Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Decline of Civilization, Part II

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--"Room At The Top" (mp3)
Lisa Germano--"All Around The World" (mp3)

There's a great scene in the movie, Being There, where a randy Shirley McLaine is so turned on by Peter Seller's character that she completely misinterprets him. She's trying to get him into bed, but he is a simpleton, a gardner working at the White House, who has been mistaken as a genius of few words, and whose few words are dictating national policy. Shirley McLaine's character, of course, is intoxicated by the apparent power Sellers' Chauncy Gardner has. All Chauncy Gardner really likes to do, though, is to watch tv. And so, when he declares, in response to her advances and while staring at the television, "I like to watch, Eve," she takes this as a sexual preference of his and masturbates in front of him, to her own satisfaction, while he continues to watch tv.

Here's what most people like to do: watch.

That's it.

Far be it from me to extrapolate from the small, small sample of this blog, but I do think I notice a pattern that the more provocative a post Billy or I put up, the less likely it is to get a response. I can almost picture people squirming in their chairs. Does he really believe that?

I'm also basing this opinion on work and fantasy football message boards and everything else that leaves me convinced that's what people like to do (and not do). They like to watch to see what others will do or say. They'd rather hear an impersonation than try one. They'd rather acknowledge someone else's letter to the editor than write one. They like to stay out of the spotlight. They like to see and to report on the train wreck, but they don't want to be on the train. Oddly, it's not only a safe position, but it also can put them completely in the center, maybe moreso than the actors themselves. They can make an entire social career out of relating the crazy things that other people have done.

In this political season, however, there is an enlarged subset, and that is those who bravely speak their mind on the "comments" section below various political blogs, using clever nicknames. Using the moniker "Thomas Paine" or "flowergurl," one can safely say the most outrageous or offensive or ridiculous things and all that will come back in return will be attacks against a false front. I doubt any of these pseudonymed posters ever even go back to see what others have said in response. It's guerilla warfare for the timid. I guess the authors of the Federalist Papers knew what they were doing, eh?

Still, I'm saddened to see so many of my countrymen sidelined in ways large and small. And I, unfortunately, share their passive fear and inactivity. Consider the brilliant challenge, "What issue or situation would it take to get you out in the street protesting?" I am as befuddled as everyone else while searching for an answer. Sometimes I feel all high and mighty because I don't waste as much time watching television as most other people I know, but I'm not sure I can claim anything better.

Let's face it. We live in a time when "putting ourselves out there" is just too great a risk. This is a problem in everything from relationships to blogs to message boards. And those are situations involving friends and intimates. God forbid we should be that person standing on the corner of Georgia and 3rd holding an Obama sign and waving at passing cars and showing our positions for all the world to see. No, we're the ones in the cars that pass, and maybe if we don't recognize anyone around us, we'll honk in support. But mostly, we just like to watch.

"Room At The Top" is from the Tom Petty cd, Echo, and "Around The World" is from the Lisa Germano cd, Happiness. Both are availabe at Itunes.

Malled to Death

Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad - Def Leppard (mp3)

I went to the Chattanooga's primary mall today for the first time in at least two or three years. In the imaginary movie of my life, in which I'm playing the main character in real time, Hamilton Place Mall was once a central character.

The mall wasn't quite of the supporting actor category, but then, if Judi Dench can win an Oscar for six minutes in Shakespeare in Love, then the mall should get some consideration for its role in my adolescent years. It was, for me, the Central Perk of Billyville.

The movie analogy is only important because, having not been a regular at the mall in almost two decades (so help me God), and having only gone a handful of times since I became overwhelmed with children, I somehow managed to convince myself that the mall was losing its popularity. How could something survive if people like me, who used to go all the time, no longer go?

Yes, I know how foolish that seems, but I think most of us do it. We go to this restaurant everyone is talking about, and we don't know why everyone loves it, so we don't go back. And whaddaya know, six months later, the restaurant is closed. Coincidence? Sure. But we get the luxury of believing we have that kind of power, because it's our movie, dadgummit.

Yet there the mall was on a Saturday, just where I'd left it.

Because it was only two blocks from my house, I walked or rode my bike down there frequently, at least two or three times each week. I was not, however, a Mall Rat, because rats congregate in clusters, and I was a solitary explorer most of the time. I was more of a Mall Declawed Wolverine.

As a teenager, the mall was about possibility and variety. I would eat lunch there every Sunday after church. Dad would hand me a generous $5 for lunch, so my goal was to eat as economically as possible so I could max out the spare cash for use in the arcade, at the movie theater, or to help purchase a cassette or a book. I discovered the best stores to hang around to observe the alien species that was the Teenage Girl. If I wanted to try accidentally bumping into a GPS student, I milled around outside the Laura Ashley store. If I wanted to run into your more standard upper-middle public school girl, the Gap was my best bet. (There were no Abercrombies or Eddie Bauers in "Hammy" at that point.)

When I wasn't busy repeatedly viewing a single movie ("Young Guns" and "Die Hard" come to mind), the mall was mostly a venue for fishing. I was fishing to catch some incredibly attractive, lonesome teenage girl who was searching for some awkward boy milling around alone, one so appealing that she felt compelled start a conversation with me, maybe invite me to continue with her on her shopping adventures, offer her advice on how she looked in various outfits, maybe even get married and have a brood of children.

This was fishing in the same way it is for thousands of drunk males in the South. Which is to say, they have to call it something other than "sitting in a boat and getting shitfaced," because that sounds pathetic, so they call it fishing even though they don't ever care to catch anything. Likewise, I was "shopping," but mostly I was shopping for something that was neither on sale nor even of the real, non-imaginary world: a spark-lit relationship built on nothing but a sideways glance across the food court.

If this comes across as agonizingly, uncomfortably pathetic, imagine what it must have been like to live as that person. Maybe that's why I don't go to the mall much anymore. Because I see the Old Me -- or actually the Young Me -- there, and I feel so damned sorry for him.

But maybe he'd feel sorry for me. All I see at the mall now is overpriced crap, old people sitting around staring into the ether, minimal numbers of rowdy teens, and no Frank & Stein's, where I could stare at the beer taps and long for the day I could legally purchase a beer and drink it in the mall (ohhhh, Glory Day!). But Young Billy saw potential, promise, hope. He saw fun in the arcade, possibility in the bookstore, adventure in the movie theater, and beauty in all the stores. He got nervous when the girl at the movie concession stand was cute, because maybe he could buy some popcorn and then invite her to share it with him, and maybe she'd say yes! He would walk around imagining the conversations that were never going to happen.

What is it in our natures that allow us to look back at such embarrassing, awkward, isolating and confusing times and think, "Geez, sometimes I miss those days..."? Whatever it is, I somehow think we oughtta be grateful for it. It probably shaves years from our lives.

The sad reality is, I'm very very grateful that the Internet didn't exist when I was a teenager. I don't know for sure what kinds of problems would have sprouted for me from the computer, but I'm damn sure I was just naive and desperate enough to locate my fair share.

Had the Internet been thriving in the late '80s, the video below would even more painfully mirror my own ineptitude:

(Yes, this is linked from a place called GodTube. And yes, apparently this song has deeper religious implications, although I can't seem to find them.)

To continue the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the above, I will admit to enjoying my fair share of Def Leppard, but I won't go promoting what album this song came from or how to best get your hands on it. If you liked Def Leppard, you prolly already have this. If you didn't, you prolly don't and hate me for using it in this post.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Decline of Civilization, Part 1

Jason Ringenberg (with Steve Earle)--"Bible and a Gun" (mp3)
Tokyo Police Club--"Citizens of Tommorrow" (mp3)

From Wikipedia: In the United States, the X-rating originally referred to a non-trademarked rating that indicated a film contained content unsuitable for minors such as extreme violence or explicit sex and thus was for adults only. A Clockwork Orange (1971) originally received an "X" rating for its sexual content. Today, many critics recognize it as one of Stanley Kubrick's most important films. The uncut version of the film has been released on DVD with an "R" rating.

So I went to Target yesterday and bought A Clockwork Orange. Something about it just didn't feel right. Oh, I was happy to find it there (I had seen it there last week) because I wanted to use it for class. But I felt an odd disconnect.

See, when a long time ago A Clockwork Orange received its original "X" rating and I was only 14 years old, there was such a forbidden feeling I had about such a movie, not a forbidden fruit, but something different. Which is odd, because it felt very different from, say, the X-rated sex movies we would go see at the drive-in within the next 2-3 years. Because we knew some little info about sex by age 14, but a movie like A Clockwork Orange, which would be nominated as Best Picture for 1971, seemed to be a completely different kind of mystery. We knew there was probably some sex in it, but that didn't seem to be the point. Instead, there was something about the movie that was so "adult" that we couldn't possibly hope to comprehend its meaning. What was it about? Divorce? I certainly didn't know anyone in 1971 whose family had gone through that. Children out of wedlock? Nope, I didn't know anyone. Interracial marriage? Ditto.

We really couldn't figure out what the mystery was, but Malcolm McDowell's face on the movie ads looked as unrepentantly evil as anything I knew to that point. In my 14-year-old mind, I drew the hazy conclusion that the movie was about something that was far more real and monstrous than anything I had seen. I wasn't that wrong.

Now, any fourteen year old with $20 can grab a copy of the movie off the rack at Target and take it home with no one blinking an eye.

Now, I'm showing the movie to my class of seniors in a high school setting, as a supplement to our reading and study of the book.

Now, on some scale, the movie is considered somewhat tame.

For what was once "X" is now "R," and so I guess we are supposed to think that Clockwork's scenes of rape, orgy, full frontal nudity and completely random violence are commonplace enough to merit the lesser rating that the film now gets.

But anytime you move an "X" to an "R," you are acknowledging that something has shifted, and encountering the movie at Target has called that to mind for me. Now, I don't pretend to be one of guys who bemoans the downward spiral of society; in fact, I'm usually in the other camp, claiming that openness, honesty, reality, invisibility, all of those things are good and far be it from any of us to try to censor the world for ourselves or anyone else. But Clockwork.....

Kubrick's novel, to me, is highly flawed, because he first explores a world where teenagers left to their own desires do the most awful things, and then after an interval of attempted societal rehabilitation, he concludes that the problems will solve themselves, that the only things needed to turn amoral teenagers into responsible, upstanding citizens are time and age. In short, the kids are alright, they'll grow out of it. The American versions of the novel cut off the chapter where that conclusion is reached, and the movie doesn't go that far either.

But either way, you're left with an awful choice--either the criminal teenagers are conditioned by society so severely that they literally become sick every time they confront these primal evil urges and that is how they are "cured," or they are simply temporary monsters who then become adults. Both ways, to me, are downhill, and not a story I necessarily want told as casual viewing available on the shelves at Target.

Friday, September 26, 2008

House Concerts 4 Sale

Bill Mallonee--"Punk Rock's Dead" (mp3)
Vigilantes of Love--"This Time Isn't One Of Them" (mp3)

It must be disconcerting, if you've been even the slightest version of a rock star, to walk into the first suburban home for your first suburban house concert. 'Oh, my God,' you must think, 'is this really what the rest of the journey is going to be like? Am I really going to talk to mothers with a baby in one arm and an Amstel Light in the other instead of women of indeterminate age who wait after the show to tell me how much they love my songs? Am I really going to talk to men who preen like peacocks because they're hosting my show and they want to tell me about the time that they, too, were in a band? Where is the rider that guarantees me 4 chilled bottles of a vintage chardonnay, a tray of sushi, and a private dressing room? Will my car hold up for the trip back home?'

But, then you realize that you are going to make some money tonight and that you will be playing in front of a crowd of people who love your music, or at least who know someone who does.

Welcome to the world of house concerts. I'm pretty sure it's a late-to-post 90's phenomena, this idea that any of us can get a not-as-popular-as-he-or-she-used-to-be-singer-songwriter to come play a concert at our house for a pass-the-hat price of several hundred dollars. To us, it's a bargain, an exciting event. To the performer, it's money, maybe a chance to play, maybe a stopgap measure in a career that might revive.

Thanks to the initiative of our friend John, we've now hosted 4 house concerts among our friends here in Chattanooga. All have featured Bill Mallonee, former songwriter and lead singer of the band Vigilantes of Love. Bill is a good sport about all of this--house concerts have helped him to get through some tough times and he has the kind of engaging personality that allows you to feel like he really enjoys and appreciates the chance to play for you. He's also pretty receptive to requests, and, even though he write a fresh bunch of good songs each year, he has the sense to build a show that mixes favorites with new stuff. And, you get to know Bill and his wife, Muriah, and they remember you when they come back, so it gets a little more personal each time. In short, he's the real deal, and the ideal house concert performer.

From his perspective, house concerts allow him to maintain contact with a fan base (for who would initiate a house concert if he or she wasn't a big fan) and to build something of a tour, that would, no doubt, include some clubs and festivals, but would fill the time and space between with house concerts. All things, of course, are relative, but regardless of where you once might have been, $500 for 1 1/2 hours' worth of work is still a pretty good deal.

Working out the logistics for a house concert is quite interesting. Stop right now and figure out if you were going to host a live concert in your house, where would you put the performer? In the age of everything available on computers, are you going to allow die-hard fans whom you don't know to come be a part of your concert, or are you going to keep it private? Do you only invite friends who you think will appreciate the show or do you invite as many as you can to try to keep the costs down? Are you going to ask friends for money or are you going to trust that donations will take care of it? Food or no food? Are you going to provide the drinks? Are you going to suck up the cost if no one else helps out? Will you be able to host the show and enjoy the show?

Perhaps this is proof that the world truly is getting smaller. Or maybe that doesn't even matter. What if you could host a concert for your closest friends? What if you had a chance of saying, one of the best concerts I ever saw was in my living room? That's the lure of the house concert.

"Punk Rock's Dead" comes from Bill's solo record, Friendly Fire. Though he says it doesn't get much reaction elsewhere, it is a definite favorite at Chattanooga house concerts. "This Time Isn't One Of Them" comes from the Vigilantes of Love cd, To The Roof Of The Sky. Both are available at Itunes. Well, maybe not "Punk Rock's Dead." Bill's myspace page is here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I Have 149 Friends

Nobody Knows Me - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Friends/Sigmund + the Sea Monster - Tripping Daisy (mp3)

In the film The Princess Bride, criminal mastermind Vezzini (Wallace Shawn) repeatedly uses the word "Inconceivable!" when reacting to the Dread Pirate Roberts overcoming obstacles set in his path. Finally, after the umpteenth use of this word, Vezzini's swordsman, Inigo Montoya, says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Facebook keeps using the word "Friend." I do not think it means what they think it means. "Friend" has been Vezzini'd by Facebook.

As of Wednesday, September 24, I had 149 Friends on Facebook. To risk coming across like a complete and total ass, I haven't had 149 Friends in my whole entire life. Even more awkward, at least half of the people I consider true friends are either not on Facebook, or we're just not friends on there. (The latter is entirely possible, because I have only twice ever searched for anyone on Facebook, and neither time was for one of my true Friends.)

The reality is, when you make a Friend on Facebook, you're really acknowledging an acquaintance. But even that's not quite accurate, because at least a dozen of my Facebook Friends aren't even people I particularly like. They're not bad people. They don't waterboard detainees or molest small children. But I've never even had what could be considered a "friendly conversation" with them. No small talk at all, not even about the kids or our favorite sports teams or anything.

But there they are on my Facebook. People who don't even rank as acquaintances. And now they're my Friends. Are Amigos falling from the sky?

As best I can tell, Facebook is really good at letting you feel more connected to people you're not all that connected to, but shitty at making you feel more distant from people who are actually your friends. Put another way, if I already know you really well, I don't get much from being your Facebook Friend. If I don't know you really well, or if you've moved away, then maybe I get little tidbits of friendly information that allows me to feel closer.

Maybe this is proof that I'm now older, that advances in technology has passed me by. But I don't think so. Why use Facebook to communicate with someone you'll see later that day, or the next day, unless they're not worth going out of your way for to begin with?

I'm not pooping on Facebook. I actually think it's a pretty brilliant creation. But when I scroll through that list of Friends, I find myself shaking my head and wondering, Why would you remotely care what my "status" is, or what my favorite '80s movie is? Why did you ask me to be your friend? When are we allowed to finally acknowledge that we don't care about one another and break this utterly superficial and meaningless cyberbond?

No seriously. Can you ever break up with a Facebook Friend? What are the requirements? Or are Facebook Friends like unsavory relatives, and we're forced to silently coexist with one another until one of us passes?

CLARIFICATION: If you're reading this, and you're a Friend of mine on Facebook, then allow your common sense to determine that you're probably not one of the people I consider a mere "acquaintance," since only about 20 people we know read this silly thing.

"Nobody Knows Me" is from Lyle Lovett's second album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. "Friends/Sigmund + the Sea Monsters" is from Saturday Morning, a compilation of classic Saturday morning show theme songs performed by various artists. Both are available at Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"I Call Shotgun!"

Wilco--"Passenger Side" (mp3)
TLC--"No Scrubs" (mp3)
Death Cab For Cutie--"Passenger Seat" (mp3)

I have two wingmen in my life. One is a chihuahua named Taco. The other, a rubber ducky with a St. Patrick's Day hat that I caught in a parade in New Orleans, sits in the space between the visor and the ceiling on the passenger side of one of our cars. But, since I live and drive with a family full of females who are always pulling down the visor to look in the mirror, the duck usually kicks around on the floor.

Suffice it to say, we are not talking "wingman" in the bar pick-up-scene sense, but just that pal in the other seat who accompanies you on your journey, whatever and wherever it may be.

Of the great philosophical questions that I have pondered, there is, perhaps, none more mundane than the one came during a drama workshop with some guy John knew back in the 90's. We were talking about the play Hamlet and he asked us to decide if our life was Hamlet, which character would we be? I decided I would be Horatio, the observer, the one who is left standing to tell the tale of woe that surrounds him, with the bodies scattered everywhere and the foreign army captain demanding to know what had just taken place.

Hmmm.....deep stuff, you say, probably mockingly, but maybe it is. How do you decide when to take the passenger seat, next to the driver, maybe helping to navigate, maybe just keeping company? How do I?

Will you be the Sundance Kid to my Butch Cassidy? Will I be the Nick Carraway to your Jay Gatsby? Will you be Catwoman to my Batman? Will I be Todd Palin to your Sarah? I know, I know, it sounds more like a discussion of Halloween costumes than a life choice. But the fact remains, how do you know when to take the passenger seat and how do you know when to drive?

Consider the situations in the songs above for a moment. The Wilco narrator has lost his license, and so even in the semi-comic circumstances of the song, he has no choice but to "ride in another's car," even if the driver is a lousy, wasted one. TLC weighs in from a status perspective--if a guy can't even get his own "ride," he's a worthless "scrub," and not worth the time of any self-respecting woman. And, finally, our Death Cab singer, who I assume is unable to drive, for one reason or another, since "you are driving me home" suggests a passive circumstance, is in absolute bliss in the passenger side, taking the opportunity for romantic reverie about the connectedness with both the driver and all things in the universe.

All of which tell us, if nothing else, that being the one in the passenger seat is fraught with ambiguous symbolism. Are you cohort, loser, sidekick, lover, second banana, lucky one? Think of what a coup it is when teenagers head to a car and the first one who thinks of it calls, "Shotgun!" That secures him (most likely) the coveted spot where he can see out the front window, get the big picture. Back then, it seemed so simple. Now, most of us think we want to be the one behind the wheel in most situations, because that is what successful adulthood in a competitive, capitalistic society seems to demand, but that chance to chill and go for a ride with no pressure, and little expectation, except to offer an opinion or to point out a bump in the road once in a while, that's not such a bad thing. Who were you trying to impress, anyway?

"Passenger Side" comes from Wilco's first cd, A.M. You remember, I'm sure, "No Scrubs" from TLC's Fan Mail. And "Passenger Seat," a song once recommended for a mix of contemporary wedding songs on N.P.R., first appeared on Transatlanticism. All are available at Itunes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Afraid to Commit

Self Inflicted - Katy Perry (mp3)
Driftwood - Travis (mp3)
One Little Victory - Rush (mp3)

My life has been filled with failures, and most of them haven't been nearly as painful as you'd think. In fact, most of my failures have been surprisingly pleasant. What I mean to say is, most of my failures haven't caused permanent damage. They're the kinds of failures that, when you look back on them months or years later, you find yourself grateful for having gone through it. You can convince yourself that, had you succeeded, you'd be a different and maybe less refined person.

It's been a decade since I failed colossally at writing a novel. That particular failure has left scars.

That this failure somehow hurts me more than any number of others that carry more weight in dozens of categories says a lot about me. It says:
  • I'm a whiner at heart;
  • I probably think I'm a better writer than I actually am;
  • I lack the obsessive gene necessary to complete such ambitious goals.
The story was inspired by my time as a novice journalist working in Warner Robins, Ga., a town that formed around the Air Force Base ("Air Logistics Center," to be accurate) there. The ways I found myself disillusioned by my job and, more importantly, the gravitational sway of power, were the lessons that cemented my conversion from someone of more conservative political views to a fairly liberal fella.

Crimes committed by airmen were routinely swept under the rug or kept out of the paper lest the base get a bad reputation. (Our paper had a contract to print various projects for the base, and the threat of losing those contracts, which were a big income stream, was powerful.) We even had one of our reporters fired for writing a column that criticized the base. No warning. No write-up. Just canned on the spot.

We had a call-in line -- not unlike what the Times Free Press and other papers now have -- where people could leave any messages they wanted with total anonymity. My first job every day was to transscribe those calls. Roughly half were racist, sexist, or other kinds of extreme hatred best offered behind the cloak of namelessness. It took me four months before I could work up the courage to remove them myself, not waiting on my editor to determine which ones were worth keeping. You can only type in certain words so many times before you can't live with yourself typing those words anymore.

I covered the police beat, mainly, and I gained tremendous respect for police officers and the people who worked behind the scenes processing papers, or people, or manning the phones. These folks weren't necessarily heroic or admirable, and they deserved as much criticism as teachers. Just because a job is underpaid and underappreciated doesn't mean the people in those jobs can't be criticized when they suck or get careless or calloused. Yet, in spite of the many screwed-up things I witnessed happening with the police, I still came away with more admiration than disillusionment.

I covered at least a half dozen murders. The most memorable one involved a botched drug deal where the dealer ended up hacking a married couple with a machete. The couple had been trading sex for drugs. This dealer and the couple would have all kinds of kinky sex and film it, and the dealer got copies of the tapes in exchange for heroin. The woman's father had been babysitting their young son that day, and the two of them were the ones who discovered the chopped bodies.

When I got to the scene, I was allowed to go to the doorway and look at the crime scene from a distance of some 30 feet.

All the talk about how the rap sheets these parents had, how drug-addled they had become, how awful they were as parents, none of it made those limbs and the blood that had splattered over walls and the floor any easier to comprehend. None of it made me able to grasp the notion of a boy barely in elementary school walking in on that scene.

I'd like to tell you I cried that night when I got back to my crappy little apartment, but I didn't. I couldn't. If it was possible, the scene was so emotionally overwhelming that my entire system shut down temporarily. I might not have cried, but I'm fairly certain I went a day or two without feeling happy, which for me is maybe even more dire a sign of trauma than tears.

There were good stories, too. The people with whom I worked were a crazy lot, and they'd make for one helluva sitcom if they didn't fit so many stereotypes so well. The photographer who constantly bragged about the women he slept with in his darkroom. The editor who was, quite simply, the ugliest man I've ever met. (Naturally he was from Alabama.) The local "bulldog" reporter who had been valedictorian of her class and found herself in her fifth year at this paper with nary a promotion or a raise. The old lifestyles woman with serious incontinence who hated computers and regularly shat in her seat loudly enough for the entire newsroom to act like we didn't hear it.

The city editor, who came onto the job a few months after I arrived, ended up sleeping on my couch for six months. What a hoot he was. When he wasn't busy being a useless ex-husband who operated more like a bad car salesman, he was a darn fine advisor on the world of newspapers and journalism, better in many ways than most professors, I suspect.

The county editor and reporter was in a miserable marriage and could have drunk Marion Ravenwood under the table. Her husband would have tried to bed Lassie if the dog had ever entered the city limits. He was the horniest, most non-selective philanderer I'd ever met.

And there were other characters. Frustrated TV reporters. The owner of the movie rental place who got to know me by name. The stripper who came back home with the city editor one night and then invited two of her friends over because she was convinced that the five of us could have one helluva great night of sex. Wile E. Coyote couldn't have run out of that apartment faster than I did.

The experience was so rich with possibility that I still can't to this day figure out why I failed so badly. The novel died in the water, so to speak, because I never finished it. But it deserved to be "put down." It was a wounded animal whose injuries I was not capable of healing, and to keep it alive for my own sake would only have needlessly extended its suffering.

A new idea has been gestating in me for the past six months, and I've been nursing it along in my head very carefully and slowly, hoping I can get everything in some semblance of order and direction before diving into the writing part.

But mostly I'm that pathetic jilted lover who's afraid of committing to another relationship for fear it will crash and burn like the first one.

"Self Inflicted" is from Katy Perry's album, which I don't own, but can be acquired through iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site. Same goes for the Travis album The Man Who, from which "Driftwood" comes, and Vapor Trails, home of Rush's "One Little Victory."

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Matter-of-Fact Media

Jimi Hendrix--"Changes (live)" (mp3)
Jr. Walker and the All-Stars--"What Does It Take (To Win Your Love For Me)" (mp3)

Oh, our wonderful media and their vaunted sense of "fair play!" How much I do appreciate that. In an effort to be balanced in their reporting, how they will print the most preposterous lie on one side as well as the quite reasonable rebuttal on the other! How they will publish both a fact and a denial as if both were equal combatants! Not an accusation and a denial, mind you, a fact--an irrefutable, well-documented, easily-researched, public record statement of truth! You'd think that would stand more than a bold-faced, take-my-chances, deny-deny-deny pervarication.

But you know what? I don't even care about that anymore. Let those games continue. I'll just make http://www.factcheck.org/ a "favorite" on my home page and see who's slinging it at the moment.

Although, here's food for thought from that great modern ethicist Karl Rove: he says that you really can't trust the fact-checker sites, because they have their own biases. Karl, they're checking facts. Either what the candidate said is true or it isn't.

Oh, we are in deep battle for the soul of the English language, and most of us, if not unarmed, are unwilling to enter the fray. That's just politics, we say. So be it.

But here's what I won't tolerate. How dare the "matter-of-fact" media treat racism and bigotry as a voting trend that merits the same bland statistical analysis that a category like "Working moms over 50" would get. "

Says Joe or Jane Media Talking Head: "Our studies show that working moms over fifty support Barack Obama slightly, 5-4, over John McCain, but in another category, people who refuse to vote for a black candidate, any black candidate, John McCain holds a substantial edge. This trend could be a real problem for Obama come Election Day."

Thanks for that insight.

What I want to know is why isn't this trend being pointed out as a real problem for America right now. Those media types looking for positives and progress will point out that we're not as racist as we used to be. Why can't we go for 100% non-racist America as the only benchmark we will tolerate? Why can't we acknowledge that we all have prejudices, but that we can't let those get in the way of human interactions?

And let's face it, the media crew we're talking about here is the same bunch who, every time an Arab was killed in Fallujah or Sadr City, he was referenced as a "suspected insurgent" or a "suspected Al-Queda member" or a "suspected Taliban fighter." Ok, so you want to put a label on those people (except, of course, when we kill a woman or a child or a village, then we have to call them "civilians"), that's your business, American media. I can't stop that.

But why not spread the labels around? Let's just say what those of us who live in Chattanooga already know, that some people, even Democrats, especially Democrats, aren't going to vote for Obama because they're racist. That's right, they're racist. Those of you who are thinking, 'But black people are only voting for Obama because he's black,' I'm going to punch you in the nose.

What we're talking about are people who, when polled, acknowledge that they agree with at least one of three negative descriptors for black people and that means they will not vote for Obama. That's right, whenever they think of every black person who has ever existed or will exist, they think a negative adjective will apply to all of those people. Even Stevie Wonder.

That's racist. That's disgusting. That's unAmerican, 2008. That's worthy of utter contempt from any thinking, living, breathing person on this planet. That's what the media, which hasn't ever "grown a pair," won't come out and say. And that's a fact.

Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys live performances are available on Live At The Fillmore; Jr. Walker's classic is available on any number of compilations. Both are available at Itunes.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nights of the "Gypsy"

Gypsy - Suzanne Vega (mp3)

Songs are bookmarks in my memory. This one popped up on my iPod the other day, and I felt like offering the TMI on where it's been bookmarked in my brain. It seemed a fitting epilogue (or prologue?) to my Promise Ring banter from last week.

By the beginning of my sophomore year in college, my virginity had begun to feel like something of an albatross, a smelly dead carcass of  rotting birdflesh dangling around my neck, scaring away all of femaledom from drawing nearer to me.

Having been raised in church my whole life, feeling this way carried with it plenty of guilt. I wasn't proud of being overwhelmed by my own horniness. I felt like the human version of those water rockets you make from 2-liter soda bottles, where the pressure of my own body had built up to such dangerous levels that a disaster of nuclear proportions was inevitable.

I even returned to Chapel Hill early and volunteered as an orientation advisor for my dorm, Hinton James, in the wildly desperate hope that it might allow me a chance to meet someone who found me appealing. Some did it for the resume; I did it to meet girls. As one of my favorite quotes so aptly states: Desperation is a stinky cologne. (It's from "Super Troopers.")

Worse yet, the course of true lust never did run smooth, and my Wile E. Coyote-esque plans for getting laid backfired. Helping with orientation did indeed introduce me to many appealing and drool-inspiring freshman girls, many of whom I befriended quickly, none of whom were particularly interested in what lurked below my beltline.

One of these girls was a whirling dervish of sexual awakening. She could have been Bernadette Peters' daughter, with mega-kinky blonde hair and a compact, curvy body. I've always prided myself on being polite, on looking at a girl's or woman's face and in her eyes, not allowing my eyes to feel the pull of mammary gravity and to stare at what lurked below the feminine neckline, but as a 19-year-old in Erica's presence, I failed more often than I'd like to admit.

It didn't help that one of our first conversations included her confession that one of the first words her parents taught her to say was "vagina." She even had the audio cassette to prove it. (And hell yes I listened. And hell yes I was very confused about how to handle listening to a then-toddler Erica gingerly stutter the word "va-va.. va-jyee-nuh" into a tape recorder, especially as I kept looking over at her very maturely-developed 18-year-old body.)

While I oogled Erica from afar, my roommate -- never the one to let little annoyances like manners or decorum get between him and a hot female -- oogled her from up close. And Erica ate his attention like hot Krispy Kreme donuts.

It must've been 2 a.m. when she barged into our room in late September with a CD in her hand. We omigod omigod HAD to listen to this song she heard, because it was the best best best song she'd ever ever heard and she had to share it with two of the coolest guys she knew omigod omigod. Even though we'd just shut out the lights and crashed into our loft beds, we never in our four years of cohabitation turned away a female at any time of day, so we got down from our lofts and sat around the stereo.

Kevin and Erica had already snuggled together in a blanket, and I jealously imagined his hands roaming all over her 5'3" frame in the low LED lighting in our room. The minute I heard the opening guitar, I knew the song. "Ooooh, 'Gypsy,'" I said. "I love Suzanne Vega."

I immediately regretted my comment, because I could sense her annoyance. Here she was trying to share this supercool secret discovery with us, and I was already in on her secret. She was preaching to the choir with me, so she focused all her energy and bosomy attention on Kevin, seeking his face for reaction to the song.

So he got to hold her like a baby. She curled up beside him. He felt her through the heat.

A little more than a decade later, on the week of Super Bowl XXXV, I found myself in New York City at a conference. I had already spent several afternoon hours soaking up the glory that is The Met, journaling about the works that stirred me, when Erica and I literally stumbled over one another. What are the odds, right?

Although she was still exquisitely attractive and continued to ooze a particular sensuality, age had also torn her down a little. Erica had always been intelligent, so the lure of gaining male attention based solely on a killer bod and kinky hair had probably lost most of its appeal soon after that night in our dorm room, if not months or years before that.

By our 2001 run-in at The Met, I was married and preparing for our second child, so most of my virginal 19-year-old longings for Erica (and the other hundred-plus ladies I pined for at one time or another) had long dissipated. But if just listening to a song can often take us to moments in time, then seeing someone from our past, especially someone who symbolized very particular feelings in our memory, is all the more powerful a time-traveling device.

I ended up spending much of the weekend hanging out with her. She was in grad school at Columbia, and she'd been in The Met working on a research project. Apparently kids who learn to say "vagina" when they're small tend to be pretty smart, although I can't find any studies to prove this out.

We met up the next night for dinner and hung out afterward to watch the Super Bowl together. Sure, the Giants got clobbered, but it was still a unique chance to be in the same town as one of the Super Bowl teams, watching everyone go nuts in bars and stuff (at least until the end of the first quarter, when it started looking grim, and then people pretty much just got piss drunk).

Although it shouldn't have to be written, I had no more physical contact with her in 2001 than I did back in 1991. The only difference was that, by 2001, most of her lustre had worn off as far as I was concerned, and I got to enjoy her company as an attractive woman whose life I found interesting rather than a budding sexual powerhouse whose presence made me quaky with hormonal instability.

Erica was just one small shining star in a galaxy of reasons why I so cherish my college years. Pain, discomfort and uncertainty will never again feel quite that luxuriant.

"Gypsy" is from Suzanne Vega's second album, Solitude Standing, and is also available on her greatest hits Retrospective. Search out iTunes or Amazon.com for either album.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Lost 80's

The dB's--"Molly Says" (mp3)
Chris Stamey--"Cara Lee" (mp3)
House of Freaks--"When The Hammer Came Down" (mp3)
Guadalcanal Diary--"Trail Of Tears" (mp3)

Yeah, we were young, we were newlyweds, and we had MTV. It made us extremely popular with the teenager who lived in the apartment next door; her parents would not subscribe t0 such a stupid cable channel. So in the afternoons and early evenings, we often got a healthy dose of Duran Duran (her favorite), Culture Club, U2, and all of the other pioneers of 80's pop music whose careers were largely made by MTV and the rise of the video. Had we not actually been able to see Bono's anguished suffering during a live "Sunday Bloody Sunday," breath fogging from his nostrils like CĂșchulainn after battle, would we know him as the hero of all mankind that he is today?

But there was more to the 80's than that, wasn't there?

The thing I hate about oldies stations is that they reduce musical years of my life to their least common denominators--the hits. Those 1960's years of the transitor radio under the pillow listening to KQV certainly had their share of hits, but the endless cycle of songs on AM radio back then included plenty of others that were trying to be hits, but were not getting quite there. And now, plenty of those seem to be lost, even to me, unless someone sneaks one into a movie or something as an I'm-hip-enough-to-remember-this-even-though-you-didn't kind of cultural memento. I do like those, though they force me to admit to those hipper than me. Alas.

Two decades beyond, the 80's have become the same way--a limited offering of "She Blinded Me With Science," "The Heat Is On," "Take On Me," and other songs whose sheer silliness is fun if you're drunk and feeling nostalgic, but whose depth, or lack thereof, is such that the songs carry no emotional weight at all. I except, as always, "Come On, Eileen." In the early years of Entertainment Weekly, when you bought your subscription, you'd get a box set of some kinds of hits or classics. So, yeah, we've had the 80's in a box for over ten years now, "Life In A Northern Town," the Outfield, all of that.

But there was more, and I feel it slipping away from me, except on those occasions when the shuffle function on my Ipod treats me to a forgotten 80's fav.

Even among the part of the 80's I was slow to come to and quick to embrace--the Athens, GA scene--a wealth of great bands have been reduced to, basically, just R.E.M. and the B-52's. And even the B-52's themselves have been further filtered down to not much more than "Love Shack." Lest we forget, their original punky craziness arrived much earlier with "Rock Lobster" and "Private Idaho" and other great songs about nothing. Am I contradicting myself here? You remember, don't you, all of the other stuff pouring out of there? The other artists sprouted from the same fertile ground as R.E.M. and paid equal homage to Alex Chilton and Big Star. Yes, their songs were jangly, poppy, minor-key affairs, interested in girls like everyone else, but sometimes slipping off for a bit of Southern gothic a la R.E.M's "Swan Swan H."

I'm teaching Brave New World right now, and, of course, one of the sources of entertainment for the citizens in that novel are the feelies, those full-sensory movies Huxley dreamed up. But as we read about them, I remembered, wait, the Feelies were band in the 80's, the one where you couldn't hear the singer's vocals, and John had their best cd but, yeah, he said he lost it in a move.

I guess it's hard to hold on to the decade as you remember it.

The Db's and Chris Stamey are out of print, at least the cds that the above songs come from. You can find the Guadalcanal and House of Freaks tracks at Itunes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Promise Rings (Part II): A Gateway to Putting Your Finger in Other Places

Hurry Up and Wait - Stereophonics (mp3)
Ten Days Late - Third Eye Blind (mp3)

Continued from Part One.

I'm also secretly suspicious that Promise Rings might be the new gay bars. I know several dudes after college who made their sexual living off of going to this local gay bar, where women would go to dance thinking they were safe from the prying eyes and drooling tongues of hets. In would swoop Mr. Straight Swave dude for another score.

Can you imagine an easier method of misdirection for a conniving horndog in his pursuit of getting laid than a Promise Ring?

There Joe Horndog is, on the couch with Sue Ann Virgin, making out and getting increasingly farther down the base path. "Don't worry Sue Ann," Joe says, "I'm saving myself for marriage. I'm just petting you. It's not like any clothes are off."

"Don't worry Sue Ann," Joe says. "I'm saving myself. I just wanna see what it looks like up close."

"Don't worry Sue Ann," Joe says. "There's nothing in the Bible about oral sex. Believe me, I've looked. Besides, I wouldn't do it if it was wrong, because then I couldn't wear this lovely Promise Ring."

A few weeks or months later, Sue Ann is wondering how Joe Horndog, bearer of that Promise Ring, managed to steal her virginity. And mostly she's jealous of Jodie Chastity, the girl Joe is now dating, because Sue Ann can't admit to anyone that Joe has deflowered her, lest she get kicked out of her church youth group and lose all her friends who wear Promise Rings and believe having sex before marriage sends you straight to Hell.

Statistically, a Promise Ring makes no difference, and this point can't be repeated enough. Wear it, don't wear it; your odds of making it for a White Wedding are equal.

If it doesn't make a difference, then the reality is that it creates as much disillusionment and deception as it does prevent anything. And when they break that promise, do they remove the ring? The minute they take off that ring, they might as well get a Tramp Stamp, because they've officially announced themselves as sluts (or, thanks to the hypocritical world in which we live, studs). So they keep wearing them and begin what risks be a lifelong practice of two-faced method acting.

I was a virgin until well into my college experience. You wanna stay a virgin? I've got a guaranteed method for remaining a virgin throughout your teen years in three simple steps:
  1. Read some comic books. 
  2. Believe that getting good grades is important.
  3. Listen to lots of Rush.
I didn't need a frakking Promise Ring; I had three Batman T-shirts, a 3.8 GPA, and knew all the words to "Red Barchetta." I might as well have been trapped in the fucking Forbidden Zone with Zod and his Superman II cronies.

While I'm trapped in Anecdoteville, I can't resist: Bristol Palin. You just know Mama Palin and Daddy Todd were sure their sweet thing was saving herself for her wedding night. If that chick wasn't wearing a Promise Ring when she got knocked up, I guaran-damn-tee you it's only because she couldn't find them at the Wal-Mart in Wasila. Better to let the whole family live with this two-ton weight of illusion hanging around your child's neck than to have open and honest conversations about sex and love and responsibilities, right?

I will neither teach nor encourage my children that Jesus wants them to keep their legs shut until they marry. Call me a relativist heathen Christian all you like, but I couldn't count the number of FCA or Young Life or Campus Crusade people who got more frequently bopped than myself (which in algebraic terms is "x > 0"). And in the binary world of Conservative Christianity and sex, anything not equal to 0 is fucked.

My children will know that their God and their father love them no matter what, and they'll know that the best promises about sex and their bodies are much like the best prayers -- made humbly and silently to oneself.

"Hurry Up and Wait" is from the Stereophonics' second album, Performance and Cocktails. "10 Days Late" is from Third Eye Blind's second (and final legitimate) album, Blue. Both are available at iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Quit!

Bob Dylan--"Dreamin' Of You" (mp3)
Withered Hand--"I Am Nothing" (mp3)

I'm going to have to give up my job.

You know why, don't you? I simply don't have time for it anymore.

It keeps getting in the way of all that I have to do during work hours--search for new music, fight political battles with my dad, work on blogs, read other blogs, keep up with the political campaigns, maintain friendships through email, pay my bills, watch funny YouTube clips that people send me, watch damning political YouTube clips that people send me, watch YouTube clips of great musical performances that people send me, read through online jokes and satires, look up dirt on people I don't like (usually national figures), seek photographs of people that I want to see, manage my Fantasy Football team, keep up with other sporting events so I can be one of the guys, check statistics to see how this blog is doing in terms of readership/viewership, try to locate and contact people I used to know, see if other people I studied with who wanted to be writers have actually published books, find out how much is in my bank account, buy things online like steaks, books, dvd series of tv shows I want to watch, slip in the occasional Netflix and watch it with the sound down low, burn cds for my friends and put them in campus mail, refute Republican lies, check the latest polls and Las Vegas odds, click on the "Continue for work-related purposes" button that will take me to YouTube (which has only once had anything work-related that I can think of), read lengthy "must read" articles and essays that people send me, send snotty inter-office inside jokes and witty asides, when I can bear it, check on the 401k and other investments to see how far I keep moving backwards, backwards, backwards in what I hoped would be a great economic year, and though I'm not a porn guy, sometimes a link leads to a less savory link, leads to something that you didn't block with the firewall...

If I have to, I guess I'll keep coming into this office, even from 8-5, if I must, but it will only be to use this computer which, sadly, doesn't belong to me, but if you gave to me, I could do what I have to from home.

But you need to know that while I'm here, I'll be thinking about my wife and daughters and sending along little things that might be of interest to them or that will excite them as I plan vacations, buy plane tickets, make reservations, study upcoming cities and countries, try to figure out if and where we might eat out tonight and if we'll tack on a movie. While you look in my office window and see productivity, I'll be commiserating, cajoling, sniping, speculating, equivocating, justifying, joking, worrying, forwarding, replying, and trying to think of other people to contact and things to say to them.

Oh, and by the way, you're going to have to ease up on the organizational restrictions on downloading and installing new programs. I've got a lot of other stuff I need to get done.

Bob Dylan's "Dreamin' Of You" comes from his upcoming "bootleg series" release; Withered Hand's "I Am Nothing" is from their ep, Religious Songs. Both are available at Itunes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Promise Rings (Part I): Flashin' My Biznass (Or Lack Thereof) In Yo Grill

It's Late - Queen (mp3)

If the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, then the road to deflowering must certainly be as well. And is there a more twisted and misguided gimmick destined to disillusion American teens more disastrously than Promise Rings, currently climbing the national charts thanks to the Jonas Brothers and Jordin Sparks?

If you didn't already know, select teenagers -- usually kids brought up in uber-conservative Christian households or churches who are kept as in the dark as possible about sex -- wear Promise Rings as an outward sign to the world that they are going to wait until marriage to have intercourse with another human being. Here's a Chattanooga Times article about them.

Statistically, from everything I've read, a Promise Ring has no impact on teenage sexual patterns. It doesn't stop sex any more or less than anything else you could give your teenage child. On the bright side, if you're looking for a perfect way to teach your adolescent child about how easy it is to break a promise, then please, by all means, go buy him or her a Promise Ring.

"Sweetie, you'll wear this ring as a promise to me and to God that you'll never ever ever let a boy touch you down there with anything, not his finger or his tongue or his privates, until after you have vowed your eternal dedication to him before a priest and a host of witnesses in a house of God. And you won't break this promise, because... well, just don't break the damn promise, OK? Because you'll burn in hell, and I won't be able to do anything about it from my cloud, even with my wings and all my angel friends."

Please don't get me wrong. I'm happy as a clam that the Jonas Brothers are virgins, if indeed they are. All the better if their proclamations of a chaste premarital lifestyle provide comfort and courage to hundreds of thousands of teens whose bodies are constantly telling them to screw anything and everything that will give permission.

But taking pride in one's choice to remain a virgin goes four steps too far when you start wearing a ring for the express purpose of letting everyone know your business (or, well, lack thereof). The Promise Ring is the chaste answer to the Tramp Stamp.

Neither are admirable. Both suggest things about a person which need not necessarily be true. Both are a reminder that we live in a TMI world where we just have to make sure everyone knows everything about us.

We post our Current Status on Facebook. We "Twitter" our most minuscule movements. Some idiots even put far too much personal information in their blogs and include inappropriate pictures of women's backsides. Have we traded away all respect for our own privacy?

Can we please get our culture back to a time when we didn't have to wear every damn decent and normal thing we did like we deserve a trophy? If you want to proclaim your indifference to the pressures of the modern world, join the Amish. You get to wear clothes that stand out in a crowd, and they'll kill you if you break your promise. No ring needed.

Otherwise, you're just posing and giving into the very same peer pressure that in other circles would have you smoking pot and dropping X.

"It's Late" is from Queen's fantabulous album, News of the World. If you think this album begins and ends with "We Will Rock You," you should flog yourself with studded whips repeatedly until forking over some cash and checking out one seriously amazing piece of work. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site. It's a stretch to put this song with this topic, but I needed to answer Bob's claim of "Sweet Jane" with one of my own Top 10 All-Time Favorite songs.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Greatest Performance of the Greatest Rock Song Of All Time

Lou Reed--"Sweet Jane (live)" (mp3)

Imagine it’s 1974. I know you probably can’t, but try. You are a junior in high school, spread out on a loveseat in your basement, your dark, cool basement. It is your abode­--pool table, refrigerator, minimal furniture, except that loveseat, where you do your homework.

Oh, yeah, and the stereo is down there. It’s where you listen to music. Back then, of course, the bigger the better, so you have a stack of stereo components and four speakers and quadraphonic sound, supposedly, though it’s never really worked, though, still, it’s four speakers and you get a lot of sound anyway.

You’re listening to the radio, probably WDVE in Pittsburgh. FM back then, at least the rock stations, is full of impossibly deep-voiced men (and women) who, in the FM sensibility of the day, say less, rather than more, and string together long sets of music with few commercial interruptions. The commercials are all about "head shops" and a place called Heads Together Underground Mall in Squirrel Hill that has midnight sales where you can get three albums for $9.99, by far the best deal in the city.

And then the DJ says in his understated, laconic way, “Here’s a little Lou Reed.” You know Lou Reed as the “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” guy, a song you kind of like, but you don't really get it. You are definitely not cool enough to know anything about the Velvet Underground. No one is. Rather than being a band with amazing cult status, they are simply a band that no one listened to or heard of. One of your friends stole their “Live at Max’s Kansas City” album, but for naught, since no one ever took it out of the wrapping.

And then the guitars kick in, two of them, playing different, but perfectly-complementary parts­high, soaring, and melodic­an extended interplay that is in no way a duel. Instead, it’s like encountering two gods instead of one. The bass playing is just as good. It keeps going on and on, and you stare at the green lights of your amplifier, all that you can see in the darkness, wondering what this is and where it is coming from. Then the guitars make the transition from soloing to chording and you recognize the chord progression. Wait, isn’t that “Sweet Jane?” Didn’t Mott The Hoople do that? The crowd starts to cheer, and almost as an afterthought to the greatest song introduction you’ve ever heard in your life, Lou Reed steps up to the mike and sings, “Standin’ on a corner/ Suitcase in my hand…..”

It’s a good thing that all of Lou’s live album, Rock and Roll Animal, rocks so hard, because otherwise you never would have figured out that whole androgynous rock thing. Your brother had a bunch of Bowie, and you arrived at that slowly, maybe a little too late, because Lou had actually played Pittsburgh on the tour that produced Rock and Roll Animal, but he played at an ice rink on the far side of town with little promotion. Ironically, 4 years later, your parents would own that ice rink, now reconfigured as tennis courts, as part of a racquet club they opened, and one night late, after everyone was gone, you and your friend Scott would take your guitars and amps out to the center of those courts and jam as loud and as well as you could, trying to awaken the ghosts of Lou Reed and company, who had once played there.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Parents and Politics

Jefferson Airplane--"Pretty As You Feel" (mp3)
Wolf Parade--"I'll Do Anything" (mp3)

I agree with Todd Palin about one thing: children are a gift from God. But that's about as far along the same path as he and I go. His glib follow up, "The more the merrier," ignores that obligation that comes with parenting and implies that the number of or kind of children you add will have no impact on the life goals you are pursuing. Those of us who are parents must call 'bullshit' right there. We all know how each child changes the family mix.

There is much being made of the wonderful parenting taking place in the Palin family these days, and how Mrs. Palin must be a noble, courageous woman to be able to juggle a husband and 5 children with a career and hunting. Admittedly, to pull that off would require some incredible skills.

But I must challenge her choice. If you're going to continue having children, because of your religion or carelessness or good luck, that's fine. But when you keep having children, then you must make the children your priority. It isn't the more the merrier, it's the more, the more re-evaluation of what's important. And I believe that's even more true when your last child is special.

Now, this is not some sexist slam, trying to argue that a woman can't raise children and have a career or even become a vice-president. My wife and many women I know do a great job with both. Many men I know do a similarly great job, and I would be making the same comments about a father in this situation. The Palins, though, are doing their many children, especially their youngest with Down's Syndrome, a grave injustice.

I don't have an autistic child or a child with Down's Syndrome, but I have often observed families who do. And the reality it this: those families are changed in profound ways. They are not necessarily good ways or bad ways, but they are profound ways. A special child needs extra help in navigating the world and stability in his or her interactions. And that takes time, commitment, patience and sacrifice. I've been amazed when those parents remained calm when their child was screaming on a subway train. I've seen those parents acting naturally when people are staring. I've watched those parents help their child to interact with other people who have no idea how to interact with them. I've heard those parents roaming through the neighborhood at night in a driving rain, calling and searching for their lost son.

In the end, the Internet rumor about who is Trig Palin's mother is beside the point. The real question should be: who is doing the mothering and fathering of the child? And as soon as we remind ourselves a) about the grueling, on-the-go nature of the campaign trail, and b) the unbending rule that there are only 24 hours in a day, we can infer pretty easily who isn't doing those things.

Utlimately, the parents of the world settle into two camps--those who put their own needs first and those who put their children's needs first. It is possible, of course, to do some of both, but I would argue that it is impossible to strike a balance between the two. One of the two sets of needs must rule. In the case of the Palins, I believe that they now have the blessing of a child who, by his own nature, should have made that choice clear for them. And they have already rejected that choice--deciding instead to make their baby son a badge of honor for a political agenda. That's a shame.
To be fair, I'm not sure that I believe that any child should be subjected to the rigors of parents' political careers. Child-rearing and vote-chasing just don't seem compatible to me. And I know there are undoubtedly many historical examples to refute what I'm saying. And, certainly, the Palins may think they are ahead of the Kennedys, who essentially locked the "retarded" sibling in the closet of an institution rather than to have her in the public eye.

Perhaps, but rather than hide children away, except for photo ops, the Palins have dragged theirs into the political fire. A self-aware Palin, as opposed to the narcissistic one we seem to be observing who tries on 300 pairs of glasses in her kitchen and makes her family vote on the best pair, would have to realize that, hard as it is to admit, the country was not going to be harmed in the least if she had decided not to run with McCain in favor of her family. Instead, she told Charles Gibson last night that she did not ever hesitate to accept the nomination and that "I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate."

Sometimes as a parent, you have to blink, you have to look at and talk to your family, you have to put your own goals aside, because you are always a parent first, in my humble opinion.

Wolf Parade and Jefferson Airplane are available at Itunes.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Can Spin Doctors Be Sued for Malpractice?

Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up is Running) - Foo Fighters (mp3)
The Compromise - The Format (mp3)

I've long claimed that one of the reasons I lean more liberal than conservative is that, amongst the people I encounter in my life, the more liberal folks tend to be happier. The conservative folks tend to have as much if not more money, but they seem to be constantly complaining about things. America's morals are in decline, or the guv'ment's stealing and wasting their money, or the media's spinning lies.

At the end of the day, though, I have just as many conservative friends (and even more conservative relatives), and the difference in their politics rarely if ever gets in the way of us having a good time.

I rarely if ever use the word "hate" in a sincere manner, but at the moment, I hate politics. I hate that the most important people in the political sphere believe this is a game. I hate that they don't so much care if they contradict themselves, or if they sell their souls, so long as they win. I hate that this kind of wholesale sacrifice of honor and integrity seems to know no party lines. And I hate that it's only gonna get worse the closer we get to Election Day.

Regardless of your political affiliation, I dare you -- DARE YOU -- to watch this clip from Jon Stewart and not marvel at how these people sleep soundly at night. There is spin, and then there is Axis of Evil Shout at the Devil spin, where people will say whatever from one minute to the next so long as it might move them forward on the game board.

The "lipstick on a pig" drama of late is just another example. When Obama says it, it's sexism and an attack on Palin. When McCain said it months earlier, it was a comment about a health care plan and not the woman, Hillary Clinton.

If one of the Republican strategies is to make people like me despise all politicians and all of their aides and talking heads more and more with each passing day, then they are doing a damn fine job. While my examples are pointed at their ranks, I realize they are not alone in this shameless hypocrisy.

The realization that both sides play this heartbreaking game of talking from both sides of their mouth is hardly comforting, nor does it embolden my confidence in a better future.

"The Compromise" is from The Format's second album, Dog Problems, and they're one seriously worthwhile alterna-pop investment if you like this song. "Cheer Up, Boys" is from the latest album from the Foo Fighters, Echoes, Silence, Patience + Grace. Both are available at iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Perception Transforms Reality: GAS

Poor Misguided Fool - Starsailor (mp3)
Gas Panic (live) - Oasis (mp3)

Damnedest thing I've seen in a long time.

Gas stations so full of cars, so packed tight, that cars have stopped in the middle of the street waiting to pull in, and another car has rammed right into the backside of it. On the way from my mother's house in East Brainerd to my house in downtown Chattanooga, I witnessed this scene three separate times in the span of 25 minutes.

Three accidents at three gas stations, all within 15 miles of one another.

(I would have taken pictures of those, but I was on my scooter, and the one shot I tried was so blurry all you see is the blue lights of cop cars and the white lights of the gas station streaking all over the place. Above was the best I could do.)

Cars were packed four deep or more to a pump at every gas station I passed that hadn't already run out of gas.
An earlier version of this article in Chattanooga's online newsrag, the Chattanoogan, combined with the idiots on local talk radio, spurred our citizens into believing that, as of Friday morning, gas prices would skyrocket to $5 from their current $3.65 range.

I called some friends in other places tonight. Nothing like this is happening in Raleigh, or Atlanta, or Montgomery, or Nashville. It's happening in a few places in Florida, in Houston (where Ike is soon to rampage), and in Chatta-fucking-nooga. Either Chattanooga is waaaay ahead of its fellow cities, or we're the most gulliable lemmings this side of early 20th Century Germans.

As of 10 p.m. Thursday night, Google had "gas lines" articles from BlueRidgeNews.com, Chattanooga's rags, and Gatorsports.com. That was it, other than some stories about some crisis in Bolivia.

You'll have to pay me a shitload of cash to get me to believe it's pure coincidence that this happened on September 11.

If only we would just drill for oil in Alaska and off the Gulf Coast, this wouldn't happen. In 2042. Maybe.

"Poor Misguided Fool" is from Starsailor's first album, Love is Here. "Gas Panic" is from the Oasis concert CD, Familiar to Millions. The first is available on iTunes. The latter isn't available in download form anywhere I looked. Both bands are full of Brits who don't have to put up with our idiotic American gas fetish.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Live (rhymes with "jive") in The 'Noog

Mountain Girl - Blue Mountain (mp3)
Take a Ride - The Dirty Guv'nahs (mp3)

I owe my partner Bob a minor apology, or at least a clarification, in regards to live music and the worthiness of it in comparison to recorded music. (If you're just dying for Bob's original column and my response, there you go.)

You see, we were two of many hundred who attended last Friday's NightFall, a night in downtown 'Nooga where bikers and other strange people with a variety of fashion senses all gather to listen to talk to one another over the din of some random live music played on stage. NightFall is to concerts what the Macon Braves are to baseball, which is to say, people really go because it's cheap and a fun place to have a conversation whilst getting inebriated, all under the umbrella excuse of liking whatever's being offered at the venue.

Still, NightFall does have its true music fans, such as Bob and many other regulars. People who truly love live music but tolerate having to talk with others because they enjoy that, too. Best of both worlds for the Bobs amongst us.

Anyway, toward the end of Friday's set, we were all gathered to actually stop talking (more or less) and listen more intently to the band of the hour, Blue Mountain. Just three members. Geetar, bass and drums, aka Bob's preferred live music arrangement.

They had gotten themselves good and lathered up an hour into their set, it being hot as the fourth circle of hell in the D'town 'Noog, but they kept playing like they needed redemption and really wanted it. And I'm in total agreement with Bob that, with every additional instrument past three (four if you count vocals ala Rock Band!), live music risks getting muddier and more muddled, harder and harder to hear the the singer or any particular instrument. [NOTE: Bob, if I'm not expressing that correctly, just come on in here and edit it! You have the powah!]

The five or six songs I actually got to listen to (as opposed to just overhearing) were very appealing. They threw in their own rendition of "Squeeze Box" by The Who, which gave me an ecstatic moment of actually knowing the words they were singing. Fine job covering that song they did, sez Yoda.

I was so impressed with the 30 minutes I got to savor that I got in line and purchased one of their albums. (Yes, it just so happens that a ridiculously attractive woman was in line before me, but all we talked about while waiting was our children and how courageous she was to bring her 5-year-old boy down and watch over him while rockin' out. No exchanging of phone numbers. Or names. Or )

On Saturday, I popped that CD in... and it was OK. I'd hoped for a little more than OK. Could be that I picked the wrong CD to purchase. (The hot mom in front of me bought Midnight in Mississippi, their newest of all-new songs, so maybe I should have followed her on that, too.) Which offers me an opportunity to confess to a hole in my preference for recorded music over live music.

For bands about which I know little or nothing, live music can be every bit as vital, if not moreso, than their recorded music. Hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful live acts can probably put on one helluva show, wowing the crowd and wooing their die-hards, but somehow this electricity never quite makes it into the studio.

One key difference, and this can't ever be given enough respect in the music world, is the producer. It's tough for a Walkman powered with Everready or Ray-O-Vac batteries to hold up against something running on Duracell or Energizer. Likewise, it's hardly fair to compare these bands, with the only producers they can afford (and maybe on less-than-stellar equipment?), to the bands I adore and the producers their labels can bestow upon them.

For the Blue Mountains and Dirty Guv'nahs* of the world, give me the live act. Seeing these bands live is better than permanently possessing either of their CDs. In their cases, the explosive moment is far better than the long-lasting light bulb. That's hardly the kind of compliment I'd pay to my favorite bands.

* -- I discovered the Dirty Guv'nahs playing at Market Street Tavern early this summer. No cover charge, and we're enjoying a drink when this band kicks into a set that sounds more sincerely Rolling Stones-esque than any 'Nooga-centric band deserves to sound. They even closed the night by putting together a rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil" that not only seemed to last 20 minutes, but was also mighty damn good, as in I honestly think Keith and Mick could have sat there and said to themselves, "These redneck blokes ain't half bad."

"Mountain Girl" comes from Blue Mountain's 2008 compilation Omnibus. "Take a Ride" comes from The Dirty Guv'nahs' debut EP Don't Need No Money. The first picture was merely stolen from Google. The second was taken by my own cell phone on Friday night. I have not yet repented.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"The Cult of Same is all the chic"

--e.e. cummings

Neutral Milk Hotel--"King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" (mp3)
Stephen Malkmus--"Freeze The Saints" (mp3)

In 1976, when I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, there were several of us from Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh who decided to go across state to Penn. It wasn't easy. One friend, Harold, flamed out immediately and had to keep going home as he tried to adjust to college. I couldn't understand it, but then I was pretty naive.

When I left for Penn in the fall of 1975, of all my friends in a high school with a graduating class of over 750 students, I only knew one guy whose parents were divorced. So, that's what the times were like. The idea that someone would go to college and not be able to cope made no sense to me.

Which takes me to my friend, Bob. Bob was my friend who was the leader in everything in high school--guitar, dating, marijuana, challenging parental control, you name it. Bob seemed immediately to take Penn by storm--quickly, he had somehow landed in a dorm much cooler than mine, had a serious relationship going with a pretty Jewish girl from Long Island, had secured both drug connections and important friendships.

So, it was stunning to me when he, too, left Penn before freshman year was over. Bob had the super achievement-oriented parents that would be de rigeur today, but which seemed to come exclusively (in my experience) for the Semitic community back then. I didn't know the pressure he was under that year, though, of course, I had known what his parents were like in high school. Freshman year, apparently, the last straw for Bob was a Valentine's Day card. I saw the card, just before he left. It read, "Happy Valentine's Day, Bob. We know you'll make all A's. Signed, Mom and Dad."

I'm trying to tell a lot of story quickly, so let me jump ahead and say that within a couple of months, Bob was in the Moonies out in Boonville, California. Those were different times, times as the 70's were winding down, when the idea of a friend getting lost in a cult was shocking, but not unheard of. Charles Manson was only 6-7 years earlier. So Bob left Penn and went to California and, having lost his way a bit, was ripe for the Moonies. For those of you who don't know, the Reverend Sun Yung Moon had infiltrated, especially, California and susceptible young people were sucked into his cult.

But, again, I'm trying to get through the story, so know that Bob contacted me within a couple of months and his girlfriend and I contacted his parents and they had him "kidnapped" from the cult and had him deprogrammed and he returned to Penn by the second semester of my sophomore year. Bob is dead now, a victim of suicide like his older brother, but he did readjust to Penn and finished strongly.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I'm extremely pleased that the Yellow Deli, our local cult restaurant, has come under scrutiny on the front pages of our local newspaper. I'm not happy that young people are getting sucked in, but I am happy that our local university has become disturbed by the Yellow Deli's presence on the fringes of university grounds. Chattanoogans have short memories, like the rest of America, and have been pooh-poohing (even in these pages) the cult connection of this place because the sandwiches are supposedly so good. I don't challenge the quality of the sandwiches; I just haven't eaten there. But I carry a lot of baggage, like anyone else my age, and part of it, as you now know, concerns cults and what they can do to people. And so, the Yellow Deli has been on my radar, and I'm glad it is on Chattanooga's as well.
Neutral Milk Hotel's "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" is an underground classic available at Itunes, as is the Stephen Malkmus catalog.