Monday, June 30, 2008

"I Wish We Had Some Communists Here!"

Thom Yorke--"Everything In Its Right Place (live)" (mp3)
Jenny Owen Youngs--"Fuck Was I" (mp3)

There's a funny scene in the great Dudley Moore movie Arthur where he's drinking with a soused guy at a bar and the guy is lamenting the fact that in our country kids are learning how to dance while in communist Russia, kids are being taught how to fight. Trying to commiserate/gently mock him, Arthur responds, "I wish we had some communists here."

Welcome to Korea, where children are in school for the summer.

It's worth pondering. What are our students doing right now? Working jobs, hanging out, going out at night.

A Korean student, a rising senior, is old enough to go out and drink Soju all night long. But he doesn't, she doesn't.

A Korean rising senior is taking classes in a hagwon like the one we're in. Korean seniors are in classes 2-3 hours a day focused just on SAT reading. They are in classes 2-3 hours a day on SAT essay. On top of this, they are memorizing 300 words a day, 1500-1800 words a week, perhaps tens of thousands of words in a summer.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? It can't possibly work, can it? Well, none of us think so, but when I ask students, they will acknowledge that while they don't retain these words for the long term, that they do know a lot of words when it comes time to take the next SAT.

The younger children are following a similar regimen, though more likely focused on the SSAT that will help them to get into a good American boarding school sometime in the near future.

On top of this, many of them (like our students) are doing extra AP prep work in areas like history that are a struggle for them. They are taking writing classes, working with me, for example, on college essays. My summer students here will walk into the fall with 5 college essays already written.

It does make you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, I wouldn't want our students in general or my child in particular tied to a regimen like this. But, I am also teaching 6th graders--yes, I have a class of 4 sixth grade girls who are very fun, very active, very willing to work and very smart. On top of it all, they have superb English, far better than most of their senior year counterparts. This means that in the next 1/2 generation, Korean students are going to be working the same summer regimen, but not to make up English deficiencies. Instead, they will likely be achieving absolute mastery of many elements of standardized testing.

Right now, the American boarding school market for Koreans has tightened up. But if these future applicants can bolster their SSAT scores even more and can pay their own freight, are top schools really going to turn them down?
Oh yeah, and every single student in the hagwon plays an instrument.

Thom Yorke live comes from one of Neil Young's Bridge Benefit concerts. Jenny Owen Youngs is available from Itunes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Room With A View

XTC--"Scarecrow People" (mp3)
The Yardbirds--"Shapes of Things" (mp3)

In this city of cryptic t-shirt messages like "Drop Knowledge Not Bombs," we live in a place called Human Starville. There is a job, perhaps a career, available for someone who would go around and correct the translations of the various signs. Coffee shops are among the worst offenders.

No one who works for this building speaks much English, which has made it difficult for Chief Negotiator Tommy to get us what we need. We started out on the 7th floor because they couldn't get the wireless to work. When they moved us up here, we discovered that it still didn't work, but the one next door did, so if we sat on the couch and leaned against the wall, we had Internet.

Outside the windows of the rooms on the lower floors are safety belts attached to cables. If there is a fire, one of the people in the room can wrap the belt around himself and jump to the ground, I assume at a controlled speed. Up here on the 24th floor, we do not have the safety belt attached to a cable.

On the bottom floor is the famed Cafe Servizio, a Korean attempt at an Italian cafe, a concept that is quite popular. At this point, I'd have to say the prevalence of these places is based on the notion that it's easy to recreate pasta, sauce, and pizza. The casear salad is good, though. Tommy and I like to sit down there in the morning and drink coffee, in the evenings and drink beer.

Our first morning here, someone threw a full plastic bottle of milk out of one of the upper floors. I'd like to think it was an accident. It hit two umbella-ed tables down from us with the sound and force of a gunshot. Bam! We did the instinctive, too-late duck move that people do when something blows up near them. There were a couple of Korean men a table away from where it hit. It freaked them out; the immediate knowledge that had it hit their umbrella, it would have killed one of them.

I don't really know who lives here or why. It is designed for long-term stay, so maybe people here doing business. We don't see foreigners in this building. What we do see are plastic surgery patients, women in particular, who wear duck-like masks with an opening for their mouths. This is a plastic-surgery city. The clinics where it can be done are everywhere and prominently advertised.

Whoever lives in this building (we never see the same people twice), we are apparently ripe customers for the pleasures of Korea. Regularly when we open the door, small cards advertising a particular woman, or a massage place, or a Korean food delivery place fall to the ground.

Beyond that, I'd like to tell you where we are, but I only know in the most general way where that might be. I can find it on a map. Unfortunately, cab drivers cannot. Seoul is hell for a cabbie; it's simply too big, too built up, too chaotic. Any time that we can remember, we pick up a card down in the lobby on the way out that says "Take Me To The Human Starville." You hand one of these cards to the cabbie and hope for the best.

"Scarecrow People" comes from the XTC cd Oranges and Lemons. "Shapes of Things" is classic Yardbirds, available on any number of cds and compilations. It was one of the favorite songs of my youth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bachelor's Degree (Love, Part 3)

Love, The Metamorphosis III: Bachelor's Degree

Me In Honey - R.E.M. (mp3)

Fix Me Now - Garbage (mp3)

My Morning Song - Black Crowes (mp3)

Something horrifying and wonderful happened after I graduated college: Absolutely Nothing.

I didn't go to grad school. I didn't go looking for myself across the ocean. I didn't renounce my family or head into the uncharted wilderness. I didn't do anything. I didn't even move out of my Chapel Hill apartment. I got a job bartending. I remained in a relationship that started in the last semester of school and was pretty sure we would end up getting married.

It was hard to be too enthusiastic about my relationship when I had no clue what I might become, what I even wanted to be, professionally. Not that she was terribly concerned about that, but her confidence in me only made my cluelessness more upsetting, made the pressure feel heavier. At this point in my life, "She's Having a Baby" was getting heavy rotation, especially the part where Jefferson Briggs as a young child is being reminded by his grandfather that, without a graduate degree, he would "end up working on a loading dock and hating every minute of it."

A more ambitious fella might say those 14 months of tooling around were agonizing, that they haunted me. Truth is, it was a fantabulous stretch of time. I learned to golf, kinda. I probably watched 10 movies a week. I played video games a-plenty. I went out to bars five or six night a week, reveled in some friendships and made some new, albeit usually fleeting, ones.

Now that I had a girlfriend, I realized that all of the cursed traits that caused me so much frustration and left me stuck with lots of female friends and no relationships were all built for the long haul. Suddenly, I was able to make friends with females, except I wasn't as interested in them romantically anymore, yet I was still seen as a trustworthy and harmless companion.

When I got myself fired from the bartending job the following spring -- for the most noble of reasons, I assure you. No, seriously, they were noble reasons -- I was forced briefly back to the homestead before landing a job at a newspaper in Warner Robins, Georgia. Otherwise known as Armpit of the Universe, USA.

All of the things I took for granted were exposed during my time at The Daily Sun. I left a university town that, person for person, valued the intellectual, the philosophical, that valued learning as a lifelong pursuit. I left my girlfriend, easily the longest relationship of that nature I'd ever known. I left my friends at a time when email was still a nascent concept and keeping in touch through the computer was still foreign. I left a place that felt like it had honed me for a place that didn't give a flip about anything but the United States Air Force and high school football. Oh yeah, and Jesus. Or some version of Him.

Before living in Warner Robins, I was ashamed of my hometown of Chattanooga. Compared to the Research Triangle, a thriving and growing center of business expansion and top-o'-the-heap universities, Chattanooga felt painfully provincial. Chattanooga had one decent commuter college surrounded by a half-dozen staunchly religious ones whose existence seemed more about sheltering the little lambs rather than teaching them anything. And the city was downright stagnant in population and business growth.

But Warner Robins was literally a town built to support the Air Force base. Without that base, the town would wither on the vine. Everyone knew it, even someone like me who knew the town was kinda sad for being so terribly co-dependent, but resigned to it, like a long-abused spouse. As a town, it was basically East Ridge... without Chattanooga.

I knew Warner Robins was going to be a different place the minute my future boss gave me directions to the newspaper's building for my job interview. He gave me directions based not on roads or mileage markers, but on strip clubs. Take the "We Bare All" exit. You'll see Cafe Erotica at the top of the ramp. Turn left. Go a few miles, and you'll see Teasers on the left. We're two lights past Teasers on the right.

If my time lingering and doing nothing in Chapel Hill was wonderful for it's meaninglessness, my time in Warner Robins hardened me (and no, I'm not talking about the strip clubs). It confirmed my love of movies and reading. It confirmed my love of my soon-to-be wife. It confirmed my need to be surrounded by people who appreciate and value education and learning.

It's kinda cool when you realize you're a long way from grown up and plenty fucked up, but also completely enjoying the ride and confident that where you're going is a good place and a helluva journey. Warner Robins confirmed my love of life, and not some glib TV commercial love. A deep, goosebumps on your pinky toe, shameless and deep and passionate love.

Some of us have to go places we know we shouldn't, doing things we don't enjoy, with people with whom we have little in common, to know where we should be, and what we should be doing, and with whom we should surround ourselves.

"Me In Honey" is from Out of Time. "Fix Me Now" is from Garbage's first and eponymous album. "My Morning Song" is from the Crowes' second (and best) album, The Southern Harmony and Music Maker. All three are available at both iTunes and Amazon's mp3 site.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm a Seoul Man!

Nils Lofgren--"Mr. Soul" (mp3)
The Sheds--"All You Need" (mp3)

I was very proud of myself on Monday. I had a free afternoon after teaching in the morning and made the decision to strike out like Lewis and Clark, like Huck Finn, like everything American for new territory.

So I got on the subway. You know, of course, that I have not mastered Korean in the three days I've been here. Sometimes, I can remember how to say 'Thank You.' I had a tenuous map, and that was it. After fortifying myself with a pseudo-Austrian lunch of a sandwich and lemonade, I walked down the steps with a clear goal in mind: Namdaemun Market. This is the premiere market in the country. Not only do I like markets, but this one was across the river, requiring a transfer from one subway line to another.

I was probably 3-4 stops into my trip, after successfully figuring out how to buy a ticket (which cost 1100 won for those interested) when I realized that I was halfway around the world and that not one person on this planet who knows me knew where I was. Not one. And that probably included me. My heart pounded a bit.

But then I kind of laughed to myself and felt oddly refreshed by the thought. The other thing that had me pondering my place in this world was the realization that I was the only white person around. This situation would continue on both the trip and the trip back and during my time at the market. It's pretty cool. You're aware of it. You realize that occasionally people are looking at you on the subway, that some of the people at the market are looking at you as an easy mark because you aren't like the rest. You have two choices when you are the only white person: either you feel white and out of place or, as you walk around looking through your viewfinder, you kind of forget that you are white because everything around you that is happening is Asian. I experienced both.

Namdaemun Market is like no place I've ever been. A mass of humanity, a mass of streets, everything possibly legally for sale, and maybe some things that aren't. In the center of it all, a man with no legs, but with the stumps protected from the ground by a rubber tarp as he drags himself around on a plywood board with rollers, chest down, no more than 3 inches from the ground, plays various cassette songs as he struggles through the market collecting money. Among the many clothing stands with Hello Kitty knock-offs, shoes, and all kinds of women's clothing and lingerie sit the food stands. Five or six stalls with huge glass jars that look like they're filled with honey and maybe a mandrake root. (my students tell me they are filled with ginseng liquor). Tubs of eels and turtles for sale, the eels slithering and squirming all over each other, the turtles with their heads yearning for the surface, neither group realizing they will be tonight's meal somewhere. Glass cases with smoked half-heads of pigs and piles of smaller portions of smoked pig carcasses. Bowls and bowls of the largest raspberries and cherries you've ever seen. If you pause, the vendor will approach to try to make a sale. A few know to say "Hello, how are you?" All know that the only American in the market is a prime customer. Down the alley noodle shops with plastic walls serve an overflow of customers. Farther down the street a crowd gathers around a man who pulls up with a large square wooden cart filled with stacks and stacks and stacks of men's dress pants that appear to sell for no more than a few thousand won. And everywhere, the scooters and motorbikes, inching or speeding their ways through an opening in the crowd, bringing fresh supplies of souvenirs and other wares to the market stalls.

I get a few things for the girls, but I start to get a little nervous about finding my way home. But I will be back.

The pictures above to do represent the market, they are just a couple of random Korea shots. "Mr. Soul" is from Nils Lofgren's new cd of Neil Young covers, available at his website. The Sheds remain the best unsigned band in America, though all of their songs are available for download at their website.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

High Dives and Monkey Bars

Trapeze - Patty Griffin (mp3)
The Wrong Child - R.E.M. (mp3)
In My Tree - Matthew Sweet (mp3)

Had a melancholy moment with my daughters last night. We were driving back from Ringgold, emerging from the Fourth Circle of Hell otherwise known as "a swim meet," and they asked me if I'd ever been on a high dive. The only high dives they've ever seen were on the Olympic Trials we watched last night. They've never actually seen one in person.

"Was it fun?" my older daughter asked me.

As usual, I probably overthought my answer before just being honest, worrying that my honest "Yes, it was very fun" answer was salt in the wound, reminding them of joys they'd never have.

"What was it like? Was it scary?"

It was scary. It was exhilarating. Most of the fun was trying to decide what kind of flying leap you had the nerve to take while you were climbing up that steep ladder, then standing on the edge of that board for a gut-check. To dive, or do a flip, or just take the coward's way out and do a "pencil" or run flailing off the edge, hoping the silliness would disguise your hesitance to do something more skillful.

The high dive was an awesome rite of passage. That water seemed a looooong way down as a kid. It seemed even higher up when you'd see some adult -- usually a mother -- get up there and have trouble working up the gumption to jump.

What I didn't tell my girls -- not yet -- was that I fell off the back of a high dive when I was eight years old. After a year of swim lessons and regular visits to the neighborhood pool, I had finally worked up the nerve to dive off the high dive. It took a few minutes, but I finally managed, and even received a 3.4 from the East German judge.

Having successfully done it, I was in such a rush to repeat the miracle that I raced up the ladder a little too quickly, and as I reached for the rail at the top, my hand slipped, and I fell backward.

It's amazing how quickly your brain can shut down. That one split second in time, of my hand slipping away from that rail, feels like several minutes in my memory. I couldn't have been in the air for more than a second or two, but I don't remember any of the actual fall. I never even felt myself crunch against the concrete.

The only things I remember before starting to wake up is the nervous reaction of my mother, who was so frightened she couldn't even scream. She whimpered. And I could hear it as she leaped from her lawn chair. My biological father died when I was a couple of days old, and Mom never hid the fact that her single greatest fear in the world was losing me. The sound I recall coming from her is a lot more chilling now than it was back then.

Turns out blacking out saved me a few broken bones at the very least. I landed so completely flat against the concrete that I got up with only a few minor scratches and nothing else. We didn't sue. We didn't even cancel our membership. We were back at the pool the next week. No measures were put in place to make the high dive safer. No warnings were posted that one should grab the hand rail carefully, that no one should go too quickly up the ladder. The judgment was made, fairly quickly, that user error was the root of my accident.

By the time I was 10, I was joining my friend Andy and other pals at his pool, doing really stupid things. He had a curved slide that went eight or so feet down into the water, but mostly what they did was climb to the top and jump in. The really daring moments required you to stand on top of the handrail before jumping.

Someone really could've hurt themselves. Especially a massive klutz like myself. But we never did, other than a few bruises or scrapes from hitting the pool bottom too hard on occasion.

When I start thinking back to my childhood, there wasn't much of any of it that hasn't been deemed, by one group or another, as Too Dangerous. Riding dirt bikes 10 miles, across several four-lane high-speed roads, to the local movie theater. Fighting in bottle rocket wars. Playing "joust" on our bikes with baseball bats. Watching HBO when my parents weren't around. Hell, even playing Dungeons & Dragons.

And those adventures that weren't deemed dangerous were flat-out demolished. Like high dives. Monkey bars. Sitting in the floorboard of the back seat of your parents' car on the trip to the grandparents or the beach, playing with your Star Wars figures.

Where do kids today find healthy ways to explore that gray area of Acceptable Risk? The very nature of growing up, of maturing, requires that kids and teenagers test boundaries, take flying leaps, push red buttons. Part of growing up is learning that sometimes parents and other adults were right on about warnings, and sometimes maybe they weren't.

Lately it seems like adults, with heavy assistance from hungry attorneys, are working to sanitize the entire fucking planet. Gone is the notion of acceptable risk, replaced by "if it hurts even one child, it's too dangerous." I'm honestly surprised swimming pools are still permitted at all, with the crippling power of the anecdote and its value in the news media over actual statistics.

My daughters are oddly fortunate, however. The school campus on which I live includes something affectionately known as "The Tower," a huge concrete platform that soars some 20+ feet above the surface of the water. If it was a rare treasure 20 years ago, now it's a rat that has somehow survived in a cage full of velociraptors. I'd like to say The Tower will survive another 20 years, but the cynical side of me doesn't even give it another five. A boy had to be taken to the hospital a couple of weeks ago after slipping and falling off the concrete structure.

The lifeguards responded quickly. All of the precautionary measures in place worked. But he was hospitalized. The first injury we've had on The Tower in at least four or five summers and four or five school years, with thousands of boys, thousands of kids running and leaping from it every day from late April until September.

But one injury might be all it takes in today's world. The notion that kids will be kids and that sometimes being a kid can hurt... well, that's not acceptable.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stuck Inside of JFK With Those Nashville Blues Again

Wolf Parade--"I'll Believe Anything" (mp4)
Dido--"I'm No Angel" (mp4)

I am Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

I am Tommy Dillow, the soccer fanatic, glued to the screen of the Germany/Portugal game in a small bar. I am the Germans next to me, screaming for their team.

I am spending the day among strangers.

I am overhearing conversations with snatches like "Yes, we have $16 million invested in that" and "I'm sorry, we sent two emails correcting that. We hope you will still be a part of our project."

I am among people who eschew airline snacks in favor of their own mega-bag of Bugles.

I am in the world where ages of women do not matter.

I am a reuben sandwich, fries, and several Sam Adams' Summer Ales.

I am taking all of my possessions with me everywhere.

I am in New York, where waitresses don't smile or call you "darling" or respond to teasing.

I am alone, and alone in a crowd.

I don't talk to the person next to me on the plane, though I wink at the small, adopted Asian boy two rows ahead.

I am 9 hours to kill.
I am the American in the terminal with at least 20 foreign airlines.

I am in a security line with people flying to Israel and people flying to Korea; that pot does not melt.

I am beyond time, and nothing I brought "to do" holds any interest to me, just the constant wandering, store to store, bathroom to bathroom, half-nap to half-nap.

I am early.

I am duty-free.

Wolf Parade and Dido are both available at Itunes.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

This Bud's For You (Love, Part 2)

Love, The Metamorphosis II: The College Years

Feed the Fire - BoDeans (mp3)
Capital Letters - Ned's Atomic Dustbin (mp3)
I'm Burning - Jesus Jones (mp3)

If my high school years introduced me to the concepts of love and romance, then college mostly just scrambled 'em

I was a sophomore before my second-ever girlfriend revealed herself to me. Like Shoeless Joe from the Iowa cornfields, she walked through a hedgerow to enter the all-campus fraternity party my buddies and I were stumbling around. I spent most of the night trying to figure out ways to subtly introduce myself without making it seem spooky or weird. Eventually I got drunk enough that I just kinda stumbled into her. I'm pretty sure my first words to her were "Oh, sorry."

How prescient.

She was an absolutely adorable freshman. I'd never claim she was particularly beautiful. But she was
one of the cutest girls I'd ever laid eyes on, and she glowed with an aura of get-along giddiness. Yes, some of that was the kind of high school girl giddiness that drives adults bonkers, but it was thrilling to run across someone whose general state of being was just as happy-go-lucky as my own.

Naturally, it was doomed.

Anyway, following that lovelorn failure, I fell into the realization that:
  1. I was looking for True Love;
  2. But not for, like, right now... more, like, for later;
  3. I was horny as hell and needed to get laid but, as Chet from Weird Science said, "I couldn't get laid in a morgue";
  4. If I couldn't get laid, what chance had I at finding love?
  5. Most of the guys and girls I knew who were in relationships made me not want to be in a relationship. They had lots of sex, but they didn't really do much of anything else fun, and even when they went out to act like they were having fun, they were mostly just acting like that until they could leave and go have more sex. Rinse and repeat until break-up;
No need glorifying all of the sordid details of how these realizations played out during my four years. Mostly I just made friends with a lot of very attractive, adorable and fascinating girls and watched them date other guys and then come back and commiserate on my shoulder. With 18 years of hindsight, I'd still rather be the friend than the temporary lay... but it's not, like, 100%. More like 55/45.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Quirky Little Find

I've been cruising around the music blogs a little bit the past few days. Trying to keep up with a blog of our own tends to make me forget to listen to all of the good stuff out there. So scrolling down on SaidTheGramophone, I came across these songs:

Sibylle Baier--"Tonight" (mp3)
Sibylle Baier--"I Lost Something in the Mountains" (mp3)
Sibylle Baier--"Wim" (mp3)
Sibylle Baier--"Softly" (mp3)

They're quiet and plain and quite beautiful--simple, everyday observations about events and people from the songwriter's life.

Here's the scoop: Sibylle Baier is a German actress who has worked with the director Wim Wenders. She recorded these songs at home over thirty years ago on a reel-to-reel. Her son, who is in the music biz, comes across them and makes a cd for his mother's birthday celebration. He also gives a copy to J. Mascis, who you might know as the lead guitarist/singer/creative genius behind Dinosaur Jr. Mascis gives them to a small, independent label that puts out the cd.

Give these songs a listen. Pick up the cd. Everyone who writes about them talks about how great they sound at night when you're winding down, ruminating, sipping a glass of wine or whatever.

Good music is timeless, as this uncovering after thirty plus years confirms.

Sibylle Baier's Colour Green is available at Itunes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Zoom Zoom

Got a little nippy going through the pass, eh Har?

Yup. Just call me Scooter.

After four years of oft-contemplation, two years of yearning, and six months of gas prices so aggravating and criminal that I could no longer stomach paying $50+ to fill up a f#*king Honda Civic -- uh, that's FIVE iTunes albums, for those who track their spending by the album -- I bit the bullet and bought a scooter.

Weeks of research, a visit to a local scooter dealer, and heavy scouring of the Craigslist both here and in surrounding cities, finally led me on Saturday to Acworth, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta. There, I took a big gulp, forked over something shy of $2,000, and drove back to Chattanooga with my uncle as the proud owner of a 2001 Yamaha Riva 125cc.

For those of you ignorant of scooter culture -- and who could blame you -- "125cc" means "fast enough to stay out of trouble, and slow enough to stay out of trouble." It tops out at just under 60 mph, and I'm not required by TN law to get a motorcycle license, because it's just that pathetic. But it also gets, supposedly, 80 mpg. Hell, even if it's 7-10 mpg shy of that, that still means more than triple the in-town gas mileage of my Civic.

In other words, everytime I would need to fill up my Civic, this Riva will save approximately $100 in gas. OK, but since I still occasionally need to drive the car, let's just say the scooter will save me, oh, $75 a month in gas. In other words, the scooter needs only survive for two years to pay for itself.

And scooters are making the news in spades. Here's a CNN story. Here's an NPR story. Here's another. And another. Although this has been on my mind a while, I can't exactly claim my purchase is boldly going where no man has gone before.

The decision to Scooterize myself was made somewhat easier by the fact that, whatever the Dork Factor of riding a scooter might be, I'm pretty much already peaked out on the Dork-o-Meter, unless, like Nigel Tufnel's amps, the Dork-o-Meter goes to 11.

I was the last person to throw away my Jams. I have been photographed wearing wife-beaters in the past year. I truly love Hawaiian shirts. The only thing I don't do is wear colored socks with my shorts, but that's mostly because it's due to come back into fashion.

No amount of Gooberphobia can negate my ability to buy five more albums a month with the gas I save. Hell, this afternoon I learned I can comfortably and perfectly fit two Starbucks Caramel Frappuccinos in the front compartment, transport them 2.4 miles, and deliver them with nary a spill. And last night I drove downtown, picked up two pizzas and two salads to go, and delivered them back home in mint condition.

Go ahead and laugh, but I'm in love.

My first act to celebrate my financially ingenious decision will probably be to purchase the new Hold Steady album. But first I have to go fill up my 1.7-gallon tank. Or, in car language, I gotta spend $7 for my next 140 miles or so.


"Fat Bottom Girls" is from the album Say It An-Tig-Uh-Nee. I got this from a friend's CD mix, and I can't find it on iTunes or "Motorcycle Drive-By" is from Third Eye Blind's first album, 3eb. It's available in the usual places.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This Mortal Coil

YeaSayer--"Final Path" (mp3)
Warren Zevon--"Don't Let Us Get Sick" (mp3)

A few weeks ago, I drove over to my dad's apartment this week to see if he was dead.

It's been that kind of year.

I don't know how old your parent or parents are, but when they get to some certain, undefinable age and they go a couple of days without answering their phones or sending email or establishing contact, you start to think the worst. Nevermind that my dad can't find his phone half the time and doesn't really know how to use it beyond answering it. His adjustment to the modern world once he got a cell phone was to cancel his land line to save money (he doesn't need to save).

So, I went during lunch hour. I'm not trying to sound cavalier; that was after a morning of repeated telephone calls. What goes on in your head as you drive over to your father's apartment thinking he is dead is pretty interesting. There are philosophical considerations--he's my remaining parent; when he's gone, there goes the final layer of protection, however tenuous, between me and mortality. There are logistics--my dad has given me reams of paper about what to do upon his death, and I always accept them graciously, and just as graciously file them away, because I don't really want to read through all of that until I have to. Then there's the real stuff--the heartwrenching fear and terror that I'm going to walk into an apartment and find my father dead. My mentor, my best man, my incredible, decades-long friend, my namesake.

And then, of course, just as I am turning onto the I-24 exit ramp past Moore Road, he answers the phone. "Can't a guy even take a shower?" he asks.


It sounds silly now and I feel kind of stupid that my heart was racing as I was driving out there, but those are real moments. I was pretty hard on my dad once he answered, too.

You also might be amused to know that I had a similar experience a month earlier when the Upper School Head and I walked over to a teacher's apartment, convinced that he, too, was dead. This one probably had more weight to it. This guy had just returned to school after a mental health leave of some kind, and there were all kinds of rumors about what had happened to him in the interim--had he been fired? had his fiancee called off the wedding? So when he came back and resumed teaching but really didn't talk much to anyone, it was reasonable to speculate about his fragile mental state.

So, Thursday morning, first class of the day he "no shows." Students come into the Upper School office asking where he is. A call to his office yields no results. A call to his apartment on campus yields no results. Calls around to various locations like the dining hall, the copy room, etc. indicate that no one has seen him. So, off we go. The Upper School Head is a pretty tightly wound guy, so he's breathing heavy and hyperventilating and saying "Man" a lot and all of that kind of thing, while I'm visualizing the scene ahead.

When we get to the dorm, it's pretty dark. Boys are in class, for the most part, and the hallway lights are off. We knock. No answer. We pound. No answer. We say his name loudly. No answer. The boys who haven't gone to class are peering out of their rooms at the other end of the hall. Our fears are increasing exponentially by the second. Then we call the head of the physical plant to bring us a key so we can go in. While waiting for him, we walk back outside the dorm, both of us on cell phones calling everyone we can think of to see if anyone has seen him.

When the golf cart pulls up and we get the key, the physical plant guy clearly wants no part of this beyond handing over the key. Open door. Yell name. Walk through. Nice, clean apartment. Didn't know he drank wine. More yelling of name as we go room to room. Enter bedroom. No one there. Collective sigh of relief, or at least, confusion, since his car is in its parking space.

As it turns out, he's with his class in the library, and the students who came asking about him hadn't been paying attention.


It's far too easy to "shuffle off this mortal coil," and this year, it has seemed easier than ever. So watch your consumption of tomatoes. Play Wii. Switch your Type-A personality to Type-B. Don't talk on your phone in the car. Listen to good music.

"Don't Let Us Get Sick" is from Zevon's Life'll Kill Ya cd; "Final Path" is from the YeaSayer Wait For The Summer ep. Both are available at Itunes. If you notice a tendency to post Warren Zevon songs, you are correct. I find him to be an astute commentator on most issues, always with a wry sense of humor.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Postcard From Hawai'i

Hawaiian Style Band--"Kaimana Hila" (mp3)
Willie K--"You Ku'uipo" (mp3)

I'm not above making gross overgeneralizations, so I'll start with one here: Maui is Hilton Head on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. That's right. Whiteyville. Resorts, golf courses, and a island menu softened and elevated for a blander, wealthier clientele. Prime land that once belonged to indigenous peoples taken from them by developers through the use of skyrocketing property taxes.

Oh, yeah, Maui is also just about the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Coincidence?

And if you're really wealthy, then Maui is probably a bit too crowded and common for you, so you move on to Lanai. Lanai has the highest gasoline prices in the United States at $5.80/gallon. Coincidence?

And I tend to forget until I get here that Hawai'i was a sovereign nation that we basically took over with the help of some Marines and the desires of some plantation owners. We felt the need to protect American interests on the islands. Sound familiar?

Our trip was to O'ahu. And but for a queasy trip back and forth on the Super Ferry and a bit of self-exploration around Maui, we've spent all of our time on this crowded, touristy island. O'ahu is sprawling, messy, at times, even ugly, but it an authentic Hawai'ian experience if you are willing to venture away from the South Beach-lite area of Waikiki (which I also really like, by the way), and given the melting pot of foreign tourists, hotel staff, and restaurant workers, even if you're not willing to leave Waikiki. All that is true on Maui is true here, but to a lesser degree because so many peoples have staked out turf in this crowded city already. So the wealthy are snatching up the North Shore, where the big waves come in the winter.

Just a sampling of a few items will give you an idea of what I mean about the blend of cultures that makes for the Hawaiian experience on O'ahu. The best doughnuts on the island, called malasadas, come from the Portuguese. The "plate lunch" with its meat, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad, is originally from the Phillipines or Korea. The ukelele (of course I bought one and have already learned to play Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," among other things--the lyrics sound pretty damn stupid when you're singing and strumming a ukelele) comes from contact with Mexican cowboys who came here with the cattle. Pineapple are a transplant from South America; coffee the same. The incredible shrimp trucks, like Giovanni's (pictured here) are Italian in origin, basically serving shrimp scampi with enough garlic to kill the vampire Lestat. The Hawaiian shave ice, now ubiquitous, of which I ate the original, complete with some kind of baked beans (azuki beans) at the bottom, is Japanese. The Italian restaurant where last night I had Opah fish sauteed in garlic and olive oil with a light white wine sauce is staffed by Vietnamese and run by a Vietnamese chef. And the traditional Hawaiian food, with slow-cooked pork wrapped in taro leaves, a tomato, salmon, and onion salad, a tender beef jerky, and poi (the healthiest starch in the world), which tastes like uncooked, fermenting bread starter, to dip everything in is perhaps the best eating/immersion experience of all. You get the idea. All cultures meet here on O'ahu.

Which is to say that Hawaii is a lot like the rest of America. Those whites who can flee to their safe havens where they/(we?) can recreate safety and comfort, but occasionally they'll venture out for a brief foray into the "real thing." Or maybe not. We were on a bus tour around the island the other day, and the driver/guide Mele, a native Hawaiian, said, "Hey, let me ask you all. We have these new restaurants now called P.F. Chang. Do you have them on the mainland? Are they any good? Should I go?" The chorus around us yelled, "Yes, it's awesome!" This is an area glutted with authentic Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino eateries, but where the people who staff those restaurants speak those languages.

Sorry to be preachy and condescending. I leave you with the sign across the street from our hotel, with its syntax-challenged attempt to lure the tourists: "Totally Nude and Billiards."

Having a great time. Wish you were here. Though by the time you see this, I'll probably be back. Mahalo. Aloha.

Both songs above come from the compilation CD, The 50 Greatest Hawai'i Music Albums Ever.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Poor Misguided Youth (Love, Part 1)

Poor Misguided Youth
Love: The Metamorphosis Part I

Theme to thirtysomething (mp3)

If, as the sagely characters on G.I. Joe proclaimed, Knowing is Half the Battle, then surely confidence is the other half. As a socially-awkward teenager whose own body was an alien lifeform, my knowledge was theoretical at best, and my confidence was... well, I didn't really have any. With good reason.

What I did have was a scholarly appetite for lust and love and an overdose of pop cultural education on the topic. Although perhaps Joanie and Chachie were an early misguided introduction to the concept of love, by high school I had begun to educate myself by watching the oft-mocked but critically-acclaimed thirtysomething.

Hope... she was the word personified. Everything I thought I wanted in a spouse flowed naturally through that character. She was a nurturing mom, a caring and dependable friend, and a companion both independent and supportive. She was beautiful, but not to the degree that I couldn't imagine her falling in love with me, with a nose that begged charicatures and an almost-masculine voice. She loved being a mother, and she loved being a wife. Watching thirtysomething made me Ralphie, looking into the store window at that coveted Red Rider BB gun. She was what I wanted for Christmas Future. I wanted to put her on layaway until I was old enough to handle her with the care and delicacy she deserved.

It's risky to claim ridiculous things about the influence pop culture has on us, but Hope was the walking embodiment of a notion I probably already carried within me. My notion of the ideal wife might have been forging and shaping inside me long before that show, but her character affirmed my belief that such a woman and such a relationship existed.

Before that show, my notion of romantic love was in the abstract. After that show, it had a form, a figure, a personality. It was suddenly alive, and it looked a helluva lot like Mel Harris. Hope became the lighthouse by which I guided my wayward ship through the turbulent waters of awkward and uncertain relationships.

Love Untold - Paul Westerburg (mp3)
What's My Scene - Hoodoo Gurus (mp3)

Confident as I might have been about what I thought made a good relationship -- how a couple should think of one another, treat one another -- I was utterly uncertain about my own place in the world, who I was, and what in me was worthy of the affection or attention from the fairer sex.

Exceptions exist to most of life's rules, but one rule is pretty damned ironclad: timidity is rarely sexy in a man. This is doubly true in high school and college.

In high school, I was surrounded by cool guys who were dating and doing God knows with these girls, and I didn't even know how to have a conversation that could somehow, someway, naturally lead to me asking a girl out. How do you start talking about German class and somehow make the leap to asking for a date? How do you back away from rejection with any small molecule of confidence when you hardly have two molecules' worth to begin with?

And if it's hell on wheels to even get to the point where I felt at ease enough to ask someone out, how the f*#k am I supposed to get to the part where it's me and Hope Steadman standing at the altar??

This confusion left me pining away, usually to myself, over girls I found completely fascinating but never got to know well enough to be sure of who they were or whether I could really like them. And while I was privately weighing their wife-worthiness, they hardly knew my name and would have soiled their acid-washed blue jeans if they'd known I was already trying to imagine us at an altar, raising children, growing old together.

Instead, I found myself playing Solitaire, as the Hoodoo Gurus song so amusingly puts it.

Strange how I could be so fascinated by girls and so in love with games, yet the adolescent game of relationships never made sense to me.

The line from "Love Untold" sums up a healthy portion of teenage angst:

Does anyone recall the saddest love of all?
The one that lets you fall with nothin' to hold.
It's the love... untold.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lost in the West Coast '70's

Buckingham Nicks--"Stephanie" (mp3)
Buckingham Nicks--"Races Are Run" (mp3)

Now that the Clinton stranglehold on the Democratic White House has been broken and now that I am in a West Coast and beyond state of mind, I can profess my semi-love for Fleetwood Mac. It came back to me on a rough sea journey on the SuperFerry to Maui yesterday, when I looked for some music to settle my stomach and try to allow me to drift off into a stupor and came across Buckingham Nicks.

Never heard of them? Well, of course you have. Buckingham is Lindsey Buckingham and Nicks is Steve Nicks, both of whom you have heard probably ad nauseum as members of Fleetwood Mac. Together, they changed the face of pop music when they joined forces with the drifting remnants of the previous incarnation of the Mac--Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and Christine McVie. What you may not realize until you hear these songs is how much Lyndsey and Stevie brought to the table when the deal was cut. What these tracks may make you wonder is, "What did the other three bring to the table?"

Hence, my semi-love of Fleetwood Mac. I have a tremendous respect for the guitar playing, songwriting, and production values of Lyndsey Buckingham and I have a weakness for Stevie Nicks songs; the other three strike me largely as, to quote Office Space, no-talent ass clowns. Actually, I give McVie credit for that memorable bass line on "The Chain" and I have nothing against Mick, the drummer, but, man, oh man, do I hate those Christine McVie songs like "You Make Lovin' Fun" or "Don't Stop." Those songs sucked long before the Clintons co-opted them back in the '90s. One of the best things about the Ipod has been not checking songs like those when downloading CD's on Itunes.

Actually, I've liked Fleetwood Mac in all of their many incarnations. Back when they were a blues band, they had an outstanding guitarist named Peter Green, whose tasty solo work surfaces from time to time on my Ipod, though I think he personally whigged-out, either before or after a religion conversion. I like that extended, 2-part song "Oh, Well" from those earlier days, too. "Don't ask me what I think of you/ I might not give the answer that you want me to." Now there's a couplet for the ages. Later, before he, too, went solo, I even like the Bob Welch era of Fleetwood Mac, with songs like "Sentimental Lady," which he redid to jumpstart his brief solo career.

But back to Buckingham Nicks. For a record that no one ever heard and that I don't think is even available, it is remarkably polished. You hear in the song "Stephanie," an instrumental, both the idiosyncratic acoustic technique that Buckingham possesses and the use of electrics in the background--both traits are put to good use on the Mac albums. In "Races Are Run," you hear that same trademark blend of acoustic and electric guitars as well as the harmonies that you've heard on everything from "Go Your Own Way" to "Rhiannon." Buckingham is an incredibly-skilled guitarist, but that can get lost in the hit-making talents that he also possesses or possessed. Check out the playing on "Never Going Back Again" off of Rumors. Listen to some my favorite of his non-hits off of Tusk, like "I Know I'm Not Wrong" or "What Makes You Think You're The One." And Nicks, I think, has written some of the more memorable songs on and off pop radio. Give another listen to "Gold Dust Woman," for example, or "Edge of Seventeen."

Fleetwood Mac, anyone? Maybe if, like me, you're in a West Coast '70s frame of mind. Aloha.

Buckingham Nicks
is not available on Itunes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Love: The Metamorphosis (Introduction)

Love: The Metamorphosis

21 Things I Want in a Lover - Alanis Morrissette (mp3)
Cigarette Lighter Love Song - Marvelous 3 (mp3)

"When I first moved here, I wanted a guy with looks, security, who's caring, someone with their own place, someone who said bless you or gesundheit when I sneezed, you know, and someone who liked the same things as me bu
t not exactly. Someone who loves me." .... "(Now I'd settle for) Someone who says gesundheit when I sneeze. Although I prefer 'Bless you.' It's nicer." -- Bridget Fonda, Singles


The other day, I was listening to a song that has become one of my favorite love songs when something occurred to me that hadn't before. What would I think of this song if I was 12 again? I would think the adult me was the most depressed romantic on the planet, and I'd also probably think the song just sucked.

So I started thinking back to what I considered my favorite love songs over time. And holy shit if it's not scary how drastically my notion of romance, love, warm fuzzies have changed over the last 27 years.

This is prolly a big No Duh moment for everyone else. I was 35 when I discovered they were called "chest of drawers" rather than "Chester Drawers," as in drawers invented by some dude named Lionel Chester (You know, like Thomas Crapper), so I've had plenty of short bus moments.

But for me, it's something of a minor revelation to realize that the general tone and approach of my preferred love songs have gone through several metamorphoses over the years.

These lists are extremely oversimplified, 'cuz I'm kind of rewriting history to suit my memory of it all. Hell, I've confessed on a previous blog incarnation that I spent four months listening to nothing but "King of Pain" by the Police and most of Achtung Baby by U2 just 'cuz my sweet first college girlfriend dumped me.

I'm pretty sure she dumped me because I made her a mixtape that had both "Love & Affection" by Nelson and "Everything I Do (I Do it for You)" by Bryan Adams on it. And let's be honest: I can't think of a better damn reason to break up with someone. Those songs might have been good on a mixtape if we'd been in, like, EIGHTH GRADE, but for young horny college kids who know better?? Pathetic, Billy. Just pathetic.

In the end, I'm not sure if my love song standards have lowered or raised in 25 years. Maybe it's just called "maturation" or "wisdom." Maybe it's called silly youthful ideals that couldn't quite survive the test of time. Maybe it's called a midlife crisis. It doesn't feel like any of these, to be honest. But I don't wanna bleed all my musings here, 'cuz I've got songs to share. I'll go one phase at a time. Play along if you like. Psychoanalyze if you like.

Or just sit back and listen to some good (sometimes not), cheesy (sometimes sobering), music.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kids Rule, Adults Drool?

Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car - U2 (mp3)
Alison Foley - Better Than Ezra (mp3)

Old dude writes a lengthy Weekly Standard column complaining that the world now revolves too much around them damn kids. Parents are too attentive, too nurturing, too overprotective, too omnipresent. Kids are too coddled, micromanaged and supervised. Back in his day, he had to combat rabid dogs for scraps of meat, and his parents would disappear for weeks on end when he was an infant, forcing him to fend for himself. It's not that his parents didn't love him, 'cuz they did. They just had better stuff to do with their time. Like, everything else.

He gives this theory a brilliant name, though: The Kindergarchy.

Unfortunately, as "Back in My Day" curmudgeonly as his writing seems, I can't help but think his central point is dead-on: for all the extra attention, time and cuddles we invest in our children, does it really produce better adults? Less selfish adults? More considerate adults?

Last I checked, employers are saying today's college grads need more praise, more incentives, more rewards just to do the same job their elders did just 'cuz that's what jobs are. That's the price of growing up with parents who convinced them they're the center of the universe: they actually believe it.

You're special.
Hell yes I am!
You can do anything you want to if you want it bad enough.
I'll be the first 5'3" NBA center!
Your place in the world is on top!
Duh! Now get the f*#k out of my way and fix me breakfast!

Reading Epstein's article splits me in two. Part of me feels sorry for the guy for not even knowing what he was missing. Poor kid, his parents weren't particularly nurturing, and they were only mentors in the abstract. But the other part sees my own childhood in his descriptions... (cue personal flashback)

By the time I was in fifth grade, I regularly rode my bike, along with one other friend, five miles, some on traffic-congested roads, to a movie theater. I rode it to school some three miles away. I had a TV in my room by the time I was 10, fully equipped with HBO and Skinemax. My parents didn't go to all my baseball games, nor did they spend tons of time training me in athletics (but then, I wasn't very good... which begins a chicken/egg debate). In middle school, my curfew was hardly enforced, and I would frequently come in at 3 a.m. from a late night role-playing extravaganza at a neighbor's house.... and I'm forced to acknowledge that we grew up with a less heavy parental guiding hand yet somehow emerged mostly OK.

None of these things were examples of stellar parenting, but I never thought of my parents as anything but wonderful, loving parents. Once in a blue moon I somehow felt my parents fell short of their obligations, but for every one of those moments I had 30 where I was grateful my parents were soooo much better, more loving, more caring, than someone else's.

Will reading this change my philosophical approach to parenting? No more than Supernanny, frankly. That show -- arguably the most valuable (and overlooked) public service commercial TV has offered in a long, long time -- should serve as the central reminder that the behavior of a child is the direct reflection of how their mother and father have raised them. For a while there was talk about how little parents influenced their children in comparison to peers and other external factors, but increasingly, common sense and surveys point to parents as the most important influencers (cute little small-town column) on their children's lives.

So what are we to do? We have great influence over our children, but we can also abuse it by overusing it. Damned if we do, damned if we don't, to some extent, which makes the intentionality of choosing our battles all the more crucial. Worst case, it seems picking fewer battles will rarely hurt the kids as long as we stay in the fight.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Yellow Deli

Mirrors - The New Frontiers (mp3)
I'm Going to Wait - Lyle Lovett (mp3)

I can still see Kristy McNichol being taken in that blue van, away from the commune, to be deprogrammed. I can see it like I was still watching it on TV. The movie was called "Blinded By the Light," and it was about her and her brother falling under the spell of a Moonie-esque cult. The people in the cult were all lovey-dovey and caring, but it was the little secret subversive things they didn't see happening to them that brainwashed them.

Stuff like, um, nutritional manipulation, feeding them foods to make their minds weaker. And other stuff... like, lots of sermons and hugs and crap about a purpose.

This crappy TV movie scared the ever-livin' hell out of me. I must have watched it three or four times, because I can still remember four or five scenes from it pretty clearly. Her in one of the worship services, with her head spinning because of the malnutrition or something. Her working in a greenhouse kind of place, talking to some blonde groupie.

It was on TV when I was 8 or 9 years old, so I'm not even sure I totally understood it. All I knew is these adults who seemed caring and loving and wholesome were actually oddly sinister and manipulative in the name of religion. Be suspicious of Devil wolves in Christian sheep's clothing, was the message, which is as frightening a prospect as an overly-trusting, overly-naive boy can encounter.

Thirty years later, I'd like to say I'm more spiritually mature and aware. I'm grateful I was warned to be suspicious of devil wolves in Christian sheep's clothing, because I learned the most dangerous ones are rarely the dudes who look like Powers Boothe and force you to guzzle Kool-Aid.

Between the Milgram Experiment and other crap I learned in college, I've also learned to go a little easier on the idiots who get sucked into extreme religion. We're a vulnerable, naive bunch, the lot of us.

With all this baggage of fear and awareness, I cautiously but amusingly entered The Yellow Deli last week for lunch.

The Yellow Deli is Chattanooga's own special religious cult. Not only that, but my mom informed me a couple weeks back that my biological father was friends with Gene Spriggs, the dude who started it. They were drinking and party pals, apparently, before Gene went off to California and got all cult-ured. (Ha! That's a joke, son. Get it? I keep pitchin' 'em and you keep missin' 'em!)

The group basically got run out of town on a rail just a few years after Kristy McNichol was making her little TV movie. They were enticing a few too many vulnerables, it would seem, and, well, let's face it. They're a cult, a label which comes with some pretty hefty historical baggage. When you look at the "crimes" The Yellow Deli commits, however, they seem pretty vanilla: child abuse that sounds several notches down from "Mommy Dearest," freaky dress codes and hair requirements, and limited freedom for adults.

In truth, nothing described in that first-person account seems all that more unreasonable than the standards and expectations heaped upon any number of fundamentalist congregations, especially in the South.

Does it weird me out that members aren't allowed to eat the food they serve at Yellow Deli? Yup. Is it strange they look like hippies but don't engage in "free love"? Sure. Will any of this ever bother me as much as those Hell Houses? Hell no. Are Twelve Tribes goobers standing on street corners at Riverbend or walking down Bourbon Street with pictures of aborted fetuses and a laundry list of the damned? Hell no.

Do they take advantage of the downtrodden and outcast? Um, I guess? Maybe? But show me people who don't, quite frankly. If giving the homeless and transients a place to lodging and food (even if it's not Wendy's) but demanding that they follow certain rules and expectations in return is taking advantage of them, I guess they're guilty. But I wouldn't call it exploitative, nor does it seem beyond the pale cruel or harmful. It seems kinda... Christian, albeit slightly freaky.

I'm not gonna join, and I'm not gonna become a regular at their joint. Give me freaky clothing and strange social practices over the reenactment of unbelievers and sinners sinking into hell every day.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Good Idea

Sugar--"A Good Idea" (mp3)
The Flaming Lips-"Be My Head" (mp3)

Ideas are funny things. People tend to think that they own them, when they usually don't.

Case in point: I am spearheading two initiatives at work this week. I don't have to claim that either idea is mine because I heard both of them in a presentation at a conference. So there's no question of ownership on my part. I just thought they were a good fit for us right now, and the "powers that be" agreed, as did, apparently, the wealthy donors who oversee the powers that be.


Walked into an afternoon meeting yesterday and a co-worker screamed, "This is exactly what Ed (her husband) suggested several years ago."

"Well, I'm sure," I said. "It's a good idea." Trying to defuse just a tiny bit.

"He brought it to them back then and no one would listen," she countered.

"Well," I said, "Ed is a prophet in his own land, and you know how that goes." Luckily, from there the meeting started and the focus became how to make the initiative happen.

The other initiative I sent out by email, kind of a 'hey, we're thinking about trying this and would appreciate any feedback you might have, blah, blah, blah' thing. Many positive responses, including this one: "I appreciate your(sic) going for this. I actually mentioned it several years ago, and I was told all the reasons it was not a good idea. Please go for it. I still think it is a good idea." Gracious, supportive, and all of that, but still the underlying 'hey, that was my idea' notion.

Let me right here and right now grant everyone the genius of their individual ideas that they cornered the market on. Well done, I say! After all, it was Emerson who said, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." And he's more right than not. Most of us don't say "I wish I thought of that" nearly as much as we say "I thought of that years ago."

But that's where the good idea ends. What drives lives and institutions is not the good idea, but the good plan. And you don't even have to be a genius to put that into play. The fact that these initiatives are coming to fruition now is the result of a confluence between random discovery, good institutional timing, and dumb luck, along with a wealth of other things I have no control over and seeds that I didn't plant.

My point is this: if you get that pure idea that is all your own, by all means, guard it, treasure it, take it out and look at it with a flashlight under the covers at night. But for all of the other ideas besides that one, the ones that we read somewhere or half-heard from someone else or flat out stole, maybe we can just say, 'Yeah, I thought of that, too. I think I mentioned it to someone. I'm glad they're doing something about it, and I feel pretty good for having had a hand in it. I wish that it had happened earlier, but I'm glad that it's happening now.' And move on.

For Emerson also reminds us that "[t]here is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance."

"A Good Idea" is featured on an excellent Sugar CD, Copper Blue. "Be My Head" comes from an early Flaming Lips CD, Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. Both at Itunes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The 50 States Club

Warren Zevon--"The Hula Hula Boys" (mp3)
Della Humphrey--"Dream Land" (mp3)

The 50 States Club. No, it's not what you think. Not my own version of the "Mile High" club, though I'll soon be up in the stratosphere, too.

On Saturday, I'll be jetting to Hawaii, which will mean that I have visited all 50 states in 51 years. All 50 in 50 years would have been nice, but life doesn't tend to be that symmetrical. It has been a long campaign to get to this place. I tend to cover states in stretches, by car, rather than to visit them individually by plane. Hawaii's a little different.

Without a kind parental offer of an Alaskan cruise in 1988, I'd never have gotten up there. Without an alum's offer to use the family condo in Aspen, Colorado, I wouldn't have Arkansas, Oklahoma, or the panhandle of Texas. Without an NEH grant in 2001, I never would have chalked up North and South Dakotas, Montana, Idaho or Oregon. Minus the harrowing trip with a suicidal friend in 1980, I wouldn't have California. Oh yeah, I would have picked it up because of the NCTE in San Diego circa 1992.

Some people probably think that because I'm a liberal and because I tend to be critical of our government, that I don't love these United States. They would be wrong. When you stand in front of a map of this country and have been to each state, each state becomes a story, in some cases, many stories and mental photographs.

I was born in New York, walked first in New Hampshire, started school in Ohio, grew up in New Jersey, dated first in Pennsylvania, bought Boone's Farm "wine" in West Virginia because the drinking age was lower, hiked the Appalachian Trail in Massachussetts, saw Neil Young in Virginia, felt God's presence at a crater lake in Colorado, gazed at UFO's in California, tried to live off gambling in Nevada, broke down for a week in Nebraska, found love in New Hampshire, saw the Grateful Dead in Wisconsin, married in Kentucky, honeymooned in Michigan, took a job and had children in Tennessee, saw Neil Young in Georgia, heard Kathleen's first words in Arizona, should have died in Arkansas, discovered the city of my dreams in Louisiana, wrote a novel in Florida, touched the Pacific in Oregon, walked across the Mississippi River in Minnesota, watched my mother die in Illinois. And that's only half of the states. Maybe your story crosses this country, too.

I plan to be posting from Waikiki several times next week, but if transmissions are slow because of crystal blue water, Mai Tais, snorkels, shrimp trucks, volcanoes, machete-hacked pineapple, sunsets, hula dancers, or any of that kind of thing, please know that you are in my thoughts.

"The Hula Hula Boys" comes from Warren Zevon's album, The Envoy. "Dream Land" is from the compilation, Studio One Women. Zevon's song and Bob Marley's original version of "Dream Land" are both available from Itunes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pop Goes the Good Ole Days

Dance Music - The Mountain Goats (mp3)
257 Weeks - Nine Days (mp3)

The schoolgirl outfit. The pigtails. That oddly childish voice emerging from that very grown-up lookin' body. Although Britney's become something of the Bearded Lady With Three Heads people pay money to see at the state fair, what we've forgotten is what we all knew the minute she exploded on the music scene: she was the world's first Cylon Pop Star.

Oh, we've had cyborg stars in the past, folks who needed a lot more than mere talent to hit the charts. But never before did we have someone whose sole talent was merely looking the part of a virginal teenager who desperately wanted to be a slut. (Or maybe it was the other way around.)

I mean, I can still remember the first time I ever saw the video for "Baby One More Time." My cheeks flushed and I looked nervously around me, as if I was holding one of my Dad's Playboys and I was afraid someone would catch me. Is this OK to watch? I thought to myself. This seems so wrong... but gosh she's kinda hot... How old IS she??

The only time I can ever recall feeling guiltier about watching a video was Fiona Apple's "Criminal." Fortunately, by the time I'd watched both videos 20+ times, most of the guilt was gone. We humans are nothing if not exceptionally gifted at numbing our consciences.

Lots of us who love music feared Britney's arrival signaled the end of the world as we knew it. Although "Flash Over Substance" had been "The End is Nigh" claim for decades, maybe since before the first rock 'n' roll song, Britney managed to somehow kick this equation up a notch. She managed to get me listening to songs I didn't even like just because they reminded me of the dirty thoughts I had watching her videos!

What we didn't realize but perhaps should have is that, while we were fixated on her as the Death of Music because she was the paragon of Flash Over Substance, she was actually the Hospice Nurse for another musical phenomenon of our culture: The Simultaneously Experienced Pop Song. Songs everyone knew.

Born in 1972, I can only speak for the musical times in which I was a living component, but I'm pretty sure the Simultaneously Experienced Pop Song (let's call it "SEx Pop"!) was an even more powerful creature in the Elvis and Beatles days. Although the '70s seemed to be a time when albums stole some of radio's thunder, radio and the universally-known pop song were doing just fine.

My elementary school years found radio continuing to ebb, but that crazy little thing called MTV emerged. MTV was a nation-wide radio station with visual aides, and it injected new life into the SEx Pop. But that merely provided a second wind to an aging notion. By the time Nirvana arrived in their flannel and bitterness, the SEx Pop was hitting retirement age but still able to drive around on its own, albeit very slowly and always in the right lane on the Interstate, its head barely visible behind the wheel. By the 21st Century, SEx Pop was in a nursing home.

Let's have a fun experiment. No matter your age, go take a look at the Top 100 Hits of 1984. Just keep track of the number of songs you know. Speaking personally, it's easier to keep track of the ones I don't know. It's not until #61 -- "State of Shock" by the Jacksons -- that I fail to recognize a single song. Hell, I could almost sing the choruses to at least 92 of them, and I'm not remotely exaggerating.

Now, take a gander at the Top 100 Hits of 2004. To quote Sheriff Buford T. Justice, ain't no way, nooooo way, that list stands the test of time, comparatively speaking. Even if you compared the lists with comparably-aged people -- say, comparing my knowledge of that 1984 list to someone born in 1992's knowledge of the 2004 list, I still bet the farm my generation has them beat by a mile.

For every "Crank That" by Soulja Boy in the present, there are at least half a dozen "Ghostbusters" by the Ray Parker Jr., and arguably more. Not because kids today listen to less music, which would be insane. It's because kids today don't have the musical Tower of Babel -- MTV, radio, etc. -- feeding them all the same food like we did.

If anything, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band phenomenon have done nothing but exacerbate the situation. Every recent hit they've managed to pound into our older generations' skulls is matched by at least one or two more from the '70s or '80s roping in those younger kids.

With all the talk about how today's generation of teens and young adults are somehow more interpersonally disconnected, in spite of all this communication-centered technology, I can't help but mourn the slow death of SEx Pop. Play "Bust a Move" or "Mickey" in the presence of 20 people and see if you don't get some smiles, some looks around to see if anyone else is enjoying the guilty pleasure of a fun flashback.

You think f#*king Hoobastank is gonna have Peter Frampton's legs? You think Switchfoot holds the same longevity as Dexy's Midnight f*#king Runners? No. Chance.

Sure, exceptions exist. SEx Pop ain't dead; it's just in an iron lung, fighting for every molecule of oxygen. Most mammals with ears know Eminem's "Lose Yourself" or Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." But ever since Britney took over Hospice care, the most universally known pop songs come from one single location. Ironically, it's the very same location that began Britney's transformation two decades ago:


High School Musical. Hannah Montana. The Cheetah Girls. The Jonas Brothers. This is the closest that Modern Music has to a SEx Pop generator, music that adults like me play in their cars to keep their kids entertained, because at least the music approaches something akin to music we can stomach, and at least the songs maintain the slightest level of innocence.

The '80s had Grease. Now we have HSM. Even if HSM wins -- and I don't really think it does -- nobody from the younger generation is gonna be particularly proud to claim it. Hell, even my daughters are already starting to diss HSM.

Breaking Free - Troy and Gabrielle (High School Musical) (mp3)

"Dance Music" is off The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. "257 Weeks" is a great, great pop song by the 1-album wonder Nine Days. "Breaking Free" is one of the many halfway decent pop songs churned out by the Cylons created at Disney Channel. All are available on iTunes or's MP3 site.