Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sex: The Mississippi River of Gender Divides?

Sex as a Weapon - Pat Benatar (mp3)
Skin Trade - Bob Mould (mp3)
Mr. Roboto (live) - Dennis DeYoung (mp3)

Two stories recently caught my eye. That they caught my eye says plenty about me, but they also, when set next to one another, say quite a bit about men and women and that timeless beautiful word, SEX.

The first story I found at The Frisky. (It's like sneaking a peek at Cosmo except without the guilt or shame of other adults watching you do so while you're sitting in a Barnes & Noble or something. Thank God for the Internet!) Apparently a German company by the name of First Androids have created a life-sized and somewhat realistic sex doll android. At a cost of almost $4,000, the company claims to have received four MILLION backorders of this creation. Yes, four million men -- or maybe three million men and a million more bigamist wannabes who just can't stand the idea of screwing just one android sex doll for the rest of their lives -- believe it's totally worth a $4 grand to have the replica of a female at their eternal sexual beck and call, so long as they have enough D batteries (or should I say "Double D batteries"?).

The second story surrounds the new book, "Why Women Have Sex," written by a pair of researchers who identified 237 reasons why women have sex, with most of them having absolutely nothing to do with romance or physical gratification. TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY-SEVEN REASONS!!! The researcher even rattles off, just right off the top of her noggin, a huge list of great female motivators for having sex:

"...promotion, money, drugs, bartering, for revenge, to get back at a partner who has cheated on them. To make themselves feel good. To make their partners feel bad." Women, she says, "can use sex at every stage of the relationship, from luring a man into the relationship, to try and keep a man so he is fulfilled and doesn't stray. Duty. Using sex to get rid of him or to make him jealous."

Meanwhile, according to Dr. Moi, men pretty much have sex for one of about five reasons:

1. Because we like a woman, and this connection turns us on.
2. Because we think a woman is irresistibly hot, and this connection turns us on.
3. Because a woman makes us think we're hot or irresistible or adorable or (insert ego-boosting adjective here).
4. Because we're horny and needed a nut, and we hardly even care who assists us.
5. _________________ (This space left open just in case I've left some really compelling reason out... which is unlikely. I just figured I should give men five reasons because that's how many fingers they have on one hand... oh never mind.)

Don't worry, men and women aren't really THAT far apart. The Almighty Orgasm is the number one reason women have sex, and LOVE is a safe #2. The difference is that, for men, it pretty much starts and ends right there, but with women, there's this whole string of additional possible motives, littering the floor  like bullets from a scene in Black Hawk Down, that could motivate their sexual decisions from one minute to the next.

Another great quote:

"The degree to which economics plays out in sexual motivations," Buss says, "surprised me. Not just prostitution. Sex economics plays out even in regular relationships. Women have sex so that the guy would mow the lawn or take out the garbage. You exchange sex for dinner." He quotes some students from the University of Michigan. It is an affluent university, but 9% of students said they had "initiated an attempt to trade sex for some tangible benefit".

Women use sex for economic benefit; men buy $4,000 androids so they can get their rocks off without the burden of an (unspoken) economic transaction. They use fiscal economics to avoid the dangers of sexual economics, knowing how easily abused they can be in that world.

OK, it's not all men. OK, I don't think men actually want sex androids to avoid anything. OK, I think men are just really really really horny and don't even think about anything all that deep that involve both words "sex" and "transaction."

Is four million orders surprising because it's too many from that tunnel-visioned half of the gender divide... or not enough?

Are 237 reasons to have sex too many, or is five too few?

* -- For those of you under the age of 30, back in the '80s and farther in the past, you had to buy these printed things called "dirty magazines" to see boobies, and that's all most of the magazines showed, was pictures of boobies and sometimes other parts covered in patches of hair. Nowadays you can, with two clicks and Google, witness just about any sexual act the mind could invent in even its most demented states. But trust me, it used to require careful planning and cunning tact (huh huh).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mischief Night

Richard Shindell--"Are You Happy Now?" (mp3)
Guadalcanal Diary--"Ghosts On The Road" (mp3)

Like the Halloween when I was in the 5th grade and choose as my costume the uniform of a Nazi soldier, Mischief Night is probably best forgotten by time.

In this age of police, DNA, Internet tracks, and all of the other ways in which we are so easily identified, Mischief Night, which was a fairly harmless evening of causing trouble, today would cause a lot more trouble for the perpetrators.

The holiday that we call Halloween used to consists of two nights, not just the current one. Halloween Eve, at least in Pittsburgh where I grew up, was called Mischief Night or Devil's Night, and, as such, was probably the most appropriately named night of the year. Imagine this: otherwise responsible mothers and fathers allowing their sons to dress up in dark clothes and go out with their friends in roving gangs to play pranks all over the neighborhood. "Come back when you're finished, kids, and maybe we'll have some hot cocoa waiting."

And that's what's funny to me now. There was nothing secretive or underhanded about it at all.

But, first, that costume. My grandfather and great uncle served in World War II in the infantry, and one of them, my great uncle Clinton, I think, came home with a full German uniform, complete with boots, helmet, belt buckle, rifle, and bayonet. The story behind how he got it is one I don't know. Moths went to work on it, so by the time parts of it passed to the only male grandchildren in the 1960's, only the collars and cuffs of the uniform remained intact. I suppose it is some measure of both my naivete and stupidity that I spent the day sewing the cuff and collar onto a green sweatshirt, donning the trademark German helmet, and heading out the door with a pillowsack to collect candy.

And was it a sign of the times, as well? My parents didn't bat an eye, my friends that I walked with from house to house didn't seem to find it at all odd that the uniform of ultimate evil was travelling amidst their ranks. And what of the houses where we rang the doorbells? A Jewish home, perhaps, where the mother opens her door to find a blond haired, blue-eyed member of some neo-Hitler Youth expecting some candy?

Back to Mischief Night. A simple Internet search reveals that this tradition continues, but not in Chattanooga, as I just confirmed on the phone with my blog mate. "Mischief Night? What are you talking about?" he asked. I'm talking about soaping windows, rolling houses and cars with toilet paper, peanut butter on screen doors, eggs everywhere, soap on windows, smashed pumpkins. I'm talking about a PG-rated suburban version of A Clockwork Orange, tacitly, if not officially, sanctioned by the adults of a neighborhood, loosely monitored by the police. I'm talking about the things Adam Sandler and his friends do early on in Billy Madison, like lighting bags of poop and then ringing the doorbell and hiding in the bushes to watch the homeowner stamp out the bag and step in the poop. Those things happened on Mischief Night.

I'm talking about the night that made Halloween all the more special, because when you went house to house Trick or Treating, you were in costume partially to disguise your role in what had happened to that house the night before. And, yes, you did visit those kinds of houses, the ones singled out for retribution, both night.

The farther back you go, the more mischievous Mischief Night was. Talk to my father or get him talking about his father, and you're talking about a Mischief Night that involved firecrackers before there were standards, firecrackers that were little less than mini sticks of dynamite, used to blow up outhouses. You're talking about real delinquency, hoisting fences up onto telephone wires and other ways of destroying property.

Our greatest prank was essentially harmless. An old lady three or four houses down, who was the kind who would yell at us for walking on her grass, kept a meticulous year, so meticulous that even in late October, there was not a single leaf in the entire yard. So how do a group of boys respond? By getting several garbage bags of leaves, then dumping and spreading them all over her yard. The next night, while Trick or Treaters came and went, she had hired a security guard to hide inside her large evergreen, keeping watch. Did we go there for candy anyway? Absolutely.

In the context of today, as parents of today, it all sounds pretty barbaric, evidence of some previous, lawless society. We'd never let our children do anything like that. It's enough that we let them drive to Starbuck's alone after 9 PM.

But it's one of those signs of the times, isn't it? One of those requiems for what we have become, a society that is so concerned about being safe and so concerned about staying out of trouble with neighbors, the police, bosses, and anyone else who might hold us or our children accountable for a little good, not-entirely-clean, fun.

Mischief Night in 2009 Chattanooga may seem like anti-social behavior, but if the society expects it, or deserves it, how anti-social is it? I freely admit that even as a responsible adult in the second half century of his life, I have thought of expressing my feelings about a certain neighbor with a dozen eggs launched after midnight. But these days you never know where the cameras might be, you know? Be afraid.

If you've never heard Richard Shindell's terrific "Are You Happy Now?" you have missed out on the story of the worst Halloween prank of all. His work and Guadalcanal are both available at Itunes.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Postcards from The DW

This is a Business - The Dodos (mp3)
Johnny Quest/Stop That Pigeon - The Reverend Horton Heat (mp3)

My family spent last week at DisneyWorld in Orland -- er, Kissimmee, Florida. We stranded my not-quite 2-year-old son with my in-laws and headed for warmer climes equipped with passes to all of the Disney parks as well as a day for SeaWorld. It was my third experience and the second for both of my daughters, and the entire trip was fantastic. This was true mostly because I don't handle our day-to-day finances, so I have no remote clue how much the trip cost us.

Were I to even try and guess how much money was involved, I would begin to ratchet down my concept of a "fantastic" trip and start nickel-and-diming every minute. Was that dinner really worth $200 for four fucking people? Why did we buy a 7-day pass and only use five days, and how much money did we throw away? Each day at a park cost us HOW much?? Why the hell are we buying all of these $10 pins? This luau cost us how much?!

But I don't do that. Not really. And even if I started to add the numbers in my head, I have no idea how the cost of that trip relates to our current financial situation. It's possible the trip crippled us for years and will force my children to go to trucking school instead of college, or it's possible we had saved up so much vacation money that we could go again in the spring if we really wanted. (And, well, if we could find someone else foolish enough to watch our whirling dervish of a toddler for a week.)

Still, in the hopes of squeezing out a few more dollars' worth out of the trip, I thought I'd share a few observations I made over the course of the week:

The Woman Who Talked to Her Stuffed Fox

Last day of the trip. We've just entered the Magic Kingdom as a part of Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, which is just an excuse for Disney to close the park early and charge an entirely new group of a bajillion people for the "exclusive" rights to the park for six hours. We totally fell for it. Because we're gullible.

Anyway, we're walking down Main Street -- they brilliantly force you to enter and exit past a quarter-mile of commerce options -- towards our first destination of TomorrowLand, and I hear this woman's voice right behind me.

"They're waiting for us!" she says excitedly. I look around at her. She's a forgettable bespectacled lass clad in all black and sporting heavily dyed maroonish-colored hair. She's got one of those long-strap bookbag-type thingies hanging around her neck and dangling to her side, and this smallish reddish stuffed fox has its head and front paws sticking out of the front. She is otherwise alone and walking not two paces behind my younger daughter.

I turn back around, and she immediately says, "Ohh look! Isn't that adorable?!?" Being a moron, I turn back around, and she's stroking this stuffed fox's head and pointing towards a mascot cat -- I think it was that white cat from The Aristocats, but I'm not too familiar with that one, so I could be wrong. Pulling my daughter to my other side, I slide over and just make sure she doesn't have one of those damned BlueTooth devices crammed in her other ear.

Nope. She was talking to the fucking fox.

She's alone. In her late 20s. Talking to her stuffed fox.

God bless the U.S.A.

No One Cusses!

Maybe it's just me, but the absence of foul language is not something that you immediately notice. I mean, in my daily life, it's not like I hear people dropping F-bombs left and right. I'm more vulgar when I'm writing these BOTG posts than I am in 97% of my everyday life. When it comes to the complete absence of cussing, I think you only notice it when that streak is broken.

We'd been in the Land of Disney for five days, including an adult night out on "the town" (Universal's CityWalk, which on a Sunday night ain't all dat). We were in Epcot on a Wednesday night, and there was this couple arguing in Norway, and one of them dropped the F-bomb. And then the girl dropped it right back on his nasty arse. And then a few more words went flying left and right.

Jenni and I actually found ourselves looking around, waiting for Disney mascots dressed as UN Peacekeepers to come and escort the couple off the premises. I'm totally not kidding. I figured they have microphones and cameras covering every damn inch of that property, and I figured they have the mikes trained to pick up foul language, with cameras trained to hone in on the human origin of such trash talk, with security detail on hand to beat those fucking bastards into a greater respect for G-rated communication.

But no security came. The couple argued for a few more minutes and then commenced making out like some bad scene from Top Gun. Maybe the Disney powers that be knew how this particular story would end. Point is, everyone in our group left the scene commenting on the fact that this couple had spewed out the first and only cuss words we'd heard in five consecutive days of Disney life. That must have been how Eve felt when she realized she was nekkid.

Families that Disney Together, Scream Together

While Living In The DW apparently enforces this mysterious censorship over the foul language of its adult guests, no power in the universe can prevent marital spats, and we saw more inter-spousal warfare while on Disney property than I've every witnessed in such a short time in my whole life. While they almost always did with some attempt at maintaining dignity -- you'd be amazed at how mostly civil spouses can be in serious spats when they don't want to cuss a blue streak at each other -- anyone with eyeballs could see couples in the midst of warfare. The glares, the raised language, the hands coming down on the stroller or the bench or the knee, the hands through the hair or pulling down on the ballcap, the turning and huffing.

I think it's in the very nature of a Disney vacation. You've got the types who plan out every minute of a trip like that, hoping to squeeze out every penny of value and, accidentally, also squeezing out any chance of spontaneity or enjoyment. Then you've got the dolt of a spouse who hates to even plan where to sleep that night. And they might hold these opposing philosophies in check for a day or two, but eventually, when also battling the whiny and ungrateful nature of small children who are supposed to be incapable of wiping that ohmyGodI'minDisneyfuckingWorld! grin off their faces, these forces collide and ill will and conflict ensue.

This isn't to say these weren't normal or happy couples. It just seems to be the nature of a vacation where the very point of going is to be moving non-stop. Families who go to the beach don't argue half as much. (Yes, they argue, because couples argue unless one of them is dead, but they don't argue as much at the beach.)

Epcot Is No New Orleans, and CityWalk Ain't The French Quarter

Getting a 5'10", 170 lb. male sufficiently intoxicated in Epcot costs roughly $100, which is roughly $80 more than it costs in almost any other place on the planet.

Oh yeah, and when you're eating the buffet in Germany, no matter how completely intoxicated you are, and no matter how soon it is after encountering the cussing couple from my No One Cusses! section, it is incredibly insulting to ask your German exchange student-slash-waitress whether you spell it "feck" or "fech." Asking that question makes young German ladies in DisneyWorld cry. There's a special place in hell for me for that particular act. And I thought I was being cute.

I blame the fechen Spaten.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Road Rules: The Stare

Jemina Pearl--"Looking For Trouble" (mp3)
Mickey Hart's Music Box--"Look Away" (mp3)

It's pretty amazing, isn't it? How little it takes to turn a simple drive down an interstate into a potentially-lethal confrontation?

I can be driving down the road, listening to music I really like, full of belly from a profitable stop at Chik-Fil-A, riding with pleasant company, and all of a sudden, something can happen, some really small thing, and I become a raging madman, ready to take on all comers, unwilling to back down from the slightest slight, ready to duel another vehicle to the death.

There are many causes for this: 1) someone cuts in front of me, 2) someone slows down in the fast lane, 3) someone rides my ass, 4) someone does anything else that pisses me off.

But what really gets me, and most of us, cranked up is THE STARE.

You know what the stare is. It's that personal contact that you make or that someone makes with you when you have the opportunity to meet eyes on the open road. When you're out in the lane and you stare at the other car as you pass it. When a car blasts past you, and, if you're willing, you meet the eyes of the driver who is passing you. If a truck has been jamming you up, keeping you driving slow, and you finally get past it, and you lean way low and look to your right. That's the stare. And if you don't stare correctly, you risk World War III, or at least a small skirmish that is somehow part of it.

Isn't funny how a set of eyes is one of the greatest gifts that we have been given, maybe even the greatest gift, and yet, if we overuse it, it can get us into all kinds of trouble? I think it's probably okay to connect on a passing glance, just enough to get a sense of who the other driver is, but if we hold that stare just a millisecond too long, we're inviting the finger, explosive anger, at least a "What're you lookin' at, sucker?" response.

Usually, I stare all wrong. When I get to the position where I have a chance to get eye to eye, I meet those other eyes, then I look away, but after I do, I start shaking my head out of disgust because when I bother to look at another driver, it's usually because they have been slowing me up.

Women are a different problem. A man wants a good look at a good-looking woman, but on the highway, he has to make that judgement based on her hair alone, if he's coming up behind her--good-looking hair is the first indicator of a good-looking woman, but it is in no way definitive. That means that once he actually sees her, he has to make a split-second decision: if she isn't good-looking, then he has to turn away, but not so quickly as to acknowledge her non-good-lookingness; after all, he is a gentleman. If she is good-looking, he has to make that assessment equally quickly and take her all in, but not in such a way that either she or his wife makes too much of. We don't want to be Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation, after all. Or do we?

But if, God forbid, someone stares at me or at anyone else who is in the position of being a "perpetrator," meaning that we have supposedly wronged someone else, then look out. And that means that you have pulled up along side of me and given me quite the eye, maybe I see your mouth moving while you're looking at me. That I will not take.

Americans have a hard time admitting they're wrong in the best of circumstances, but on the open road, the whole "blame the accuser" notion kicks into its highest gear. All of us are just trying to get somewhere, and most of us are trying to do it with some kind of clock in our heads. And we don't like someone looking at us, challenging the way we drive.

So, you stare at me, and I'm going to kick off the cruise control and stay with you mile for mile until my wife tells me I can't do it anymore because there are two sleeping children in the back who don't need me to be driving at 90 miles per hour.

Go ahead. Just look at me. I dare you.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beware of Darkness

APPY POLLY LOGGIES: Once again, my music storage site is down. I guess it's time to look for a new site. I had planned to post George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness" (or a Leon Russell version I like) and maybe Bill Morrissey's "Something I Saw Or Thought I Saw."

Go away for a few days and you miss a lot. I was teaching my second class of the day yesterday, kind of warming things up by going around the room to find out what everyone had done over Fall Break. As I neared the end of story time, one of the boys said:

"Save Jeff for last. He's got a good story." And several guys around "Jeff" laughed.

"Ok," I said, and we heard from two or three other guys before it was Jeff's turn.

Before Jeff could start, one of the boys said, "Jeff saw paranormal activity." Now, I like ghosts and demons as much as the next guy, so I was thinking, Cool, some strange phenomenon.

But Jeff said, "It sucked. You couldn't even get scared. The black people were laughing the whole time."

And then I realized, it was a movie they were talking about. Paranormal Activity.

"The black people were laughing," I said.

"Yeah, every time there was a scary part, they started laughing."

"Well," I said, "Maybe if the black people were laughing, it really wasn't scary after all. Or else why would they be laughing?"

"No, it was scary, but...

"And did the black people laugh collectively as a race?" I asked. The other students got where I was going.

Jeff didn't. "There were like these two gangs, and there was a gang on each side of us and...."


I had a paranormal experience once. It happened in my neighborhood during lunch. I often go home for a bowl of soup, where I can sit quietly and read the paper.

Typically, when I'm my house at lunch, there is no one around. A modern neighborhood at noon has very little activity. Maybe a contractor or a HVAC person working in a home nearby, but you don't really see any people, at least where I live. The only person I was looking for was the mailman.

Tired of looking at the paper, I walked to the front door to see if I could see the mail truck coming. Nothing coming up the hill. Glancing over to the right, I started!

Standing across the street from my house was a person with no head! I jumped back from the small window. I took only one step and leaned forward, just enough that I could twist my head and slowly check across the street again. Even though it had no head, I could sense it staring at me, like it knew I was there.

It stood there and did not move. It looked to be an old person, man or woman I couldn't quite tell from the loose fitting black and white clothing it wore. It stood at the corner with a cane.

I could not stand near the window anymore. I admit it--I was scared shitless. Embarassingly, I carry with me just enough acknowledgement of Cotton Mather's "unseen world" to be both shocked and not surprised when I encounter a person with no head standing before me.

There are people in the world with torticollis or other diseases, which result in the neck muscles being unable to support the head. In an extreme case, the head would be completely over on one side, farther than we can even try to simulate. I saw this afflicted gentleman in the neighborhood several times before he died, but I was never able to shake the idea that the first time I saw him he had no head at all and was glad I never encountered him at night.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Church Monogamy

Church - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Once in a Lifetime - Talking Heads (mp3)

My church and I are like that married couple that met when they were in Kindergarten.

I've been a member of the same church since I was five years old. My step-father married my mom and adopted me. I took his name and began attending his church. I never had a say in it, nor did I really care to for a long time.

Over the years, we've had our tough stretches, our estrangements, times when we weren't talking or I would sleep on the couch. I guess that's bound to happen in an arranged marriage that goes back 30 years, right?

In my teenage years, I discovered that all my friends went to churches where actual groups of teenagers congregated and did cool stuff while I languished at a church where a heavy teenage population was, like, five kids.

This was my first revelation -- the first of many -- that my church was frumpy. She was terribly uncool. She had an outdated sense of fashion, the kind you could have just by shopping at TJ Maxx or something. She was Millie from Freaks + Geeks, the too-straight, too-uptight nerd who was already too old for their own good yet also totally clueless.

So yeah, I admit it. I snuck around on her. I visited a few other churches with friends, and I didn't tell her about it. But I wasn't unfaithful, really. It was more like I was sneaking out of my house late at night just 'cuz I wanted to see if I could get away with it, to see if I'd get caught.

I never did, but I never really left my church for long, either.

When I went to UNC, I ended up moving away from her for six years. I thought we broke up. Sure, when I was home for a holiday or something, I'd visit her, and she was all sweet and pinched my cheek and told me she missed me. And I'd hug her and tell her I missed her, too, even though my mind was far away from Chattanooga, a town most decidedly in my rearview mirror.

Problem was, I never got past a first date when I was away from her. I attended maybe a eight or nine services at a handful of churches in North Carolina and Georgia, but they were awkward blind dates, and nothing ever really connected for me.

When I found myself back in The 'Noog, my wife and I tried not to go back to my first and only church. We visited an Episcopal church, and a Methodist church, and maybe a couple of others. I even thought about becoming church celibate, something millions of American Christians have chosen rather than deal with the relationship hassles of a church. It would seem lots of folks seem to think church, while a nice girl with lots of promise, can be a pain in the ass and occasionally an insufferable bitch.

It wasn't long before my parents asked me to come back. They kept seeing my old church even after I'd broken up with her. It's tough to get away from someone when your parents keep bringing them around to visit.

I've been with her ever since. Conservatively, that's 28 years. But I've been a member there since I was five, and I've never so much as signed another church's visitor sheet, so it feels to me like I've been married to her for going on three decades now.

This isn't the part where I tell you I'm happily married to my church. You've got the wrong fairy tale.

This is the part where I tell you I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and wonder how the hell I got to this place. How have I spent almost three decades with a church that has failed and disappointed me time and again? Did I ever even love this place to begin with? Was it an arranged marriage orchestrated by my parents, and I just blindly and dutifully remained faithful?

Lately, I find myself driving past other churches and staring a little longer than I should. The adorable archways. The rugged steeples. Parking lots bigger than some malls. What would it be like to date one of these supermodel churches, or even one of those older more traditional ladies that's maybe like my church, but maybe not... Maybe that other one would love me more. Maybe that one would be more fun at parties, and maybe she'd make me breakfast on Sunday mornings and have Sunday School classes with more than eight people.

Am I in an abusive relationship but just don't know it, because it's the only relationship I've ever known? Has this church sucked away far more from than than it's given me? Would any other church have been any different? Is that, as the Rembrandts said in their lost-'90s hit said, just the way it is, baby?

These are the kinds of things Billy is contemplating as he enjoys a week in DisneyWorld with his family. Support your starving artists by purchasing some Lyle Lovett or Talking Heads or Rebekah on iTunes or at's mp3 site.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Medical Morons in the Age of Information

Bad Medicine - Bon Jovi (mp3)
The Sick Bed of Cuchuliann - The Pogues (mp3)

Americans might well be the dumbest and most-easily duped people in the history of the world. Here we are, in what we claim to be an Age of Information, but none of this information prevents us from being stupid. In fact, one could argue, the glut of information makes it much easier to be stupid--er. Stupider? More stupider?

We have people on both sides of the political spectrum who are railing against the swine flu vaccine. Celebrities who have no more medical training or knowledge than you, me, or the Keebler frappin' Elf are claiming that the vaccine is more dangerous than the flu it aims to prevent. (Yes, I'm talkin' ta you, Bill Maher, you friggin' smug ignorant sumbitch.)

I've asked probably a dozen doctors and nurses and pharmacists, some friends and some mere acquaintances, their opinion of the vaccine, and almost all of them just shake their heads. Of COURSE my children should get vaccinated, they say, with the unspoken DUH on the end of it. Not a one of them hesitated or mentioned concerns about how vaccines are a deadly secret scourge to our way of life... because that crap is right up there with black helicopters and the X-Files.

Welcome to the Age of Information, where 95% (98%? 99%?) of all professionals educated in the field of medicine agree, yet where journalists and wackos focus half their attention on the 5% of kooks who disagree so they can be "balanced." We might be enlightened, but we've got a wacky notion of balance.

You want useful information on the subject of vaccinations? You want the history of paranoia? Listen to a few segments from NPR's On the Media. Here's one on the H1N1 vaccine, and here's one on the hysteria that broke out in Britain because a girl died of a brain tumor but people thought she died from a vaccine. Educate yourself, for Christ's sake, rather than looking to pandering, demagoguing kooks to tell you what to think! (And if that category must include me, then so be it, but go learn for yourself!)

It's important to note that the criticism is not so much aimed at medical professionals, but rather at the people in charge of wielding and managing the information. If you want the real reason why newspapers are dying, it's because they do an awful job of filtering anything for us. They'd rather report cotton candy than broccoli. And even when the broccoli shows up, its been cooked to death and drowned in so much butter you'd think it was served at a movie theater.

As yet another report on OTM suggests, part of it's because science reporters are all but extinct. I don't know if this is a killer factor, but it can't help.

What I do know is that when a significant portion of the population has boonswaggled itself into thinking it can't even trust its government to tell its people when a vaccine is safe and effective -- or as safe and effective as anything else involving medicine and the human body... people sometimes die having their tonsils removed, for cryin' out loud -- then the Age of Information truly proves that too much of anything, including information, does more harm than good.

Culture is in one kind of trouble when the only people who can read the Bible and other books are priests and monks. But maybe it's in an altogether equally-treacherous kind of trouble when we all think we're equally capable of being experts about anything and everything just 'cuz we can read shit off the Internet.

The Age of Information risks eroding all sense of trust in any kind of educated authority. And this is a distrust that breaks political barriers. One side believes Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh are honest and knowledgeable, which is a crock, but the other side has doctors blathering on the Huffington Post with the same kind of crap.

And, yet again, as always, the future of our society must rest and rely on those of us in the middle. Let's hope we hold up and keep our heads above the rising tide of the Information Tsunami.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road Rules: Vanity Plates

John Hiatt--"Tennessee Plates (live)" (mp3)

Forgive me if I spend a few posts talking about the road, but after a whirlwind Fall Break to New Orleans (America's greatest city--no competition), I've been doin' some of that philosophizing that one does when puttin' in the long miles behind the wheel. You get to feelin' like you're pretty smart and that you've got things figured out about whatever you're thinkin' about.

And then you see somebody's vanity plates and you realize that the universe makes absolutely no sense at all, or at least that it's going to be a lot harder to figure out than whatever progress you thought you made during that last 127 mile stretch.

The plate that caught my eye today was one that just read "Caramel."
And, of course, I had to try to figure out why. All I could think of was some guy, the driver I guess, going, "Honey, I'm going to get me one of these here personalized license plates and it's going to say 'Caramel.' It's for _________.'"

That's as far as I can get. In truth, I can't think of any good reason why someone would pay good money to buy a license plate that says 'Caramel.' No idea at all. Somebody's name? A dead pet? A reference to somebody's private hair or even private parts? I'm grasping at straws here. I really do not know. I just figure it's got to be something pretty important or meaningful. Don't you? It can't just be those little candies that are so hard to unwrap, can it?

What I do know is this: you get, at most, 7 letters to spend when you shell out for a vanity plate. That means you could go for 'STEELERS' but not 'BAYWATCH,' MRJONES' but not 'MRSBROWN.'

I also know, or think I know, that there must be Vanity License Plate Censors (VLPC) who have to be able to determine whether something on a vanity plate is offensive or suggestive. They must be current on popular culture. They must be hip to the double or triple entendre. A postal worker who wanted to celebrate his or her job with a 'LICK ME' vanity plate probably won't pass muster. But how do they know whether 'ANYWHRE' means anywhere or any whore?

Back in my Deadheadier days, I conceived the idea of buying my own vanity plate. It was going to read 'USBLUES,' a reference to the Dead's song of the same name from Live at the Mars Hotel. I once attended a New Year's Eve party where, as part of an impromptu pick-up band, we played this song at the stroke of midnight. It was a meaningful experience for me. As a license plate, I thought it would have many meanings: 1) coded language that would identify me to other Deadheads, 2) a wry commentary on my country, 3) any number of meaningful, open-ended possibilities.

But then I realized that, like Beauty, vanity plates are in the eye of the beholder. Because the plate wouldn't have periods or spaces, I could envision some guy thinking, "US BLUES? Are they blues singers? Do they have the blues? About what? Wouldn't WE BLUES sound better? Or USB LUES? What the hell does that mean? Is that a V? LIVES? Does 'LUES' mean 'LOSE?' Was 'LOSE' already taken? What am I missing?"

Vanity plates are a letter to the world in a language that can be impossible to understand. Plaster your car with bumper stickers, and, at least, the person in the car behind you is probably going to be able to know your politics, your favorite bands, maybe even your sense of humor or some store you shopped in that somehow convinced you that you needed to put their store sticker on your car. But your vanity plate? Who knows what the hell that's about. Let's say that you love a guy named Kevin and you need to tell it to the world from the back of your car. For starters, a basic 'I Love Kevin' is way, way over the limit. That leaves you with cuts and choices you'll have to make. Usually, it seems to be vowels that go first. You might end up with something like 'LVNKVN,' unless you want to spend a vowel at this point: LVNKEVN. Still, it looks kind of Russian or Slavic and I'm not sure your message is getting across.

And even if it does, whoever reads it doesn't know you or Kev and is not likely to give a crap on his or her way past you at 85 miles an hour on his way to the next gas and bathroom stop. I understand that a vanity plate is ultimately for the person inside, for his or herself, but then why broadcast it so imperfectly?

John Hiatt's Hiatt Comes Alive At The Budohan is available at Itunes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Can't Get It Out Of My Head

Buddy and Julie Miller (with Patti Griffin)--"Chalk" (mp3)

You know how they can get stuck in your head, and they're usually some drivel, some incessant beat or goofy repetition of a word like "umbrella" or "alcohol." You know how they can appear to be playing everywhere all the time. Or maybe they aren't even a real song; maybe they are a commercial jingle or a part of song that you used to like that has been sold to a multinational corporation to promote a product not even remotely connected to the song.

But sometimes even an honest song can get stuck in your head.

It doesn't happen often.

There's too much static out there, too much noise to allow a place for an acoustic guitar and a voice, eventually joined by a piano and another voice, maybe an electric guitar overdub for the solo.

"Chalk" is written by Julie Miller and performed by her husband, Buddy Miller. Julie Miller is a woman who has written more good songs than I can even count, and still, I consider this among her very best.

The odd thing is that she doesn't sing on it. Patti Griffin provides the harmony voice. What must it be like, I wonder, to write a song this good and to have the critical sense to realize that you are not the right person to sing it?

Here's my theory: though Buddy has a good voice, he has to strain a bit on the melody of this song, and that reaching for notes (that he does reach) gives the song an additional emotional weight. Since the lyrics carry their share of pain and resignation, the way he works so hard to keep control of the melody mirrors the lyrics. Julie's version, given her kind of odd, little girl voice, probably wouldn't work as well.

So if you are one of those readers who don't listen to the music on this blog, make an exception here. "Chalk" is enough country for those who like country, enough folk for the folkies, in addtion to having interesting guitar parts and harmonies for the musicians.

Chalk by Julie Miller

I always pretended for your sake
So you wouldn't know how you made my heart break
I tried so hard to save you from yourself
But I never could cry out loud for help

All I did was help you tell a lie
You never even knew it when I said goodbye
I ran so far and I don't know why

You never even knew who I was
You saw about as far as a blind man does
I carried you with me everywhere I went
I carried everything till my back was bent

All I did was help you tell a lie
You never even knew it when I said goodbye
It keeps on raining and I don't know why

All our words are written down in chalk
Out in the rain on the sidewalk
If all our heartaches were in a stack
They'd go all the way up to heaven and back

We don't know all the trouble we're in
We don't know how to get home again
Jesus come and save us from our sin

It won't be too long before people will be putting out their lists of best CDs and best songs of 2009. This is will be on mine.

"Chalk" is on Buddy and Julie Miller's latest CD, Written In Chalk, available at Itunes.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Third Song

Three is a Magic Number - Blind Melon (mp3)
International Bright Young Thing - Jesus Jones (mp3)

So you walk into one of those record stores where you can sample any album, but you're only allowed to sample one single song from any particular album. Which song to pick?

It's a no-brainer, really.

The third song is and should be the cornerstone for any modern album.

A vast majority of modern music albums are formed in a way similar to a baseball batting order. Your first song is the one you hope has the best chance of getting on base and making its way around. It's gotta be speedy and efficient. The second song aims to be a slightly beefier and slower version of the first. The third song is supposed to be the heart of your lineup. Yes, "3-4-5" is called "The Power Alley" because the fourth and fifth batters also need to be able to knock one out of the park, but almost all lineups place their best batter third to maximize the number of at-bats that dude can get in a game.

This entire analogy holds true for -- oh, let's say at least 75% of modern albums, at least those with any aspirations for "popular" success.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes the third song strikes out. Sometimes it doesn't clear the bases like it should. It's not fool-proof. But when it comes to albums in the post-60s world, if you had to pick a single song that had the best chance of representing the entire album's hopes and intentions, you absolutely have to go with Song #3.

U2 - The Joshua Tree
Song #3: With or Without You
(This is perhaps the greatest baseball line-up album ever made)

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
Song #3: Today

Hall + Oates - Private Eyes
Song #3: I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)

Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad
Song #3: Don't Stop the Music

Black Crowes - The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
Song #3: Thorn in My Pride

Pearl Jam - Ten
Song #3: Alive

Bruce Springsteen - The Rising
Song #3: Waitin' on a Sunny Day

Radiohead - The Bends
Song #3: High and Dry

Oasis - What's the Story Morning Glory
Song #3: Wonderwall

Counting Crows - August and Everything After
Song #3: Mr. Jones

Aerosmith - Permanent Vacation
Song #3: Rag Doll

Queen - Jazz
Song #3: Jealously (comfortably snuggled between "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race")
("Another One Bites the Dust" is the third song from The Game, proof that they'd become utter slaves to the pop album arrangement)

Go try it with your CD collection. If, um, you still have albums or CDs, that is. Any REM album. Dave Matthews Band's Crash. Tonic's Lemon Parade. Stereophonics, Rilo Kiley, Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union, Tegan and Sara, Matthew Sweet, Taylor Swift, Spoon, Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. Even when the third song isn't their breakthrough hit, it's a song you like a lot if you like the album.

Its not a perfect science, I grant you. Just like some baseball teams do odd strategic things with their lineups, sometimes artists place their power hitters in different spots in the lineup. I mean, you look at Led Zeppelin IV, for instance, and it's next to impossible to find a problem with any possible lineup they could have arranged. "The Battle of Evermore" might not be the cornerstone of the album, but it's also not a bad test point. If for some reason you find that song not to your liking, then the overall album could be a bit of a chore.

If you don't have a good third song, it usually means you blew your musical wad on the first two songs, hoping to God people never actually listen to anything past those first two before they get home, having already wasted their cash to get an album that's only worth the first two songs.

Maybe none of this matters much in the 21st Century, when albums only exist in the sense that they have the same album title in your iTunes category, when even music lovers like myself, who buy entire albums far more often than I buy singles, still rarely if ever actually listens to an album all the way through without stopping.

But just like Grandpa Simpson, I'll stubbornly cling to my conviction about the power of that third song even when they've put me in a rest home and I have to crank the volume up to 11 just to hear it. It's a love story, baby, just say yes.

The Blind Melon song is from the collection of Schoolhouse Rock! covers. "IBYT" is the third song from Jesus Jones' 1991 album Doubt, an album that, while forgotten, still kicks butt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Soul Confronts Evil

Islands--"I Feel Evil Creeping In" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris--"You Don't Know Me" (mp3)

A friend of mine, a guy who likes to keep things on the "DL," recently joined Facebook, using Lamont Cranston as his nom de plume. If you don't know who Cranston was, he was the alter ego of The Shadow on the old radio serial. Lamont Cranston was a wealthy young man about town, a Bruce Wayne before there was a Bruce Wayne, and I suppose Batman draws some inspiration from The Shadow as well, since The Shadow had that same ability to appear and disappear before people realize it that Batman likes to use.

The radio show also had that memorable tagline: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

But not us. We don't know what evil lurks. How could we? Even if someone told us what was in his or her heart, how would we know it was true. We have a very hard time knowing the truth about each other. I think, perhaps, I know my wife, because I have seen her unguarded in many of her best and her darkest moments, but even my own children surprise me when I see a side of them I hadn't seen before.

It's our tendency not to expect evil that fascinates me. Maybe because we don't pay enough attention to the clues that tell us that it's there, we are regularly shocked when it surfaces. Case in point: a student that I taught less than 10 years ago, who is now a teacher himself, has been arrested for allegedly forcing sex upon a 15-year-old student of his in an empty classroom at school. Now, he may prove to be innocent of the charges, and I hope that he is, but if he isn't, I could easily play the role of the dumbfuck neighbor who could stand in front of a microphone and a TV camera and state that "he was a nice guy" and "everybody liked him" and even point to various activities and awards that seemed to prove what a solid citizen he was. Maybe he was. Even when I saw the photos, one a mug shot, one of him leaving the detention facility, I remembered him fondly as a good student whom I had enjoyed teaching.

When we hear something like this, our minds immediately rush back to the past, trying to revisit what we know, trying to make some connections based on this new "evidence." What did I miss? What did he write in a paper? The police do the same thing in the present; they have his school-issued laptop computer, a mere machine which more and more is expected to reveal a man's soul.

Back when I lived on campus, we enjoyed a long streak of years through the 80's and into the 90's where our campus community seemed like the idyllic, perfect society. Nobody got divorced. Nobody had health problems. The children played happily together. We used to talk about it. We used to say that it was a special community that, for whatever reason, did not reflect the trends represented in the greater society.

But, of course, we were wrong. We simply weren't paying attention. A teacher had an affair with a student. A teacher tried to have an affair with another teacher's wife, but was rebuffed. Two administrators were sent off for alcohol treatment. A student committed suicide; another student bought the assault rifle he did it with. We knew these things, some more than others, but however that larger society crept in (the only two divorces came to outsiders who weren't there long enough to fit the ethos), we chose not to include its influences in the paradigm, because we wanted to be a unique place and we had enough evidence to see ourselves that way.

Within my more immediate friend group at that time, we developed a kind of half-serious notion that we were watching out for each other, helping each other to stay on the path. We had been to a couple of early morning men's prayer breakfasts featuring Tony Campolo, and during his long public prayer, he would make reference to guys in the room that he knew were "making phone calls across town." That became our mock mantra, as we would tease each other about making calls across town, but in a way which validated us for not doing that. We even believed, I think, that if one of us found himself in a situation where he was about to stray he would remember the line and our group and not act.

But that's not how humans work. Lust is stronger than a prayer breakfast. The need for power trumps friendship. Vows, even if not broken, bend pretty easily and quite far. Lies surround and protect each other like Russian nesting babushka dolls.

The tendency is to point to the evil that is all around and within and to claim that its presence represents the true and dark soul of humanity. I disagree. I think it is our ability to refresh our perspectives so that we aren't constantly dwelling on how easily those around us fall (not us! not us!) that better captures the essence of the human soul. And, no this does not reduce to some argument that "ignorance is bliss."

Instead, the bliss comes from not anticipating evil in those we know. Maybe the student's computer really is broken and that's why he doesn't have his paper. Maybe the gossip isn't malicious; maybe it's being spread out of concern by someone who doesn't know what else to do. Maybe your motives aren't so base after all.

Our capacity to do evil is a given. When evil comes, yes, we will have to confront it. But as Young Goodman Brown discovers in the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story of the same name, the man who seeks out evil does so at his own peril, because he will see it on the face of everyone he knows. Wouldn't you rather think the best of those you know and love than to send them through the airport security scan of your mind? Because if you want to undertake the search, you will find something. Not for me. I'll leave that to The Shadow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Adams v. Steadman

Back Then - Chris Assaad (mp3)
My Old Ghosts - The Wooden Sky (mp3)
Michael + Hope's New Baby - Stewart Levin (mp3)

Halfway through watching the first season of thirtysomething on DVD, I stopped and watched John Adams, the HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. You wouldn't think these two shows, divided by a river of 20 years in production terms and an ocean of 200 years in their setting, have much in common.

And guess what? They don't!

But I'm in one of those places in my life where I'm frequently mulling over what it means to be a man, what it means to be me, what I should and do and can expect and demand from myself, and both of these shows have spoken to that Judge Wapner presiding over my day-to-day life.

On the one hand you have thirtysomething's Michael Steadman and Elliott Weston, two men struggling to make a career that sufficiently -- or more than sufficiently, if they had their 'druthers -- provides for their families while also fighting the tide of domestic minutiae. On the other you have John Adams, a man struggling to make a career for his family... but whose life is possessed by such an undeniable and overwhelming call to responsibility that his family has no choice but to take a backseat.

thirtysomething has Hope Steadman, the woman of my late adolescent dreams, crying every episode about whether her daughter has been weaned from her breast, whether her daughter is ready for a babysitter or full-time nanny so she can return to work, whether her bestest pal Ellyn hates her... and so forth. John Adams has Abigail Adams, all but raising and educating her children and running a small farm single-handed, who sits and watches her entire family struggle to survive smallpox. (And Laura Linney is a truly mesmerizing actress.)

An early episode of the 1987 show shows Michael and Elliott painfully working up the gumption to fire their incompetent secretary and proving incapable of doing so. The 2007 miniseries shows Boston radicals led by Samuel Adams tarring and feathering a man and riding him out of town on a rail. All of it literal and nauseating to watch.

Although the former show is fiction while the latter is based -- albeit imperfectly and with artistic flair* -- on fact, both are very much based in a pseudo-reality that speak many truths about the culture and time in which they're set. Modern parenting is very much about being hyperparanoid and smothering, about the right kinds of diapers and the tough decisions of childcare. 18th-Century parenting is very much about keeping the kids alive and capable of helping out around the house and farm. And, if your husband asks you to join him in France for a few years, and if your kids are over 7 or 8 years old, you join him and leave the kids in the hands of caretakers without batting an eye and without remotely worrying about what the neighbors might think the next time they're out at the neighborhood block party.

The miniseries confronts this very different parenting style from a very different time honestly, I thought, and it was refreshing to watch loving parents deal with their responsibilities in ways that would be alien to most of us today.

Beyond the parenting aspect, though, I found it almost impossible to watch Paul Giamatti's brilliant portrayal without the feeling that so many of us settle for something less than greatness. Could be because the right opportunity doesn't catch us at the right time and in the right place. Or it could be because we ignore it. Or it could be that we're afraid of it when it knocks. I'm not even sure any of those possibilities are true with me, but anytime you watch someone and admire their courage and their brilliance, how can you help but envy them just a little?

And where once I would have been ashamed at this kind of envy, I lately find myself thinking it's not unhealthy to admire and envy certain folks, so long as it's not a seething, gnawing jealousy. And it's not, in the case of me and John Adams, anymore than it ever was between me and that whiny sniveling snuggle-bunny Michael Steadman. Just 'cuz he had a cool-seeming job and the most adorablest wife everrrest.

What tied these shows together was that most dangerous of games we play in modern America, the "What Would __INSERT PERSON HERE__ Think?" game. What would John Adams think of thirtysomething? I remember this quote from the miniseries, cribbed from something Adams actually said or wrote:
“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
John Adams can rest assured that the risks he took and the sacrifices he made indeed allowed for this goal to be met, and met with flying friggin' colors. Yet you can't help but wonder if Adams would see a man like Michael Steadman, someone who can get inconsolably stressed out when his infant son flies into a temper tantrum, someone who works for a friggin' ad agency, and wonder if that's really what he'd dreamt of when they fought for the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

* -- In fact, I'm pretty sure when John Adams, in the months leading up to his demise, berates and insults Trumbull and his Declaration of Independence painting for taking disgusting liberties with what was genuinely amazing moment in our history, it is the miniseries' way of attempting to suggest that even Paul Giamatti and company are undoubtedly spitting on the reality of history even if their intent is to honor it.

Chris Asaad and The Wooden Sky were both made available thanks to generous promoters of impressive up-and-coming musicians. Please consider checking out these artists and either seeing them in concert if they come your way or forking over a few bucks for their music.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I'm a Shameless Shill

Note: as this post went to press, my music file-storing site was down. Sorry, I will try to put up the songs that go with this post when it comes back online.

I fell in love with Bose products about 5 years ago for a very simple reason--they will let you buy their products on time over 12 months with no interest charges.

That means that you can get high quality stereo/tv accesories and players in such a way that you hardly know that the cost of them is being sucked out of your paycheck. Now, it probably says something about me and the state of my finances over the last 20 years that I am so excited that a corporation will allow me to buy an overpriced stereo system and not have to be worried about paying for it.

Boys, as you know, like their toys. I am no different. Until I bought the Bose Wave System 2 years, I hadn't bought stereo equipment in about 20 years, children, cars, a house, private school expense, and all of the other expenses of family life in the modern world, and so I had a large congomeration of receivers, graphic equalizers, satellite speakers, subwoofers, cd burners (a gift), and wires everywhere and counterspace filled with a large stack of black electronics. Twenty years ago, it looked sleek and stylish. Today, it looks like big and bulky.

So the Bose concept is genius.

In a world where if you miss a credit card payment, your interest rate can skyrocket to nearly 30%, here is a "benevolent" corporation who will ship you expensive merchandise quickly and efficiently and trust that they will be able to deduct the balance from your credit card over the next 12 months.

But, what Bose has done even better, is to figure out the future of music listening. There is no room for the component stereo system in the modern living room or den. Plus, the kind of person who buys a Bose is the kind who's going to spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking upscale food, who will then realize the benefits of having such a comfortable little sound system in the bedroom, etc.

And so, my family has a Bose in the kitchen (which also does double duty by going to our daughter's dorm room when she's at college), one in the bedroom for NPR wake-up calls and Sunday afternoons, a Wave System in the living room for parties and Christmas. The children have Bose noise-cancelling headphones for long car trips and plane flights. And, now, Bob has added the Bose Soundlink to the fleet.

While all of these products are well-crafted and well-used, this new Soundlink is probably the most versatile. As its primary use, it allows you to plug an antenna into the USB port of your laptop and broadcast music (or whatever you are listening to) to a portable, wireless speaker. The speaker has a rechargeable battery which gives you a minimum of 3 hours of sound; it also picks up the sound within 60 feet of the computer. If you like, with a cable, you can plug your Ipod or Iphone or other device into the speaker as well.

Big deal, you say? Think about it for a minute. First of all, it's a hell of a speaker, two speakers really and maybe even a subwoofer packed into a speaker unit about the size of a loaf of bread. But beyond that, consider the possibilities: we live in a portable world, and if you love music as much as I do, great sound has always been the sacrifice that one had to make in favor of portability. No longer.

Now, as I sit in the dining room writing this, the Soundlink sits atop the hutch, about 4 feet above my head, but it is putting out crisp highs, mid-range, and clean deep bass in its reproduction of the Avett Brothers' "If It's The Beaches." If I wanted to go out and sit on the deck, I'd just take the speaker with me. If I wanted to have good sound while tailgating, I'd just take it with me. If I wanted to listen to music in a hotel room, the front yard while gardening, the driveway while changing a flat tire, the basement while folding laundry, I'd just take it with me. If you are like to listen to various things on YouTube, all of a sudden they sound really, really good.

Yes, Bose products probably cost too much. I'll acknowledge that. But they are very well-made, and I can't help but think that the money it's costing me is money that I would have pissed away in my relentless trek from paycheck to paycheck. I suppose if I looked at it too hard, it wouldn't be that different from that electric guitar I got for a few weeks from Rent To Own back in the 80's, except that there isn't any interest at all. Plus, what Bose does is they get what you buy from them to you damn quickly. If they say it will be 7-10 days, it will be there in 3. So once you open that box, you never feel like it's anything but yours.

Yours truly, reeled in by another capitalistic trick, signing off.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pilgrim Travels To A Simple Country Church And Is Converted

Cookin'On 3 Burners--"Feel Good, Inc" (mp3)
Little Feat--"Dixie Chicken" (mp3)

Friday night, I worshipped at the Church of the Loveless Cafe. It was a well-attended service. I sang hyms of praise to perfect biscuits, homemade jams, fried chicken, hash brown casserole, cole slaw, iced tea. I passed the peace with friends and a skilled, but not overly-doting waiter. I went forth into the world with the blessing of half a chocolate pie and a package of country ham slices. And now I'm writing the sermon.

Country cooking is, arguably, among the simplest cooking on the planet--pieces of meat smoked or fried, greens and beans cooked until the cows come home, biscuits mixed together at the last minute and quickly baked, starched tubers boiled and mashed, bacon or some other smoked sidemeat flavoring just about everything.

But, as we all know, to do the simple things well is often the hardest. Most of the time, we fail. I have read many times in many places that the true test of any chef is his or her ability to roast a chicken. Simple, right? Put that thing in the oven and cook it until it's done. With any luck, the one you buy will come with one of those plastic "thermometers" stuck in it that will pop up and tell you when it's done.

But the chef is looking for a truly succulent bird, with a crisp, herb-infused crust, breast meat that remains juicy while the darker meat has plenty of time to become fall-off-the-bone tender. Quite a balancing act, and one that, if I've ever done it, has been sheer luck.

In country cooking, that test of one's skill is fried chicken. It is not accidental that there exist across the the Southern half of the country various havens of fried chicken excellence. Chattanooga can offer up a decent chicken finger here and there, but it doesn't really have a fried chicken mecca too much anymore. For a long time, Bea's filled the bill (and still may, but I keep hearing that they've gone downhill), and I have friends who are big fans of Champy's, but even so, both places are praised as much as anything for how, where their chicken is concerned, COST/AMOUNT=VALUE.

The Loveless Cafe fried chicken, by contrast, while not particularly expensive, has as its main virtue the fact that it is perfectly prepared. First of all, it has a very light coating of flour that allows the skin to crisp up. I usually don't eat the skin (because it isn't good for you) because it is laden with a thick paste of fat and flour gunk, almost its own separate entity, but the Loveless chicken skin you eat with the chicken itself. And, oh, that chicken, rich and juicy, not brined or heavily seasoned, just plain good chicken.

When you order your platter (I went for the half chicken), you get a couple of sides. My friend Jeff did some online research and texted me the recommendation to get the hash brown casserole. Good call. If possible, the casserole is light and fluffy. The slaw, chopped into tight little squares, has an oil-sugar base, rather than a mayo one. Its gentle sweetness is the perfect foil for the savory chicken and casserole.

And, I have to talk about the biscuits. Like Krystals, they are fresh, hot, small, square, but these are ready to be split and spread with butter and homemade jam. But a biscuit should have enough flavor in and of itself that you can just pick it up and eat it plain. Most taste too much like paste once they get in your mouth. Not the Loveless. Each one is a soft pillow with a slight buttermilk tang.

You know, the reality is that, like barbecue in particular, for country cooking in general, there are fairly small differences between the run-of-the-mill fare and the top-notch chow. That means if you are going to present it and make it special, you have to do everything perfectly. You can almost always tell the places that are able to do this, like the Loveless Cafe, because their staff exudes supreme confidence in their products. Another key sign for the Loveless is that nothing is too salty. Much as I love salt, it often masks an inferior dish. Even when I was talking with the woman in the gift store about the country ham, she informed me that it, too, was not too salty, didn't need to be soaked or anything.

So that's my sermon on how the great glory of God's kingdom is alive and well just off the Natchez Trace in Nashville. I think I'm in love(less).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jesus Fails to Convert Extra Point

Look Like a Fool - Matt Maher (mp3)
Seriously - Erin O'Donnell (mp3)

We made the national news. Naturally it was about Jesus.

Here's my Cliff's Notes version for anyone who doesn't know: A football team in North Georgia has, since the days when Adam and Eve rode around on velociraptors, run through signs with Bible verses on them at the start of every game. This tradition is older than the Declaration of Independence. Anyway, apparently one woman -- one single stinkin' woman -- who attends law school at Liberty University (which I guess North Georgia people will start calling "Liberal University") thought she should inform the powers that be that said signs were illegal, as they signified the promotion and condoning of a particular religion by a government-run body, namely the school. Our local paper had two of the banners on their front page as well as a story along the lines of "Spirit of Jesus Beaten Mercilessly With Whips By School Bureaucrats," which of course stirred up so much vitriol that it was guaranteed to be on the front page for several more days.

Last Wednesday night, we hadn't hardly started choir practice -- yes, I'm in our church choir, and yes, you can stop laughing now -- when the entire room started "discussing" the ramifications of this news. I would like to offer a loosely-reconstructed version of the "discussion" held at my church choir practice below, but first I feel I need to describe the environment and the cast of characters involved a little.

Wednesday choir practices are held in a long room with risers, with the 15-25 participants sitting in their assigned areas and the director and organist in front of us. Men on the left. Tenors in front. Women on the right. Sopranos in back. Our choir has exactly three regular members under the age of 45. We have another four who range between 45-55. The remainder of the choir -- probably 70% -- is over 60 and either retired or should be. (I don't say this condescendingly; but the age of the people involved and the fact they are regular church members in the South are all vital to the discussion that ensued.)

LFO HS Music Teacher walks in. He's one of the three under-45s in our choir.

OLD CROTCHETY ALTO #1: Ohhhh (LFOMT), I'm soooo sorry to hear about what happened at your school with those poor cheerleaders.

LFOHSMT (frowning and shaking head): I know I know, it's just awful.

OCA #2: You know, nobody would complain if them football boys ran through signs with Koran verses on them.

OCA #1: Or something Hindu!

(Nodding and agreement across the room. Billy looks up from his choir folder to see if anyone is nodding in an ironic or insincere manner. They are not. He returns to flipping through his choir folder.)

CHOIR DIRECTOR: Our country has strayed so far from God. He must be so ashamed of us. So so ashamed.

(More nodding. Billy thinks of his father-in-law's timeless observation that he was "The Last American Heterosexual Choir Director." Ohhhh what these poor ladies don't know.)

OCA #1: What did those poor cheerleaders do? You'da thought they gone and killed somebody.

OCA #3: It's just a Proverb, people. Really. Does it hurt that bad to have to read a Proverb?

LFOHSMT: Well the kids had a prayer rally this morning that was truly amazing. Must've been more than a hundred kids showed up early before school to pray together over this. I've never seen anything like it.

CHOIR DIRECTOR: Christians are at their best when they're persecuted.

(More nodding. Billy wonders why he didn't down a few beers before attending practice. Oh wait. Maybe he did.)

50-SOMETHING BEST SOPRANO: Don'tcha just wanna know who called that principal? Don'tcha wonder who thought it was so awful that they'd report it? ("Amen" "No kidding" "Poor soul") I pray for that person's soul, I really do. Their one act could keep unknown numbers from ever knowing Jesus. ("MMmhmm" "You got it") Just don't know how the Lord will respond to that when she has her day.

CHOIR DIRECTOR: We're in a sad place when you're in more trouble for saying the name Jesus than you are for wearing your pants below your butt.

OCA #2: Or cussing at your teacher! ("Sad place" "Amen")

60-SOMETHING BASS (to his friend and fellow 60-Something Bass, as the women and choir director continue talking): You think UT's offensive coordinator will be there next year?

60SBass #2: If they keep playing like they did Saturday, I don't know. But that Crompton fella is probably most of the problem.

60SBass #1: That poor boy couldn't pass gas right.

(Billy chuckles. Oh c'mon, it was kinda funny.)

CHOIR DIRECTOR: OK, let's get to next Sunday's songs before we get so upset we can't sing...

----- END SCENE -----

Just for the record, I've searched pretty thoroughly, and I can't find a single example of a high school football team in the South running through a banner with words from the Koran written on it. I haven't even seen a team run through a banner with quotes from Sun Tzu's The Art of War written on it, which would be a helluva lot more appropriate for the kind of mentality and approach most high school football coaches have than anything Jesus said.

(And yes, some scholars believe Jesus might have been the first to say "Push 'em back, shove 'em back, waaaaay back," but until we can find the Dead Sea Scroll to prove it, it will remain the subject of intense debate.)

Mostly I just enjoyed this story because, for once, "poor cheerleaders" earned pity not for being too popular, not from struggling with eating disorders, and not from having sex with too many people before they graduate, but because they can't dot the "I" in their Bible verses with big hearts, hearts designed to remind those icky Jews in the stands that they might well be going to hell unless they cheer for LFO... and JC.

Which stands for Jesus College, home of the Protestant Impalers.

POSTSCRIPT: They also released the name of the woman who "reported" this illegal activity to administrators. I'm honestly dying to know how many good God-fearing Christians either called or wrote this woman to say any number of threatening or vulgar or demeaning things to her. Yes, I bet a few sent nice brief notes saying they were praying for her, but I also bet she got some nasty stuff.