t remember any my high school or college friends going the hugging route, either.  It was also before the dawn of the “bro bump,” the combination move that occurs where the two men greeting each other shake hands and collide shoulder to shoulder at the same time, or the half hug, where the greeters stand shoulder to shoulder and put an arm around each other’s shoulder, without going for the full hug.

In those days, there were three potential forms of male greeting — manly nod, manly handshake, and manly handshake coupled with manly backslap, in roughly that order of ascending friendliness.  The only deviation from the norm in the stilted ’70s came if you encountered a fellow college student and gave the revolutionary hippie handshake, pictured with this post, where your thumb was somehow pointing upward.  The revolutionary/hip handshake fell out of fashion as quickly as ’70s hairstyles and leisure suits, however, and even if I wanted to give it in greeting I couldn’t because I don’t remember how to do it.

Acceptable forms of greeting are pretty confusing these days because there are so many options, and you don’t want to chose the wrong one and be left hanging.  I guess I’ll go with the regular, firm handshake that was my grandfathers’ and father’s preferred form of greeting.  It may be boring and old-fashioned, but it’s at least stood the test of time.

Crossing The “Critical Edition” Barrier

For a 2019 New Year’s resolution, of sorts, I vowed to try to read at least one book that is more challenging than my normal fare.  In furtherance of that goal, I went to the library and picked up Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, in the Penguin Classics edition.  That means the book comes with a lengthy introduction, an appendix, and lots of footnotes — all of which make the book seem more mentally demanding than, say, your standard sci fi fiction.

img_8056Admittedly, presenting a Charles Dickens novel as some kind of awesome intellectual gauntlet is a bit dodgy.  After all, Dickens was easily the most popular writer of his day, read avidly in both England and America, and David Copperfield was one of his most popular books.  Dickens made huge amounts of money through his writings and his literary tours, where he would read aloud from his works to large live audiences.  Some sources contend that, during his heyday, 1 in 10 Britons who could read read Dickens’ books — which is pretty astonishing, if true.

But here’s the thing:  those readers of the past didn’t read David Copperfield in the form of a Norton Critical Edition, or a Penguin Classics volume, knowing that the book is generally considered to be one of the Greatest Novels of All Time.  Anyone who has taken a British Literature or Comparative Literature course in college knows about the “critical editions,” which expect the reader to carefully digest every sentence, pick up nuances and associate them with historical and cultural figures of the time, analyze the plot and the characteristics of the characters, and correctly interpret the text for underlying messages.  Even now, decades after the final exam in my last literature course, my heart quailed at the prospect of tackling an esteemed writing presented in the “critical edition” format.

I skipped the lengthy introduction to David Copperfield and went straight to the book itself.  The first sentence reads:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course, being a “critical edition,” there’s got to be a footnote in there somewhere.  Sure enough, “hero” is footnoted.  When, out of curiosity, I went back to the back of the book to read the footnote, it said this:  “hero:  Carlyle discussed the hero as “the man of letters” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841).  See Introduction.”

Really?  I’m supposed to interrupt the flow of the book in the very first sentence to read that?  Who gives a flying fig what “Carlyle” has to say?  The footnote was almost a parody of academic overkill — which is really why so many of us hated “critical editions” in the first place.

So, with David Copperfield, I’m going to try to break through the “critical edition” barrier.  Footnotes be damned!  I’m going to read David Copperfield like those adoring Britons did, like any other book, without worrying about introductions or critical context or the comments of Carlyle.  Who knows?  Maybe underneath all of the academic posturing and overlays of intellectualism, there’s actually an interesting story in there somewhere.

The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.

 

Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

The Case For Making Your Bed

Every morning, just before it’s time to head off to work, I make the bed.  I pull the sheets taut, put the pillows back in their place, adjust the blanket so that it’s the same length on all sides of the bed, and make sure there are no wrinkles to be seen.  Making the bed is just part of the morning ritual that means I’m now ready to face the day — but apparently not everybody does it.

I read an interesting piece recently about the simple act of making your bed, and what it means. It’s entitled The Unmade Bed and the Fall of Civilization, which is a little over the top, but the essential point holds:  little things matter.  They’re not significant by themselves, but they can add up to big things — and it really doesn’t take much time to take care of them, when you think about it.

So why not do those little things?

Clean off your dishes and put them in the dishwasher, so they’re not left for your spouse or roommate to deal with, and then rinse down the sink.  Hang up your coat and your clothing rather than tossing them over a chair.  Put old magazines and newspapers into the recycling bin.  Pick up after yourself, and when you leave a room see that it’s tidy.  Take out the trash before the wastebaskets are full to overflowing.  And make your bed.

I was a total slob in college — who wasn’t? — but when I graduated and moved into the working phase of my life I decided I needed more order.  The best way to accomplish that was to start to do those little tasks myself.  I found that it not only made our place look better, it also made me feel better, both when I was doing those little chores and when I got home to a place that was neat and shipshape.  Doing those things made me feel like I was was pitching in, carrying my share of the household load, and actually behaving like an adult.  After college, that seemed like a worthy goal.  Now it’s all habit — but I still like the feeling I get when I do those little things.

So every morning, I make the bed.  And by the way, if you make the bed properly, when you climb back into bed at night you’ll find that the sheets are cool and inviting, even on a hot Midwestern summer evening.  It’s just one of the benefits of trying to live an orderly life.