Friday, December 31, 2010

Finally. A Movie.

Emmylou Harris--"Wayfaring Stranger" (mp3)

Winter's Bone is one of those movies that comes along and restores your faith in the genre.

There is no need to talk about the problems with today's bloated, juvenile, unsatisfying slate of typical Hollywood movies that swap stars and recycle situations. So I won't. Suffice it to say, sometimes a movie really benefits from the restrictions that come with smaller budgets and little-known actors. Such is the case with Winter's Bone.

Plot Synopsis While Revealing Nothing: in rural Missouri, Ree, a 17-year-old girl, forced to raise her younger siblings because her mother's mind has snapped and her father is absent, goes on a search to find her meth-cooking father, because he has used the family property as collateral for his bail, and if/when he no-shows at court, his family, already barely scraping by, will lose the land.

To say that this is one of the most perfectly-acted movies you will see is an understatement. In addition to newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who has rightly generated some Oscar buzz, the film is populated with major and minor roles filled by actors who look vaguely familiar, but more likely from that stop you once made at a small town Wal-Mart than from some other movie you've seen them in. The exception is John Hawkes (of Deadwood fame), who, as Ree's uncle, Teardrop, plays the closest thing to a knight in shining armor she will ever see, and plays the role with more menace than tenderness. "I've always been scared of you," she says at one point when they are most bonded. "That's because you're smart," he responds.

This is a world with its own rules and rulers of drug production and criminal activity, and the law has only tagential control. You don't ask. You don't talk. You don't second guess. You don't challenge. Especially if you are a woman. It is a patriarchal world, where men rule, and women defer to them and justify them and run interference for them. But in a world with such rigid roles for men and women, what happens when a young woman, who is neither broken nor beholdin' to a man, acts on her own maternal instincts?

Because that, of course, is exactly what Ree does, and because she does it, the beauty of the movie emerges. Her dogged assumptions about how families and neighbors and "blood" are supposed to act force everyone around her into actions and conflicts they might otherwise have avoided and might have gotten through their lives never having to deal with. They might wish that Ree would just go away, but she won't, and so a friend must do whatever it takes to get her deadbeat husband's truck, a neighbor must take a horse, an uncle must accept his brother's failings.

And Ree herself is the most fascinating character. She does not expect to rise miraculously above her roots or to escape her upbringing. She may stand inside the high school she once attended, but while the pregnant girls in class may be practicing with dolls, she knows full well that she has real live mouths to feed. She defends her father's reputation as a meth cooker, using her knowledge of his skills as a way of shooting down one theory of what happened to him. Even his abandonment of his family she passes of as one of those things people have to do.

One of the most poignant moments in the film comes when Ree begs her catatonic mother to help her, just this one time, to tell her what to do. The child, forced into an adult world, desperately wants to be a child again, to resume a life with some parental protection, but all her mother can do is to stare into space. Her mother, her role model, her predictor of the path her own life will take, is the most helpless character in her world. Her mother is yet another child to care for. And so, we see Ree's own childrearing patterns take over--she will protect her siblings, but at the same time, she will teach them self-reliance and will not allow them the luxury of being scared.

This is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen, and yet, there is no scene of violence. It's just there. It's there when Teardrop says to Ree, "I already said 'no' with my mouth," implying there are other ways of making the point. It's there in the past history of how disputes are settled. It's there in the way Ree teaches her younger siblings to fire guns for food and protection. It's there in the only way Ree can resolve her situation. It's there in the brutal landscape of wrecked, burned, and broken things scattered everywhere. It's in the air.

Winter's Bone is a film of deep, ironic truth. In a selfish, self-destructive world of dominance and retribution, Ree's quest forces those around her to confront what's left of their own humanity. This is especially true for the women. Because Ree is so close to the edge of survival, stripped of any motive save for the protection of her family, they have no choice but to acknowledge her unwillingness to give up, and the way her female adversaries finally act is one of the most harrowing scenes of this or any year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Special Hours of Christmas

Rickie Lee Jones w/ The Chieftans--"O, Holy Night" (mp3)

Everyone knows about these hours, but no one talks about them. They are the last hours of Christmas Eve, the earliest hours of Christmas morning. Much as we would like to think that the time for presents, meals, visitors, or playing with toys define Christmas day, it is really these latest, earliest hours.

When you are very young, these hours pass more slowly than any hours of the entire year. You know you should be asleep, you want to be asleep, you need to be asleep for what will follow, but the anticipation of the day to come is so great that you can do nothing but lie awake, toss and turn, count sheep, play mind games with yourself, talk to your brother or sister, if he or she is in the room or bed with you, anything that might have the slightest chance of getting you or both of you to get to sleep. If the sheets were cold, they get too warm; if they stay cold, you know you will stay awake. You listen for reindeer on the roof, for someone to enter your house and eat the snacks you have left.

When you are a teenager, these hours may not start out with family, but will definitely end with family. I remember one Christmas Eve where we went to church with our Catholic friend Geoff, who had to check Christmas Eve mass off of his checklist, but we decided we would attend after a night of driving and and drinking vodka and something, maybe Coke, maybe whatever mixed with it that night. I was in the back seat; the jug was handed to me with the command, "Finish it," something I was all too happy to do, having no idea how much vodka was down there at the bottom. I don't remember much of the rest of the evening, except stumbling into that church and wobbling my way through the service and ending up at home where my mother and brother were still up and carrying on, somehow, a lucid, or so it seemed, conversation with them. Opening presents the next morning with a raging, naseous hangover was among the least fun things that I have ever done.

As a young husband, ultimately a young parent, the wee hours of Christmas Eve/Christmas were spent getting the upcoming event together, putting together whatever needed constructing, be it a Barbie Dream House or a bicycle. By that time, you are completely exhausted, but you have certain tasks that must be finished. There is no way around that, and so you keep on and keep on and keep on. It is a very pleasant tiredness, and you know that you will muster the energy for whatever comes by morning light.

Then there comes some year, or years, where you are just up during those hours because you expect to be up at those hours, and the earliest hours of Christmas bring with them the oddest kind of loneliness. You don't feel bad about being alone, because you really aren't. Every Christmas that has ever happened to you is there with you, and you are there alone to try to process all of them at once. You fill stockings for children who are too old for them. You look with satisfaction upon your gifts, the ones that you will give to others.

When your children get older, all of you are up until midnight or beyond. Some are snacking, some are drinking wine. From time to time, everyone is laughing, as you all remember this or that from previous years, as you finish up some ritual that has become part of the late evening, a series of fondues, perhaps, or a gathering with other families at another house.

At some point, some year, you just use that hour to relax. It is the quietest moment of the year. Everyone in the house slumbers. You sit. In darkness. Your worst fears are somehow muted.

This year, you realize that you owe your blog a blogpost, and after some of all of the above, you feel some latent inspiration, some desire to get all of it down while all of it is on your mind, and so you spend part of those hours sitting in front of a computer, even as a fire burns elsewhere, as others in the house look at photographs or listen to favorite Christmas songs. You have obligations to fulfill.

In many ways, where you are now is no different from where you have ever been--alone, expectant, lonely, not alone, nostalgic, anxious, filled with obligations and upcoming duties, maybe filled with a bit too much to drink. And you think, as you glance at the clock for confirmation, 'Welcome to Christmas, that loneliest and famliest of holidays, when all that is expected cannot possibly be fulfilled, and yet, somehow is.'

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Tis the Season

The Holidays Are Here (And We’re Still at War) - Brett Dennen (mp3)
Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas - The Staple Singers (mp3)

My wife loves Christmas. She loves holidays in general. She’s a holiday person. But she loves loves loves Christmas.

I, on the other hand, am what people might call a Fuddy Duddy. I am generally opposed to the prejudice of treating one calendar day of the year differently than other days. While I happily grant exception to Christmas, I do so noting the exception. Birthdays don’t count, because those weren’t invented to honor some Pagan tradition or to generate higher sales returns in stores. Anniversaries, same deal. These are personal holidays and thus exempted.

(Note: I liked birthdays a lot more when 400 people didn’t wish other people a happy birthday by writing on a wall. Like I said. Fuddy Duddy.)

Seriously, I’m always twice as surprised and pleased by a gift or kindness done to me on a random and unpredictable day than one done to honor some Special Occasion that feels like part of the queue. The unexpected gift doesn’t get lost in the hubbub of the event.

When my father died, I sincerely appreciated every person who came to the visitation and shook my hand and hugged me. But the most salient memories of my friends and their support came during completely unexpected moments. A teacher and I left an evening meeting at the same time, and he asked how I was doing, and he shared his own struggles after the death of his father. An older man from church, a month or so later, came to me crying and saying he thought of my father every time he passed a certain area of our church sanctuary.

They were outlier moments. They stick. But I digress.

Back to my wife. She is miserable right now. Christmas means so much to her that she wants it to be everything. She wants everyone to be happy. She wants to see everyone as much as possible. Everything. Everyone. All. These are dangerous words. They are doomed to failure.

Every Christmas, she loses years of her stress life worrying about her family, worrying about our finances, worrying about the tree and the windows and the kids. For something she loves so much, it sure as heck creates a lot of worry and grief. I pick on my wife, but she’s in a very large boat with millions of people who seem to love these days so much yet find themselves miserable.

Perhaps this makes me a wee bit sociopathic. Don’t care too much, or you’ll be sad. This could be said of many things. Marriage. Children. Jobs. Hobbies. Dreams. But I guess I’m comfortable giving those things my emotions, risking my tears and blood pressure on them. Holidays, on the other hand, don’t feel worth it to me.

I don’t think this makes me a Scrooge or a Grinch, because I don’t hate Christmas. I love it. I love the midnight church service and the presents under the tree and Handel’s Messiah and cards with pictures of our friends and their children plastered all over our fridge and spilling over onto cabinets and other spaces.

But I don’t like piling it up with pressure and expectation. It would only take a couple of times of doing so for me to grow to hate Christmas.

So my wish to all of you this holiday season is to purge yourself of these silly stressors. In all the talk about “remembering the Reason for the Season,” most adults do really well with keeping perspective on the materialistic gobbledygook. But they seem to forget all that Reason for the Season crap when it comes to stress and misery and pressure.

As Sue Sylvester might say, were she portraying Mary in the school play, “You think hosting 30 members of your family for dinner and driving 20 hours to visit in-laws is hard?!? Try riding on a donkey five months pregnant and natural childbirthing into a bale of friggin' straw! THAT’S HARD!!”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Zombies Ain't Sexy, But......

Dead Man's Bones--"My Body's A Zombie For You" (mp3)

I'm still trying to figure out this zombie thing.

Last night, I finished the sixth and final episode (of this first season) of The Walking Dead, a satisfying, well-acted, at times surprising, AMC show that has caught my interest when so many shows have not.

But, I've got to wonder, how long can it play out? After a mere six episodes, a good half or more of the people once living are now dead. And each episode is built around the same plot: trying to survive in between the last zombie attack and the next zombie attack. Of course, there's more to it than that; our characters are human, and they grapple with all of the issues of being human--lust, violence, love, envy, selfishness, and, most of all in this case, trying to remain human in every sense of the word in a world that has lost every vestige of humanity.

The zombie world, the zombie battle, is far less complicated than, say, the vampire world. They keep coming; you keep running.

But what, exactly, are the rules? I mean, there have to be zombie rules. According to my only source, The Walking Dead, once infected, you can go from alive to zombie in as little as three minutes or as long as 8 hours. Once zombified, your brain doesn't work, but your brain stem does, which means that you can walk around as if you are in a trance. Apparently, though only your stem works, you can respond to outside stimulus of your senses. Zombies see, and attack. Zombies smell, and attack. Zombies hear noises and attack. Your only goal is to eat human flesh, or any flesh, for that matter. You are a simple creature.

Vampires have a wealth of supernatural abilities and weaknesses, depending. Ability to turn into bats, travel at high speeds, live forever, sexy eyes to woo women, etc. The only thing zombies got is that they are still moving around when they shouldn't be. And not very well. Zombies don't run, and even the way they walk is about the equivalent of your grandfather or a really drunk friend. Really drunk.

And you don't interact with zombies. If, for example, when you wake up into a world of zombies you see your first half carcass crawling across the grass of a park, you might feel the briefest moment of pity for it, but then, perhaps even before it turns towards you, you realize that it is only crawling in hopes of taking a bite out of someone like you. And then you shoot it in the head. Certainly, you don't fall in love with them, don't want them to turn you into one of them for eternity. Don't feel conflicted. No, zombies aren't sexy. They're blunt and sloppy and inarticulate and gross. They stink the way a vampire should stink.

But zombies have one thing that, at least so far, vampires don't have--there are shitloads upon shitloads of them. They may not be clever, urbane, and seductive, but they are around every corner and in every field. They breed like rabbits.

And that's the rule that I don't understand. In The Walking Dead, as in most versions of zombie lore, there are tons and tons of zombies everywhere and very few people left who aren't. What in the world are all those zombies going to eat, and what happens to them if they can't find anything? I understand that if they have no food supply they will journey farther and farther to find it, but what if they don't? Don't zombies die? Oh yeah, they're already dead.

Here's what else zombies have going for them: they give us a potential glimpse of our future. In a world of increasing scarcity, zombies can stand in for whatever horde it is that is fueling your nightmares, depending on the demands of your viewpoint--AIDS-infected citizens, people of another religion looking to topple yours, illegal immigrants, people who want to trick or treat in your white, suburban neighborhood, today's supposedly-uneducated youth, mass consumers, invading armies, Americans who ain't what Americans used to be, or simply the people who want what you've got, be it water or a decent standard of living.

See, though a viewer wouldn't dare articulate it for fear of sounding overdramatic and pompous, I will. I think that zombies awaken a generalized, core fear in all of us--that there are more of them than there are of us and that there isn't a whole hell of a lot that we can do about it. And that they are coming.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leaves You With Nuthin' Mister

"Where Do You Think You're Going?" - Christmas Vacation (mp3)
Mele Kalikimaka - Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters (mp3)

Here is the honest first-person account of one man’s attempt to do something amusing, fun, and mildly noble. And also just damned foolish.

Times like this ain’t easy for nobody. Not for people, not for businesses, and not for non-profits, which depend heavily on people and businesses doing well. In tough times, water cooler talk mutates. It used to be highlights from last week’s Saturday Night Live skits or Sunday’s best NFL games. More often lately, the talk is like those anvils in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, sort of darkly cartoonish, but heavy, burdensome.

Backseat driving other people’s jobs. Lamenting that too many people have grown too mentally slovenly, having dined too bountily on the fatted calf of the Good Times. Decrying all the ways we have lost our way as an institution. Twenty years of no job cuts and only the occasional year without any raises is pretty good stuff. Too good, really. It takes you off the edge, which is where Maverick swears one must be to survive.

Early in the year, the noble fisherman best known as “TroutKing” joked that it would be cool if we DJ’d the annual faculty Christmas party. He got the idea while driving from one fishing hole to another that summer while shuffling through his iPod.

Who knows why for sure? (Well, troutking does... but it doesn’t serve my narrative or deadline to ask him.) Further, who knows why he asked me to join his folly? Was it like Bill Murray dragging Harold Ramis into the Army in “Stripes”? Was it because I have some vague knowledge and appreciation for rap that evades him? The world may never know.

Regardless, I made note of the idea and in October mentioned it to the boss. He was foolish enough to accept.

Trout and I spent a decent amount of time trying to get things right, trying to satisfy the event’s theme -- “Caribbean Christmas” -- while also minimizing our own nausea (read: not too much Jimmy Buffet). Trying to structure 3 hours of dance-friendly music for a crowd with a 50-year age range and a strong majority of employees born prior to 1970 is a hopelessly-doomed task.

"Electric Slide"? No. "Cotton-Eyed Joe"? Noooo no no. "Cha-Cha Slide"? Aww helllll no. Love Train? They’re gonna demand it, I say. Over my deaf body, Trout says. It’s inevitable, like death, I say. Then kill me now!! Trout says.

Meanwhile, we’re both being bombarded with requests and suggestions from friends and enemies alike. For every one “you should play...” we receive 10 “please don’t play...” And then, early last week as we sit in Trout’s office sharing our concerns, fears and excitement, our boss walks in. He wants to make sure “Love Train” will make the list and that Trout won’t go off the rails playing too much Bob and Bruce.

It’s his party. He can train if he wants to.

The event itself went off as well as could have been expected. A tough grader like myself would give us a B. Dollar for dollar, getting a B-quality DJ experience was a damn good investment, so there’s no shame in our performance.

Yet, much like my experiences teaching classes almost a decade ago, I couldn’t help but feel this heavy weight of disappointment in all of it. Feeling like we did something “pretty well” and “OK” doesn’t make me proud. My expectations of myself are too high, perhaps too unrealistic. When we turned off those speakers after the party was over, the look of joy on my face was 3/4 a look of relief that it was over and done with.

When it became clear that our boss was regretting (or at least fearing) his decision to grant us DJ privileges, when everyone was spouting off divergent notions of great songs, when the “Love Train” drama came to a head, all these things piled into the clown car of melodrama and tension far surpassing anything that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with “Play That Funky Music” or “Mony Mony.”

We just wanted to have some fun, play some music, and get people to dance. That’s all.

During the party, the micromanagement continued. It wasn’t so much his wanting to stick his nose in that hurt, because as I said, it’s his party. Rather, it was the look of abject discomfort in his eyes, his lack of confidence in us. He wasn’t the conductor of the “Love Train”; he was the conductor of that runaway train in “Unstoppable.”

Our hopes of doing something nice and mostly harmless, that would save the school a few bucks (between $600-1,000, actually), was making the experience much less enjoyable for the boss. Not the goal I had in mind, not by a long shot.

There was a silver lining, however.

Many of our friends and colleagues wanted us to succeed. They wanted it almost as much as we did, maybe more for a few of them. Friends who just don’t dance, hardly ever, and rarely for more than a song, were out on that dance floor for almost the entire time. They dragged their spouses out there with them. They all cut rugs much longer and plusher than is their nature. They did this not for the music, and not for the party, but for us, the two nerds behind the mixing board, panicking over whether “Superstition” or “TikTok” would better serve the immediate needs of the dancing masses. (Important Side Note: “Funkytown” no longer holds sway over anyone, especially the syntho-’80s version.)

We the DJs were out on a limb. Our friends went out on a limbo. For us.

Then we had our own Norma Rae moment. The boss was calling it a night, but Trout wanted to play “Glory Days.” It was the one Bruce song he had insisted on including. The boss demurred. Strongly. Trout was stout. In bold defiance, he picked up the mike with a call of duty to his colleagues. Sing with him! Dance with him! Show Bruce the love and respect the REAL Boss deserved!!

And, by God, they did. One of our coworkers -- a guy who could hardly be considered a close friend -- even organized a “Soul Train line” and got people dancing down the middle. It was the damn coolest Last Song dance moment a dying dwindling crowd could have had.

With friends and coworkers like those, one hardly need ask why I’m still at the same place after 14 years. It was one of the best and most uplifting Christmas presents I’ve ever received.

Please Hold

The blog post due in this spot is on delay due to circumstances involving alcohol and poor judgment. It will be up by noon. Ish. God bless.

(Just in case you think I'm making it up, the title of said pending post is "Leaves You With Nuthin' Mister")

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Card Insert

The Carpenters--"Merry Christmas, Darling" (mp3)

Dear Everyone on The _____ Family Christmas card list,

In our haste to get our cards out (Target arrival date: Dec. 15th, always!), we forgot to include our annual update of the many varied and exciting things that have been going on in our lives. We trust you have been enjoying the photograph, but are wondering, what is going on with those folks? Well, wonder no more. Indeed, we are Blessed, as you will read. Enjoy!

Your incredible friends,
The _____ Family


Another whirlwind year gone by! Can you believe it? So many accomplishments, so many hopes and dream fulfilled. Has it really only been 365 days since our last letter? I'm shaking my head as I write this. Incredible, incredible year. Most of us like to think that our lives are pretty darn good, but ours really are!

Blinky, our African Grey Parrot, mastered several more Bible verses and other sayings this year. _____ has really been working with him. It was quite a hoot to hear him shout "Go with God!" as Minister Jordan was leaving after a Sunday supper of _____'s famous Macaroni and Seven Cheeses.

Our son, _____, 16, has become quite the little stock expert. Despite that pesky recession, he's managed to increase our personal portfolio by some 32%, setting us up for both long-term growth and a few little getaway trips this year. I know, I know, you want him to handle your portfolio as well. Sorry, you'll have to wait five more years until he's out of college and ready to take it public!

_____, 18, is waiting to hear from colleges, though I prefer to think that they'll be waiting to hear from her, since she not only scored a PERFECT 2400 on the SAT, she actually found an error on the test (2nd English section--our little reader! I'd tell you the exact mistake, but if you haven't read Thackeray's Vanity Fair, there's no point) which she pointed out to the College Board, and which they agreed was an error, so we like to think of her as more than perfect. She continues as the president of the "Jews for Jesus" club at our school, a club which she started. No, of course, we're not Jewish, God forbid, but she's become quite the little converter, having helped to save some 17 souls since the second half of her freshman year.

My beautiful, loving (a lot!) wife, _____, has been the perfect homemaker these past 22 years, but now with our children just about all grown up and ready to make their impact, she's ready to fulfill her dream of opening a greeting card store and designing her own cards. You know this will be a winner, you've received another of her famous homemade cards this year! Next year, you'll be able to buy the cards you send to us from her. Hint. Hint. Look for her shop opening in February (in time for Valentine's Day) over on Jackson Street.

As for me, my little business recycling Tampons and sanitary napkins has really taken off in this "Green" world we're living in now! We've got to protect God's world, and I'm proud to be doing my part. And have it pay off so handsomely! Let's just say I've "wrapped up" the market and "flushed" (just kidding, ladies, don't flush those!) the competition. With 30 full-time employees and several facilities, business just keeps growing! We may be in your neighborhood soon!

But life is not all work, is it? Heck, no! _____ and I have recommitted ourselves to our marriage, increasing our lovemaking sessions from 7 to 14 a week. Maybe we shouldn't be so public about that, but if you live within two or three houses of us, you already know, right? "Time's winged chariot" and all that, right? We've explored some new positions and techniques, quite pleasurably, but I'll tell you, it can make for some exhausting (italics mine!) Sundays on the weeks when we have missed a time or two because I have a Board meeting or _____ has her book group, and we have to play "catch up ball"! Luckily, the kids are usually at Starbucks studying and preparing for the upcoming week, so we can try out the pool table and not have to stifle our cries of passion.

Thank God that both of us are also still in terrific shape ( _____ tried on her 27-year-old prom dress for me, and well, let's just say she looked great in it.........while it was on!). We've been faithful to our sports club membership, though honestly, _____ is giving me such a workout, I'm not sure I even need the cardio machines at the club!

Of course, we continue to select each other's wardrobes, so that incredible trust factor that you've always admired in us is still there, too. Each of us thinks the other has superb taste, this year enhanced by trips to Milan and Paris to check out the latest fashion lines. Thanks again to that incredible son of ours and his market savvy!

In my spare time, I've been restoring my great-grandfather's original Ford Model T to full working order. This summer, we plan to recreate the Joads' trip from The Grapes of Wrath in that old clunker, (I know, I know, we English majors are a crazy bunch!) though I expect a better ending than those poor Joads, since we'll be staying with _____'s folks in Carmel-By-The-Sea for a week on the back end of the trip!

It is hard to imagine a life more fulfilling than ours. Still, we'd like to know what's going on with you, so we look forward to mail from you. It would be nice if your card could arrive before Christmas this year (if at all possible!), because _____ takes down the tree and the decorations the day after Christmas and starts getting the house ready for Valentine's Day! ( ___ and I are ready right now, so gotta go!). Write us, and remember, no card from you for two years, and you're off of our list. Ha. Ha. Just kidding. Not really. As the _____ Family likes to say (it's on our refrigerator!), "Life is busy. Keep up, if you can." We do.

In God's Loving Name,

The _____ Family!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scenes from a High School Dance, Part III

Butterfly Thing - Tanya Donelly (mp3)

SCENE ONE
SCENE TWO


Scene Three: An Ante-Chamber
Three hours into the dance

I exit the ballroom area and walk into a side area. During adult parties, this is where they set up the bars and where people escape the music to chat. At this point in the evening, it has become the resting place of the rejected and dejected. The sad sophomore boys who came solo in the vain hopes of catching romantic lightning in a bottle now realize how stacked against them the odds were. They have found solace in the comfort of shared misery. Their faces aren’t some doomed cloud of depressed angst, but rather the look you often see on a 1-15 basketball team. They aren’t in despair so much as resigned to their fates.

I walk up to them and ask how it’s been. They shrug and smile and say Fine and Good. What’s the point in giving me, the clueless adult, more information than that? “No luck, huh?” I say. They shrug and shake their heads and keep drinking their glasses of water. In my mind I travel back 20 years and think, This is where I’d be sitting, having a conversation about Rush or ping-pong or the X-Men...

Sitting on a window ledge, the window open and looking out to the expansive town of Chattanooga below, is a young girl, probably a sophomore. Her dark purple dress keeps catching a little of the cold breeze, and she’s mouthing the words to the only slow song Paramore has ever recorded (that I know of), the one song all night the DJ played for a “slow dance.” It’s called “The Only Exception.” Can’t say I saw that one coming as The Slow Song of the Night.

Looking perhaps a little too long, I realize she’s crying. The storyline possibilities flood my head. Did she get dumped? Did she come alone? Is she wondering just how far she would fall if she just leaned a little further out the window? Can I get a what what?

Calmly I walk over, not wanting to scare or annoy her and hating to break into her private melodrama but feeling somehow obligated. “Hey sweetheart... everything OK?” I say. (Yeah, I know it was sexist, and I wish I could have found a better way to refer to her, but I wasn’t saying it like Dabney friggin’ Coleman. I was saying it like someone who has daughters and who could see his own daughter, years down the line, sitting in that damn windowsill and mouthing words out into the cold air in the hopes that some Romeo was down below, within earshot, and capable of reading the heart and feelings of a lost girl, capable of swooping into that miserable dance, taking her hand, leading her to the dance floor, and watching as the mass parted in awe of his charm and beauty, as they danced some immortal Beauty & the Beast waltz so stunning the crowd was reduced to tears.)

She dries up so quickly you could almost be convinced she was never actually crying. “Oh yeah, yeah,” she says, nodding insistently. “I just love this song soooo much.”

“Really?” I ask. I want to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder, but... well, there’s about 20 legal reasons why I don’t.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Thanks!” She says it with an exclamation point attached. As in, please leave, thanks! As I nod, conceding the fight, and back away, she looks back out the window into the darkness. She will wait until I’m farther away before mouthing more lyrics.

Meanwhile, I’m reminded that girls -- all teenagers, for that matter -- don’t need a break-up or a specific moment of rejection to want to sit on a windowsill, stare into the wide open pitch, see their breath cloud up and move out, and feel miserable. Every day in a teenager’s life offers dozens of moments where intense and extreme joy or sorrow or fear can grip every fiber in their being.

And there we are, semi-helpless witnesses to their dramas, offering a feeble and uncertain hand or ear, but mostly just hoping the power of our sideline sympathizing keeps them afloat for another day, another month, another year, until things get better. We hope.


SCENE ONE
SCENE TWO

Scenes from a High School Dance, Part II

Let's Dance to Joy Division - The Wombats (mp3)

SCENE ONE


Scene Two: The Lobby
Two hours into the dance

Outside in the lobby where half of the adults are gathered, a young English teacher and I joke about the dancing. I tell him I envision a packed emergency room where dozens of boys have entered to deal with “third-degree friction burns to their crotchal reagions.” He mocks my use of the invented word “crotchal” and says they probably use number codes for it. We’ve got another 352 out there! Those kids... they just won’t stop grinding... they won’t stop until someone dies from crotchal burns!

A teacher from the other school, a woman my age who graduated my same year, walks over to us looking flabbergasted. “We just walked through the middle of the dance crowd. It’s. Awful. Awe. Full. There was a boy with his hand all over his date’s breast and another girl with her dress hiked up so high I could see her panties.”

We all look at each other and sigh and shrug and all but communicate an acceptance of how powerless and clueless we are to the teenage world. Mostly I’m thinking I’m glad I didn’t have to see the girl’s panties, because then I’m forced to either ignore it or be the pervert who noticed it. Lose lose situation.


I’m lost in my reverie when she calls my name. “You need to tell your headmaster to talk to your students about this.” I raise an eyebrow. Was she serious?

“Seriously, there’s no excuse for them behaving like that out there. He should talk to them.”

I try to picture that. Our headmaster, on the verge of 60 with shock-white hair and his calming voice, trying to tell a collective group of 600 adolescent boys how they should dance. He could close with the Scary Anecdote, a version of one of those anti-smoking or anti-meth commercials that hope to discourage through fear.

“Boys, let me tell you a story. Two years ago, after a dance just like this one, I was in the ER all night, sitting at the bedside of a boy. We’ll call him Timmy. Timmy was dying. He was dying because he spent the entire night in cotton underwear and dress pants, grinding his privates into the backside of his date.

Unbeknownst to Timmy as he enjoyed the feel of his manhood nestled between his date’s welcoming cheeks, the constant and never-ceasing friction was removing one layer of skin cells after another. You might not know this, but the penis has far fewer skin layers than the rest of the body. That’s why it’s so sensitive. And poor Timmy, so excited to be dry-humping a girl to the sounds of Usher, chose to ignore those slight hints of pain his body kept sending to his brain.

Five hours later, I’m by his side in the ER, and he’s on fluids and on the verge of death, and what for? For 90 minutes of poorly-simulated sex friction. Yes, Timmy lived, but barely. And he’s been afraid to dance ever since. Don’t be like Timmy. Take care of yourselves. Look your date in the eye once in a while. Dance with her straddling one of your legs to the sounds of ‘Low’ by Flo Rida, letting both of your bodies sink towards the floor while she grinds her personal parts into your right thigh.

Or, better yet, dance in large circles of six or seven of your peers to songs by REM or the Violent Femmes. The ladies totally dig that.”

And I can see this teacher, a woman who has clearly forgotten her own behavior patterns some 20 years earlier, hearing this speech and smiling and nodding and saying to everyone, “Finally. Someone’s teaching these stupid kids a lesson.”

SCENE THREE

Scenes from a High School Dance, Part I

Kiss Kiss - Chris Brown (mp3)

Scene One: The Dance Floor
One hour into the school’s semiformal.

A third of the expansive ballroom is packed with the dancing cyst, a cancerous and growing cluster of teenage cells, crammed tightly into a roundish mass. The steady bass thump of a dozen different songs gently nudges the winterized windows. The collective occasionally shouts out a memorable chorus. The girls out-shout the boys.

Faculty supervisors prowl the perimeter like hyenas. Instead of seeking the wounded and vulnerable, they slink around to find those pre-adult lifeforms who might be having what can only be described as “too much fun.” Anyone making out? Any hands getting personal with another person’s private regions in a too-public manner? When a teacher sniffs out such a moment, they enter the fray and pounce, demanding that the couple in question lower their degree of enjoyment to get more in line with the rest of the group.

It feels like we are the bad guys. Maybe we are.

One teacher says she looks for the boys whose shirts are untucked. Rumor has it that boys untuck their shirts and unzip their fly, thus allowing their date to reach behind and offer a “tug job” during a dance. Really? I ask. “Oh you have no idea. Girls talk.” I hope she’s wrong. About the shirts, not the girls talking.

One teacher in his early 30s stands in one spot almost the entire night, near an open window a mere 10-15 feet from the dancing cancer. He just can’t get over the monotany of it. “Look out there. All of them are dancing exactly the same. All of them.”

I observe. He’s exaggerating, but not much. Boy after boy stands behind his date, pushed into her, his hands on her hips or on her waist, their combined form attempting to rock left and right in some close proximity to the rhythm and to the movements of their partner. Entire songs, entire stretches of songs, go by, and these couples remain in the exact. same. positions. They don’t seem to talk much. They don’t even have to deal with eye contact or facial expression, because they’re not even looking at one another. Probably 8 out of every 10 couples dance like this.

One particularly sad case catches our eye. A boy already 4-5” shorter than his date is further insulted by her wearing 3” heels. In a desperate attempt to match the grinding power of his more evenly-heighted peers, he is up-thrusting his hips with every beat. He looks like a Chihuahua attempting to mate with a German Shepherd. And, appropos of the metaphor, the poor German Shepherd mostly ignores him and rolls her eyes, wondering when some bigger dog might rip out this annoying mutt’s throat.

At one point, the teacher and I notice that six different couples are lined up, unintentionally, doing exactly the same thing in the same rhythm. “They look like a family of penguins,” I say.

Scene Two

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Simple, Honest Pleasures

Each year, the plethora of Christmas music increases, almost exponentially. By now, it's hard not to look at each successive release as a fairly blatant money grab, given the growth industry that Christmas music has become. Even if the singer in question is an "artist," admired and respected.

Why else would Bob Dylan skewer the whole genre so beautifully last year and give us all a great, cosmic laugh?

No, sadly, the years of non-commercial explorations of Christmas song have long since passed, CDs by Sufjan Stevens and Shawn Colvin being the last examples of "legitimate" Christmas albums that I know of, since both seem to have been motivated by family first and since both bring interesting new songs to the genre.

And, continuing my lifelong search for purity in art, I look for it in Christmas music, too, and, as is also typical of me, I establish subjective criteria that allow me to find it. Forget that Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas was written as the soundtrack for a television special, and forget that its performances are now ubiquitous--for me, it retains its purity because I got to enjoy for so many years when it was under the radar and unpopular and because it never did become popular until long after Guaraldi's death.

So here are my wacky criteria for "honest" Christmas music:
1. It does not appear to have been done for commercial reasons.
2. Even if it was done for commercial reasons, it was blatant or particularly successful.
3. It adds something new and valuable to the genre.

Transition.

One of the greatest gifts I received for Christmas in recent years was the turntable that allows me to turn old record albums into mp3's (except that an annoying, unnamed woman assumes I will convert her albums to mp3 whenever she feels like it, but, a minor nuisance). And one of the conversions that I made in the last year or so was an old Christmas record, A Collection of Favorite Christmas Carols by The New American Guitar Ensemble. Sounds like the New Christy Minstrels or something.

Not the catchiest name, nor, if you look at the graphic below, not the most eye-catching album cover. When I got it, I had to order it through the mail from some obscure record label, and it came cheaply packaged, with the front and back text and images glued onto a white album cover. Not available in any store, as they used to say on late night TV.

But it's a sly little record, if for no other reason than there is no New American Guitar Ensemble, there's just a guy with a multi-track recorder. And he's a guy, Lewis Ross, who can play the guitar, in this case, the steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

If you've ever doubted that acoustic guitar and Christmas were meant to go together, give a listen to the tracks below. No rhythm tracks, no studio enhancements, no vocals. Just that guitar, or those guitars, when he's feeling fancy. The other thing you can tell, if you are a player, is that these are sweet guitars--aged, mellow, rich with depth of sound and their own natural reverb. The kind that don't need enhancements.

And the arrangements are clever, too-the way the melody mutates on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," the layering of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" over Pachabel's Canon, the beautiful stringbends on "The First Noel," the pairing of "O Tannenbaum" with "Good King Wenceslas," the dirge-like quality of "We Three Kings" that sends you into a blissful contemplation.

So if you're always a Scrooge like Billy, or if you're just already a bit worn out from the ever-increasing commercialism of this holiday, give a listen to this aural equivalent of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree--likely to be overlooked, but a thing of beauty when given some attention. Sometimes the most relevatory experiences are the simplest and least-technical. And if someone complains about the snaps and pops, tell them it's just the logs in the fire.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Mr. Cub

by the Troutking

“OH NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

These were the words that came to mind last Friday morning when a text message told me that Ron Santo had passed away. Though tears quickly filled my eyes as the news sunk in, my grief was nowhere close to the despair contained in Ronnie’s existential howl of these words on WGN Radio on September 27, 1998 as Cubs outfielder Brant Brown dropped an easy fly ball, threatening their chances for the playoffs.

Ronnie’s agony was real, for the Cubs were a life and death cause for him. It’s part of what endeared him to generation of Cubs fans, including me and my family. His sunny optimism, his unyielding belief that this was the year the Cubs would finally win the World Series filled many a summer afternoon, even in July and August when the rest of Chicago knew it was time to “wait ‘til next year.”

Ron’s optimism was a true thing of beauty because he had plenty of reasons to sing the blues. He made nine All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves and hit 342 home runs, but he never played in the World Series and has been widely acknowledged as the best player in baseball history NOT elected to the Hall of Fame. More importantly, Ronnie is still the only person in history with Type I diabetes to be an everyday position player in the major leagues. The disease shortened his career, caused a variety of health problems over the years and eventually cost him both his legs. Even then, when it was difficult to move around and get up to the broadcast booth, Ron never lost faith.

One day after a game, a young colleague giving him a ride home saw Ron remove his prosthetic leg to ease his discomfort and said, “I’m so sorry.” Replied Ron, “We won the game, didn’t we?” Though his frustrated utterances of “unbelievable!” or “why does this always happen to us?” would make you think otherwise, Ronnie always said about coming to the ballpark: “This is what keeps me alive!”

Ron didn’t just fight diabetes’ effects on his body. He took dead aim on the disease itself by raising over $60 million dollars through his walk-a-thons and golf tournaments, and that doesn’t even count the side benefits of the attention he brought to the cause. Ronnie spent countless hours visiting with diabetes patients, and his eternal optimism was exactly the medicine they needed. In 2003, his son Jeff produced and directed the documentary This Old Cub, a touching and loving tribute to his dad’s struggle with diabetes. All those proceeds went to JDRF as well.

Most of all, though, Ron made the broadcasts fun. Whether the Cubs were winning or losing, in the pennant race or in the cellar, his banter with his patient play-by-play partner Pat Hughes always brightened my day. Known as the Pat ‘n’ Ron Show, they would frequently joke about Pat’s tacky wardrobe or Ronnie’s toupee. In fact, Harry Caray once asked him on-air if he wore the hairpiece to bed with his wife. “I wear a hat,” said Ron.

Though the game at hand was of utmost importance to him, Ronnie was easily distracted and frequently got into lengthy discussions of topics like flossing in public, Sylvester Stallone’s height or an animal actors hall of fame. He said Toto should get inducted first. Ron was always real and unpolished. He’d start sentences and not know how to finish them. He’d mispronounce names of long-time Cubs player, talk while eating a hot dog and sometimes give too much information about why he needed to take a break for a few minutes. His first words on his first broadcast had to be bleeped out because they arose when he spilled coffee on himself. Talking about Cubs games with my siblings or parents, we’d rarely discuss the team’s play on the field, it was always, laughing, “Did you hear what Ronnie said today?” For me, Ron will always represent the last link to when baseball was more than a business. His loyalty to one team and his idiosyncratic broadcast style simply cannot be found in baseball today.

Ron was a brilliant example of how to laugh at yourself and look at the bright side. When his number was retired in a Wrigley Field ceremony in 2003, he told cheering Cubs fans, “THIS is my Hall of Fame.” Teetering on two artificial legs when he bounced a ceremonial first pitch, Ronnie, the guy who made so many great plays at third base in his youth, simply said, “I did the best I could.”

The best he could do was awfully good. Ron never made it to the Hall of Fame or saw the Cubs win the World Series, but what a life he lived. As a player, broadcaster and number one Cub fan, he touched the hearts of millions. As a fund-raiser and standard-bearer in the fight against diabetes his gift will keep on giving until a cure is found. Few ballplayers are truly heroes, but Ron Santo was. We will miss you every summer afternoon—and the rest of the year, too. Thank you, Mr. Cub.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2010: The Best Albums

Let's be clear. If you want a legitimate source whose teeth are cut and whose feet are adult-sized telling you what the best albums of 2010 are, you came to the wrong damn place. Go here instead. Paste is a bunch of smart music people.

If you wanna know what the best albums of a semi-sober, slightly immature 38-year-old nerd might be, then you came to the right place. Ironically, I will not include any songs on this post. But I'll post my Songs of 2010 list either Thursday or next Tuesday, and lots of these albums are included in that mix.

So, without further adieu, here we go...

9. K.T. Tunstall: Tiger Suit
Best I can do is say she's a mix between Kate Bush and Melissa Etheridge. A little bit of roots rock and country, but with all these backing vocal sounds that are straight off "Hounds of Love," which was my personal favorite from Kate's soaring success years of the late '80s.

8. Jenny & Johnny: I'm Having Fun Now
I wasn't that big a fan of Jenny's solo work or her work with the Thompson Twins or whatever. But when she connects with a dude or a group of dudes and gets her Pop on, I'm there in full force. I don't care if she's sleeping with Johnny or just likes the cut of his jib, this is a fun album. And in my totally clueless way, I'm pretty confident that fun albums are probably just as difficult to make as serious ones. If it sounds easy, it probably wasn't.

7. The Rescues: Let Loose the Horses
Not gonna deny it. I feel like I discovered these people. Which is preposterous. But I'm a fan, and I'm biased, and I love these folks. And the silky smooth voice of the all-too-attractive Kyler England could sing me to sleep every night if she would just answer my Skype calls. Think Fleetwood Mac without the group sex melodrama and without the astronomical creative talent of Lindsay Buckingham.

6. Josh Ritter: So Runs the World Away
This guy has always hovered on my cue. A song here, and a song there, and I'm always thinking to myself, "I gotta get one of his albums." So I finally did. And it's really amazing. For me, 2010 was the year when a ton of really great alternative artists came out with a ton of really great stuff. And in most cases, the first album you hear from an artist or band is the one you'll love the most. This was my first full album from Ritter. I love it.

5. Galactic: Ya-Ma-Kay
Bottom of the Glass was born in Nawlins. So were Galactic. Again, this makes me biased, because even though I'd never heard of 'em before, I feel like I gotta root them on. This album is a gumbo of funk and attitude and fun, with an array of singers and mishmash of styles that sometimes hits, sometimes misses, but always entertains.

4. Girl Talk: All Day
I really don't think anyone in the world today could put together two albums that elicit the number of smiles per minute Girl Talk can. I mention more about this album HERE... which is to say I like it a lot.

3. Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Having discovered 2008's "The Midnight Organ Fight" late in 2009, mere months before the release of "...Mixed Drinks," I can't deny it took a while to love this album as much as I do now. I so completely love "The Modern Leper" that a single song skews my judgment. The truth is, this new album is more ambitious and, well, better, than their previous one. Which is saying one hell of a lot.

2. Sleigh Bells: Treats
Confession: This would be my #1 except I just can't, with good conscience, vote as my Album of the Year a collection of songs for which the lyrics are, at best, meaningless. Not that I've tried to dissect these songs. Maybe this would be a no-brainer #1 if I gave the lyrics a second thought. All I know is, this band took everything I love about The Go! Team and cranked it up to 11. Distortion. Bombast. An absolute absence of fear. A complete commitment to some weird head-bobbing bass boom.

1. The New Pornographers: Together
This was my first album of theirs. That's an important confession. Had I owned Twin Cinema or Mass Romantic first, maybe this would be my third or fourth favorite album of the year. But because it was first, and because it's an absolutely sublime chunk of pop art, I must honor this one in the now. I think it says a lot that PopMatters honors two of these songs in their Top 30 for the year. And, dare I say, several others deserved serious consideration.

The Next Tier, a.k.a., Great Bands Who’ve Done Better But Didn’t Disappoint

1. The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever
2. Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
3. Hanson - Shout it Out
4. The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
5. Robert Plant - Band of Joy
6. Pete Yorn - Self Titled
7. Bleu - Four
8. The National - High Violet
9. The Heavy - The House That Dirt Built
10. Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
11. Stars - The Five Ghosts
12. Vampire Weekend - Contra
13. The Weepies - Be My Thrill
14. Spoon - Transference

The Next Tier, a.k.a. I Didn’t Buy the Whole Album But The Songs I Got Were Pretty Good

1. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
2. Florence & the Machine - A Lot of Love. A Lot of Blood
3. Weezer - Hurley
4. The Thermals - Personal Life
5. Scissor Sisters - Night Work

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Cliche as Truth

Paul Westerberg--"First Glimmer" (mp3)

It is arguably the most cliched moment of the year: family buys Christmas tree, family puts up Christmas tree, family listens to Christmas music, perhaps in front of a roaring fire, as family decorates Christmas tree.

And yet, it is a powerful time, perhaps like no other. It transcends the cliche. So far, regardless of my age, my wife's age, or the age of our children, the ritual has lost none of its power. Even my jaded teenager, who often will spend entire evenings in her room away from us, not only pushes for decorating of the Christmas, often earlier than we can get our act together, but she also stays around the whole time,

There is something about bringing all of those boxes down from the attic, where they sat forgotten for 11 months. There is something about pulling out the strings of Christmas lights, wrapped carelessly all those months ago around rolled up pieces of newspaper and left alone to the mystery of whether the lights that lit up a year ago will light up again after a year of having done nothing but sit in an attic. There is something about wrapping those lights around a tree, everyone in the room offering an opinion about where they do or don't need to go. There is the turning out of all the lights in the room as the final test of whether those lights have been distributed properly.

And then there are the ornaments. I don't think anybody knows, most of the time, when or where nostalgia is going to surface from the depths of our consciousness. A random sight, smell, touch, sound, heck any sense we've got, can send us into the most profound feeling of memory and loss, because that's what nostalgia is--the reminder of something that once happened, or perhaps happened more than once, that we miss, that we regret the absence of. We know we can't get it back, but despite the sadness of the feeling that comes over us, when it does, we cling to the belief that we can return to the past.

Nothing does that like Christmas ornaments. When you open a box of ornaments, any number of things happen. You immediately see ornaments that you had forgotten about, which is all of them, because when you carry all of those boxes down the stairs from the attic, you know what's it them, but you don't think about it specifically. And then there they are--the ones your mother gave you, the ones your wife made, the ones you got when you were first married, the ones that were given to you upon the birth of your first child, the ones your children made at school, the ones you bought on trips to Maine or New Orleans or France or Hawaii. There are the ones that you can't remember where they came from, but they have been in your family so long that they have earned their own certain cache.

Proust's character may have bitten into a madeleine in order to trigger all kinds of childhood memories, but what would he have done with Christmas ornaments, for contained within that box or those boxes are so many layers of memory and family life. By the time you hang them all, you have written a personal narrative.

A Christmas tree becomes a history book.

If you add the music and the fire, once those songs kick in and the fire crackles in the background, you've created an evening that will practically have you weeping for your own childhood, even while you try to keep the focus on your children and their own memories.

I really can't even explain it. What a feast of pleasure and pain, of now and then, of future and past, of gain and loss. Maybe it isn't true at your house. But I'm guessing that it is.

There are any number of wonderful moments in any December, but I'm not sure that any of them top the time spent putting up, and then pondering, that tree. It's kind of like looking back at all of your years and then all of your family's years, or at least the best of those years, and then trying to come to terms with how those years have passed. And even after those initial family moments, the tree sits there. And some nights, later in December, you sneak back into the room alone and, in the most comfortable way possible, you confront time, mortality, and love.

Westerberg's song may have nothing to do with Christmas, but it has everything to do with nostalgia.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Harry Smith Got Nuthin' On Me

The Beatles--"I'm Only Sleeping" (mp3)

Ok, not quite yet the most wonderful time of the year. Maybe by tonight I'll be humming that again. But first, the "procedure."

For those of you who enjoy reading this blog in the morning with a cup of coffee, during a break in the action, when you read this particular edition, I will probably be unconscious. That's right. Lights out. Drooling or maybe even babbling my Internet passwords to the doctors or nurses in the room.

There are many rights of passage in a man or woman's life--first bicycle, first kiss, first concert, first deer, graduation from this or that, first vote in an election, first car, marriage, first colonoscopy. Whoa! Wait a second. Scroll back. First what?

That's right. Today is the day of my first colonoscopy. I fought it. By the official "rules," I should have had it three years ago when I turned 50, but I delayed and avoided. But now, thanks to our Health Savings Account and my loving wife, the time has come. As it should. I guess. You see, when you have to meet a big freakin' deductible every year, once that deductible is finally met, the candy shop opens. That is if you consider various "procedure" to be the health equivalent of sweet confections. You see, today's little journey into the "heart of darkness" is a freebie. I could go on and have another one tomorrow and it wouldn't cost a single extra cent. Wheeeeee!

You want to get some free advice? Mention to someone that you are having a colonoscopy. Oh, that will open the floodgates, let me tell you. Everyone wants to tell you their story--the 4AM search for an open drug store to buy an enema, the "all-nighter," the scolding from the doctor for not being "clean enough." Everyone wants to take you through the stages, usually right after they tell you that they don't want to get graphic. Everyone wants to double-check that you're doing it right? "You only had to drink half a gallon of colon blow? Man, my doctor made me drink a whole gallon and a bottle of magnesium citrate on top of that!" Bragging rights, I guess.

And then, of course, there are the "chronics," those inveterate rectal veterans who have had their butts scoped so many times that their bowels must feel like a train station. They poo-poo any mention of discomfort or agony, they flush any mention of fear or uncertainty. They go so far as to mention that, had they served in 'Nam, they would have had no trouble going down in the tunnels and clearing 'em out. Bragging rights.

Well, I did it. I took the pill yesterday at noon, after gulping down just the broth of a large wonton soup take-out from Na Go Ya (since the day before you're on a clear, liquid diet and you're tired of drinking sugar all morning) and then it all started. Once the pill jumpstarts your system, so to speak, then you start drinking the godawful human version of Draino, in one cup bursts, every fifteen minutes, until it's gone. And, yes, you do reach a point where it's coming out one end as quickly as you pour it in another. And it keeps doing its magic.

And then you just kind of wait. Perversely, I read cooking magazines during each of my trips to the bathroom. I made my wife supper, which I obviously did not eat. Twice, I slipped food in my mouth without thinking, and had to promptly spit it out. I sipped water and Ginger Ale, water and Ginger Ale incessantly throughout the evening, because, man, that stuff will deyhdrate you faster than you can evacuate the dance floor and you start wondering why you suddenly have a headache and then you realize, oh, all of the fluid in me just rushed out where angels fear to tread.

There is such a temptation to turn this into an infomercial or a public service announcement about why we all need to engage in this bit of unpleasantry for the good of our families, etc.

Because for these brief, shining moments, I am probably one of the absolutely most colon-conscious (or unconscious) people among all 7 billion on this planet. But I don't plan to be for long. With a good report, hopefully, not for another ten years.

So I think I'll leave the proselytizing to Harry Smith and CBS. After all, he showed his nether region, his Plato's cave, live on national television with Katie Couric cheerleading in scrubs and a surgical mask. And earned part of his ample salary for doing it.

Me, I've been through the same trial by fire as him, but my thoughts tend in different directions--a saltine cracker, maybe a glass of orange juice or some eggs and toast, the actual wontons with the Na Go Ya soup, a cheeseburger on my new grill, a beer, some energy, the ability to drive a car, the unclouded head to make decisions or to play the Resident Evil 4 that came in the mail today, and all the rest of life that comes rushing back.

Oh, by the way, my colon is way, way, way cleaner than your colon. Bragging rights.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Brother Goes to College

The Shot Heard 'Round the World - Ween (mp3)
The Schooling - My Friend Steve (mp3)

Still working on my best of lists. So you’ll just have to read or ignore another random commentary today.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of rooting for Big Brother.

A story in the November 15 New York Times explores the increasing use of technological “clickers” to monitor student attendance and attention in college classrooms, and parents all over the country who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance their children’s knowledge and abilities, should be thrilled that technology is at last doing something to prevent rather than provide distraction for their kids.

Remember when someone on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” wants to Ask the Audience? And then everyone in the audience keys in their answers? Best I can tell, technology is allowing professors to make the college lecture hall or classroom into a giant, individually-trackable Ask the Audience.

So when Ben Stein is up there asking the snoozing classroom about the Laffer Curve and Voo-Doo Economics, he can actually track the attentiveness of each student in that class by requiring them to input answers while he banters about.

Will this allow shitty boring teachers to, while failing to make any point of significance or failing to teach anything of import, ignore their own shitty boringness? Of course it will. But in my experience, 90% of shitty boring teachers are incapable of even recognizing a fraction of how terrible or boring they are. Further, no amount of wishing or politicizing will magically erase shitty boring teachers from the planet's surface. To bastardize Garrison Keilor, not all teachers can be above average.

Therefore, if I’m paying for my child’s college education, I don’t really care how boring or shitty a given teacher or professor may be. I care that my child shows up to class, pays attention, and works diligently. The person most essentially responsible for my child’s education is... my child.

When my advisees tell me they are doing poorly in a class because a teacher is bad or boring, I consider that to be a convenient and lazy excuse most of the time. (Occasionally, the level of teacher crappiness is indeed reasonable cause for student struggle.)

Plenty of studies correlate positive relational dynamics with student performance. The more a kid likes his or her teacher, the more they trust and respect that person, the better they’re likely to do in a class. Fine. But if part of college is to prepare us for the harsh world beyond, then part of that education is that we cannot solely rely on those in charge of us to be our motivators and inspirators. Almost all of us will, at some point or another, work for people who don’t inspire us, who don’t encourage us. This will not excuse us from remaining passionate or committed to our responsibilities. And if it does excuse us, then the job is a job rather than a calling.

Having discovered the Twitterverse last spring, I’m utterly wrapped up in reading reports and research about the evolution of teaching & learning. It’s great to read one day about the vital nature of computers in keeping math education relevant and read the next day about the danger of computers in classrooms or in the home. The simpleton might dismiss these findings as contradictory, as eggheads fighting, when the truth is far more fascinating and energizing.

Technology, like all great tools, can be used for good or ill, for advancement or dysfunction. Laptops and cell phones and Twitter and everything else in our modern techno-worlds can be both good and bad at once, just like humans.

And the harsh truth is, in college classrooms all around the country, a little more Big Brother is a good idea. Next up: lightscribe pens with fingerprint identification for in-class essays, software with plagiarism software that works much like spell-check now, underlining suspect passages almost as we type. (NOTE: If someone reading this is smart enough to come up with a good business model, I only ask for a tiny pittance for the idea. Have your people get in touch with my people.)

Merry December!

Coconut Records--"It's Christmas" (mp3)

What better way to start the Christmas music month than with a bunch of free tunes, free tunes from our friends over at Target? Forget their donations to right wing, anti-gay political candidates. All of that is forgotten, if not forgiven. They're still our favorite major retailer, and, hey, it's Christmas, right? Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.

Not only that, they're actually giving away free stuff. Here's their holiday mix from modern hipsters like Bishop Allen, and the best news is that you can download the whole thing for free just by clicking on those colorful words you just read. What is better than free, new Christmas songs? Not new versions of old Christmas songs. New songs. Thirteen of them.

So, Merry Christmas early! It didn't cost us a cent.

And we hope that's just the start of our December here at Bottom of the Glass. Traditionally, and yes, we can say that now that we are in our third year, in addition to our usual scintillating posts and commentaries about society and modern life, we have sprinkled in the kinds of "end of year" stuff that everybody else does because, hey, it's the end of the year! So yes, you'll be seeing our "best of" lists and our summing ups and our Christmas favs and our New Year's Resolutions.

Based on some rumblings I heard here and there, I think you'll also be able to look forward to a "Guest blog" or two. That's a feature we've always offered here at BOTG, and, three or four times, people have actually taken up on it. I think there are a couple in the works.

The next few weeks will be crazy around here, with all of the holiday decorating, wrapping up of school, Fantasy Football playoffs, faculty parties and bowling tournaments, shopping, cooking, our outrageous party schedules, concert tickets, and above all, blogging.

I hope I'm not stealing too much of Billy's thunder by revealing that he is planning our first-ever BOTG Christmas Caroling event. It will take place live on here on the website at 8PM on Dec. 12th, using the absolutely latest blogging technology. You will be able to load the songs directly onto your Ipod, and watch the festivities right here. You will be able to sing at home; you will hear us and we will hear you. And we'll be able to see you. So wear something decent. Or not. That's technology, baby!

It's the most wonderful time of the year. We're ready for it. Are you?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mother Knows Best?

Your Psychopathic Mother - Rick Springfield (mp3)

We took the girls to Disney’s newest flick, TANGLED, over the holiday, and it was massively entertaining. It’s the first Disney flick since the Dawn of Pixar that actually held its own.

As someone who spent his late teens and college years fawning over Disney’s animated rebirth, starting with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 and soaring thorough “The Lion King” five years later, TANGLED is the logical continuation of that production line. But it at long last corrects a serious error from Disney’s past.

Those great Disney rebirth movies had young characters with a slightly bigger degree of nuance that reflected our less idealistic age. Aladdin is a thief. The Beast is a snotty rich boy. Simba’s disobedience leads to his father’s death. None of them have the kind of simplistic goodness and innocence of Snow White or Mowgli or Bambi, characters whose misfortunes were unfairly (and somewhat randomly) thrust upon them by cruel fate.

While I loved “The Little Mermaid” -- its soundtrack was the first CD I ever purchased -- I couldn’t help but object heavily to the message of the movie: that a 15-year-old girl knows better than her parent(s). Because we’re not talking about lip gloss choices here. The movie is about a girl getting her panties all warmed up over some dude, wanting to become an entirely different form of human to chase him, and the father being overbearing and out of touch by daring to suggest this might not be a wise decision.

I didn’t like that storyline as a teenager, and I sure as hell don’t like it now. Thankfully, the message of TANGLED corrects everything “The Little Mermaid” screwed up while keeping the parts that were most important.

The parts that are important:
  1. independence and freedom are two vital aims of growing up;
  2. parents often lose track of what’s important, and controlling parents are almost certain to lose their children.
The improvements:
  1. the protagonist is a girl on the verge of turning 18. A big diff, those three years. She’s not necessarily a full-blown woman, but she can sure as shit legally drive, and our current culture has deemed this to be an age deserving of most independence.
  2. the motives of the parent deserve scrutiny. Her “mom” is in the business of parenting for herself, not for her child. Her parenting decisions are about self-interest and have nothing to do with the daughter’s well-being. But, like millions of abused and neglected children, Rapunzel has no clue about her mom, because it’s the only parent relationship she’s ever known or seen. It’s normal for her, even while it’s maniacally disturbing to the viewer.
But the TANGLED slam goes well beyond abusive parents and into the world of “Helicopter Parents,” those lovely folks who hover over every aspect of their child’s existence, who even want to micromanage their college and professional lives after the nest they left has grown cobwebs. The movie is a reminder that good parents are obliged to gradually loosen, and eventually remove, the leash, from our children.

The more teenagers are constricted and bound, the more violently they will fight to escape. The more parents insist on making any and all decisions and dictating the teen’s life, the less capable teens will be of making them when no one else is around. That’s why they keep texting you about their boss, as if it was a lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

One of the best lines in the movie is when Gothel, Rapunzel’s kidnapper mother, says, “Great, now I’m the bad guy.” The dramatic irony, the self-awareness... and the fact that parents all over the world (including me) say that crap all the time. Being a devoted and good parent requires that, once in a while, we be the bad guy to our kids.

The essential question is: For whose good, and why, are we being the bad guy? For us? Or for them? Are we trying to hold onto our youth? Trying to recapture a missing experience or fix a regret of our younger days through the life of our child? Or are we trying to raise an independent and capable human whose dreams are her own, whose life has no preordained direction other than what she chooses for herself?

And are we willing to ask ourselves these tough questions? Because the motive is pretty damn crucial, as is the method.

That... is the story of TANGLED.*

* -- Well, according to my daughters, the story of TANGLED is that her long hair should have caused her a lot more trouble, that not all mean scary men are helpful, and that horses and chameleons make for hilarious sidekicks.