Friday, August 9, 2013

Readin': The Lost Art of Mixing

I have been a fan of Erica Bauermeister's writing since her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, came out. Her writing is lyrical in the very best sense of that word. When you read it, you can hear the words sing. Reading her work out loud is pure pleasure. There is a series of YouTube videos done by a writer is San Francisco named Mark that shows just how magical reading it aloud is. (If you have no tolerance for the occasional f-bomb, you might want to give this a pass. I think they can be overlooked.) She is masterful in writing sense impressions; when she describes a smell you can smell it. I wish for her a long and productive career, if only because I am greedily awaiting the pleasure of reading what she has written.

In her latest novel, The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica returns to a familiar core cast of characters, those of The School of Essential Ingredients, while adding in some new and remarkably complex ones. Lillian, Chloe, Isabelle, and Tom are all there. Added to the mix are Al, the accountant, and his wife, Louise;  Finnegan, the tall young dishwasher new to Lillian's restaurant; Abby, Cody, and Amy, Isabelle's children and Cody, Abby's teenage son.

I am stunned by Erica's ability to see deeply into the lives of her characters and her sympathetic treatment of their responses to the various life experiences that have shaped them. Finnegan, who grew up as the beloved son of two adventurous mountain climbers in Boulder, Colorado, is orphaned as the result of a climbing accident on Mount Everest. He goes to live with his aunt Ailis in Portland, Oregon. Ailis is a software programmer and has the quirky, filter-less personality and unwillingness to abide by social conventions common to that breed. I can imagine where Erica got her observations, knowing that she has been observing software-types for the past 25 years or so. Finnegan becomes a collector of stories, beginning with one old woman in an assisted living facility after he has broken into her empty home. He spends time with her as restitution, but it sets him on a path that grows over time.

The character development/exploration I found most stunning though was that of Isabelle, an older woman experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer's. I stand in awe of Erica's ability to live inside the head of this woman and realistically portray Isabelle's thoughts and feelings from the inside. Isabelle's interaction with her grandson, Cody, at her birthday party is one of the true gems in this book, honest and true and quite touching, as both of them are able to speak freely to one another with love and mutual caring.

Another aspect of Erica's books that I find comforting is her ability to evoke a sense of place. While the book is partially set in Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, it takes place, for the most part, in the Pacific Northwest. Having been an Oregon and Washington resident since 1975 (with 1 year stints in Connecticut, Mississippi, and now Jordan mixed in), her ability to communicate the feeling of inhabiting those environments is comforting to me. I read Mixing in my apartment in Madaba, Jordan, but had a sense of home come over me as I could easily visualize the settings.

I just reviewed all 107 previous blog-post titles and was surprised to learn that I have not written before of my love of Erica Bauermeister's writing. Though I have read all three of her novels now (Joy for Beginners is the one not previously mentioned in this post) this is the first time I have written about them. If you love fine writing lovingly done, do yourself a favor and pick up each of Erica's novels. I am sure you will be thrilled.

Monday, August 5, 2013

International Adventures:Visit to Jerash, Part 1

The valley and hills surrounding Wadi Jerash have been inhabited more or less continuously since Paleolithic times (roughly  7,500 to 15,00 B.C.E.). Think about that for just a minute. The valley has been home to human beings since our highest technology was creating tools out of stone. There is an awful lot of history piled up in this one place. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Muslims, and Circassians have all laid claim to the city at one time or another. Excavations around the South Gate have revealed artifacts from the Middle Bronze Age (approximately 1600 B.C.E.)

On Saturday, August 3, I got up early and after breakfast pointed my faithful gray Chevrolet Aveo north. Jerash is only about 80 km from Madaba, just over an hour's drive. I went in the morning because I wanted to miss the heat of the day, this being August in a desert country on or about the 30th parallel. Following the advice of The Rough Guide to Jordan, I parked my car in the free lot just to the south of Hadrian's Arch, wandered over to the entrance and through the pseudo-souk to the ticket window. After paying my 8 JD entrance fee, I was free to wander within the limits of the Jerash Archeological Park.

The first thing I saw on arriving was Hadrian's Arch, an imposing monumental structure built in the 2nd century. At the time, the plan was to extend the walls of the city all the way to the arch, but over the next hundred or so years, it became obvios that the city did not have the money for the expansion. So, there it sits, an impressive monument just to the west of a very busy Jerash city street.

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Still to the south of the city, but between it and Hadrian's Arch is the hippodrome. This is one of the smallest hippodromes in the Roman Empire, seating only 15,000 in contrast to Rome's Circus Maximus which held 157,000, but it has the distinction of being a working facility. A company called RACE (Roman Arny and Chariot Experiences), conducts chariot races there throughout the year. Unfortunately, their next show would be Sunday at 11:15, so I didn't get the opportunity to see some old time racin'. That would have been cool. Here's a view of the stands:

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And a view of the track from the stands:

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The folks in the houses to the west of the track get to see old time racin' all year round. How cool is that!

The horse stables are just below the grandstands and are made, just like everything else in the area, out of stone. Nice arch work!

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Just before you enter the South Gate of Jerash proper, you come to the Visitor Center. There are some maps and explanatory details about Jerash in there. One large three-part banner illustrates Gerasa's (the ancient name for Jerash) membership in the Decapolis. During the time when the Greek's held sway here thanks to Alexander the Great there was a loose confederation of 10 cities (Decapolis  is Greek for ten (deca) cities (polis)) and Gerasa was one of those. The Decapolis is referenced in the Bible.

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The south end of Jerash is dominated by two large structures that can be seen from most of the town, the Temple of Zeus and the South Theater. The two major temples in Jerash, one to Zeus and the other to Artemis, occupy the highest points of land in the city. The view from the Temple of Zeus is fabulous and gives you a great look at the Roman plan of Jerash.

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The Romans were fanatics for order and builders of extreme skill. Scattered all over the Mediterranean basin are civil projects they built almost 2,000 years ago that are still standing today. Most Roman towns were laid out in the same fashion. The main road through town, the Cardo, runs on a north-south axis and major side streets, the Decumanus (Decumani?), run east-west. The plaza at the base of the hill where the South Theater and the Temple of Zeus are located is called the Oval Plaza for pretty obvious reasons. The collonades surrounding it reminded me very strongly of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. In the upper left of the picture you can see the Temple of Artemis on the highest hill in town. There are much better pictures of that coming up. Between the Oval Plaza and the temple you can see that the restoration of Jerash is still a work in progress. You can see piles of stone like that all around the town, just waiting for the right folks to come along and solve the puzzle of how to put it all back together.

Jerash has suffered many earthquakes over the years and a particularly devastating one in 749. These columns from the Temple of Zeus fell then and have lain there ever since.

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Toward the top of the picture is a construction crane that's being used in the rebuilding effort. I wonder what the Romans would have built if the had diesel/hydraulic cranes to lift all of that stone. It's a wonder that they accomplished all they did using the relatively primitve tech that they had.

The South Theater is right next door to the Temple of Zeus and is the largest of three theaters in Jerash, seating around 3,000 folks. It was built around 90 AD and still looks pretty good.

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Walking down the hill from the theater/temple complex, you enter the Oval Plaza. I love the way they laid the paving stones in the same oval pattern.

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This view is from the center of the plaza looking north up the Cardo.

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To the east of the Oval Plaza perched on a hill surrounded by trees is a small museum. I took a detour there to look at the artifacts they preserved there. The museum is really just one large room with display cases set all around it. They have representative pieces from all of the eras of occupation, beginning with the Paleolithic. They had a decent collection of flaked tools and some nice explanations of how they were made and what modern tools they correspond to.

One of the cases contained an amazing collection of intact Roman glassware. Knowing that some of my faithful readers are fond of Roman glass jewelry, I just had to include the next two shots.

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On one wall they had a couple of representative mosaics from the 500-700 AD period. I liked this one for the sense of movement they were able to capture.

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Back on the Cardo, I continued north to the first major intersection, the South Tetrapylon. This is a view looking west up the South Decumanus.

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Further up the Cardo you come upon a collection of churches from the Byzantine era. At the top of this staircase is what they call the Cathedral, though they are really not sure if it was a cathedral or not. I didn't go up these stairs.

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As I sat in the shade taking a break and a drink from my trusty Hydroflask, I noticed this lizard. I've always enjoyed looking at the wildlife that an area has to offer. Most of the wildlife in Jordan seems to be rather small. Most of what I've seen has been limited to birds, insects and lizards so far.

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I did climb the stairs of this monumental staircase; seven sets of seven stairs each. What I found at the top was well worth the climb.

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This is the Temple of Artemis, daughter of Zeus and goddess of forests, protector of women and bringer of fertility to all creatures.

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I made the climb all the way up into the temple and took this shot looking east from the niche where the image of Artemis resided many years ago.

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Before I left the Artemis complex, I took a look to the south and got a great perspective of the South Theater.and the Temple of Zeus to the left. You can see part of the collonade that surrounds the Oval Plaza in the lower left.

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This post, like the Petra post, got too big, so I had to cut it in half. This time I was a bit smarter about it and cut the first part out so that you could read them in order more easily. The story continues in International Adventures: Visit to Jerash, Part 2.

International Adventures: Visit to Jerash, Part 2

Leaving the Artemis complex and heading north, I looked to the east and saw the ruins of the West Baths. There are East Baths as well on the eastern bank of Wadi Jerash.

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The most complete structure, the one on the left, reminded me of the pizza oven at my brother Tom's house. It looked a bit like that when it was half built (minus the grass growing on the roof, of course).

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Directly north of the Temple of Artemis is the North Theater, Built in the 190s AD to hold about 1.600 patrons, the theater is still in use today. In 1997, Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, gave a reading to a sold out house. It was the first performance in the theater in 1500 years!

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I took that last picture standing on the stage. When I turned aroun and looked north, I could see the plaza in front of the theater which has been partially rebuilt and in the background houses in present day Jerash.

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I wandered around the plaza to the north and then took this shot looking at the plaza and the North Theater behind it.

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They had a couple of these amazing double columns. The stonework on them is fairly intricate and one of them is meant to bond into the wall of the theater. Pretty amazing architecture and engineering.

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From the theater I headed east on the North Decumanu back toward the Cardo. The North Tetrapylon, the intersection of the Cardo and the Decumanus, is the main feature of this picture.

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We're almost at the northern boundary of ancient Jerash now. This view, taken from the shade of the North Tetrapylon looks north up the Cardo to the North Gate of the city.

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Take a look at the pavement here. Those grooves and ridges were caused by years of steel shod  wheels grinding the stone down.

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The North Gate of the city is fascinating. Because the Romans wanted everything to meet up at regular 90 degree angles, their streets were laid out on a regular grid pattern. Unfortunately, the road to another of the Decapolis cities, Pella, ran off at an oblique angle to the Cardo. Their solution is subtle and ingenious; the gate is not a rectangular solid, it's a wedge. Look at the stonework on the inside of the arch toward the top of the gate and you'll see what I mean.

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I had now reached the northern limit of ancient Jerash. Nothing to do but turn around and retrace my steps. On my way south I happened upon this pomegranate tree in full fruit. I'll have to be on the lookout at the greengrocers, because they carry fruit very seasonally, not like in the US where you can get practically anything any time as long as you're willing to pay part of the air freight to get it there.

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After the Greeks and the Romans had had their influence on Jerash, the Byzantines came to power. Predominantly Christian, they worked  to remove whatever vestiges of 'pagan' worship they could. The road leading up to the monumental staircase that ascends to the Temple of Artemis was called the Sacred Way. The Byzantines built a church right on the Sacred Way, using the paving stones of the road as the floor of the church. If you turn around from this vantage point, you are looking directly up the monumental staircase.

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The church lies mostly in ruins, but the stone work must have been ezquisite. Many, if not most, of the stones for reassembling it are lying there waiting to be used. One feature I particularly liked was the carved spiral columns in some sort of rose colored stone.

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As I said, most of the pieces to the puzzle are still there. Look, I found a corner piece!

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And here's a border!

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On my way out of Jerash, I couldn't resist taking a couple more shots of the collonade around the Oval Plaze.

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So, that was my tour of Jerash on Saturday, August 3, 2013. At this point it was getting quite warm, my Hydroflask was enpty of water, though it still contained some of the ice I had put in earlier in the day, and I just wanted to get back to the pseudo-souk. I knew that they had cold water for sale and shade to sit in.

The drive back to Madaba was uneventful. I did it without the GPS and didn't take a wrong turn once. I'm feeling pretty pleased with my navigational abilities in what was once a forgien land to me.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Readin' Interruptus: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is a great and exciting book, as far as I've read.

Perhaps I should explain that. Our family became involved with the sport of rowing through our youngest daughter, Gwynedd, who rowed for Holy Names Academy for 4 years and then spent four more years rowing for Princeton. In order to experience something of what she was going through, I took a Learn to Row class at Lake Union Crew in Seattle, the same boathouse she rowed out of during high school. We have an erg in our basement for workouts.After reading a review of The Boys in the Boat on the row2k website, I immediately alerted Gwynedd as I was sure that it would be a book we would both enjoy. She picked up an autographed copy at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (she missed Daniel James Brown's reading there due to school commitments) and it was waiting at home when I got there in July. Having spent several evenings reading When I Left Home and The Ear of the Heart, I was pretty sure that I would not have enough time to finish The Boys . . .. I was right. When it came time to leave Seattle, I was about 70-75% of the way through the book and was coming to the climactic part. Because it was Gwynedd's book and she had not started reading it yet, I didn't think it would be fair for me to take it to Jordan with me, just because I wanted to finish it.

The Boys in the Boat is primarily a history book, but it's a history book that reads like a novel because of D. J. Brown's focus on the people involved in the story and one person in particular, Joe Rantz. It tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington men's varsity rowing team, but more than that, it tells the story of rowing in the US in the first half of the 20th century. Brown does a fantastic job of showing the wildly varied personalities of the people involved with the sport of rowing and its intense rivalries. He explores the rivalry of UW and Cal-Berkely in depth and also the rivalry between the privileged Eastern rowing establishment and the more blue-collar rowing programs of the West.

Brown's focal point for telling the whole story is the heart-breaking story of Joe Rantz. Because the run up to the 1936 Olympics all takes place during The Great Depression in America, there were hard luck stories everywhere. Joe Rantz grew up in Spokane and northern Idaho and then moved with his family first to Seattle and finally to Sequim. Joe's mother died in Spokane and his grief-stricken father abandoned Joe and his older brother for a time. Joe was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania and made the cross-country train trip by himself twice by at the ages of 5 and 7. When Joe's father sent for him, he had remarried and Joe and his step-mother, Thula, did not get along well. In Sequim at the age of 15, Joe was abandoned to live on his own in their half-finished house, while his father and step-mother took the three younger children with them. Joe didn't fold, he worked at many odd jobs and continued going to school, eventually going to live with his older brother in Seattle and graduating from Roosevelt High School and then entering UW.

One of the other characters that Brown does a particularly fine job with is George Pocock, the British-born boat builder and rowing mystic, who served as an adviser to the UW crew program. His exposition of Pocock's boat building are quite lyrical and show him as a craftsman and artist who worshiped in the temple of the boat.

Another of the reasons I loved the book is that so much of it takes place in Seattle. His evocation of practices on Lake Washington and rowing through Mountlake Cut were all the more thrilling because they were only a couple of miles from where I sat reading the book.

Brown does a great job explaining both the mechanics of rowing and the intensity of the races involved. His descriptions of the intense trust and teamwork required to make an 8-person racing shell get up and go are particularly evocative. The chapter I finished last ended with UW sweeping the freshman, JV, and varsity races at the 1936 IRA championships in Poughkeepsie, New York. In broad outlines I know what comes next, but I'm just going to have to wait until I return to Seattle in December to finish it!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Readin': The Ear of The Heart

I met Mother Dolores Hart, OSB for the first time almost 40 years ago (1975). I've had conversations with her and been in her remarkable presence many times over the years. She does, indeed, have the most remarkable blue-eyed gaze; one that can be both startling and comforting in its perception and acceptance. Her memoir with Richard DeNeut, The Ear of The Heart, proved to me, once again, how little we really know about any person's journey, interior and exterior, even if we have been acquainted with them for a very long time.

The broad outlines of Mother Dolores' story are known by many. In the mainstream media she is "the aspiring actress who left a successful career and the world for a cloistered nunnery". She has been the subject of countless articles in magazines and newspapers over the years and was the subject of an Oscar-nominated HBO documentary, God is the Bigger Elvis. As a young actress in her first major role, she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss. She worked on stage and screen with many of the biggest 'names' in Hollywood.

The Ear of The Heart is a remarkable book in many ways. It is a truly collaborative effort between the two authors; the typography used makes clear which parts are written by Mother Dolores and which by Richard. In addition, many of the stories provoke conversation between the two authors which are rendered faithfully in the text. So what you end up with is both a story about times past and a conversation held in the present about those stories.

Mother Dolores shares her own history and that of the family she was born into, starting with a brief history of her parents and grandparents. It is a turbulent story; a father who concentrated more on his career and a mother that struggled with alcohol all her life. At age 10 Dolores converted to Catholicism because, even then, she was listening to God's voice and knew that it was the correct path for her. When she would make visits to the church attached to the Catholic school she went to, she experienced a peaceful acceptance she had not yet known in her young life. Throughout her life she continued to listen to that inner voice and respond to its promptings. That's where the title of the book functions on so many levels. She had many people advising her and could have gone in many different directions, but she listened to her heart and responded with love to what she heard.

Because I have been in relationship with Regina Laudis Abbey for most of my adult life, I know many of the people and incidents that Mother Dolores writes about. My earliest memory is of standing at the front door of Regina Laudis on a winter day in the early 60s with my Aunt Marion and being greeted by the rough Benedicamus Domino of Mother Mary Aline when Mother Dolores was already a young and struggling member of that community. I was one of those young people attracted to the stability and wholeness of that Benedictine foundation in the 1970s. I appreciated Mother Dolores' perspective on the events that transpired during that time and going forward into the present.

I am profoundly grateful to Mother Dolores and Richard for having written this book. Read closely, it is a remarkable story of a spiritual journey that is inspiring in its depth. She does not minimize the struggles involved in responding to the call of life in a Benedictine community, but she writes profoundly of the fulfillment that comes from responding fully to the call of God. Thank you for taking the time and energy required to write.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Readin': When I Left Home

I was in the US from July 11 through July 28; in Meriden, Connecticut from the 11th through the 15th and then in Seattle from the late evening of the 15th through the morning of the 28th. While I was at home I did quite a bit of reading. I had ordered a couple of books via the Internet and they had arrived wh.ile I was in Jordan. There they were, just waiting to be read.

I've been a Buddy Guy fan ever since I saw Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at The Shaboo Inn in Willimantic during my undergraduate days at UConn. This year Buddy published his memoir, When I Left Home, which he wrote with David Ritz (who has previously cowritten biographies of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among others). For a 76-year long journey (Buddy turned 77 just last week), this is a relatively short retelling.

Buddy spent the first, and most formative part of his life in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the son of a sharecropper. The house he first lived in had no electricity or running water. The first 'guitar' he had was one he made from two tin cans and wire stolen from the window screens of that house. He eventually received a guitar as a gift from a friend of his father's who thought "He could do something with it". He most certainly did!

Buddy left Louisiana for the growing electric blues scene of Chicago in September of 1957 (when I was just 5 years old and starting kindergarten at St. Joseph's School in Meriden) when he was 21. He spends a major portion of the book talking about the early years in Chicago, trying to get established in a city rife with talent. The list of people he worked with is a Who's Who of Chicago blues music; Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Pinetop Perkins, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Hubert Sumlin. Muddy Waters served as a surrogate father while he was getting established.

Buddy developed something of a split musical personality as a result of the two main strains of his work life; playing in blues clubs on the South and West sides of Chicago and doing session work at Chess Records. Buddy was a wild entertainer in the clubs, starting his shows from outside the club or even in the bathroom by virtue of the 150' cord on his electric guitar. In the Chess studios he was a quiet session man, "Just tell me where to sit and I’ll do the rest — quietly."

Buddy very matter of factly talks about his influence on the British blues/rock scene and casually  mentions a raft of people who learned from, and idolized, him; Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ron Woods, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix among them.

Guy spends a lot of time writing about his personal and professional relationship with the mercurial harmonica player, Junior Wells. I was particularly interested in this section as that was where I first became familiar with his music. Watching someone perform on stage, you have no idea what they are really like, what they think, how they feel about things. It was great to get his view of things.

For the past 10 or 15 years Buddy Guy has been putting out some of the best music of his career and getting some late, though well-deserved recognition (6 Grammys and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). Sweet Tea (2001), Blues Singer (2003), Skin Deep (2008) and Living Proof (2010) are some of his best work and they were all recorded after he turned 60!, I particularly like Sweet Tea as it was recorded very simply using old instruments and amplifiers and has a real 'old time' feel to it. Buddy covers this section of his life, surely one of the most creative times in his career, in just 5 pages.

Buddy released a new album, Rhythm & Blues, just after I left the US. I'm going to have to wait until December to pick up a copy when I return there.

When I Left Home was a quick read. I finished it in just two days. It told a really great story of one of the most influential bluesmen of the 20th century and was well worth the time.

These are the things that interest me. If any of them are of interest to you, great. Read along


About Me

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I'm currently 60 years old. I currently work as the learning management system specialist for American University of Madaba in Madaba, Jordan. I was originally certified as a high-school English teacher and taught school for 13 years (1 year of substituting, 1 year of 7th grade, 2 years of a combined 5th, 6th, 7th grade, 9 years of 8th grade). I've worked for hardware and software companies for the past 23 years doing training, training materials development, certification test development and other education related stuff. My wife and I have raised four children to adulthood; some of them live at home at the moment, but that won't last (they're too independent for that). We live at home with 2 Golden Retrievers, 2 black cats, a crazy cat, and, during the winter, 70,000 coho salmon.