Saturday, November 21, 2015

It's Just A Meal

You know I love Thanksgiving.  You know I love all holidays.  But this notion that Thanksgiving, almost by definition, is a stressful endeavor is simply not true.  It is just a meal.

And yet, if you cruise around the Internet, you would think that Thanksgiving was the culinary equivalent of testifying in a trial where you are the defendant.  You'd better have your facts right.  You'd better have everything in order.  You'd better have your story straight.  Because one slip up, and you are guilty of culinary turkicide.

That is bullshit.

The reality is more like this:  if you bought any turkey out there, fresh or frozen, organic or fed its own young, and tossed it in the oven with absolutely no seasoning or preparation at all, not even salt and pepper or the massaging of butter under its skin, it would still taste pretty much the same, assuming you didn't cook it into a Sahara state of overdoneness.  Whether you brined it or didn't, air-dried it or didn't, basted it or didn't, it's still going to be just a humble, not that special turkey.  Oh, I know there are ways to make it taste better, but most most people are going to get a couple of slices of it, pour some hopefully-decent gravy on it and be satisfied.  So where's the stress?

And the sides?  Really, how hard is it to make mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes or stuffing/ dressing or open a can of cranberry sauce or some Mac and cheese or some green beans or some roasted Brussels sprouts or a pumpkin pie or a pecan pie?  If you just want to cover the bases, which is just fine, this is an easy holiday.  Even easier, and only slightly more expensive, you can buy all of this stuff already made from a reputable place, and still have a great meal.  Maybe no one will even know.

Plus, who has what else to do on Thanksgiving?  It's a freaking holiday!  If the food comes out late, if the asparagus casserole takes a little more time than expected, who cares?  Give them some cheese and send them back in to watch some more football.

But in our declining civilization, this feeling persists that we need to make some big deal out of the Thanksgiving meal.  The culinary world would have us believe that we need to embrace the latest Thanksgiving trends, when most of us like to do things the way our parents or grandparents did it on Thanksgiving, for the most part.  That's why they call it comfort food, for gosh sakes.

I've never had a member of my family say, "Bob (or Dad), what innovations do you have planned for the meal this year?  Could we have quinoa instead of mashed potatoes?  Where is your turkey's farm located?  Are the oysters in the dressing sustainable?  Is there any chance that you could get us some corn locally-sourced from the fields where the Pilgrims originally planted and Squanto tossed in fish?"

Cruise the Internet, though, and you would think that the basic meal you have in mind is either all wrong or fraught with peril.  Has there really ever been a Thanksgiving guest who said, "You know, this turkey is too dry.  I'm outta here.  I'm headed to Cracker Barrel. I prefer their atmosphere."  I think not.  But the Internet is swamped, not only with ideas for Asian-infused turkeys or creative uses for herbs in desserts, but also with posts that feed neuroses that don't need feeding.  Guests need feeding, not neuroses.  And feeding guests on Thanksgiving is not that hard.

Sure, I plan to put on a spectacular, well-timed meal, but if it isn't, I doubt I'll be disowned or socially-shunned because of it.

So why are there articles about "Thanksgiving Jitters" and what to do about them or "The Introvert's Guide To Thanksgiving"?  Do we really need a Thanksgiving Day series of "game plans" year after year after year?  Serve the beer or wine early and the dessert and coffee late, and it will all be fine.

Relax, have fun, eat when you feel like it, and, whatever you do, don't talk about the Syrian refugees with your Conservative relations.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Shooting In My Church?

Who might be the first one shot? Where would the gunfire come from? How long would I have to react if I wanted to try and keep my children safe?
It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting in my usual spot in the choir loft in my usual Protestant church in the usual South. These are not typical thoughts in my head at a time and place like this. I’m not much for Bloody Sunday thoughts, even if I really love U2.

But this Sunday was different. On the previous Thursday and Friday afternoon, my church received a string of detailed and threatening phone calls. They came from a single man using a small collection of phone numbers. He threatened to visit employees’ homes, including the pastor’s. He named members of our church. He threatened to shoot people outside the building. He threatened to kill the children in our daycare.

On one of his calls Friday afternoon, he said, “I’ll see you Sunday morning.”

The police got involved a couple of hours into the calls on Thursday afternoon. They “negotiated” with the man as they attempted to figure out his location and, perhaps, motivations. They kept at least one officer in the parking lot or on close patrol the entire weekend, and both entrances to the church lot were guarded by police cars on Sunday morning.

While the church leadership and police had to take the situation seriously, everyone involved knew deep down the threats were bluffs. Crazy people don’t give fair warning like this. They just show up, and unsuspecting innocent people just die.

Still, the staff sent an email to the congregation informing them of the threats and the ramped up security presence planned for Sunday. The unwritten message: “You will be protected, but there is no guarantee of your safety.”

My wife and I never once discussed not going to church on Sunday morning. It wasn’t an option. We would never let fear trump faith. This doesn’t make us heroes. The odds of that man showing up were less than the odds of me getting hit twice by lightning in the same week. Our bravery was at best a logical recognition of microscopic odds.

But as I sat up in that choir loft, and as the service began, and as I looked down at my family seated in the very front row, logic wavered.

If that man did come, if he came with an automatic weapon, if he entered the sanctuary from that particular side, my family would be the first or second group in the line of fire. If he came from any other entry point, I could get to them.

I could even possibly use the building’s pillars and structure to get to the assailant…

That last thought wasn’t about heroism, either. It’s the recognition that contemporary recommended strategy in the face of a single armed assailant is to bum rush him or flee. To hide or to cower is almost certain and inevitable death in such a relatively closed space. You either get to safety swiftly, or you risk your life to end the threat.

These were my Sunday morning church thoughts.

As the service reached a midpoint, as the odds of an assault drifted from the tenths of a percentage to the hundredths, my thoughts drifted to the conservative Christians in America who work so hard to find ways they are insulted, who insist they are being disenfranchised and persecuted at the hands of callous corporations and a relativistic, even hostile, government. And I chuckled in my choir seat.

Bless their hearts.

But I get it, I do. I can’t remember the last time I felt more religious than I did that Sunday. Feeling even the teensiest bit threatened revs up the adrenaline. It’s like Jesus Steroids. Life got more vivid. Love got stronger and more appreciated. Life felt… alive. This crazy man’s stupid, baseless threats were the best thing to happen to my faith in a good while.

After all my thoughts of being the Master Protector of Innocent Christian Souls and other random thoughts of assault and violence, my mind eventually went to the Christians and Muslims who have been beheaded in the Middle East. I thought of the devoutly religious, past and present, who have gathered in buildings or homes knowing the threat of death was real, was present, was in the high 90s rather than the fractions of a percent. I thought of how strong it must make their faith, to be willing, constantly, every single minute, to die for the right to own those beliefs.

As the preacher stood to send us back out into the world, I was flooded with gratitude. I was not grateful for our safety from a crazy gunman. Rather, I was grateful for the gift of seeing the possibilities we rarely have to consider, a pinprick hole of exposure to a danger that others experience as an almost-blinding, rarely-ceasing light.

We are blessed. All of us. All the time. Unto our last breath.

The more I remember that and believe that, the happier I am.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Debate this!

With Kennedy/Nixon, it came down to a couple of things: 1) that Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow was not appealing on black and white television and, 2) that Kennedy's "youthfulness" or whatever it was, created the impression that he had "won" the debate, whether he did or didn't.

I am here to say that the notion of a televised debate as a way of determining which candidate would make the best president is wrong.  And that watching debates is a complete waste of time.

Oh, I certainly get the importance of the Lincoln/Douglass debates way back when.  The stakes.  The level of oratory.  The time frame and how it allowed for the full development of positions.  The audience?  Well, maybe, because if those in attendance could hang in for that, they certainly have a patience, a commitment, and a fortitude that we do not possess today.

A SIMPLE REALITY:  The debate format in no way mirrors the behaviors that will be expected of a president or a vice-president.  Being able to think quickly on one's feet may be a virtue in some jobs, say, a police officer or a stock trader, but a president doesn't have to do it.  In fact, we don't want her or him to do it.

Instead, we want our president to make a reasoned judgment after a thorough presentation of all of the facts available from as many sources as are relevant.

The "winner" of a debate has not, by virtue of "winning", demonstrated presidential behavior.  Sorry.

Add to that a couple of other realities.  First, the debates that we have the opportunity to observe now have their winners and losers determined by polls, by phone call questions, by small moments and not by major policy clarifications.  Sure, perception matters, but perception based on what?  The sound byte?  The bluster?  The ability to get the audience to laugh or boo?  The "Gotcha"?

Now, I'm not a big believer in the negativity of the Gotcha question.  It seems these days that what qualifies as a Gotcha is a question that asks a candidate to come to terms with, to own or to try to explain away something that he or she previously said.  Hey, it's the Information Age!  We can access everything that anyone of any public status ever said.  So he or she should have to explain.

But that doesn't validate the debate concept.  People do misspeak.  People do make Freudian slips.  People do lose their cools, especially when they are constantly grilled by media.

The second reality is that, if the debate structure has any validity at all, then that is only true if there are two, or maybe three, people participating in the debate.  I feel sorry for the Republican candidates trying to brand themselves in 8-10 minutes of speaking time during a 2-3 hour debate.  And 11 debates?  Really?  Will there be anything left to say for that many debates?  Heck, a season of Game Of Thrones only has 10 episodes and those are only an hour and sometimes they cover 800 pages of a novel and 7 kingdoms!

Those Lincoln/Douglas Debate viewers would be looking at over 24 hours of vapid Republicans, not because they are Republicans, but because they have so little time to say anything.  Those Lincoln/Douglas debate attendees would be exhausted, despite the fortitude of their times.

My friend says that if we didn't have debates, then how would we get to know the candidates, but isn't that a false argument?  We would get to know the candidates in whatever other ways there were besides debates, just as we do now, at least those of us who not watch debates.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Devouring The Song

It started last night.  I was at a high school dance, chaperoning, of course.  When it came time for the last song, the slow one, the romantic one, the "belly rubber," the DJ busted out Adele's recent but already mega hit, "Hello."

I had heard the song before, in a room with a bunch of high school guys who were supposed to be studying, but instead were going crazy over Adele's latest.  They asked me what I thought of it, and I kind of shrugged my shoulders.

But when I left the dance last night, "Hello" was kind of in my head, and, as I had noticed, most everyone at the dance, student and chaperone, but me, knew every word to the song.  After it only being out a couple of weeks.

So I jumped in.  I went for it.  I embraced my inner pop listener.  I, for once, joined and became part of the phenomenon. I binged.

And at nearly the end of 24 hours, I have probably heard the song 15 to 20 times.  I listened to it all the way home, from the dance venue to the didn't-have-any-supper Sonic stop and the long line there approaching midnight.  I played it out to Cracker Barrel this morning, over to Publix.  I introduced it to my wife a couple of times when we went to get her glasses fixed.  I sang it in my head, thought about it, waited in the car for her and broke down the lyrics.  I let the song get inside me.

I would never do any of this for any of "my" songs, tending to think that most songs have a shelf life, and if they are great songs, why rush them toward their expiration dates?  But I know little of Adele, missed the last craze, can't claim to be a fan or not, and so the song, catchy as it is (and odd as it is as a dance closer), is disposable to me.

"Hello" is an unusual song, a song out of time.  Built around an Em-G-D-C ( perhaps in a different key) verse and the same chords in different order (Em-C-G-D) for the chorus, the premise of the song is fantastical, at least in a romantic way.  The speaker calls an old lover from many, many years ago to see if he'd "like to meet to go over everything."  Um. No. I wouldn't. You wouldn't. He wouldn't. Who would?  Reopen old wounds wounds?  Not hardly.

But it's difficult to ignore that kind of pain, maybe more difficult to pretend you never had it.

The other bizarre detail is that the speaker claims to have called a thousand times, but the former lover she is trying to reach is "never home."  The song lives in a universe where cell phones don't exist, where that many unanswered calls would be a clear, unambiguous message.  And unable to shake her self-obsession (I guess she is talking to an answering machine?), she takes solace in the facts that a) she called to apologize and b) at least she tried all these years later.

The chorus, the oh-so-catchy chorus, shifts each time between "Hello from the other side" and "Hello from the outside", both very interesting distinctions.  The first seems to echo a kind of war/conflict that won't end, while the second reinforces a Springsteenish idea in the song that she got out of "that town where nothing happened" while maybe he didn't.  Or I'm wrong.

My daughter was singing the chorus around the house today, independently of my project.  It's ubiquitous, it's that engaging and maybe, if you listen, that unnerving.  But as for me, I have gorged on it, and now, if it will let me, I will move on.  I'd like to think that I have devoured the song, that there is nothing left but a carcass of skin and bones, but I don't know.  I find myself plunking it on the guitar, mapping out my own take.  I just don't know if I'm finished with it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Can It At Least Be Subject to Debate...?

To say I have found myself flummoxed and frustrated by what is transpiring right now on college campuses across America, highlighted by events at Mizzou and Yale, would be a gross understatement. I'm almost obsessed with trying to understand it while constantly fighting a kind of frightened revulsion.

A friend sent a link to a New Yorker piece that leans strongly in support of the activism I'm struggling to support even as I (as a moderate liberal) agree with some of the concerns and larger issues at play.

For example, I believe #BlackLivesMatter. Yes yes, All Lives and Cops Lives matter. But these are not exclusive notions. And Black Lives Matter. It can stand alone, and it needs to stand alone, without exceptions or "but but buts" from those who feel like they got left out of the circle.

And I believe the incarceration problem in this country is a problem of systemic racism. "The New Jim Crow" is a painful book to read and better ignored than digested by anyone who wants to believe we have moved beyond issues of race and prejudice in this country.

Below is a very slightly adjusted version of my email reply to her. It is full of questions. I don't pretend to have many answers.

First thought:
Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” (from the New Yorker piece)
How "long in coming" can anger and resentment at Yale or Mizzou be from a sophomore? Now, a sophomore or junior may have long-simmering concerns about racism in general, in society in general. But resentment aimed at their specific institution? They've only been there a year. Or two years. It's not fair to pile a lifetime of experience with racism at the feet of an institution that only began its relationship with you one-tenth of your life ago.

And this is a big concern for me. Colleges are being expected to create an environment that is not possible to be created, a space free of drunk rednecks (who might or might not be students), a place free of people who draw penises and swastikas on bathroom stalls (you can't even escape that at Tremont Tavern).

So, what really is the bigger concern here? That an anonymous person uses the N-word on YikYak, or that we have decided that reading the N-word on YikYak can have the capacity to render a student incapable of feeling safe on their college campus, of attending class or eating properly?

Second thought:
The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. (from the New Yorker piece)
This is a dangerous arrangement of logic upon which to agree. Who defines "the powerful"? Who defines the "relatively disempowered"? Am I powerful*? Is Hillary Clinton disempowered or powerful? Is Ben Carson powerful or disempowered? Is the female gay Chinese student who, at one of these rallies, said "black people can be racists" and was booed and hushed... is she part of the powerful, or part of the disempowered? Is her perspective permitted? Or does it "hurt the brand" as we the powerful marketers like to say.

Is the house master of a Yale section the "powerful"? Who gets to decide that? Because when I see that interaction, I see an outraged young woman who is being supported by a group of others, standing in the face of a single human being, unarmed and trying to stay calm. Who has the power there?

Third Thought:
On NPR and in several other places, the word "empathy" has been used. The disempowered and disenfranchised are demanding empathy. But again, who gets to determine whether someone is attempting to empathize? Who gets to judge that? Increasingly we're being set up to believe that only the disenfranchised or disempowered has the right to determine whether another is empathizing properly or sufficiently.

I can't help but believe it would behoove many people in this moment to reread or rewatch "The Crucible."

Toward the end, as the accusations have piled up, as the veracity of accusations verge on the ludicrous, the self-certain and self-righteous Deputy Governor Danforth explains his method of "trying" these cases. He uses the logic that witchcraft is a crime with only two witnesses, the witch and the victim, because it is an invisible event and cannot have bystander witnesses. Further, the witch cannot be trusted, so the witch's testimony is rendered moot. What is left, singularly, is the testimony of the "victims." This is the logic of the Salem Witch Trials. Those did not end well. It is the logic of the Red Scare. That did not end well. And, increasingly, it looks like the kind of logic being cultivated on college campuses in matters of sexual assault and prejudice. It is difficult for me to see how this ends any better than those previous examples where such logic was the driving force.

How are we as a society -- and particularly the young generation currently growing up before us -- going to define "safety"? How will we define "pain" and "threat"? Who gets to determine what is safe, what causes pain? (It would seem, at least in part, that President Obama might agree with this concern.)

More distressingly for me, when did a college become more responsible for creating an antiseptic Disney theme park free of pain and completely safe than for creating a space for learning, for a kind of education that can be difficult, and combative, and challenging? When did it become admirable for us -- on all sides of these issues, mind you -- to demand agreement rather than negotiating and working toward better mutual understandings?

This friend also passed along another helpful article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Helpful, I claim, because it seeks to aid in understanding.

On the other hand, there is the almost satirical list of demands at Amherst. Demands. As in, hostage negotiations. I honestly thought these were a joke. That they are not speaks to the level of hysteria and loss of sense of proportion happening in a lot of theoretically intelligent young minds.

* - I agree that I am the beneficiary of white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. So, arguably, is my unemployed drug addicted racist second cousin in smalltown Tennessee. Does this privilege make either of us "powerful"? I'm not so sure I can make that leap.

[NOTE: The above was written Friday afternoon, hours before learning of the attacks in Paris. I am cyncial but hopeful that these events might give us all a moment to pause when it comes to terms like "safe space" and "pain" and "justice." But I doubt it.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Have All the Firestarters Gone?

IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: You men are tresspassin’. Show me a warrant or get off my land.AGENT: We don't need a warrant.IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: You do unless I woke up in Russia this morning!

IRV THE KIND OLD MAN: Norma, those men came here without any warrants at all. Tried to take them off our land. One of them shot me. What do you want me to do? Sit here and turn them over to the secret police, if they ever get their peckers up enough to come back? Be a good Nazi?
This might be a controversial, or just flat-out crazy statement, but here goes: “Firestarter” is a seriously underrated movie.

Yes, the 1984 Drew Barrymore movie, her follow-up to “E.T.” Yes, based on a Stephen King novel, even though we have been taught to believe that all movies based on Stephen King books are painfully awkward and flawed. Yes, with a syrupy synthesized soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Yes, with some questionable special effects.

Dammit, it’s a decent movie. It’s almost even Very Good!

There was a time in our collective American popular culture where our distrust of government was not about how they spent our money. There was a time when we were much more Zen about the undeniable reality that a government the size and scope of ours could never be a perfectly streamlined and efficient beast.

There was a time when we cast a suspicious eye on Washington, D.C., not because we distrusted their fiscal responsibility, but because we distrusted the lengths they would go to exercise control, to gain an advantage over their citizens. We worried about the ethics and morals they were willing to ignore in the name of power, and we shuddered when they used a word like “security” as their explanation.

There were soldiers. They fought wars. They fought in uniforms. They were out there, in the public eye, defending us. There was a time when we didn’t even love these folks unconditionally or collectively. Many thought of them as suspect, as unthinking operatives for conniving power mongers. But even in our distrust and condescension, we never despised or distrusted soldiers like we did The Others. Those who fought in plainclothes. Those who engaged in espionage, who assassinated, who slept with the enemy to gain intelligence. Those who fought with silencers, stiletto knives and sniper rifles.

There was a time when we were far more concerned about whether the government valued any of our individual lives and liberties rather than whether they valued our tax dollars. Movies like “Marathon Man” and “Blow Out,” “Serpico” and “Soylent Green,” “The Conversation” and “Logan’s Run.” These movies called into question the motives of those expected to keep us safe.

King wrote “Firestarter,” it would seem, during the denouement of this vibe, in 1979 and 1980. I guess I’m just wondering what happened to make us trust our government so much when it comes to our safety and well-being? Why are we now so much more worried about them plundering our wallets than trampling our bodies when both are defended/excused by an interest in The Greater Good?

That the government wants my money for The Greater Good, to me, doesn't feel nearly as unsettling as the notion that they aren't particularly concerned about my safety or well-being so long as they can hide behind The Greater Good.

So, thanks Irv Manders, the Kind Old Man, for knowing "what's right with America."

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dia de los Muertos

My father’s picture from his Naval Aviator days of the early 1950s rested at the edge of the dinner table. In it, his hand rests atop the ladder to the jet cockpit. He’s halfway up, left leg ready to take that next step, and he’s looking upward, in the parlance of fighter pilots, at 10 o’clock. His eyes are right above the horizon, and they’re on fire with pride and excitement. He was fully aware of the privilege he was granted, to soar above the earth with expert precision and speed. The sky was his foster home for that time in his life.

On a small serving plate at the foot of this picture sat a dill pickle, a small serving of pork tenderloin, and three Snickers bars. A small cup of water sat next to the plate.

My 7-year-old son learned about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos at school last week. It’s the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” He’s got a big healthy dose of OCD in him, so he was instantly hooked.

He came home last Wednesday and announced that Sunday night, we would celebrate Dia de los Muertos as a family, and we would celebrate his grandfather, my father. This was not up for discussion. By the time we realized how serious he was about this plan, it was too late for us to object or turn back. We were booked.

My son arranged everything. I mean, he didn’t cook the food or pick the menu, but he insisted that the meal be something “Poppy” would love, and he was the one who chose the food and drink items to be placed next to Poppy’s picture, a picture he selected after a weekend of contemplation walking around in my mother’s living space.

Did it matter whether Poppy loved dill pickles that much? Nope. Did it matter that Poppy would much more likely be drinking Jim Beam than water without ice? Of course not. What mattered is that my son, named in part after this man, wanted things this way.

And then he insisted that everyone around the table share a cherished memory of the man. (No, he didn’t say “cherished memory.” He said “Now, talk about Poppy.”)

You see, my son was born six weeks after Poppy died. He’s the only child of ours who will never know the relative for whom he has been named. And he hungers for knowledge. Who was this man? What qualities of his might I today, or one day, possess?

As someone named after my own biological father, also a man I never had the privilege of meeting before his death, I understand this hunger. And I also understand the frustration of wanting to know about a dead person but being surrounded by adults who insist such knowledge causes pain, and sadness. I understand being shooshed.

So around the table we went, telling a story, sharing a memory. My eldest remembered his pipe. My second daughter recalled his gruff voice and how friendly he was to people at church. I told of his love of grilling on the deck, always with charcoal until his last decade or so. My mother spoke of how so much of his happiness centered around his grandchildren… and Auburn football.

“Live together, die alone.”

But... must we grieve death alone?

So much of my experience with mourning, of wrestling with the grief of loss, is done in isolation. It’s the way most of us have learned to handle death. Sure, we have a funeral with lots of people, and then we all retreat into our separate hearts, and when the crushing sorrow revisits us unawares weeks or months or years later -- and the crushing sorrow always revisits us -- we are alone, or we seek isolation, like a panicked wounded animal. The crushing sorrow is our burden. It is both cruel and selfish to share it, or to expect anyone else to shoulder that load with us. So we hide. We bury. We obfuscate.

Why are we this way? WTF is wrong with us?

After our family Dia de los Muertos last week, I’ve decided we will, as a family, strive to once each month recognize someone we have lost. Most of these losses might affect one of us more than the others. Most of these will affect the adults more than the children. But we need to show them what it is like to wrestle with a crushing sorrow and seek meaning and value in the process.

We need to show them that death is an inextricable thread of life. We can either strive to embrace it, or we can ignore it until it crushes us.

NOTE: Inspired by my son and my own increasing encounters with friends and loved ones facing age and terminal illness, I began today reading Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End."