Monday Morning Smile: "Light As A Feather" - Cat Doorman

Light As A Feather cover

Light As A Feather cover

Typically these Monday Morning Smiles focus on tracks that weren't conceived as kids music, but I thought this track was just the thing needed for a sunny spring Monday morning.  It's "Light As A Feather," in both title and effect, and it was released last December by Portland's Cat Doorman, with help from fellow musician and artist Alexis Gideon.  You can not only stream the track below, but all proceeds from buying the track (just $1) will go towards Save the Children's Syrian Refugee Fund.

Win win, all the way 'round.

Books for Graduates (Books Featuring Graduation Speeches)

I can really only remember two graduation speeches in my life: my own at my high school graduation, and Ted Turner's at my college graduation.

Believe me, I'm not bragging when I say that I think my own was the better of the two.

I'm not suggesting that mine was good, mind you -- it was well-structured, generally grammatically correct, and included a semi-funny line or two -- but I sincerely doubt anyone in attendance remembers the substance of my speech.  (They might remember that I delivered it two separate times about an hour apart, but that's an entirely different story.)

But Turner's -- that one was awful.  Even twenty years later, his brief, rambling, speech is remembered as being the opposite of inspiring.

At some point a few years back, I became slightly interested in graduation speeches turned into books.  I think the inspiration was probably David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which was subsequently turned into a book, quite possibly the first example of a single graduation speech turned into a book, or at least a 21st century speech.  (More on the Wallace book below.)  So I picked up one or two copies of books inspired by graduation speeches each year, and now I'm here with an entire post worth of them.  And since many of the children who were the first "readers" of the site -- or at least the beneficiaries -- are reaching graduation age, at least on the high school level, I thought it'd be a good time to compile some thoughts in that regard.

Now, I'm not obsessed with graduation speeches, so I encourage those of you who are to spend several hours (or days) among the speeches collected by NPR, or even longer reviewing the speeches at Graduation Wisdom, which I have come to think of as the Zooglobble for graduation speeches.  (Maybe it's the other way around.)

But if I had one simple observation from reading the books I'll discuss below is that graduation speeches can be basically grouped into 2 types: those that suggest what to do, and those that suggest how to be (or think).  There's nothing that particularly makes one approach better than the other, but I think it's fair to say that during the more than a decade of running this site, when it comes to kids music, I have a preference for being over doing, for songs that suggest a way of moving through the world and interacting with others rather than lessons to be learned (especially in concrete tasks).  Again, it's personal preference, but I think that preference applies to these books as well.  I think the advice on how to be is much more likely to be remembered down the line than advice on what to do.

For each book I've provided some details, a brief thesis statement, its applicability to high school students, and some comments.  I would note that sometimes what might make for a good speech delivered in person might not make for as engrossing an experience when read in a book several years later and disconnected from the personal experience.  As many fans of music can attest, the live experience can be substantially different from the recorded experience, and that, I'm guessing, goes for graduation speeches as well.  (I've also provided an Amazon affiliate link in case any of the comments inspire you to purchase a copy for your own family or neighborhood graduate-to-be.)

Without further ado then, let's jump in.

Very Good Lives cover

Very Good Lives cover

Book:  Very Good Lives (The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination)

Author:  J. K. Rowling

Thesis: Failure helps you know your strengths; imagination lets you empathize with others.

OK for high schoolers?: Yes

Comments: Rowling is, by an order of magnitude, the most famous author on this list.  When she makes indirect references to Harry Potter, she makes them secure in the knowledge that the vast majority of her audience (Harvard in 2008, and the rest of the world) will catch them.  (In person, I suspect those lines went over great, while they feel a little cheesy on the page.) Rowling doesn't romanticize the days before she sold a kajillion books, but level-headedly draws upon her early experiences during and after graduating from college to draw a couple lessons that probably are especially important for her privileged and successful-thus-far Harvard audience, but are important for any young person moving on to a new stage in life.  The book design by Chip Kidd, featuring illustrations that complement the text, is also a plus.  [Watch hereAmazon]

Make Good Art cover

Make Good Art cover

Book: Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art" Speech

Author: Neil Gaiman 

Thesis: Make good art.

OK for high schoolers?:  Sure.

Comments:  OK, there's more to it than that ("Make good art"), but there's nothing else particularly pithy to say as he has a list of items ("First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.  This is great.").  Gaiman gave this speech to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012, and while there's nothing I would disagree with in terms of the content (it dances on the edge between "what to do" and "how to be"), there's also nothing that is all that memorable either.  Except for the book design, which is also by Chip Kidd, and boy, is it memorable, but mostly for being actively unreadable.  It's hard to describe it other than the font size, organization, and even type to some extent changes from page to page, making it difficult to read.  In the context of Gaiman's words, Kidd's design choices feel true to Gaiman's spirit, but it's an off-putting experience.  [Watch hereAmazon]

If This Isn't Nice, What Is? cover

If This Isn't Nice, What Is? cover

Book:  If This Isn't Nice, What Is?

Author:  Kurt Vonnegut

Thesis:  Too many to summarize

OK for high schoolers?:  Only for the most literary-obsessed ones.

Comments:  Vonnegut is probably the most well-regarded author on this list, but the speeches collected here, while letting his warm, humanist values shine, feel barely edited -- they are the ones which feel most like a speech, not a tightly-written essay.  They are predominantly comments and observations on the world around him rather than guidance to the listener.  And some of the advice that does make it through -- the title comes from a comment by his Uncle Alex, who would often pause to appreciate the small moments by saying "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" -- is frankly diminished in book form by being repeated in multiple speeches.  Vonnegut is an essential author to read, but I don't think this particular book makes for the best gift to most graduates.  [Amazon]

10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker... cover

10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker... cover

Book:  10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Ever Said

Author:  Charles Wheelan

Thesis:  Don't do everything just because a path has been set up for you.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes.. maybe.. parts?

Comments:  Wheelan delivered a brief speech at Darmouth College's 2011 Class Day (the day before graduation).  His speech was titled "Five Things...," so this book is an expanded experience in multiple ways.  This book might be the worst offender, as it were, of providing good advice at the wrong time.  "Take time off," reads item #7, and he suggests taking a year off before going to a new job post-college (or college post-high school).  Mid-May or early June is a lousy time to hear such advice, useful as it may be.  Some of the advice (Number 6.5: "Read obituaries") is quirkier than you'll typically read in these sorts of things -- the book title isn't entirely wrong.  This isn't my favorite book on the list, but among the more "do"-oriented books here, it's probably the most useful in getting the reader to think.  [Amazon]

You Are Not Special cover

You Are Not Special cover

Book:  You Are Not Special

Author: David McCullough, Jr.

Thesis:  You don't need to be perfect.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, of course (see below)

Comments:  Of all the books here, only this one grew out of a high school graduation speech.  David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and son of well-known author David McCullough, gave the commencement speech at the school at which he teaches (Wellesley High School in Massachusetts) in 2012.  For some unknown reason, the speech went viral (I guess it's always a little unknown why things go viral).  Two years later he published a full-length book inspired by his speech (found here at the very end of the book).  I found the ideas (more "do" than "be" in nature) perfectly reasonable -- do things for the satisfaction it brings not to impress others, the achievement rat race is exactly that, work hard -- but the format hard to read.  I found the text a little rambling, and the audience seemed to shift from high schoolers to teachers to parents, and the blanket assumptions he makes based on a career of teaching to overachieving families of suburban Boston and Hawaii's rich may sound entirely foreign to other parts of the country.  (If you are, however, in one of those types of areas, there may even be some value to reading this book before your graduation day.)  The strongest parts of the book, frankly, are where McCullough is simply talking about teaching.  It's not a great graduation book, but there's a very interesting book about teaching trying to escape.  [Watch here, Amazon]

What Now? cover

What Now? cover

BookWhat Now?

Author: Ann Patchett

Thesis:  "What now was never what you think it's going to be..."

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes

Comments:  There are a lot of warm texts in this list, but to me this is the warmest on the list in terms of love and understanding floating off of the page.  The book is a slightly expanded version of her 2006 commencement speech at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College.  The speech and book recounts Patchett's less-than-direct route from being in high school and wanting to be a writer to becoming a writer.  All that time, she's constantly being asked (or asking herself), "What now?," but she suggests that staying in the present moment -- staring, listening -- is more important than keeping the eyes on the (next) prize.  She is clear-eyed but generous in her understanding of her younger self.  Chip Kidd designed this book as well, with lots of pictures of paths of one sort or another (we'll put this in the successful design category, making him 2-1 here).   Also, the postscript on how she jettisoned her original speech and the value of giving the speech is worth the price of the book.  [Amazon]

Now Go Out There (and get curious) cover

Now Go Out There (and get curious) cover

BookNow Go Out There (and Get Curious)

Author: Mary Karr

Thesis:  Understanding what scares you will help you see the entire world through clearer eyes.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though Mary Karr's life, which she shares a little bit of here, is not for the faint of heart.

Comments:  Mary Carr, Syracuse professor and best-selling memoirist and novelist, delivered this speech at Syracuse's 2015 commencement, a couple years after her fellow Syracuse professor and best-selling short story write and novelist George Saunders spoke to the graduating class.  (She dedicates this book to him.)  Karr makes very clear that life can be difficult and that we're all scared or worried or afflicted in one way or another.  ("Don't make the mistake of comparing your twisted-up insides to people's blow-dried outsides," says Karr.)  The speech takes a little while to get to the inspirational part, but once it does (along with art by Gregg Kulick that changes, almost imperceptibly at first, from page to page), it builds to a satisfying cumulative impact.  Her empathy is a fierce and powerful force.  [Watch here, Amazon]

Congratulations by the way cover

Congratulations by the way cover

Book:  Congratulations, by the way

Author:  George Saunders

Thesis:  Be kind.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes

Comments: "Accomplishment is unreliable," Saunders says in his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse, and in this brief volume, he builds a brief but eloquent case for a focus on being kind as something that continues to provide (internal) benefits throughout life in a way that trying to be successful doesn't always.  (See statement above re: accomplishment.)  Saunders begins the speech with an anecdote about a failure of kindness from him in seventh grade that he clearly still thinks about, and it's probably the single most powerful personal anecdote in this entire collection of many personal anecdotes.  Chelsea Cardinal's art has echoes that of Gregg Kulick's for Mary Karr's book (or, rather, the other way around, since this book was published first), and it's probably the best match of text and art in this list of books.  This is a moving book, and I like it very much.  [Watch here, Amazon]

This Is Water cover

This Is Water cover

Book:  This Is Water

Author:  David Foster Wallace

Thesis:  You get to decide what has meaning, and what doesn't.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though I think the points will matter more to a college crowd.

Comments:  And so we come to really the ur-text for this whole small genre of books, the book that essentially kicked off the modern 20th century rush (comparatively speaking) of books based on graduation speeches.  (It's sort of like how people made music for kids before Raffi came along, but Singable Songs for the Very Young literally created the kids music category in stores.)  The popularity of Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College may be due in part to Wallace's cult status as author, including fans trying to reconcile the fact that he talks about how to live a life that's not soul-killing with the fact that he committed suicide.  (Note: I'm not saying in any way that's a worthwhile question or makes Wallace's words any less valuable.)

But for me, someone who really is pretty neutral on Wallace as an author, the speech works precisely because it doesn't talk a lot about success or life hacks.  It talks about how life can be difficult and routine at various points, and how you choose to look at life is, Wallace argues, the very point of the education that his audience is completing.  This is the book I've thought most about since first reading, and I think that most recipients, if they keep the book as they move throughout their lives and the country, will find re-reading it most worthwhile.  [Listen here, Amazon]

How To Worry Less About Money cover

How To Worry Less About Money cover

Book:  How To Worry Less About Money

Author:  John Armstrong

Thesis:  Spend less time worrying about money, more time figuring out what we need

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though given its writing style and topic, college graduates will probably be a more receptive audience

Comments:  I had thought about including Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! as a bonus book on this list, as a book that's often given at graduations.  But I've never actually read the thing.  So instead my bonus book is this book, part of a series from The School of Life, a London-based group dedicated to building emotional intelligence.  Their main series of books take a philosophical approach to "How To" questions, providing not so much self-help as self-maintenance.  The books, which are of generally, if variably, good quality, are essentially philosophy books grappling with issues of direct relevance in fairly down-to-earth language.

This book might be my favorite of the half-dozen or so I've read, mostly because it builds its case slowly and steadily until you realize that money problems aren't really problems about money, they're problems with lack of clarity of what someone really wants from life.  And while there are parts that seem like they're written for a 45-year-old suburban London resident whose million-pound flat isn't as nice as his co-worker's two-million-pound flat, I think there's enough in here about more universal concerns that I think a 22-year-old trying to figure out how to do what she loves while earning enough money to go through life would find it useful.  It doesn't provide "the answer," but helps the reader a little bit in figuring out the answer for themselves. [Amazon]

Launching Season 2 of The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel logo

Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel logo

When I first talked with Chris Tarry in the early days of fall 2016, the podcast he helped put together, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, had barely begun, with only one full episode released.  Even with just that single episode, it was clear that the serialized mystery featuring the middle schooler Mars and his friends trying to figure out why some of their friends are disappearing had production, writing, and voice acting talent in spades.

Less than seven months later, the podcast joined the Panoply network as their first kids podcast, and has been widely celebrated, most notably in securing a Peabody Awards nomination, one of only nine podcasts to be so recognized (and the only one specifically for a kids' audience).

So like the title character in Season 1, the show itself has most definitely left the launching pad and is heading To. The. Stars.  That, in case you aren't a fan already, is the catchphrase of Oliver Pruitt, the namesake of the mysterious Pruitt Prep and a man of hidden motivations who constantly manipulated Mars and others during the course of Season 1.

Season 2 begins Monday, and with the beginning of the second season, I thought it'd be fun to check back in with Tarry to see how his life with the show has changed, and what we can expect in Season 2 -- not plot twists, mind you, what's the fun in knowing that?, but the overarching story goals.  If you haven't started subscribing to the show for your older elementary schoolers, now's the time.  Of the growing number of podcasts for kids, this is still one of the best.

Zooglobble:  What are your narrative and story-telling goals with this season?

Chris Tarry: With season two we've really tried hard to continue the arc of the story in way that feels like we've picked up right where we left off. In season one, Oliver Pruitt was clearly in charge, and there was this sense that he was in control of the various story revelations and pacing of the podcast, and that he was operating a fair distance (perspective wise) from the time line of the show. I don't think it's giving too much away to say that in this season, the show begins to catch up to him.(edited)

Zooglobble: What was the most gratifying part of the past 7 months or so since Mars Season 1 came out?

The most gratifying part of the show since last season has been that our audience has continued to grow even though we haven't released a new episode in months. It's also nice that the podcast has started to receive a little success in terms of recognition (the Peabody nomination, a few other high-profile awards and press). As you know, we conceived and launched the show as an independent production, so to see it getting the attention outside the traditional podcast areas is a very nice feeling.

What do you hope to accomplish through your affiliation with Panoply (congratulations!), both in terms of storytelling and production as well as broader awareness, that you couldn't as an independent production?

We're really excited about our partnership with Panoply. They have been incredibly supportive and the relationship has allowed us to take the production of season two to new heights. We hope their substantial reach in the podcast world is going to help take the show to the next level audience-wise.

Do you already have plans for Season 3 mapped out?

Yes, we've got season three sketched and hope to be starting production soon!

What are you wearing to your Peabody Awards ceremony?

I'm going to start with pants and work my way up.

Radio Playlist: New Music April 2017

Time once again to spin some new music.  (The last list, from March, is right here.)  A bit shorter than last month's list, but even at 21 minutes long enough to hopefully get to at least one errand or dance party.

As always, it's limited in that if an artist hasn't chosen to post a song on Spotify, I can't put it on the list, nor can I feature songs from as-yet-unreleased albums.  But I'm always keeping stuff in reserve for the next Spotify playlist.

Check out the list here (or right here in you're in Spotify).

**** New Music April 2017 (April 2017 Kindie Playlist) ****

"Birdies' Ball" - Red Yarn

"Beginning of the End" - Chibi Kodama

"Shy Shark" - Wayne Potash

"Hello & Goodbye" - Rabbit!

"Superhero Dance" - Paul Cargnello

"Home Is Family" - Ginalina

"Robot City" - Einsteinabot

"We Are Pandas" - Princess Backpack

How I Got Here: Dan Elliott, Pointed Man Band (Graceland, the Library and Midnight Vultures)

Dan Elliott playing the accordion

Dan Elliott playing the accordion

Sometimes I see the submissions for the "How I Got Here" series by kids musicians talking about albums important in their musical and career development, and their essays are episodes of discovery to me, albums I'm knowledge of in name only.  But other times I'm much more familiar with the albums, and reading is an experience of seeing an old favorite through someone else's eyes (or, rather, hearing it through their ears).

That's the case this around, as Portland's Dan Elliott, AKA Pointed Man Band, shares a few words about Paul Simon's Graceland and Beck's Midnite Vultures, two albums I've still got sitting on my actual shelf.  And while those albums might not be the first albums that come to mind when you hear Between the Waves and the Cardoons, Elliott's latest lushly orchestral-pop opus, reading the essay, you can see where he's coming from.  So step inside his Hyundai and find out how those albums influence him.

Although the name Pointed Man Band is a direct homage to Harry Nilsson’s The Point!, well before I knew that album, I spent my most formative years with Paul Simon’s Graceland. Growing up, our household consisted of plenty of Greatest Hits records but the full album cassette of Graceland was always close at hand. I’m pretty sure we wore it through. This is an album that I know from beginning to end probably better than any other and it’s also the album that I owe much of my musical curiosity.

Graceland album cover

Graceland album cover

From the accordion opening of “Boy in the Bubble,” you know you are in for an adventure. And the songs themselves help to sing you across the vast landscapes, combining the familiar with the unknown. There is always a story being told to capture your attention and the South African band presents a new take on what you thought you were going to hear. Paul Simon changed my world with this album and he taught me to always be thirsty for ways to cross cultures, have a sense of humor, and push boundaries when creating music.

Throughout high school I was continually seeking out music from different parts of the globe. Starting with a helping hand of Ladysmith Black Mambazo being an integral part of this album, it became easier to draw paths and connections to other artists. During my late teens and well into my twenties, I was always going to the library to find the the world section which eventually lead to my love of Samba, Tango, Reggae, Indian Ragas, Jazz, Classical and the list grew on and on.

As Graceland opened my eyes and ears to the music of the world, Beck’s Midnite Vultures opened my mind to how to get over teenage angst and have a ridiculously good time while making, more often than not, no sense at all.

Midnite Vultures album cover

Midnite Vultures album cover

One night as a freshman at university, I saw the music video for the first track off of Midnite Vultures and I was hooked.  The video was as completely and perfectly nonsensical as the song it accompanies.  The album is absolutely incredible, elusive of any one genre, hysterical and a studio and headphone masterpiece.  For me this was an amazing example of a person not taking themselves too seriously, on so many levels, but making sure to pay the utmost attention to quality and challenging themselves to advance. I found and still find much comfort in that.

This album is so lush and so well produced that I can’t help but want to revisit it again and again. Lyrics would work their way into personal jokes with good friends and there’s nothing quite like turning some of these tunes up and singing along with your best raucous falsetto. Not to mention, if I can ever find the song “Debra” in a karaoke book, it’s on!

They are two vastly different artists and albums, but together they continue to inspire me to always pursue new and different paths. And above all, not to lose that desire to produce my own personal headphone masterpiece.