Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rock the Vote

Waitress - Live (mp3)
Lights are Changing - Mary Lou Lord (mp3)

I stood in line for a gloriously short 20 minutes yesterday and spent 10 more going through the truly amazing process of pitching in my $0.02 worth into our democratic republic. I voted.

Tennessee, thankfully, is one of many states which permit early voting for any reason. We might be backwards on many things, but early voting isn't one of 'em. So, I took off for lunch and traveled to the lovely city-burb we call Brainerd, and I voted at their community center. The line was all the way down a hallway, around a corner, and a quarter of the way into the gymnasium. When I arrived, I was on the free-throw line.

The line at this particular location, at 11:15 or so in the morning, was made up of two very distinct people: African-Americans and white AARP members. Not to swim in stereotypes for too terribly long, but it didn't take rocket science to know how the vote in this line divvied up.

What I didn't expect, however, was the general mood of the people in line. Somehow, standing in a long line to vote didn't make anyone angry or impatient. We were all having little conversations about nothing, smiling and getting along and happy to exercise our democratic participation.

All this despite already knowing how Tennessee will go to John McCain in the election. (Mondale won Minnesota; Gore couldn't win his own state. Barack never had a chance here.)

That, my friends (a McCain-ism!), is what I love about this country of ours. When you see people of two different minds, all of whom know exactly how something is gonna pan out, standing in line to make their marks anyway. Because you just never know. Because we only get to vote in 20 or so Presidential Elections if we're really lucky. Because, in some teensy miniscule way, every vote really counts. It counts in the national and state tally, and it counts in the feeling you have standing in that line, in filling out that election ballot, in walking back out to your car and knowing you've done one of the few civic duties your country asks of you.

Before yesterday, I would delete all of those emails I was getting from various RNC people -- yes, McCain, Orrin Hatch, Fred Thompson, even Kelsey Grammar have been sending me some four or five emails every day in the hopes of persuading me to get out and vote for them. I read my first one yesterday and enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn't watch Obama's Very Special Show last night. (Some are calling it his "pilot episode. If you believe his campaigning, it might be a great show, but it would constantly be changing the day and time it was shown.)

[At right is what happened to Kelsey Grammar after he started sending out emails for the Republican Party.]

If you want the single most compelling (albeit one-sided) break-down of why this election should go the way it will go, I implore you to read "The Choice" from the October 13 issue of The New Yorker.

Good luck, and be sure to vote. It feels good.

"Waitress" is from Live's 1991 album Throwing Copper. "Lights are Changing" is from Mary Lou Lord's debut, Got No Shadow. Both are available on iTunes and at's mp3 site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Owns Music?

Bruce Springsteen--"Brilliant Disguise (live)" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Trapped (live)" (mp3)

I spent a good bit of last night downloading and listening to a couple of Bruce Springsteen concerts. The concerts were not for sale. They were not official releases. Bruce, undoubtedly, would not be happy to know that they are available out there in cyberspace. Or else he doesn't care. Or else that space has gotten too big for music lawyers to keep up with all of it. Or.

Here's the scoop on those concerts. The first one is one that I used to listen to when I was in college in Philadelphia. WMMR, the local, commercial, hip FM radio station used to broadcast some or all of this show all the time. The show had been recorded locally, up in Bryn Mawr, at a place called the Main Point, a place where I saw many concerts during my college years. It probably held about 200 people and was the ideal place to see folk acts, bluegrass acts, singer-songwriters. I missed Bruce by only a few months. Anyway, I heard those songs many, many times, even taped some of them off of the radio onto cassette tapes from my dorm rooms. There were many highlights--a cover of Dylan's "I Want You," a slowed-down version of "The E Street Shuffle," a pre-Born To Run version of "Thunder Road," performed under the title "Wings For Wheels."

So when I saw that show online, not only did all of that college nostalgia kick in, but I also thought, 'I used to have that, that used to be mine, I'm going to get it again.' But was it mine? Yes, I did have a cassette of it, and record companies weren't clamoring to bust people making cassette copies of vinyl albums or radio broadcasts.

The second concert is from The Ghost Of Tom Joad tour, a tour I never saw. I did buy the cd, however, and have always thought it was underrated and undeservedly bashed by the critics. One review I read said that it was "tuneless," that there were no memorable melodies. I couldn't disagree more. I think the cd is full of beautiful, quiet songs. We presented at a conference in San Diego not long before or after its release, and just getting the sense, during that brief trip, of what life on the border, life in "Balboa Park," was all about, made the cd more poignant. So, I was excited yesterday to hear what some of those songs sounded like live. I bought the cd, the concert tour came nowhere near me, and I had very young children at the time anyway. So last night, guilt-free, I downloaded that show, too.

I know that this concept would never hold up legally, but is it possible that someone like me who owned all of the Springsteen records on album up through the Live 1975-85 box set on vinyl and then, when the technology changed, purchased all of that stuff again and continue to buy each new Springsteen release on either cd or Itunes, is it possible that in some cosmic way I have some "right" to hear all of Springsteen's music that I can get my hands on? That's not even counting concert tickets, songbooks, dvd purchases. Do I own anything that I didn't directly pay for?

As I see it, there are two issues here. The first is quality control. I understand that artists who slave over putting out, say, a cd that they worked on for three years may be disappointed to think that some raw, slightly off-key outtake or live version of their stuff is out there for public consumption. The second is money. By law, that artist has royalty rights for every sale and performance of his or her music. God knows, we all like the money, and I'm not going to try to argue that such-and-such an artist already has enough money. I don't know and I don't care. But after my own "career" of collecting and listening to music for 45 years, there are some five or six artists, a slightly-shifting list, whose output has engaged me so much that I'm interested in hearing whatever of their music that I can, regardless of the source. And I pursue that goal, from time to time, without apology.

I know it's impossible to distinguish me from some virulent Chinese conglomerate selling Springsteen knock-offs all over Asia, but I'm not trying to make money, I'm just trying to hear what was played. I know it's skewed, I know it's indefensible, but I have come to believe that if an artist played it and someone recorded it, it's okay for me to hear it. Sorry, Bruce. Ultimately, the passage of time will prove me right.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Howling Monsters R Us

"Being bad feels pretty good, huh?" -- John Bender (Judd Nelson), The Breakfast Club

Halloween brings out the worst in people. And we love it.

We relish the opportunity to wear the bad or unsavory parts of our selves on the outside for once, rather than keeping them pinned down in the solitary confinement chambers of our conscience.

At Halloween, males dress up like horror movie killers, or deformed mutants, or women, or Joe the Plumber. Males get to be someone frightening or famous, or they get to wear women's clothes without having to give up their NRA card and NASCAR fan gear. Well-behaved females get to dress like sluts from a porn movie. Slutty women get to dress like the sluts they are, which is to say they get to look just like the well-behaved females who, for one day, seem to be jealous of their naturally slutty gifts.

The day gives us that one precious chance to celebrate our darker dreams, to display the demons we keep in check so well for those other 364 days.

Before I was married, I had five serious relationships. Two of them ended in the aftermath of Halloween. Believe me when I say it wasn't coincidence. The worst parts of both people emerged to battle on a metaphorical playground, challenging the other: Can you handle this part of me? Here's your warning. Leave now, and don't look back!

The tragic part is how much we love our dark sides. Most of us talk a good game about how we want to walk that straight and narrow path and do the right things, but very few of us can escape this life without finding a few small paths off that dusty trail, escapes from a very long path with very few curves, bends, or changes of scenery.

The human part is how ineffectual our goodness is without our badness. As my buddy Mark so loves to point out, even Superman enjoyed his Red Kryptonite every once in a while. [Translation for those who don't know comic book lore: Red Kryptonite never has the same effect on Superman, but the effect is always something counter to his nature as the supreme savior of American innocence. Generally it turned Superman into something of a self-centered prick who cared mostly for himself. Superman feared Red Kryptonite mostly because, when exposed to it, he had the time of his life and never wanted it taken from him.]

Without Red Kryptonite, Clark Kent is probably still a virgin. 'Nuff said.

But back to the point. We carry these bad parts around because they tend to be inextricably tied to our good ones. Yin, meet Yang, so to speak. Or to put it another way, who hasn't watched Dexter and found themselves fighting not to enjoy it?

Maybe we do ourselves wrong by celebrating the bad side only one day out of the year. Maybe we should dedicate a whole month. Maybe we should call October "The Dark Month" and allow ourselves a little bit more lenience.

It's probably wrong that I teach Sunday School.

Billy's 2008 Ghoulies + Ghosties Mix
  1. Peek-a-Boo - Devo
  2. Scared, Are You? - Better Than Ezra
  3. Superman's Dead - Our Lady Peace
  4. Black Moon Creeping - The Black Crowes
  5. Dim and the Dark - Jump
  6. Angels or Devils - Dishwalla
  7. Wave of Mutilation - Pixies
  8. Strange - R.E.M.
  9. Evil - Interpol
  10. Vampire - The Blakes
  11. The Beast in Me - Johnny Cash
  12. Graveyard Girl - M83
  13. Don't Come the Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim - Kelly Willis
  14. Good Monsters - Jars of Clay
  15. The Frog Prince - Keane
  16. Cry in the Dark - Juliana Hatfield
  17. The Devil Never Sleeps - Iron + Wine
  18. All You Zombies - Hooters
  19. The Pretender - Foo Fighters
  20. Sin Wagon - Dixie Chicks
  21. The Best Deceptions - Dashboard Confessional
The complete mix above can be made available for those interested. Leave me a request via comment and an email address or some other way of providing you a link.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Sure Cause of Writer's Block

Tom Rush--"Urge For Going" (mp3)
Leo Kottke--"In Christ There Is No East Or West" (mp3)

So I'd been on a couple of journeys up north in the last week, where the leave are turning and the air is colder and my thoughts were finally turning to fall, and I planned to write a post on that imminent season (you can't start autumn with an arbitrary calendar date--you start it with leaves and weather), but then I received the letter below and it took the wind out of my sails:

Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content in your blog infringes upon the copyrights of others. The URL(s) of the allegedly infringing post(s) may be found at the end of this message.

The notice that we received, with any personally identifying information removed, will be posted online by a service called Chilling Effects at We do this in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Please note that it may take Chilling Effects up to several weeks to post the notice online at the link provided.

The DMCA is a United States copyright law that provides guidelines for online service provider liability in case of copyright infringement. We are in the process of removing from our servers the links that allegedly infringe upon the copyrights of others. If we did not do so, we would be subject to a claim of copyright infringement, regardless of its merits. See for more information about the DMCA, and see for the process that Blogger requires in order to make a DMCA complaint.

Blogger can reinstate these posts upon receipt of a counter notification pursuant to sections 512(g)(2) and 3) of the DMCA. For more information about the requirements of a counter notification and a link to a sample counter notification, see

Please note that repeated violations to our Terms of Service may result in further remedial action taken against your Blogger account. If you have legal questions about this notification, you should retain your own legal counsel. If you have any other questions about this notification, please let us know.

Sincerely,The Blogger Team

Affected URLs:

"Urge for Going," written by Joni Mitchell, is from Tom Rush's The Circle Game; "In Christ There Is No East Or West" is from an out-of-print Leo Kottke album entitled Greenhouse.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Listen w/o Prejudice: Electric Light Orchestra

The first in a series. Click here for the Preamble.

Electric Light Orchestra has been quite the advertising catch lately. In the last five years, I've seen ads using "Mr. Blue Sky," "Do Ya," and "Hold on Tight." Advertisers use these hits to sell their product mostly to folks in their 30s and 40s, who have heard these songs in our past lives as teens or pre-teens. So I'm kinda surprised at how many people I know don't really know that ELO sang all the songs they sang. They know the songs; they just never really cared who sang them.

More tragic, most of the people who are aware of Electric Light Orchestra and their musical past hate their ever-lovin' guts. For my generation, I can't immediately think of many other legitimately talented bands who earn the level of vitriol thrust on ELO. In a musical universe where practically everyone rips off the Beatles for profit, John Lennon described ELO as the "Sons of the Beatles."

I'd like to think that, when someone bigger than Jesus makes a declaration like that, it's worth pause. No matter how stoned he might have been when he said it.

Their number one proof that ELO sucks? Xanadu. Dude, even the Beatles and Bob Dylan farted out a bad apple every once in a while. That doesn't ruin their entire oeuvre. Not to mention that, um, some of us actually kinda enjoy the soundtrack to Xanadu. I haven't found anyone else yet who does, but I'm holding onto my faith that they're out there somewhere. (And mostly I'm talking about heteros here, 'cuz it's been made very clear that Xanadu is some kind of gay Panacea.)

[NOTE: Olivia Newton-John was my first crush. I was in lust with her before I even understood what the hell lust was. In both Grease and Xanadu, she's this wholesome princess who brings the movie to climax by turning into a ball-rockin' sex goddess... I had to believe she was magic.] 

The central creative force behind ELO was Jeff Lynne, easily one of the the more influential musical presences in pop music in the late '80s. He formed the Traveling Wilburys, thus sneaking his way into a group of four kick-ass legends and making a darn fine album to boot. He produced Tom Petty's rocket-shot beyond Heartbreaker stratosphere, Full Moon Fever (and co-wrote almost all the songs). He also produced the most successful 80s fare from Dave Edmunds, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Randy Newman. So, although Xanadu put his "band" in an iron lung, Lynne kept on making waves.

To remind folks like me of his pop brilliance, he came out with one last album, Armchair Theater, his only blatantly solo effort ever. While a flawed collection -- as were almost all of ELO's albums -- there are some genuinely great pop moments in there.

My all-time Top 10 ELO/Jeff Lynne songs (in alphabetical order, 'cuz I can't rank things without constantly changing my mind):
  • Calling America
  • Don't Bring Me Down
  • Don't Walk Away
    Remove this song from Xanadu, and forget that it was played during a particularly uninspired animated portion of said awful film, and what you have is an adorably sappy break-up song with killer orchestral flourishes, classic '60s backup singer repetition, and just enough falsetto to make any masculine man jittery. One of the great devices of pop song greatness is the ability to keep a song building in intensity, with an increasingly complicated arrangement, and it works wonderfully here.
  • The Diary of Horace Wimp
    OK, so the verses of this song take some getting used to, but by God the chorus is catchy. And when I say "by God," I mean Lynne throws that booming God voice in the background. I'm kinda surprised conservatives haven't adopted this one for it's "Marriage = One Man + One Woman" message... straight from the voice of God! Also, I'm a sucker for songs that follow the days of the week (Sting's "Seven Days" immediately comes to mind).
  • Last Train to London
  • Lift Me Up
    From Lynne's 1990 solo album, I've actually overheard this song on a couple of movie trailers in the past few years. It's not a transcendent pop song, but it's damn fine. More than 30 years after starting in the biz, Lynne still shows his gift for mixing mild electronica, those adorable background vocals, and a catchy-as-hell pop hook.
  • Mr. Blue Sky
  • Turn to Stone
  • Twilight
  • Wild West Hero
    This song doesn't belong on Out of the Blue. I like that album a lot, and I loooove this song, but it's totally out of place. What's a songwriting genius to do, though, when he writes a song to honor the soul and spirit of his childhood, maybe one of the coolest orchestral-electric-pop-western songs ever. It was written for boys who were my age when I first played it some 5,000 times on my turntable. I didn't love this song because I wanted to be a cowboy. I loved it because it spoke of yearnings so powerful you feel dizzy, of wishes you wish knowing damn well they're not gonna come true, but you just keep wishin' 'em anyway, 'cuz what are we if not creatures made of cells, tissue and wishes?
 Any number of ELO compilations and albums can be found on iTunes and's mp3 site.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Listen Without Prejudice: Preamble

Stealing Kisses - Lori McKenna (mp3)
Video - Kay Hanley (mp3)

I'm not much of a wine drinker. I am, for all intents and purposes, a wine moron. If Paul Giamatti's character from Sideways, Miles, met me while my wife and I were touring Sonoma County and tasting all those wondrous wines, he would consider me proof the end of the world was nigh.

Miles was constantly in my self-conscious thoughts as we traipsed through the handful of wineries we visited on our day in Napa. Miles haunted me, because everytime we walked into a winery, my immediate thought was of how pedestrian my tastes, how ignorant my knowledge. Don't worry, by the fourth good wine tasting, I wasn't too worried about what he thought anymore, and I started thinking more about Virginia Madsen.

The movie is funny. I love Sideways. And Miles is a great protagonist, someone you feel badly for as his life spirals around. But oftentimes a compelling protagonist would make for a crappy companion, and I don't think many people would really like to hang around Miles and his anti-merlot rants. His acidic nature would wear thin quickly.

Fortunately, I don't know a lot of wine connoisseurs. Unfortunately, I know a lot of Mileses. And most of them are music aficionados... or they think they are.

One of the most disturbing arguments I can remember from my high school years involved music. In one, I found myself getting increasingly heated with a good friend as we argued which one of the bands we loved sucked, and which one rocked. I argued passionately for Rush. He argued hornily for Poison. I said Poison was a bunch of copycat posers. He said Rush couldn't make a song catchy enough to attract a single female.

It was one of those debates that got so out of hand, so ludicrous, that in hindsight it's clear that the argument was only about these bands on the surface; we were actually arguing about much deeper things, about how we were drifting away and increasingly interested in different things. He could get dates. He went out with cool classmates and drank and had fun. I couldn't talk to a girl without hyperventilating, and I couldn't quite get away from my comic books. I was clinging to weirdness. He was assimilating.

The upside of having a ludicrous argument over music that got so out of hand and signified the slow death rattle of a friendship was this: I vowed to never again get into such a pointless, mind-numbingly stupid debate about music. (Note: Unfortunately, all other subjects are still in bounds, and I still get into plenty of pointless arguments.)

I became that curse word of true fanatics: a musical relativist.

If you like what you like, great. If you don't like what I don't like, I'll respectfully disagree, but fine. If you would like to engage me in a discussion about "shitty music" versus "kickass music," I'll happily oblige, but I'm under no illusion that either of us will somehow change our minds about what we like and don't like. And, sadly, just 'cuz I like something doesn't mean someone else should. Just 'cuz I love a cabernet or chardonnay doesn't mean it's the Mileses of the world will like it or even give it a second sniff. So be it. Or, as Robbie Nevil said, C'est La Vie.

Although there are almost always exceptions, I've developed my own little personal smell test for music:
  1. Did the performer/band write the song themselves? Do they write all or almost all of their own stuff?
  2. Did the performer/band play their own instruments, or are their "ghost players" who never get any credit lurking behind them?
  3. Is their priority to create something valueable, or to get value for their creations?
If the band passes these three tests, they're at least 4x more likely to earn my attentive ear. If, like the Jonas Brothers or Britney or even Faith Hill, they fail more than one test, they're at best good for one or two songs, at worst not remotely worth my time.

The Billy Music Litmus Test works for me. I admire creatives, not puppets, so I prefer wasting my ears on music that's coming, more often than not, from the original source. Does Faith Hill suck, musically? Pointless question for me. She's just not worth it for me to go out of my way to listen to her. (Although, as eye candy, she's more than deserving of the occasionally distracted glance.)

On the other hand, Lori McKenna, whose most recent album Faith Hill and Tim McGraw helped produce, deserves a whole heapin' helping of my time and attention, because she passes all three tests with flying colors.

With that in mind, I'm going to occasionally write something about a band or musician whose music is important to me but gets quickly dismissed by the Mileses amongst us -- from the Rolling Stone and PopMatters and Pitchfork critics to the many friends and acquaintances who have an unhealthy amount of Miles in them.

I don't ask or expect that you like them. I only ask that you give them a chance. Stick your nose into that glass and take a sincere and open-minded whiff. Roll them around on your ear to get their texture. And then, if you must, spit it out. But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, you'll like those Green Eggs and Ham...

"Stealing Kisses" is from Lori's album Bittertown, but Faith Hill covered it on her latest album. "Video" is from Kay's latest album, Weaponize. Both albums can be had on iTunes, and Bittertown is also available at's mp3 site.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

States of Mind

Crazy Life - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)
One Thing Leads to Another - The Fixx (mp3)

A: Protestant churches, gas stations, African-Americans.
Q: What's the difference between the Northwest and the South?

Over the course of our 9-day drive up the northwestern coast of the US, my wife and I couldn't help but notice the vast differences between the area where we have lived out our 35+ years and this newly-discovered land known as "California," "Oregon," and "Washington."

Some of the differences are powerfully obvious. Landscape, for instance. The Pacific Ocean, more often than not, rages well below the level of human activity, as US 101 and Highway 1 soar hundreds of feet above the beaches, crags, and waves below. This is apparently what happens when your shores have been assaulted repeatedly by tsunamis over the centuries.

[Side Note: Because we're strangers in this West Coast land, we found these signs very, very funny. Mostly because we were under the impression that if the tsunami's that fucking close to your ass, there's really not much point in running unless you're Jesus or The Flash. But hey, it makes for a memorable sign.]

Other differences were less obvious but still salient to the attentive Southerner. Particularly, the ones above stuck with us time and again.

Where have all the WASPs gone?
Jenni noticed this the first day we journeyed through San Francisco, that churches weren't much a part of the scenery. The ones we managed to spot were either Catholic or LDS. No Baptists, no Methodists, no Presbyterians.

Once we approached Oregon, beyond the dreadlock-controlled region of Arcata, we began to spot the occasional run-down Baptist shacks and the occasional Methodist or Episcopal church. After seeing so many dilapidated churches, we were forced to ask ourselves a startling question: What's more suspect, a place where all the churches look like the homes of struggling snake-oil salesmen, or a place where most of them look like modern-day castles?

Who's that dude at my car window?
Get this. In Oregon, you can't pump your own gas. Seriously. A station attendant has to pump it for you. Apparently there are people on the West Coast who, if provided the opportunity to pump their own gas, might accidentally blow up their car or the whole dadgum place. Or worse, they might spill some.

If this is Oregon's solution for gas drive-offs, it's gotta be one of the least cost-efficient solutions I've ever seen... No wait, that's an exaggeration. It's just very inefficient.

Even more odd, gas is kind of difficult to find on the Northwest coast. In the South, you can't hardly get past a single exit without passing three or four gas stations, most of which now come with built-in fast food restaurants. On US 101, gas stations are rarer than conservatives. Everytime we dipped below a quarter tank, we started nervously looking around, knowing that if we didn't stop at our next opportunity, we were taking our chances.

Add Chinatown, Subtract Black
No way to make this observation subtle. The Northwestern US ain't got no black people. Sure, you can find this out by looking at census numbers, which is exactly what I did tonight before making this claim. But you'd have to be blind and deaf to be a Southerner traveling the Northwest and not notice that there's just not much color in the crowd.

On multiple occasions, we'd be sitting in a tourist trap restaurant or walking down a very crowded street in San Francisco, and you could count the number of African-Americans on one hand. As in, fewer than five out of several hundred. The only time during our entire trip that I could see with my naked eye more than a dozen black people in one place was at the airport, when we were flying back from Seattle to Atlanta.

Tennessee is relatively low, compared to Georgia or South Carolina, when it comes to our black population, but at 12+%, we're still more than double that of California (and trust me, it's more extreme in Northern Cali), quadruple that of Washington, and sextuple that of Oregon, which has to be the whitest damn place I've ever been.

What really bothers me about this realization is this: it's people from states like California and Washington that look at the South and claim that we're not very "diverse." Apparently this means that substituting a huge chunk of your African-American population and replacing it with an Asian-American population of slightly smaller proportions makes you diverse.

We're diverse, dammit. The South is diverse. We're just also vastly under-educated and burdened with prejudices at levels that don't want to ebb very quickly.

It's far too complex for my feeble Southern mind, but I honestly suspect that if you simply tracked what these three cultural differences made in a region, you could come up with a pretty fascinating theory on why all three West Coast states are leaning Obama in the upcoming election while every state in the South save for Florida is leaning McCain. Between the gas stations, the churches and the "diversity," I suspect the answer's in there somewhere.

"Crazy Life" is from Toad's fifth and final album, Coil. "One Thing..." is from the Fixx's second album, Reach the Beach, although I can't quite imagine why you'd buy that whole album. Both are available online at iTunes or I think.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Them Swingin', Fightin', Battlegroundin' States

Brian Wilson--"Heroes and Villains" (mp3)
Bottle Rockets--"Welfare Music" (mp3)

What a pleasure to get to spend time in a "Battleground State" or a "Swing State" or just the good ol' state of Ohio! What a pleasure to see people whose votes actually mean somethin'! What a pleasure to overhear the politcal public discourse of a state in play!

LANGUAGE ANALYSIS INSERT: If someone tells you that he or she "doesn't like either candidate," this is typically coded Conservative language that means "I'm still voting for McCain, but I can't say that publicly with any pride anymore, so I'll just pretend I'm disgusted with the whole thing."

So we went to Ohio to visit Kathleen, to partake in the joys of Parents' (Spending) Weekend and, along the way, we stumbled into a taste of what the political campaign must be like in other parts of the country. We drove along roads where we'd hit patches of McCain country, and then an Obama sign would slip in, and then it would start to mix up. We drove through small, rural towns where the matter is not decided. No, Ohio does not separate easily into "cities for Obama" and "countryside for McCain." It is a battle. We drove through Westerville and saw the "Welcome Senator McCain" sign on a donut shot, still up from last week and saw proof positive that a candidate had actually come to visit that town!

Here are some of the things I really enjoyed:

--A stretch of houses in Centerburg where the first sign read "Support The Troops--Bring Them Home," the next sign was the traditional "Support the Troops" and the last sign said "Veterans For Obama." I'll bet there are some interestin' discussions or glares across the lawnmowers on that street.

--My wife tryin' to engage everyone we encountered in a political discussion or at least a "Who ya for?"

--An Obama sign that read "Barack Obama/ Joe Biden Vision and Experience." Such a clear sign. I wonder why that slogan hasn't been spread around more.

--An overheard conversation in a restaurant, where the man was tellin' his date: "I don't think Todd really wants to move to Washington." I love it when people start talkin' about people they don't know by only their first names. I love it that Todd Palin has achieved that status, so much so that he is campaignin' on his own, advocatin' America's core values--"huntin' and fishin'."

--A bumper sticker that read "Gas was $1.42 When Bush Took Office."

Stuck as we are in this reddest of the Red States, we are missin' the vigor of this campaign. The best we can hope to do is to give the driver of a car with a McCain/Palin sticker a glare when we pass him, cuttin' into his lane a little too soon so that he is sure not to miss the "Obama" sticker on our bumper. Not much, I'll admit.

LANGUAGE ANALYSIS INSERT: In order to appear to be a "man of the people," I have dropped most of my "g's" in the writin' of this post.

"Welfare Music" comes from the Bottle Rocket's second cd, The Brooklyn Side; "Heroes and Villians" is from Brian Wilson's remake of Smile. Both are available at Itunes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reconsider Me (or Warren Zevon)

Warren Zevon--"Porcelain Monkey" (mp3)
Warren Zevon--"Numb As A Statue" (mp3)
Warren Zevon--"Disorder In The House" (mp3)

One of the beautiful aspects of the many generations of Ipods is that they break after a few years, and if you're a disorganized soul like me who doesn't have all his music on one computer, doesn't have everything synched for easy reload, that means each time I get a new Ipod, I have to go through all of the cd's again.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Recently, I loaded up all of my Warren Zevon cds again, and that was quite a good thing. The man has an impressive catalog dating back to the '70's, with both his share of hits and a good list of songs that most people don't seem to know about or listen to. That's a combination I like, because it keeps me from getting tired of an artist's music. If I hear music everywhere I go all the time, I tire of it quickly. So, anyway, yeah, I've got "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and all of that kind of stuff back in the mix again. But the twin revelations have been the material from Life'll Kill Ya and The Wind.

Those last couple of cds that came out when he was diagnosed and dying of lung cancer were hard to listen to. Even funnyish songs like "Life'll Kill Ya" or "My Shit's Fucked Up" still had the underlying reminders of impending doom for poor old Warren. And the last cd, The Wind, well, I bought it dutifully the day that it came out, and I may have "spun" it a time or two, but it didn't really take. In spite of the impressive list of guest participants, the mental image of Warren wheezing his way through songs with barely enough energy to finish them, and the whole feeling of a pre-death wake just didn't work for me.

Then, after his death, the biographies and oral histories started coming out. I read a good bit of one in a Border's in New Orleans one night. Two things emerge as real patterns: 1) the guy was one of the worst alcoholics you are ever likely to encounter, and 2) perhaps related, the guy was pretty much an asshole to everyone who knew him.

I guess I tend to get a little too caught up in judging people's lives, because I went through a similar phase when Springsteen and his first wife were splitting up and he had already taken up with Patti Scialfa and all of the noble pretensions of his music just didn't seem real to me anymore. But, I got over it.

And now, I'm able to listen to those late Zevon songs with some distance, without the back story and the images and too-real life stories and all of the other distractions. Now, for the most part, they're back to being just music, and good music at that. When a faculty member here died a few months ago, I remember another teacher telling the man's son that his father had "done it right," had "shown all of us the proper way to go about this." I'm happy to say that I think Mr. Zevon has done exactly the same thing. To quote Dylan Thomas, Mr. Zevon "rage[d] against the dying of the light" and appears to have made the decision that if music was his raison d'etre, he would be a musician until the end. Enjoy these songs with the passage of time, and I think you'll discover that not only are the songs terrific, but that you will feel like you are dipping into the stream of Mr. Zevon's music rather than coming to a dried-up pond. The humor, the insight, the sentimentality, the self-deprecation--it's all there.
Both Zevon cds mentioned in this post are available at Itunes.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Poor Misguided Fool - Starsailor (mp3)
Man's Gotta Do (Part I) - Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer (mp3)
Stupid - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)
La-La - Ashlee Simpson (mp3)

Even if I wanted to, I couldn't deny having a fantastical love of the movie Revenge of the Nerds. That film gave awkward adolescents everywhere a ray of optimistic sunshine in what at times could be a life clouded with the feeling that enjoying the academic side of life was shameful or embarrassing. Although I attended a school where keeping one's nose in books was hardly odd, we were still in the South, where more than anywhere else, intellectualism has somehow been equated with nefarious behavior.

In the days of Sherlock Holmes, the hero was the smartest guy in the room. But on the journey "across the pond," booksmarts seem to have made a hefty portion of Americans suspicious.

This notion that our heroes are street smart, like John Wayne, while Lex Luthor was the valedictorian... taps into some primal American fear. It's surely part of our struggle to constantly ignore and downplay the problems in our educational system. Have we created a culture where we simply don't trust anyone smarter than we are because we just assume they're trying to pull a fast one on us? Or have the smart people pulled too many fast ones, thus justifying the suspicion? (See: Wall Street, 2008.)

Think I'm wrong? In my neck of the woods, you know the easiest track to becoming the principal of a school? Coaching. There's not even a close second. Coaches move up faster and more often than your bookworms. To be fair, part of this is about charisma. Coaches are motivational, and coaches manage people -- the players, other coaches -- as part of their jobs. But there are some seriously stupid coaches who have moved up the ranks, leaving the more intelligent, more capable nerds in their jock dust.

Why don't we admire intelligence the way we respect the ability to hit a golf ball or shoot 3-pointers or diagram little plays with X's and O's on napkins?

Put simply, someone significantly smarter than myself should be in the White House. And I don't mean Peyton Manning smart. I don't mean Emeril Legasse smart. I mean Harvard Law Review smart. I mean Top of His F%#king Class smart. Do I mind if he lacks personality? Hell yes I mind. I want charisma, too. It shouldn't be too much to ask that our President be the Uber-Nerd, the guy who not only proved superior in the academic realm but also earned respect from his peers.

Apparently, it's liberal to want your politician to be intelligent. And I'm not being snide or picking a fight. Compared to their competition, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are friggin' demigods of academia. Both were highly successful in school. Meanwhile, George W. Bush and John McCain fought to keep from failing. Bush earned the infamous "Gentleman's C" (as did Gore) at Yale, and McCain finished third from the bottom in his class at Westpoint.

Is it too much for me to ask that Republican intellectualism not begin and end with the likes of Karl Rove, the living embodiment of the scheming nerd puppeteer?

It's not a problem exclusive to conservatives. Too much of black America distrusts the educational system and isolates their academically ambitious. This distrust is just one of many factors in the cycle of poverty. Poor white America holds similar misgivings.

Meanwhile, immigrants from Far Eastern countries like India or Korea come to America, often in extreme poverty, and overcome their economic struggles and often many of their cultural struggles because they embrace the value of succeeding academically. It's a cornerstone of their cultures.

Is our Western Cultural dismissal of intelligence the chicken or the egg? Are the academically successful too smart to become politicians, too intelligent to put themselves through such a sewage system?

I've been in a school long enough to know that grades don't always equate with intelligence. Sometimes the smartest kids are bored to tears and too busy splitting atoms to give a crap about geometry or Gertrude Stein. Sometimes the successful student just cheats his or her ass off. All of my Marion County relatives are reminders that very intelligent people sometimes never get the chance to prove their academic potential. But I'm not talking about smart people who failed in school. That's a different post.

What should concern us is our distrust of smart people who succeed in school. We don't like 'em as principals. We don't like 'em as Presidents. We don't like 'em in a boat or on a goat. We do not like Nerds, Sam I Am.

This ending still gets to me. When Goose -- er, Dr. Green -- asks, "Why? Because we're smart?" I wonder how much has changed, not just in the last 20 years, but in the last century.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Still Thinkin' About Those Duets

Freedy Johnston and Syd Straw--"Down In Love" (mp3)
Pete Townshend and Eddie Vedder--"Heart To Hang On To (live)" (mp3)

Merriam-Webster bailed me out. I had got to thinking that maybe I wasn't talking about duets at all in that post last Friday. Maybe I was just talking about songs with two singers. Maybe there were some specific parameters as to what constitutes a "duet." But Merriam-Webster's definition says no problem, a duet is simply "a composition for two performers." That's it.

And that's good, because I like songs where both singers do the entire song in harmony, like Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs on "Green Pastures" and I like songs where one person sings the song for the most part but the other comes in at key moments, like the way Michael Stipe echoes lines on Syd Straw's "Future 40's" or how Linda Rondstadt sings the stunningly gorgeous descant on Warren Zevon's "Empty-Handed Heart."

So the rules are looser than I thought and the doorway is open and, if you are prone to comment, I'd like to hear some of your favorite duets.

I've listed two new ones here that both work a little bit differently. Freedy Johnston has Syd Straw sing all of the verses of his song, and then he sings what functions as a chorus while she repeats the title of the song. Pete Townshend has Eddie Vedder take the part that the late Ronnie Lane originally sang; they take turns with both verse and chorus. Eddie is kind of a duet/guest performer whore--he's the Michael Caine of popular music--since he'll show up and play with just about anybody at any time. But you know what, I kind of like that. I kind of like when Eddie's voice comes in on other people's songs more than I like many of his own entire songs. Huh. Maybe that makes him kind of a Bono-wannabe. But better?

One of my favorite pairs is Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. I don't know much about Stevie's career post-about-25-years-ago, but I do know that she came back for Tom Petty's 30th anniversary concert down in Gainesville, Florida. And while he while he gives her one of his best songs, "I Need To Know," to sing and tells the crowd that this is the best version you'll ever hear, it isn't, in fact, it kind of sucks, but she redeems herself by dueting with him on "Insider" and even sings the female vocal part on "Don't Come Around Here No More." Some of it, especially "Insider," is spine-tingling. They do a great cover of "Needles and Pins" on Pack Up The Plantation, too.

I don't really know how long I'll keep working this duet thing, but it does have me searching through my stacks of cd's seeing what else I have. It also has me, as this post confirms, evaluating my duet philosophy. Is sampling a vocal track a duet? My only real rule on duets--I don't really do that "duets with dead people" thing, but, who knows, there will probably come a song where I think it works and I'll have to throw that rule out. But until Jim Morrison and Rhianna get together, I'm holding fast to that one.

"Down in Love" is off of Freedy Johnston's breakout cd, Can You Fly? The live Pete and Eddie track is from a benefit show performed in Chicago a few years ago. I think it was a limited cd and I think it's out of print. Shame.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

iPod 8-Ball Time!

Using iPod Shuffle as your own Magic 8-Ball advisory service is nothing new, but it really never grows old. So I figured while I'm off on my 10-day excursion through the northwestern U.S., I'd give you a little mix of songs courtesy of one run through my Magic iPod 8-Ball.

1. How will this whole economic debacle turn out?
Stand By My Woman - Lenny Kravitz
If this is s'posed to mean I should vote for Sarah Palin, then I'm ignoring it, 'cuz she ain't my woman. I think this means we don't give up on Lady Liberty. Or, um, the governmental oversight required to make sure Lady Liberty doesn't turn into a two-bit whore.

2. How will Islamic terrorists fare in the next few years?
Social Disease - Elton John
If we attack the Middle East with a heavy onslaught of Elton, not even the lure of 10,000 virgins could compel them to attack our great country.

3. My girls. What happens with them and us when they become teens?
Home - Simple Minds
At first glance this song title seems perfectly appropriate, but the song itself is kinda disturbing, and I don't like this game anymore. iPod 8-Ball Lesson #1: Don't ask the iPod 8-Ball questions to which you don't really want to know the answers.

4. Will this trip out West be awesome or what?
All My Life - Foo Fighters
I always thought Grohl was saying "Waking me down," like it was a pun on "Waking me up." But apparently he's saying "Weight keeping me down." Seems like a good song for a trip with six different stops along the way -- "Done and I'm onto the next one."

5. What's going to happen in the next season of LOST... if it ever arrives?
A Little Less "Sixteen Candles," A Little More "Touch Me" - Fall Out Boy
This is Kate telling me to get over her already. I'll never have what Sawyer or Jack have.

6. Who holds the key to Greyskull? Who has the power? Where is He-Man in our hour of need?
Grip Like a Vice (Black Affair Remix) - The Go! Team
Maybe She-Ra is the new He-Man. Sarah Palin might not make a great VP, but she'd make a good She-Ra.

All of the above songs are available online and come from albums worthy of your purchasing consideration. Shop around on iTunes or Please support your musical artists by buying their albums, especially Elton John. That dude needs more money.

Friday, October 10, 2008

May I Sing With You?

Carlene Carter and Robert Ellis Orrall--"I Couldn't Say No" (mp3)

If I were a Nashville hitmaker, I'd be mining the ever-popular duet, looking for one of those old songs, like the ones that worked for Allison Kraus and Robert Plant.

And even if I weren't in Nashville. Note the hit "Young Folks" from a couple of years ago, or the Ben Folds-Regina Spektor duet on Folds' latest cd. Heck, even 80's crap like "Don't You Want Me" survives because the man and woman create a relationship in the song.

I love duets, especially when at least one of the singers actually wrote the song. Then they know how it should be sung. For my money, the greatest duet writer working right now is Steve Earle. He has those songs that women want to sing with him, and he's had plenty of them agree to join forces--Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Stacey Earle, Allison Moorer, Sheryl Crow, and several others.

If I were a Steve Earle hitmaker, I'd release a cd of nothing but his duets with other people. Imagine getting "Poison Lovers," "You're Still Standing There," "Comin' Around," and all of the others on one cd. He can trade verses with men, too--Marty Stuart, Greg Trooper, and Jason Ringenberg.

Actually, though, I have the perfect duet song in mind, and you see it at the top of this post. " I Couldn't Say No," written by Robert Ellis Orrall is a song that I can't believe hasn't gotten a second life and hasn't made a bunch of money for a bunch of somebodies. I first heard it in Chicago in 1980, where, if it wasn't a regional hit, it was at least a song that got a bit of airplay on their true FM stations, like WXRT. I had no idea who Orall was, but I was well-acquainted with his singing partner, Carlene Carter. Carlene is a daughter of June Carter from a previous marriage, I think, though she considers Johnny and June her parents. So much so that in a New York club, when she introduced a song by saying, "Here's one that will put the cunt back in country," she was mortified to find out that her parents were in the audience. Carlene Carter has a classic country voice, but she has often flirted with the rock and roll lifestyle, in particular in relationships with Nick Lowe in the 80's and with Howie Epstein (bass player for Tom Petty and producer of her cd's) in later years. The latter association led to some difficulties with heroin, I think.

But back to the song. It's a great song, unheard of for the most part, but you can hear Tim McGraw and Faith Hill doing it or the Sugarland vocalists or some odd couple pairing like Plant and Kraus. It's a catchy song, based around just a couple of chords until you get to the chorus, and though they're working it on the piano, you could imagine it in any number of settings played on whatever instrument you wanted. Both in its verses and its chorus, the narrative payoff is ultimately about the failure of the singers' relationship; it's a kind of bittersweet "feel good" song. And it isn't a song where you get the feeling that there's a kind of artificial trading of verses. The two singers go back and forth in a game of romantic one-upsmanship where nobody ends up winning. But you revel in the tragedy of how things don't work out because the music is so good.

So, viva la duet, and somebody please remake this one. It won't be as good as the original, of course, but at least it will be out there.

"I Couldn't Say No" by Carlene Carter and Robert Ellis Orrall is no longer in print, but you can see the cheesy music video here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Da Greatest of Allllll Fillllmmm!

Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe - Okkervil River (mp3)
On Film I Play Myself - Tim Seely (mp3)

Last week, one of our school's administrators requested that those interested in helping the school orchestrate a film series for the students pitch in with a recommendation of some Must See Movies. Asking me for a list of this sort -- movies, songs, books, TV shows, supermodels -- is something akin to sticking a banana in my tailpipe. (It's nothing of a sexual nature I assure you.)

Because I'm a waffling, indecisive poo-poo face, attempting to narrow down the 300 deserving nominees of any topic down to five, or 10, or 20, ends up taking nauseating amounts of time. Hell, just making a stupid mix CD takes me a couple hours minimum.

To help my indecisiveness, I came up with requires several caveats:
  1. This is a list of "important" films, not "favorite" films, although sometimes the latter overlaps; 
  2. Our school is all boys, so this is intended for a testosterone-filled audience, meaning while the films must be "important," they cannot be "boring as shit," nor can Yentl be considered;
  3. While respecting the restrictive nature of #2, I wanted to provide a decent variety of generational films and genres. For my purposes here, I defined "Classic" as any film released prior to an 18-year-old being born, which means anything pre-1990.
My Top Five Important "Classic" Films for Teens (Esp. Boys)

#1 With a Bullet: Casablanca
Seriously, what's not to love about this movie? You've got the cool as a cucumber, cynical, I'll-never-love again Humphrey Bogart. You've got the smoky dame. You've got booze, gambling and Nazis. You've got some of the best sex scenes ever left to the imagination. Seriously, anyone who's ever had sex and sees this movie needs no extra footage. In a less tawdry world, this movie would remind Hollywood that sometimes the sultriest sex scenes are the ones that play out beyond our prying, Rear Window, peeping Tom eyes.

#2: Rear Window
It might not be Hitchcock's best film, but it's one of his more accessible. That it serves as a metaphor for our unhealthy obsession with movies and being mere watchers puts it on the list. Jimmy Stewart might be, for me, the consummate American actor, and that he used his golly shucks affable appearance to portray some morally flawed characters puts him right there with Paul Newman in my admiration.

#3: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Sadly, comedies rarely survive the test of time. The half-life of great drama is tremendous. The half-life of action films is modest. The half-life of great comedies is a single generation, so that some of them make it 30 years before becoming "you had to be there" jokes. Even Some Like it Hot, deserving of it's AFC #1 rating, has lost much of its Funny Ha Ha power with passing generations. But Dr. Strangelove remains important because of the scathingly serious commentary bubbling below that quirky banter. It's a comedy with dramatic import, and it feels as important in 2008 as ever.

#4: To Kill a Mockingbird
Boys need heroes. Sometimes, they even need heroes that aren't mired in moral ambiguity, although I certainly admire and prefer the value of those characters. Atticus Finch is morally certain in the face of societal doubt. He's the whistle-blower of an entire way of life, and his courage and conviction burn into a viewer's memory.

#5: Do the Right Thing
Easily the toughest decision, and I went with my own experience. This movie, for a sheltered white Southern boy, was something of a horror film. It was about people I kinda saw every day but didn't remotely understand. It was about all of that tension and anger that had built up between us. As a sheltered teen, I didn't completely understand "racism" and didn't understand why black people couldn't just get over it, but this movie -- and the Public Enemy album that soon followed -- forced me to recognize that maybe this issue was too important and too big for me to accept my sheltered view as right. It doesn't offer solutions, which was a big bone of contention at the time. I'm glad it doesn't. All it does is point a lot of fingers and hold up a lot of mirrors. And maybe it's lost a little of its punch, but it sure as hell continues to make you want to talk about things afterward.

Runners-up: Unforgiven (too recent, unfortunately), In the Heat of the Night (not as intense as Spike Lee's Joint), High Noon (rejected b/c George W. Bush loves it so much), Glory (the closest runner-up), Scent of a Woman (a great film, but couldn't convince myself it was as "important" as these others).

So what about you, readers? Offer up your own list, or tell me which parts of mine are egregiously flawed!

Albums by Okkervil River and Tim Seely (formerly of Actual Tigers) can be purchased through iTunes or's mp3 site.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Decline of Civilization, Part III

Cry,Cry,Cry--"Shades of Grey" (mp3)
Creedence Clearwater Revival--"It's Just A Thought" (mp3)

What kind of people are we if we can't say who we are? Or were?

In chapel today, we had an alumnus from Kenya speak, a man who has started a rural school in that country where he provides a free quality education to students who would have had no opportunity for any education. It is a noble mission, a life's work more authentic than what I do sitting here behind this desk.

His talk was largely a retelling of his life's story. And while much of what he said was highly complimentary of his time here, he also talked about his own lost years--when he descended into drinking, smoking, using marijuana and LSD, when he lost a scholarship, when he didn't have a home, when he had thoughts of suicide amidst the lethargy.

It was refreshing to hear someone talk like that, especially as we enter this final phase of a bitter presidential compaign, when an admission of any unsavory aspect of one's past could prove to be very costly. Take Obama for example. Already, he's had to disavow a religious leader who has to have been important to him, but who is too much of a truth-teller and who has no idea how to present the truth like anything other than the blast of a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. So, he's gone, as if he never existed, though you can bet his name will be coming up in the next four weeks. Similarly, Obama has been tied to a 60's radical, and now Republicans are trying to make that into a "palling around with terrorists" situation.

Do you ever ponder the unsavory characters of your past? I had several friends who dealt drugs in college, including one who earned the moniker of "The Whippet King" for his business selling small cannisters of nitrous oxide to fellow college students. Where is that guy now? Do his employers know? Would they scorn him if they did know, or is he in a corporation somewhere where they could smile fondly on his entrepreneurial beginnings? I had three friends who committed suicide (not all at once--I wasn't a cult leader!). How would that stand against me in a political campign? I can see the TV ad now: "This guy is so toxic everyone around him dies or wants to. Vote for me instead. All of my friends are still alive."

The fact is that to get a full picture of any of us, we have to be able to see the whole history. It isn't all pretty. And it isn't all planned.

I can't even imagine what, growing up, a person who was mapping out a political career where he would be able to skirt any controversy or regret would have been like. Oh, wait, yes, I can. He would have been the guy who never bought any of his own pot but smoked others' stashes freely, but never in a large group. He would have been the one with the bland record collection who bought Boston when they hit it big, Frampton Comes Alive! when everyone had it, Bruce Springsteen because the college was in Philadelphia. He would have never given you an honest opinion about anyone who was pissing you off, and he probably didn't wear blue jeans to class.

And nowadays, I suppose he can offer plausible denial of everything he ever might have been.

But that's where the problem is. Who wants to deny things that they once did? Not me. I'll tell you whatever you want to know. Where's the growth, where's the honesty, where's the catharsis in hiding the past? You start thinking that way, and you end up not only denying what you did, but what your family did, what your city did, and, even, what your country did. And then you are lost, perhaps irrevocably lost, as lost as an uncivilized people whose past has been destroyed, unrecorded, or deemed too dangerous for anyone to know.

"Shades of Grey," a Robert Earl Keen cover, comes from Cry Cry Cry's only cd. "It's Just A Thought" can be found on Chronicles: Creedence Clearwater Revivals' Greatest Hits, Volume II. Both are available at Itunes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honors Student

If I Had a Boat - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Down to Earth - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

Most of us want so much for our children that it hurts us. This longing causes weirdos like me actual, physical pain -- maybe that's just more proof I need to exercise. It also takes a tremendous emotional toll, because we can't give them everything, dammit. Granted, good parents wouldn't give them everything even if we could, 'cuz if you could just hand them everything, they fail to earn the intangibles for themselves. But you want it for them nonetheless. You want them to have tulips and smiley faces and all the hugs and warm fuzzies the world has out there to offer.

Over the weekend, I was witness to two entirely separate, yet completely related, parental groups. First, I took my oldest daughter to run in a county-wide elementary school race. Each grade level, separated by gender, ran a mile. Each school was limited to a handful per grade. Perhaps because she inherited her mother's athleticism, or perhaps because she's been in soccer for several years and loves riding her bicycle and expending loads of energy, she made the cut. (Which officially puts her ahead of my entire adolescent life when it comes to making teams.)

One of Avery's oldest friends won the whole damn thing. She was the best out of some 300+ girls in the county. She goes to a school where they form teams a year early to encourage conditioning (and arguably to win these kinds of races). That school had five girls finish in the top 20. Two of them run 6 1/2-minute miles. They're 8 years old. Still, watching those two kids, waaay out in front and verging on tears and pushing themselves, was amazing, and I cheered on our friend's girl. Then, more than 100 runners later, I cheered on my own girl. My pride in both girls was overwhelming, mostly 'cuz I'm one of those pathetic guys who would have been shot for snoring too loud in the days of the Wild West.

After breakfast and a brief respite, we were off to the soccer field. My 7-year-old had played her game while we were at the race, so I missed her game. But Avery's game was intense, and her team played well even if they lost 6-2 (which is 42-14 in American Football language; it never seems like quite the blowout until you put it in American Football terms).

The other team had one of the most skilled young girls I've seen yet. She stopped the ball on a dime. Passed with eyebrow-raising precision. Could kick the ball hard enough to leave little comet trails coming out of the thing.

Most of me gets nauseated by this. I think to myself, "Why does your daughter need to be Mia Hamm-esque in third grade? What good does it do, really?" I look at these parents who are hellbent on making their children so exceptional at something and think, how much of the rest of everything did you take away from your kid's life?

Does anyone really ask that of Tiger Woods? Does anyone ask that of the Williams sisters or Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin? Maybe they do, but somehow at that level it seems to get past my radar. Apparently, I can be indignant and judgmental about it unless it pays off. This makes my hypocrisy all the more glaring. It's like me being OK with the idiots who obsessively play the lottery once they hit the Powerball, but mocking and insulting the ones who don't.

And what I've begun to wonder lately is, do all the parents like me, who want so desperately to do right by our children, to not obsess over one single facet of their lives or interests, actually do their children as much of an injustice as those wacky soccer moms and football dads and violin moms and mock trial dads? Maybe we're so afraid of pigeonholing our children that we throw them down this big crater, a hole so big the kids don't even know where to start digging.

"The world is your oyster" is misleading, because an oyster isn't that big of a thing. The way I raise my children, maybe I'm teaching them that "The world is your ocean." And maybe that's not quite the great and positive message I think it should be. Maybe the ocean is too big. Too much. Eventually they'll need to find some place in that vast liquid expanse to call home.

Am I so busy trying to prevent them from becoming focused on or obsessed with one single thing too early that I risk preventing them from calling any single place home? Do we non-obsessive types risk raising wandering and aimless kids?

Maybe part of it is jealousy, too. The way I was raised, the values I was given, made me above average at lots of different things, but I never won a race of any kind, a contest of any kind. I was never The Absolute Best at anything (with the mildly debatable exception of winning my high school's award as its best English student), but I was staunchly competent in many arenas. Do I see these 8-year-olds running at blinding speeds, these soccer kids playing years ahead of themselves, and want them to burn out so that I can feel better? See? That's why we didn't put you in tennis lessons so soon. That's why we only dabbled in piano or swimming or acting camp. We didn't want you to burn out. We didn't want to choose your passion for you.

As Lloyd Dobbler so brilliantly put it a few decades ago, "I can't figure it all out tonight, sir, so I'm just gonna hang with your daughter."

"If I Had a Boat" is from Lovett's first album, Pontiac. "Down to Earth" is from the WALL-E soundtrack. Both can be found on iTunes or's mp3 site.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Sort of Homecoming

Aaron Copeland--"Fanfare For The Common Man" (mp3)
Aimee Mann--"Wise Up" (mp3)

This bomb-blast lightning waltz
No spoken words, just a scream...

--U2, "A Sort of Homecoming"

I can't speak for Billy, but I haven't been able to keep up the blog for several days because I simply got overwhelmed by our ongoing football rivalry with another school in town. It's a week that involves shirt sales, button sales, orgiastic sign-painting, a bonfire, a luncheon with our sister school, a pep rally, a Michael-Jackson-based skit, a caravan, alums everywhere, reunion parties, and all of the many things students did that I don't even know about. Here a few random, ironically-juxtaposed thoughts on this yearly experience:

--Students from both schools engaged in at least the following--public urination, public defecation, drinking and driving, vandalism, theft, defacing of public property, retaliation on each other's campuses...and the list goes on. Thinking about this in the context of teaching A Clockwork Orange has made me rethink the ideas in that book a bit. I was inclined to consider the teenage actions in the book as too extreme, but I'm not so sure.

--I secured perhaps the most important business card from an alum ever! This former student of mine actually makes Smuttynose Beer up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and has promised to load me up with several cases and a full tour of operations and who knows what else!

--As we ride an 11-year winning streak, it has become clear once again that winning is not something that gets old. Any feelings of, I hope they finally win, let's let them win for a while, or any of that were dashed quickly. Over time, perhaps the feelings get a bit more sophisticated, perhaps there is a "feeling sorry for them" aspect to basking in the victory, but perhaps not.

--The integrity of sign-painted messages must be carefully considered. Case in point: the opposing team's sign "We'll Blow _(insert school here)___ Away!" was one student guerilla mission away from having its last word removed and its meaning changed entirely.

--When you talk to alums, you encounter guys you taught as many as 20 years ago, and when you see them, in spite of their age, their gray, their wives and children, you tend to see them instantly as they were all those years ago when you were trying to get them to do their homework and you were busting them for drinking. But now, students who barely got through are web designers, radiologists, overseers of the family business, high school teachers and coaches, former Marines, former spies, you name it.
--If alums look that old, how do we look?

--Much as I might get nostalgic about the past, at the same time, I always find it kind of unsettling when alums return, because they undercut the notion we teachers share that we live in a perpetual present of students who range in age from 15 to 18 and who may change faces, but who never stop being anything but high school students.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Financial Steerage

Push It Along - Paul Weller (mp3)
You, Me & the Bourgeoisie - The Submarines (mp3)

Something about the hijinks of the last couple of weeks on Wall Street and in D.C. have me hearing Celine Dion songs in my head and picturing Billy Zane throwing little children off lifeboats so he can live. No, I'm not saying the US is a ship that will sink slowly over the next two hours while I have sex with a really hot, buxom red-headed woman in the back of a Model T.

What this feels like is that scene where Leonardo DiCaprio and all of those people in steerage are standing behind that gate, trapped, without any outlet for escape. And there's that bellboy or whatever on the other side of the gate, looking at us with this mix of pity that we're all gonna sink and relief that he's not trapped down with us.

I don't have the slightest freakin' clue what's happening to the economy, at least not in any technically detailed way sufficient enough that I can divine whether a $700B bailout is a vital "fix" or an awful mistake. In fact, it seems like the reason most Americans are against the bailout is because if the debate is presented as 50/50 on whether $700B in tax dollars is a good idea, most people seem to choose against spending it.

If someone came to me and told me that an investment of a year's salary might very well come back to me, maybe even with a little extra money, but they can't be positive. They can't even be sure I'll get much of my money back. I'm not sure I'd want to give them that money.

Perhaps the most ludicrous thing is how both sides of the political coin can scream about the problem being "partisanship" when both sides had people voting on both sides of the issue. As best I could tell from the House vote, it was the most bipartisan disagreement I've seen in D.C. in a long, long time. The Senate passed it yesterday, but the House is where the crazies lurk.

Truth is, for me and millions of others like me, we have no idea whether the ship is sinking. We have no idea how to get out of steerage. We have no path to life rafts. We're just stuck down here, hoping the captain and his crew know what the f*#k they're doing.

The only problem with this metaphor is that most of us don't even know if we're on the same boat as Wall Street. How else to explain the majority of Americans being either mildly or vehemently opposed to the government bailout? (While Congress is bitterly divided, Main Street America seems almost entirely unified in saying, "Hell if I know what's going on, but I don't much like the notion of giving a shitload of my tax money to a bunch o' fancy pants fellers with their hair all slicked back and wearing Rolex watches. I doubt they ever plan on returning the favor, so I say screw 'em.")

Are we on the same boat? Is the boat sinking, or is it merely overdue for righting itself on the turbulent tides of the world economy? Who is Kate Winslet in this analogy?

Meanwhile, at least in Chattanooga, the search for gas has become something of a scavenger hunt. Bags cover a majority of pumps. Yet people seem to be carrying on as usual, plus or minus a couple extra water cooler statements about how damned hard it is to find gas.

Perhaps the wildest part of all this? We keep dancing on our steerage tables, eating our steerage meals, and watching our steerage SNL skits. Ask one of us what's going on, and we're likely to give you this look like, "Well, I think we're all fooked, and royally. But no point worrying about it, so pass the Cheez-Its and let's watch the next episode of HEROES!"

Have we finally been lulled, as a society, into such a comatose state of entertainment-dependence that facing something this frightening and confusing leaves us no option but to continue searching for distractions and ways to ignore it?

No wait. The wildest part was that Henry frakkin' Paulson, who's s'posed to know shizzle from shinola when it comes to these matters, said that the $700 BILLION was determined fairly indescriminately. "We just wanted to choose a really large number." You can't make this shit up.

In light of that quote, I'd like to change my analogy. We're not on the Titanic. We're on the Exxon Valdez, and Paulson is that drunk bastard who's driven us straight into a rock, and we're leaking oil so quickly the damn gas stations can't hold onto it.

I'd keep writing and worrying, but I need to know what happened to Sweet Baby Caylee. Gotta prioritize.

"Push It Along" is from Paul Weller's 22 Dreams. "You, Me & the Bourgeoisie" is from Honeysuckle Weeks. Both could be purchased for the low low price of $8.99 at's mp3 site.