Monday, February 16, 2009

Day of the Dead Presidents

I was much surprised late last week to learn that I actually have Presidents Day off from work as a paid holiday. Thanks to the HR magic of the "floating holiday" this has not been the case at my previous two jobs, and Presidents Day has generally lost out in the floater sweepstakes to other days I'd rather have off, such as Martin Luther King Day, The Friday Before Memorial Day Weekend Day, Nate Doesn't Want To Go To Work Today Day, etc. So far (with the small asterisk of having to be awake for an hour to make breakfast for Kyle and myself before she had to drive back south to McMinnville, this definitely not being a holiday for her) I've managed to wake up, totally unaided by an alarm clock, just about exactly at 11 AM. This means that about 50% of my goals for the day have been accomplished already.

Before I concoct a list of other practical tasks to do in the 6 remaining hours during which I'd normally be at work, I'd like to pay a brief tribute to some former-President-related things that I like, other than Washington and Lincoln and any other former Presidents who may be explicitly honored by this omnibus holiday. In the spirit of extreme, still-in-my-pajamas day-off laziness, no links are provided.

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Nixon In China by John Adams
John Adams' first opera (first performed in 1987) paints former President Richard Nixon as a sympathetic if not very recognizable figure: Alice Goodman's fairly abstract libretto largely paints him as a stunned witness to his own unfolding history, on both a global and personal scale. I haven't seen a production of the opera yet, meaning I can't talk to how it works as a whole, but Nixon's music is some Adams' best and catchiest stuff -- he relies on the boppy and/or mesmerizing repeated rhythms and chords of "minimalist" music much more than he does in more recent works but uses them to build a traditionally structured and almost romantically expressive whole. I'm looking forward to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of the work in their 2010-2011 season, which I intend to make my way to New York to see.

Bonus points for John Adams sharing a former President's name, which in casual conversations about musical tastes can cause non-classical listeners to ask surprised questions about our nation's second chief executive composing music, and why some of that music was large-scale operas about political events of the 1970s and 1980s.

"James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants
I came to realize a couple of years ago that They Might Be Giants' Factory Showroom has some serious (if quirky) chops as an indie pop album, stringing together a number of catchy, well-put-together songs ("Till My Head Falls Off", "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?", "Exquisite Dead Guy", "Spiralling Shape", "Pet Name" being favorites of mine) that beat back my old, common-enough prejudice that They Might Be Giants write likeable but dorky music mostly appropriate for dorky fourteen-year-olds.

The album's song that best fits the dorky-fourteen mold, "James K. Polk", is still great in its own way. It's a galloping ballad that, over a strumming acoustic guitar, lays out the main points of Polk's campaign and presidency with the precision of a middle school book report ("[he] made sure the tariffs fell / and made the English sell the Oregon Territory / he built an independent treasury / having done all this he sought no second term") and serves as a tongue-in-cheek indictment of Manifest Destiny. As the song notes at the end, "precious few have mourned the passing of" former President Polk or his aggressively expansionist policies.

Simpsons jokes about former Presidents
The Simpsons' "I Love Lisa" episode is hands-down the funniest combined Valentine's Day / Presidents Day episode of any TV show ever. Its centerpiece is a school play about former U.S. Presidents, including a classic little song about the "mediocre Presidents" -- "There's Taylor, there's Tyler, there's Fillmore and there's Hayes, there's William Henry Harrison ('I died in thirty days!')". And in the episode where Homer goes into space, he greets a James Taylor performance of "Fire and Rain" with the words, "Wow, former President James Taylor!" Having thought this episode was extremely hilarious during my formative years I pretty automatically assign James Taylor the "former President" label in my head every time I think of him.

Steelers Outside Linebacker James Harrison
Jack, in a nod to the Simpsons joke described above, has referred to Harrison more than once in emails or in gameday text messages as "former President James Harrison". That's all I have to go on here but, seriously, go find a clip of Harrison's Super Bowl interception return and watch it again. It just keeps getting better.

Former President George W. Bush
The man was a terrible President but I can honestly say that I've never been happier to see someone become a former President in my life, and hopefully never will be again.

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That is all. Many happy return of the Presidents Day to all of you.


Blogger Jack said...

The "former president" line suggested itself in connection with James Harrison after he completely trashed the Ravens on Monday Night Football back in '07. (Also pretty easily findable on YouTube is the kickoff return where he levels Ed Reed and forces a fumble that goes about ten feet up in the air.) Now it comes to mind every time James Harrison does something unbelievable, which is to say with some frequency.

2/16/2009 5:38 PM  

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