Friday, May 31, 2019

Jazz Guitar

Since January, I've been learning jazz guitar.

Last December I had asked for and received an instructional DVD called No Nonsense Jazz Guitar by Jimmy Bruno. It starts out simple, and Jimmy does employ a no-nonsense approach, but the DVD quickly moves to harder material, without any preparation. One minute, you're learning a simple scale pattern, but then the next minute you're learning about doing changes over a 2-5-1 progression.

To fill in my knowledge, I went out to the Internet and found lots of tutorials. There are many tremendous jazz instructors (I like Jens Larsen and Matt Warnock) who take a far slower approach at the material. These side investigations into concepts that Jimmy introduces ("passing notes", "modes", "triads", "Circle of Fifths") have introduced me to music theory, a body of knowledge that is quite rigorous and analytical.

In the end, what's really helped is learning how to play jazz songs, the whole point of my wanting to learn jazz guitar. But unlike rock or R&B, jazz songs are fairly complex, and use very different chord forms. I learned songs like "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones) or "Big Me" (Foo Fighters) in an afternoon, but I've been working on the jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" for the past two months. (My excuse: I only practice 30-45 minutes a day.)

I'm not deterred though. I'm okay with my pace, because learning this genre of music has been challenging yet engrossing, and I expect I'll be pursuing this for a while.
First 8 Bars of Autumn Leaves

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 novel The Sympathizer won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is a remarkable mix of historical fiction and thriller, with elements of "fish out of water" comedy and romantic comedy thrown in. It's the story of a Vietnamese double-agent, his voyage out of Saigon to America, and his dangerous spy work embedded in a sleeper cell. The novel explores the consequences of his choices as he tries to maintain his identify, in more ways than one.

The book examines many aspects of the immigrant experience as the protagonist settles into his enforced American life. He's been to America before. "If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind," he says. But as the novel progresses, he's tormented by his outsider identity, both as a spy and as a refugee living in a culture that he admires and despises.

There are parts of the novel that smartly satirizes America's own tendency for scrubbing away the cultural influences for entertainment purposes. "You didn't even get the screams right," our hero complains to an American movie director. There are also moments of sheer terror, especially in the later chapters, when you fear not only for our hero's life, but your own sanity as Mr. Nguyen vividly renders pain and suffering with frightening precision ("Interrogation is about the mind first, the body second," a character explains).

I came to his novel by way of his New York Times op-ed piece titled "Why We Struggle to Say I Love You". In that op-ed piece, he analyzes the difficulty most Asian-American children have in saying "I Love You" to their parents. His piece greatly touched me, and I sought out more of his writing. I was not disappointed.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Rethinking How I Watch Movies

Of late, I've been watching movies over multiple evenings. I watch a movie for an hour or so, then after a scene change, I'll stop it. I usually resume watching it the next day. I've been doing this for the past few years, but I really embraced it last year, to the tune of almost 80 movies.

It's a form of time management, but one that required a change in thinking on my part. When I was growing up, I feasted on movies. I would sometimes spend entire days at the theater, watching the same movie twice, or sneaking into the next theater to catch part of another movie. All through college and my early 20s I was a fan of the movie-going experience, and sitting through its entirety was something I took for granted.

Fast-forward to my middle age, and the infinite free time I had when I was a callow youth is gone. It's hard enough making time for a proper two hour movie let alone spending a whole day watching multiple movies.

A former co-worker was the first to suggest watching movies over multiple sittings. I remembering complaining about the length of the Lord of the Rings movies and he said "Just watch it an hour at a time." This makes perfect sense! After all, we don't read books in one sitting.

I still get to the theater, but it has to be for something that is a consensus theatrical epic. For the most part, though, I've let go my fixation for the single-sitting rule. Now I'm happily surprised when a movie is so compelling that I will sit through it all at once!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Cars of My Life

I first learned to drive with my Dad's Chevrolet Chevelle in the mid 1980s. It was long, it was blue, and towards the end of its existence it belched out blue exhaust smoke at random. I remember many afternoons with my Dad practicing parallel parking over and over between two traffic cones.

Our family traded up from the Chevelle into a generic Chevrolet conversion van, complete with a manual sliding door and a ladder to get to the roof. We drove this car across the country, wearing out its single cassette player. I was excited when I drove for a few hours on those long rides.

When I left for college and beyond, I inherited the family sedan, a blue Nissan Sentra. (My parents bought a red Sentra to replace it.) I shared the car with my wife in the 1990s after we moved to the suburbs. I drove the Sentra until small holes started to emerge in the trunk and back-seat wheel wells due to rust.

In 2000, using a little dot-com money, I bought a used Audi A4. It remains my favorite car. It was sleek yet muscular. I loved that you could lower the windows by rotating the key counter-clockwise in the door lock. I also loved its red interior lights. I gave up the car after one too many engine start problems and a persistent water leak.

In 2006, I bought a Subaru Legacy. This car is completely nondescript but is thoroughly reliable. The all-wheel drive has paid for itself over many winters up and down our hilly neighborhood. I taught my daughter how to drive with this car. It might not be flashy, but as long as it's drivable, I'll be keeping it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My 2018 Books and Movies

In 2018, I finished 31 books and watched 79 movies.

My favorite fiction book from last year was Fatherland, by Robert Harris. It's crime-fiction set in a Germany that won World War II. I enjoyed the pace and the voice of the detective protagonist, Xavier March. Other favorites deserving mention: Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker and Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera.

For non-fiction, I very much liked Skyfaring, by Mark Vanhoenacker, and Dreamland, by Sam Quinones. Skyfaring is a soaring, evocative meditation about air travel by a commercial pilot. Dreamland is a deep look at the heroin crisis in the United States.

79 movies is a lot for me. For whatever reason I dug deep into Netflix and Amazon Prime Movies from November onwards. From the movies I rated a 10 the standouts I recommend: Get Out (2017), Her (2013), and What Happened to Monday (2017).