Friday, January 30, 2009

Listen w/o Prejudice (The Revenge): Cheap Trick

The BOTG's large horde of fans have been ceaselessly nagging me* to revive my series of posts known as "Listen w/o Prejudice," wherein I argued the merits of bands such as Rush, the Indigo Girls, ELO and, most pseudo-famously, Hanson. Apparently readers derive great joy in watching me pour out my heart in this manner. Something akin to the uncomfortable amusement one can get while watching a clueless adolescent dog attempting to impregnate a mailbox.

With that in mind, I offer up what long reigned as Billy's Favorite Band: Cheap Trick.

Born in the mid-70s, the Chicago outfit, made up of Robin Zander on vocals, mastermind goofball Rick Nielson on guitars, and Bun E. Carlos on drums, switched out bassists more often than Spinal Tap replaced drummers. This band isn't exactly on the far end of Loserville, musically speaking. The list of bands who openly and proudly proclaim their love and devotion to Cheap Trick is long and distinguished (just like Slider's johnson). On top of the adoration of musicians, they have a healthy number of well-known singles including perhaps one of the most impossible-to-hate power pop songs of all time, "I Want You to Want Me" (Live, from Budokan, if you want the best version).

And if you don't respect "Surrender" as one of the greatest time-stamp family songs of all time, I pray for your mortal soul... and hope your kids don't find you rolling numbers and rock 'n' rollin' with KISS records.

Cheap Trick is power pop. In my book, they own the category, and everyone else rents space in it.

Sure, they hit a bad patch there for a while in the mid-80s where they showered a little too long in syrup and cheese, producing full-out trash like The Doctor and uncharacteristic schmaltz-pop like "The Flame." And even I can't fight too hard arguing that the band lost most of its true relevance to the larger music scene somewhere between All Shook Up (1980) and Next Position Please (1983).

No matter. I first fell in love with Cheap Trick during their lowest times, when they were eking out the spare pop gem ("Tonight It's You") on albums mostly filled with horny juvenile trash. Their album Standing on the Edge was in the $3.99 bargain bin at Turtles in the summer of my sophomore year, when my hormones had me feeling like I was Bruce Banner (or, in homage to Bill Bixby, "David Banner") except I never got the chance to turn into the Hulk. I was stuck in that raging quivering unstable in-between green contacts mode.

As such, cheesy stupid songs about horny bastards going after hot girls helped sooth the savage beast. At the time, my heavy rotation included Rush, Suzanne Vega, R.E.M. and Yaz, so most of the bands heavy in my rotation weren't exactly stoking the horny fires. Cheap Trick filled in a missing piece of my musical life... even if they were never gonna help me get laid.

And hell, once you fall in love with a band in their lesser moments, the admiration is destined to increase. If you could somehow fall in love with Cheap Trick in 1987, it was only going to get better with each album you discovered.

I've only seen them live once. But there's a reason their Live at Budokan was such an earth-shattering record, and it's because they bring something so powerful to their live performances that it bleeds through your eardrums even in secondhand recordings.

Even now, I can't help but argue that some of their stupid horny shit is just delicious... even if it's not gonna be seen as the second coming of Bob Dylan. Sometimes musical immortality is made of more primal matters.

* - By "large horde," I mean two. By "ceaselessly nagging," I mean one dude suggested it back in December. By "one dude," I mean Bob. 

Seven of the Best Cheap Trick Songs You Probably Never Heard:
  1. Reach Out (mp3) -- Let me be clear on this. Had I never encountered the soundtrack to the film Heavy Metal, I might well have grown up believing Dan Fogelberg was the end-all be-all of musicianship. I won't dare start any fistfights by claiming this The Greatest Soundtrack of All Time, but it's easily up there. And among the many oh-so-delicious gems on this soundtrack, none has been played more frequently into the depths of my eardrums than this, perhaps my favorite second-generation Cheap Trick song. (Everything after Dream Police is second-gen... some would even throw that one in there.) Unfortunately for them, this song proved that you can put some kick-ass synth into a kick-ass rock song, and then they spent the next decade realizing that it's not as easy as it seemed, 'cuz most of the time synth sucks out the marrow of rock faster than I can say "Kentucky Fried Chicken."
  2. Southern Girls (mp3) -- No question there's a certain Bizarro sense of pride in being from the South. Few of Cheap Trick's songs are really worth dissecting too finely. No Springsteen, they. It's usually a question of fun and hook power.
  3. Hard to Tell (mp3) -- Off their 1997 eponymous comeback album. This band has had more comebacks than John Travolta. To be fair, this album is the closest the band got to rediscovering the vibe and sound of their first few albums. As such, although perhaps derivative, it's a strong collection of songs.
  4. All Wound Up (mp3) -- From their 1988 mega-success Lap of Luxury, this song epitomizes why I fell in love with them even in their cheesy stage. They could rock the mother-frakkin' house (albeit in somewhat cheesy ways).
  5. One More Day (mp3) -- This song in many ways epitomizes the standard Cheap Trick song. A powerful and catchy hook surrounded by verses that can be... well, very Cheap Tricky.
  6. I Can't Take It (live) (mp3) -- This has a little less noise punch than most of my favorite Trick stuff, but the Todd Rundgren-produced Next Position, Please is probably one of three or four favorite CT albums.
  7. Tell Me Everything (mp3) -- Ironic that a band that sings about how much they want to bang your little sister (in more than one or two songs) also pens this catchy ditty about getting dumped and the karmic joy of watching the dumper become the dumpee.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Murray Attaway--"My Book" (mp3)
Patty Larkin--"The Book I'm Not Reading" (mp3)

I didn't like his poetry at all.

I didn't much care for his criticism. I think maybe he was too smart for me.

I thought he had big ears.

I didn't know he had lung cancer.

I'm not sure that most people realize what a giant of American literature is gone. It's been such a long time since John Updike was in vogue. Probably his last major surfacing into the collective American consciousness was in the 80's, when Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher starred in the film version of his novel, The Witches of Eastwick. Since then, he's put out other minor works, some that dabbled in reimaginings of Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter, and, as a coda to his life, a follow-up to that first Eastwick novel.

He didn't spend his latter career at the top of his game, like Philip Roth has been doing. But Roth didn't put his Zuckerman (a far less-engaging character than Harry Angstrom) through his paces until long after Updike did. It's difficult for me to think of any other character who held onto his interestingness and energy through four major novels over four decades.

Sometimes you hear that geniuses really only have one great idea that they return to, in different permutations, again and again. If that's the case, then Updike's great idea was Harry Angstrom, a high school basketball star who we, the reader, never even meet until he is past his prime, trying to survive himself and trying to make his marriage and the resultant, screwed-up children survive in an increasingly-capitalistic, hedonistic America.

Like many readers, I met Harry all four times: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest. At the last, he is a fat older man who gets pulled back onto the court one more time to challenge a kid and loses the game to his heart, a massive coronary winning out.

People like to talk about the decline of society, the slipping of standards, the degradation of mankind. Well, ponder this one if you will: 25 years ago, Updike's second Harry Angstrom novel, Rabbit Redux, was taught in senior courses at this school. There is no way in hell that that would be allowed today. You think Fight Club stirred things up a few years ago because of the reference in the forward to a bodily discharge belonging to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Rabbit Redux contains many, many graphic sex scenes, a fair number of them interracial. Process that one, Moms-In-Touch!

Updike's best novels challenged the conventions of American society, while illuminating that society and its shallowness. Through affairs, failures, momentary successes, inabilities to understand his children, one couldn't help but embrace the humanity of Harry Angstrom. He was America's human train wreck, and I, for one, never wanted to look away.

In 2009, it's hard to remember that Updike was a trememdous, best-selling author. Such is the fast pace of tastes and heroes, literary or otherwise. But he is one of the ones that mattered, and still matters. Adios, Mr. Updike.

Murray Attaway's "My Book" comes from his solo cd, In Thrall. He is the former lead singer of the tremendous alternative 80's band, Guadalcanal Diary. Patty Larkin's "The Book I'm Not Reading" is from her second cd. Both may be available at Itunes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why I'm Not An Action Hero

Frank Black--"Headache (live)" (mp3)
Frank Black--"Calistan (live)" (mp3)

Okay, so I will grant Jack Bauer the freedom not to have to eat, go to the bathroom, or sleep during a 24-hour period, but what about a good, old-fashioned headache?

Today was one of those experiences where I get about as close as I'm going to get to being an action hero. My daughter calls and says that a neighbor has called and warned her that there has been a car parked in front of our house for over half an hour.

We've had a number of break-ins in the neighborhood recently, including one yesterday morning where they kicked in the back door and took the tv and a bunch of other stuff.

So, when my daughter calls, I'm headed out of my office as fast as I can, running up the stairs to my car, huffing and puffing as I drive down the hill off campus, and then I start to think. Who is in front of my house and why?

I know I'm going to have to confront him when I get there, and I start to think about what to say. Everything from "Sir, can I help you?" to "Yo, motherfucker!"

And as I race home, the adrenalin begins to rush through me, my heart beating quickly, the superhuman, Reader's Digest strength coursing through me in case I have to rip the door off of a burning car or anything.

Like Jack Bauer, I am going to rescue my daughter.

When I get near the front of my house, I see the guy, see his car, a non-descript blue Buick or something. His window is down. He's sitting there with his eyes closed.

"Sir, can I help you?" I ask. He does not respond.


He looks at me. "Oh," he says, as it's now clear he's been looking down at his cell phone, not sleeping, "I'm an insurance agent. I'm just making some calls."

"Well," I say, "You've been here for over half an hour. You're scaring my daughter." I motion towards my house.

"Oh, sorry," he says. "I'll move along." And though I pull into the driveway, he continues to sit there and finish up a call. When I get out of the car, he pulls aways slowly.

And that's it. The big showdown. I go into the house and talk to my daughter, explain to her who he was, and tell her I have to go back to work. She nods and continues with her homework.

But on the way back, all of the unused adrenalin hanging around, my head starts to pound from stress, anticipation, and relief. And soon I've got one hell of a headache.

So what must it be like for a guy like Jack Bauer, who is tortured, wounded, comes back from death, decides to let people he knows die, stops nuclear terrorists, overcomes heroin addiction and more, all in a days's work? I think he must get crazy headaches. I think that he must have a pounding in his brain almost all of the time. Maybe that's why he talks in a husky whisper, why he has that look on his face, why he seems so unhappy, like the whole world is against and doesn't appreciate what he's done for it.

Oh, right, I forgot. The whole world does seem to be unappreciative and against him. No wonder he has a headache. No wonder I'm not an action hero.

Frank Black, aka Black Francis of the Pixies, has had a stellar solo career. These songs come from his cd, The Black Sessions--Live in Paris.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Call Me a Shameless Shill

Wishful Thinking - Josh Bales (mp3)
Arcade Precinct - 1990s (mp3)

Remember Columbia House? Remember BMG? Columbia House no longer deals in CDs. BMG is dead. But for at least a decade of my life, I had something of a Sunday afternoon ritual. I would grab the Parade magazine out of the fat wad that was the Sunday paper and rifle through to somewhere near the middle, whereupon I would find the coveted Columbia House stickers sheet. I would then carefully rip their mailer off at the perforated edges, and stare at the 12 beautiful empty dotted-line boxes. The sticker sheet was a collection of rectangles that included the square CD/album cover along with the name of the artist, name of the album, and the Columbia House "magic order number."

The next hour, sometimes longer, would be spent working through a stage of consistent processes:
  1. Rip all stickers of albums you might kinda sorta like to have;
  2. Separate the Kinda Sortas into two piles: the Not So Muches and the Maybe Yeahs;
  3. Put the Not So Muches aside, but don't throw them away;
  4. Count the Maybe Yeahs, and if I had more than 12, then repeat steps 2 & 3 until you arrive at 12 or fewer finalists;
  5. If you arrive at fewer than 12, go back and repeat steps 2 & 3 with remaining rejects until you arrive back at 12.
Glorious times, truly. And even for those who sorta thought Columbia House and its ilk were rip-offs, the amount of free entertainment provided from separating the CD sticker wheat from the CD sticker chaff more than made up that financial gap.

Once I became a liberated adult, freed from the bonds of my overlording parents, I even joined these clubs a few times.

The story from there is nothing but cliche. I was too lazy to send back those damn postcards. They sent me shit like Celine Dion and Spyro Gyra (no offense to Ms. Dion or Gyra, but they ain't my bag, baby). I was too lazy to return them. I paid excessive amounts for them. But only after numerous overdue collection notices and repeated hate mail from the company. I canceled my membership as quickly as possible. I went six or eight months without thinking about them. I stumbled across those sticker sheets in Paradeor another magazine. And the cycle would start all over again.

With that story as background, it should be no surprise that I recently joined

I stumbled across this site because I was desperately looking for a way to get my hands, legally, on a 1986 album by Flesh for Lulu called Long Live the New Flesh. I loved this album as a teen and listened to it with ridiculous regularity, but finding it -- anywhere, in any non-vinyl format -- is next to impossible. But eMusic had it!

The catch was, I could get it if I joined with a monthly subscription. You pay X amount of dollars, and you get X number of downloads every month. You're only paying less than $0.50 each song or less but you're not getting to choose from current releases, and not from your big-time Billboard chart-toppers. It is the alternative music scene's online version of Columbia House.

So I joined. And the minute I did... the bastards at eMusic showed me that the Flesh for Lulu album wasn't available to their US customers. And I cursed. Openly and loudly and repeatedly. But, whilst cursing, I also surfed around their site to see how I could best make use of that one month's worth of subscription before I would most certainly cancel and never set my eyes on their miserable site again.

Two hours later, I was still gleefully hunting around their site for albums that I've had on my radar screen or that were worth putting on my radar screen. I was engaged in an online version of the sticker-hunting and gathering I had done 15 years earlier. Drive-by Truckers albums. Buffalo Tom, Hoodoo Gurus, Tift Merritt, 1990s, Ladytron, the Weepies, 500 Miles to Memphis, Juliana Hatfield. Granted, eMusic doesn't have these artists' entire CVs. They usually only have 2-5 of most artists' albums. But so what? I had enough albums saved up that it's worth holding on to my membership for at least six or seven months!

Nine days into my first month's subscription -- a month that came with 50 additional free song downloads for a total of 80 -- I was down to my last 16 selections. I ran through those this weekend. Now I must sit idly by until the counter resets on January 28. I've still got a healthy 26 albums on my TO GET list. Ninja Gun, Ladyhawke, the Kinks, Smoking Popes, the Mountain Goats, Spoon, Lemuria. All of these and then some. (If you haven't heard of any of these artists other than the Kinks... well, no time like the present!)

If you like playing by the rules but paying perfectly reasonable amounts to get your hands on some off-brand musical brilliance, I highly recommend you give yourself a tour around that site. For $12/month, you get 30 downloads (plus the 50 bonus ones you get for signing up). That's basically 2 1/2 albums' worth of material for $12. And you don't have to promise anything more than a single month. No year-long commitments or anything.

In the new economy, that's not a bad deal if you like off-brand musical brilliance.

Both songs were obtained through eMusic subscription but are also available at iTunes and's mp3 site.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The New Frugality, Part 2

Neil Halstead--"Hi-Lo And In Between" (mp3)
Paul Westerberg--"Daydream Believer (live) (mp3)

As everything falls to pieces around them, McDonald's is doing fine. So is Panera Bread. What do these two mainstays of "eating out" have in common? Is Panera the new McDonald's? Is Panera the McDonald's of the upper middle class? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, I don't have the definitive answer. But each Sunday, when various portions of my family head to a beautiful Episcopal church, I go to the "Church of Ope." Ope is my dad; the church holds its services at Panera.

So I guess you could say I'm a regular. I see many of the same people each Sunday, though few of them know that they are at Ope's church. "Ope" is short for "Opah" is a somewhat ironic name adopted by my children when their own nickname for my father lost out to their Chicago relative's name--"Ope." At Ope's church, my father holds forth on a number of topics that don't vary much from week to week--Obama's weakness as a candidate, Obama's weaknesses as a nominee, Obama's weaknesses as a president, all of which finishes with this gentle coda: "But I guess we need to give him a chance to see what he can do."

So, sometimes my eyes wander while he's talking, and today I zeroed in on the menu. Here's what I noticed: everything on the Panera menu costs less than 7 dollars.

And I suppose that is the "genius" of the place. In the New Frugality, to be able to go out to a nice, clean place that offers a variety of freshly-made sandwiches, soups, and salads with better-than-average coffee and loaves of bread baked in-store that you can take home, and not spend more than 7 bucks a person (if you drink water), you, me, and the rest of America considers that a pretty good deal.

Or, at least they appear to be freshly-made. If you've ever seen them proofing the bread, you know that the loaves have been made elsewhere in some corporate laboratory and shipped to each branch for thawing and eventual baking. In that way, Panera is no better than Subway. If you've ever looked at the ingredients of the soups, then you know that the soups have the same large carbon footprint, unless, of course, you, like Panera, feel the need to add a variety of chemicals and preservatives to the soup you are cooking on your stove. The salads? Some taste experts at large testing sites in New Jersey have designed the combinations of ingredients that they think you will like best.

And so, yes, I'd say Panera is the new McDonald's, for those who don't want to be seen going to McDonald's. And that's most of us who harbor pretensions of one sort or another. And that is the key to its success. Take me. I'm a food snob, if there ever was one, and yet I like Panera. I like the vibe. I feel healthier eating the food there than I do at other places with comparable prices. I like that no one seems to be rushing me out the door. Yeah, I've seen the studies about how Panera's has reduced the number of outlets for its computer users, but that doesn't really affect me. I'm just looking for a place where my dad enjoys sitting and getting a steamed skim milk that he can stir in the Ovaltine he's brought from home.

Panera has established itself as a similar kind of gathering place for you, but you already knew at. And in these tough economic times, it feels like one of the best corporate friends we regular folks have.

FOOTNOTE: Usually, when I get to Panera's, my dad has already bought me an "everything" bagel and a cup of coffee. Today, I got there at at the same time he did and thought, you know, I want something lighter. I think I'll just get a cinnamon roll. Boy, was I wrong. The bagel has 2.5 grams of fat; the cinnamon roll has 35 grams of fat! And 15 of those grams are saturated fat! That's more fat than 4 slices of Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza.

We've got to make sure that in trying to save a few dollars we aren't killing ourselves.

Neil Hastead's song, one of my favorite songs of the last 10 years, comes from his cd, Sleeping On Roads, available at Itunes. Westerberg live, doin' the Monkees, well, to tell you the truth, I don't remember where that comes from, but I doubt you're getting it anywhere but here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Familiar Unfamiliar Amongst Us

People are Strange - Echo + the Bunnymen (mp3)
Crash - Flesh for Lulu (mp3)

When I was at UNC, there was this guy we all called "Everywhereman." And by "we all," I mean 90% of our campus knew who Everywhereman was. He looked a lot like a short version of Bill Haverchuck from Freaks & Geeks except maybe more awkward, less talkative, and with long curly hair. [NOTE: If you read this blog with any regularity and haven't ever seen Freaks + Geeks, you need to stop reading right now and either put it at the top of your Netflix or start hunting the damn thing down, 'cuz it's one of the best 1-season shows ever.]

He earned the name because, on a campus of 20,000+ students and a town of some 60,000, everyone ran into this guy. He was everywhere. If you ate breakfast at on the main strip, he was there. If you went to study in the library in the afternoon or at 4 in the morning, he was there. If you went out for a night of bar golf, by damn if the dude wasn't in more than half of your bar holes. ("That's what she said!")

He seemed omnipresent, yet no one had ever even briefly conversed with Everywhereman. Everyone knew of him, yet no one knew anything about him. He was a ubiquitous, geeky, complete mystery. Everywhereman was the subject of constant derision, yet never attacked directly, because that seemed somehow sacriligious, like puking in a church pew.

I was a weekly columnist for our the school newspaper when they ran a cartoon that depicted Everywhereman. The cartoon basically mocked him in kinder ways, but in an all-too public fashion, and the campus went into a mild uproar over it. It was hypocritical, but we all stood up in that one moment -- and only for that moment -- to defend the guy we all found wildly odd.

That next weekend, I was in one of the more popular bars when Everywhereman showed up. Conversations had buzzed on whether the cartoon might push him underground. When we saw him in the crowd, we raised our glasses in our own groups and toasted him. Then we mocked him by wondering if Everywhereman ever even knew he'd been immortalized in a cartoon.

After more than a decade back in Chattanooga, it's become clear that all cities have their own ubiquitous mysteries. The 'Noog has at least two.

One-Legged Wheelchairman: If you've lived in The 'Noog in the last decade, you've seen this man. He's black. He's bald save for this one long braid of hair that sprouts from the top right side of his noggin. He has one leg. Which is kinda noticeable. There's nary a street corner in the city limits this dude hasn't panhandled.

I gave him a ride back to his home from downtown back in 2005, and the way I recall it, he told me his name was Blue. Unfortunately, time and Old School could have altered my memory. He called me "Red" because I drove a crappy red Toyota Tercel. So maybe he called himself "Blue" because he was being clever. Not sure. Anyway, I stopped at a McDonalds on the way back to his proclaimed neighborhood and bought him dinner. Our conversation was stilted and odd; gab is not a particular gift of mine in such circumstances. I overthink it. The next day, I saw him panhandling at a stop light and waved at him and said hi. He didn't know me from Adam. I was a kind means to an end, not a specific person. To take it personally would be a little pathetic.

Unemployed Santaman on North Terrace Porch: On one of these streets that runs parallel to I-24 on the way to downtown 'Nooga, there's this old white bearded dude -- looks like Santa Claus... if good ol' St. Nick had been laid off back in 1992 and had long ago run off the unemployment dole. He's got a Dunlop that rolls right into a Front Butt, and for roughly 20 hours each day, he can be found sitting right outside his house, looking out at all the traffic passing him by, drinking out of a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. He looks bitter and angry, but I'm starting to think that's kind of his look, completely unattached to specific emotion. If I were a journalist, he would be the subject of a story.

We remember these kinds of people because they break an important pattern for us. Almost always, the more frequently we see someone, the more familiar they become to us. We tend to get more comfortable around them as well. Coworkers, bartenders, baristas, bosses, doormen, janitors. Their walk of life need be nothing like ours for us to get comfortable, to grow familiar. (Random side note: This is one reason I enjoy going to church.)

But with Everywhereman, Wheelchairman, and Unemployed Santaman, we remain utterly clueless about them even while we become more familiar with them. We know of them, but we don't know them. At all. (Nor, most of the time, do we really care to. Otherwise, we'd have already gone out of our way to get to know them better, since we have plenty of opportunities.)

The contradiction between knowing them and not knowing them freaks most of us out. It scares us. That's why teenagers spend so much time mocking the goth kid in the corner who's there every day, yet unfathomable and distant as another galaxy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Take Thee This Poem and Shoveth It

Sonnet 18 - Bryan Ferry (mp3)
If You Want My Love (live) - Cheap Trick (mp3)

OK, so even if no one remotely felt like responding to my poetry stuff yesterday -- thus proving my entire freakin' point about how close to "DNR" poetry has truly become -- I'm foolish enough to post a poem I wrote over the last couple of hours while also watching Wednesday night's episode of LOST.

It's rough. It just might not only be unimpressive but also unsalvageable. But it's a Friday, and it's the last day I'll ever be 36, and I feel like posting a poem, dammit.

High Chair

We are drooling love-eaters
Love lands on our trays
in bite-sized chunks
Some of it stringy and fibrous
others sweet and plump
We squish love in our fingers
We cram it into our jaws

Can we ever ingest enough
to want down from that chair?
To feel a belly overplump
with the basic nutrients?
Like celery our bodies burn love
calories faster than we devour them

We are often picky
leaving the greens and vitamin-rich
portions untouched to grow stale
banging our dangling feet
against the plastic footrest
the treble shill of objection
our desperate grab for control

Just mewling bottomless pits
who eat love out of house and home

-- January 22, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

To Everything Turn, Turn

Everything Good is Bad - JJ + Mofro (mp3)
Beulah the Good - James Jackson Toth (mp3)

Nothing about the Inauguration moved me more than the recitation of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. I found myself listening and trying to determine where her line breaks were, where the change in verses occurred (or if it was all one continuous verse). Either because it was easy, or because the poem hit me at the right moment, everything she read made sense to me and felt perfect for the moment.

Then I read David Ulin's commentary where he basically pisses on it. He pisses on it because he didn't get it. I don't say that in a snooty way. If (sigh) there are two types of people in the world, there's the people who could give a rat's ass about poetry, and there's the remaining five people in that coffee shop wearing black turtlenecks and trying to act interested in the other poets until it's their turn to read.

So, it's not Mr. Ulin's fault he didn't get it. Poetry isn't very get-able, which is why so many people detest or fear it. To make it worse, poets are snooty-ass mofo's, so even the people poets most need in their corner mostly think all other living poets suck. It's a pretty tough place to earn credit. And it pays for shit to boot.

For a solid decade of my young life, poetry was a mental sauna where I could close the door, escape the outside world, and pull out my emotional sweat from its pores.

Poetry for me was entirely about communication. (Ironic, no? That I would use the least popular form of modern written expression to attempt to communicate with people? No wonder why I was/am an odd bird.) It was my attempt to cram my entire emotional wardrobe into a tiny suitcase, jumping up and down on its overstuffed form like Daffy Duck, hoping that the compact size might make my plight more appealing. Poetry was the antithesis of my blogging. Without question, writing the newspaper column in college and after graduation was the beginning of the end of my obsession with poetry. It seemed people were more willing to read my babbling rants than my slanting rhymes.

My prose writing is more like how I actually think. Poorly-organized. Side turns and sub-references. Run-on sentences and fragments. A pathetic inability to self-edit. Poetry, on the other hand, required concentration, care, delicacy, and a certain finitude.

Poetry at its best is a nuclear power. Maximum energy in minimum words. Thus, for me, poems longer than two pages are tough cookies for me while sonnets are a food of the gods. (Haiku, while occasionally pithy, more often feel like a J*zz In My Pants moment: over too quickly to be any good.)

Alexander's poem isn't likely to go into the annals of poetry immortality. Still, the poem is worthy. Even without knowing the exact line breaks, we know it's about commonality amidst diversity. It's about all of us being individually busy, collectively self-absorbed, yet all striving for and yearning for so many similar things. Albeit in different ways, we all yearn to be creative. We all have moments of great anticipation and hope. We all encounter words. (Yes, this is insultingly obvious... yet it's also so completely taken for granted and important.) We all yearn to be safe, to boldly go where no one has gone before, to pursue noble causes and experience noble moments. We all hunger for love, a love that's like cotton candy because you can never get enough of it to feel full.

Mr. Ulin was upset because she begins her poem with the pedestrian line "Each day we go about our business." But even January 20, a day the likes of which we might never see again in our lifetimes, was ultimately a day of national routine, of national business, filled with individuals doing their own thing. And all of us, even the most cynical and conservative amongst us, can't help but feel that we are, as a country, in a moment of tremendous importance. A brink moment that will determine the fate of us as individuals, employees, citizens, parents, and children, and also one that might well determine our fate as a collective.

We're all anticipating what comes next.

Yup, the world would be a better place if we all sat around once in a while and masticated on a good poem.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Start Me Up!

Lee Dorsey--"Yes We Can Can" (mp3)

Ok, I've fallen behind the curve once again, for the umpteenth time in my life. I haven't really been paying attention to all of this inauguration stuff, haven't gotten caught up in the excitement, didn't feel the pull to go to D.C.

As far as I can tell, the reason why is that I somehow got it into my head that the election victory was the be-all and end-all experience. In fact, I haven't paid attention to much of anything politically since Nov. 4th. An occasional nod to cabinet appointments, a mild interest in Chicago politics, an inexplicable sense of compassion for George W. Bush.

The election campaign was a war for me, a 6-8 year war, depending on how I look at it. It involved some real bitterness with members of my family, especially my father. It involved having to do a lot of reading and reasoning and debating just to stay current on every situation so that when the attacks came, I was prepared. Just as much, it involved keeping my mouth shut, not taking the bait, overlooking the insults. I admit, I wasn't always good at that. But my father and I were able to create kind of a "split-level" relationship: via email, we said most of whatever we wanted to, but in person, especially sitting at Panera each Sunday morning, we were friendly and often agreeable. But I would be lying if I said that the campaign didn't take a toll.

And then I ran out of gas.

To make matters worse, the Democratic party, the Obama campaign, David Plouffe, whomever, kept sending me emails and kept asking me for money and my only internal reaction as I deleted each one was "Please leave me alone; I gave when you needed it and now I think this really cheapens you to keep asking for more money. It makes you all seem like the politicians that I don't want to believe that you are."

But now we have our new president and, from the first words out of his mouth once sworn in, he has already started speaking my language:

"Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."


"And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."


"We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."

I sat in a classroom today where a student starting talking kind of off the cuff about the purposelessness of his life and how he wanted to "do things" but that he didn't quite know what those things were. Probably George W. Bush's biggest mistake, of the many he made, was in not asking Americans to sacrifice after 9/11. He sent us back to the malls. He removed us from the quotient, which was probably easier, but he removed us from the struggle, too, and got apathy in return.

I suspect that others of you, like me, may have some pretty good sense of what you want to accomplish in your own lives, but in 2009, I think we have very little sense of what we should do as citizens.

I like Obama's phrase from his speech today, "the price and promise of citizenship." I hope it's not just a phrase.

Dude, quit asking me for money and cash my citizenship check instead. Start me up.

Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can Can" comes from The Oxford Magazine's Southern Sampler #1.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The New Frugality, Part 1

tripsandfalls--"Breaking Up With My Mormon Missionaries" (mp3)
Twiggy Frostbite--"Messy Star (acoustic)" (mp3)

It would appear that as part of the "New Frugality" I'm going to have to give up my maid, my various pet services, my hair maintenance, and my lavish restaurant dinners. I may even have to make my own cupcakes. Damn.

Welcome to the New Frugality, wherein people are tightening their belts by giving up things that I never did in the first place.

It's got me thinking that Billy is right, there are two kinds of people in the world: 1) the rest of America, and 2) teachers. Heck, I'm even a teacher married to a lawyer, and I still don't do any of those things.

Who knew that trimming the fat out of the budget involves little more than taking a hard look at frivolousness? I thought I was doing my part by turning down the thermostat, putting off the expense of bifocals, and throwing the leftover chicken bones and carcass in a pot full of water and vegetables to make my own chicken stock.

That's not really what the New Frugality is about. According to the International Herald Tribune, 'As family incomes rose over the past 50 years, more and more members of the middle class could afford to outsource their household chores. No longer was it just the very rich who had "servants," said Jan de Vries, an economic historian at the University of California at Berkeley.' You can read all about it here.

That means my wife and I need to dehire the person who never came to clean our house each week.
Even worse, who knew that those unintended consequences were harming real people like me and you? Who knew that my baking cakes from scratch for every occasion was destroying someone's career.

Look, I'm not trying to be sarcastic. I even know a former student who opened a business where people could come and bathe their pets without the mess and hassle of doing it at home in the bathtub. Kind of like a car wash for dogs. And I wish him well. But let's face it, that's a level of convenience that borders on the silly and inconvenient and the un-"green."

I think I wanted something more from my frugality, I guess you might say. I wanted to defer key purchases and pay off my credit cards little by little over the course of the year and skip a trip to Gatlinburg and feel a sense of pride driving my 1995 Camry around the city and eventually into the ground.

Now, instead, I feel like an idiot. Nobody's talking about pinching pennies, and, apparently, few are talking about clipping coupons. Instead, they're talking about going an extra two weeks with their roots showing or forcing their pet to cope with its life sans its "canine life coach." Come morning, when I spray starch on my dress shirt before ironing it, I'll have to face myself in the mirror and acknowledge the guilt that will come from not having paid someone else to do it for me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pitching Music (or Song Pitchers)

I'm not much of a baseball fan, but damn if it's not a sport ripe for great analogy. It's managed to hold the top spot for Most Used Sexual Metaphor among pre-teens and teens for decades. Even if it lost out to football as America's Greatest Pasttime, it remains strong for English geeks looking for the easy comparative. It also will help ensure the immortality of Jim Steinman and Meatloaf for all eternity.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was listening to a song by The Go! Team when I stumbled on the story about Smoltz going to the Red Sox, and I thought to myself, Y'know, music artists are a lot like pitchers.

Here's what I mean. Artists tend to fall into one of the three pitching categories in most any music fan's line-up: Starters, relievers, and closers. Much like actual pitchers, being in one category isn't particularly better or worse. We all need a pitching staff that has plenty of all of these. And it's possible one team's starter might end up as a reliever or closer for someone else. It's your damn team; pitch who you want and where, know what I'm sayin'?

But here are the categories:

STARTERS are the artists you long to hear their entire albums. Radiohead immediately comes to mind as a Hall of Fame starting pitcher. Anyone who likes Radiohead likes their albums, not their songs. Plenty of others are up there for me in the starting rotation, people I can rely on to give me a complete game, or at least get me into the eighth or ninth inning with a lead. Patty Griffin is my Greg Maddux. If I play a song by her, I want to keep letting her pitch. It takes a lot for me to want to pull her from the game. She's not a power pitcher; she's just got exquisite aim. She can paint a corner like nobody's business, and her off-speed stuff has opponents whiffing air and walking back to the dugout. Rush and U2 are definitely starting pitchers on my team. They're, like, old veteran Eddie Harris from Major League, whose arms aren't what they used to be, but they can still throw a mean Vaseline ball and squeeze out six strong innings. The Hold Steady is totally like Roger Clemens (pre-steroid scandal).

Five of my all-time top musical starting pitchers: Rush, Patty Griffin, Indigo Girls, The Hold Steady, Stereophonics

Opening Pitch: Just Looking - Stereophonics (mp3)

MIDDLE RELIEVERS are the artists whose albums are modestly appealing, but you don't need to hear them very often. And usually, while their albums are good, you're OK to stop The Weepies are stellar middle relievers. I thorougly enjoy listening to their albums all the way through, but I really gotta be in a particular mood. Fountains of Wayne is another act that ranks high on this one. Most of my favorite contemporary music acts are middle relievers for me. Blame it on the iPod, maybe, but they're a dime a dozen, really. It's just a matter of which ones you want on your team.

Five of my best musical middle relievers: The Weepies, Better Than Ezra, Foo Fighters, Matt Nathanson, The Replacements

6th inning, bases loaded, tie ballgame: Still - Matt Nathanson (mp3)

Then there's THE CLOSERS. They're the bands you love because they make kick-ass songs. They're good for one, maybe two innings of overpowering heat or nasty junk, and that's all you need from them. These aren't "one hit wonders." True closers require a couple of strong pitches and consistency to survive in the bigs. They always show up on your mix CDs even though you hardly ever listen to whole albums of their stuff. You might not even buy whole albums of their stuff anymore. Like I said, The Go! Team is one of my favorite closers.. Those dudes show up on my mix CDs all the time, but I don't think I've ever listened to an entire album non-stop.

Five of my best musical closers: The Go! Team, Cheap Trick, Dishwalla, Goldfrapp, Otis Redding, Queen

Bottom of the 9th, up a run, man on second: Fly Me Away - Goldfrapp (mp3)

Bruce would be the John Smoltz or maybe even the Sultan of Swat. That dude can be a starter or a reliever. Bruce is a Hall of Famer who can pitch whenever he wants, and he'll change the game, guaranteed. Not many musical pitchers out there who can do that.

Who would you start in Game 7 of your musical world series? Who's your money closer? Whose musical arm gets you through the tough middle innings of a regular season game? Have fun thinking of your own team.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shut Up and Write the Damn Blog!

Little Birdy (featuring Paul Kelly)--"Brother" (mp3)

We're at a bit of a crossroads and could use your help.
Eleven months into this, we've now had our posts taken down by Blogspot four times because someone complained about one of the songs we posted. You may not even notice when a post goes missing, but it's not only annoying, it's starting to create some paranoia.

There is always the warning in the letter that intimates that if it happens too many times, they will pull the plug on the whole blog. But, just like Blogspot aka Google won't tell you who complained about what that caused them to delete your post, they don't give you any idea about how many "takedowns" are too many.

I realize you don't care too much about this, but it is a reality we have to deal with.

So, we're going to have to sit down and take a look at the options, some of which involve more money, some of which might involve fewer "services."

Here's where you can help. Even if you read this blog or listen to music from it and never leave a comment anywhere, we could really benefit from knowing what your preferences are. So please look at these options and give us some input:

1. If we just wrote the posts and didn't put up the music, would you still come to the blog?

2. Is the music so important to you that we should keep putting up the music no matter what and take our chances? Or, should we looking to moving to another location where we have greater control over what's taken down? (If you own your own site, then on the occasion where someone doesn't want a song posted, they let you know and you take the song down yourself instead of waking up to find a void)

3. Are you German, have no idea what I'm talking about, and are just pissed that I only put up one song for you to steal today instead of two?

The good news is that we're starting to get some pretty decent stuff sent to us that people want us to post, so I guess if we can keep that aspect of the site growing, along with live stuff and out-of-print stuff that nobody cares about, we could probably keep the music going without too much interruption or difficulty.

Case in point: the new Little Birdy single above arrived just the other day. They're an Australian band with, on this track anyway, an acoustic bent, but what starts out as a quiet track picks up pace and energy. Quite an endearing song, plus it reminded me about Paul Kelly (he comes in eventually, playing harmonica and lending a few backing vocals), a guy that John used to listen to a lot but whom I hadn't thought about for years. "Who's gonna love you now, baby?" asks Little Birdy. We will. Please let us know what your thoughts about our future here or elsewhere. Thanks.

Note: if you're the sensitive type, please realize that both visuals in this post are directed toward me and Billy, not you. Little Birdy's new cd will be released in a couple of weeks and available at Itunes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Listen w/o Prejudice: Hanson--Redux

This post of Billy's has been picked up by a Hanson fan site, which has given it a second life. He has clearly tapped into a cultural phenomenon, so I am pleased to bring it to the fore and to "reprint" it on his behalf."


Billy's All-Time Top 11 Hanson Songs That You Prolly Never Heard (in chronological order):

  • Weird
    This is the song that single-handedly proved they were different than their contemporaries. They weren't about hair gel and muscle shirts. They were about expressing the gamut of feelings of being young teens.
  • With You In Your Dreams
    They wrote this song about their recently-deceased grandmother. I'm not too ashamed to admit that it gets me a little misty everytime I hear it.

  • Runaway Run
    Absolutely has to be one of the catchiest pop songs I've heard this decade. Made all the better because you really don't have any specific clue what the hell they're talking about other than some really hot girl worth obsessing over yet also makes either her or him want to run away. But rock history is resplendent with great songs no one totally understands.
  • A Song to Sing
  • Penny + Me
    If it's a crime that "Runaway Run" was ignored by the mainstream, then no Hanson fan could be surprised that "Penny + Me" fell to the same cruel fate. For a song that feels so exhilerating, there's a bittersweet undercurrent in those superfast lyrics. The way friendships change over time, particularly between boys and girls, can't be explored enough in lyrics to suit me.
  • Underneath
  • Deeper
  • Hey
  • Great Divide
  • Go
    OK. There's nothing groundbreaking about this. It's pure, uncut adult alternative break-up fodder. But these kids are gifted at fodder. And when done right, fodder is good. It's not like vegemite or haggis. It's tasty, like a Wendy's Spicy Chicken Filet or a gut-busting Krystal. Just 'cuz you shouldn't exclusively dine on such junk, ain't nothin' wrong with enjoying them now and then.
  • Been There Before
    The song where they openly brag about how derivative they are as a band. And the hook is luscious. Finger snaps and everything!
For fans of Slap Shot, this post isn't for you. But certainly it's kismet that a cutesy teeny-bop band from the late 90s share their name. The trio of fictional (and non-fictional) minor league hockey immortality were good for one thing: beating the crap out of the other team.

The band Hanson, on the other hand, born of up three hippie-fied teen brothers, are good for one thing: getting constantly stomped by nay-sayers and music snobs.

At a time when the Jonas Brothers ride a wild ride of success as carefully constructed as Space Mountain or any of Disney's other amusement park rides, it's worth paying homage to a band that wasn't created by corporate goons; the Hanson brothers were merely shaped and molded. With the help of a few hand-holding songwriters and the Dust Brothers (whom you can also curse for Avril Lavigne). Another big difference, and a sign of how much more involved and serious Hanson has always been: they've made four albums in 10 years. The Jonas Brothers, on the other hand, have put out three albums in three years. Like the Beatles! Except with more financial backing!

Hanson debuted with their album Middle of Nowhere, which must be one of the most saccharine-sweet paeans to young teenage life ever crafted. However, it's possible to be terribly over-sweetened while also being spot-on -- early teen years can be pretty over-the-top and make you wanna say "Awwwww" in that cute way a lot. The album also contains moments of poignance and insight, not to mention great pop hooks, that suggested Hanson had legs their contemporaries might not.

I listen to Middle of Nowhere for the same exact reason I can't seem to turn off The Goonies whenever I see it on TV, because I love anything that celebrates the joys and miseries of those precious years in a sincere way. Even if it's a little cheesy and has a Cyndi Lauper song in it.

Yes, before Radiohead or Trent Reznor grew the testicular fortitude to, as Fleetwood Mac might say, go their own way, Hanson took that plunge. Rather than milking their "Mmm-Bop" fame by making more albums cut from the same cloth (and in Jonas Brothers-esque double-time), they chose to try and mature right along with Taylor Hanson's voice. They didn't wrap their second (non-Christmas) studio album for three years, basically flipping off anyone and everyone who figured Taylor Hanson would always sound like he was on helium and would milk success from his Young Michael Jackson sound.

Four albums in, Hanson hasn't done anything particularly revolutionary. They just make darn fine pop music heavy on 60s and 70s roots rock. They are the true life version of the Partridge family, except better songwriters and honest-to-God musicians.

No one who sticks with classic country or believes Metallica is king of the music hill could reasonably be expected to listen to Hanson songs and have a Road to Damascus-like conversion. If you don't enjoy pop, there's nothing in their collection that will raise your antannae. But it's a shame to me that this band, a real band that takes their craft seriously and are in it because they love music and always have, somehow got lumped in with all the others of their first album heyday. And the Jonas Brothers serve as a reminder of what Hanson could have been if they'd really wanted to, as Bob's last post discusses, Sell Out.

They're sugary-sweet pop, but all of us should find it in us to enjoy a Twinkie every once in a while. So quit hatin'. Enjoy some delicious pop goodness!

The four main Hanson albums as well as others can be purchased through both iTunes and

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Living In Oz (Part 2): The Family Man's Bachelor Plan

Never Really Lost - Todd Thibaud (mp3)
A Beautiful Life - Everclear (mp3)

I re-watched The Family Man over the Christmas break and found myself amazed at how differently the movie played out for me now as opposed to it's release in 2000. At that time, I was four years married and enjoying the insanity of our first newborn. The movie felt important because it's a very moving argument for the very life we were accidentally forging for ourselves.

Almost a decade later, here's what stuck with me: It's a highly-flawed male-minded fairy tale.

You have a guy -- Jack Campbell -- who's living the Perfect Bachelor Life. He's as wealthy as the day is long. He is king of the hill at his job and enjoys every stinkin' minute he spends there, even Christmas. Screw those family-centered underlings and their whiny babies! Work first! He sleeps with models. And probably other women hot enough to be models yet more enjoyable for dinner conversations. These women arrive at his apartment door in coats covering nothing underneath but really hot lingerie.

He is consummately gifted as a lover. Great wealth, great job, numerous lovers, mad skillz in da sack. In other words: a completely fictional character. This is the fantasy life of most men. In reality, rare are the men who can be all of these things. Rarer are those would can live it for very long.

So, why does Jack Campbell of the Perfect Bachelor Life turn into The Family Man? I love this part...

Campbell dares to tell an "angel" character (played by the always-awesome Don Cheadle) that he's got everything he wants out of life. The hubris of this claim apparently offends the angel, who then forces Campbell to "glimpse" the life he could have had for himself had he married the girlfriend he ditched 13 years prior.

It takes a while, and it's an amusing and sometimes heartwarming (read: cheesy) ride, but of course Campbell eventually realizes he loved -- and could still love -- that woman. Which would be tough, 'cuz Tea Leoni is [sarcasm] soooooo hideous, and her character is a stick in the mud [/sarcasm] . (Although she's not atop my hot list, she never looked better than in this role.)

Don Cheadle forces this guy to realize that his perceived happiness at earning mad quan and getting laid all the time was only holding on because it had never been challenged by alternate possibilities. And now that he's seen what could be, he'll never be happy with what is. Which is to say, his Perfect Bachelor Life now feels meaningless and isolating.

What kind of fucking angel would screw with someone like that? I see that you're happy. In fact, you're TOO damn happy. By God, I'm gonna make you realize you should be sad, alone and depressed!

The movie concludes (SPOILER ALERT! ON A MOVIE THAT CAME OUT EIGHT YEARS AGO!) with Jack thrust back into his real life, searching out that long-lost girlfriend, convincing her in his wacky crazy Nicholas Cagey way to postpone her departure to Paris so she can have coffee with him and hear about the children they never had together and the house they never lived in together. And it's safe to believe they have officially begun their life together, 13 years after they shoulda coulda.

The moral? Jack Campbell gets the best of everything. He gets to enjoy every spoil of disgusting wealth with, apparently, none of the negatives that go with it, for 13 years of his adult life. Then, an angel comes in and makes him realize he should have a family, that he should feel this big gaping hole in his life. And voila!, he finds that woman and will end up marrying her and having a family. Basically, Campbell gets laid a lot, tastes the peak of success, sees the world unencumbered and then still gets the girl of his dreams that he "never stopped loving," even, apparently, while in bed with Amber Valletta.

He is given the best of both worlds and a huge, silver and gold antique platter. It's one helluva Christmas present.

I'm going to write the screenplay for a sequel, The Family Man 2: Nice Glimpse!

The main character (played by Anthony Michael Hall as a slightly more handsome Bill Gates-lookin' fella) is happily married in a middle class neighborhood with a comfortable job and two wonderful children. He doesn't have any regrets, and he's completely satisfied with the way his life has turned out. But Don Cheadle the angel is annoyed at his smug satisfaction. He makes Jack "glimpse" life as a multimillionaire bachelor and forces him to live in the fast lane of financial business and hot women.

(One could argue this movie is made every day and is actually called Married Men Who Go to Las Vegas for Conferences, but that would ruin my pitch.)

At first, Jack is overcome with grief, because his wife, in this "glimpse," is now his ex-girlfriend, and his children were never born. That's one helluva pill to have to swallow, so it takes a while, but he finally adjusts to this new reality. His obsession over his wife ends after she has him arrested for stalking. He draws pictures of his children and frames them as a way of memorializing them.

He hits bottom and has then a breakthrough by screwing five of the Rockettes, and that breaks the seal on his infidelity-phobia. After that he pretty much screws everything. He eventually takes Angelina Jolie from Brad ('cuz, let's be honest, who doesn't wanna see that?). He buys the Yukon Territory from Canada and renames it "Wal-Mart Territory."

Then, just as he gets totally in the groove of this new, materialistic, shallow life, the angel throws him back into his married life. Hijinks ensue!! He forgets to pick up his children! He starts saying Angelina's name when in bed with his wife! He quits his job, starts drinking expensive bourbon by the gallon and ends up living in a hotel in Biloxi and barely getting by as a "professional poker player"! God, it would be soooo hilarious...

"Never Really Lost" is from Todd Thibaud's 1999 album Little Mystery. "A Beautiful Life" is from Everclear's 2003 album, Slow Motion Daydream. The former can be found at iTunes or's mp3 site. The latter ain't much of anywhere..

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stripped Away

"Can't you see I'm burning up, burning down, burning out?"
--Warren Zevon

My Morning Jacket--"Off The Record" (mp3)
Murray McLauchlan--"Met You At The Bottom (live) (mp3)

One of the pleasures of working with senior high school students, and I'm dead serious about this, is that you have to meet them where they are and, regardless of your own goals and intentions, you must compromise with them. You cannot do what you planned to do without steering through some crazy detours and making some stops along the highway that didn't seem necessary and only are designed to slow you down.

Yes, this is a good thing. Why? Because seniors are at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives when they're caught between leaving and staying, between safety and the unkown, between joy and dread. And, more often than not, they're dealing with all of those feelings simultaneously. And so they sleep, they text, they don't bring the book, they wander, they snuggle, they utter outrageous statements, they taunt, they challenge, they skip, they cling.

The extreme case of working with seniors reminds you about the entire human race, reminds you that at the bottom, when everything else is stripped away, people are all just trying to make it. This may be a fine school, but that doesn't mean that it automatically provides wonderful experiences, and some boys are already so damaged that they can't manage the opportunities available.

And so, I tried something new this year. Whereas I've been known to come in to a senior class jaded about the "thugs" whose accomplishments proceed them and am likely to make sarcastic cracks about them, this year, I thought, 'You know, I'm just going to be as nice to these guys as I possibly can. They are used to being punished, chastised, corrected, blamed, questioned, not trusted. Not much is expected of them. Not much is given them. They are barely tolerated. Maybe I can change the relationship.'


I hope you aren't expecting a rewarding story about the results of positivity. Don't think this all has a happy ending. One of these guys I really busted my ass for--befriended him, tried to legitimize him, wrote his college recs--and still, it ended up that my last words to him in the course were "What the fuck are you talking about? Shut up!" He was providing racist commentary about black people in pawn shops on Signal Mountain at the time.

Still, when I see him, I feel bad about what I said. I've since complimented him on his performance in the play, trying to reconnect. But I also look at him and realize that he came from some kind of bad place where when a teacher says something like that to him, it doesn't even faze him. Those are the kinds of interactions he has with the world everyday, and blaming illegal Mexicans for things that have no impact on him is one of the ways he copes. Though, not a good way.

You know, it's funny. We're doing a thing a school right now where students are given a strange fact and try to figure out which teacher it relates to. Hence, my story below. And those facts which involve dead bodies and flash floods and a man who put a rock in his future wife's mailbox every day for a year until she agreed to date him are interesting and titillating.

But when you remind yourself that, just like seniors, people around you are just trying to cope, then a whole different list of facts present themselves, stories that will never be told to students:

Why does a colleague wake up screaming at night, even when on an athletic roadtrip and sharing a room with other colleagues?

Why has a colleague hidden his first marriage?

How did that most anal colleague get to be that way?

Sorry, it's not a guessing game and there are no answers forthcoming or prizes to be awarded. Instead, these questions are meant to be reminders of the levels of pain that people around us are dealing with. It doesn't take a high school kid to avoid, to refuse to cooperate, to undermine, to insult, to overdo their need for any human contact. We all know plenty of full-grown adults who exhibit these behaviors, including ourselves. But it's easier to point them out in boys trying to figure out how to leave.

My Morning Jacket is available at Itunes; Murray McLauchlan's live album is out of print.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Living In Oz (Part 1): I Am the Wizard, Koo Koo Ka Choo

The Act We Act - Sugar (mp3)
Whole New You - Shawn Colvin (mp3)

One of life's joys, if you're an English or psychology geek, is finding that your understanding of something does a 180-degree turnaround, offering you an entirely new perspective, allowing you to spend more time looking at, considering, obsessing over something that otherwise would simply sit in the attic of your mind, gathering dust.

I recently had such experiences regarding The Wizard of Oz and The Family Man. With the first, not the movie so much as the character. With the second, not so much the character as the movie. Let's go with the character first.

Before, the revelation of mousy magician Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (thanks Wikipedia!) behind the curtain was deliciously humiliating. I thought we were meant to mock him, to laugh at him. He's using the fire and the big scary green face and the special effects to intimidate and scare and control. Shame on him! How pathetic! What fun to see him panicked, begging them to "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" The Witch was evil; the Wizard was a con artist. Both were equally deplorable.

For some reason, I now see him as something of a kindred spirit. In the entire cast, perhaps he's more universally human than any other character. *

While it might be the more natural thing to try and identify with one of Dorothy's fellow journeymen -- "yes, I too need a brain!" -- the truth for most adults is that we're most like the Wizard because of the way his life has unfolded. In a way, Oscar Diggs found himself in the same position as Dorothy, a stranger in a strange land. But rather than being the helpless doe-eyed naif who needs good witches and a bunch o' flawed males to help her get home, he just landed and adapted. He created this shell that allowed him to survive and thrive in a place that wasn't his natural environment.

We all create these personae, false fronts meant to simplify our complicated and confusing selves into packages the world beyond our bodies can better digest. It's not lying, exactly. Oftentimes these personae are very much parts of us, but they're more like cartoon versions, more two-dimensional than we really are.

Around my girls, I'm Daddy. Daddy does his best to never let his daughters see the guy who curses with verve and looks for double-entendres in everyday conversation more desperately than Michael at Dunder Mifflin. At work, I'm trying harder -- although frequently failing -- to be Mature Billy, the person who takes serious things seriously and whose observations and ideas deserve serious consideration in return. In New Orleans I'm Husband-on-a-Binge Billy, overwhelmed by a spirit of restlessness, gulping a few too many Hand Grenades and flirting pathetically (thus, harmlessly) with women of all ages.

It's not just me. One of our school's administrators has, during the work day, become a caricature of himself. He has become this persona identified only by his initials and Robert E. Lee quotes about honor. He's just a gruff and intimidating presence who only smiles out of the farthest corner of his mouth and speaks only in self-derived catch phrases... but always with this air of concern that he actually cares about the students. While this more cartoonish version might be occasionally grating to witness for certain adults, it's a very useful and effective persona that works very well on the students. Revealing too much of his soft underbelly to the teen collective would be letting them behind that curtain where they don't belong and aren't invited.

Don't we all do this?

In the tale, Oscar adapts so well to Oz that he ends up trapped. The persona he creates -- The Wizard -- is so essential in Oz that he finds himself either enraptured by their need of him or compelled to fill that gap. A wildly successful co-dependent, if you will. Yet, all along, he knows it's not really his home. Although he fights hard to keep Dorothy et al from revealing his deception, once discovered, he's more than ready to get the fuck outta Dodge. He hands the reins to Scarecrow, grabs the girl, hops in his balloon and heads for the hills. He knows it's time he left that little fantasy world and went back to the real one.

Oscar Diggs leaves because he already has a home. It might be black and white, a little dull. He might even be more of a nobody. But it's where he belongs. It's where he was meant to be. And at some point, he's gotta go back to that life and live it. He'll manage to find happiness and joy in it, even if, on occasion, he yearns for those Technicolor Panavision days of Oz.

Some might consider this use of personae dishonest. Yet rare is the soul who, if we're being truthful, manages to live wholly without deception. We just call it by different, kinder-sounding names.

Maybe when The Wizard departs Oz, he believes he will shed those facades. Maybe the all that fakery has wearied him and he longs to ditch the special effects. And in a way he will. But what he'll discover -- what we all discover -- is that returning home will require a new set of characters, all crafted to help the world understand him, and to help him manage the world.

* -- This could be a "Chester Drawer" moment for me. That is, this could be obvious for most people, but it took me a pathetically long time to realize it, just like I was in my 20s before I discovered they are called "chest of drawers."

"The Act We Act" is from Copper Blue, one of the best 20 albums of the '90s."Whole New You" is from an album of the same name, one of her weaker overall works. Both are on iTunes or's mp3 site.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Handyman Gene

"A man who cannot handle tools is not a man."
--Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals--"Fix It" (mp3)
Zach Gill--"Handyman" (mp3)

I was sitting with a co-worker at a wrestling match, and she was talking about some of the house projects that her husband had completed during the break, new doors between rooms and that kind of thing. I said that I really wasn't very handy, and she replied, "Oh, of course you are. All of you guys have the gene."

Do we? Do all of us have innate abilities handed down to us when the first cave guy used some extra beaver pelt to improve the insulation on a leaky cave door?

I thought about it and wondered if maybe I was selling myself short. Maybe I'm handier than I think. After all, I can paint. I have built a closet (two boards nailed on walls with a rod attached to both).

In our house, many of the improvements were done by the previous owner, a guy named Gene. He put in a new deck, turned one room into two, finished the basement, and a host of other projects. All of which have eventually led to considerable problems.

Consequently, in the family vernacular, you either "fix" something or you "rig it," a la Gene. My particular skills tend toward the latter. While there may not be all that much that I can fix in the way of carpentry or electrical work or plaster, I do have a bit of a gift for rigging. I like to think of it as representative of my creative side, more MacGyver than Bob Vila.

I may not be able to rewire a lamp, but I can keep a toilet that needs new innards working for years with nothing but a rusty safety pin. Admittedly, it may lead to some internal leaking and an increased water bill, but the thing does flush, and it didn't before.

I may not be able to fix the water drainage system that overflowed from the washing machine, but I can dig a self-designed ditch to hold the overflow. Of course, some neighborhood animal may end up drowning in it.

In fact, when I review my God-given gifts, I realize that those gifts all tend toward arming me for my ongoing battle with the nemesis of all home-owners--water. Whether it is leaks in the sink, flooding in the basement, broken pipes, overflowing dishwashers or washing machines, rust, mold, rot, or termites, water is the root enemy in almost every situation. Based on my gifts, I have to conclude that if water is the ultimate adversary I am horribly underequipped. Water has opened a 5-front war against me and it is winning every campaign.

I've also noticed that most of my work at home involves the breaking of something else. Take the outer awning down, break a storm window in the process. Cut the grass, but use the lawnmower until it's wheezing and the engine eventually locks up. My tools rust, my drill bits get scattered and lost, the chances of finding a wrench in the same place I last found it are slim.

I have done incredibly humane work, however. When a batch of kittens climbed into the exhaust fan on the deck and ended up trapped in the oven fan, I took the fan apart and gently rolled the fan rotor in reverse by hand until all were free. Unfortunately, I never repaired the vent opening on the deck, so I have had to perform this rescue three times with three different batches of kitchens. And, in pulling the stove out to disassemble it the first time, I broke the exhaust connection, so that for the last 8 years, when we turn on oven's exhaust fan, it merely blows the hot air around the kitchen.

So, yeah, I'm handy, just like the rest of my male tribe, but it's pretty fair to say that I will never become the chief of that tribe. Still, when called upon to tackle a leak in the plumbing under the sink, my instincts, yes, instincts, are strong, and I get a plastic bucket to catch the drips, and, for the past 5 years, try to remember to check that bucket often enough to make sure it doesn't overflow before I can dump it out.

Zach Gill and Ryan Adams' songs are both available at Itunes.

Friday, January 9, 2009

15 minutes of fame 16 years ago

Blogspot, in their infinite wisdom, saw fit to take down the original post, so here it is again, sans songs. By the way, Billy says that for extra fun you can read the dialogue with "That's what she said" reverberating in your head after many of the lines.


People always want to hear about the time I found a dead body in the trunk of my car. Even if they barely know me, but we’re talking, one of my friends will say, “Hey, tell them about the time you found a body in your trunk.” They like to see me cringe. It’s a story that haunts me, not because I wish that I’d done anything differently, but because it put such a spotlight on me for a couple of weeks eleven years ago, and I have no desire to return to that stage.

So here it is for the last time. It wasn’t really my car anymore. I just happened to have the title in my name and a set of keys and insurance on it. Thanks to a school nurse named Lucy, who worked with a Catholic prison ministry, I had sold the car for $500 dollars to a reformed petty criminal named Wanda. She knocked on the door of my dorm apartment one rainy afternoon in November and we shared an umbrella to the parking lot, where my grandmother’s Skylark sat. Wanda was a stout, short-haired woman, full of appreciation and the right things to say, like how she would start paying me $50 every time she got a paycheck.

That was the last time I saw Wanda. She soon disappeared with all of the petty cash from the place where she worked. I soon forgot about the car, with my teaching and a two-year-old and a wife commuting to law school. One Saturday night in January, a cold night, we returned from a school basketball game to find a voice message from the East Ridge police, saying that the Skylark was sitting out at Eastgate and that we needed to move it.

I found my set of keys, and the three of us drove in the Volvo to the mall. There sat the only car in the lot, partly illuminated by the giant overhead lights—the Skylark. Pulling up next to it, I left the Volvo running and Kathleen making my wife tell her a story, as I unlocked the door and slid in onto the cold, vinyl seat. After weeks away from it, the Skylark felt worn out and unsteady. The overhead light glowed more sickly yellow than white, and when I pushed the key in, the seat belt warning buzzed like a battery operated toy left turned on out in the rain. Of course, it didn’t start. Nothing at all. So I turned around. I don’t know what I was looking for, maybe for something that would account for the smell my numbed nose was just beginning to detect. I looked in the back seat from something left behind, some groceries, maybe some rotting meat.

Outside, I said to my wife, “I’m going to look in the trunk. Something doesn’t smell right.”

She looked at me. “There’s something rotten,” I said.

“Maybe some garbage.”

“I don’t know.” As I walked to the back of the Skylark, I could hear insatiable Kathleen saying, “Now tell me another story, Mommy.”

The trunk opened easily and on top of all the junk we usually drag around—books, bills, swim toys from the summer—there was a bundle wrapped in a white, patterned quilt and the smell, even more powerful, despite the freezing air, and that smell triggered my instant, instinctive horror.

Robin says I stood at her window as she rolled it down, saying in a slow, monotone voice, “Honey, I think there’s a body in the trunk.”

“No,” she said.

“It smells like it.”

“Someone probably left a dog in there,” she said.

“It looks too big for that.”

“Well,” I said, “What do we have that I can poke it with?”

She found nothing inside the car, so she handed me key. Her trunk, too, was full, the accumulated leftovers of the weekly commute to Knoxville. The only suitable tool I could find, though, was a pink, padded clothes hanger.

A block away, cars rushed by on Brainerd Road and I could see the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign flashing red at the Krispy Kreme. And I gave the bundle a couple of tentative pokes, one in the middle and one lower and made my diagnosis and closed the trunk.

“I think I feel a torso,” I said. “And some legs.”

“How can you tell?”

“I don’t know. It all feels hard. But I’m pretty sure.”

People always want to know the rest of what happened, but for me, the story ends there with our family at the mall and Wanda in the trunk. The rest is a blur of police who knew something was amiss when Wanda went missing, who took a cursory look in the trunk, then got out the yellow tape and made the car a crime scene, who started asking us if we knew a Wanda Counts, who took our statements separately, but all for show. They suspected what Channel 9 Crimestoppers eventually confirmed, that one of Wanda’s many boyfriends had killed her for the money.

After it was released and cleaned up, the Skylark went to a husband and wife team of recovering heroin addicts. I met the husband when I signed the car over to him, though I found out later that Lucy, the school nurse who worked with Catholic prison ministries, somehow made $500 from him on a car I gave away for free. But, when it was still mine, the Skylark had a couple of nights of fame on local television news shows as the centerpiece of an unsolved murder, and I still have the license plate to commemorate the event. That, and the image of how small a body looks when it’s wrapped in the trunk of a car.