Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Lost Adults of "Palo Alto"

Palo Alto is a movie you don’t want to see. No one should want to see it. But if you’re a parent, or a teacher, or anyone who plays or should play a meaningful role in the lives of teenagers, you probably should see it.

Based on a series of short stories written by Hollywood enigma James Franco, and following the lives of a handful of lost teenagers (or are they just teenagers? Discuss!), the movie is haunting for how it approaches the old hat teen subject matter, for the statements it makes and the accusations it insinuates.

Teens say “I love you” a surprising number of times in the movie. They say it to one another, and they say it to adults. And every time, the viewer is left wondering if anyone has the slightest clue what it means to love someone. In the movie, these words are a teen's initial effort to simply connect with someone -- maybe anyone -- else beyond their own tortured soul. Like a "poke" on Facebook.

Parents say “I love you” in Palo Alto. Teachers say “I love you,” too. And every time, the viewer is left wondering not what the adult feels, but rather, what the adult wants. When the teacher (James Franco) says it, what lever is he trying to pull? With the parents, have they lost the myriad ways to actually show love and are thus fall back on mere words to express what we’ve lost the ability (or motivation) to indicate other ways? Do the parents just want to efficiently dispense with their responsibilities?

In other words, in the world of adults communicating with teens, are they all saying words -- be it “I love you” or much anything else -- to avoid having to do anything that takes real effort? Articles and blogs all over decry how disconnected and distant Kids These Days are with their Devices, their heads buried in them. But time and again, it's the adults who seem to avoid trying to connect.

Another pleasant surprise -- sort of spoiler alerts ahead -- is how honestly the movie tries to be about teenage danger. The dangers are real, and some bad things do happen in the movie. But what you see time and again is how much time and energy adults waste on overrated dangers while ignoring (or pretending away) the real dangers teens face.

In one scene, the most manic character, Fred, drives down the road with his pal Teddy. Fred is stoned off his gourd and whipping around a butcher knife like it’s a slap bracelet. The scene is brilliant because it’s fraught with risk, and it sets every Parenting Panic alarm on full blast. You can practically hear a death knell tolling for them in the background of the film, and you’re mostly just wondering how they’re gonna die -- by stabbing, by wrecking, by some other yet-unseen force like Jason Voorhees?

But they don’t die. Nobody gets stabbed. Nobody wrecks. They all live. At least to the end of the film.

Because that’s what happens 97% of the time in real life. Teens do stupid, risky, dangerous things, and they get away with it. Or at least they survive.

Meanwhile, parents don’t blink about high schooler April (Emma Roberts in a wonderfully understated role) babysitting for her soccer coach, a single dad, apparently at all sorts of hours. Parents don’t blink about high schooler Zoe bringing Fred into her bedroom or walking out of the house behind the hedges, 30 yards from the kitchen where her mom fixes dinner, so she can blow him.

The message of Palo Alto is painful and simple and true. Most teenagers -- especially middle and upper middle class white ones -- will move past their difficult and confusing years of anguish and euphoria. Most of them won’t succumb to addiction. Most of them will get slaps on the wrist from judges for their stupid decisions and defiant attitudes. Most of them will have regrettable sexual experiences with crappy people and grow to live a normal-ish life.

Meanwhile, they will get far too little help, support, understanding or investment from the adults they’re supposed to believe they can depend on. The parents who are supposed to care enough to give time rather than a few spare words. The teachers who are supposed to be role models or at least dedicated educators rather than predatory narcissists or ruthless distant judges of misbehavior.

When James Franco’s Mr. B finally gets April on his couch, her clothes coming off as they descend “willingly” into the inevitable criminal act of statutory rape, they pause for a moment while April acknowledges that it’s not Thursday, even though she’s wearing Thursday underwear. White cotton, agonizingly childish days-of-the-week panties with a teddy bear on the front. If you wondered whether Emma Roberts was being sexualized in some beer commercial kind of way, those thoughts get perished swiftly and with prejudice. She’s a f*#king kid. This guy is a f*&king scumbag. End of discussion.

The rest of the scene treats the sex scene as it deserves to be treated. No confusion about what’s going on or how we ought to judge matters (think of the “gray area” of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” rape scene). Frankly, it’s the kind of horrible -- yet non-violent, non-melodramatic, yet plenty squirm-worthy -- framing of a sexual encounter we don’t have to watch nearly often enough.

Kids will be kids. And far too many adults just suck.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Empty Country Throne

If there’s a throne atop the land that is Country Music, I’m not sure many people want it. Recently, the land of Country Music feels barren and sad. The land is overcrowded with jesters who sing of liquor and bars and disconnected sex as if these were the heights of existence rather than signs of ignored problems and frailties. The land is overcrowded with magicians who divine the magic beats-per-minute to skyrocket a song, who stir four and five songwriters into a cauldron and feed the elixir to their Allure covergirls and hunky good-ol-boys.

What the land seems to lack are maverick leaders. (Can you have a maverick leader? Is that an oxymoron?) You know, those supernova personalities whose brilliance overcomes the shadows, who continue shining while the rain nourishes the starved earth, rainbows filling the sky to the delight of the huddled and underserved villagers, whose hope had all but dwindled away but long to believe in something real again.

I spent dozens of hours last summer in Robert’s Western World, the last great haven for what would be considered “classic” country music, the tunes and topics before Garth Brooks and Shania Twain (who, with all due respect ‘cuz I like both of them a little, saw the beginning of moving 80s and 90s lite (or white) rock and AAA into the Land of Country Music, where it lives to this day.

To be sure, there is no singular king or queen of country anymore than there is a singular king of England, but lately country music is more interested in short-term congressmen or parliamentarians than they are in crowning rulers. Yet might the once and future king and queen of country be already in their midst, waiting for the opportunity to pull a banjo from the stone, or for the Dolly of the Lake to throw them a fiddle?

Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves may be the best chance for country music to hold onto its historical roots while forging a meaningful future. They are the Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton of this generation.

Many don’t realize, but Dolly only had three albums go Platinum. Four if you include Trio with Emmylou and Linda. She has sold 100 million albums the hard way. Same for The Man in Black, two of whose three Platinum albums were live recordings. Estimates have his total sales at 90 million, just behind Dolly. They are what the pinnacle of what country music used to be because in any genre’s best days, commercial success is not the priority but rather the side-effect of bigger aims and visions.

Likewise, albeit with a 21st Century spin, Isbell and Musgraves have bigger fish to fry than mere sales. You know this when Isbell sells out show after show but barely dents the sales charts (although his latest, which my colleague Bob calls “not even his second-best effort,” did top both the US Country and US Rock charts… which only means no one knows what to consider his music). You know this when Musgraves debuts her traditional-sounding country pop sound in a gay bar with drag queens, all but flipping a Johnny Cash-esque middle finger to the conservative roots of the standard country music listener.

Isbell has Cash’s understanding of the commoner, and of the people many of us perceive as lower than common. He gives voice and story to the people we overlook because we’re too busy searching for drinking songs or following the trevails of Kardashians and Duggars. He’s not particularly interested in writing songs that scream out our hypocrisies and flaws. Rather, he writes songs that dare us to listen hard enough to see that for ourselves.

Musgraves has Dolly’s music business savvy and a penchant for “advice songs.” She understands, like Dolly, the way her well-put-together body* and hairdo choices can hypnotize an audience while she slight-of-hands her way into your heart and ear. She projects the image that she can balance the impossible dual personality of commanding a stage with glitz and glamour one minute and sitting comfortably, genuinely, next to you on the front porch or in the kitchen the next, holding your hand and actually listening to your woes. (* - Although Kacey puts her legs and booty front and center while Dolly put her chest uber alles.)

They lack some key qualities, to be fair. Isbell doesn't have Cash's aggression. His is at best a quiet rage, where Cash's was frequently more in your face. Musgraves hasn't managed to be as personal or as tender as some of Dolly's finest moments. Where's her "Jolene" or her "I Will Always Love You" (mock that song if you like, but if you know the back story it's pretty dang amazing)? Where's the moment she reveals something deep and painful about herself?

But successors to thrones rarely seem worthy in the early stages. The shoes they must fill seem too big. Frequently, however, the odds get defied, hearts get won over, and kingdoms continue to thrive.

Time always tells.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

I'll Verb You

If you know me long enough, I will verb you.  As in, I will turn your name into a verb that reflects one of your tendencies.  And, candidly speaking, that tendency might not necessarily be positive.  That's just how I roll.

For example (and all names have been changed):

A couple of weeks ago, I reminded our tech office that some of our former employees were still on our email list and needed to be removed.

"Why would you do that?" a friend asked me.
"He was Todding me," I said.  Todd used to work here, too.
"How so?"
"He was taking an unnatural interest in things that happen here that don't matter to him anymore."
"Oh," that friend said, and then he knew what Todding is.

Or take my father.  As an elderly driver, his reflexes are not what they once were, and so he tends to drive more slowly on the interstate than the other cars.  But not always in the rightshand lane.  And so, I've noticed that when I'm in the passenger seat, cars will blast past us on both sides, nearly simultaneously.  It can scare the crap out of me.  I call it getting Dadded.

So when my wife is driving, and she gets passed on both sides, I say, "You just got Dadded."  She never seems to appreciate it when I point that out.

So now you know the game.  If you bring beers to a party at my house and take the leftovers home, I have a verb for your name. If you take days off of work to work at home on things that you could probably accomplish at work, you are a verb in my brain.  If you show up at one of our shows at my friend's house and cook up all of the remaining food and then sit out on the back deck, not even listening to the band, you might end up in the next edition of Merriam-Webster.

If you cannot keep from playing up all of your accomplishments, how hard you work, and what an impact you make, there is a great chance that there is an action verb labeling you somewhere.

Am I proud of this trait?  Not really.  Am I likely to stop?  Even less likely.  For as I come to believe more and more, people, most people if not exactly all people, do.....not......change.  Even football coaches.  And so to ascribe a verb to an ongoing pattern of behaviors may be offensive, but that does not make it untrue.

The flaw is this: if you are the first person who displays a trait, it is going to be named after you.  And so, a couple that brings some "expensive" cookies to a party at my house and then wants to take the remainders home is going to have the verb associated with the person who always takes his leftover beer.  Fair?  No. Petty? Yes.  But does anyone have any idea how much more expensive it is to put on a party than it is to buy a few stylish cookies?

You think I'm proud of this?  I'm not proud.  I am my own verb.  To "Bob" someone is to assign them an unflattering characteristic, I'd guess.  Or to dwell on people's lesser qualities instead of seeing them at their best.  Both are damning.  So, no, I'm not proud.

But those verbs do come into my head with very little effort, and it is difficult to keep them submerged.  I'm trying to work on it; I really am.  But I am also living among, with a discerning eye.

Of course, you can verb me right back with a meaning of your own.  That's fair play.  And who can stop you?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Billionaires For Dummies

It is worth reminding yourself of the factoid from a decade or more ago:  it is not worth Bill Gates' time to stop and to pick up a $100 bill that he sees lying on the ground.  Welcome to the wonderful world of billionaires.

As your host, my job is to orient you to the billionaire life that surrounds us.  Maybe you know one.  Maybe you are one (though if the $100 isn't worth your time, this most certainly isn't).  When the shift from millions to billions took place several decades ago (as humorously noted in Dr. Evil's terrorist request in the first Austin Powers movie), it led us to, all these years down that road, a tendency to take billionaires for granted.

In the apocryphal exchange where F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that "The rich are different from us," Hemingway is supposed to have responded, "Yes, they have more money."  While Fitzgerald found the comment insulting and undercutting, and while you may be thinking, 'Good insight, Captain Obvious,' Hemingway cuts to the heart of the matter.  The fact of that money, that humongous amount of money, changes everything (with apologies to Cyndi Lauper's songwriters).

Basically, to understand billionaires, you have to know what they want.  We all know what they have, but what do they want?  I break it down into 4 categories:

1.  They want to protect what they have.
2.  They want to influence the world around them in ways that are advantageous to them.
3.  They want what they want when they want it.
4.  They want to use their money in ways that bring them praise, adulation, and "immortality."

First, if you are a billionaire, you have engaged in cutthroat activity of one sort or another.  You outbid, colluded, made secret deals, squeezed out a partner, bent the laws or the rules of ethics.  And because of that, once you've got what you were after, you want to keep it.  Your vast holdings may destroy your offspring and their offspring, but that does not mean that you are going to just give it all away.  If you do give it away, you will do so in ways that bring you accolades and immortality and posterity-- say a string of public libraries or a donation to the U.N. Or some kind of African initiative.  If you don't give it away, well, no one expected you to.

Which means that you will do whatever you can to keep your wealth intact, growing, in an advantageous position for the future.  You'd be a fool not to, when you can influence politicians and local officials with any number of different and inconsequential machinations of your wealth.  A few thousand or million here or there, some dark money behind a targeted ad campaign, flat out campaign contributions--all of these protect your interests.

Because you are a billionaire, you are used to getting your way whenever you want to get your way, which is all of the time.  The people who work for you directly, and the people who can be influenced to work for you, will do your bidding and will do so in ways that do not challenge your authority.  What would be the point?  How many people who may not even know it wait to take their jobs as soon as they slow down or question?

Finally, the billionaire projects a persona that makes him or her seem untouchable.  The wealth of a billionaire is another way of saying, I am in complete control of all that I do, now and into the future (that will extend long beyond your life).  It says, I know how the world works in ways that you cannot begin to fathom, you who have to make reservations at restaurants and have to choose to spend money on one thing over another and who have debt that is not a tax advantage and who see yourselves as tied to one spouse for the rest of your life.  The billionaire knows that, with the stroke of a pen, he or she can alter the course of a city or state, maybe even a country or a world problem, in ways that will bring fame unto him or her, if he or she so desires it.  And there is nothing, no law or morality, that requires that he or she desire it if he or she does not want to.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying that if you, me, or him or her or they are staking our or their collective futures on the whims of a billionaire, any billionaire, then all of us are fools.  To think that a person that removed from the dealings, decisions, interactions, and real-life ethical choices of an average person's daily life--with law and punishment and church and debt looming--has any understanding of what is best for us or our country is sheer lunacy.

Billionaires can do most anything they want, but they can't come over to our house or our street to play.  Not if we don't want them.  And why would we?  Unless the goal of our lives is to make them all about what a billionaire wants.  No thanks.  Let them buy the street, the neighborhood, if they like, but they will still know nothing of our lives.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tramps Like Us

Today, now tonight, is the 40th anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen's "coming out party," his debutante ball, aka Born To Run.

I know where I was. I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, a music and camping extravaganza somewhere outside of the city.  I was with a friend, now deceased.  I was already a Springsteen fan; he was not, and he would never get there.  Like everything else folk-related, by 1975, the festival was a blend of electric and acoustic, traditional amateurs jamming in the parking lots while the main acts had embraced the power of a thumping bass, an electrified violin, even a plugged-in guitar.

From the cars near our tent, we could hear the first tastes of popular tracks from the album.  "Born To Run" had been a mainstay in Philadelphia for about a year, and I had heard via cassette tape or something else.  My older brother was in college at Penn, and he had come home a year or two earlier with Springsteen's first two albums.  I was immediately hooked, especially by the second record, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle.  A rocking guitar and keyboard heavy album of drawn out tales and crisp instrumentation, with sax sprinkled throughout, it was like nothing else I was listening to at that time.

But at the festival and listening with my friend, I found myself having to defend the dense, sometimes muddy, production of a record that I would later learn sought to emulate the "wall of sound" Phil Spector had made his signature.  It sounded simpler than the previous record.  The anthemic "Jungleland" was dismissed as little more than a ripoff of Elton John 's "Tiny Dancer. ". But I was already a believer, and I either tried to refute or kept my mouth shut like any good acolyte, I don't remember which.

Born To Run hit me exactly where it needed to.  As a disenfranchised college student, its themes of alienation and the desire for something better were what I was waiting to hear.  Rock music in 1975 was not really sending that message--it was focused on either the cosmic or the intensely personal--and it was Bruce who offered the way out, at least musically, for a child of the suburbs who knew some privilege but didn't know the world around him.

In a career of powerful lyrics, some of Springsteen's best gems reside on that 1975 record.  For example:

"And the poets down here don't write nothin' at all,
They just stand back and let it all be."

Lyrics like this, meaningful in a mythical Jersey shore town, now reverberate in Ferguson, MO, or anywhere else where the events of the day seem to have no connection to reality.

Springsteen does not stunt one's growth, either thematically or musically.  He has gone any number of places since that moment 40 years ago.  Still, four decades on, I tend to divide the world between those who get Springsteen and those who don't.  He remains that vital, simply because he learned with Born To Run that he could speak for others.  Beautiful and meaningful as many of the songs on his first two records are, they do not contain the universality of BTR, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and several of the records, now CDs, since.

With Born To Run, Springsteen tried to speak for a lot more people than just kids in Jersey who didn't fit in.  In reaching for that, he couldn't have known that he would be forever drawing the line between the romantic dreamers and the rest who just couldn't hear him.  But in a world where we all look for the next Dylan, the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, the next Springsteen, no one has stepped up, at least not successfully, to take the mantle and the crown from the young man from New Jersey who turned the cars and highways and failures of one of our smallest states into a voice for America.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

We Walk

There is no reason that you should care about this, but right now, at 10:37PM, I have walked 11,066 steps today, the equivalent of 5.14 miles.  I have climbed 31 flights of stairs.  My resting heart is 59 beats per minute, though right now I'm at 71.  Today, I have spent 2 hours and 7 minutes in "Fat Burn," but a mere 2 minutes in "Cardio."

I slept last night for 7 hours and 3 minutes.  Though I wasn't really awake at any time, I was "Restless" 16 times for a total of 31 minutes.

Welcome to the world of FitBit, of Jawbone, of the Apple version of the same kind of exercise digital record keeping.  I have to say, it is a world that I enjoy being a part of.

Late last May, I bought my wife and I FitBit HRs for our 32nd wedding anniversary (As well as a related joint Spotify account).  Since then, we have rarely looked back.  Instead, we walk.

There is something silly about wearing something on your wrist that keeps track of your various metabolic functions.  There are probably actuaries somewhere receiving the data to update their projections of when people like me are going to die.

Still, it is a world that I have quickly come to love.  Why?  Because we walk.  Tonight we circled the block twice, racking up 1000 steps each time--me, wife, and dog--to our mutual benefit.  Without the FitBit, we never walked the neighborhood.  Now, we walk it all the time.  It sits on the side of a ridge and, as such, offers ups and downs, hills and flat spaces, huffs and puffs sometimes and easy conversations sometimes.

When you have a FitBit and if you can get into it, then you are always, at least in the back of your mind, a little conscious of how many steps you are walking.  The goal, at least right now, is 10,000 steps for me, about 20% more for my wife who has shorter legs.  For both of us, that comes out to about 5 miles.  And, frankly, you don't know if you are walking anywhere close to 5 miles a day until you strap on a device that tells you that you aren't, at least not in a "drive by" city like Chattanooga.  If we lived in New York City, it would be pretty us.

But for us, we have to be pretty intentional about getting our mileage, whether it means looking forward to cutting the grass or walking down the hall to the drinking fountain a few more times than usual or taking a few spins around a shopping mall while the rest of the family actually shops.  Wearing a Fitbit and embracing it means discovering new worlds in the endless quest to walk enough.  Would I have been on Chattanooga's Riverwalk last Saturday otherwise?  No.  Would I relish helping my daughter move in to a second story apartment otherwise?  No.

Wearing a FitBit or similar product turns drudgery and distance into a chance to meet a goal and to feel good about that goal and to see, over time, tangible results from that goal.

There is a temptation, as a friend of mine succumbed to this summer, to dismiss this as a fad.  "There's no way that you are wearing that thing a year from now," he said.  Which I get.  Anytime something enters the picture that makes healthier living relatively easy (or difficult), it is a perceived threat to all who aren't doing it.  It is a financial stressor to the spouse whose better half suddenly wants one.  It is First World activity, another game, another gadget for those who can afford.

Still, I evaluate it on different terms.  Now we walk.  Before we didn't, not with this intentionality or record-keeping or distance.  Now we keep up with something together that we didn't; we share our mutual goals.  Now we look for active days and are disappointed when rain or work keeps us from that.  I've got no complaints that a little electronic device is responsible for those changes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wanna Know What I Think?

"Opinions are like mixtapes. I don't want to hear yours."

These words are a jagged little pill for a blogger to swallow, especially one who frequently obsesses over music. Now, I don't want to blame my month-long hiatus from BOTG merely from the scathing wit of a high school graduate's yearbook quote. But dammit, she has a point.

Want proof?

I made a mix of songs inspired by my 6 1/2 weeks in Nashville. Wanna hear it? If I gave you that CD of 19 songs, would you play it all the way through?

Don't worry. I'm not offended. Who even burns CDs anymore? 

The past few months, I've been distracted by a few questions:
  1. What does it to be an expert, to know something more or better than other people know something?
  2. What is an opinion worth when people vomit them thoughtlessly and endlessly on comment sections across the Interwebs?
  3. Must we be an expert in something for our opinions to matter or carry weight? Should we expect that of others who spout opinions? Or is our society so focused on the priceless value of self-expression as its own reward -- because what makes you feel good and righteous (or right) is all that matters, right?
  4. Am I an Expert in anything? Who decides this?
  5. If I'm an Expert in something but don't feel like an Expert, am I still an Expert?
  6. If I'm an Expert in something and do feel like an Expert, am I just an asshole?
  7. Can anyone be an expert at mixtapes?
OK that last question is more kidding-not-kidding, but the other ones have really occupied my spare thoughts. And it shouldn't take long to realize why such thoughts are pernicious to the productivity of a blogger.

This isn't to say I suddenly stopped having opinions or stopped enjoying them. Rather, I've struggled to find the motivation to compose them into longer, considered (or flippant) exercises in prose writing.

I’m sick of everyone being in such a gallderned hurry to spout an opinion -- with minimal information and minimal reflection. We’re a culture that thinks anything more than 140 characters is “too long,” that any response that takes longer than half a minute is “late to the game.”

I saw the documentary “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse, three weeks ago. Damn film is probably gone from theaters altogether, and I haven’t quite come around to forming my full opinion of it.

I went back recently and reread two essays from David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” There was a mindful, reflective guy, DFW. Sure, he killed himself. But still. His essays were rarely in the moment. The titular essay is a review of the 2003 Maine Lobster Fest. DFW didn’t publish it until a year later! He turned a review, a genre dependent upon swift turnaround, into a work of transcendent art. And dadgummit, that kind of feat took time. And care. In every sense of the word (or at least two senses).

“Reflection” and “mindfulness” are big buzz words in education right now. Professional educators have too little time for reflection, for meditation. We don’t take enough time to think about what we’ve done, nor do we take enough time to be mindful about what we will do. If educators take that time, it comes at the expense of the constant fires demanding to be put out. Something, in other words, will burn if the educator removes himself or herself to reflect.

In writing, it feels like if we take that time, someone will beat us to our ironic quip, our unique (but not) opinion, our chance to be the first commenter or the first expert.

And so, in 2015, we beat on, boats in the current, borne relentlessly into the future.

On the days I feel I can slow the flow of my own boat long enough to fairly and judiciously gauge the waters around me, I’ll publish a blog. I sincerely pray for many of those days in the weeks and months to come.