Thursday, April 30, 2009


The Trapeze Swinger - Iron + Wine (mp3)

Sometimes a thing's power is in its subtlety. Sometimes a calm, low tide proves vital to the psychological ecosystem.

My head often feels like a place overrun with tidal waves and tsunamis, with ideas and emotions tossing and turning, with the rare chance to feel settled, to feel at peace. This is not a complaint. I tend to revel and thrive in such a manic mental environment, and it suits my attention span and my passions more often than not. We are the way we are for deep and sometimes impenetrable reasons, right? Personal evolution, right?

Only a few things seem to calm the tempest within me. These have changed many times over the decades, of course. Lately, here are the ones guaranteed to work:
  • Reading to my daughters, or singing to them before they go to sleep, one of them sitting on both sides of me, my arms around them, my fingers lightly tracing their upper arms and shoulders, or running through their beautiful hair.
  • Lying down on the guest bed with my 1-year-old son when he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, holding him close and feeling his panic slowly bleed away as he finds his peace and calm in my slight rocking, in my heartbeat and breathing and gentle words.
  • Sitting at the kitchen table at my mother's house on Sundays after church, my wife and mom and I talking over sandwiches and sweet tea.
One particular healing activity, however, has withstood the long test of my brief lifetime. In my 37 years, I've never known a time when swinging failed to soothe my soul at least a little.

As a kid, and then as a teenager, one of my trustiest retreats was a playground swing set. My friend Scott and I would feel the pressures and miseries of teen angst building up and hastily bike down to a huge nearby swing set or, later, drive to the swings on my church's property, and we would swing... for as long as it took. We'd go as high as we could, so high that the chains would loosen and then constrict again, and we'd jolt against the seat as we fell back to earth. But that feeling, of leaning back completely, of the air rushing past you, of controlled flying... it released a valve and depressurized the cabin of being a teenager, of being a human spinning madly amongst other madly-spinning humans.

I've since mostly traded in the playground swing for the porch swing, although either still works wonders. Something about the motion, the back-and-forth and the generated breeze and being outside, that calms my mind and stills my emotional waters better even than sleep.

The house where we currently live has a swing on the front porch, and it's a truly transcendent location. We're on the side of a ridge, so my view looks out to downtown Chattanooga in the distance. In the daytime, I can see Lookout Mountain and its Incline and the lush greenery that, from my angle, fools you into thinking maybe downtown isn't just a bunch of steel-and-concrete. At night, I can see the lights of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Finley Stadium in the distance, but the lights don't overwhelm so much as help to trace vague outlines into the view.

Sitting on that swing, I feel both alone and a part of something bigger. Our house is the last one on our road, so no one drives past our house. I can sit there for a couple of hours, day or night, and stand a decent chance of never seeing a neighbor. But I can hear the sound of cars and sirens and sometimes even gunshots echoing up the ridge. I can write, or listen to music, or read, or just be. I can sit on that swing and ignore our ringing phones and all of the technology that clogs the pores of our home. (Technology for which I'm 95% responsible, to be fair.)

March and April have been perfect months to enjoy that swing, that view, temperatures in the 60-80 range.

Swinging serves me in the same way I desperately long to serve my children -- first as infants and even as they grow up -- as that magical rocking balm to a world that moves much too fast, but almost never smoothly.

Ironic, no? When the world moves too fast, trying to stop completely fails to help much and sometimes just makes everything worse. But slowing it all down a little, and just swinging, does wonders.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Be Funny

Freedy Johnston--"I Can Hear The Laughs" (mp3)

Billy and I face an interesting challenge today: we have both been requested to be funny by a group of seniors who are responsible for putting on a luncheon for their fellow senior classmates. They picked the two of us because they thought we would be funny.

Now, professional comedians who are readers aside, I don't know if you've ever been expected to be funny, but it is far easier said than done. Billy's humor, as I have come to understand it, is based on his being a wry observer of the human condition. He can take a situation that most of us would overlook and give it a special Billy spin that not only makes us laugh, but also makes us wiser. My sense of humor tends to come from the sidelines. I don't like to be the center of attention; instead, I'd rather hang back and throw out a potentially devastating or funny line from time to time.

Neither approach necessarily lends itself to the kind of stand-up speech we're expected to give today. Billy is often too smart, too culturally-aware, too expansive in his perceptions for an 18-year-old audience, despite the many ways he acts (we both do) like an 18-year-old. My problem is that though I always know I can throw in a funny line here or there, this doesn't translate well into a 7-10 minute funny speech.

Be funny, they said. We shall try to oblige.

In a way, though, being told to be funny is like being told to get an erection right now.

Right now. You heard me. Come on. Let's see it.

You can stare down there all you want. You can attempt levitation. But usually, depending on the context of that latter request, you need a little something more than just a command to make that happen. Funniness is the same way. Just like you might like to see a little naked shumpin'-shumpin', be teased and tantalized, touch somewhere, so too would you like to have some guidelines for what you're supposed to be funny about.

As far as I know (unless Billy is keeping it from me), we didn't get any of that. Are we supposed to make them laugh about being seniors? Are we supposed to make fun of them and try to get them to laugh at each other? Should we drop something or take a fall ourselves (always good for a laugh)? Should we zero in on the easy targets? Should we pursue the abstract, cosmic humor that drives our lives and this universe, pointing out how isn't it funny that we're worried about this flu when an asteroid is scheduled to hit in two years anyway?

The fact that we've had weeks to plan our funniness hasn't really helped either. Anytime you try to be funny, even on the spot, you cycle through possibilities and decide (sometimes instantly) what you're willing to risk saying. The fact that you have 30-50 cycles of possibilities instead of 2-3 doesn't make you any funnier. It may make you more prepared, but there's no guarantee that you're funnier.

Too much of humor depends on what happened last week, yesterday, last class, last minute. In this case, the tenor of the senior class has changed many times since we first agreed to the gig--there have been victories, defeats, expulsions, bad ideas, college acceptances, Spring Break couplings. A boy and his friend went to the mall last Friday, one wearing a gorilla suit, one carrying a video camera. Both are now banned from the mall area for a year; neither are seniors. It doesn't matter. There's odd, potentially humorous material there that wasn't there a month ago. The senior who said last week that he didn't care how smart a Special Olympian was as long as she was hot offers a potential laugh. At him, of course. Yes, it's sick, it's twisted, but there is something there that you can use, that you can twist. Everything that surrounds us is potential material.

So off we go on our quest, each of us the other person's sidekick, on the quest for human teenage laughter. Many have tried; many have failed.

Wish us luck.

Freedy Johnston's This Perfect World is available at Itunes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pigeon Forge

Raise the Barn - Keith Urban (with Ronnie Dunn) (mp3)
Johnny Quest/Stop That Pigeon - Reverend Horton Heat (mp3)

I spent last weekend at a family reunion outside of Pigeon Forge.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are the anti-New Orleans. I'm not sure one can truly love both places. It would be like loving both Betty and Veronica, or Ginger and Mary Ann. You can like one and love the other, but you can't love both and be a normal human being.

We only entered "PF proper" -- otherwise known as one long damn strip of road -- for one brief block, because the town was too busy hosting two biker rallies, one Elvis Presley Fan Club reunion, and hell, I dunno, several Southern Baptist revivals, perchance. Whatever was getting hosted, there were even more people clogging up that single road than usual.

In New Orleans, life is all about what happens after the sun sets. Where do you eat dinner? Where do you get the best drinks? Of what kind of nightlife experience would you like to partake tonight?

In Pigeon Forge, life is all about what happens at breakfast. Which of the 229 pancake restaurants shall you visit today? Does blueberry syrup or pecan syrup go better with your country ham, wherein is packed enough salt to cure leprosy or stay afloat on a small lake? Where are those dark blue socks you had planned on wearing with your plaid shorts and loafers, and where's that package of Werther's Originals you'd brought along? Which of your six pairs of black leather chaps would look best today, and does it go better with the half helmet or the three-quarters?

In Pigeon Forge, traffic is already at its peak level by 10 a.m., as bikers and motorists of all shapes and sizes pour onto the road looking for a good outlet bargain, or trying to find the perfect go cart track, or seeing if they can figure out which closed-down bungee jumping place is the one where that feller done got hisself kilt the other week.

In New Orleans, it's illegal to drive anywhere before 10 a.m. lest those hungover tourists go get themselves kilt like them idjits up in Pigeon Forge who go bungee jumping for giggles.

New Orleans is 67% African American. Whitey makes up just over one-quarter of the population. By contrast -- and I do mean contrast -- Pigeon Forge is almost 95% white.

The only thing whiter than Pigeon Forge is Ivory soap.

(EXAMPLE: I dare you to find one African-American depicted at right. Like a "Where's Waldo?" contest. Show me any other thriving business in the US that can so baldly ignore all minorities in their promotional materials -- it's not even a photo, fer Chrissakes, it's a painting! They didn't even require a real live African-American to model for it! And if you're staring really hard at that girl in the light blue tank top, thinking, "She might be black..." then you're only proving my point.)

When my family ventured briefly onto the strip so that my girls could ride GoKarts and Bumper Boats, we actually saw an African-American couple. They were riding in the bumper boats right before we did, and I could have sworn that all the other honkey boats spent most of their time trying to spray that couple.* When they got out, totally drenched, they were smiling and happy, so I kind of gave them this look of "Did you realize you're the only two black people within 10 square miles unless Darius Rucker is playing Dollywood this weekend?"

Honestly, I don't think they cared. Which is simultaneously a sign of progress for our country and also a sign of what it must be like to live in North Dakota. Except without all the pancake houses and outlet malls.

The other way Pigeon Forge is the anti-New Orleans is that the former is practically bleached of all vices. Alcohol is limited to Pabst, Bud and Franzia and ain't sold on Sundays. No strip clubs. No beads or drunk losers saying things like "Show your t*ts!!" (and that's not "tots," but thanks for playing, Napoleon). Hell, they don't even have any karaoke bars... although you can pay to go watch a group of overly made-up Tammy Faye-esque white people in glittery outfits who have been pre-arranged to sing karaoke on stage.

And, only in Pigeon Forge can you watch "The Miracle," a moving passion play musical about the Life of Jesus. You can have your soul saved for only $40 a ticket!

(Just be sure not to accidentally impale yourself on one of those angels' swords. God's Angels will be one of the next contestants on Spike's "Deadliest Warrior"!)

I mention all of this to note: what better place than Pigeon Forge for my family reunion?

While it might not have been obvious after a single year of BOTG, I am white. My family is whiter than Colonial Bread and whole milk. We spend our days and nights playing white people games like Ladder Golf and Cornhole. We spend our nights talking on porches and playing card games. Our cabin was so high on the mountain that pilots used us and our reflective skin as markers, kind of like lighthouses.

We stayed in a cabin I preferred to call a "cansion." Although the last census report doesn't contain accurate numbers, there are more than 4 million cabin/cansions with hot tubs and pool tables in Sevier County, and 3.6 million of them are located within 10 miles of Pigeon Forge. Amazingly, despite the large population of cansions, they're all "secluded" and "private." Which is true, other than all the old-timers who are annoyed at all the cansions that have razed the once-beautiful tree-topped lush hills will spend all night yodeling to one another hoping to keep people awake and annoyed. You can hear those bastards for miles!

Our cansion had three floors, two kitchens, two outdoor hot tubs, 12 bedrooms, seven baths, two large screen TVs, eight microwaves, a pool table, and one of those touch screen bar games that no one ever plays in bars unless they're drunk or got stood up by blind date.
If you have a family or a large group of people who aren't gonna go all Jack "The Shining" Nicholson on you from being cooped up in a small space for a weekend, I can't think of a more reasonably-priced and enjoyable destination.

* -- This is totally not true. It only felt true for about five minutes, and it might have been less time if the boats moved faster than about 3 mph. There were only six people in boats at the time, and it just so happened that the other four totally surrounded that couple and squirted the hell out of 'em. The odds are good that I'm the only dude who even noticed that I was living a 1950s flashback moment... except in little motorized bumper boats and without the white hoods.

Friday, April 24, 2009


The Smithereens--"Behind The Wall Of Sleep" (mp3)
The Electric Prunes--"I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" (mp3)

My daughter, who is studying psychology right now in a college class, calls each week with her latest discovery or revelation. Last night, it was "We're studying depression. We're all depressed."

Sometimes she'll engage in a bit of psychoanalysis. I'm guessing, in particular, based on personal experience, that she psychoanalyzes each parent for the other parent but doesn't necessarily share the results. Which is good, because it leaves each of us with the still-impenetrable notion that we are unpsychoanalyzable, or at least beyond the need to be so scrutinized.

A couple of weeks ago, they were studying sleep, and when she called up, she unleashed this theory on us:

"If you have a hard time falling asleep at night, it's because you're anxious. If you wake up early all the time, it means you're depressed."

I thought I was off the hook. I had always heard that if you slept all the time, it meant that you were depressed. Now, it would seem that both too much and not enough are both signs of depression. Fuck.

Most nights, I wake up between 4 and 5 AM. My first year in this current job, the pattern became so prevalent that I named my Fantasy Football team, "4AM Angst." Basically, the way it works is that if there is one particular idea that can work its way to the front of my brain, I'm done for the night. If I stay in bed, I'm likely to toss and turn and try a new sleeping position, each movement giving me a new tangle on the problem swirling around in my head. If I can keep that idea from getting all the way to the surface, there's a chance that I can at least get some uneasy sleep. If I allow the very specific thought 'I'm not going back to sleep' to tread water, then I have 2 choices: 1) either tell myself that it is still valuable to lie there and rest during those remaining hours or 2) read. It all depends.

But I have a larger theory. I suspect that if you hosted some grand, impromptu event at 5 o'clock in the morning, maybe sent around a text (sorry, Billy) that read, "Hey, if you're awake, I'm buying breakfast at the IHop in 20 minutes for anyone who shows up," you would probably have a huge crowd of people you know waiting for you in the parking lot. And not just because they're freeloaders. I think the great myth of 5AM is that when you lie there awake, you are all alone in the world. I'm not even convinced that the person lying next to you or me is asleep.

Sleep is like trying to eat healthily. There's what you're should to get, and then there's what you actually get.

I hear that as you get older, you don't sleep as deeply. I would certainly agree with that. I hear the cat wanting to come in. I hear the cat wanting to go out. I hear the birds during their prime hours. I hear the dehumidifier upstairs, the furnace downstairs. I hear the noises of a house constantly settling.

But I'm not necessarily lamenting the situation either. Sometimes, it's true, there's a problem that I just can't get a handle on, but those hours of feeling awake and alone in the dark can provide the right setting for a lot of problem solving, examining, and even creating. In my head, I have written everything from talks to tests and have rewritten emails that I'm glad I didn't get up and send the first time.

Still, as someone who gets less sleep than he used to, I will offer one piece of advice: no matter how awake you feel, keep your eyes closed. That still gives you a chance.

The Smithereens and The Electric Prunes are both availabe at Itunes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What'd You Say? Sorry, I Was Texting.

Haunted (When the Minutes Drag) - Love and Rockets (mp3)

Please do me and yourself a favor and take the 3:22 seconds necessary to watch this guy from

Sometimes -- and when you're an egotistical attention freak like me, it's very rare -- you feel it's more important that someone else's brilliant observations be viewed in the stead of your own.

"It's the shared narratives that make us a culture."

Everything about his brief talk gives me pause. His brief talk, complete with damning pictures, is likely to have a more significant long-term impact on how I use and interact with my phone versus my surroundings in a more substantial way than Fast Food Nation managed to alter my dietary choices. At the very least I'm gonna think before I respond to those hip vibrations. (Yes, insert your own fun Michael Scott jokes here.)

None of this is intended to point fingers at anyone reading this. We're all the captains of our own ship -- well, us and fate/God/Stephen Hawking -- and how you steer yours is yo biznass. But something about the picture of that girl taking a picture of her getting a very awkward kiss leaves me really cold. Something about 2,000 cell phones being raised during the Obama Moment leaves me really sad. Something about that dude texting when his child is staring up at him, hungry for his attention, leaves me achingly guilty and horrified.

More and more often, I'm in meetings where the person who called the damn meeting gets a call and excuses himself or herself from the damn meeting they called. They gather people into a room and then leave these people to talk to other people, leaving us serfs to sit around and stare at one another, realizing how friggin' low on the totem we must be.

And teenagers -- I'm not one of those bitter adults, I swear -- they seem to be living half their life, often more, staring at tiny screens while the beauty of life swirls around them. But because they're attuned to that screen, what's around them gets labeled "boring." I don't mention this to damn them, but to wonder what kind of effect this will have -- for better or worse -- on their adulthood, after they've spent years, literally, communicating more with people via satellite and DSL than via actual speaking to actual people.

We are increasingly living meta-existences, lives based more on what kind of reality we can "share" with others who aren't physically with us at the moment than on what kind of reality we can share with those around us IN the moment. It might not be all bad -- and there's more than plenty good about it -- but it's still a little frightening, and I feel better for sensing a real need to be at least a little more conscientious about it.

If I'm texting someone in the middle of something else, there are one of two reasons: (1) I'm less interested in what's happening in reality than what could or should happen by communicating with someone via cyber-reality; (2) I'm so intrigued by my environment that I feel this intrigue and fascination can be increased by sharing it with someone who's not present.

In the instance of (1), it seems shameful but understandable. With (2), I'm not sure why it can't wait until later, until being involved in (2) doesn't risk superceding the very reason for roping them in to begin with.

But mostly I'm still trying to figure it all out...

"Haunted..." comes from one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, She's Having a Baby. You should leave work now, watch the movie, buy the soundtrack, and offer to have John Hughes' baby. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Understanding the 80's? Another Song That Matters

Jackson Browne--"For A Rocker" (mp3)

No one has yet been able to explain to my satisfaction that musical anomaly known as "The 80's." Wasn't disco enough of a detour away from taste? Did disco and punk have to somehow meet covertly and try to form an uneasy alliance? Is Loverboy really what you get when you mate Led Zeppelin and Donna Summers? Was it all just a set-up to make Nirvana sound better than they actually were? Were we all blinded with science? Blinded with Reaganism and the "Me" Generation?

The best of the 80's was never even on the radio (or barely got a mention). I didn't fully learn that until I got down here in the South and started hearing Guadalcanal Diary, Let's Active, the Db's and other under-the-radar bands from the incredible Athens music scene that was. Eventually, I saw all of those bands live and also learned that despite their lack of "hits," they all played great music that you could move to. I blame the 80's for the dichotomy that exists to this day--the music you listen to and the music you dance to are two different musics. I'm here to remind you that wasn't always the case. People did once actually dance to "In Gadda Da Vida," while other people were sitting in their rooms alone in the dark, staring at their lava lamps and grooving to the same song.

Now don't try to peg me as some kind of 80's-hater; a huge portion of my music collection consists of music that was produced during that decade, though not many of the hits. But anytime you read about music, there are always rumblings that things got a little off course back then. I remember when I got the 4-CD box set of Bruce Springsteen's Tracks and started reading reviews of it, one commentator mentioned that even Bruce seemed lost during much of the 80's (not an assessment I agree with, by the way).

Maybe one way to try to get an understanding of that crazy decade is to look, in retrospect, at the people who were trying to say something, even if they weren't.

Case in point: 70's California folk-rocker Jackson Browne (banished from listening in this house because of his beating of Darryl Hannah) tried to update his sound with a more electric sound, synthesizers, a cynical look at capitalism instead of the utopian perspective on agrarianism that he seemed to have embraced in much of the 70's. Lawyers In Love, the most overtly commercial of these records, had an MTV video to go with the title track and maybe one other song. It's slick stuff, flawlessly played by session musicians with Browne in a minor, supporting instrumental role. Maybe it was the cocaine runnin' all around his brain. Probably.

Nevertheless, he has a hard time shaking his deep thoughts and political causes, even though some of his catchiest and most endearing songs (think "Somebody's Baby" from the Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack) come out of the 80's, when he may have sought a larger audience but also gained an expanded sense of melody.

But situated in what would be the "death position" on a CD today (who listens all the way to the end anymore?) and may have been a kind of banishment even back then, last song on the second side of the vinyl album, Lawyers In Love, there exists a gem, at least to my ears. It's called "For A Rocker."

Maybe it was intended to be a toss-off. After all, it is a party song, it name-checks the members of the band, it doesn't seem to have much purpose beyond clarifying that a party will happen (and why):

Open the door, baby, turn on the light
We're gonna have a party tonight
For a rocker
For a rocker

I know it's late and you're already down
You ain't ready for people around
I'm gonna tell you something I found out
Whatever you think life is about
Whatever life may hold in store
Things will happen that you won't be ready for

I've got a shirt so unbelievably right
I'm gonna dig it out and wear it tonight
For a rocker
For a rocker

Therein lies the rub. The song is actually implied conversation between the narrator and the woman who lives with him, who is in no mood for a party. But he anticipates her reluctance and tells her why it's so important she be a part of it (Things will happen that you won't be ready for). In between the details of the upcoming party itself are the explanations for why it has to happen and why it isn't too much of an imposition after all:

Don't have to change, don't have to be sweet
Gonna be too many people to possibly meet
Don't have to feed 'em, they don't eat
They've got their power supplies in the soles of their feet
They exist for one thing, and one thing only
To escape living the lives of the lonely

And eventually you get to who the rocker is, who the party is for. He's a fellow musician who is leaving:

For a friend of mine, from the neighborhood
Moving down the line, after tonight he'll be gone for good.

For even in a song like this, Jackson Browne has to try to make things matter, to gain a higher sense of purpose:

Till the morning comes, till the car arrives
Till we kill the drums, till we lose our lives.

Injected into this party song are those anti-party emotions of despair, alienation, loneliness and loss. But are those emotions really so antithetical to the notions of partying? Hrothgar's thanes, in the epic poem Beowulf, spend their time carousing in Hereot, the great mead hall, because they are "forgetting the woes of the world of men." What party doesn't thrive precisely because it has to end--someone has to leave, duty calls, time runs out?

But there's even more to the song for me. Songs become what we make them into, whether they were ever intended to be those things or not. They can't help it, we can't help it, and no artist can argue against our interpretation. Once the song gets put out there, the call is all ours. "For A Rocker," was, for me, a remembrance of a friend I had lost a couple of years earlier. It's a wake he never had, a gathering that never occurred after his suicide in the lonely woods of Michigan. Near the end, Browne says to his woman, "I don't want to argue, I don't want to fight/But there will definitely be a party tonight." As if it were the only thing that matters. I like to imagine the urgency of that gathering, that it is for a person, that it is for a rocker.

Maybe the best way for us to understand much of the music of the 80's is to remind ourselves how much there was to try to forget or to try to come to terms with at the time. The things that happened that we weren't ready for.

"For A Rocker" is on Lawyers In Love, available at Itunes. By the way, I didn't say a thing about the music. In spite of some key synthesizer parts, the song does rock; otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You're So Gay, You Prolly Think This Blog Is About You

Laura - Scissor Sisters (mp3)
How You Play the Game - Michelle Shocked (mp3)

The following is a reader comment following an interesting NYTimes blog about gender and homophobia:

Homophobia itself, like sexism, needs to be eradicated. And children need to learn (this must be taught by parents + in schools) that “masculine” and “feminine” may be descriptive (what the terms actually mean should always be open to question), but they must never be prescriptive. All children should be free to grow into whatever man or woman they want to be. And both parents and teachers have a moral obligation to facilitate this growth.

I will attempt to explain why the comment above begs me to differ, but first, I must offer some background.

I'm straight. Hetero. Whatevs. I'm also a Southern-Fried Protestant Honky. These are qualities that must be acknowledged right away. I won't gloss over them or the baggage they would naturally require me to carry.

Here's the next thing to make clear: I am fairly open-minded when it comes to sex and love and gender preference and all that jazz. Gay men in general bother me far less than NFL athletes in general or glam rock stars like Bret Michaels in general. I'm not the least bit uncomfortable around most gay men... be they my next-door neighbors or one of our fantasy football team owners or even a student who might or might not have begun to openly admit it to his peers or teachers. Just because I'm open-minded and comfortable, however, doesn't mean I can proclaim that famous ironic statement, "I don't have any problem with them gays."

Seems to me we all have problems with everyone at some point or another. We have problems with our parents, with our kids, with our coworkers, with people in the news, with homeless people, and so on. Some of these are excusable while some less so. But inevitably, our problem with a particular person will inevitably collide with a part of them that ain't like us. Their gender, their race, their sexual preference, their religion. And when that happens, we must ask ourselves how much of that different part plays a role in the conflict.

Put another way: "Am I annoyed by that guy because he's annoying or because he's gay/black/Moonie and annoying?"

The Rev. Al Sharpton comes to mind. He's not evil, but he certainly has too much Publicity Hound in him for me to consider his motives pure and virtuous. I don't like him. So, how does this opinion affect my placement on the Racist Bastard Scale? Is it damning, or do I get taken down a notch, or is my distaste for Reverend Al entirely unrelated to my racism or lack thereof?

Let's use "YouTube Fred" as another example. I don't care whether that kid is gay, het, or hermaphrodite, Fred annoys every last nerve ending in my entire body. (Yes, I know he's TRYING to be annoying, but he's also, like, annoying in ways that are beyond intentional.) Is it because he's effeminate? Probably. I can't deny that possibility. Am I bothered by effeminate males? At times... well, yes dammit, yes. But I'm also bothered by beefy guys who jiggle their man-boobs back and forth to show their amazing muscle control, and by manly men who constantly call everyone "fag" in deep baritone voices. I'm not a fan of ditzy bottle-haired model wannabes with boob jobs and collagen-injected lips who think it's cute that they can't spell simple words and don't know how many states make up the U.S.

In other words, People who behave in real life like two-dimensional cartoon character stereotypes are super-annoying. This distaste crosses all barriers and involves all stereotypes. Women with some masculine qualities or "Oreos" or "Bananas" or "Hootie" or men with some effeminate qualities... none of this bothers me. Hell, I got a whole heap o' Girly Man in me, and I'm really disinclined to be too apologetic about it.

Further, when it comes to essential differences in people such as race or religion or the like, there will always -- ALWAYS -- be some key moments where one side can't quite understand the other. It's a black thing. It's a gay thing. It's a teenage girl thing. It's a horny older married guy with children thing. You wouldn't understand. You're right. I probably wouldn't. Cut me a little slack then.

But then I read a comment like the one this dude wrote: "All children should be free to grow into whatever man or woman they want to be. And both parents and teachers have a moral obligation to facilitate this growth."

How, exactly, is that to be orchestrated?

I'm just not sure we can raise our children in a gender-identity vacuum. Am I supposed to feel somehow uncivilized if my son just so happened to start obsessing over bulldozers and trucks before he was a year old, in spite of living in a house with two older sisters and being surrounded by their dolls and stuffed animals? Am I failing my daughters that they love horses and American Girl crap and iCarly? While I don't believe my wife and I shoved them in these directions, I can't exactly say we've been guilt-stricken or spent time trying to expose them equally to what might be gender interests on the other side.

Sure, they are who they are, and they will be who they will be, and I'm not one to believe we can alter that course drastically without doing some pretty serious damage to them. But I'm just not sure there's some Yellow Brick Road of parental behavior that makes us androgynous shepherds on an androgynous journey while our androgynous children figure it all out for themselves. Nor do we live in an androgynous vaccuum, with pop culture and school and everything else constantly screaming at us about sex sex sex in every way possible.

Could I, like the father in Heathers, proudly and mournfully proclaim the words, "I love my dead gay son!" (Except maybe I could mean it?) I think so. However, I'm not sure that how I raise my children from day to day would get some Good Gay Housekeeping Seal of Approval or anything, since that's not really something I worry about very often. And to follow the "moral obligation" this guy mentions, wouldn't I have to be conscientious of all that stuff all the time?

No thanks. As Lloyd Dobbler said, "I can't figure it all out tonight, so I'm just gonna hang with your daughter."

Monday, April 20, 2009


The Band--"The Shape I'm In" (mp3)
The Magnetic Fields--"Acoustic Guitar" (mp3)

Slowly, very slowly, I am trying to get my chops back.

Now, I'm not claiming that I ever had great chops to begin with, but they were certainly a whole lot more than what they are now.

We're talking about guitar here. In terms of sideburns, I never had any chops and could probably let them grow until Doomsday and never get anything more than wisps. I can hear it it now: "Hey, nice wisps."

I've never looked up the official definition of the word "chops," if there is such a thing, but I've always understood it to mean (quotations mine, for my definition) "playing with fluidity and grace, i.e. technical proficiency." It's kind of like, how good you are.

A person with real chops has total command of the fret board. He or she hits a note, any note, and immediately knows what it is. He or she knows numerous different positions for the main, popular chords and knows all of the jazz chords--those diminished, and 7ths, and mu chords--as well. He or she knows the major, minor, blues, and all the other scales. I never got that for. Well, the first part, yes. I can make a chord and various deconstructions of it four or five different places on the neck.

Or could.

When you stop playing guitar for a long time and then pick it back up again, there are no miracles. You find out immediately what you have lost. The first thing is you hurt. Guitar players build up incredible calluses on their playing fingers, and when you stop playing for a long, long time, those go away. Switching to a ukelele for the summer does nothing for those calluses. The second thing you lose is finger memory. Oh, you don't forget the chords or how to form them, but your fingers lose the precision of placement that they had when you were forming those chords over and over day after day. So you get some dead string or buzzes or just plain shitty sounds. Maybe you want to try a little solo or a bluegrass run. The fingers remember how to ride that bicycle, but they are wobbly and slow.

So, the guitar chops project begins. The problem is that we all develop so many different chops and it's almost impossible to keep them all up to speed. At various times, I've had basketball chops, fiction and poetry writing chops, romantic chops (I know, all things are relative), gardening chops, running chops. Right now, I'd say my cooking chops are pretty good and that's about it.

I have a divorced friend I was talking to the other night, and we agreed how awful it would be for him to re-enter the dating scene right now. The reason? Though we didn't say it then, it's because he's lost his chops. It's one thing to stumble through a song on a guitar--imagine how that translates into the world of searching for a new woman when your mouth doesn't work quite right and you don't know the current standard behaviors and you still have the memories of what it was like, but not only are you not sure how you accomplished what you did, you aren't even sure you want to try to learn how to do it all over again.

There's a simple fact I've learned to live with: the amazing people who seem to accomplish so much more than the rest of us don't. They don't. They can't. There isn't time. They haven't been granted any more hours in the day than we have. They've simply decided to put their energy into those visible, public aspects of life, while the invisible (to us) parts suffer. Chops are a choice, and many of us are blessed with an ability to develop strong skills in a number of areas, sometimes simultaneously. But ultimately, we're going to have to choose between what (or more likely, who) we want to nurture and develop now and what we used to take pride in being pretty good at.

Still, the guitar beckons from the corner of the living room.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ode on a Grecian Fonzarelli

Love Is Not a Fight - Warren Barfield (mp3)
La La Love You - Pixies (mp3)

My iPod died yesterday.

It was a clinical death, technically speaking. Time of death: 12:04 p.m. I was walking back to our house after a walk-through the dormitory, and I had scrolled to hear the theme song to "Rescue Me," otherwise known as "C'mon C'mon" by the Von Bondies, and when I pushed play, the thing just went paralytic on me.

I didn't even notice right away. Pushed play, kept walking, and realized several seconds later that no sound was flowing from my glorious machine, up through those heavenly small cords, and directly into my eardrums. Once I did notice, I tinkered, still not yet panicked. iPods can, on occasion, glitch out for a second. They'll freeze, or they'll lose themselves in a song, or whatever. So I tried the scroll wheel, and I tried all those little stupid standard things people do with small machines at moments like this.

When none of that worked, I did the Menu/Select double-tap -- a dance any long-time iPod Classic (or any other scroll wheel version) owner knows all too well. And when I did this, at first the Apple logo came up, and then, after that, an image I'd never before seen: The Red Circle X.

Upon seeing The Red Circle X, several expletives emerged from my vocal chords and out into the atmosphere around me, because I knew my iPod was summarily FUBAR.

Trying to maintain composure, I rushed back into the house as if I were carrying my own child back in from having discovered him or her drowning in a backyard swimming pool. The iPod was cradled lovingly in the palm of my hand, and my bottom lip trembled at the thought that My Precious might have died in so unceremonious a fashion. "No no no no don't do this to me," or something to that effect.

I gently laid it next to my mouse and began Googling with urgency. Images of Superman flying around the earth to reverse its rotation to save Lois Lane from suffocating in that miniaturized landslide inside that toy car flew through my brain. "iPod red circle x" I typed, and began the line-after-line clicking to find any and all possible solutions. I could rebuild it. Make it stronger, faster...

The main Apple site advised a series of actions, mostly centered around the "reset," or the Menu/Select act. The reset is to the iPod what defibrilators are to a human heart. I crashed the paddles once, twice, five times. Each time that damned Red Circle X popped up. I began trying more serious measures, all with the same nothingness in return. Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker!

Stuck in a serious stage of denial, I began to blame the Von Bondies and their stupid awful terrible song. Why the hell did I want to listen to that song? I've got almost 7,000 songs on my iPod for God's sake! Why why why that one?!?! Something as simple as a poor choice of musical preference could prove catastrophic.

I brought God into the mix. Totally serious here. I hardly ever pray, because my particular off-brand of Christian faith isn't particularly obsessed with the traditional prayer routine. But the thought of losing my iPod for any stretch of time was too much to bear. I had dorm duty last night, Jesus! Don't leave me in there alone without my iPod!

Why are you smiling? Why do you think I'm joking? Am I a clown to you? You people don't understand.

That iPod never leaves me. In the past eight or so years, I have not gone anywhere, done anything, at any time, when an iPod was not easily within reach. About four nights a week, I put it on 30-minute sleep timer and play it while I fall asleep. I play it in my office. I play it through a "jam box" (heh... I just used the words "jam box" in 2009...) when I'm in the shower. It plays when I'm on the scooter or in the car. I strap it to my hip when I'm making sweet sweet love. OK, maybe the emotional strain got to me a little on that last one. I've gotta learn to keep those to myself.

In SAT terminology, iPod : Billy :: E.T. : Elliot. I was dying right there with it.

Just as I was about to give up all hope and leave my precious sidekick for dead, I had a flash. Everytime I reset my iPod, it would click, but I couldn't hear the hard drive spin inside its beautiful aluminum casing. Maybe it was stuck. Maybe something inside that machine had lodged in a place it didn't belong.

So I slammed my fist down onto the face of My Precious. Were one to have observed this act, one could have construed it as an act of anger, of unbridled rage. I submit to you this was not the case. It was the act of any number of movie protagonists pounding desperately on a thought-dead lover's or friend's chest, screaming "Breathe, dammit! Breathe!!" It was the act of the Fonz, a.k.a. the Fonzie, a.k.a. Arthur Fonzarelli, hitting the side of Arnold's jukebox with his fist.

Sometimes, the only way to fix something is to hit it. My iPod spun back into life. I am once again whole.

Thank you Fonzie. You have once again shown me the path to enlightenment.

Both of these tunes and bands can be found on and iTunes. At least, I'm pretty sure.

Friday, April 17, 2009

100 Days

Raphael Saadiq--"100 Yard Dash" (mp3)

"Tea Parties" protest taxation without representation!

Pirates on the high seas!

Scandals over a bare-armed First Lady!

Is this the 21st century or the 18th century? Or just another day at the office for still-new President Barack Obama?

Any day now, the evaluations of Obama's first 100 days in office will start appearing all over the place, and they will, no doubt, be all over the map. Many will be critical, as Obama has been blamed for pretty much everything, including the last 20 years of the U.S. economy and the disappearance of Matchbox 20 from the modern musical landscape.

Put me in the camp of giving him high marks. Here's why.

First and foremost, I give him extremely high marks for that most intangible of intangibles: I like knowing that he is my president. I like knowing that he is in the house, that his family appears to be a normal one addressing normal American family issues. I like knowing that regardless of how many crises go on at once, no matter how many irons he has in the fire, he seems to be having fun being president. That must be what pisses off the right wing the most. Here is a guy who may have his own cool factor, but what he really thinks is cool is being president. He isn't dwelling on burdens of the job or tough decisions, though they are obviously there since these are tough times; instead, he handles the job like it is a job--that he's going to give it all he has in any given day, but that he knows he isn't going to get it all done, and tomorrow, he's going to get up and keep working at it.

Even the most right wing of right wingers would not try to argue at this point that John McCain could have handled this complex economic, social, international, political landscape.

My second praise of Obama comes in response to the many criticisms against him. If you bundled them all up and took a look at them, here's what you would discover: Obama is being criticized for being the Democrat that he is. His approaches to economic troubles, to health care, to stem cell research, to Cuba, you name it, his approaches are Democratic approaches. Now, I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat, because this is not a case of right or wrong. Instead, it's a case of "if I had been elected, that's not how I would have done it." Agreed. We get that. Now acknowledge that he is the one who did get elected and he's doing it the way he said he was going to do it.

My God, he's gotten a lot done in less than 100 days:

He's gotten major legislation through.
He's conducted a successful European trip.
He's begun to address global warming.
He's reversed Bush on stem cells.
He's reversed about 10 (wrong) presidents on Cuba.
He's handled a tough decision as Commander-in-Chief with flying colors.
He's picked the NCAA national champion.
He's made the tough call that St. Louis might actually have better deep dish pizza than Chicago.
He's fulfilled his campaign promise to his family about the dog.
He's called out Rush Limbaugh.
He's begun the national health care discussion.
He's taken on Wall Street and Detroit auto.
He's begun to get us thinking about how we need to change our lifestyles.

As my friend said across the table in a bar tonight, "I like the fact that he's willing to try things. And, hey, if they don't work, then he'll try something else."

Yep, it's probably no real surprise that I'm a big fan. In a world where so many of us have to multi-task all the time, where we're talking to one person and texting another, where we're juggling work and family and concern for the environment and the love of a good meal, we've got a president who seems to understand and do all of that on a much larger scale, a scale that he handles with grace and aplomb. Is he willing to get a little down and dirty to accomplish what he wants? Yes. But guess what? I have to do the same thing every day. And I don't mind a class war, even if I'm on the losing side. I guess that makes me a liberal, too, eh?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Run, Forrest, Run!

You'll Never Catch Him - Buffalo Tom (mp3)
Run Rabbit Run - Rob Zombie (mp3)

Recent events in my line of work have had me thinking about the violent tendencies of the youthful male. While it's clear I have the "self-bloodsucking" gene, I somehow fell out of line when it came time to hand out the Fighting gene.

Forthwith is my own brief historical experience with fighting.

My first foray into the world of pugilism did not come until I was in the seventh grade. Before that, I had several playground encounters where my smart-ass big mouth would piss a bigger kid off, and then I'd go running like the dickens until they got sick of chasing me. Running from larger kids, much like Indiana Jones running from that large boulder, inspires speed and endurance beyond what is normally possible.

The seventh grade fight involved four punches. I said something to piss off this guy Matthew, and he punched me in the chest. He swung at me a second time, and I started running (you'll probably notice a theme building). Unfortunately, this dude was a burgeoning track god, so he had little trouble catching me and forcing me to face him. We both flailed like only wimpy seventh-graders can, aiming anywhere and everywhere without discrimination, and a friend of ours screamed at us to stop because a teacher was coming. Both of us also being geeks not wanting trouble with The Man, we stopped immediately and parted ways. After I got around the corner and beyond the line of sight of the other students, I broke down into a fit of bawling. I had trouble catching my breath.

One of my friends came around and saw me crying and wanted to know where I'd been hit. He didn't believe me when I kept insisting that I wasn't hurt. Although physically unharmed, the mere act of trying to punch someone else, of someone else trying to punch me, broke my heart. But I didn't understand any of that at the time. I just knew I was unhurt but overwrought with knee-quaking sadness.

A similar fight sprang out between myself and a classmate and friend. We were in ninth grade. We attended the same elementary school for three grades, and he had witnessed me smarting off and fleeing many fights in his day. He was one of my better elementary school pals. By ninth grade, however, he had taken a more jock-ish path while I was destined to be cut from every team this side of basket-weaving. On this particular day, we were wrestling around, and wrestling just happened to be my sport... in that I served as the tackle dummy for many good wrestlers.

Enjoying my unusual advantage over this larger guy, I kinda abused him a little. The action got a little too intense, and it seems I accidentally kneed him in the balls (no, seriously, it was an accident). I tried apologizing, but he swung at me anyway. So guess what I did? Yup, I ran. I ran and ran, but the dude was in better shape than me, and he kept running, too, until I found myself cornered.

At that point, he took several swings at me, landing nothing serious, and I behaved much like a panicky cat, occasionally shoving out from the wall with my legs and ramming into him to push him away. He kept insisting that I come out from my "little rathole" and referred to me in numerous ways that might suggest I was not a real man. I kept insisting that he accept my damn apology and quit trying to beat the shit out of me, thus proving to all witnesses that such accusations of my not being a real man were well founded.

Finally, he gave up and walked away. Once he did, I broke down and cried. Yes, more crying. No physical wounds, no real reason to cry. Just difficulty breathing and a feeling like my heart was breaking. Except this time it was worse, because he had been a real friend, and the whole fight was due to my carelessness, and that fight signalled the official death of whatever friendship had remained. From then on, we were just classmates with a past who got along with one another.

My only other fight, in my entire life, was on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. My large group of friends were drunk and in a meat market dance club called Players. So were members of the UNC wrestling team. One of those dudes and one of our dudes had words. Both dudes agreed to take it outside. All their dudes and all our dudes followed. Once outside, their dude beat the ever-livin' shit out of our dude, and it wasn't even a contest. Unfortunately, their dude also pulled a Mike Tyson and started chewing on our dude's ear while choking him so intensely that our dude was turning the same color as Violet Beauregard in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

Sincerely fearing for my dude's life, I screamed at their dude to stop and ran forward to break them up. From a direction I can't even describe or explain, something landed in my diaphragm with the force of a medicine ball and sent me reeling back into a storefront, collapsing in a heap to the pavement. Friends tell me 10 minutes passed before I was capable of speaking. I found out later that one of the other wrestling dudes had bum rushed me and landed a shoulder right in my mid-section at high speed -- what was he, four feet tall?? Mini-me?? -- sending me into the wall, where he then punched me in that same general area once, upon which I crumpled like Princess Leia in a garbage compactor. Although I can't be sure, I suspect the dude who KO'd me with one and a half punches cried after it was over, only because he'd picked the one dude who was completely incapable of even putting up anything resembling a fight.

Point is, I don't get fighting. Never have, and likely never will. If I ever say the words, "I'm a lover, not a fighter," it's not so much that I'm bragging about my amorous skills as a simple process of elimination.

The Buffalo Tom tune is off their latest awesome album,  Three Easy Pieces. Highly recommend it. It's available on eMusic, iTunes and Can't find the Rob Zombie tune anywhere.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sonic Resurrection

Dinosaur Jr.--"I Don't Wanna Go There" (mp3)
Dinosaur Jr.--"Tarpit" (mp3)

Dinosaur Jr. last night was the sonic resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sorry, but sometimes only blasphemy really makes the point. I've never seen a show like Dinosaur Jr. at Rhythm and Brews. I've never seen a guitarist like J. Mascis. If, in 2009, fingers on an electric guitar could send a man heavenward, then surely J. Mascis is the one who could do it, playing a non-stop swirl of notes, chords, and fills, moving effortlessly from rhythm to lead, and, most of all, playing so melodically that, if you could have actually heard what anyone was saying around you, you would have heard them gasping at the sheer beauty of each Mascis solo.

If you think about the times you have confronted beauty in your life (mostly likely in nature or in a museum), you may recall that sense of awe that leaves you unable to do much more than to nod your head, maybe smile at those around you to make sure that they are reacting the way you are reacting. Such was last night. Who knew that such beauty could exist at over 120 decibels!

Were we ever to confront the beauty of God, we would have to turn away. It would be too overwhelming. Aurally, last night was the same experience--too much for naked human ears to comprehend. Godlike? Maybe. Really, really, really fucking loud? Mos def.

If you weren't there, then all I can say is that you missed it. What a rock show! And, let's face it, how many rock shows are out there in 2009 that rock this hard and with this sophistication?

Here are the 5 keys to a Dinosaur Jr. concert that make it like no other I've seen in a long, long time:

1. Music before the show. The music before the show is louder than most live shows. The bass alone started to mess with my internal rhythms. I'm having a hard time clarifying my anticipation--there was a sense of the unexpected, even a sense of fear, or danger, but not that something bad would happen to me. On the contrary, I knew the show would be good. The fear was more of a fear of inadequate preparation: was I ready for what I was about to experience? Dinosaur Jr. would be a no-brainer for a 20-year-old, but when you're almost 52, it's a little scary to return to something that overwhelms your senses that completely. You want to thrive; you want to survive. It reminds a little bit of that theme park ride that your child loves so you ride it with her, and when you get off, your brain's sense of balance is so scrambled you can't walk straight.

2. Earplugs. If you didn't have them, you probably don't have your hearing today. You might not have it tomorrow. I've never worn earplugs at a concert before, which certainly isn't bragging, it's just fact. I had 6th row seats in front of the wall of speakers at Deep Purple when I was 17. I stood once in a small club on McCallie Avenue about 20 years ago watching Tinsley Ellis, and I could feel my eardrums palpitating from the sheer volume. I knew I was losing hearing that night, and I didn't like it. Last night, most everyone had them, and what a pleasure it was, after an incredible performance, to pull them out and to enjoy full, clear hearing.

3. J.'s rig. Dino is, of course, a three piece, but J. Mascis lives in his own little universe on stage. The boundaries of this universe are Marshall stack. Next to that stands another Marshall stack. Next to that stands a Hiwatt stack. These form an angled wall behind Mascis. In front of him is another stack with what looks like a bass head on top that faces him. It is probably four times the gear that you would expect to see a guitarist bring to a show, any show. Imagine this pagoda of sound in a club that holds, at most, 200 people. It's like Neil Young packed up his stadium set-up and brought it into your living room.

4. J. is in his own world and you are in yours. When Dinosaur Jr. is onstage, you can do nothing else but watch and listen. You can't talk to your friends--they will shrug their shoulders and give you a look of incomprehension. You can't chat up strange women for the same reason-- all your flirtatious loquaciousness is on mute. Even your cup of beer looks like an earthquake sensor in full activity. So you just let the band's sound take you over and you muse and you ponder and you dream of heaven.

5. Excellent companions. I was thinking yesterday morning that I didn't want to go. John made me go. He had been getting fired up by playing the tunes on his deck all weekend. Various people mentioned coming, but they didn't come. Billy came. He had to wait for his wife to get home from handbells practice. He didn't have a ticket. He could have bailed. He didn't. I've said it before about live music and I still believe it's true: you have to make the effort to go, because the older you get, the more things get in the way of your going. I'm glad we were able to share the experience. Even when you can't talk to each other, that smile, that nod to each other in the face of soaring, pounding, bass-in-your gut beauty is really all you need.

And Dinosaur Jr.? They were excellent companions, too, albeit more ambivalent ones. Their music was transcendent. Their noise was threatening. They put the sound out there and left it to us to figure out what to do with it.

"I Don't Wanna Go There" and "Tarpit" both come from the 7" vinyl given out to those who attended the show.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I've Got Yer Plank Right Here

What Was I Thinkin' In My Head - Sly + The Family Stone (mp3)
Heart Into Suicide - Exile Parade (mp3)

Pirates. The TODAY show talked about 'em. Every friggin' news source this side of Al Jazeera has talked about 'em. Hell, I bet even Al Jazeera has talked about 'em. Let's check, shall we? ...  ... Yup, Al Jazeera's got pirate news!

Forgive me, but this whole story of the Somali pirates and the Heroic Bearded Captain and the Kick-Ass Snipers is... well, it's pretty damn cool, if we're all being completely honest. The characters in this particular yarn are so compelling that it seems everyone followed at least a teensy bit of the tale.

As the wacky liberal I sometimes find myself to be, my second reaction upon hearing that these pirates had been sniped out of existence was a sort of pity and sadness. The desperation and poverty of trying to survive in a hopeless third-world African country and all that. It's pitiful that these people fall into such a livelihood, yada yada.

The success of all these pirates, their pillaging and their booty, was pushing them up the News Stock Market. There was a Pirate Bubble on the open seas, and it was only a matter of time before they overextended their investments by catching a fish too damn big for their own good. And this one was it. They caught an American fish, with a crafty American captain. Then, to make matters worse, they killed the sympathetic nature of even a wacky liberal like myself by reneging on a trade. They promised to trade the captain for one of their compadres, but upon receipt of said compadre, they welshed and kept the captain.

It was at this precise moment in the Reality TV plot that folks everywhere said, "Oh no they dint." And then we all said, "Oh, they're fucked now."

John Grisham's plotting genius was not needed to finish this particular yarn. We all knew this one ended with the pirates floating face-down in the ocean. The only drama was whether the captain would return to our continent in or out of a pine box.

But here's what I've been thinking: Who's dying to go back and re-view those "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies??

Seriously, does anyone in America find it just a teensy bit more difficult to enjoy those movies now, after months and months of these non-Johnny Depp-lookin' dudes pillaging anything and everything in sight? Does all of Jack Sparrow's clever quips and his runway-esque strut create just the slightest "I just threw up in my mouth" kind of reaction to anyone? 'Cuz it does for me. In theory and in practice, there's very little difference between the kind of crap Jack Sparrow did as a pirate in the movies we proudly show our children and the crap these dudes did that earned them a high-caliber Navy SEAL bullet right in the skull.

Except, when Jack Sparrow was doing it, we cheered him on. And when those British soldiers were aiming at him with their muskets, we hissed and booed.

It just leaves me wondering, political leanings aside, what side are we on, and when are we on it? Do we cheer for the charming and the attractive, no matter what they do or how they do it? Do we root against the disheveled and downtrodden without regard to their motives, their needs?

If you want to watch a really great movie about this, I'd recommend George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in "Three Kings," where they're both the soldiers AND the pirates, and they're forced throughout the movie to sway back and forth between the two evils, trying desperately to figure out how to do either one and keep their souls.

In the meantime, all I can say is I don't really want to see Jack Sparrow for a while. I think I'm done with him for now. As for Keira Knightley... she might need to get in touch with me and coax me into continuing my drooly habits in her direction. Ms. Knightley can reach me at 24 hours a day, 13 days a week.

(I can't seem to find either of these songs anywhere on iTunes or so good luck!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sort Of

George Winston--"Rain" (mp3)
Ralph Towner--"Winter Solstice" (mp3)

It's a question that poets and artists, if not philosophers, have pondered: does the pale imitation undermine the real thing? Does commerce diminish art? Can B get you to A?

Was Hemingway right when he told Fitzgerald that F. Scott's commercial writing was weakening his "real" writing? Will a lifetime of Aunt Jemima's syrup bring about an eventual conversion to the more complex pleasures of Grade B Vermont Maple Syrup? Does the Quarter Pounder with Cheese make you want to know what all the Kobe beef fuss is about?

Yes, my friends, I have grappled with these very issues, and musically.

Back before there was New Age or any of that kind of stuff, before John Tesh became a household name, there was ECM. ECM was (and still may be) a record label specializing in a kind of jazz, a jazz of a type. There was a starkness there, a clean, crisp, but almost sterile production sensibility, airy melodies in odd keys, instruments with unusual tunings, and, for a college student in the late 70's, the sense that I had never heard anything like it.

While ECM never was the main focus of my listening, being the rocker that I am, it did intrigue me enough to follow my brother's lead into an exploration of this kind of jazz. For us, the twin gods of ECM were Ralph Towner, and, especially, Keith Jarrett. My brother once proclaimed, and I still ponder the idea, that he would like to have Ralph Towner's "Icarus" played at his funeral. Clarification: I don't ponder playing it at his funeral; he'll probably outlive me. But I still think, when I hear it, how Towner's composition captures both the desolation of a lost loved one with a kind of hope. Perfectly titled song. Keith Jarrett was the one we really listened to. His Koln Concert recording was eye-opening to me for two reasons: 1) it was absolutely beautiful and 2) it was completely improvisational, which was something I couldn't even fathom.

Of course, when we went to see him in concert, jazz neophyte that I was, I kind of went hoping to hear my favorite portion of the Koln Concert.

Uh, Bob, it was improvisational, remember?

Seeing Jarrett in concert was also my first experience of getting "shushed" by the artist (the other was Neil Young a year or two later, who quit playing in the middle of his acoustic set because people were yelling and clapping and cavorting during "Sugar Mountain;" Neil said, 'I'm sorry, folks, I love music too much' and left the stage). Jarrett did not want us to clap or make any noise at all during the songs because it would disturb his concentration. A bit pompous, I'd say, but who was I to know.

And then came George Winston. George was the popular, best-selling pianist who took ECM into its profitable stage and helped to usher in the New Age. I listened to him quite a bit in the late 80's as kind of an update of my jazz side. But, he wasn't really jazz, was he? You can listen to the selection above and decide for yourself. My sense is that he is kind of a Salieri to Keith Jarrett's Mozart, if you've seen the movie Amadeus. Not as talented, not as complicated, not enough variations in his cycles through the same melodic passage. We saw him here for a well-received show. Perfectly enjoyable and pleasant, but kind of ho-hum like an Alison Kraus performance. It just reminds you that there is better stuff out there.

And that is my point: Winston doesn't do much for me now (though, in the selection above, I do like that repetitive passage that begins at 1:02). But, I'd like to think that he did lead me to better things, that my appreciation of pianists like McCoy Tyner, Dave Brubeck, Marcus Roberts, that my smattering of forays into more accomplished jazz are the result of swimming in the kiddie pool with George Winston.

It's the same approach that I took with my children and music. I never tried to control what they listened to, but I did play what I liked along with what they liked in kind of a democratic attempt to lead them into different, what I consider better, areas. I don't know. I think it worked. It worked for me when I was a kid and my dad was blasting Glenn Miller all the time. And, my younger daughter enjoys studying to Mozart, and I heard her humming Tom Petty just the other day.

The entire stable of ECM artists, including other temporary favorites like Jan Garbarek and Pat Metheny, is available at Itunes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Another Plug of Other People's Stuff

Seems like a good weekend to encourage education by promoting video work done by others. Besides, ever since that Van Halen video for "Right Now," I've always been fascinated by text-centric video. (The Denis Leary Ford commercials are another example, but nowhere near as informative.)

The beauty of propoganda, as this example proves nicely, is that because I know next to nothing about financial matters, if you make my education simple and appealing, I'm naturally inclined to want to believe it's accurate. Thus, my inclusion of it in a blog post on a holiday weekend.

If you watch and are interested in the second part, click here.

Happy investing, and Happy Easter.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

To Be A Witness

Coast Is Clear (live) - Curve (mp3)
Wake Up Exhausted (semi-live) - Alkaline Trio (mp3)

In the late summer months of 2008, fellow BOTG'er Bob and I had a back-and-forth regarding the comparative joys and downfalls of recorded music versus the experience of a live performance. In that semi-debate, I begged to find live music lacking by comparison. After last night, although I still stand by much of my argument, I feel I owe an apology to my blog partner.

On Monday night, I witnessed the glorious sight of my alma mater, UNC, winning their fifth national championship on a TV screen in Chattanooga. I stood, nervous and fidgety and with a pitch half an octave above my normal range, with some 25 other alumni and family members in the pool house of one of Chattanooga's newer and nicer downtown condo complexes. The atmosphere and experience were fine. We won a championship, and the feeling was very cool.

Quite a different experience from my national championship memories from 2005 and 1993.

In 1993, I was a junior in Chapel Hill. We watched the game on our (at the time) huge 26-inch low-def TV with a dozen or so friends, and then we sped up (thank God for non-drinking friends!) to Franklin Street -- "downtown" in Chapel Hill is, for all intents and purposes, a six-block stretch of a single street -- and joined the 20,000+ people who were in the streets to celebrate a truly unifying moment.

It was a horrible night for such a celebration, to be honest. A freezing drizzle fell most of the night, and temperatures sank from the low 50s down as time passed. With the trusty assistance of Alka Hall, I managed to stay plenty warm, as did most of the other thousands around me. Those who were still cold found furniture and other flammable materials and burned them in the streets. (It was a humanitarian act, much like Han Solo slicing that Tauntaun with a light saber in order to keep Luke warm.)

By the end of the night:
  • I'd been kissed on the lips by two great female friends who would never have otherwise kissed me and never did again;
  • my beautiful cream-colored sweater (I've always been a sweater guy) had been spray-painted with "UNC #1"
  • one of my roommates passed out in the bushes five blocks away;
  • another roommate reunited (again) with the ex-girlfriend he would ultimately marry;
  • I'd been quoted by a Daily Tar Heel reporter as saying, "Because they told us not to," in answering the question, "Why are so many people jumping over the fires?"
  • I'd met someone who would later become a three-week girlfriend of sorts;
  • I discovered that I love everything about a celebratory crowd so long as gunshots and rock-slinging never get involved.
Rumors of coeds having sex in the trees or in the street were greatly exaggerated. At least, in the streets and trees where I looked. And I did look. Still, as wild nights go, it was the wildest night of my life considering the numbers of people and the activities involved.

In 2005, I was in St. Louis with that same now-married roommate thanks to the incredible fortune of having, as one of my student advisees, a young man whose father was highly-connected at UNC. I sat with said family 23 rows from the floor, behind the very backboard where freshman Marvin Williams made the play that helped seal the victory down the stretch. While the post-victory celebration wasn't comparable in numbers or insane acts, the evening had with it this religious exhilaration of having witnessed something transcendent in person for the first and likely last time.

On Monday night, while we celebrated the victory by... cleaning up.

We stared at the screen, through myriad commercials, all to wait for the cheesiest season-concluding tradition this side of the credits to Solid Gold, Luther Vandross' "One Shining Moment." I received text messages from Frank, the young man whose parents gave -- yes, gave -- me that 23rd-row ticket. He's a sophomore at UNC, and he was kind enough to empathize with my jonesing to be on Franklin Street and send me cell phone pictures documenting the night. He at one point got hit in the head by a removed street sign, but no matter to those in such heightened states of existence. (One such picture included at right.)

This leads me back to Bob's argument about live music over the recorded stuff and why I must apologize to him.

My experience of witnessing UNC's national championship on Monday was, basically, a recording. It wasn't the real experience. The concert experience is being in a town of tens of thousands whose spirit and focus and energy is aimed smack dab in the same direction as yours. The concert experience is watching the game itself play out before your very eyes not 100 feet away. Sure, I was totally giddy on Monday night, but it was a different and weaker kind of giddy.

The live version would have been so much better. And it's not even close.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Boys Will Be Boys (Even When They're Men)

Ryan Adams--"Boys" (mp3)
David Bowie--"Boys Keep Swinging" (mp3)

Yesterday, here at school, was a day of boys. Our annual "day off for fun and games in the spring" was a coed event for the first time (girls arrived in the afternoon), but it was still a day of boys. It was a day of:

showing off,

In short, a boy day.

Overseeing this day of fun were a group of (primarily) gentler (primarily) men. Even during this day of spring frenzy, we expect our guys to be somewhat gentlemanly. We expect them to respect guidelines, stay in boundaries, look out for those around them, adjust their competitive spirits to accomodate those girls, be gracious hosts to those girls, share in chivalrous ways, etc. We expect a lot. Example: as the day was winding down, I called out to some guys in the sno-cone line, "Hey, could you let the girls go ahead of you? They need to leave soon." One of them looked at me and replied, "They can leave now." He was half-kidding; I was half-shocked. But, he didn't let anyone ahead of him. And I didn't make him.

And then, alas, my mind takes me back just a couple of weeks to a "Guy Trip," a "Mancation," a bachannalian frenzy of a visit to New Orleans that I was a part of with a group of (primarily) gentler men. And, of course, it got me thinking. If you've never been on one of these "guy trips," first of all, you're missing out because, first, they are very fun, but, second of all, seen from a distance, these trips follow a fairly predictable schedule of:

seeking out good food,
insulting each other's sports teams,
oogling women,
eating junk food,
making gay jokes about each other,
making bathroom jokes about each other,
making "that's what she said" jokes about each other,
trying to get each other to pay for drinks,
making jokes about each other's musical tastes,
playing quasi-sports like Golden Tee and Air Hockey,
talking about what women do when they're together,

In short, a guy trip.

Most of all, though, a guy trip is about sheer camaraderie (unless, of course, one of your pals is spending all of his time chasing bachelorette parties). You talk about things you wouldn't talk about around the lunch table. You learn things you might not want to know. You confront real fears and weaknesses. The facades come down, the daily issues that clog intimacy are not present, the need to impress in any way except the most ironic, self-depracatory way is pretty much gone. If anything gets too close, you resort to insults and put-downs.

Let's face it, whether or not we are all alpha males in the strictest sense, we are all alpha males in our own homes, we are all kings of our own castles, and so the managing of egos and desires on a "guy trip" is a delicate endeavor, one fraught with greater tension and compromise because a "guy trip" is always too short-lived to do everything that we thought we wanted to do. And that's what keeps us coming back. And next time, we'll do everything we did that we liked last time plus all of the things we didn't get to do and then some. We're guys. We're boys. We live in the world of endless possibility.

It's not unlike watching, in miniature, 650 boys cut loose on campus to do what they please with minimal supervision and mostly only each other to keep each other in check. There may be one-upsmanship, but there is rarely fighting. There may be ravenous hunger, but everyone gets the chance to eat (let it go by, and you may not get the second chance). There may be unchecked competition, but there will be concern when someone gets hurt. And above everything is that sense that whatever you are doing, you like it that a bunch of other guys are doing it with you. You stray outside that brotherhood, and maybe that's when you get in trouble.

But boys will be boys. And men, well, God forbid we ever lose that boyishness. That's when we die.

Ryan Adam's criminally-underrated Rock N Roll and David Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging" are both available at Itunes.