Thursday, February 4, 2016

Back With My Younger Self

An introductory piece by John, our new writer from Atlanta!

It’s pretty rare for me to go out on a weeknight anymore, but last night my wife and I went to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in concert at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. It felt sort of decadent, but when I mentioned to her on Sunday that he was playing the Variety, she got really animated. “It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen him in New Hampshire!” She bought our tickets the next day.

I’ve always been a casual fan, always liked Southside Johnny when I heard him at a friend’s house or, quite a bit more rarely, on the radio. My introduction to him came, perhaps not surprisingly, through BoTG blogger, Bob. It was 1988 and I was in the midst of a pretty horrific breakup. About a week after I came home from work to discover an almost empty apartment (she and her father had come while I wasn’t there to clean the place out of our shared purchases) and a note that simply read, “Thanks for making all this as easy as possible”, Bob showed up with a six pack and a cassette entitled, The Catharsis Tape.

Southside Johnny’s “I Played the Fool” was on the B-side, I’m pretty sure, and an early track. These were the days when making a mixed tape was laborious work that forced you to dig through your vinyl collection and, at least when guys would make them for guy friends, gave the creator a chance to show off his musical tastes, originality, and versatility. (When guys would make them for girls, a whole other set of rules applied). Bob’s mixed tapes were notorious for showcasing up-tempo music, even when being designed for situations as lugubrious as a broken engagement.  Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” followed soon after.

But it was Little Steven’s “Forever,” another song on The Catharsis Tape, that came back to me last night in all its raucous glory. After opening up with “Angel Eyes”, Southside Johnny covered that song with an energy that no 68 year-old I know, besides a friend named Steve, possesses. Johnny owned that song and strutted across the stage like the slightly out of shape bastard love child of Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger. 

I mention his energy because it served as a sort of funhouse mirror to the crowd he performed for at the Variety—about 800 people, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly between the ages of 47-70, and overwhelmingly white. It’s the first time since moving here that I’ve seen this sort of demographic anywhere else in Atlanta. The irony of the venue name was not lost on me. 

Although there is seating at The Variety--the red velvet kind ubiquitous to stand alone mid century movie houses, there’s also some space down front where about 150 people can stand comfortably. Looking around, I counted 8 women in that crowd in front of the stage and they were far and away the most animated dancers. The rest of us were middle-aged white guys and almost in unison (except that our rhythm was off) we did the one-leg-tapping-dance with the occasional fist pumping in the air at recognizable stanzas. It was in this moment that I had an uncomfortable confirmation of a truth mailed to me last week. I am officially getting old. Or older. It hardly matters.  

Too many of my routines include MSNBC and in the morning, in between watching an increasingly unlikeable Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinksi fawn over Donald Trump, there are the ads. I guess I’m the targeted demographic—middle age, middle class, mostly white male—because a significant percentage of the ad buys are for Cialis, Activia,, and Osphina.  Scanning the audience last night, I knew that I had found my people and it troubled me.  Last week I got an invitation from the AARP to join. I’m not sure how exactly they knew of my eligibility but it would appear that at 51, I’m a potential member of the club. And now, having sent in my $16 a year, I’m an actual member of the club. Although I’m skeptical that the portable insulated travel bag will ever arrive on my doorstep.

I live now in a professional world that tilts decidedly female. After having had only two departmental female colleagues in nearly three decades of teaching at my previous school, this year I have thirteen. I am one of 4 men.  I enjoy my colleagues a great deal and am learning from them different ways to run a classroom, other forms of assessment. But the world of women is a world that often feels foreign to me. I used to joke that I lived a schizophrenic life, spending all my days with boys and the evenings with all girls—two young daughters and two female dogs. Now my life is more blended.

 Last night, dancing to the music with my much more naturally rhythmic wife swaying to the band, I was back with my tribe and back with my younger self, back in the world of men. And for the first time in a long time, I felt at home. 

More Endings Than Beginnings

I broke up with fantasy football in 2015.

Such a silly thing, fantasy football. Why call it a "break-up"? Why not phrase it a new way: "I rediscovered huge swaths of time I had been bleeding out in daily and weekly chunks to a meaningless competitive endeavor amongst coworkers"?

Because it felt like a break-up is why.

There were colleagues I don't see often -- even though we work mere dozens of yards from one another daily, even though we regularly share the same lunch room -- whose relevance to my life was suddenly cut, the tether between us frayed. When I broke up with fantasy football, I broke up with half of these people, too.

I didn't break up with playing poker in 2015, but we're sort of seeing other people. We meet once a month or so to catch up on one another's life, see how things are panning out, but we're not as close as we used to be.

I used to stay up late nights with poker. We'd ring in the midnight hour, secretly, quietly in my computer room, hoping the sounds of chips clinking on the screen wouldn't wake the sleeping beings in my home. I'd visit poker once or twice a year in various casinos in Tunica, New Orleans, or even the mountains of North Carolina. I wouldn't leave her side for 10, 14, 17 hours at a stretch except to scarf down a quick meal or take a potty break.

It's not over, but I wonder if I can ever quite grow to love her like I once did, with a sort of ecstatic enthusiasm that comes from the cashier handing over hundreds of dollars more than you originally brought to the table, be it a real table or an online one.

I didn't break up with Bottom of the Glass in 2015, but I found myself increasingly asking where we're going with our relationship. Does anyone know we're even seeing one another, or care? Has watching our readers dwindle to a quarter of what it was in our peak crippled my drive? Do good writers allow such a petty thing to hinder them?

Finally, I broke up with Patty Griffin in 2015. Her latest, "Servant of Love," is the first album Patty has recorded, since I was handed the gift of her debut, "Living With Ghosts," that I didn't buy within days of its release.

Holy crap if you knew how hot our love sizzled for a decade, Patty and me, you'd appreciate what this breakup means, the kind of cold hole in the earth of my gut where once a small sun's worth of molten lava burned. When I'd get one of her albums, the day of its release, I would have the look of Ralphie ripping open his long-awaited Red Rider BB gun, my tongue licking all over my lips in excitement and lust, as if I could devour the notes as they emerged from my speakers.

I found myself listening to "Servant of Love" on Spotify several times, and telling Patty as it played, as I failed to work up my excitement, "It's not you, Patty my love. It's me. Something here doesn't work for me anymore."

The critics still love her. I still love what she has meant to me. And I respect, completely, that she doesn't owe me one more pleasing note the rest of her life. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people still love her with some slight one-off imitation of the love I had for her. I'm glad she's still making brilliant music. I'm sad it isn't making my heart melt like it once did. I know it's not her fault.

That's why it's a break-up. Because when something ends, but it doesn't end quite smoothly enough, things feel broken inside us.

And when things don't quite end, but they don't quite have the fire they once did, you keep looking around, hoping someone else will tell you when it's over, hoping the cardio device will show a flatline so the doctor can call the time and declare time of death and begin to mourn what is, at last, utterly and irretrievably lost.

What scares me about where I am in my life, in my middle age, is that I now spend more time watching things end than watching them begin. This isn't a Glass Half Empty observation. It's just reality.

More hobbies and pastimes and interests are falling by the wayside than I have time to replace with new ones.

More friends and loved ones are dying. Others move on to new locations, new jobs.

The core of my existence is still strong. The engine that moves me -- my family, my faith, my close friends -- continues to rev strong and shows no real sign of slowing. But what seems to be missing are those frilly fancy accouterments that make the walk of life a little more fun, a little prettier to behold, a little more unpredictable and capable of unexpected delight.

I'm hoping 2016 might offer me fewer break-ups and let-downs. I'm hoping I can find the drive in myself, the Indiana Jones inside me, willing to attack the adventure, to do whatever necessary to find a few more beginnings than the endings that inevitably find me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Can't Get Me Out Of My Head

The rise of Donald Trump and his megalomania has also given rise to the term "narcissist" being tossed around liberally, casually, and carelessly.  While I have no doubt that Trump qualifies by any diagnosis or clinical definition, this is not about that.

What about the narcissists in our own lives?  There is no doubt that they are rampant among us.  (And there is no doubt, for those keeping score, that I am excluding myself by virtue of writing this post.).  The modern world, where no one wants to take responsibility for anything, can give rise to the notion that we are all narcissists, but that won't work.  Sure, there is a continuum, and we are all on it, but most of us not to the extreme that creates the label.

So how do you tell?  Well, I have one way of making that identification, and it may take a couple of stories to clarify it.

A friend of mine tells the story of a former boss who was leaving the office for the weekend.  My friend called out to him, "Have a great weekend."

His boss responded, "I will."

This past weekend, a coworker who I am not close to have a medical emergency incident that caused a lot of concern on a lot of people's parts.  I didn't get involved; I had other obligations to fulfill in that public setting, but he was taken off and, presumably, checked out, and, as I saw when I arrived at my car afterward, was driven home.

End of story, maybe, except that the next day, I thought I should check up on him, even though I do not know him well.  He was in crisis, we work together, and it seemed like the right hing to so.

So I sent him an email.  And I said, "________, I hope you are feeling better today."  And signed my name.

Here was his response, which came later in the day: "I am doing better. Honestly, I felt fine last night. I think it was just dehydration. I'm going to get checked tomorrow, and if possible.". 

Now, you may not see anything there.  You may think that is an appropriate response.  But it isn't.    A normal person would thank the person (me) for inquiring, especially given the lack of closeness between us.  And please be clear here: I did not need that response for some ego reason; I am simply pointing out what an average person would do.  Thanks for asking, Bob.

So if you look at the two stories, you see that neither person could get beyond himself and his own circumstances.  That's how you know that you are dealing with a narcissist.  There is no give and take.  There is no social contract.  It is simply. For that person, what is going on with me.

Back in the public arena, I hope it isn't difficult to see the same pattern in Trump. Validate me always.  That is expected.  And if you don't, I will bring a flamethrower to a knife fight.

What shall we do, you ask?  I'm sorry, but there is nothing that you can do.  The person in question is not going to change.  He or she cannot get out of his or her own head.  Ever.  So what we are really talking about is arming ourselves with awareness, that these seemingly-small behaviors are indicative of a large problem, one that if you try to engage in. Will lead to your banging your head against a wall incessantly.  So don't.  Acknowledge what you know, and move on.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Daily Regimen For Liberals In 2016

Liberals have gotten lazy.  Heading into Obama's 8th year in the White House, we have become complacent and self-critical.  Despite enjoying the work of a man who I am convinced is the greatest president of my lifetime, we have become snippy and unsatisfied and jaded and unmotivated.  Even if we don't know that things, so far, have turned out better than we could have hoped, we still want more AND we aren't willing to do anything to get it.  We just want to sit back and talk about what should or could happen.  Well, that isn't the way it works.  Obama won 7 years ago because he had the best organized, most modern campaign that America had ever seen, both on the ground and in cyberspace.  But since then, we've gotten flabby.  We expect others to do it for us.

Now, of course, we are in that window where preference for candidates is divided and petty sniping follows at all levels.  It is the most dangerous time,cthevtime when things are said that can't be taken back.

So here is a daily/weekly/monthly regimen to get back on track.  Following these simple steps will reinvigorate you:

1.  Your goal each and every day should be to plan to vote and to remind everyone that you know of a reasonable like mind that they have the same obligation, nay, imperative.

2.  As your stretch in the morning, remind yourself that a Republican president will repeal Obamacare almost immediately.  Remind yourself that in the years since it passed, the Republicans have never offered a viable alternative.  They don't want to create; they only want to destroy.

3. As your morning aerobic exercise, remind yourself that the next president might easily nominate three new Supreme Court justices.  If that doesn't get your heart rate up when you ponder the conservative version of these appointments, then you are working out hard enough.

4.  Pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and devote several weeks exercising your mind with this very plausible cautionary tale that merges a U.S. Government drifting towards theocracy with an untended environment laden with chemicals and additives that drives down birth rates.  Factor in the assault on women already happening.

5.  Plan to support whoever the nominee is.  It could go either way.  Acknowledge that your opinions of the candidates have been more shaped by a profit-driven media than by your own work reading and researching.  If you "just don't trust Hillary" or if you "think Bernie can't win," know that someone else put those ideas in your head.

6.  Don't get into it with Trump or Cruz or Rubio supporters, with NRA-driven rationalizers, with those who do not understand the separation of church and state, with the brainwashed FOXers or the newly-anointed Trumpers.  You know that nothing will change from those conversations, except that your blood pressure will go up and you will distracted.

7.  Live your beliefs.  It is so easy to get involved in helping the poor or homeless, supporting disadvantaged children, clothing and supplying those in need.

8.  Most of us don't know much about political volunteerism, so don't worry about it.  Just remind yourself that it is your vote and the votes of those who, you can influence (to vote) that matter most.

If everyone voted, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  Don't let anything undermine that.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

How To Read The New Yorker (or any other magazine)

You think that this doesn't apply to you, and maybe it doesn't.  In this digital age, maybe you no longer subscribe to any magazines and so the whole concept is now foreign to you.  But I'll bet you still have at least a couple of straggler magazines coming to your house.  Maybe they were Christmas gifts.

Me, I've got 4 cooking magazines, my formerly-college-aged daughter's ongoing subscription to Entertainment Weekly, and all of the "house and home" magazines my wife gets coming to my house.  Plus The New Yorker.

The New Yorker, along with The Atlantic Monthly, is, arguably, the finest large subscription magazine being published in America today.  I have no idea how large that subscription base is, but I do know that I jumped back in this year, and have not regretted that for a second.  Like those Atlantic readers, anyone who reads The New Yorker is better informed from a political, artistic, literary, cultural perspective than those who don't read.  But it's become a challenge.

The New Yorker comes every single week of the year, except when they double up for special issues, and if you don't read, the next issue will jab you with guilt when you open your mailbox.

My advice is this:

1.  Read the magazine back to front.  I learned this from Entertainment Weekly, where I discovered that I often wanted to see the reviews most.  The fluff was in the front.  In The New Yorker, it's the specific-to-New-York stuff that's in the front.  If you are lucky enough to live there, more power to you, but if you're not, those items about plays, performances, restaurants, and "About Town" are reading luxuries for someone with more time than I have.

2.  Read the magazine in one sitting.  Get it and commit to it, probably the sooner after it has arrived, the better.

3.  Remind yourself that you don't have to read a magazine cover to cover for it to be worth your while.  If the movie review is too esoteric, skip it.  Same with the books.  The short story may not grab you.  You may not understand the poem(s).  Maybe only one of the feature stories connects with you.  But in my experience through several subscriptions to The New Yorker, this never happens all at once.  Even a majority of these things have never happened in a single issue.

4.  Plus, there are the cartoons.  Just working through the cartoons and illustrations is a worthy endeavor, worth a chuckle, a knock on the side of the head epiphany, an irony more sophisticated than your own, a show the cartoon to someone else moment.

5.  The single reading of the magazine is not meant for the bathroom, even for the most glacier-like of us in terms of bowel movements.  No, it's a commitment of a singular sort, a kind of old fashioned "I'm going to take 45-60 minutes to sit down and read a magazine.  Sitting on a seat with a hole in the middle of it for that long will give you a serious case of hemorrhoids.

After some time away from them, I'm glad to be back to living with magazines.  But the last piece of advice is about when you're finished.  Magazines don't keep, even though people like me and my wife want to keep them.  Oh, they'll be happy to stay with you, but they'll pile up in bookcases, shelves, baskets, and bathrooms once you tell yourself that you plan to read them again.  But you won't.  The news is stale, the initiative has been undermined by the next week's visit to the mailbox, and you don't have the time.  Recycle them!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Dance of Love

There are some people irritated with me right now.  Children.  Students.  You see, I am the face of a decision to cancel a dance, to err on the side of caution in the face of a forecast of snow and ice and cold.  The cold came, the snow and ice not as much.

But youth is not about caution and will rarely understand it. Which is the way we were and often how it should be.

The source of their consternation?  An open Saturday night?  The fact that their dancing shoes must stay in the cupboard collecting dust?  Not really.  Think about it.  This is about love, like, and romance.  For, suddenly, the world of teenage romance has been turned topsy-turvy.

The dance has been rescheduled for five weeks from now, and in the world of teenage relationships, five weeks is an eternity:

--what does the boy who asked the girl to go as a first date to a safe group setting do now and for 33 days?

--what about the girl who told me last night that she was done with this boy but was going with him just to be nice?

--how about the guy who already knows he wants to ask a different girl from the same school because he was pressured by the first girl's friends into taking her?

--or the girl who screwed up her courage to ask a boy to what started as a Sadie Hawkins dance?  Is that still on?  Will he ask her?

Depending on what grade they are in, some of these students won't have any of the same friends in five weeks.  Will the same dress work?  Even those in stable relationships don't know if they or their dates will be free that night.  The groups going to dinner together will be different; the options for those only pretending to go to the dance or staying just a short while may not present the same opportunities.

We tend to forget that people at this age are trying everything out, that a constant state of flux is the norm of their social world.  The alliances, teamwork, subterfuge, and behind-the-scenes dealing is no less dramatic than a season of Survivor.

We, on the other hand, we of the long relationships and marriages, well, if we are no longer wanting or wanted in five weeks, almost certainly we've seen that coming, or should have, for maybe five months or five years.

Do we long for those days when a relationship might be forged in a single dance, or does this postponement I'm talking about, that tempestuous mess of young love that was exhausting, that we spent nearly always off-kilter, searching for the meaning of the smallest gestures and then second-guessing ourselves every time we thought we had something figured out, represent a past we'd rather not visit?  I'd guess it is both.  There is both a wistfulness for that consuming drama and a comfort in knowing that we might not have to face it again.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A bar is not a home

A man walks into a bar.....

Rewind:  a man drops his wife and daughter at a bar to get a table for lunch while he parks the car.

Rewind:  a man drops his wife and daughter at a bar to get a table for lunch while he parks the car.  As he walks around the side of the building to the front door, he sees peripherally on his right two men walking to cross the street toward him.  He hurries a little to get inside before they get too close. He can tell from the way that they are dressed that they don't have much and he doesn't feel like getting hustled.  He just wants to eat with his family.  But too late.

"Excuse me, sir," one of them calls.  "I don't mean no disrespect, but we are homeless and we want to get something to eat.  Could you please help us out?"

The man feels around in his back pocket and comes up with about 80 cents in change.  "This is all I have," he says, which is surprisingly true.

"No," says one of the two men.  "We want something to eat.  In there. Like a three cheese pizza or something.  Can you help us out?"

We are at the door and I hold the door for them and we go in, toward the bar.  I pass my family and stop to tell them that I'm going to get these guys something to eat.  My wife nods and hands me a menu.  I walk to the bar where they are seated, and when the bartender comes over, I say, "These guys want a three-cheese pizza."

"Not me," says one.  "I want a hamburger."
"I want a cheeseburger," says the other.  "And a order of fries."
"Me, too," says the other, as the bartender writes it down.  American cheese.  Both well done.
With a slight sarcasm only I can hear, I say, "How about something to drink with that?"
"To go."

I pay the tab and hang out with them for awhile.  One of them is named Harvey.  The other guy does not tell me his name; in a low voice, he pulls out an invoice for a hotel they have been kicked out of.  He clearly wants me to pay it, but I can't quote hear the details and my generosity does not extend that far.  I shake their hands and go to my table to order lunch, but I am never out, waiting until they get their food, because I have brought them in here.

Before lunch, we had been at a gallery where my wife is buying gifts for a party,  the gallery sells only the artwork of the homeless.  The owners host homeless people for classes, giving them cameras or canvases to produce work, much of it quite good.  I don't know what the arrangement is between artists and gallery, but most f the works are quite nexpensive.

The homeless are all around us.  They wait at exit ramps and gas stations and near restaurants where there is a chance they might get a meal.  They are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer and they seek places that will give them some comfort.  Every interaction, every transaction is fraught with peril when you are homeless.  The man entering the restaurant wants to get inside before you can get to him.  The people waiting at the light turn away.  If you get an inch, you have to try to take a mile for your own survival.  It is no life to have, but the only one you have and few that you encounter know how you got there, or want to know.  Because they have homes and nothing has happened to take those from them.