Friday, May 29, 2009

The Best

Jake Shimbabukuro--"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (link to YouTube)

How often, on this planet of over 6 billion people, can one of us say that we have encountered the person who is the best at his or her trade? More amazingly, how often has that occurred in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee?

Last night, I saw the finest ukelele player in the world. Most certainly, I saw the finest ukelele player who has ever yet lived.

I know what you are thinking: Bob, I'm certainly not in a position to contest your assertion, but aren't we talking about a large fish in a very, very, very small pond? And, by the way, who is the second best ukelele player in the world, just for comparison's sake?

I may not have all of the answers for you, certainly not for the last question. But what I saw and heard last night, Jake Shimabukuro at Rhythm N Brews, was one of the most awe-inspiring, innovative performances I have ever seen. It must be some small taste of what it was like to see Hendrix that first time and to not know what you were in for, providing that Jimi played an acoustic ukelele, of course.

That's what seems to take it down a notch or two or three. But I'm not so sure. Even though, despite his mounting international acclaim, Shimbabukuro plays off of those lowered expectations, it is clear that he is doing that for the audience's sake only. This man is a virtuoso, with a virtuoso's pedigree, having performed and recorded with everyone from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to Jimmy Buffet to Yo-Yo Ma. You do not get those invites without spectacular skills.

In the hour and a half that we saw him perform, Shimbabukuro took his ukelele everywhere from Spanish flamenco playing to 13-stringed traditional Japanese instrument, the koto, and, of course, did it all with only 4 strings. In concert, at least, Shimbabukuro plays mostly originals, and while he already has complete command of his instrument, these songs allow the audience to experience his continual attempts to expand the capabilities of the ukelele.

While I have no other ukeleleist to compare him to, I do have Butch Ross, who opened the show. An innovator in his own right, Ross is a guitarist turned mountain dulcimerist who also takes his instruments in directions that others have not considered (or were not capable of). At first, his songs were stunning. As you can see from the photo, he plays the dulcimer like a guitar and not in the traditional manner on one's lap. But Ross was all about speed, and every instrumental, whether it was traditional bluegrass or an interpretation of "Stairway To Heaven" (very cool, using a tape loop), ended up as a pickaway. Even his finale, Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" was played way too fast and emphasized the instrument over the vocals and story.

Shimbabukuro, by contrast, is a showman. He immediately connects with the audience with genuine warmth, celebrating the intimacy of the Rhythm N Brews concert space and displaying an infectious love of what he does. He understands pacing, varying fast and slow songs (and fast and slow parts within songs). He strums like Montoya, taps like Eddie Van Halen, and works the whole fretboard with both power and sensitivity like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Though the crowd was filled with followers, there were no shouts for requests, and so, even though Shimbabukuro stayed in command, he constantly rewarded the audience like a master chef who doesn't ask for orders but continues to send out spectacular dish after spectacular dish.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of life is when an initial limitation leads to adaptation, discovery, and innovation. Jake Shimbabukuro was the show you wished you had seen, even though you didn't know you wanted to go. But for a student demanding I watch the YouTube video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," I wouldn't have known either. Let's hope he'll be back.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Video Version of Valdemort

She's Out of Sync - Devo (mp3)
Two Times - The Blakes (mp3)*

Didja ever do those "What's Grosser than Gross" jokes as a kid? Just wonderin'.

I first heard of "The Video That Shall Not Be Named" last fall. A number of young alumni were back in town, and I stopped by early into their evening, before their mental state was in any way altered. During the conversation, someone brought up TVTSNBN. Immediately, the rest of the young guys reacted viscerally, with beloved fake-retch sounds and other such reactions of discomfort or disgust.

Now, this caught my attention because 19-year-old males are, in general, disgusted by very few things in the 21st Century. They've seen everything. Terrorists beheading hostages. Dogs having sex with cats. Laguna Beach. Trying to disgust or shock a present-day male in the 16-22 demographic is like trying to make Dick Cheney cry. It's virtually impossible.

So, I can't deny being a little curious when they reacted with such collective and universal disgust about TVTSNBN. They then started talking about videos on YouTube where people recorded their friends or relatives watching this. One dude recorded his grandmother watching it, they explained, and it's the funniest thing they've ever seen.

As with many conversations where one is the outsider on an insider joke and one doesn't much care, I quickly tuned out and forgot about it.

Then, a few weeks ago, TVTSNBN reemerged in my conscience. One of my favorite female rockers has her own blog, and I visit it every month or two to catch up on her -- I'm kind of like a stalker who can't afford to actually stalk -- and her latest entry was about her experience watching TVTSNBN with two of her friends. The entry was only a couple of sentences, but she basically said watching it made her feel alive. (Picture at left stolen from Steven via Kay's blog.)

Well hell, I thought, if this supercool badass chick can handle it, what's the big deal?? This, my friends, is what's known as faulty logic. Yes, I watched TVTSNBN. I hunted it down, and I watched it.*

Several years ago, I got so far as to click PLAY on one of those terrorist beheading videos but stopped it and closed it before ever getting anywhere near the actual beheading part. That I allowed myself the curiosity to click PLAY in the first place left me with a hollow feeling in my gut for several days, and I still squirm a little when I recall that I even went as far as I did. (NOTE: To those who've seen it, bully for you. I ain't judging. I'm just sayin' that my physical and emotional innards objected powerfully to my curiosity.)

Because there was no death or mutilation involved in TVTSNBN, I never reached that level of self-revulsion. I mostly looked at the subjects involved as I imagine Ming the Merciless looks at the stupid Earthlings at the beginning of the Gawd-awful guilty pleasure of the 80s known as Flash Gordon. I'm pretty sure if Ming had seen TVTSNBN, he would have destroyed Earth quickly rather than screwing around with it for the better part of two hours while Timothy Dalton wondered how the f*#k he got himself into green leotards for what had to be a career low even in the infancy of his career. (And yes, I watch that movie every time I see it playing on TV, 'cuz it's one of the world's penultimate guilty pleasures.)

The morning after my TVTSNBN viewing, I was still bothered. Not haunted; nothing quite so serious. Just bothered. Bothered that people did this. Bothered that people filmed it. Bothered that millions have watched it. Bothered that I jumped on board. Bothered that I have witnessed something that could not have ever conceivably reached my eyes at any time in any other decade prior to the 21st Century.

We're not talking Susan Boyle singing Les Miz here. We're talking a video of Susan Boyle degrading herself in ways that, if I told you the readers to "Think of the most horrific and disgusting non-violence-related act you could film Susan Boyle doing," you'd fall shy of TVTSNBN more often than not.

We are in a virulent age. Everything hits us sooner, faster, harder, and with less mercy, and what used to require men on ponies or Morse Code now requires a

Less than 48 hours after witnessing TVTSNBN, I found out about some heavy rumors involving some folks I know. Rumors of an extreme and sexual nature. Rumors involving kids and police and arrests. Ugly stuff. So naturally the rumors spread like wildfire around me. Along with the talk of what did or might have occurred between two kids whose lives will never again be normal came conclusions we yearn to draw. The #1 comment with a bullet: Surely the alleged predator was at one point also a victim of similar acts. Otherwise, how would he know how to engage in such skin-crawling acts? 

I thought this. Others thought this. It's the natural conclusion of people born before 1980.

But I have crossed to the other side. I've seen TVTSNBN.

It is now possible for a kid to watch stuff on an unsupervised computer that would make even deviant adults shudder. What used to be described simply as "pornography" now needs to be separated into categories like a record store, and any kid with some alone time and an Internet connection can basically witness pornography's version of death metal.

Or, put another way, I'm pretty sure teens don't engage in "rainbow parties" because they witnessed their parents do it.

Is TVTSNBN a sign of the end-times? Will it corrupt even the incorruptible? Part of me hopes so. I'd like to think this is about as low as our species can go, taste-wise. But then I remember that scene in Braveheart where bloodthirsty parents are holding their children on their shoulders so the kids can get a better view as that mean old rebel Scotsman gets disemboweled. Best I can tell, in previous eras and centuries, kids witnessed executions of all kinds, from crucifixions to disembowelments to lynchings to firing squads. If our species can survive all that, then surely TVTSNBN ain't the end of the world.

When I made an equally-obscure reference to TVTSNBN on Facebook, I got a personal record of 13 comments. Seems lots of folks have decided to bring the apocalypse one step closer by witnessing this for themselves. And nothing brings people together like a shared experience of extreme disgust.

And, as best I can tell, none of the people I know who have seen TVTSNBN have done things terribly deviant after the fact. Well, not anymore deviant than the shit they were doing prior to watching. So even something as off the charts as TVTSNBN can't seem to shake my belief that all our hand-wringing over the Evils of Technology is 95% misguided.

* -- I've since been informed that the version I watched isn't the "original." The original is supposedly even worse than the version I watched. That this is possible boggles my feeble mind.

P.S. If you're reading this and find yourself seeking TVTSNBN, and if you end up watching it, please just leave a comment to that nature as a reminder that when someone tells you not to look at something, it's only human nature to want desperately to do so.

P.P.S. Those of you who knew what I was talking about and have seen it, please feel free to tally your experience. Those who know but avoided watching, kudos to you!

The original choice for second song was "Nobody Drinks Alone" by Keith Urban, but I bought it on iTunes before we could convert them, so I went with the backup. All of these songs can be found and purchased through Amazon.com or iTunes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grass

Wayne Brennan--"Green, Green Grass" (mp3)
Ben Folds--"Rockin' The Suburbs" (mp3)


Grass, when you think about it, doesn't make a lot of sense.

Let's see, how about we plant a bunch of tiny, expensive, cultivated seeds over half an acre and worry over those seedlings endlessly and feed them and try to keep the weeds away and jack up our water bills to try to keep them green and then the water makes them grow faster and then we have to do more work to keep them looking good. So good, of course, that we would never dare walk or drive or practice golf on them because that would mess them up.

Left to fend for themselves, these blades would not last 5 years before they were crowded out completely by stronger, tougher weeds. They can only survive with constant oversight from human beings. Like me.

It would be smarter to plant a lawn of chives.

Same tall, firm stalks, slower growth rate. And, anytime I wanted an herb for a recipe or a garnish for a massive baked potato party, I'd have plenty, and after a fresh mowing, the whole yard would give off a gentle, oniony smell. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm........

A year or so ago, I got the crazy notion that I wanted to have a nice lawn. Years and years of living in a nice neighborhood have battered at my sensibilities and convinced me that it is important to care what the neighbors might think. I got the even crazier notion that I had a little disposable income and that it would be worth it to pay someone else to create that nice lawn.

All I can say is what has been said many, many times, though still we never learn: careful what you wish for.

In my old world, a drought was the best thing that could possibly happen. Dead grass don't grow. Get outside every week or so and mow down the weeds, commiserate with the neighbors about how dry everything is, and then go on your deck and crack a beer and celebrate the Sahara-like nature of July, August, and September in Tennessee.

In my new world, which began last spring, my lawn care professional, the father of one of my daughter's friends, is very, very good at what he does. His business is called The Grass Is Greener for a reason. He knows what needs to be done to my lawn each month of the year in order to maximize its potential. When he seeded the bare spots of my lawn in late July, with orders to keep those areas evenly moist, I got into the game, too. But the drought started the next day. Each night, I stalked my yard with a hose at half mast (you don't want to blast those seeds away), searching for seeded areas looking for nourishemnt. For as long as I could, I tried to keep those bare spots damp with fertile possibility. I failed. The heat won. Or did it? My grass looks better than ever right now.

In my new world this spring, as part of his evil master plan, my lawn care professional puts some stuff on my grass every month and now it is growing like a bastard. I can't stop it, I can't slow it, and I can't keep up with it. And the local weather has gotten into the act, spacing out its rain so that it always rains the day after I cut the grass every time I cut the grass.

A year or so into it, I have one of the thickest, healthiest lawns in the neighborhood. I've even had a few neighbors ask me about who maintains my lawn. I want to scream, "I do! I'm the poor sucker you see out here every 4 or 5 days trying to hack away at this giant field of grass on steroids!"

Grass, when you think about it, doesn't make a lot of sense, and when you're cutting it all the time, you spend a lot of time thinking about how little sense it makes. I live in a nice neighborhood with plenty of other nice lawns (though few as nice as mine this year!) and almost none of us can ever be seen setting foot on our canvases, our masterpieces, except for that day when our grass has passed that nearly imperceptible point where it's longer than the other showpiece lawns in the neighborhood and we drag ourselves out, tired as dogs, to get our lawns back on top in between the rains.

Global warming, you have let me down!

Wayne Brennan and Ben Folds are both available at Itunes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"A" is for Absolute Crap

Get Better - Mates of State (mp3)
Rise - Eddie Vedder (mp3)

My co-blogger and former teacher likes to opine that my high school class was probably the most intelligent to ever graduate from our school. While this claim is certainly debatable in a school that's more than a century old and full of plenty of amazing alums, it's also impossible to deny that my graduating Class of 1990 was up at the very top. If we weren't the best, we were at least in the race.

We had two students score perfect on the SAT. We had one student who left school a month before graduation to take a job in Silicon Valley. We had 23 National Merit Semifinalists -- over a fifth of our class and still a record for a single year -- and another dozen or so Commended Scholars.

This isn't bragging, because my class had plenty of flaws, particularly a load of hubris even larger than our brains, and the flaws didn't stop there. I'm the first to acknowledge that being of higher caliber academically didn't make us better or easier to manage or enjoy as students.

More often than not in the past 19 years, our school has struggled to tally more than 10 National Merit Semifinalists in a class, which is a great number in the South, but isn't all that impressive amongst high-priced independent schools nationwide. Since those two perfect SAT scores in 1990, the 19 years hence has produced maybe three, maybe four perfect SAT scores? Yet, I would bet a dollar to a dime that the GPA of a graduating class in the last five years is leap years ahead of the GPA of our class.

Even if we're splitting hairs here between the academic capabilities and work ethic of today's students versus those of 20 years ago, there's no justifiable way to explain the sharp rise in GPA, and it's not just at my school. It's at high schools and colleges across the nation. I rarely find myself nodding enthusiastically to anything Walter Williams writes, but his observations -- based on data, not mere conjecture -- on grade inflation leave me wondering if anyone cares. I mean, 91 percent of Harvard graduates leave "with honors." Shouldn't that bother, like, LOTS of people??

There's a reason people stopped giving a shit what Roger Ebert thought of a movie. That guy had his thumb up so often you woulda thought it got injured in a car accident or was a carpal tunnel reaction to sticking it up Siskel's butt too much. "At the Movies" suffered from the same kind of grade inflation. When movie critics start giving Two Thumbs Up!! to absolute shit, what's next? Well, then the guys had to start saying, "Two Thumbs WAY Up!" and "Two Thumbs Way WAY Up!"

If things were "right" with the world, shouldn't a 2.5 GPA student at Harvard be able to transfer to a less selective school and, putting forth the same effort and intensity, earn a much better GPA? As it stands, I have trouble believing an average Harvard student could drastically improve his or her grades by attending UT-Knoxville (yes, I'm besmirching UTK a little, but if that offends you, pretend I said "LSU").

Here's what's funny about the school where I work. If our teachers followed the rules they claim to follow, student GPAs would sink. They'd sink like the Titanic after it had cracked in half. According to our rule book, a paper is supposed to be reduced by a letter grade for every day it is late. If a paper is four days late, it would, in theory, automatically fail. Students can then re-write the paper and make up half the distance between the re-written grade and the late paper grade.

If all our teachers abided by this one single rule, I bet the average GPA across our school would drop by at least a point. A frightening number of students would fail and be incapable of earning a passing grade by the end of the first semester.

Here's the kicker. Guess what our teachers complain about? They complain that the students wait until the last minute to write papers. They complain that the students never turn shit in on time. I almost always ask them if they enforce the grade penalty on late assignments, and they either confess they don't, or they lay it at the feet of the administration, like they're just the foot soldiers of a dictatorship.

Teachers, you see, are world class hypocrites. They complain about lazy students, but they enable laziness. They complain about being micromanaged by their higher-ups but fail to take things into their own hands when the opportunities arise. They complain about inattentive and distracted students but are easily the most inattentive and distracted bunch of adults this side of a meeting of Cocaine Addicts Anonymous whenever you gather them together and ask them to pay attention to anything.

Grade inflation angers me not because grades are sacrosanct. They are mere symbols, but they are supposed to mean something: how deeply a student grasps the expected concepts and rigors of a particular class. Either teachers are a bunch of losers who expect far too little, or they're collectively being too kind to those in their care. I daresay most teachers hear about grade inflation, shrug their shoulders and wonder what the big deal is.

Let's either ditch the grades, reinvent another way of assessing our students, or get this shit in order before the entire academic bell curve nationwide is limited to the decimal places between 4.01 - 4.50.

I'd like to go back to the day when George W. Bush received "Gentleman's C's" rather than "Gentleman's A-minuses."

[NOTE: Speaking in broad generalizations requires that I acknowledge that, if you're a teacher reading this, I certainly wasn't talking about YOU. I meant those dorks and incompetent fools with whom you work.]

The Mates of State's latest album is The Re-Arranger and is sublime. "Rise" comes from the Into the Wild soundtrack. Both can be purchased on iTunes or Amazon.com.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

Guided By Voices--"Everywhere With Helicopter (mp3)

Lest you think we have forgotten the day where we honor our fallen with our grills (sorry for the sarcasm; it's just that right now I feel like one of the 50 or so people in the country actually working today!), here's a small tribute.

For a couple of perspectives on the day, I would refer you to something old and something new:

Here's my post from last year's Memorial Day. I'm not sure I have anything new to add to the subject.

For a similar perspective, but with some good songs to go with it (some of which have been posted on this site), go to one of my favorite blogs, Cover Lay Down.

And, finally, a recommendation. If you would like to get an eye-opening, pretty balanced perspective on what it's like to be a Marine today, take a look at Generation Kill, either the superb HBO miniseries or the book that inspired it, based on a Rolling Stone writer's experiences while embedded with Marines during the initial push to Baghdad. If, like the blogger of Cover Lay Down and me, "the military has been an abstraction" for you, this story will make it all very real.

Oh, by the way, my ribs went in the smoker at 8 AM. I'll be home to check on 'em at lunch.

Guided By Voices' Universal Truths and Cycles is available at Itunes.

Thinner: an allegory

Elliot Smith--"Ballad Of A Thin Man (live)" (mp3)


Here's a conversation that I haven't had yet:

Bob: You know, you and I aren't that good of friends, so I'm going to say something to you and then you're probably never going to speak to me again.

Him: silence.

Bob: Your wife is incredibly anorexic, she is really, really sick and you need to act now or it's going to kill her.


I don't know where the conversation goes from there, but I am assuming that he will say something that ends the conversation permanently.

Now, before you start playing a guessing game about who I'm talking about, let me assure that it is no one you work with, no one you know, no one whose husband you work with, someone you've probably seen, okay, maybe someone you work with, possibly someone some of you know. It really doesn't matter. Although I have a particular person in mind, bear in mind that I don't know who is reading this or where. I think this is a conversation that we all have been avoiding.

If you look back over my proposed discussion with this husband, you'll notice something very damning. The conversation I hope to have the next time I run into him is not going to cost me very much because, indeed, I truly don't know him all that well. He did help me change a tire on Signal Mountain one time. I run into him at Panera and sometimes at school events.

But all of us who see his wife must share the same shock: she used to be an attractive woman, but now she looks gaunt and skeletal.

I remember my first encounter with anorexia. It was 1976 and I was living in a coed dorm at Penn and my roommate liked this girl Marian and even asked her out and got turned down. But what we really couldn't process was how thin she was, especially her arms. We didn't know what to think about her, we didn't have a name to put on her.

And 33 years later, I'm not sure any of us have progressed much beyond, except that now we have the name. And we even get a kind of smug satisfaction in being able to point one out: "Wow, she's really thin" or "Annie." It's like spotting gays or a rare state in a license plate game on a long trip.

So back to the damning part: I think most of us are not willing to confront anorexia when we see it, especially if it is close to home. There is a woman who runs past our house in the mornings at the slowest pace I've ever seen a human run and she is little more than a stick and what she is exercising for only her disease knows, but all we know to do for her is to chat with her and welcome her to come and cut roses whenever she likes. We don't know who she is or exactly where she is.

But what if I knew her? What if she were the wife of a friend? Would I treat her gently and let her pet my dog, or would I confront the sickness that is slowly killing her and escalating? I know it's more complicated than that. You can't just walk up to someone, friend or not, and say, "Hey, you're anorexic" the way you would point out a piece of food stuck in someone's teeth.

Back to my planned conversation at the top. If I bring up this woman and her condition to anyone who knows her, they quickly confirm it. But none of us really want to do anything. We want to keep things easy, to hope it could go something like, "Hey, you're wife's really anorexic, but you probably know that and are working on it, so, hey, we're going to play doubles on Thursday, are you in?"

So, what is it with us? I mean, what is our obligation here? Are politeness and respecting privacy and maintaining friendships and easy relationships the most important considerations? I'm afraid that's how I act, except for a failed intervention last year and the imaginary conversation above that's in my head and will probably stay there. I am also far too much of a "heal yourself" kind of person who doesn't much go for therapists, and so, I'm caught up in a simplistic, blaming perspective of 'Why doesn't he do something to fix it?'

But out there in anorexialand, the person with the disease (hey, men can have it to!) doesn't know he or she has it and the spouse may be drowning, too, and the only lifeline, at least for now, may be that confirmation by someone known and trusted that he, too, thinks there is something wrong. Probably, in the context of a marital relationship, one partner's anorexia is, on one level, yet another negotiation that two people engage in to get through the day, not realizing how quickly those days have added up. You think you see an improvement one day and that gets you through the next five, or the next two weeks. And, way back when, for some brief window, thinner was better.

I wonder if that husband, after I had steeled my courage and approached him, would look at me with disgust and say, "Do you really think I don't know that?"

Elliot Smith's version of the Dylan classic is available at Cover Me, a fine covers blog. Check it out.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yes, He's a Dick.

Blackjack - Everclear (mp3) *
Mean Mr. Mustard - Beatles (mp3)

To use our President's favorite words, Let me be clear: Dick Cheney is a dick.

Detesting Dick Cheney doesn't require the slightest bit of political bias. In fact, it has almost no basis whatsoever in politics. I don't like HIM. As a person.


"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures leave you half-exposed...Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy... There is never a good time to compromise when [the lives of the American people] hang in the balance." -- former Vice President Dick Cheney

First of all, when commenting as a semi-liberal, I'm all in favor of Dick Cheney and his big mouth. Politically speaking, I want Dick out there. I want Dick to remain as the purple shiny head of Republicans on television sets, in newspapers, on the web. I want Dick everywhere Dick can go. I want Dick to grow in presence and confidence. I want Dick on the lips of all right-wingers everywhere. The far right might oppose gay marriage, but they sure do love Dick. And the liberal in me loves them for doing so.

Every day he keeps flappin' his yap, the country is reminded why we voted for someone else, and we're reminded of just how scheme-driven and stealth-lovin' these guys were for a long time.

However.

The other part of me is the part that wants America to survive and advance. I want our leaders to disagree but work together. I want compromises and debates and a genuine bipartisan search for progress and long-lasting sustainable growth. I want "sustainable growth" to symbolize something greater than money. I want it to encompass who we are as a society, what we value, how we prioritize. I want America to thrive across multiple dimensions.

That part of me despises Dick Cheney with a seething, bubbling kind of disgust that rarely works its way through my veins, and I just want the bastard to go away and leave us alone.

Dick Cheney is the ultimate non-negotiator. Dick is the kind of parent who asks you for your thoughts and then rolls his eyes or completely stops paying attention when you talk. Dick is the teacher who only gives you an A+ when you spout out verbatim the same shit he's been spewing, because creativity is for pussies. Dick Cheney is the football coach who thinks a practice that fails to get boys puking or passing out must have been a bad practice.

Do you remember the less-than-good but wonderfully guilty pleasure film Varsity Blues? Do you remember Jon Voigt's role as the megalomaniacal coach willing to do anything to win? Yeah, that's Cheney. Lie, cheat, fib, confuse, misdirect, misrepresent. Do whatever it takes, and at any cost, to win.

Dick Cheney is a bad person. Worse yet, he's just flat-out dangerous, because he's the moron who believes there's only one way -- his way -- to skin a cat, to climb a mountain, to get to the other side. Even conservative columnist David Brooks thinks so. (Brooks also takes the time to gig liberals by reminding them that, so far, Obama's foreign policy is only a hair's breadth kinder or gentler than Bush's.)

Maybe Cheney's defenders like assholes. Maybe Republicans want Grandpa Simpson with a shotgun running the country. Maybe they want Archie Bunker -- except with less heart -- making decisions that will shape the future for our children. Or, maybe his defenders would say I'm only paying attention to the Public Dick. That Private Dick is actually sweet, loving, caring, humble, gracious, and generous. That Public Dick is playing a role no one else has the balls to play.

I can't do anything about the former. If you like angry bitter paranoid spiteful men running things, ain't nothing I can say to you. But the latter... well, I think that's a crappy logic. As the well-quoted Jesus Christ says, "Even sinners love those who love them," so Dick being a swell guy with his family hardly impresses me.

Further, why was it unpatriotic and supporting the terrorists to question our government's decisions in 2004, but in 2009, if your name is Dick Cheney, it's perfectly OK to speak up in opposition to the President's direction? Five years ago, doing so was tantamount to bankrolling Al Qaeda. Now, apparently, it's safe enough in America for Dick to say stuff. Maybe he thinks he protected us well enough that dissent is now less dangerous.

If any conservatives have read this far, I want to repeat that politics has virtually nada to do with this. Were Dick a lib'ral, it's possible some of my anger would be replaced by a more-powerful shame, but the emotional negativity he would dredge up in my bowels wouldn't decrease. Just ask me what I think of Pelosi some time.

So, Dick, for the good of the country, would you please go ahead and put a sock in it? If it makes you more comfortable, you can attach some electrodes to that sock and stick it over your privates. But putting it in your mouth would be fine, too.

I'm guilty of committing song repetition on BOTG for the first time ever, but dammit, the Everclear song is just perfect for ol' Dick. My apologies to the repetition, and I'll try not to do it again for at least another year.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Retro Summer Mix for Memorial Day

I don't have much to say, except that the boys are starting exams, the grass is green, the pool is open, the coals are burning in the grill!

Here's a little list of songs that may take you back to previous summers, as they do for me. What could be better than the Monkees and Husker Du, or a little redone Graham Parson classic, or a Trey Anastasio-fueled trip to the Misty Mountain Hop, a gin and juice sipped in the suburbs?

While all of the songs are "old school," I tried to freshen the list a little with newer covers of classic songs or alternate versions. Just plug your computer into some speakers, press play, and let 'er rip. Enjoy!




The Ramones--"Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" (mp3)

Husker Du--"Could You Be The One?" (mp3)

Jay Z--"Izzo (H.O.V.A.) unplugged" (mp3)

Ryan Adams and Gillian Welch--"The Return Of The Grievous Angel (live)" (mp3)

The Monkees--"Last Train To Clarksville" (mp3)

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs--"Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" (mp3)

R.E.M.--"Don't Go Back To Rockville" (mp3)

Paul Westerberg--"Daydream Believer (live)" (mp3)

Neil Young with Booker T. and the MGs--"Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay (live)" (mp3)

Phish (with Warren Haynes)--"Misty Mountain Hop (live) (mp3)

Scott McKenzie--"San Francisco (If You're Going)" (mp3)

The Moody Blues--"Legend Of A Mind" (mp3)

Liz Phair--"Mother's Little Helper" (mp3)

"Gin and Juice (White Man Remix)" (mp3)


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Slippery Slope Park

String of Pearls - Soul Asylum (mp3)
This is the way a park ends
This is the way a park ends
This is the way a park ends
Not with a bang, but the convergence of nine police officers on two alleged drug dealers selling shit from the trunk of their car.
I took my family to Coolidge Park on Monday evening. We hadn't been down there in a couple of years, due to the complications of a newborn son and our daughters outgrowing bikes we could fit into our minivan. It's no longer the park I remember.

Four years ago, Coolidge Park in daylight hours was home to hippies and romantics and studious Christian college kids. You had drum circles, young kids playing guitars poorly, circles of girls and young women wearing those funky multi-color hippy dresses, families pushing strollers and singing songs from The Sound of Music. On the other side of the bridge, you had young kids and teenagers throwing frisbees and footballs and frolicking.

When we were there last night, I saw:
  • a woman who was clearly either in the midst of or recovering from a serious meth problem. She was white and looked like a mix between Karen Carpenter and Skeletor, and she was walking with a black dude with dreds.

  • a couple watching their young son run around the place and invite himself to ride our son's pushcar. They were nice enough. They weren't a day over 22. They were unmarried.

  • a phalanx of police officers -- some of them in goofy bicycle shorts like Ponch -- descend on two black dudes who were "allegedly" selling drugs out of the trunk of their car. Only a few minutes after the cops arrived, a small crowd of young African-American guys and gals circled the scene at a safe 40-foot perimeter to witness it. We overheard one of the young guys say, "Damn, ***** just got out last week an' he's already goin' back."

  • a group of about eight Latino teenagers walking around the carousel area, then sitting and talking.

  • a baby about the same age as my son (1-2 years) playing around the fountains. This very young child was already eyeball-poppingly fat. And yes, "fat" is the correct word here. And yes, the parents were also fat. And no, I won't buy that this child was fat solely because of a genetic disorder, unless the genetic disorder in question is known as "parents who eat too much and feed their child too much every damn time he cries."

  • two goth teenagers snuggling on a blanket and having their pasty flesh scorched slowly by the merciless if slowly setting sun.
Yes, I fully realize that my descriptions are teeming with the kind of judgmental bile that makes people hate snooty middle class honkies like myself. I have done this with some intentional exaggeration, but I can't deny that these are descriptions my uncensored self would offer. I also can't deny that everywhere I looked in Coolidge Park on Monday night, I couldn't help but conclude that the place had deteriorated. It was no longer drawing the same people to do the same things.

Four years ago, the park's population was appropriately diverse. I wouldn't say it perfectly mirrored Chattanooga's population breakdown, but it had to be close, both ethnically and economically. On Monday evening at 7 p.m., the population was very skewed. Poor. Minority. Sketchy.

It's gone from being Target to sliding right past Wal-Mart on the way down to the Brainerd Road Bi-Lo.

Such is probably the natural evolution of the city park. When it's a baby, everyone in town wants to come over and visit. Hold it. Sing to it. Watch it eat and coo and cry and poo. Then, when it's a toddler, people continue to stop by, but with less regularity and less balls-to-the-wall enthusiasm. By the time it's hit the middle school years, most folks are making excuses why they just couldn't quite find the time to visit... and they're also secretly talking bad about the little brat behind closed doors. Then, when it's a full-on teenager, it gets all sullen and starts smoking and drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd and beating up weak nerds and scaring the little old ladies.

If Monday evening was any indication -- and maybe I just hit it on a totally bad night? -- Coolidge Park is fast approaching the zit-infested voice-changing 10th grade and doing so in full juvenile offender style. Already most concerned parents and schools have banned or strongly discouraged going there after dusk, even though the whole place is wide open.

And when a place spends its teenage years pushing all the right people away, it will get lonelier and increasingly dominated by a crowd less likely to attract Mr. Roger's Neighborhood than Mr. Robinson's. Maybe it's the inevitable and cyclical nature of parks: They're born. They plateau. They fade. They rot. They die. They revitalize with new money and new design and new attraction, or they die and are replaced by condos.

(My apologies to non-Chattanooga readers for such a town-specific write-up.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Slugs On A Porch

Shortwave Set--"Glitches and Bugs" (mp3)
The Happy Planets--"The Summer Slime" (mp3)


I had seen slugs before.

No, check that. I had seen a slug before, never more than one, usually creeping up the Andy Warhol shower curtain in the basement bathroom. A quick blast of hot water from the shower head and he would have to let go and swirl around for a while before half-sticking in the drain.

But never slugs like these.

My wife had come in from the outside and commented casually, "There are a bunch of slugs on the porch."

Not something I would usually have responded to, but I had just finished the 7th and final episode of Generation Kill on DVD, and I was jacked up. Slugs on the perimeter? Trying to compromise our position? No, sir, not on my watch. I dashed to the kitchen to find the salt, my daughter trailing behind me, ready to take on the role of halogen flashlight holder.

"You're going to put salt on them?" my wife asked disinterestedly.

"Kosher salt," my daughter retorted, noticing that I was reaching for the good stuff, as if Kosher salt was like Holy Water, its rabinnical blessing giving it extra power for wet work.

No, never slugs like these had I seen. I could tell that as I soon as I opened the front door and saw their vague gray shapes in the darkness. There were way too many of them.

When my daughter stood almost over them and clicked on her flashlight, it was as if we had discovered, by plane, the Japanese fleet at Midway. Several large slugs with dozens of smaller ones surrounding them were charging toward my front door at a cruising speed of over 6 inches/minute (or .00568 miles per hour). These slugs were smart, organized, disciplined--and, even more clever, they all looked the same, but for the variations in size. It was virtually impossible to tell who the leader was. And with no hesitation, they were coming towards us.

It was quick decision time, either get out of the way of the onslaught or fight back. I chose the latter, guided by my daughter's steady hand on the flashlight and her even firmer resolve. She looked at me and she whispered angrily, "Enough is enough! I have had it with these muthafuckin' slugs on this muthafuckin' porch!"


And my salt rained from the sky.

I don't know if you've ever seen a slug run. Or the slug equivalent. All of the sudden the wet trail thickens and you can detect, if you get close, a veritable burst of speed that is detectable. I couldn't see it, of course; my vision was obscured by the saline blizzard I was unleashing as hard as I could, not only bombarding the main armada, but trying to take out some of the craftier ones that were on the brick walls. By now, they more than knew we were there, and each slug "ship" tried to scatter in a haphazard pattern, hoping to avoid the relentless assault. To no avail, I might add. We had them. Fish in a barrel.

Or so I thought.

It was then that the light caught the other side of the porch, where three slugs had taken a roundabout path, but were closer to the front door. So, the main armada was just a feint, a suicide mission designed to distract me, those slimy dozens willing to sacrifice themselves so that their brethren could get through. I saluted their sneaky valor, and then I salted them with extreme prejudice.

We stepped off the porch to survey our night's work. Just before we breathed a sigh of satisfaction, my daughter's precise light revealed that we had only compromised the front of that flesh-colored flotilla. They were coming out of the garden. The straight "hell from above" approach that I had employed so far would not work here. Our work was not yet complete! The most insidious remained. They were camouflaged among the mulch or creeping along the brick under the precipice. Having studied Midway, I knew that my only hope was to mimic the torpedo bombers and put horizontal fire onto these corsairs. At great expense of salt, I launched wave after wave of sideways attack, eventually lodging enough crystals along the top ledge of the slugs until eventually, the salt broke their hold on the brick and they fell.

It was over. The dead shriveled and the dying writhed, and I took grim satisfaction with the work we had done. But it was over.

What is to be learned? Only this: stay off my muthafuckin' porch...if you want to live.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ain't Supposed to Die on a Saturday Night

The '59 Sound - The Gaslight Anthem (mp3)
Love U More - Sunscreem (mp3)

Music is my primary emotional siphon. Inserting those ear buds is akin to shoving a plastic tube into my gas tank, and what usually emerges from me are the heavy, unglamorous feelings of despair, agony, melancholia or fear. This musical bloodletting happens most often, appropriately enough, when I'm in my car. (Or, yes, on my scooter.)

Struggling to express ugly emotions with those I trust and who love me isn't unique. The world is full of people who keep the bad shit bottled up. What does seem ironic is that I'm somehow more comfortable weeping or screaming or punching the top of my car while on the road, inviting strangers to witness my little tirades, which probably resemble something like "The Fast and The Exorcist."

Songs that can at the right moment draw forth the poison from inside me are legion. Not like they're squeezing blood from a stone, fer Chrissakes. These songs are squeezing water from an overburdened sponge. In college, the Sunscreem song "Love U More" was on frequent repeat in my car, and I'd often drive blurry-eyed and wiping away tears. The lyrics are downright embarrassing at times, and the music ain't much better. But I'd just broken up with someone and haunted by the feeling I had failed to hold up my end of our relationship bargain. I didn't enjoy it coming to an end, but I couldn't see any other option. It felt like the lesser of two awfuls, but awful nonetheless. Something in that song helped siphoned out the poison.

Lately, "The '59 Sound" by The Gaslight Anthem has been getting heavy rotation in my ears when I'm alone in the car. The song's got teenagers, tragedy, and the mention of a gospel choir. It's a top-notch weeper that works even though it's not "quiet and minor and peaceful and slow."

Part of the reason this song has lingered on my radar is because, as Bob mentioned yesterday, our school celebrated the graduation of its Class of 2009 last weekend. The pending close of another year is always bittersweet and begs for emotional siphoning. Working with high schoolers, if one is committed to it and passionate about it, often makes you feel like Calypso. You've helped to shelter and care for these vulnerable sticks of dynamite. You've watched them grow stronger and more confident. You've glimpsed moments of their far-away mysterious home lives, some of which are less than dreamy, as Bob so wonderfully noted yesterday.

You release them into the world knowing full well there's plenty of growing up still to do, but you can't help them, and you can't even witness it happen anymore. Instead, you replace them with a new crop and start the damn thing over again. It's this weird "Time to make the donuts" "Groundhog Day" kind of feeling.

The chains I've been hearin' now for most of my life.

This particular senior class experienced some heavy shit on their journey. Two student deaths over a 2-year span, and both off-the-charts unusual and tragic. While the deaths of those boys were most especially painful to their parents and relatives, tragedies kill parts of everyone they touch, and those deaths touched every student in one way or another. Every adult, too, for that matter. "The '59 Sound" is the sound of tormented teenage souls, desperately clawing and fighting to accept the unacceptable.

As a sophomore in college, one of the more beloved guys in my dorm was killed in a car wreck. Drunk driver slammed into him. Jaws of life didn't live up to their billing. Bob had been dead mere hours when the news careened into us.

And I wonder, were you scared when the metal hit the glass?

Although I was by no means his best friend, we had spent plenty of time in one another's company. The weekend before he was killed, he'd been going through the dorm with permanent markers, writing his name on pillars and walls and doors. "Bob was here '72." He wrote the "'72" part in the hopes it would look like some old alum had returned to make his mark for old times' sake.

Maybe four nights before his death, Bob came into my room and wrote it several times on our loft. We talked for probably half an hour, and it was the kind of conversation that meant very little to me at the time. But the night of his death, as about eight of us gathered silently on the balcony and struggled to understand how to feel and how much of it to share, I desperately tried to retrieve that conversation.

Surely it was no coincidence that he was leaving his mark on that dorm mere days before he died. Surely it was no coincidence that my longest personal conversation with the guy happened mere days before he was gone. Yet I could only remember bits and phrases, and none of those orphaned pieces felt meaningful enough to justify the symbolism of a young man imparting some last crucial wisdom on his friends. I was still too young and clueless to realize that nothing he had said would ever allow his death to feel meaningful.

Young boys, young girls
Ain't supposed to die on a Saturday night.


No offense to the God in which I believe, but I can think of many worse things than getting to spend an eternity listening to my favorite songs, or even getting the gift of having one or two of them release me from life's waning moments. And sometimes the only way to swim through the sadness is to take great hope in the little things.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A How-To Blog From Your Old Uncle Bob

Walter Becker--"Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen--"Winter Song (unreleased)" (mp3)

After purchasing Neil Young's Fork In The Road on Itunes this week and trying to get into it and having to acknowledge to myself what a disappointment it is (more on that in another post, perhaps), I got so depressed that I spent the better part of Saturday night seeing what other Neil Young was out there. I had to know he wasn't finished. I didn't want to lose faith in Neil.

And thanks to YouTube, I didn't.

I don't know how often you use YouTube for its musical offerings, but the range and depth of music on there is almost beyond belief--classic performances on old TV shows, concert footage with good quality, but also what I call "collage songs." Collage songs are not really the visual posts one expects on YouTube so much as they are a way of posting songs. Of course, you can't just post the music, so you collect a bunch of still photographs and whatnot and have a slideshow while the song plays.

These songs tend to fall into two categories: the live stuff and the unreleased stuff. Both categories make my heart race a little bit. There are few things I enjoy more than discovering that there is more music out there by someone I admire than I knew that there was.

By the end of the night Saturday, I had downloaded 43 Neil Young songs from YouTube, all of which are now on my Ipod. So, if this is something you've never done, I thought I'd tell you how.

1. First of all, you need a program that will convert YouTube files to Mp3s. The one I've used with great success is at DVDVideoSoft.com, available here. When you click to download it, it will take you to a CNET page, but it's the same program.

2. Once you've downloaded and installed it, you're ready to go. Get onto YouTube and find something like an unreleased Springsteen song called "Winter Song," played solo on piano in 1973. Copy the address of the video and paste it in your YouTube to MP3 Converter.

3. You have the option of choosing the sound quality. Why not go for the best? It will take a bit longer, but the difference is probably noticeable on most tracks.

4. Once you've pasted it, you just click download and wait for it to finish. My tracks save to "My Documents\DVDVideoSoft\FreeYouTubeToMP3Converter" and when I go there, Bruce is waiting for me. I can import the song into Itunes.

5. Of course, there are other types of converters you can get--if you wanted to watch the clip on your Ipod or something. I've done that with some concert footage, but now I wish I just had done the audio, because then the songs would be in the mix with my other stuff.

If you're wondering about the legality of this, well, so am I. A little bit. These songs sometimes have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of hits, the software is readily available and not from some sketchy site, and it isn't like you're going to make money by having downloaded a song that, live or studio, was probably never released. You get to hear songs you never heard, concerts you couldn't go to. In the case of Neil Young, I got the audio of almost an entire concert he did just last year in Amsterdam, and hearing the range of new and old and never-heard-before-by-me songs performed with great skill reassured me that Neil Young is indeed still writing good songs and that I'll continue supporting him, in spite of Fork In The Road.

I suppose if the artist doesn't want the music out there, it would be an easy enough thing to contact YouTube and tell them to take it off.

Walter Becker, one of the geniuses behind Steely Dan, released Circus Money in 2008. Available at Itunes. Bruce Springsteen's "Winter Song" is available at YouTube.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Better Living Through Chemistry?

When It Falls Apart - Matthew Perryman Jones (mp3)
It's Only Me - Todd Thibaud (mp3)

The huge rise in allergies has been attributed to our society's increasingly antiseptic lifestyle. The irony is lost on no one. We fight germs and clean our counters and keep our kids out of the dirt, and biology mocks us by making our children's carefully-protected immune systems more vulnerable to more pathetic things. Like milk. And peanuts. And eggs.

Or, as some doctors say, stop worrying about making your children wash their damn hands before dinner. A little dirt never hurt nobody.

"A little dirt never hurt nobody" is my general approach to most of life, and my approach to health and medicine has always been similar. A little cold never hurt nobody. A little piggy flu never hurt nobody. A little gonhorrea never hurt nobody. This approach is clearly more philosophical than scientific.

But what good is science nowadays? Scientists can't even agree on things as basic as global warming or whether Sweet-N-Low causes cancer. You can read studies until you're blue in the face and still not know for sure whether women should drink more wine to protect them from Deadly Problem A or stop drinking wine to protect them from Deadly Problem B.

In much the same way Bob expressed frustration with professional athletes and the steroid problem, I've recently been wrestling with the issue of "neuroenhancement." The oversimplified definition of Neuroenhancement is: people who take ADHD-type medicines but don't remotely have ADHD so that they can do stuff better than they could otherwise.

Regular Harvard students (or students here in our own school) use Ritalin and Adderal et al to help them stay up and on task for ridiculous stretches. They use it to help them focus when taking tests, or when studying. Some professional poker players use it to intensify their attention while at the tables. Lots of people are using drugs never really intended for them in ways they deem beneficial to their brain and life.

At the gut level and my philosophical level, I'm strongly opposed to this. It feels like cheating. And not just "fudging a little," but outright cheating.

Well, there's also this little bitty other thing.

I can't deny that I'm forever scarred from the "Family Ties" episode where my hero, Alex P. Keaton, got addicted to speed before the first commercial break and was having a meltdown by the 20-minute mark. Even now, when I see those "5-Hour Energy" commercials, I have flashbacks to Alex wigging out in his room until Michael Gross steps in and smothers his son with his beard and cardigan sweater. (Insert Mallory and Tina Yothers jokes here.)

On the intellectual level, however, especially after reading this New Yorker article on the subject, I'm not sure if my reaction is justifiable. We have long ago let the horse out of the barn when it comes to granting medicine the right to fuck with every aspect of our lives. From asperin and penicillin to seratonin re-uptake inhibitors and blood enzyme regulators (a.k.a. "little blue pills"), we as a society seem plenty comfortable with drugs, drugs and more drugs, so long as they're manufactured by Glaxo instead of farmed by Fredo. Hell, we're totally OK with injecting botox, collagen, silicone, and God-only-knows what other unnatural substances into our flesh if it helps us be ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Neuroenhancement is, simply, mental steroids, mental temporary breast implants. It's adding chemicals to your brain that allow you (in theory) to do things better than you could without them.

But here's where my philosophical concern kicks in. I've long been a firm believer that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that nothing in life is free. If these chemicals increase something in your brain, it's almost a certainty that they decrease something else, or they take a toll on the brain or body in order to render these results.

Steroids shrink your dick or make you stupid or violent. Cigarettes leatherize your skin and kill your lungs. Even marijuana, everyone's favorite cuddly illegal substance, the river otter of the drug world, has plenty of problems that come trailing along with the high it brings. I'd mention what those problems are, but I have the munchies and can't stop laughing. And these little bugs are crawling on my legs but I can't find them. (And if you've never had that last reaction, then I've uh only heard about it from friends.) Even when we do something to our bodies or brains that have no clear and undeniable side effect, it can still affect us emotionally or mentally in ways we don't grasp until it's too late.

Is my belief highly flawed? Sure it is. I can't think of any serious karmic consequences from taking Advil on a regular basis, for example. Certainly other medications and medical procedures have minimal cost for tremendous reward.

So maybe my objection is an egotistical and snooty one. Maybe I object to overweight people cheating by getting lap bands and lipo. Maybe I object to less intelligent people dosing themselves into a more agreeable study stupor. Maybe I object to less gifted athletes dosing themselves into studlier rainmakers. It all reeks of Icarus and the Tower of Babel to me.

But both of those are just myths. So maybe at some point I'm supposed to put aside my childish philosophies and accept the realities of modern science. I'll chew it over on my way to pick up another coffee from Starbucks...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mixed Messages?

The Fray--"Heartless (Kanye West cover)" (mp3)
Continental Drifters--"Mixed Messages" (mp3)

Two events from today have convinced me that I need to respond to Billy's post:

1) a man in Taiwan sat down on the toilet in his house and was promptly bitten on the penis by a large black and gold rat snake that came up through the drain.

2) moral arbitrator Donald Trump decided that Miss California can keep her crown after all.

Now, the first event has no connection to this post, except to serve as a cautionary tale.

But the second, the defense of Carrie Prejean, serves as a kind of coda to Billy's remarks. While what Judge Trump has ruled would seem to only determine whether or not a "beauty"gets to keep her crown, it does, as Billy suggests, tend to cloud the major issues. Her statement yesterday that "I'm a model; I'm a Christian" is offered as some kind of duality that attempts to link the two when they do not link. Is it that "because I'm a model and my tits are Christian tits, and therefore what I do with them is beyond reproach?" Or is it that "because I'm a Christian, I operate on a higher plane than people who want to destroy the institution of marriage by having same-sex unions" and my modelling is irrelevant? Does being both allow one to use a public platform for "free speech" designed to curtail the rights of others? I don't know.

But the bigger issue is probably this: if you're expecting Donald Trump and his ilk to make the societal calls that will best serve our children, you're wasting your time and breath.

Ponder this. Each year, four guys go to New Orleans over Spring Break. One expectation of that trip is that each of us burns a mix CD of favorites for the other three guys. Now, suppose one co-founder of this blog put the Kanye West song "Drunk and Hot Girls" onto his mix, and one of the other guys plays the mix in his car while picking up his young daughters from elementary school. Those girls hear the song, in fact, like the song, want to hear it over and over, sing along with it, and know all of the words. Now, suppose the other co-founder of this blog has never, ever censored what his daughters have listened to, that, back in the day, he, too, used to drive around with his daughters and they had group-sings of Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me." Yes, we were all singing together, "Picture this/we were both butt naked/bangin' on the bathroom floor."

Do any of you, and I mean any of you out there, really believe that a repetition of these lyrics or similar ones or watching Brittney Spears videos or watching the implied co-habitation on S Club 7 will cause any of these girls to have a propensity for pre-marital sex or "sluttish" behavior?

I don't believe it. Not one bit.

Since the beginning of civilization, parents have been seeking to protect their children from the influences of the larger society. This is a good instinct, one that we should nurture. But the tendency to blame that society or even to claim that that society is worse than it ever was is both simplistic and misguided.

Here's a different look at the problem. I do not believe that there is a national epidemic of births out of wedlock. Now, I would be a fool if I denied that there are a lot of births out of wedlock. But an epidemic? No way.

"A prevailing cause of sexual activity and promiscuity in girls is a poor relationship with their fathers."

Here's why: an epidemic, a national disease, if you will, implies that the idea is spreading from one unmarried child to the next like the swine flu. Does the friend of an unwed mother think, "Gee, she had one, I guess I'll have one, too?" I don't buy it. If we want to get at the issues of promiscuity and the resultant preganancies, we've got to stop talking epidemic and start talking one case at a time.

You see, as my wife the Child Development major/social worker has often told me, and as simple Internet research yesterday confirmed, one prevailing cause of sexual activity in young girls is a poor relationship with their fathers. When we realize that when a father is absent, emotionally distant, physically intimidating or otherwise detached from his daughter, his daughter is more likely to do whatever is necessary with another male, to reassure herself that "at least one man loves her," then, I think we get at the heart of the problem.

I read the statistics in the Washington Post article: 38% of children in this country are born out of wedlock. It's a fact, but facts don't always tell the whole story. Are there, perhaps, portions of society where many of those illegitimate children are coming from, and are those portions of society unfortunately and tragically portions where fathers are predominantly absent? That is the issue.

Of course, our society is in many ways a wreck. Just as certainly, in many ways, it is as good as it as ever been. And the messages have always been mixed, always will be mixed, at least as long as we continue to worship the dual gods of Christianity and Capitalism. The thing that is clear to me, that is a completely unmixed message, is that, just as has always been true, if we are going to protect our children, it has to start with the family and not with the blaming of outside influences.

Continental Drifters are available at Itunes; the Fray cover is out there.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Well, Which Is It Young Feller?

How to Be Strong - Roseanne Cash (mp3)
ELO Kiddies - Cheap Trick (mp3)
From Raising Arizona:
GALE: Alright you hayseeds it's a stickup! Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.  (Long pause)
HAYSEED: Well, which is it Young Feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? I mean to say, if'n I freeze I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm gonna be in motion.
What do we as a country want our children to be?

Are kids better serving as consumers in a free economy or as innocent angels in a pit of vipers? Well? Which is it, people? What the hell do you expect from America's children and teens? They ain't super-powered, y'know.

A recent Washington Post article in the "On Faith" section points out the dilemma decently enough.

In much the same way that adults cram fast food and candy down the throats of children yet expect them to grow up with physiques like Kate Moss and Macauley Culkin, adults shove kids in front of millions of disturbing visual images and auditory sounds but expect them to grow up sweet and innocent. And I'm not talking just parents here. I'm talking parents in specific and culture at large.

The TODAY Show will run an expose on the scandal surrounding Bristol Palin and premarital sex at 7:10, followed by a Hardee's commercial at 7:14 that depicts a woman with her tits practically spilling out of her dress, eating a hamburger like she's fellating it, and then scooping some stray ketchup from her finger and sucking on that like it's sloppy seconds. And then Matt Lauer returns to the screen to discuss the "scandal" of Miss California taking photos in lingerie. And then they'll see a movie trailer where Uhura is straddling Captain Kirk, and he's about to boldly take her where no man has gone before. All before most children have finished their breakfast. Oh yeah, and then Meredith returns with stories about the Craigslist predator and John Edwards' wayward penis.

Can you explain this to me?

If we want to feel like responsible parents, we can't watch a single thing that remotely interests us on television if there's the slightest damn chance our children could walk into the room. We won't let them watch ANY show anymore unless it's been DVR'd ("TiVo'd") first, because we can't risk the kind of shit that will greet them during commercial breaks of "Wipeout."

Meanwhile -- and I mean no offense, my conservative friends -- I've witnessed a fairly strong correlation between how often one agrees with "Family Values" lingo and how often one exposes their children to questionably-appropriate material. The more granola and tree-huggin' the parents I know, the more likely their children are even more sheltered from pop culture than ours. And ours are pretty sheltered, especially compared to most I know. (In point of fact, I'm not terribly confident that sheltering them more or better necessarily guarantees anything substantial in the long run. It just soothes my conscience a little is all, so we err on the side of caution.)

I wonder if that's because conservatives are the ones who espouse both the family values and the free market, the belief that people have the right to make a buck any way they can.

Let's take Carrie Prejean as an example. Her parents instilled in her a belief that gay marriage rips at the stable fabric of society. And I'd bet you a dime to a dollar that they are against increasing taxes and gun control. Yet, those same parents were perfectly OK with their sweet darling getting fake tits and modeling in lingerie as a teenager. I don't mean to rake them over the coals, but I do awe at our collective inconsistencies that don't once seem to give us judgmental pause.

Likewise, why aren't Elliott Spitzer and Sarah Palin seen more frequently as partners in deplorable hypocrisy? Both stood on soap boxes and wooed votes based on a public stance that was clearly neglected -- at least in moments -- in their private lives. But apparently we give Palin more lenience because "Who can control kids these days?" Maybe that's valid. Or... maybe it's all the more dangerous to stand on soap boxes and preach parental values if your kids ain't sweet li'l angels.

As the article suggests, we seem to be much more capable, as a society, of objecting to gay couples and teenage sex than we are of actually trying to address what most reasonable minds should agree is a more serious problem -- the pandemic of illegitimacy, for instance -- head-on.

It's a foolish game to call out the hypocrisy of specific people to make a point, because I'm plenty hypocritical in my own right, as both a parent and as a general adult. But I must call this hypocrisy out. I'm doin' it for the children, dammit!

We want them to do as we say, not as we do. And we want them to be sex symbols only in certain situations. We want to market Britney as a whore and an angel (well, we did back in 1999), and we expect our kids to know wisely and magically differentiate the good Britney from the bad Britney.

Everyone always expects so much out of the younger generations, and almost as much out of other people's children as our own, yet we don't seem to want to do much, collectively as a society, to help them.

I originally wrote "protect them," but I think the challenge is far more nuanced than mere protection. Instead of shielding, shouldn't we instead be aiming to equip them to do what they should, and more importantly to nurture them in an environment that helps them determine what the hell "should" is in the first place?

"How to Be Strong" is from the compilation album Mary Had a Little Amp. I can't find it anywhere for downloading, but the CD is good! The Cheap Trick tune can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Athletes Need To Talk More Dirty

The Streets--"Stay Positive" (mp3)
The Hold Steady--"Stay Positive" (mp3)


The recent suspension of Manny Ramirez for 50 games serves as a great demonstration of how dangerous euphemisms can be. In this case, that is not only true for this particular athlete, but it is also true for all athletes and all those associated with sports, including agents, managers, lawyers, even reporters.

For the record, here's the story in a nutshell: Ramirez has tested positive for the use of a banned substance, which means he has violated the rules of Major League Baseball. Hence, the suspension. Hundreds of newspapers, television newscasters, and blogger have all retold the story using the same language:

Tested positive.

Hmmmmmm......he did indeed "test positive," but what he really did was to use a "performance-enhancing drug." No, what he really did was cheat. That's right. Manny Ramirez cheated. He took the rules of a sport he has played professionally for nearly two decades and he broke those rules. No one with even the slightest understanding of professional sports is likely to believe that he didn't know what he was doing.

Now, yes, I could go after "peformance-enhancing drugs" or "banned substances" or any of the other crummy euphemisms for illegal drugs, but I want to stay focused on the action here. What did Ramirez do? He "tested positive."

When that phrase becomes the sports-wide euphemism for using illegal drugs, it compromises the value systems of everyone involved. Notice what it says. It says that the athlete took a routine test and the results confirmed drug use. Notice what it doesn't say. It doesn't say that Ramirez acted in any way. He's just a pin cushion. We have no idea who tested him, when the test was done, where the test was done, or even, though we can guess, why the test was done. It doesn't even say that he used the drugs; he merely, though tragically, tested positive for them. He's passive in all of this, maybe a victim? Maybe just unlucky?

Most high school kids today know that if you eat a bunch of poppy seeds, you will test positive for heroin (urban legend? I don't know). But when we only say that an athlete "tested positive," how do we know that Ramirez, in effect, didn't just ingest the testosterone-increasing equivalent of a poppy seed bagel? So is he guilty of anything? Does he think he did anything wrong? It's hard to say.

Though he is "sorry" and says that the "mistake" is his "responsibility," his final words on the subject (would like to say more, but has been advised not to) are that he wants everyone to know that he has "taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons."

Really, Manny? Congratulations!

I guess that means that the drunk driver who made it home shitfaced the last 15 times without getting caught was never a drunk driver. Until the 16th time when he hit somebody or got caught. If you really wanted to defend your character, why didn't you just say, "I DON'T USE ILLEGAL DRUGS???????" Why hide behind passing drugs tests? Unless you do use "banned substances" and have just gotten lucky for the past 5 years.

It gets more insidious. A relatively-distant voice on the topic, Mr. Frank Burke, who owns the Chattanooga Lookouts, our local minor league team, commented, "I never like to see anybody test positive, because it's bad for the game." Hell, yeah, it's bad for the game, but Mr. Burke's remark reinforces the confused value system. One might be tempted to think that what Mr. Burke thinks is "bad" is not the using of illegal drugs, but the getting caught, because he doesn't say a word about drug use. He only talks about getting caught. He never likes to see anyone test positive.

One of the few things that could perhaps help a guy like Ramirez, even at this late stage, is if he started talking dirty. And by dirty, I mean truthfully, because when you strip it all away a lot of the time, the truth of a matter is pretty dirty. Manny Ramirez and all of the others in every sport who "test positive" need to say out loud and very clearly so that all can hear: "I knowingly used illegal drugs and this means I cheated and am deserving of whatever punishment the league, or whatever, thinks is appropriate." No euphemisms, no equivocations, no poppy seed bagels.

Certainly, it would help the younger athletes coming up to hear that using illegal drugs constitutes cheating and will be punished. Unless, of course, that's how the game is supposed to be played.

The Hold Steady and The Streets are available at Itunes. Both entire cds highly recommended.