Snake in the Manger

From “Love Actually.”

By Steve Beard

One of my dear friends bought a tree ornament featuring the Grinch in a Covid-19 mask muttering, “Christmas 2020: Stink, Stank, Stunk!” That exasperation and frustration is shared by so many.

Thankfully, some of our holiday traditions were able to be modified and reconfigured: Santa sat behind a plexiglass barrier at the mall to keep the kids safe. Handsantizer bottles and air-kisses replaced smooching under the mistletoe. Outdoor carolers wore those plastic face shields in order to keep audiences out of harm’s way as they sang “Joy to the World.”

Obviously, other Christmas traditions are not able to be modified. There are precious absent loved ones who would normally be sharing in the festivities. This year, instead, we will be cherishing our past memories with them.

Amongst my own family, the tradition of over-exaggerated yelling and cheering as gifts were opened ended up being toned down. We even connected via FaceTime with family members who were homebound.

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Brokenness, Burgers, and Redemption

By Steve Beard

At the height of the government mandated lockdown earlier this year, Kraft Heinz factories were operating around the clock in order to meet the demand for macaroni and cheese. According to the New York Times, retailers at the same time saw a 50 percent increase in demand for Slim Jim beef jerky and Chef Boyardee pastas.

Apparently, even some of those who had been eating organic kale and quinoa salads were turning to foods they had banished from their cupboards. “Consumers are reaching for foods that trigger a comforting childhood memory or simply their go-to snack when they need to relieve stress,” the Times reported. In an era of instability, we all look to the safe haven of comfort food – savoring the tastes, smells, and good memories.

My comfort food is a Double-Double Animal Style, a signature menu item at In-N-Out Burgers, a Southern California-based phenomenon. “No Microwaves, No Freezers, No Heat Lamps” is one of the company’s time-tested commitments. The simplicity, freshness, and mystique has garnered a passionate fanbase from Hollywood hot shots to celebrity chefs who crave an In-N-Out fix.

McDonald’s vs. Burger King, Shake Shack vs. Five Guys, Wendy’s vs. Jack In the Box. I leave the debate to others. I’m a lover, not a fighter. When I fly home to the West Coast to see my family, the first stop from the airport is In-N-Out. Go ahead, ask my mom and dad. In-N-Out reminds me I’m home.

Founded in 1948 by the innovative Harry and Esther Snyder, In-N-Out has had the same minimalist menu for the last 72 years. It is a privately-held, debt-free family company committed to strategic growth, high quality ingredients, and paying its employees better than any other fast food chain. As of mid-December, there are 361 bright red-and-white retro-style restaurants in seven Western states with a gigantic yellow arrow pointing the way to a premium burger. Continue reading

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Gratitude and the Socially-Distanced Thanksgiving

Robert F. Thomas Chapel at Dollywood.

By Steve Beard

Over the many months of the worldwide pandemic, our nation has weathered wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the South, “murder hornets” in the Pacific Northwest, stay-at-home orders, nationwide protests, shuttered business, postponed funerals, drive-up church services, video classrooms, mask mandates, and a deeply polarized election.

Lord, have mercy. It just seems exhausting to recount the events of the year. Even though the stock market continues to soar, the drive-up lines at food pantries have never been longer. There are a lot of conflicting messages to process.

Those in the white lab coats tell us that a vaccine is around the corner – but it is not here yet. Until it arrives, we wait. “How long, O Lord, how long?” we ask – six feet from our neighbor. These are the days we live in.

Somewhat fittingly, Sunday is the beginning of Advent, the start of Christianity’s liturgical year as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas.

Waiting was one of the hardest aspects of Christmas as a child. There was such an allure to the wrapped packages under the tree. You could see but not touch. So close – and yet, so far away. It seemed absolutely nerve-racking as a child. Continue reading

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Dave Alvin salutes his friends and heroes

By Geoffrey Himen, American Songwriter

“Dave Alvin is one of our best songwriters. He wrote almost all the original material for the Blasters’ brilliant first four albums between 1981 and 1985,” writes Geoffrey Himen in American Songwriter. “He wrote ‘Long White Cadillac,’ a top-40 country hit for Dwight Yoakam and ‘Marie, Marie,’ a top-20 U.K. hit for Shakin’ Stevens. His second solo album (Blue Blvd. ) and his ninth (Ashgrove) are two of the best Americana albums of all time. And yet, for all of Alvin’s achievements as a songwriter, he continues to record songs by other writers.”

So, why does Alvin spend so much time with other people’s songs?

One of the reasons, Alvin said, was the challenge of reinventing a song: “You take the original and then tear it apart,” Alvin told Himen. “How do you do a song like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that’s not like Dylan, not like Johnny Winter? Dylan did it as a blues, leaning on the one chord, but I brought it what I call spooky chords, these suspended chords, to set up the refrain at the end of each verse. I wanted to sing it somewhere between Mose Allison and Ken Nordine. The Dylan version has the siren and the jokey/jiving feel, but I wanted to bring it down to the darkness. I wanted the guitars to sound like avenging angels, like you’re driving down the road late at night, and you see these apparitions flying at you until we get back to the one chord.” Continue reading

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Do as I Say, Not as I Dine

By Thomas Fuller, New York Times

It was an intimate meal in a wood-paneled, private dining room in one of California’s most exclusive restaurants. No one around the table wore masks, not the lobbyists, not even the governor. Photos that surfaced this week of a dinner at the French Laundry, a temple of haute cuisine in Napa Valley where some prix fixe meals go for $450 per person, have sparked outrage in a state where Democratic leaders have repeatedly admonished residents to be extra vigilant amid the biggest spike in infections since the pandemic began.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who attended the dinner with his wife, has apologized, calling it a “bad mistake.”

But that has not assuaged his critics, who point to a cascade of other instances when Democratic leaders in California have been caught flouting the state’s coronavirus orders and guidelines. The revelations come as Mr. Newsom and other officials have asked Californians to make sacrifices to stop the spread of the virus, most recently beseeching them to stay home and avoid visiting extended family over Thanksgiving.

This week state lawmakers came under fire for their slow response in explaining how they ended up at a conference held at a resort in Maui, Hawaii, just as California issued explicit guidance on avoiding “nonessential travel to other states or countries.” The conference was organized by the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit organization, and asked lawmakers in attendance, including 14 from California, to focus on the theme of reopening economies amid the pandemic.

Read entire article HERE

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Dolly Parton: Singer, Songwriter, Pandemic Savior?

She wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the same day and built a theme park around herself. She has given memorable onscreen performances as a wisecracking hairstylist and harassed secretary. She even helped bring about the creation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Now, Dolly Parton’s fans are crediting her with saving the world from the coronavirus. It’s an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek claim, to be sure. But for legions of admirers, Ms. Parton’s donation this spring to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drugmaker Moderna to develop a coronavirus vaccine, was another example of how the singer’s generosity and philanthropy have made her one of the world’s most beloved artists.

“Shakespeare may have written King Lear during the plague, but Dolly Parton funded a Covid vaccine, dropped a Christmas album and a Christmas special,” the author Lyz Lenz said on Twitter.

In April, Ms. Parton announced that she had donated $1 million to Vanderbilt after her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, a professor of surgery at the university, in Nashville, told her about the work researchers were doing to come up with a vaccine. Dr. Abumrad’s son, Jad Abumrad, is the creator of “Radiolab” and host of the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America.”

To read entire article, click HERE

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Vince Vaughn and old school manners

Vince Vaughn, Los Angeles Times

In his profile on Vince Vaughn’s new movie “Freaky,” Los Angeles Times reporter Josh Rottenberg also explores the swirl of controversy around the actor’s public interactions with politicians:

“In the era of social media, navigating those sorts of career vicissitudes has only become more challenging. In January, Vaughn found himself being slammed on Twitter and Facebook when a video showing him chatting and shaking hands with President Trump at a college football game in New Orleans went viral. Some on the left called for Vaughn – a self-identified libertarian who has drawn fire in the past for his comments on hot-button issues like gun rights – to be canceled.

Vaughn insists the episode was overblown. “In my career I’ve met a lot of politicians who I’ve always been cordial to; I’ve met Nancy Pelosi and was cordial to her as well,” he says, noting that at that same football game he also greeted Democratic strategist James Carville, who had a cameo in “Old School.” “It was the only time I’ve ever met him. We said hello. He was very personable.” He laughs. “I didn’t get into policies.”

“I think people are more charged than ever about these things,” he continues. “But I don’t think most people take that stuff as seriously as the small percentage that’s making noise about it. I was raised with the idea that you could have different likes and beliefs and you should respect and defend that in other people, not shout it down. The people you disagree with the most, you should stand up for their right to do that.”

While some jumped to the conclusion that he was a backer of the president, Vaughn says, “The only candidate I ever supported is [former Libertarian presidential nominee] Ron Paul. … I don’t have a party that I support and endorse. In fact, for me sometimes it’s difficult to find a candidate that you feel is philosophically consistent and not just going along with whoever is funding their particular party. That’s as much as I’ll get into it at this point.”

Whether it’s his personal politics or the state of his career, Vaughn isn’t hung up on what other people might think.

The entire article can be read HERE

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Fan fueled video for X’s “I Gotta Fever”

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Willie Nelson: A Black Belt in Positive Thinking

Illustration by Aline Zalko

Hard to imagine Willie Nelson is 87 years old. Amanda Petrusich conducted a splendid interview with him for The New Yorker. Here are just a few of the questions and answers I found fascinating.

You describe the Abbott United Methodist Church as the site of some of your earliest musical memories. I’m curious what you recall about the hymns that you sang there, and how performing that music made you feel?

Well, the church is still there, and me and Sister Bobbie are still a huge part of it. We bought that church a few years ago. It actually launched us. The preacher up there is a real good friend. He’s doing a good job – with this pandemic and everything, it’s hard to get a crowd together, but people still love to go to that church.

For the most part, it seems that you didn’t really see your proclivity for mischief and your religious faith to be at odds. But were there ever moments where you did feel that tension acutely?

You know, it’s funny. I have mixed emotions about it. The way I’ve made my money was playing in honky-tonks. One good example is the Night Owl, in West, Texas, north of Waco about thirty miles. It’s close to Abbott, six miles from Abbott. I grew up playing music there. I picked cotton up until I was ten or twelve years old, so to be able to make some money playing music in a beer joint – I felt pretty lucky. And the funny part of it was the people that I was singing to on Saturday nights – I was also singing to a lot of them on Sunday morning, at church. Abbott has a Methodist church, across the street is a Baptist church, across the street is a Church of Christ, down the road a little bit is the Catholic church. So we have churches all over the place – it’s impossible to live in Abbott and not go to one of those churches. Continue reading

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When hope and history rhyme

Whatever political party one supports, we can all share in Joe Biden’s love for Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). When he was young, Biden memorized poetry by William Butler Yeats and Heaney in order to help him correct his stutter.

For those who watched his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden quoted from Heaney’s famous poem, “The Cure at Troy.” My favorite two stanzas are marvelous.

“History says / Don’t hope on this side of the grave / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.’”

“So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. /Believe that further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracle / And cures and healing wells.”

Heaney wrote these verses in 1991 in the wake of Northern Ireland’s apocalyptic conflicts — the lengthy, bloody sectarian clashes. Here are the stanzas in their context: Continue reading

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