Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Risk

“You can get killed walking your doggie.” -- Heat

A day like any other in a tiny town in Georgia. Early spring morning, brisk and damp from an evening rain, but beautiful. The sun was just beginning to reveal itself on the horizon. The town elementary school was bustling and hectic as usual, busses and cars funneling in and out to drop off children for another routine day.

In an instant, the day was anything but routine, everything but normal.

A bus driver edges closes the bus door and edges forward to depart but does not see, below the line of sight, a 6-year-old boy standing, or walking slowly, in front of the bus. The child was killed instantly. Or we at least pray he was.

The nightmare has been reported all over our local news. Bloodthirsty idiots rushed to offer their opinions of the bus driver and everyone else remotely connected to the tragedy almost before the boy's body has been covered up, because why feel sad when you can have your own personal Jules "And you'll know my name is The Lord when I lay down my vengeance upon you!" moment thanks to social media and commenteratzi.

As quick as a lightning strike, a school, a community is struck. The hearts of two parents are torn like tissue. Adults hundreds of miles away feel a surge of panic over the uncontrollable fragility of life.

"Accident."

The word is verboten in the 21st century. We, being irrational control freaks, spoiled into believing all accidents can be prevented, cannot accept that a beloved boy could be killed in such a way without finding someone or someone's to blame. We'll seek to enact laws requiring front mirrors or front cameras on all buses. Because no one deserves this, and no amount of money should be spared to prevent it from happening again, as if we can litigate and legislate ourselves beyond our own mortality, beyond the mortality of those we love.

Experts are desperate to swing back the parenting pendulum, which has - we can only pray - reached its peak when it comes to children being micromanaged, controlled, manipulated, and scheduled. Today's children are delicate fragile flowers, except that flowers need dirt, and children can't even touch a doorknob without being doused in anti-bacterial wash.

"You're right. You're right. I know you're right." -- When Harry Met Sally

This is the line repeated time and again by Carrie Fisher's neurotic singleton. It can be loosely translated into "I do not have the strength of will or conviction stop myself from doing the moronic things I know I shouldn't do." That's what we are, as a modern parenting culture.

I know this because, even as we are deluged with articles in The Atlantic and other news outlets about grit, resilience, the perils of overprotection, the benefits of a (sometimes) unstructured and unsupervised childhood, we read about families who are raising their children on boats on the ocean and throw stones at them for placing their children's lives at risk for such folly. How dare they, right?

At 7 a.m. on a regular Monday, a boy was killed in front of his school during a routine start to the day. The parents, the driver, the school? None of them did anything wrong. It was an accident.

Perhaps, instead of taking this moment as an opportunity to judge anyone who could be complicit, who could have failed in this moment, we should embrace how much we take for granted all those regular boring routines performed hundreds or thousands of times every year that result in absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. We should be grateful for how often everything goes just the way we expect.

We've fooled ourselves into believing bad things only happen to stupid or careless people. Bad things happen, period. ("You're right. You're right. I know you're right.")

And maybe we should go easy on the families that choose to raise their children on the "treacherous" "dangerous" "deadly" open water, or other parents who choose many roads less traveled but chosen in the loving and committed interests of their children.

You can get killed walking your doggie.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Flash Gordon Kicks John Carter's White Martian Butt

John Carter, the epic failure of a movie you likely never saw, the movie that blipped in and out of theaters faster than you can say “After Earth,” is Flash Gordon for the 21st Century. This is neither pure compliment nor pure insult. It is the Flash Gordon we deserve.

John Carter, the original character, is technically Flash Gordon’s senior by 22 years. Edgar Rice Burroughs gave birth to Carter in 1912, while Flash first arrived in the early ‘30s. Surely Gordon is a derivative of Carter. In fact, from what I’ve been told by more than one sci-fi nerd, most great science fiction -- in writing, in comic books, in moving pictures -- owes ERB immeasurably for the universe he so deftly imagined a planet away in the young years of the 20th Century.

Being a trailblazer doesn’t always age well, however. George Lucas cited both John Carter and Flash Gordon as key influences for his Star Wars mythology. But for my generation and those following, we see John Carter and Flash Gordon up on the movie screen and only see how much the movies have been influenced by Star Wars.

Or, to put it another way, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lucas are in a saber duel, and Lucas says, “When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” To be fair, when Lucas tried recreating the magic with his prequels, the tide had passed him by.

I was only eight when the Flash Gordon movie hit theaters, and it arrived at the perfect time in my town, as my friends and I had honed ourselves on a full year of campy Batman reruns after school on one of the local channels. The movie, like the Batman TV show, perfect Camp Seriousness, that mystical gray area between something so hokey it cannot be taken seriously, and something unhealthily committed to Seriosity. Prince Voltan, the winged viking brute and perhaps the most beloved character in the film, is the Jimmy Fallon of the set, regularly cracking up at the insane hilarity of it all.

Yet. When Flash sticks his hand into the tree trunk in the thrilling game of death with Prince Baron, and when the two of them duel again on the spinning rotating spikey wheel of fortune, those who love the film find ourselves taking those scenes with the utmost intensity. Hokey or not, we really believe life and death is on the line.

Both Flash Gordon and John Carter rely on a suspension of disbelief that is difficult in modern times. We know that Mars cannot sustain life, and certainly not life that looks like Princess Whoseywhatzits. And we know that Topaz cannot possibly fashion a penis-shaped rocket that could possibly take its passengers 15 feet off the surface of the earth, much less into an entirely new dimension or galaxy or wherever the hell Mongo is.

The “tale of the tape” between the films is so terribly misleading.

  • Acting: Slight edge, John Carter
  • Plot: Teensy edge, Flash Gordon
  • Special Effects: Ginormous edge, John Carter

Yet despite being, measure for measure a better film, John Carter will never reach level of cult status of its predecessor, because it can find no campy joy in its pursuit. It expects us to take every moment of what is amusingly and distractingly absurd as sternly serious. Hell, the original trailer for the film played with Peter Gabriel covering Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage.” That’s not camp, my friends. That’s someone trying to make American Beauty in outer space. With Taylor Kitsch, bless his heart, trying to be Kevin Spacey.

What truly doomed John Carter, making what could have been a modestly enjoyable movie into something tedious, was the film’s nemesis. Instead of Ming, or Darth, or some clear-cut Very Bad Person, John Carter must fight… well, I’m not really sure. Three shape-shifting supernatural demigods whose motives and reasons for trying to puppeteer world domination of the red planet are nebulous, or stupid, or poorly explained. Take your pick.

The #BadGuyProbs don’t stop there, though. Why is one of them just chillin’ out in a cave on earth in the late 1800s? No clue. Why do they pick the biggest tool on Mars (a.k.a. Jimmy McNulty) as their future leader of choice? Because, apparently, he’s a moron and a tool. They behave like emotionally-wrecked versions of the three bad guys from The Matrix, except Agent Smith et al made a lot more sense, at least for a couple of movies.

Meanwhile, reporters live-blog their viewing of Flash Gordon. Flash will save every one of us. He stands for every one of us. John Carter will just save a bunch of Martians.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Epiphany #25: Who Will Say When It's Time To Go?

There's a bit of a music controversy going on in Internetville.  It's involves the booing of B.B. King.  Seems some insensitives at a St. Louis show took to shouting and booing Mr. King part way into a show to the extent that Mr. King could not understand what they were saying and stopped the music altogether.

It would appear that what they were saying was, however impolitely, "Play some songs!"  Music veterans and aficionados everywhere have, of course, risen to King's defense, basically promoting two schools of thought:

SCHOOL #1:  He's B.B. King.  He's a legend.  You don't boo him.
SCHOOL #2:  You should have known what you were getting into.  This is what a B.B. King show is like.

And by "this," we mean, a show where B.B. plays a song, tells a ton of stories, plays another song, tells more stories and, in this case, leads the audience in a 15-minute singalong of "You Are My Sunshine."  The show in question seems to have been a particularly weak version of an ongoing pattern.

As you might guess from my tone so far, I am in neither of these two camps.  While I am not advocating the booing of a wonderful blues gentleman, I am wondering what is the recourse for an audience that has paid $95 for a music performance and not gotten much in the way of music?  I am wondering, why doesn't someone let Mr. King know that, as The Band once sang, it is time for him to hang up his rock 'n' roll shoes?  I am wondering, what is the obligation of a performer to his or her audience?

If you go to see Neil Young, is it fair to be disappointed that he's decided to play an entire record that you've never heard before?  Yes, disappointed.  But have you gotten your money's worth?  Yes.  If you go to see a post-"Winning!" Charlie Sheen do a combative, rambling, self-serving monologue tour, should you be surprised that you get just that?  Probably not.  If you go to see a blues legend perform, is it fair to assume that he will perform the blues?

I guess that's where it gets sticky.  How many blues?  How many songs?  Is a singalong a fun part of a show, but can it go on too long?

Mr. King is 88.  He is a national musical treasure.  But does that mean that he can do no wrong?  Perhaps more exactly, does that mean that his handlers can do no wrong?  I'm not sure.  But I'm not quite willing to let the B.B. King corporation off the hook for this one.

I hope that I wouldn't boo in that situation.  But I also hope that future audience members at a B.B. King show could be made aware of what they were going to see, that a night with Mr. King would be billed as a a few songs, good stories, audience participation, and a stellar band.

And, I guess, most of all, I wish that some music legends would grant themselves the right to step away from the road and to live last years in a different way.  Even knowing that it is hard for a B.B. King  to stop what he has been doing for almost his entire life, I'd want him to realize that there is a time for all of us to go, to stop, to retire, to end, and that there is nothing wrong with that.   I'd hope that someone close would help him to see that so that the audience would not feel compelled to.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

First Listen Fallibility

Nobody gets a second chance to make a first impression. Is that true of a song?

The sounds that enter your ears the first time you hear a song are aural mirages. Just like the water you see is a deceiving combination of sunlight and heat, surface flatness and horizon lines, the first time you hear a song, you're rarely listening. You're in the car and yelling at the jackass who cuts you off at the merge. Or you're at your computer and your kid comes up to you and wants some water.

When it's not an environmental distraction, it's a mental or emotional one. We're pissed off at our coworker, or sad about the show we just watched, or distracted by the spat we just had with our spouse, or euphoric from news that our friend is in remission or got a new job. Or maybe we're just reading a magazine or frying an egg.

Even when you're listening intensely and intentionally, it can never be just you and a song. Few of us, especially adults, get the chance to approach a song tabula rasa. Ergo, replay.

Our connection with music is rarely about one night stands. If our bodies react physiologically to that moment when a song kisses our ear, licks our earlobe and whispers sweet nothings, then we'll by God find a way to meet that song again. We'll hunt it down and pay good money if we have to.

While we are not musically monogamous, we do seek long-term relationships. We want, as Howard Jones would say, an "Everlasting Love." We need a friend and a lover divine, in sonic form.

While dreamboat supermodel songs do exist, songs that are immediately hot and irresistible, whose charm and personality can survive all challenges for its love and affection, they're the exception. Not every song can be "Thunderstruck."* Most songs don't even want to be that skinny ass ho Rhodes Scholar who thinks she’s all that and a bag o’ chips, know what I'm sayin'?

Two weeks ago in New Orleans, we played a friendly game of "iPod Wars," a game where winning is as subjective as figure skating or Cupcake Wars, where your tastes are in the hands of the other ears in the game.

iPOD WARS RULES: Each participant picks a song. Said song is played for the group, and the group rates it from 1-5. A song must score a 4.0 or above average to make the “finals,” which qualifies it for consideration on a group playlist. Go around the circle until someone passes out or a really hot chick walks by.

One of my opponents-slash-friends in the game played a song. "Hayloft" by Mother Mother. I rated it lower than the other two judges. It was sort of punky-pop catchy and had this annoying love it or hate it repetition going on. "My daddy's got a gun, you better run."

Last week, I got the new Nickel Creek album. Serendipitously, they cover "Hayloft" on the album. It's the most upbeat poppy moment on the whole album. I knew almost instantly when and where I'd heard it before, and the knowing -- just the knowing that I'd heard it, even though I'd been unimpressed -- made me like the song more.

My original score was lower than it should have been, but not due to bias against my opponent. In my musical reality at least half the songs I truly love, my “5-star songs” -- 465 and counting, at present -- weren’t beloved on first listen. I’m guessing half would have earned no more than 3 stars. Mediocre song.

On my iPod or in my iTunes, I don’t even rate songs from my “All New” playlist until I’m ready to remove them from the list, which usually takes five or six months. Judging one too early is dangerous.

So, while I enjoyed iPod Wars, the game inevitably leads to inferior CD mixes, right? In large part due to our inevitably flawed participation, our inability to see greatness in a song until its fourth or fifth or 20th replay.

* -- I only chose “Thunderstruck” as an excuse to embed this most awesome of covers below by 2Cellos. Enjoy or be ashamed of yourself.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Epiphany #24: The Creation Of A Liberal, Part 1

Lately, I've been trying to figure out how and why I became a liberal.

And, to be clear, I am liberal first, Democrat second, since the Democratic candidate more often reflects more of my positions.

The question came to me because a former student, presumably for a paper/project he's writing for college, asked me about my memories of growing up during the Vietnam War.  Here are some of the things I remembered, with a little mental prodding:

--one student in 7th grade getting in trouble for wearing a black arm band for a day called Moratorium.  I didn't even know what the word meant.
--the long-haired kids who smoked, etc. refusing to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance in homeroom each morning and the tension that created.  I stood up.
--the placing of a Humphrey bumper sticker on my notebook because it was the closest political headquarters to my house and, succumbing to peer pressure, my altering the stick to read "I'm not for HUMPHREY, are you?


I grew up in various suburbs around white people, with the only particular diversity being neither racial nor socio-economic, but religious and ethnic.  These were well-to-do places to live, upper middle class, most likely, and quite conservative.  I didn't especially know that, however, having no particular politics of my own.

But by 1976, when I was in the first batch of Americans allowed to vote in their teens due to the lowering of the voting age, I voted for Mo Udall in the primary and Jimmy Carter in the general election, and off I went.  So by then, I had been turned.

My own home voted for Nixon in 1960 against Kennedy; I don't know about 1964 or after, but here's maybe a clue--I'm not sure that my parents, or at least my father, voted all that often.  Maybe not at all.  And somehow, maybe the fact that he or they (my mother likely following his lead on this) couldn't find either candidate worth voting for was the crack that opened the door to my political understanding.

My father's parents lived about an hour from us, and they were reclusive types who only ventured from their small, western Pennsylvania town to spend a holiday with us a couple of times a year.  Mostly, we went there, a dreadful proposition for a boy between the ages of 10 and 18, when all of the political turmoil and unrest was going on.  For they not only didn't venture out of their town, they also did not venture outside their house, and a visit there consisted of a bland supper followed by everyone sitting in the darkened living room (a concession to my grandmother's untreated cataracts) talking about politics and society.

And maybe there was a clue there, too.  For while many of my grandfather's positions could easily be branded as "racist" (my grandmother was French and never realized that All In The Family was ironic), they pointed towards improving the race as a stereotypical whole, not holding it back, although my grandfather also liked to say that what he liked about France so much (he met my grandmother there during WW1) was that "wherever you went, everyone you met was a Frenchman."  Except him, of course.  Xenophobia meets....

My grandparents also distrusted the government.  Their issues ranged from education to food, and they were the first "health nuts" I ever knew, preaching pure foods and no chemicals and vitamins and fresh vegetable and all of that years before GNC even opened their doors.

And so for a boy who didn't spend any time on politics and who wouldn't have known which party his parents stood for without some discussion, the ideas that candidates and policies and social programs and living or working conditions could be better may just have been enough to push me away from those who wanted to maintain the status quo during the upheaval of the 60s.

NEXT:  How rock and roll taught me politics.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Boomer Loser

Boomer Esiason has earned an impressive amount of goodwill because of the work he has done on behalf of cystic fibrosis. He's been one of the leading voices (and wallets) in this fight for a long time, motivated by his son Gunnar's diagnosis more than two decades ago.

But then Boomer comes out and makes the following comments about New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who took a three-day paternity leave to be with his wife on the birth of their son and missed two Mets games in the process:
“Bottom line, that’s not me,” Esiason said on his morning radio show. “I wouldn’t do that. Quite frankly, I would have said ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money, this is how we’re going to live our life, this is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life.’”
My gut reaction to Esiason's comments was the following illogical conclusion: "Boomer is a douchebag."

And then I came to another worse illogical conclusion: "This is why so many athletes are douchebags."

Yes, a disturbing number of people, including Esiason's co-host and another talk show host on the network later in the day, rushed to agree with Boomer's douchey statement. Yes, I'm certain many a jock or jock sniffer had this or a similar reaction. A-holes are like wolves, and they tend to travel in packs.

But. If I dare give myself a moment's pause (sometimes it takes several hundred moments), I can realize this is all about another athlete who was doing the right thing. And he has athlete friends who support him. More pros now than ever are out there making similar "right" decisions. But taking that pause and gaining that understanding makes it less fun to write about, less fun to complain about.

(Because let's face it, when you're a hero or a goat just for taking three days of paternity leave, we're still in a weird cultural world.)

Such is how the virus of judgment infects us. One fallible human being's insensitivity or imperfection gets exposed in a large-scale way, and other fallible human beings take that moment of fallibility and jump to equally fallible conclusions about that person or about an entire group of people. This, in sad fact, is the entire purpose of most talk radio and many TV "news discussion" shows, to GOTCHA someone.

From Michael Richards to Steven Colbert, comedians are in the same boat as talk show hosts. Their job is, in part, to feed off of controversy. Go where the people are, talk about what the people are talking about. Comedians have an additional charge, being expected to expose hypocrisy or irony or plain imbecility about the human condition.

We expect these people to drive into the eye of the pop-culture or political hurricanes but then eviscerate them if they make a single wrong turn. Hell, even tornado expert Bill Paxton and his crew screwed up quite a number of times chasing those Twisters. Maybe if social media had been around in 1996, we'd have been backseat driving his decisions, too.

If our local paper posts an arrest story on Facebook, the post gets flooded with comments from people that say things like, "Save us the money of a trial and just hang him," or "I hope he gets shivved in prison." Not for a trial. Not even for an indictment. Just because of a freakin' arrest! Lynch mobs come pretty cheap nowadays.

For what it's worth, Boomer Esiason was back on less than 24 hours later apologizing. He was apologizing well before that. When you earn goodwill working with places like March of Dimes and say callous or insensitive stuff about parenting, you're gonna get some calls. Thankfully they called him on the carpet, and thankfully some part of him listened.

Were Boomer's apologies sincere? Was he apologizing because he pissed into the wind and didn't like the blowback, or because he genuinely realized how douchey his statements were? Does it matter? Will we ever really know?

In moments like this, when my frustration rises and my judgmental nature rears its head, I only know I'm better off when I can gather myself for a minute and ask, "What would Patty do?"
I heard somebody say
Today's the day
A big old hurricaine
Is blowing our way
Knocking over the buildings
Killing all the light
Open your eyes, boy, we made it through the night
Let's take a walk on the bridge
Right over this mess
Don't need to tell me a thing, baby
We've already confessed
And I raised my voice to the air
And we were blessed
Everybody needs a little forgiveness

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Epiphany #23: The Rites Of Spring

Spring is sprung,
The grass is riz,
I wonder where
The birdies is.


--from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

It happens all of a sudden, even as it surrounds you, because the signs, the changes, are so small and seemingly slow that the shift from brown to green has some natural tipping point that most of us don't notice, even if we hunger for it.

Having cut my grass twice already and it hasn't even turned green yet (the weeds needed trimming), I can officially declare what the calendar has already confirmed:  Spring is here.  The junk I inhaled into my lungs confirmed it as well--pollen, dust from last year's leaves, and all of the microscopic stuff that is travelling through the air right now.

All around us, we see the rituals and reawakenings taking place, and while many of those rebirths mean a bunch of work as well, especially in the yard, it is good work, gratifying work, and most of us are happy to do it.

But what I like best about Spring is how its arrival ignites the human spirit.  Now that Spring is actually here, it is easy to forget the many ways that we humans try to nudge it along, force it, drag it into being.  When we get tired of winter, when we get Spring on the brain, there isn't much that can stop us from living the dream.  And so we act.

Having been both deep into the South and way up North over Spring Break, I saw various evidences of this, out and about and in my memory:

In New York City, on a brisk, windy day in the 40's, I saw couples sitting at outdoor tables at restaurants, happily eating and enjoying drinks because the sun was out, because it was late March, because the snows have come too many times.  Yes, in some places, there were portable heaters, but in other places there weren't.  It did not seem to matter.

In Chicago, the city imposes laws that dictate how long a restaurant can keep up its outdoor furniture.  According to my brother, who runs a restaurant there, left to their own devices, Chicagoans would be sitting outside as long as the day was decent, or even in down coats if there was just a pale winter sun.

In New Orleans, where Spring probably never comes dramatically because it is almost always warm enough, my friend and I stopped in front of the window boxes and gazed jealously at arrangements of flowers and pots of herbs, anticipating the growing season in our own yards and wishing it were here.

In New Hampshire, when I was in grad school, I remember one winter that it was so cold that on a sunny day when it finally reached 32 degrees, we played touch football outside in short-sleeved shirts.

So forget the dandelions and the sneezes, the picking up and hauling of broken limbs, the dead plants that will need to be dug up, or how your office is always either too hot or too cold in any given day or week.  These are but the creaky, wheezy signs of a world shedding what it no longer needs and making way for the new.  Spring never comes soon enough.