Monday, April 13, 2015

Fear of the Follower

The light of the sun pierced our squinty lids as we emerged from the old school Nashville movie house. We’d spent the last 90 minutes watching “It Follows,” a dark movie surrounded by dark settings inside a dark theater, and the abrupt shift to utter brightness washed out our vision and left us blinded.

The word “Follow” has become the focal point for this hit indie horror movie and a popular (at least initially) horror TV show (“The Following”) in the past few years. It's a scary word, "follow." Rockwell always feels like somebody's watching him*. Ironic, no? That, at the same time the number one goal of today's teenager is to be famous, we find ourselves horrified by the notion of anything or anyone following us.

* -- Or, at least he felt like that back in the mid-'80s. Maybe he was being watched by Sting. That guy was creepy, watched every step you took and made out with high school girls when he wasn't teaching them that famous book by Nabokov.

To be watched, to be followed, to be paid attention to. It's the stuff of our biggest dreams... and our biggest nightmares. Since the beginning of time, or at least since "Cool Hand Luke," few things have been as desirable to most of us in our developmental years as finding that perfect balance between being adored and belonging, being both a unique snowflake and also part of something bigger.

"It Follows" is not the most entertaining horror movie in history, but it is one of the most ambitious. The entire movie is an allegory -- or perhaps a collection of allegories -- for what makes the teenage experience so tumultuous, horrifying and, often only in hindsight, irreplaceably and incomparably beautiful. Every detail in the movie exposes those confusing teenage desires, yearnings the kids don't even understand, yearnings that would be impossible to explain even if they didn't mutate and evolve almost daily.

Much of being a teenager, when looked at through a glass too darkly, is not too much unlike a horror movie. Granted, in real life, the gory brutality is in the head and the heart rather than spilled out in bloody masses on the family driveway.

And absolutely nowhere is the mashup of teenage fear and anxiety, hope and hunger more prevalent than in the realm of romance and sex. Are romance and sex the same? Is it OK to want one without the other? Is being sexually aroused in and of itself wrong? How certain can you be of someone else's love for you? How certain should you be before you sleep with him/her? What if your certainty proves flawed? How much will heartbreak destroy you when love goes awry (and, if you listen to adults, they seem certain that teenage love won't last, right? So you can't risk getting too attached to this person because it's all doomed before it begins…)

Who's to say how much mental hard drive space these questions occupy in the average teenager's mind, but it's a lot. At times in the hormone-addled life, these questions are as big or bigger than questions about God and the self. If you throw the fundamental religious background onto this particular topic -- What will God think of me? -- the fear only grows. Suddenly your eternal soul is at risk, and allowing your unwed penis or vagina to engage in naughty, dirty, sinful activities is akin to worshiping the devil himself.

Nothing about "It Follows" blatantly tries to address these questions and concerns, but it's always there, lurking, following. The curse at the heart of the movie. The reactions of friends and family to the girl getting cursed (Is she cursed, or mentally unstable, or is she simply poorly-equipped to handle rejection and betrayal? Is there really much of a difference between the three in the world of teenagers?). The way the cursed kids die. The way the demon following you is never in a hurry to get to you, is at least as interested in driving you crazy as in killing you.

The movie is not unlike Taylor Swift's "Out of the Woods." Both capture the fatalism and fear inherent in teenage romance (arguably in all romance), and neither are insulting enough to offer easy or happy endings.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Winter of Our Mild Content

Be still.

The still small voice.

Lately I've feasted mightily from high fictional drama like hyenas dine on the still-warm carcass of a felled antelope. My recent reading and TV viewing past is littered with homages to melodrama, even as I work to convince myself that it's all very believable and convincing.

From the Game of Thrones books and show to The Walking Dead or The Road, from Justified to The Sisters Brothers, I've always been captivated by the notion of (seemingly) ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, often horrific, circumstances. For me, the most compelling stories involve characters who are not, on the basic level of humanity, not all that different than ourselves.

But a precious corner of my attention is preserved for those who can make art out of seemingly ordinary people living seemingly ordinary lives. That is, people who can remind us that the lives we live have their own merit, their own beauty, their own purpose. My favorite author, Richard Russo, excels at reminding us that the everyday is full of plenty of drama.

And lately, it seems my life has been surrounded by plenty of intense drama, with acquaintances and coworkers, family and those a degree or two away from me being stricken, one after the other, with lethal, or life-threatening illnesses. Nothing like the threats you see in Westeros or from the world of zombies, but rather invisible threats coursing unseen and too-long undetected in their bodies. Their lives have become vicious battles as we move through our unassuming days.

The book I recently finished, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, took me back to that place or regular lives, of stillness, of small, quiet voices and their capacity for comfort or distress.

It's a near-perfect book about our normal imperfections. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment (Warning: Almost spoiler alert here) is to remind us, over and over, that most of the dramas that come to a head in our lives end without melodrama. They build up to a nerve-tightening crecendo and then, because most normal people usually remain sane and cling to some measure of common sense, they resolve as they should, as we ought to hope they should.

Plainsong tells the story of a year in the life of Holt, Colorado, a fictional small town. Good luck telling exactly when this story takes place, because it doesn't so much matter. It is out of time, beyond it's limiting hour and minute hands. In even the smallest towns, an author must still limit the focus on a sampling of souls, and Haruf chooses to focus on people who are, or who yearn to be, decent.

When did "decent" become an insult? When did being a "decent" person become an almost-backhanded compliment, a synonym for boring, for Not Great And Not Awful?

Might we be better off, as people, as communities, if we celebrated decency a little more intentionally, more intensely? Decency is what a man like Dean Smith sought, where people aren't rewarded merely for doing the right thing, because the reward is waking up the next day knowing you did the right thing.

In Plainsong, the number of times I found my breaths stuttering with emotional build-up, where I was moved so close to tears that the words got a little blurry, numbered over a dozen. I doubt it will move all readers so regularly, but it did me. Time and again, in the smallest of ways, characters step up in ways that make you feel, when you really think about what they're doing and how often we expect so little of people, a little more whole, a little more alive.

Most of us are blessed with an undercurrent of grace that flows so strong under our feet, that carries us through our lives, often so gently we forget or fail to notice. This isn't to say bad things don't happen, because bad things always do. But the grace remains, and it continues to flow.

Being decent ain't so bad after all. But it takes an amazing book to remind us.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sore Losers vs. ?

Author's Note:  I didn't realize that as I was writing this, Kentucky themselves were being sore losers. My apologies to those readers looking for that story.

Here's the double-edged sword of all competitive events: if you gloat, if you preen, if you vociferously celebrate the losing of a team that you hate, well, all of that is fair game.  However, if you say anything that attempts to explain the loss, then you are a "sore loser."

Case in point:  tonight, for reasons personal to my wife, we were for Kentucky.  Normally, she hates Kentucky, but this year, circumstances dictated otherwise.  I followed the game late.  In particular, I reacted to the refs' no-call on a shot clock violation against Wisconsin down the stretch. I also reacted against the "one and a half steps" of a large, Wisconsin white boy driving the lane who managed to spin, among other things, in his long, arduous path to the lane.

When the game was over, and Kentucky had lost, one friend texted, "Jesus is a Badger."  I responded, "The refs are a Badger." My other friend responded, "Oh, the chant of the sore loser."  Etc.

So, here's the problem:  you can invoke religion, you can kick someone when he is down, you can be a complete jerk (I'm not obviously not claiming in this case--none of us cared abut this game much) and all of that is completely acceptable, is fair game, is how it's done. But try to justify why your team lost, and you are a sore loser.

Yeah, I've been on both sides of it. Heck, I'm a Steeler fan. This time, I didn't care that much one way or the other, but like any good husband, I am going to support my wife for her reasons.

In the last month, I've read any number of explanations about what is wrong with college basketball, have heard personal testimonials about other reasons.  Funny thing about those people is that when their team or the team they are for wins, all of that goes out the window.  For example, if the problem with college basketball is Kentucky, then the second that Kentucky loses, they are no longer the problem.

The "winner" culture that pervades our sports and our society skews our understanding of situations by creating a mindset, which we all accept, that what the winner did was right and what the loser did was wrong.  Surely, we know that things are not that simple, but it is too easy to accept the "all win" vs. "all lose" perspective that analysis seems tedious and, really, pointless.  The losing candidate in a political campaign, for example, immediately sees all of his or her ideas invalidated.

In sports, it is probably worse.  Except in the Olympics, where you at least get a medal, the runners-up in a competition become immediately irrelevant.  So Kentucky, who strung together an unprecedented unbeaten streak this season will be forgotten, or will be a footnote, because they did not win the last game they played.  Achievement by sports teams is not recognized, only winning is.  Pundits will be parsing for weeks what Kentucky did wrong, because they were the mightiest and the mightiest fell.

I don't know that there is anything to be done about it.  It is so ingrained within us that now, with the immediacy of technology, we can gloat the second a contest is over.  So any kind of self-reflective response to a competition is likely to be lost in the moment, especially when we can celebrate victories that we don't own around the world as fast as we can type them.

We all know the many rights, privileges, and, indeed, histories themselves, which are granted to the winners.  I just wonder if that is worth a little examination.  Typically, for example, the biggest gloaters are not those whose team has won, but those whose team has lost and so they must wish ill fortune on teams that haven't, perhaps teams that have beaten their team, as a way to assuage their own anger and disappointment.  It's human nature.  But that doesn't mean that it is acceptable behavior.

Maybe, in the way of good and bad, Heaven and Hell, chocolate and vanilla, Yin and Yang, in addition to the label "sore loser," we should solidify the counter-label "ungracious winner."

Friday, April 3, 2015

The New CD Ritual

When a CD comes out that I have been anticipating for sometime, especially if I am expecting it to be great, then I follow a basic ritual that involves not listening to it the second I have it, but waiting, denying until there is a time when I can give it my full attention.

I mention it now because Sufjan Steven's Carrie and Lowell came out this week and I have been waiting for it, waiting for the return to the early Sufjan CDs after recent forays into electronica and neo-Simon and Garfunkel.  (I don't say that critically;  there are a number of songs from Stevens' recent CDs and EPs that I really enjoyed--but there is always excitement when someone's work is described as returning to some kind of roots.  But there is almost always disappointment as well.  Human beings can't be expected to resume what they once were, years later, much as we think we want that.)

My ritual goes something like this:

1. Wait until night.
2. Wait until I am alone.
3. Wait until I can play it at a reasonable volume.
4.  Wait until I can fully focus on it.

In a way, and I've thought of this often, my listening is like the Springsteen song, "Something In The Night":

I'm riding down Kingsley, 
figuring I'll get a drink 
Turn the radio up loud, 
so I don't have to think, 
I take her to the floor, 
looking for a moment when the world seems right, 
And I tear into the guts, 
of something in the night. 


The idea of getting to be alone in the dark and turn it up loud enough that there is nothing else to think about is one of the greatest pleasures of new music, especially if it is music with which I have some base familiarity, so that when the songs begin, I know what has come before and can begin to expand on that understanding, well, that is "a moment when the world seems right."

What I can't ever know, and I have been doing this for at least 39 years, is whether the experience will justify the ritual.  Albums that I came to love, like Steely Dan's The Royal Scam and Led Zeppelin's Presence, threw me off balance on first listening and left me wondering past midnight what had happened.

And so Sufjan.  Carrie and Lowell is an almost fully acoustic CD.  It has the homemade, intimate feel of his Christmas CDs, which can be both a compliment and a criticism.  There are no drums, no bass, so the songs had better different enough from each other to justify the sonic similarity.  At the same time, the songs are close in the room with you,  private, personal, and sometimes without context.  

So a man who seems to share his world with you through song had better make the songs stand out.  Often, this happens.  "Death With Dignity," "Fourth Of July," "John, My Beloved" and others successfully straddle that Sufjan line between accessibility and what the hell is he talking about?  Others seem too personal, too cringeworthy, too how-long-ago-did-your-mother-die, to funereal to mesh with an uninformed listener.  Kind of like Lou Reed's Magic And Loss.

As I texted a friend today. "It's good, not great. Kind of one note, but very listenable."  I'm on my 5th listen, and I stand by that.  Sometimes Sufjan is too personal, too precious in his vocals.  We know that.  We forgive that; sometimes we even enjoy it.

But it's also true that by the 5th listen, the songs begin to work themselves inside you, like everything else that is Sufjan, and I find myself wanting to be on his side, not railing against it. Even if I don't know what his side is.

Back to that first listen, several nights ago, when each song came at me new.  What captures me first with Sufjan, well, there are several things.  There is the unfettered honesty.  There is the underlying, sometimes direct, spirituality.  There are the hummable melodies.  There are the things that he can get away with saying that no one else can.  There are the very simple lines ("you'll never see us again" or ""she left us at that video store" that seem to say much more).  All of those serve as the foundation for later, richer listenings.  He creates a kind of groove, and keeps digging it deeper each time I return.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I Guess I'm A Conservative

It's been a long time evolving and has taken even longer for me to admit, but I guess I'm actually a Conservative. It didn't happen overnight.

I drank the Liberal Kool-Aid for years, so convinced I was that to be on the left side of things was the right side.  I was for all of the "right" (I mean left!) causes--the poor, the minorities, the women and all of their issues, the anti war stance, the environment, the social programs to "level the playing field," education reform, and God knows what else.

But a funny thing happened in the last election.  As I watched Republican after Republican sweep into office, I was shouting at the television, especially to lower class white people, "You idiots!  You are voting against your own self-interests!  They've got you caring about issue that have no impact on your life!"

And that was the moment.  Woah, I thought, that's me.  I've been voting against MY own self-interests!  They had me thinking that somehow I was serving the common good and the betterment of society by voting in favor of issues that won't ever affect me at all.

And the switch flipped.  So, I'm still a little rusty at this Conservative thing and I don't have all of the lingo down or anything, but I've been working on where I stand so that you will have no doubt that my new colors are my true colors.  I am a Conservative.  I will be voting that way, for Republcans and Tea Partiers and Libertarians (who I used to call people who are afraid to admit that they are Republicans) and anyone else who is for me.  Here are some of my new positions that I'm trying out:

--Let's be candid: I'm not the 1%, but I am the 5%.  Yeah, me and the wife do well enough.  Well enough that anything that trickles down will at least get to us.  And I've got investments and retirement that aren't always a sure thing, so, yeah, I'm taking any tax cut that comes my way, and I'm not blinking an eye.  I've worked for a long time to get my portfolio where it is and I don't want it to be jeopardized by the whims of the American economy, especially as overseen by a Democrat.  Sure, I've made a ton of money while he has been in office, but there's no guarantee that will continue.  You could probably be in the 5% too, if you worked a little harder.

--Let's say I owned a company that makes plastic forks.  Well, guess what people serve wedding cakes with?  That's right.  Plastic forks.  So, me, I'm a. Christian, and if I had a plastic forks business, those forks would be Christian, too.  The last thing I want is my fork in some gay couple's mouths when they feed each other cake, you know?  As a Christian business owner, I should get to say where that fork goes.  Even if I don't have any forks.  That is not the point.

--Let's be careful here, but I don't know if you've worked around women.  I have.  And in my 32 year experience, they talk a lot.  My office has secretaries on both sides, and they are always going into each other's offices to talk.  I've even come in early, and, since they get to work before us, I've heard them talking about us and the stuff we do.  They are not very respectful.  I don't think they should make as much as we do, which is right, because they don't.  Because they are secretaries, uh, administrative assistants.

--The older I get, the more I think it would be cool to have a gun.  I want to be able to fire one.  I think it would be cool to go to a range on the weekends and put those glasses and goggles on and then have the targets come towards me.  In case targets ever come towards me, which they have, in my house, but I didn't have a gun and so I had to yell and scared them away that way.  A gun would be much more decisive.

Those are just a few of the new places where I stand.  Soon, I'll be quitting the recycling that I'm doing, going to church a whole lot more, thanking our servicemen and our men in blue, and not worrying about that guy at the gas station, the black woman I see pulled over when everyone else is speeding, or the woman who cleans my office who tells me it's a good month when she is able to save  $10.  Why did she get a minimum wage job anyway?  Those pay crap.  Why doesn't she go back to school.

Oh, well, this world has a lot of problems for those who won't help themselves and there isn't a whole lot that I can do about it.  We got to find a way for them to get some internal motivation.  Still, it's kind of sad to see them, but I realize now that is is just weakness on my part and helps them not at all.    It's like my white, heterosexual friend said about that new law in Indiana: "I'm not going to change my vacation plans over it."  He's right.  It's our world and we need to get to as much of it as we can.  The safe parts, anyway.

Beach Thoughts

Beach Thought #1: Connected

Two teenage girls walk past me, some 20 feet closer to the ocean, their feet sploshing in the thinnest of ocean water at the edge of the tide. They are talking about God only knows, but probably friend stuff, like boys or clothes or that band that had that song. The only item on their person was their smartphone.

After observing days of humans walking the Florida beach, one thing more clearly divides people into two groups than any other, and that's the smartphone.

If you are 12-30 and female, you are walking the beach with a smartphone in your hand. If you are that age and male, you probably have it in a pocket if you have it at all. But it's not essential. The guys seem as . Beyond a certain age, you keep it in a handbag or something, or you don't even bring it to the beach, or you don't even have one to begin with.

Nothing about this observation is original, but the obviousness of it seemed so stark on the beach, a setting where everything seems to beckon you to seek simplicity, to exist non-electric. Single-gear bikes, old school fishing poles, towels and coolers, simple folding chairs and minimal clothing.

In these surroundings, the smartphone stands out in the starkest of contrasts. Having it be the only item on your person as you walk the beach says so very much about how we think of being connected. The older people think of being connected to nature, or to themselves, or to a book (and, arguably, imagination). The younger people might think of all this, but what they most value is being connected to everything that is not directly within their reach. The people who aren't with them, the information that is not in the moment all that relevant, the music not of the ocean but of that band that had that song, traveling through their tiny phone speakers.

Beach Thought #2: The Strangeness of People Watching

The stunning, modelesque 20-something woman who walks onto the beach, disrobes, tans for exactly an hour, exactly 30 minutes on each side, gets dressed and leaves. She traveled all the way (however long that was) to the beach so she could lie down there and tan. (And yes, I realize this says far more about me and what I find odd than it says about this woman.)

The old over-tanned man with the pot belly, bicycling leisurely down the beach on a machine straight out of the New Belgium logo, except with a parakeet riding on his handlebars.

The old man pulling an old cart of fishing poles and other items, wheels squeaking as if it were a dying ice cream truck or a carnival freak. He pulls it into the tide, possibly in the hopes that the water might keep the wheels from shrieking at such a painful volume. His septuagenarian friend walking in pace with him from the sand, apparently finding it not the least bit odd that his pal was slogging through the water and fragile soggy sand, apparently seeing no need to lend him a hand. 

Beach Thought #3: Fiction?

Not 20 yards from where our beach house exited onto the beach, amidst the dunes, a woman around my age had parked her old school bike and draped her towel over it to create a sort of shade block in which she was lying down. She was looking up into the sky and smoking a cigarette. By the time she got back on her bike an hour or so later, she'd smoked at least a half dozen, probably more.

I imagined her having told her husband or live-in boyfriend that she was going to take her daily ride on the beach. She does this every day, under the guise of getting her exercise, leaving her condo on that bike, riding a few hundred yards down the beach to this hidden dune, where she smokes and wonders what happened to the life she thought she'd be living by now. She just knows this bike ride that's not really a bike ride is the most liberating part of her day. She knows that the sky looks different every day, as her smoke rings rise up to the clouds above.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Return Of Jim Dandy

As part of my now-monthly ritual of getting this blog to 12 posts a month, I offer up my second helping of random, gathered thoughts that have little bearing on each other.  The good news? It's like getting 8 blogposts in one!  The bad news?  Some of these thoughts are probably outright pointless or stupid.

1. Are my fingerprints on file somewhere?  I don't have any crimes or arrests to my name so far, but I've been wondering if there wasn't some kind of Cub Scout project way back when and we went to a police station and got fingerprinted.  And it probably would have seemed pretty neat at the time, if it happened.  Now, of course, if they are still my prints, I'd just as soon they stay mine.

2.  If you drive in southern Georgia, you may encounter a billboard in I-75 that reads "#Secede."  I suppose I could have tracked down the website to see what the sponsoring organization, Society Of The South or some such, but is there any need?  154 years after that first secession, states like Georgia and those that surround it, like mine, want to restrict rights in the name of the Federal government, by God, can't tell us what to do.  Progress?

3.  One of the pleasures of spending a few days in a more tropical climate is encountering the unique flora.  One humid morning, we paused in front of a Bird Of Paradise plant, that origami-like creation of bright reds and yellows, and greens that makes you wonder if the Creator Of Plants felt more creative in warmer climes.

4.  Human adults have a genetic disposition against carpooling.  You can see it in a city like Atlanta if you get in the HOV lane ( which means you have bragging rights for at least two people in your car) and pass car after car after car in the afternoon morass and you start working math problems in your head, like, if there were two people in each car instead of one, how much would speed increase on the crawling highway?

5. HBO's Vice, which I must claim has either been under marketed or mis-marketed, is a brilliant representation of Szymborska's lines: "We're extremely fortunate/ not to know/ precisely/ the kind of world we are living in."  In two 15-minute reporting vignettes each episode, the show illuminates how some trouble spot of the world is far worse than you thought it was.  While you might be inclined to think, why would I want to watch that, like any impressive wreck, it is hard to look away, and you come away oddly amazed that the whole human endeavor is even holding together as well as it is.

6.    The most amazing aspect of the NCAA tournament for me each year is how I, like so many others, can get so caught up for one team that I am living and dying during every possession of a game whose teams I don't really know and have previously cared about even less.  I watched no college basketball game, other than silent visual in the background in a bar, the entire year.  I know none of the players.  I can't explain the phenomenon.

7.  Many people like to shop when on vacation.  I suppose I am no different, except that I am.  All of my purchases are comestibles-- cheeses, tomatoes and other produce, grapefruits, vinegars and wine musts, Trader Joe's staples, jams and pastes, etc.  I've discovered that my vacation "souvenirs" tend to be items that might allow me to recreate some of the tastes of the vacation place. It's a strange habit that fills cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers.

8.  Here's a study in human nature:  a large pink ball of the type you would encounter in a large wire bin in a Wal-Mart, a cheap toy, shows up in the yard of a house where four boys live.  Being boys, their home and yard are filled with sports balls of various sorts--soccer, basketball, rubber balls, dodge balls.  But this plastic pink ball, this mysterious visitor, suddenly holds sway over all.  Each boy wants to hold it, bounce it dribble it.  Each boys wants his time with it, while all other balls lie fallow.  Arguments spring up endlessly, with grabbing, wrestling, poking, trying to tip the ball away.  Because no boy has ownership, all have both full rights and none.  The smooth pink ball has disrupted the entire home.  One suspects that when the boys get home from school, they will each look for it.  Perhaps one of them has hidden it, but as soon as he emerges with it, all will want time with it.