Friday, April 30, 2010

GUEST BLOG! Media: When is Enough, Enough?

The following is a Guest Blog by Jason, a "regular" at the BOTG bar.

Lady Gaga--"Paparazzi (Mathias Mental Remix)" (mp3)
Green Day--"American Idiot" (mp3)

As I was brainstorming through various topics to write about for BOTG blog, I came to two conclusions. I have a lot of topics which I would love to write about passionately, but the one topic that I kept on coming back to was my general dismay with today’s media.

As a person who is on the cusp of being labeled a Generation Y child, depending on what year you believe the beginning of Generation Y starts, I am sometimes disturbed by my personal views on media. I think of myself as being a pretty positive person. Yet, I look at all of the examples around me, and I see a general tabloidization and double standards of our media which sickens me.

I know that as a member of Generation Y, I am supposed to be hip with today’s gadgets, instant news, IM, video cameras, and ‘smartphones’. I think I am, but only to an extent. Maybe it is the fringe Generation X in me that prevents me from being fully integrated.

All facets of our society are touched by this media imprudence. The shift in what is really a story in today’s society has deteriorated. Do you really think that President Kennedy’s security advisers were thinking to themselves when America was going through the Cuban Missile Crisis that they couldn’t trust President Kennedy to make the right decisions to steward the country through one of the scariest events of the 20th century because he wasn’t a moral person? Did sleeping with a blond bombshell the night before have a detrimental effect on his judgment in what to do with Khrushchev?

What would have happened if Cheney or Rumsfeld had been president in ’62 instead of Kennedy? In 1988, a sex scandal brought down Gary Hart’s nomination bid for the presidency. 14 years ago, the Congressional process against a former president almost led to his impeachment because he lied about getting oral sex from the wrong woman. I am petrified to think what would happen nowadays. 20 days of Tiger Woods on the cover of the New York Post will do that to you.

Today we are inundated with stories about single and married athlete’s romps in Las Vegas, which has been going on for years. TMZ drops scoops on these kind of events like the US destroyed Iraqi tanks in the first Gulf War. Brittany Spears not wearing panties is unimportant, no matter how attractive she might have once been.

We see video clips on ESPN of NFL sports owners who are drunk and loose with their tongues having a discussion which they clearly don’t know is being videotaped. This is the same ESPN that dedicated almost 24 hours straight to the Terrell Owens suicide watch for a guy that, trust me, loves himself way too much to want to kill himself. On the other hand, this is the same ESPN that dropped a highly successful series, Playmakers, because the NFL wanted it killed as it was too realistic in its interpretation of professional football player’s lives. This is the ESPN who sat on the first allegations sexual assault against Ben Roethlisberger for over two days, an eternity in today’s instant media world, yet had a legal analyst discussing OJ’s cases in his burglary/armed robbery case in Nevada. OJ is extremely insignificant in today’s world, he is so 1994. Why cover the case at all?

Discussing Eastern Hemisphere media groups is even more irritating. Apple recently introduced their iPhone to many Asian countries, including South Korea, where the ‘chaebol’ companies (easiest translation for chaebol is ‘old money’) have a complete stranglehold on most of the consumer products in Korea. It is not good enough that these companies are allowed to go to North America, Europe and most of Asia and compete on fair grounds for their products, but they refuse to allow the government to bring in competition.

When the iPhone was finally allowed into Korea, there were many stories with quotes from anonymous sources in various media outlets who said that it would not succeed there. When the iPhone became a huge success, quickly outselling all other national brands these old money companies ostracized the company that brought in the iPhone, and have not allowed any other new products to go to that company. Do the media in Korea investigate this? Do they apologize for the irresponsible reporting in the first place?

No, the bias in stories continually sides with the person or company who is willing to put the most money into an envelope. They fail to report that the business plans of companies here failed in that they focused on hardware instead of software which is why Apple is so successful and Samsung and LG haven’t been. Now they report that the Android operating system will crush Apple’s iPhones. Maybe they will, I am not a consumer products analyst for Goldman Sachs, but you can bet that if the media in South Korea are wrong again, Samsung, LG and SKT won’t let the truth come out.

I realize that there is a double edged sword in a lot that I am talking about. Today’s instant media society with street and handheld camera’s everywhere probably would allow us to know definitively what really happened on November 22nd, 1963. Maybe a cheating husband is not what the conservative Accenture signed up with Tiger Woods and therefore they are better off today. Maybe I am just becoming a little bit old fashioned before my time in thinking that the journalistic techniques of Woodward and Bernstein are used too infrequently; reporting on real human tragedies like war torn Africa, genocide in Darfur, human rights violations in various places around the world seem to be easily put on the backburner. I will even settle for more feel good humanitarian stories if that would mean less time hearing about ‘making it rain’ at a strip club.

Jason lives, works, and now blogs in Seoul, Korea.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Roughest 4-Letter Word

Hey! Elastica--"Party Games" (mp3)
Photons--"Where Were You Last Night" (mp3)

Imagine a word that is so foul, so virulent, that it leaves otherwise socially-engaged people stunned and silent. Or at least silent. Because when they see this word, many people don't know to respond. So they don't. It is almost like they are frozen, or in a trance, helpless to do even the smallest thing.

That word is......................................RSVP.

Heck, it's not even a word, really, especially if I'd put the periods in there where they're supposed to be. In fact, it's a bunch of French words. As I learned it, it is the acronym for "Respondez, s'il vous plait." Answer, if you please.

Except, it doesn't really mean that. It means, politely, "Please let me know if you are coming." It is how the host knows how much food to prepare, how much wine to order, how many seats to set at the table, how much dishware to rent. If we're talking about something major, like a wedding reception, those RSVPs become the head count that the caterer will use to determine the cost of the reception. And the caterer doesn't care whether people show or not, said they were coming but don't, didn't say that they were coming, but do.

People in the modern world are not good with the RSVP. And I don't really know why. I don't know if they mean to, then forget. I don't know if they don't know that they are supposed to. And I'm certainly not going to claim that this is another example of a society in decline and rave on about the good old days when people had manners.

And, I promise you, this is not a thinly-veiled attack on anyone reading this blog or not. It's not personal at all; it's pervasive. Ask the headmaster's secretary, ask the group of lawyers who throw the Christmas party downtown every year, the person running a book group, ask anyone who regularly entertains, large or small. It's just plain hard to get people to deal with the R-word. And not just socially. In the business setting, too.

Anyone proper will tell you that its cousin, "Regrets only," is not only improper, it's weak sauce. Especially in today's world. Because if people aren't going to RSVP, which would give a host an exact count of the number of people coming to an event, then putting "Regrets only" down at the bottom of an invite isn't going to tell a host a thing. Hosting has become a guessing game, which leaves the host with either too much or not enough, needless expense or social embarrassment.

Recently, I invited 55 people to a gathering for a retiring faculty member. I've only heard back from half. The event is a little over a week away.

I hesitate mentioning that, because it makes it sound like I have an ax to grind, that the only reason for this post is my frustration about next weekend. I promise you that is not the case. As a veteran party-giver, I have long since learned how to adapt to this situation, so can we use the situation as fodder for discussion?

At what point, in the time remaining, does an RSVP lose its value? I mean, if you call the day of the event and say that you're coming, does that help with the planning at all? If you haven't RSVP'ed at all, would the host rather that you came or didn't come? And if it's your party, how willing should you be to "beat the bushes?" Ask too many people "Hey, are you going to be able to come to...." and it sounds/feels like you're desperate.

Personally, I'd rather you came than didn't. If I invited you, that would mean I want you to come, above all considerations. But, sure, I'd rather know.

Once, I lost my composure, and I have regretted it ever since. I list it among the dark days when I know that I embarrassed myself, and no amount of self-rationalization can get me past it. It happened one time when a couple showed up to a party and we didn't know that they were coming because we never heard back from them. Usually, I try to maintain a graceful composure; this time, with an edge to my voice, I blurted out, "Oh, we didn't know you were coming." Well, when you say that kind of shitty thing, you put your guests on the defensive, force them to explain or apologize, something no guests should ever have to do.

Totally unnecessary, Bob. Totally unnecessary. So it isn't like I don't have some manner issues of my own.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Down On The Lot Of Ya

The View from the Afternoon - Arctic Monkeys (mp3)
Perpetual Motion Machine - Modest Mouse (mp3)

Want some fun numbers? Try these on for size.
  • Fewer than 25% of people like Sarah Palin.
  • The Tea Party gets 36% approval.
  • Nancy Pelosi? 29%
  • Harry Reid? 16%
  • John Boehner? 12%
  • 92% of Americans give the economy a bad rating.
  • Obama's approval numbers are hovering in the high 40s.
  • Democrats in general? 31% approval.
  • Republicans in general? 25% approval.
I can't find the numbers on a general opinion of Wall Street, but I'm going out on a very large limb and saying the numbers aren't good. (Here and here are where I got the other numbers.)

Here's the general gist: The more you are in the public sphere, the more likely you are going to be despised. Now, more than ever.

This isn't just politics. We're seething at Wall Street and big greedy corporations. We despise unions protecting their chaff. We're tired of celebrities who won't shut up. We curse the talking heads on TV, and we are annoyed with athletes who can't seem to keep their private lives private. And the Pope? Are you kidding? Gozer the Destroyer has a higher approval rating.

We're sick of all of it. The bigger you are, the harder you've already fallen.

The level of vitriol and venom is rising from the Land of the Common Man and Woman.... and I've got this wild feeling, based on almost no true historical understanding, based on nothing but pure gut instinct.

We're on the verge of the next '60s.

Sure, it won't be exactly the same. We won't all wear tie-dye shirts and join cults. But that era was marked, above all, by an overwhelming distrust of authority, and we're headed that way again.

Today, different people of different persuasions -- cultural, political, socio-economical, racial -- distrust different groups more and less. However, the bottom line is that we as a nation are less eager to trust The Man, The System, The Church, The Celebrity, or The Big Business.

When's the last time America felt like it was overrun with riots and violence? When it seemed like our country, while not at Civil War, was busier fighting one another than we were fighting the enemies at our proverbial gates? The '60s and early '70s.

Whereas then it was led by restless youth, people of color fighting for equality and respect, and other variations on the "left" theme, the New '60s will be represented by people on both sides. Conservatives and liberals both carry their anti-authority torches and protest signs. Both sides are increasingly mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.

As a relatively trusting soul, this coming era is going to be very uncomfortable for me. I'm not going to like it. It's already making me sad, how little we seem to like one another. But I keep telling myself this: Most of us ordinary people like one another just fine. We all mostly get along. We're just sick and tired, it seems, of people on big screens and with big microphones talking down to us like they know more or do more or are better-equipped than we are to know what's right and wrong, good and bad, just or unfair.

So I'm going to continue my trusting and optimistic ways by hoping that this coming era of anti-authoritarian animosity and distrust will be a healthy reality check for our country, and that we will emerge from this, perhaps 20 years from now, a better and more unified nation than we are today.

Either that, or we'll eventually break off into smaller Democratic nations like the Eastern Bloc has been doing for the last 20 years, with Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton all serving as presidents of 1/4 of what used to be the United States. (Oh c'mon, you just KNOW Clinton would find his way back into a seat of power...)

My point is, buckle up. The next 20 years are gonna be tense, occasionally violent, and full of suspicious citizens. But maybe we'll be more awake and alert, as a country. Since far too many of us have been sleepwalking like cokeheaded bums since Jack Tripper stumbled into his apartment with Janet and Chrissy, maybe this change won't be so bad. But it won't be pretty.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Now I'm a Library

M. Ward--"Green River" (mp3)
Steppenwolf--"Magic Carpet Ride" (mp3)

In 1971, when I was 14, my brother and I had about 15 or 20 albums in our record collection. If that. The standouts were pretty obvious--In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf Live, and 4-Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The latter was the soundtrack to our weightlifting evenings on the back porch. But mostly just the acoustic songs. We would play them over and over and over again to where, even today, I know the tuning of every guitar, the between-song banter, the vocal nuances. It was those few songs--"On The Way Home," "Cowgirl In The Sand," "Don't Let It Bring You Down"--that taught me to love Neil Young.

We didn't take particular care of our records. Instead, we played the shit out of them. If you had a stereo console like the kind my parents had in the living room, or even if you had some kind of stereo system of your own in those days, they were made to stack records so that one could play right after the other. And not just singles. LPs. There was no mix tape; the best you could hope for was a good mix of album sides.

The idea of playing individual songs from individual sides of individual records would have been cumbersome and ridiculous. Everyone would be sitting there waiting while 1) you manually lifted the needle, 2) removed the album from the spindle, 3) set one album down and picked up another, 4) put the new one on the spindle at the top, 5) pulled the start lever and waited while the automatic system took its own sweet time to lower the album and then place the needle at the start of the first song, 6) which you would then have to lift manually and try to find the start of the individual track you wanted, each miss a jarring blast of mid-song, contextless noise.

So we listened to whole album sides, every single song, and usually other sides after that. Even listening to both sides of the same album back-to-back was a concerted listening experience. Of course, we knew what to avoid. We'd listen to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" straight through, but we'd never listen to the other side, because every song was crap. And with only 15 or 20 albums, we not only knew all the songs, we knew all of the skips and scratches.

Today, I carry in my pocket a library of music that contains (at present) 8, 138 songs.

If plugged into a wall and allowed to play uninterrupted, the Ipod would play for over 23 entire days without repeating a song. If purchased as 1970's-style record albums, the songs would represent a collection of some 814 albums, probably more, since some songs on the Ipod are quite long and would consume an entire side.

I look at this circumstance in two ways--either I've become an obsessive collector of music, a prime citizen in a highly-acquisitive culture, or these stacks of songs are the natural outcome of listening to (mostly) popular music for the last 45 years. Probably, both are true.

Yes, I do feel a certain anxiety if music that I want is not immediately available to me when I want it. And, that means it has to be on the Ipod. Without a radio, I must become the radio. And, sometimes, when there is a song or a CD that I want but don't have, the entire list of songs and artists that I scroll through seems dull.

But, at the same time, that collection of over 8000 songs breaks down into only about 200 songs or 20 albums (and even fewer cds) each year. That's far less than 1 album's worth a music per week.

The problem I see is that, despite the incredible accessibility of music today, the value of the individual song has been greatly diminished, at least for me. I don't learn all the words anymore, I probably don't know who wrote it or who plays on it, and, if someone is presenting it to me, there's a pretty good chance they won't even play the entire song. Instead of the plodding, first song followed by the second song down to the end method of album listening, I am trying to out-Ipod my Ipod on shuffle, and once I get that first song started, I'm already thinking about what I can follow it up with.

So where is that one song, that one set of songs, that I will play over and over and over until it/they become a part of me, that will take hold of my consciousness both now and later? Does that song even have a chance to become that kind of classic, before it's pushed aside in favor of another one?

But is that a problem? I really enjoy the massive range of artists and songs available to me; I'm adding to their ranks all the time. But, now, I'm a library, a library with only one patron who can't possibly do justice to the collection before him. And, that, believe it or not, is its own source of anxiety.

Monday, April 26, 2010


America (Fuck Yeah!) -Team America (mp3)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are responsible for a lot of twisted shit. In fact, they have proven to me time and again that they go 11, and my tolerance for calloused satire only goes to 10. Some examples:
  • When Satan has intercourse with Saddam Hussein;
  • When Cartman contracts AIDS and injects Kyle with it;
  • When they kill Strawberry Shortcake; and
  • When they wrote and filmed 90% of Team America:World Police.
To be sure, nary a celebrity, cause, political stance or religious belief has been spared from their merciless magnifying glass. But until last week, never once had they dared to cross the line of Muslim extremists.

That's right. Last week, the prophet Muhammed appeared on their show.

Granted, he was dressed completely in a bear suit. But he was there, because he announces himself as such in the show.

Except that Comedy Central bleeped the muther-bleeping bleep out of the episode becuase a group of Muslim extremists began making threats on Parker + Stone's lives if they dared go where only slain Danish cartoonists have dared to go.

Although I'm no prude by any stretch, much of what these two guys do offends me. Half the time I keep watching anyway, and half the time I just avoid it because I feel better about myself when I make the effort to avoid pointlessly cruel mockery.

But now we have a moment where I'm forced to take their side and support them.

It's one thing to be offended. It's one thing to protest, or to enact laws, or to call the po-po. But when a group of wacked-out fundamentalists decide that God or Allah has enabled them the right to be judge, jury and executioner on the lives of people guilty only of drawing, on a damn computer, a bear, and adding a voice-over of someone claiming to be Muhammed from inside that bear costume? Well, that kinda pushes me into the South Park Support Network.

Or, as hilarious columnist Dan Savage decided to call it, the "Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor (CACAH, pronounced ca-ca)".

Savage has declared May 20, 2010, as the first-annual Everybody Draw Muhammed Day:

In light of recent "veiled" (ha!) threats aimed at the creators of the television show South park (for depicting the prophet Mohammed in a bear suit) by bloggers on Revolution Muslim's website, we hearby (sic) deem May 20, 2010 as the first annual Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

Do your part to both water down the pool of targets and, yeah, defend a little something our country is famous for (but maybe not for long? Comedy Central cooperated with the terrorists and pulled the episode): the First Ammendment

Unless I fear for my employment -- which, ironically, is a bigger concern than the fear for my very life -- I will participate in EDM Day. I will draw something and add myself to the untold number of people who stand up to this kind of crap.

Here in the 21st Century, in a culture where few things seem worth fighting for anymore, there's a little something known as freedom of speech, and we can make a pretty powerful collective statement defending it by doing nothing more than spending a few minutes of time in our own homes and posting pictures like this.

And here's what I guarantee you: even if Dan Savage was kidding about that day (which he wasn't, I don't think), and even if only a few thousand people participate (the numbers will be much higher, I think), it will be an awe-inspiring moment for the rights of offensive and tasteless comedy over the forces of thought-control and extremism.

And if they come kill me? Screw 'em. It's after the series finale of LOST, so I can die a happy man anyway.

Or I'll just lie and say Bob did it.

Please note that I'm still trying to figure out which of the five ways I've seen it is the most acceptable way to spell the name of the prophet in question. I can't tell whether people intentionally misspell it to try and avoid extremist wrath and violence, or if there's multiple options, or if no one really knows how to spell it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Vive la danse!

Clem Snide--"Beautiful" (mp3)

When someone asks you to do something on a Friday night, and you say, "No, I've got the Special Olympics Dance," you are bound to get some strange looks and responses. I suppose it conjures up images of a "tacky prom" or one of those "K-Mart" dances that people used to have or some other upper middle class social event that makes fun of people less fortunate.

But, no, it really is a dance for Special Olympians, a "Victory Dance" that takes place on the night before the Special Olympics, and my Student Council has been privileged to host it for the past 5 or so years. A local fraternity used to do it, but they dropped that ball, and we picked it up.

Here's the game plan: Pizza, drinks, a DJ, and a popular batch of songs. From there, the dance pretty much runs itself, as long as you follow two simple rules. First, no waters; Special Olympians want sugar-infused drinks, preferably carbonated, and regardless of whichever ones you decide to supply, they will ask if you have different ones. Just like teenagers.

And, second, the DJ had better have some sense of the Special Olympians' Greatest Hits (not available from K-Tel on late-night TV) or he/she will be in for a long night. If you're going to DJ a Special Olympics dance, you had better have among your playlist at least the following: "The Cha-Cha Slide," "Who Let The Dogs Out," "Yeah!," "The Macarena," some version of "Rocky Top," and any other slides that have come out since the "Cha-Cha." Oh, yeah, and if you're going to buy a bunch of Little Caesar's pizza, make sure you get several Hawaiian pizzas (ham and pineapple).

If you are into community service in any way, shape, or form, this is one of the best events you can possibly be a part of. To see people who are so different from you and and even more similar to you doing things that you would enjoy doing, perhaps with a sense of freedom you don't have, it's a mind-blowing experience. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is. The students who are involved don't know what hit them at first, because whatever they expected, it wasn't this. They hang on the edges, straightening boxes of pizza or not knowing what to do with their hands. It's so normal, but not quite. And then they must answer questions or are drawn into conversations (last night, their track events and the ones the Olympians would be participating in today) or are invited out onto the dance floor.

And, suddenly, whatever reserve that any of us would hold in that situation falls away.

We encounter a relatively-narrow version of what a person is in a given day or week, and to be drawn into a roomful of people who are different, to have to navigate their world, for once, instead of them having to navigate ours, well, that is an irrepressible epiphany.

When a Special Olympian speaks to you or dances with you or shares a photograph with you, you play by their rules, not yours. If they tell someone else that you are their best friend, you have to agree, and you have to mean it. If they stand outside, leaning against the railing and yell, "Beer! Beer! Beer!" you have to say, "Yeah, I could go for one, too." If they don't like to be touched or don't like their food to be touched, then you don't or you find a napkin to lift their pizza onto their plate. If they hold a piece of paper with a carefully-drawn vision of the world, you have to study it and try to understand it and nod your head. To do otherwise would be, well....inhuman.

But the dance won't go perfectly: someone will pee all over the floor, someone will puke in the sink. What will break your heart, though, will be that one set of parents. It will be those parents who are clearly embarrassed to be at the dance. If you work at a private school, like I do, you will notice that these parents will look exactly like your school parents--well-dressed, kind of preppy, well-groomed.

I've watched them for years; I think I know what they are about. They aren't embarrassed about their Down's Syndrome child, no, they love their child and their family has adapted to having a special child, and all of their friends treat their child with an embracing graciousness. What they are embarrassed about is having to be at a function like this with all of the other children and their families. Because Special Olympians come from all stations of life, and these parents are forced, at least for a few times each year, to accept a different least common demoninator than they are used to. And so, they hang outside on the perimeter, while their daughter spends one of those special nights where everyone around her is like her in ways that she is not like her parents.

And then the night will end, because dances must end with slow songs, because Olympians need their rest, because Olympics await, and so we escort them down the stairs that scare them in the dark, to cars that take them away from a night they don't want to end, the partings difficult if goodbyes that were meant to be said did not get said.

As for the rest of us, we had a certain amount of energy to devote to Olympians that aren't ours, but that has run out, and we look forward to folding chairs, loading bins with trash, turning off lights, and driving back to our homes. I don't say that negatively; more energy would be there if it needed to be. Such is the nature of our human race.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Delicious Illusion of Honey

In These Arms - The Swell Season (mp3)

Well, when I first moved out here from Tucson, I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring. Someone with their own place. Someone who said "bless you" or "gesundheit" when I sneezed. Someone who liked the same things as me, but not exactly. And someone who loves me.

Tall order.

Yeah, I scaled it down a little.

What is it now?

Someone who says "Gesundheit." Although I prefer "bless you." It's nicer.

-- From the Cameron Crowe movie Singles

Here's just about the only thing I know for certain about going out somewhere to eat: I know my waitress or bartender is going to be good if she calls me "Sweetie" or "Honey."

And, if they call me "Sweetie" or "Honey," and if they're smiling when they say it, then I know I'm going to like them.

If the proverbial Two Kinds of People rule holds true, then there are those who abhor cutesy or pseudo-friendly nicknames and those who love 'em. I fall quite snugly into the latter category and am guilty of abusing them myself. Smiling when you use them, especially in an introductory setting, is vital.

Here's why.

Do you know me? Do you like me? Do I make you smile? Does your day get better when you see me?

Most of us ask these questions when we see someone for the first time in a day. We don't know we ask these questions, because we've been asking them so frequently since we were barely out of diapers (maybe even before that), that by the time we're all grownsed up and professional-like, the questions are instantaneous and subconscious. We don't know we're asking them anymore, kind of like those people who can dream in foreign languages.

And here's the next why: Most of us don't mind if you lie about it.

I don't mean we want to be out-and-out deceived, but what we crave from the world around us is a sense that we mean something, that our aura is positive, that our presence is a good thing. And if you have to fudge it a little to give us that feeling? Trust me, we'll just love you that much more for it.

In movies, there are the people like The Last Rider of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona who kills every living plant he passes as storm clouds brood and envelop the terrain in his wake, and then there are the Snow Whites, around whom all animals of the forest feel secure and loved, as the sun pushes its way through thick foliage for the mere chance of witnessing such a presence.

Most of us want to be Snow White. We know damn well we're not. We're not stupid. The world has beaten it into us that we're not Snow White. But the more people can give us even just that fleeting feeling of significance, of decency, of value... the happier our day.

Our culture and our environment can often enforce its will on our mood, and it can be either a vicious cycle or a beautiful contagion. The more people seem happy, even if it's kinda forced a little, the happier everyone else tends to get. The more we lie to ourselves a little about it, the more we believe it. The more it becomes true.

When a waitress sees me sitting at her table, and when she walks up to me with a smile and says, "What can I get you to drink, sweetie?" the meal will taste better. The drink will go down smoother. The people around me will talk more. The Cubs will win the ballgame. Evil will be kept in its cage one more day. Everything will be alright.

FREE HUGS are better, but "Honey" ain't a bad place to start.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bitter End

Emm Gryner--"Only The End" (mp3)

It's probably only because I work with high school seniors and am in the middle of watching (and participating in) their miserable, dragged-out last days before graduation that I am thinking about endings.

The departure of seniors is usually some combination of whimpers and bangs--kids flaming out in classes, doing even more irrational things than usual, boys who just want to sleep their way through their final days, the twin emotional roller coasters of college decisions and prom decisions. In short, usually, bad endings.

We have an administrator here who is fond of saying, concerning vacations, "There has to be a last day." And I supposed that's true. But that last day is usually pretty much shot in every sense of the word.

But do all things really end badly? And do they have to?

Here's what I'm wondering: could you pre-empt the awfulness of endings by, without warning, ending them earlier than they are supposed to?

As I savor this final season of 24, rewarding myself with meager 43 minutes episodes on whenever the moment seems right, savoring each twist and turn, what would it do to me if they just killed Jack off with two hours to go? What if the last season of 24 was really 22? I mean, everyday that we wake up, we think that we've got the whole twenty-four ahead of us, and then some, but, realistically, there will come that day when we don't get the full ticket.

This week, as I watched a person go through the ritual of retirement, the talks and celebrations, the farewell address, the gifts and the chair, I pondered the potential embarassment of winding up a career. The poor person retiring, trying to find a way to validate and remind an audience of her own intrinsic value during the last 20 years. All the talk of the the last this and the last that, the handing over of the reins, the wink-and-a-nod toward how the successor bit off a lot more than he realizes.

Me, I'd rather sneak out the back door, and tell them, "Send me the chair in the mail."

But maybe that's partly an unconscious reaction, an attempt at trying to avoid the end. Or maybe, like life, other endings are better if we don't know when that last day will be. Aren't most of us mortified by the thought of being so publicly feted (especially at an age when we're fetid)? What if our boss just walked in one day, handed us an envelope, and said, "Thanks for your service. You're done with work." No fake hugs and no false words--what's so bad about that?

You know, I have wished away so much of this month, trying to get to the end of it, because I have been pretty much broke since it started, the result of too good a time in New Orleans over Spring Break. Days and events, weekends and meals, none of them enjoyed because I had the Damocle's Sword of an empty checking account hanging over my head. C'mon, April! Get over with, for gosh sakes! It is no way to live, wishing things would end more quickly in order to get to things that I really want to happen. Get me to that payday, and I will look back and wonder, what did I do to April?

Of course it is the nature of mortality to obsess about how things will end, but why must we be so bad at it? Why is it so hard to make the break, to move on, to start a new beginning with its own implied end? I suppose it's because endings are so rarely clean. There's that moment when we realize "I'm done" and then there's some more formal moment when whatever it is is officially over.

And it's the time between, that limbo period, that purgatory, that scenario where even though the movie is over, the credits still have to roll before somebody can turn the projector off. Nobody wants to stay for the credits, except maybe those whose names are scrolling by, but even they must realize that the audience is already headed to the exits, except the unlucky few who, out of some sense of duty, stay until the bitter end.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Desperate North Georgia Housewives

Wrapped Around Your Finger (live) - Tori Amos + Bjork

In multiple, peripheral ways, I'm connected to what is the most unbelievable, soap opera trial to hit our notch on the Bible Belt in a mighty long time.

Tanya Craft, a former kindergarten teacher in North Georgia, is on trial for molesting three young girls in her home on various occasions.

What started as a case that no one seemed to question -- how rarely are criminal charges of child molestation anything less than open-and-shut? -- has emerged as the kind of story which once again reminds us that you can't even make up the kind of shit going on in reality, because no one would buy your story for it being too unrealistic.

Take the most twisted episode of Desperate Housewives you've ever seen, throw in a little bit of COPS and a little bit of the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, and add a dash of that old Holly Hunter movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, and you might start to get some vague sense of the circus happening just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Here's the best and most detailed reporting on the case:

Here's the best and most detailed TV crew on the scene (with TWO reporters!):

It's the most popular local topic on Twitter!

And then there's the real twist. Sitting hundreds of miles away at a computer in Maryland is a man named William L. Anderson. Just a blogger.

Except Mr. Anderson is the kind of blogger that is, at least outside that courtroom and in the realm of public opinion, what can be considered a "game-changer."

A few years ago, Mr. Anderson made it his mission in life to prove, almost from the first day he heard about the story, that the Duke lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper were innocent. He has now turned his attention -- at the rate of two posts every weekday -- towards the Craft trial in North Georgia. He has no interest in appearing or acting unbiased. He is convinced the trial and the key players involved are a sham and an embarrassment. He has an untold number of people connected to the situation on his side and also providing him with details some random dude in Maryland could never otherwise get. And he has uncovered one after another of the most eye-popping small-town Roscoe P. Coltrain kinds of screw-ups in the justice system that make you scared to ever set foot in a small town.
  • A Facebook status update written by the prosecutor, with comments left by witnesses for the pending trial.
  • A mother claiming on the stand that her daughter had never taken acting classes, yet with information on IMDB that suggests she's taken acting classes in Atlanta (that information was dismissed by the judge).
  • A lead child advocate in sexual abuse cases who doesn't even have a college degree, not even three years after the case began, who asked a girl 16 times on video whether she was molested, only to apparently be told after they left the room that it happened, who then failed to document in any way this admission.
  • The judge sitting on the case represented the defendant's husband in their divorce but refused to recuse himself from the case.
It doesn't stop there. Just start reading the comments left by Bob's favorite person, ANONYMOUS, and Mr. Anderson's responses, and things get even wilder.

We might never know The Truth about what, if anything, happened between this woman and these little girls, but we can be certain of this: The Reality is seriously screwed up, and the truth doesn't seem to be all that important in a court of law.

The only thing that's certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that three girls have been forever scarred and victimized. The only question is how and by whom, and whether it had anything to do with the adult in question touching them in sexual ways.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"I'd like to go on record as saying that........."

Nada Surf--"Enjoy The Silence" (mp3)

No, you wouldn't.

You actually would rather not say anything at all. You would actually rather not get involved. You might figure out something that you might have said, but only in your brain, and it's not going to go much farther than that. Why is that?

Whether we're talking about something as grand as participating in a real public protest or as insignificant as posting on this blog, you really would prefer not to go on record. You don't want to be held accountable for what you believe, especially if it is to be recorded or written down for posterity. Then someone might hold you to it or might judge you for it or just plain pin you down.

Whether we're talking about what you do or don't like about your job or your circumstances, whether we're looking at the country or the government, you don't want to be seen as an irritant or a troublemaker or a rabblerouser or a flat-out pain in the ass.

Although, apparently, if someone called you on the phone, someone who sounded official and anonymous and who needed your response in order to tally up the statistics for a poll, then you would probably say what you thought. You wouldn't volunteer it exactly, but if given a series of options, some choices, some prefab answers to a generic question, you would pick one. And no one would know that it was you, hidden as you would be among the percentages that make this country great, that establish patterns and create trends with no one really having to risk anything.

If you could get out on the street beneath the cameras that are everywhere, where no one could see you, would you write what you believe on walls and bathroom stalls? Do big words on bigger walls give you enough space to say?

Or you might join a group that has a batch of values that you can jump into and swim around in some kind of collective rage about some selfish cause like your own supposedly-miserable circumstances? Believe me, it's been done, is being done right now, by people who think it's important to protest about money. As a great man once said, "I look out, and I see a crowd of people waving placards with dollar signs on them, and they are all invisible to me."

John's post from yesterday used one of the favorite quotations we like to utter from time to time: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Thoreau was onto something there, wasn't he? But what I never thought about until now is, why? Why do the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation? Why is their desperation quiet? The answer, as you well know and I am just figuring out, is contained within the quotation itself: because they are in a mass, and because they are quiet.

The mass of men (and women, for sure) lead lives of timid rage. The mass of men lead lives of unspoken realities. The mass of men lead lives of ridiculous subservience. The mass of men lead lives of detached democracy. The mass of men lead lives of alcohol-curbed disgust. The mass of men lead lives of impotent inaction. The mass of men lead lives of...........Thoreau said it best...........quiet desperation.

We like to utter it because it is phrased in such a way that it allows all of us to say it aloud and, therefore, be a part of the "we," and not a part of the "them," that quiet, desperate mass. We can look out of our windows and see them, in our minds, shuffling past, while we, heads held high, live lives of boisterous satisfaction!

But the population explodes, the world shrinks, and that mass of men out there threatens to subsume us all like the monster in The Thing. And while you pretend to progress meaningfully in your cliquish mini-societies, even there you will hardly speak a meaningful word, for fear of offending or confronting or facing down a bully or questioning a friend's ethics, and so, slowly, ever so slowly, you becomes we, we becomes me.

The third photo, by the way, is there to reflect my admiration for Mr. Danny Glover's willingness to be arrested as part of a protest against Sodexho.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fashionably Late to the Music Party

'ja ever notice that it's cool to be fashionably late to a social gathering but lethal to be fashionably late to a pop culture discovery? Meanwhile, I tend to get to parties early and stumble on cool stuff long after it's stopped being the topic of conversation. Nowhere is this more consistently true than music. Usually I'm hopping on a bus riiiiight at the time everyone else is jumping or sauntering off.

Par for the course, I fell in love with the Replacements in late spring of 1989 with my discovery of Don't Tell a Soul. A closeted gay friend of mine who was miles ahead on the hip-o-meter had pushed the band on me. He insisted that their latest album was "suitable to your bubblegum palette." Because he'd hit the jackpot that fall by demanding I purchase The Innocents by Erasure, and because he'd only demanded a music purchase out of me three or four times in high school, I complied with his demands.

Not to exaggerate, but I might well have listened to Don't Tell a Soul 500 times before the end of that 1989 summer. I played it constantly.

The critic at totally shits on this album. In general, I have great respect for, because they generally review things within the scope of that artist's domain. That is, even Debbie Gibson gets 4 1/2 stars for her best album. And let's be honest. If you're the person looking into Debbie Gibson's biography and discography, you probably have some sense of her musical CV. And, odds are, you either like it or know it sucks synthesized ass. Either way, what's most useful to you is not a collection of CDs that have all been given 1/2 star, but rather a sense of what were Debbie's highs and lows. Where did she kick as much ass as Debbie could kick? When did she officially start dialing it in?

For that, AllMusic is awesome, and most of the time they're spot-on.

But when you discover a band well into its second or third act, it's bound to screw with your notion of them. For example, I discovered REM halfway between Life's Rich Pageant and Document. While my cool classmates had heard "Radio Free Europe" and "Rockville" a bajillion times, my first encounter with the band was a much more tightly-produced, carefully-worded pop album with downright anthemic moments. If your first REM love is "These Days" and "Superman," then reaching back for Murmur just isn't that easy.

Likewise, I'll never understand how anyone who appreciates the notion of cohesive, listenable music could say Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash is better or more enjoyable than Don't Tell a Soul. The first is wildly messy and cacophonous and atonal in places. Yes, I guess this makes it great stuff for the snotty critic, but in my view, their early stuff was just heavily intoxicated garble created by people who really wanted to make poppy rock. That is, in my opinion, this band always wanted to make TIM (which I agree with the AllMusic gods is their best album) and just didn't really know how to do it. 'Cuz they were too fuckin' drunk and stoned. And Westerberg didn't really know yet how to craft an actual song, with beginnings and endings and bridges and such, so he just vomited out a few clever lines here and there.

I tend to find people's claims of musical sell-outs solely because they signed big contracts and obtain high-end production to be akin to idiots who insist Spielberg was a much better director in the low-budget DUEL than once he had corporate financing with JAWS, E.T., etc. Sure, you can see the brilliance and potential in that early film, but once he had money and assistance, it was a different ballgame.

Maybe this is where I get mixed up. Maybe adolescent musical vomiting makes for what's great about rock, and once someone starts to tame it, get control of it, and ride that bull for a full eight seconds, it's well on its way to becoming Michael Bolton. But I don't buy that. I think the Replacements started improving as Paul Westerburg got less drunk and more controlling of the band's direction. I think their last three albums are better than their first three. And anyone who denies that Paul's stuff on the Singles soundtrack was pure pop gold should go ahead and chomp down on that cyanide pill the rock snobs gave you when they indoctrinated you into their cult.

Anyway, if you have some curiosity about those '80s critical darlings The Replacements, better known to the snobbish as "The 'Mats," I insist that your first album be TIM, but I ask you to consider that your follow-up purchase be the album "most suitable to your bubblegum palette": Don't Tell a Soul.

My Top 11 All-Time Favorite Replacements Songs:
  1. Kiss Me On the Bus
  2. Waitress In the Sky
  3. My Little Problem
  4. Alex Chilton
  5. Achin' To Be
  6. We'll Inherit the Earth
  7. Nobody
  8. Left of the Dial
  9. Within Your Reach
  10. Here Comes a Regular
  11. I'll Be You
If any of you find yourselves intrigued by these, or by the Replacements, I'll happily fire off another 20 Great 'Mats Songs faster 'n' you can say "Bastards of Young." For those of you who fell in love with the 'Mats before I even knew what alcohol was good for, I await your reasons why I'm a moron.

Monday, April 19, 2010

GUEST POST: The Baseball Diaries by John

The Baseball Project--"All Future And No Past" (mp3)

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
—Henry David Thoreau

The Woman: “You football or baseball?”
Biff: “Football.”
The Woman: “That’s me too.”
—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

A few weeks ago, Chris, the varsity baseball coach at our school, came to me during a faculty meeting. “Hey,” he told me. “I have to talk to you about something.” I like Chris, but we’re not particularly close, and the only time we ever have any conversations, it’s about swapping a dorm duty. So when he found me later that morning, the last thing I expected him to say was:

“I want you to throw out the opening pitch at the ballgame on Friday night. We’re celebrating the English department and since you’re the chairman, we want you to throw out the opening pitch.” Chris clearly thought this was an honor I’d relish. Chris clearly doesn’t know me.

Some context here. I have not thrown a baseball in over 30 years. That’s not hyperbole; I really haven’t. Tennis balls to dogs, check. Nerf footballs to my daughters, check. Ping pong balls after they’ve rolled off the table and onto the ground, check, although it’s usually not really throwing so much as batting.

Later that day, I found my friend, Hank, a colleague and former varsity baseball coach and asked him if he’d mind going down to the baseball field with me at some remote time of day or night when nobody was likely to be lurking about, and show me how to throw a pitch. Trooper that he is, he agreed. My father, a retired Episcopal priest of the first order was a man of many talents, but teaching his son the nuances of the athletic life was not among them. (He did teach me how to pour the perfect Chivas on the rocks, but that’s for another guest post, perhaps).

Preparing dinner that night for my daughters, I told Alex that this Friday she’d have to come with me to a school baseball game since I had something I had to do.

“You don’t have to play, do you,?” she asked.

“Well, not exactly. I have to throw out the first pitch.”

She cocked her head, raised an eyebrow and, fully the tween, replied, “But Dad, you don’t know how to play. Are you sure you want to do that?”

In truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but at that point it was a done deal and there was no backing away. “Sure. It’ll be fun.” She did not look convinced.

“I’m going to have to wear a hoodie and hide under it,” she told me.

“Well, I’m going to wear a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m Alex’s Dad!’”

I rarely make it through the night without waking up at some point between 3:12 and 4:42, but that night the usual suspects of anxiety—money, kids, the future—gave way to visions of me with a baseball. Ditto for the next three nights. Friends, including BoTG blogger, Bob, emailed my department with news that he’d be bringing a speed gun to clock my throw; another colleague announced that he was bringing an iFlip so he could post the moment on YouTube. Students in the hall began greeting me during the day, patting me on the back and telling me that they couldn’t wait to see me pitch. Bob introduced me to a young man I’ve seen around campus but have never taught: “This is Nolan, he’s one of the most important people in your life right now. He’s your catcher.”

Meanwhile, Hank gave me an early morning pitching lesson on Wednesday. My throws went all over the place, only a few times crossing the plate. Into both dugouts, hopping the dirt, occasionally reaching within Hank’s general proximity so that he didn’t have to sprint to catch the ball. But only occasionally. Throughout it, he assured me that I was doing just fine and I have never appreciated a lie more.

Friday afternoon. Alex and I are throwing the baseball in the empty lot behind the house. I notice that she has a really good throw—straight, hard, infinitely better than her Dad’s. She notices this, too.

“Gee, Dad, you’re not very good at this. I think you might get embarrassed out there. Do you want me to do it for you?” She’s being kind, I think, in offering to spare me the indignity, but she’s also trying to spare herself. When I tell her no, that I want to do this, she seems amazed. I try to explain to her that I know I’m bad at this but that I’m good at lots of other things—cooking, gardening, teaching, being a friend and a dad—and that I don’t need to be good at everything.

“Besides, some of my students are excited that I’m going to do this and if it makes them laugh, that’ll be fun.” She doesn’t seem to understand.

Later that evening, I throw out the pitch. It hops twice in front of home plate, but comes closer than in my dreams I’d imagined it would. Alex didn’t even have to hide under a hoodie. The next week, several people will tell me that at least it was better than Obama’s. One of them is the pitcher, but that’s because he hates the President and is happy to find reason to make a dig at him. The other is a colleague who, like me, likes the President, and sees her remarks as a way of offering solidarity and encouragement.

When you’re ten, one of your main goals in life is to not look foolish in front of your peers, to avoid being caught being bad at something. Working with teenagers for the past 24 years, I think it’s true of them, as well. They’re not really children, they’re not really adults and in that paradoxical space in between, they are at once, self-conscious and guarded, self-forgetful and open. Alex’s words reminded me that this was the first time in the longest time that I could recall trying something that I wasn’t fairly certain I would succeed at. It surprised me a little and disappointed me more than that. Maybe it’s true of adults as well. That’s not how I want to spend the next thirty years of my life on Planet Earth and, thanks to Chris’ invitation, there’s the chance that I won’t.

I don’t know if that’s what Thoreau means by “quiet desperation” but it’s in the ballpark.

The Baseball Project is Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, and R.E.M), along with drummer Linda Pitmon and R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. They will release a song each month of the baseball season.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Logan's Run, or Why Lot's Wife Turned to Salt

Running Man - Hanson (mp3)
Last Way Out of Here - Paloalto (mp3)

You can never go home again.
Don't look back.

I disobeyed both rules -- one literary, one biblical -- and stayed up until 1:30 a.m. a few nights ago to watch, in its painful entirety, LOGAN'S RUN. It's the first science fiction movie I can remember seeing, and I'm almost positive it's the first time I ever saw bare, live-action boobies. In fact, I started watching the film because I wanted to be sure my boobies memory was accurate, but who was I kidding? Boys never forget their first boobies.

I first saw the 1976 movie on HBO when we first got the service in 1982. It was on one evening when my parents weren't home and my brothers were "babysitting" me, which really meant they were in the rec room smoking pot and playing pool with friends. Although I can't be certain, I suspect there were moments when my nose actually made contact with the glass on that television, I was so intent on absorbing the energy of that completely verboten movie.

A few years later, as I started understanding that my parents didn't really care much about what I did or didn't watch as long as they didn't know -- a family-sized version of Don't Ask Don't Tell -- I watched it a few more times.

Because hyperbole and indefensible opinions seem to be popular in the 21st Century, I'm going to take a shot at both:

LOGAN'S RUN represents everything I hate about '70s moviemaking and about the '70s in general.

Here's a super-quick summary. Everyone lives in a domed civilization with limited resources. At 30, people are "renewed," which really means they walk like lemmings to their own deaths, thinking they'll be reborn. Some people run. Logan and his black unitard-clad "Sandmen" are tasked with killing the runners. The HAL of Logan's Run, voiced by Farrah Fawcett to give the machine intellectual gravitas, tells Logan to flee and find "Sanctuary," where runners have successfully started an independent and aging colony. Logan and his dial-a-date girlfriend escape and journey through many climates and cheesy settings to discover the truth that only a bearded Benny Hill could offer. And then they return and share the good news.

If the '80s was obsessed with being overly clever, '70s films were obsessed with being artistic. Midnight Cowboy, widely hailed as a stellar film, has some of the trippiest, most completely useless and random moments captured in film. Across the Universe, a film that actually tries to emulate some mixture of The Wall and the worst parts of '60s and '70s moviemaking, succeeds in emulating those shitty Midnight Cowboy moments in that a lot of it totally sucks ass or looks like it was stolen from a failed Monty Python "revisioning."

What is considered "artistic" in the '70s was heavily influenced by acid. And pot. And, it would seem, some very wild parties, the kind of parties my nigh-Victorian Generation X crowd can't quite even believe existed. I remember when rumors first started circulating about middle schoolers having "Rainbow Parties" -- and we're not talkin' Rainbow Brite here -- and there were Baby Boomers from the Key Party generation whose reaction was, like, "Well geez, that's a little extreme..." And we're like, "A LITTLE?? YA THINK??" And they're like, "Well.... it's not like they're out murdering people and playing 'Helter Skelter' or anything. In the end, it's just a few blowjobs."

I remember a party some 10 years ago where a lot of my coworkers and myself jumped into a hot tub with only boxers or minimal undergarments. It's considered one of the most scandalous moments of my career here. Meanwhile, the Boomers who were there kept wondering when any of us were gonna start screwing one another. They chuckle thinking that what was scandalous in the late '90s involved no bodily contact and no drugs beyond alcohol. As they should.

Logan's Run clocks in at just over two hours. For roughly 45 minutes of that stretch, almost nothing happens. An Adam and Eve character go on a road trip without cars or sunlight. Take the worst parts of The Wizard of Oz, a film which is heavily referenced, and watch them in slow-motion, without Pink Floyd in the background. Stevie Wonder could have done a better job of choreographing the fights, and the "lay-zer" guns they use make Star Trek's 1966 phasers look like Avatar. There are moments I thought I was watching CATS. (Technically a product of the '80s but clearly written during and inspired by the '70s.)

Ironically, the fashion sense and awful special effects in Logan's Run was the clear precursor to the Buck Rogers TV show. I was also a huge fan of Gil Gerard and Erin Gray. Watching that 20 years later was the only compelling argument I've encountered for why TV shows on DVD is a terrible idea, because every wonderful childhood illusion I had about Buck Rogers was blown to smithereens by the third episode.*

Many of Logan's Run's ardent fans seem to defend it with claims of It's A Great Idea. Without question, the concept behind the movie has great potential, and I'll poop on my own head if we don't see a remake in the next decade. But to defend a movie solely because it was based on a cool or interesting idea is to defend George W. Bush solely because Democracy in the Middle East would be wicked awesome. Great ideas poorly executed is the movie equivalent of "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." And the '70s seemed full of great ideas poorly executed.

Here's one thing about Logan's Run that didn't totally suck: Jenny Agutter. Other than her name, which could have been improved if she'd married me, that gal was just about perfect in my eyes. She would have been helped with a Miracle Bra or some other kind of support, but yet again the '70s fails us by encouraging that "Free Falling" breasts look. Ms. Agutter didn't need much acting skill, so I can't say she was good or bad. I can only say her non-threatening hotness gives off a glow in my direction even today.

It was also cool how she meets Logan. He basically has a ChatRoulette teleporter, where random people looking for sex show up when he changes channels. His first reject is a very flamboyantly happy guy. I'd say he was gay, but nothing he did or said suggested he was any less gay or straight than the rest of the movie. It's the future where we're all young, horny, and stuck in terrible outfits.

My point is, critics can complain 'til they turn blue in the face and become one of the Na'vi about how contemporary movies have lost creativity or the '70s spirit of the greats like Woody Allen and Scorcese.

But to me, the entire '70s is one big blinking palm whose LifeClock was dying on the day it was born. The movie is the perfectly imperfect analogy for the decade.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Riff

Back in the late spring of 1980, I was convinced that I had created one of the great riffs of rock and roll. In Chicago at the time, staying at a friend's apartment while he was gone, licking my wounds after a harrowing journey to and from California that ended in a different friend's aborted suicide, there were days when I wasn't good for much more than plucking around on my guitar and occasionally eating something.

It was in that place on N. Fullerton where my wandering, free-associating hands first settled into the pattern of Am-F-C-G. I would sit during the days and play it over and over--Am-F-C-G in 4/4 time, using first position chords. Eventually, a song, or at least a partial song, started to come to me:

I used to walk into doors as clear as glass,
Holding up buildings while I watched you pass.

That was the beginning of one melody. Over those same chords, I had a different melody for the chorus:

We know something that they don't know,
They don't know that I'm with them,
We don't know, that's what you think,
We don't know, that's what you think.

What happened to the song, what it meant, I don't really know. Those snatches are all that I have. It ended up being a lost summer, a summer working a couple of food-service jobs in Chicago, living in my brother's apartment in Hyde Park while he and his wife were in Europe, making sandwiches at one place by day, making sandwiches at another place by night, going out with the other "cooks" after hours, working myself into a sickness that antibiotics would not cure, but still going until my suicidal friend was successful and I crashed completely and went home to Pittsburgh.

But all of that is background. You have to realize that I thought I had created an original riff. Using very unoriginal chords. In 1980, when the New Age and punk were thriving, when the Clash, the Ramones, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello were riffing all around me.

Of course, I was wrong.

That same year, I don't know now if it was earlier or later, Warren Zevon released Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, a fairly-brilliant record containg snippets of his unfinished symphony as well as classic songs about a relief pitcher, a gorilla who escapes from the zoo and takes the place of a disenchanted yuppie, and, my favorite, "Play It All Night Long," which, in the most satirical terms, captured the essence of "country livin'"--"sweat, piss, jizz, and blood," while drawing sustenance from the song "Sweet Home Alabama." And, of course, a song which used the exact same riff I had invented.

And I hadn't noticed that, two years earlier, Steve Forbert, on his debut album, had used the exact same chords to capture the melancholy of "Tonight I Feel So Far Away From Home."

And since, of course, I've heard the riff all over the place--in Sarah McLauchlan's "Building A Mystery," in songs by The Cure and Lloyd Cole. No doubt, you've heard it in other songs that I'm not thinking of.

But there was that moment in time, I could almost taste it (Little Steven reference, anyone? anyone?) when I thought I had done something original on this overcrowded planet, when Emerson's words, "We recognize in others' genius our own neglected thoughts" rang as true as Johnny B. Goode's guitar. And, nah, I'm not bitter. Whenever I hear that riff, it holds a special place for me, kind of like it's mine.

Zevon's Learning to Flinch, Cole's Love Story, and The Cure's Bloodflowers are all available at Itunes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Billy's Best New Songs

Last week, Bob sent me a link to Esquire Online's "Best New Songs of 2010." I'm sitting at my computer late one Spring Break night and decide, what the hell, why not check out this link.

An hour later, I owned some 40 of the 50 or so songs they recommended. And I owned all of the ones that the Victoria's Secret supermodel danced to in their special exclusive video. (To be fair, I owned about a dozen already, because I'm so darn hip.)

Because I have tons of gift card money in iTunes from Christmas and my birthday and plenty of eMusic credits, I also purchased another dozen or so additional songs from the artists mentioned. Let me remind you: I'm a lowly educator. I don't want you to think I'm some rich dude for whom small expenditures mean nothing.

Here's the bands from whom I went out and purchased a song, with the bands from whom I was inspired to purchase additional songs earning an asterisk:
  • Sloan River Project
  • Bettie Serveert
  • The xx *
  • Midlake
  • Los Campesinos!
  • Clipse
  • David Nail
  • Retribution Gospel *
  • Galactic *
More importantly, what the Esquire list inspired me to do was to start on the first official mix CD I've compiled in more than a year.

We all do random inexplicable shit. For me, I write poetry and make mix CDs, and both have very little rational explanation behind them. But I compiled my favorite songs inspired by the Esquire list, threw them in with a couple of other favorite recommended compilations, added a dash of my own discoveries from the last six months, and made a mix.

It being spring, the time of new life and cute cuddly animals, I named this little CD "THUMPER" and gave copies of it to some appreciated coworkers. Those of you who might be interested in obtaining a copy, I'll make the mix available for your sampling pleasure if you pass along your email address (if I already have it, just express your interest).
  • Satellite Mind    Metric
  • The Modern Leper    Frightened Rabbit
  • Heart Of Steel    Galactic
  • You and I    Kyler England
  • Ali In the Jungle    The Hours
  • I Know About You (Acoustic)    Dashboard Confessional
  • Ain't No Secret    The Alternate Routes
  • How You Like Me Now    The Heavy
  • One Of Those Days    Joshua Radin
  • Taking Chances (Glee Cast Version)    Glee Cast
  • My Old Man    Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers
  • Trinity    Paper Tongues
  • Dirty Wings    Megan Slankard
  • Better Love    Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
  • Do It Again    Galactic
  • Boy Like Me    Jessica Harp
  • You're Not Listening    The Rescues
  • Sympathetic Vibrations (feat. Amber Rubarth & Alex Wong)    The Paper Raincoat
  • If You Would Come Back Home    William Fitzsimmons
  • Make It Up To You    Pete Schmidt
If, God help you, you're too shy to leave a comment, then just email me on the down-low, and I'll pass along the link. If you don't know me well enough to know my email address, then you'd best leave a comment.

Happy THUMPER mix. Whatever that may mean to you.

The picture of Champy's, located in Chattanooga, is included because I've been there four times in the last 14 days, which means it deserves some kind of credit for my need to make a mix CD in the first place.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Smug Parenting

Smug parenting, we've all been guilty of it. You know what I'm talking about. It's when all of the decisions and idiosyncracies of our parenting style seem to play out in our favor. And so many choices to pick from:

I was hands-off, I was hands-on, I spanked, I didn't, I was consistent, I couldn't control my kids in public, I got babysitters, I took my kids everywhere, I kept them sheltered, I put mine on a schedule, I pretty much let them stay up as long as they like, I public-schooled, I private-schooled, I home-schooled, I breastfed, I used soy milk, I relied on hand-me-downs, I think it hurts a child's self-esteem to get used things. Etc.

Once in a while, every once in a strange long while, something happens that gives us some sense of vindication. Because little is as cutthroat or rude as competitive parenting in modern America. Regardless of whatever parenting decisions we made (or simply allowed to happen), there was always someone at the table, at the store, in school or wherever else competitive parents gather who challenged the way we did things.

When you take your parenting out into the world, you always feel a little off balance. You get that comment that begins "You mean you don't.....? You hear the mother talking to her own child while she's really criticizing you: "We like to go to bed at the same time every night, don't we, Will? It helps us wake up in a good mood." You pick your child up from a grandparent who thinks that he has fixed everything wrong with your parenting in one structured afternoon, especially because he got the child to eat some healthy crap that that kid wouldn't touch at your house in a heartbeat.

But, occasionally, just occasionally, you hit the ball out of the park as a parent. Or, if not that, at least there's a study which comes out and slaps you on the back like a teammate after you've driven in a run. What am I talking about? Just this:

The study, “Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s ,” will appear in the May issue of Pediatrics. 

that are spanked more frequently at age 3 are at increased risk for being more aggressive at age 5,” said Taylor, assistant professor of Community Health Sciences at Tulane and lead author of the study. “We found this to be true even after taking into account other factors that might have explained this association such as the parents’ level of stress, depression, use of drugs or alcohol, and the presence of other aggression within the family.”

Mothers with more parenting risk factors were more likely to spank frequently. However, even accounting for these potential confounding factors, frequent spanking at age 3 increased the odds of higher levels of aggression at age 5. Signs of included behaviors such as arguing or screaming; cruelty, bullying or meanness to others; destroys things; fighting and frequently threatening others.

Despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics against spanking, most parents in the United States approve of and have used corporal as a form of child discipline. The study suggests that even minor forms of corporal punishment increase the risk for child aggressive behavior.

There is little that is more barbaric than hitting a child. And spanking is hitting, make no mistake about that. If you've ever spanked or been spanked, you know the truth of that. And yet, we as a society, perhaps as all societies, have had it ingrained in us, as recently as our own upbringing, as far back as the Bible:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chastiseneth him betimes. (Proverbs 13:24)

For those of us who have taken the non-violent approach, who have worn the mantle of "permissive parents" or who have been seen as not strong enough to inflict tough love on our children or to unleash a punishment that does not fit the crime, finally there is a study that shows what anyone who has ever raised his or her hand against a child has to know in his heart: that it has negative consequences for the child.

The more we hit a child, the more likely that child is to hit someone else. C'mon, did we really need a study done to confirm that fact? Well, at this point, I don't even care. I'm just glad that there is such a study that does indeed always seem pretty obvious.

There is no real joy in this, for two reasons. First, because the study continues to confirm that most people believe that corporal punishment is the way to go with child-rearing, so we still must cringe when we walk through Target and a mother is swatting an over-tired child because he won't do what she wants him to.

And, second, because as the poem "This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin reminds us,

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.

In short, there is little, if anything that we can do to avoid screwing up our children no matter which path we take (see paragraph #2 above), and when our sin of commission or omission is revealed through our child's flaws, we must take the smug stares of other parents. But, if we can all be smug parents who can look at each other smugly in the knowledge that we do not hit our children in order to get them to behave, hey, I'm all for it. Because we may all make parenting mistakes, but it's finally obvious that smacking your kids is one of the worst.

Paul Westerberg's Eventually is available at