Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Penis Mightier, Alex

Wild Man - Galactic (mp3)
Jackie Collins Existential Question Time - Manic Street Preachers (mp3)

I am a Man.

Statistically speaking, there seems to be a correlation between the power and prevalence of that thought in my mind and the likelihood I’m engaged or tempted to engage in behavior that is unwise or “bad.” And when I say “me,” I really mean “people with penises.”

Equally problematic is that my masculine self-awareness also correlates frequently with a higher sense of joy. And when I say “me,” well, you know.

Importantly, as I learned in high school, correlation does not mean causation.

A fascinating cover story in Newsweek, “Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity,” kinda forces me to think about and accept that I am a Man. (That they named Brad Pitt as the Paragon of 2010 Masculinity leaves me cold.)

In my job, I have read and studied hundreds of articles and books about gender differences, mostly surrounding issues of education, but not always. This might not make me an Expert on it, but I feel confident I’ve read and had the opportunity to study as much on these matters in the last 20 years as most masters and doctors specializing in the area.

Yet, in spite of all the knowledge and information crammed into my tiny male brain, at times I’m pretty sure I don’t know a damn thing about gender, about masculinity, about femininity, or about humanity.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with being A Man. What I mean is, were I the last man on earth, I would change the name so that I wasn’t required to become some Paragon of Manhood. It’s when I think about my masculinity that I am most sympathetic to black kids who are asked questions about race in class, as if they can knowledgeably and ably speak for their entire race of people merely from their own personal experience.

Am I a Bad Man? No. Well, mostly no.

Am I Bad at Being a Man? Hmm. That answer doesn’t come as easily.

The good news seems to be that masculinity works a lot like wisdom. Shakespeare said “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Or, if you prefer Lao Tzu: “The wise man knows he doesn't know. the fool doesn't know he doesn't know.”

When it comes to Being a Man, it seems to me that the more certain a man is that he is some paragon of manhood, some lighthouse of manhood showing the way for the rest of us, the less likely he’s the kind of man we as a society should aspire to clone or value too highly.

When I’m insecure, more often than not the issue of masculinity is at the core.

But my sense of my own masculinity is also central to many of the biggest highlights of my life, the moments about which I am most proud or meant the most to me. Wedding and becoming a father are the most obvious, but examples go much farther than that.

However, if I were splitting hairs, masculinity for me falls closer to the heart of insecurity than the heart of success.

This doesn’t make me some gender-neutral proponent. Yes, males and females are more similar than they are different, and by a big stretch, but certain differences are too stubborn and consistently present to fight or ignore, and I'm not just talking NooNoos and PeePees and BumBums. (Let the war of cited contradictory studies begin!)

Since anecdotes are more fun and ultimately more useless... my son fell in love with throwing, hitting, and tractors almost at birth, and anyone who knows me now or knew me at any time in my past can attest that these interests were not pushed on him by me through some orchestrated Make a Man Outta My Son agenda. Whereas both of my daughters would as infants fall asleep when I put them on my chest and rocked them, my son has only once in his entire life fallen asleep on my chest. My touch and presence soothed my daughters; it electrifies my son and always has.

What’s a lot more fun is to play along with Newsweek’s breakdown of current advertising campaigns and how they manipulate our perceptions of manhood. I might not agree with every last sentence, but Steve Tuttle is right on far more than he’s wrong! (Right: Everything he says about the highly disturbing Stayfree Internet videos; the Most Interesting Man in the World.... Wrong: Posting links to the Stayfree Internet videos.)

UPDATE: There is talk of colleges starting "Male Studies" departments to assist with the disenfranchisement of the apparently new-weaker sex in higher education and the workforce, according to a Newsweek update in their education section.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Just Like Other Cities, Only More So

This past Friday, the Chattanooga Time-Free Press released its 3rd Annual Chattanooga's Official People's Choice Awards Best of the Best. I am disappointed, even disgusted.

Why? I'll tell you why. Because in the only section that I care about--dining--nearly half of the top vote getters are chains that have nothing to do with the restaurant traditions and unique places to eat that make Chattanooga special. And I'm surprised that our own citizens in our own city don't see that.

Now, I'm not naive. I know that this kind of thing goes on, usually to a lesser extent, even in large cities like Chicago, where a place like Chipotle can emerge as the "Best Mexican" because there are so many of them. I know that when you put something to a vote of everyone, you are like to end up with a bland victor.

But I thought that Chattanooga would be different. I don't know why. Maybe because in my 27 years here, it has gotten a little more open-minded, a little more expansive, a little more sophisticated each year. At least where restaurants are concerned.

So, in a city where we have a James Beard nominee for Best Regional Chef every year, where we have 3 stellar Italian restaurants opening in the last couple of years, where we have a restaurant group that has patented a superior version of wood-grilling, what is the best overall restaurant?

J. Alexander's.

J. Alexander's is a chain out of Nashville or Memphis, I forget which. Admittedly, it is a smart chain, with not too many outposts, consistent cooking, a clubby atmosphere, and good-looking hostesses, but it is ultimately an upscale fern bar serving slightly-to-much better versions of the basic dishes that other fern bars offer--salads, ribs, fried shrimp, a creamy pasta, etc.

St. John's, where our perennial James Beard nominee holds court, relies almost exclusively on locally-grown organic meats and vegetables and puts out food that a New York sophisticate who visits our city regularly proclaims is as good as anything in the Big Apple.

Chattanooga offers a wealth of country cooking. What, supposedly, is our finest country restaurant? Cracker Barrel.

We have terrific breakfast options, including nationally-recognized pancakes at Aretha Frankenstein's. What is our finest breakfast establishment? Cracker Barrel.

Really? When we've got everything from Wally's to Bluegrass Grill and the Blue Plate?

Our best chicken wings? Buffalo Wild Wings. Our best ribs? Sticky Fingers. Our best doughnuts? Krispy Kreme. Our greatest sandwiches? McAlister's, followed by Subway. Our greatest Italian, a local place that lets you eat free on your birthday and has great garlic rolls, followed by Carabba's and Olive Garden. Our best burger? Five Guys (which is pretty good, but no match for Zarzour's).

Even among our local establishments, to suggest that a chain like Amigo's is putting out the best Mexican food in the city is a joke. The cheapest, especially on Taco Night, yes. The best? No way.

And then it's almost a shock to find out that our voters have figured some things out. Yes, Lupi's really is the best pizza. Somehow, it managed to fend off Pizza Hut in the voting. Yes, Southern Star does a good job with meat-and-threes.

Two things are at work here. One, our local eaters seem to be largely interested in what is the best bargain and the most well-known. That may be expected. Times are tough now. Times are always tough. People are likely to confuse a good value with good eating. The other thing is that there are incredible opportunities for people to come in here and develop new offerings. Where is the great steakhouse in Chattanooga? It ain't Outback, the most popular. But what local establishment is there? Why aren't there more great breakfast places? The Bonefish Grill probably is our best seafood restaurant. Why is that?

Ok, I also think our newspaper is not always asking the right questions. Where is the category for Best Fried Chicken or Best Soul Food?

And what a kick in the you-know-whats it must be to know that you are putting out local food that is far superior to what corporate America can produce, and yet, your city seems to suggest that their menu, crafted in the flavor factories of New Jersey, is better than yours.

Ultimately, I think a "Best Of" edition like this does more harm than good. It ignores any number of local entrepreneurs who have built up loyal followings over years or even decades. It reduces all of the peculiar traits of our city, or any city, into least common denominators and suggests both to us and to the tourists who come here, that we embrace those generic choices. It provides (in my opinion, undeserved) bragging rights to those places. And, it ultimately doesn't tell those of us who live here anything at all, except, perhaps, what we'd rather not know.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When the Truth Doesn't Matter... Kinda

Lazy Eye - Silversun Pickups (mp3)
Hazy Shade of Winter - Simon + Garfunkel (mp3)

My very first real honest-to-God girlfriend was a senior when I was a junior. She was a stud. She was built like an efficient brick shithouse, played soccer like a champ, and loved Van Halen, Dan Fogelberg, Indiana Jones and Jesus. “Carrie” was also salutatorian at the very large public school where my mother taught. She was socially clueless enough to find me attractive and interesting. One in a million, I tell ya.

We courted for three wonderful months. We dated for six. In the summer before my senior year, I broke up with Carrie. The reasons were lame but valid. And they were punctuated with this minor, insignificant detail that I'd spent two weeks at Governor's School romancing and eventually falling for a semi-psychotic but incredibly adventurous drama queen, someone who was in all ways the complete opposite of Carrie.

Carrie was back in Chattanooga writing me three to four letters each week, drawing little cartoons and cutting out ransom notes and writing bad limericks. I never wrote her once.

I broke up with Carrie the week I got back home, but it took two months of follow-up talks to settle the matter. She never could understand why I was breaking up, and I kept leaving out that little detail about Leigh. But Leigh and I had broken up before Carrie had finally accepted we were over, so I kinda had the chance to make up with her and never did.

I really had no desire to go back. In part because I was scum for lying to her so utterly and repeatedly... and in part because this girl, a very conservative and mature Christian, was simply too good for me.

Yeah so I'm defensive about it. Whatevs.

Cue the fast-moving clock. Move forward in time. Speed past our drifting apart once I get to college and become all but unreachable by family and friends from back home. Soar past our Christmas holiday dinner non-date when I'm a senior and we're awkward and both single but not feeling that thing that would transform a polite dinner into something more intense. Slip past the time we ran into one another on AOL and I tell her I'm engaged and will be married in three months and she immediately disconnects and never answers another email.

It's now the summer of 2010. I'm at a local dive watching the World Cup with my fellow blogger and 100 or so of my closest non-friends. I'm drinking a Bud Light Chelada for shits and giggles, my own form of Mad Men-esque rebellion of imbibing during the workday. (Don’t worry; it was just one freakin’ Chelada.)
Bob introduces me to a lawyer who works in the firm with his wife. Guy went to Red Bank. My mom taught him. He knew my ex-girlfriend. Small world yada yada. And then he says it.

"So weird about Carrie, right?"
"Weird what?" I say. 'Cuz I have no idea what he's talking about.
"I just can't believe she's gay. Never pictured her playing for the other team, you know?"

My reaction to all information I can't quite handle is very similar. If someone says the N-word in my presence, or if someone insults my mother's fidelity, or if someone says my Christian ex-girlfriend is gay, I just shrug and fake-chuckle and turn away and take another drink and try to pretend it didn't happen. It is the reaction of a non-confrontational coward, and I haven't been very good at doing anything about it.

Was it true? Is/was Carrie gay?

That night, when I was hopping around on Facebook, I searched for her name and found it. She was still living and working in Atlanta, but all other information was blocked from snooping eyes. So I sent her a long message. It updated her about my life, my family, my job, my hobbies. Everything someone who was happy not having anything to do with me for 20 years would be fine never knowing. God bless Facebook.

She never responded. Can't say I really expected her to.

So why does this stick in my craw? I don't really care if she's gay. Seriously, if she's married, or if she's celibate and uninterested in relationships, or if she's gay and dating Jane Lynch, none of it changes the way my heart reacts to her or my memories of her. If she's who she is, and if she's happy, then it's a good thing, and I would like knowing it.

Human nature. The Billy version is definitely screwed up. I want Carrie to be happy, but I also want to know I was written into her history book. But is my pathetic ego-trip enough to explain my desire to reconnect and find out?

Maybe I've convinced myself that if she was gay that I could absolve myself of messing around with another girl* while we were dating. I could excuse my unconscionable act with the faulty logic that I must've known something wasn't quite right with Carrie, something I just didn't understand in my clueless youth, and my straying was simply the product of a sixth-sense in my subconsciousness.

* “Messing around” isn’t code for kinky sex. “Messing around” wasn’t even petting. “Messing around” was strictly limited to kissing and groping over clothing. I never actually got my hands under the clothing covering female erogenous zones until one month before my wife got pregnant for the first time. OK, that’s exaggerated, but I was definitely in college.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Compromising Positions

--In one of Maureen Dowd's latest columns, she talks about her sister-in-law, who voted for Obama but has turned against him because he "compromises too much," which makes him appear "weak."

--In the play, Lemon Sky, a father wants to buy his son a car. But he wants to pick the color. He wants to get the son a red car. The son wants a blue car. They go back and forth. Finally, in exasperation, the son says, "Compromise: purple."

--In Steve Earle's musical manifesto of rebellion, "The Other Kind," he screams with bravado, "There are those who break and bend/ I'm the other kind." Bruce Springsteen urges "no retreat, baby, no surrender."

Weakness? Foolishness? Cowardice? Is this really what compromise is? In our American psyche, we have developed a notion that compromise is bad. "I won't back down," Tom Petty tells us, and it becomes a slogan for the post-9/11 world. Folks with a bit of history like to point to the political compromises, like the Compromise of 1850, when the country was grappling with the spread of slavery as proof that compromising pleases no one and leads to greater trouble.

On the other hand, those of us who live in the every day world of small work problems, basic conflict avoidance, and the trivialities that can bring down a marriage or ruin a family night live and die by the compromise. And, let's be honest, live much more than die. Many of us probably pride ourselves on the ability to navigate the ship through rough waters towards an amicable solution. It may not be Montego Bay, but it is usually a place where the ship is safe, the provisions are dry, and the passengers benefit from making it to land.

So where's the disconnect? Why do literary lights like Henry David Thoreau and Holden Caufield hold absolute loyalty to principles in such high regard while the rest of us cave or throw in the towel on a regular basis in order to get through the day?

Sure, life is too short to drink cheap beer or bad wine, I get that, but is it really a big deal if you end up eating a mediocre hamburger because you and your friend finally agreed on a joint that both of you were okay with? Isn't the time with the friend more important?

The temptation is to suggest that the divide occurs between weighty national issues and personal relations. We're supposed to give in as needed to get through the day, but our politicians, if they have any backbone at all, are supposed to stand up for their stated values and ward off hypocrisy in all shapes and forms as it tries to undermine their resolve.


I am well aware that the history of the world is littered with poor compromises, but that is a reflection on those particular negotiations, not on the act of compromising.

Take the health care bill now taking effect. A flawed bill, perhaps, and certainly a problematic one, given the Republican-fueled public wrath that has risen up against it. And, probably even a flawed bit of compromise, given the devils that we had to get in bed with to get the damn thing passed. But you know what? I firmly believe that there was either going to be a flawed bill passed or no bill passed. Much as the naysayers gripe about the bill, in the 18 years since Hilary Clinton last spearheaded a health care effort, it isn't like the conservatives have offered they're own. So, I say, hey, we passed it, and now if you want to tweak it, be my guest.

The inner (false?) bravado that tells any of us that we can't support something unless it is exactly the way that we envision it is destroying our country, just as it almost did 150 years ago. I don't care what the issue is--abortion, gay marriage, what movie we should go see--there are ways to find common ground. And, if you wish you had seen the other movie, go see it. Don't bitch about how we should have gone to that one in the first place. After all, even the divisive issue of slavery ended up in compromise, however forced: "You can have a lot of states' rights, just not that one."

I think the songs and the idealists have got it wrong. Whether we compromise or don't compromise cannot be a hard and fast rule in itself. Indeed, we must even compromise at times our willingness or unwillingness to do so. The only thing that can really guide us is an awareness of what we're giving up and whether it's worth it.

In these latter days of America where I continue to fear for a strong, vibrant future, our ability as citizens not to get sucked into the black and white politico-religious whirlwind of hard and steadfast beliefs, especially those that we are not quite up to speed on, will probably be the major factor in determining whether we progress forward or continue to attempt to undo what has been done by those whom we disagree with.

As for me, I won't back down, unless I have to, or want to. Or my wife tells me to.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Second Half Of The Day

Tom Waits--"All The World Is Green (live)" (mp3)

"And Monday when the foreman calls time,
I've already got Friday on my mind."

I hate to admit it, but the last hour of work each day, I don't really get very much done. The hall is quiet, the students are gone, few teachers are around, whatever pressure or deadline there might have been has passed. Everyone has moved on to something else.

I find myself listening to the persistent blast of the air conditioner while I sort through email, check social networks, try to work magic with my portfolio, get through my phone messages, clean my office, try to work magic with my fantasy team, drink a final cup of coffee, read for tomorrow's class, try to work magic with my checking account.

Maybe that's okay. Or maybe I'm wasting company time.

What I've come to realize, though, is that if I could work 7-4 instead of 8-5, I would probably get a lot more done. Or what if I could work 6-3? I don't want to claim that I'm a "morning person," because I'm not. I don't jump out of bed, rarin' to go. I'm not "chipper" at the breakfast table. I don't accomplish more before 9AM than most people do all day. But I do begin the day with a sense of purpose that involves accomplishment and commitment, and I'm willing to start that as soon as I can.

Increasingly, though, I enjoy a double life. Now, that's not what you think, because I'm not talking about two simultaneous lives. No, I'm referring to one life in the first part of the day and a different one during the second one.

In my current routine, I'm focused on work or getting ready for it for the first 10 hours of the day; during the final 7 that I'm usually awake, I'm thinking about anything but.

My friend, the co-writer of this blog, has been really jacked up about problems at work this year. I agree with him about every single problem that he has identified. I may even wish for the (sometimes obvious) solutions as much as he does. But not at night. Not this year.
Five or six years ago, heck, maybe even five or six months ago, I was lying awake in the middle of the night, worrying about work, solving problems in my head, envisioning conversations and confrontations. I was angry while cutting the grass. I was furious while driving to school. Now I'm not.

What's changed? I'm not entirely sure. The same things bother me. But not while I'm away.

I think it's the double life. The pleasures of home and hearth, of working on a new vision of our house, of cooking a good meal, of going out with family or friends, of getting to read what I want to instead of what I have to, of sitting with a dog or a cat, of making plans for parties or games or trips or "Dylan Night" all have such a strong pull on me this year that when I walk out the door of my office, I've left almost everything there.

It's a life of trade-offs. I'll do this, put in the time that is expected of me, in order to be able to do what I really want to do. Expect me to do something at a time inconvenient to me and I will still do it, but I will actively carve out that other time to do what I want. Take my weekend; I will take my week.

I've also discovered that, and I don't say this as a boast but as a commentary, I can do all that's needed and more during a work day and still have plenty of brain leftover. That's key if you're going to live a double life. You can't use it all up. There are plenty of days where all emotional energy, all social energy, all "helping" energy can be depleted, but that doesn't stop me from finding outlets during the second half of the day that don't require those kinds of energies from me anyway.

Ben Franklin, I'll meet you halfway. I'll accept "Early to bed." I'll get up as early as I need to to get done what I have to get done. But then I'm going to take the rest of the day and work it how I want to for as long as I can.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Sport of Serfs

Black Betty - Ram Jam (mp3)
For Tomorrow - Blur (mp3)

UGA’s A.J. Green was suspended for four games for selling his own jersey for somewhere in the range of $400-500. A 1-game suspension per $100 of profit. According to Michael Wilbon’s column in the Washington Post, UGA rakes in a healthy six figures in pure profit off the sales of various licensed versions of A.J. Green’s #8 UGA jersey. Meanwhile, A.J. Green could only buy three Kindles with the money he made.

That makes my head hurt. But not as much as the next factoid.

Somewhere between 1.6 million and 3.8 million brain injuries - mostly concussions - are suffered each year during sports activities. There’s no reliable way to track athletes and concussions in high school because so many players are afraid of missing games or falling in dutch with coaches (PDF, The number of emergency room visits for concussions for children ages 8-19 doubled from 1997-2007 (PDF, Pediatrics).

I play fantasy football. I am a moderately fervent UNC sports fanatic. My daughter plays select soccer, and it would take the jaws of life to remove her from doing so for the foreseeable future, because she loves it. So I’m not the Anti-Jock or Gozer the Destructor, apocalyptic death-bringer of all things sporty. But I would happily bet that we’re approaching the point, in the coming decade, where the cultural pendulum will reach its pinnacle of sports obsession and begin returning to something more in line with reason.

Take a look at Newsweek’s latest feature on college athletics, “The Case Against College Athletic Recruiting,” which is a troubling (if admittedly oversimplified) investigation into how important playing a sport can be in the college admission process... at all levels for schools of all sizes.

After my rant about our local paper, perhaps I’m beating a dead horse here. But sports are often hurting the very people it claims to help -- the students. It’s hurting them physically with concussions, torn ACLs, broken bones, and it’s taking advantage of their pipe dreams by giving them “scholarships” and then making millions of dollars off them. And those great college scholarships earn them majors in amazing things like “sports management,” “African-American Studies,” and “General studies.” (The top 10 list is here.)

What I’m saying is, the claim that these money-making athletes (read: D-I basketball and football players) get a free ride in college and should be grateful is a lie we all know to be a lie. We want to be deceived. We also prefer to believe that football is “safe enough” because they wear armor and are super-sized humans with super-speed. We say this even as we watch approximately 45 players get carted off the field during the Clemson v. Auburn football game last weekend. (OK, slight exaggeration, but myself ant at least three friends declared that game “one of the most violent football games in recent memory.”)

At some point, the willful self-deception will have to stop. Because it always does.

We are currently riding a sports bubble not unlike the housing bubble and dot-com bubble of the recent past. BThe economic unfairness of the college system, and the evidence piling up on the kind of permanent physical damage we’re doing to teens and young adults will eventually force us to wake up. And we will wake up. We will eventually decide that the risks are more costly than the rewards.

Sports won’t die. Nothing at all like that. But I do believe my grandchildren will grow up in a society that doesn’t use phrases like “select sports” with quite the same zeal and focus. It’s possible this will be because everyone speaks Chinese and plays table tennis. Or it’s possible we’ll all be dead because an astronaut hit us or we did something to our planet that we can’t fix that wipes us out.

Or maybe the zombie virus will actually come. (And oh hell yeah I’m gonna watch “The Walking Dead” on AMC. You betcha! I say, to quote our most famous American zombie. I have a huuuuge soft spot in my heart for zombies.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Family Languages

Library Voices--"Family Night" (mp3)

If you think about it, most families develop their own languages. They adopt a way of speaking which, at least some of the time, has little meaning to anyone outside of the circle. Through the combination of shared experiences and a family-specific vocabulary, a kind of code, a series of short cuts enhances their internal communication.

It's pretty fascinating when you're in it; it's completely isolating (though probably not intentionally) and confusing when you aren't. Unless you know why the members of a family you aren't a part of quote specific lines from a movie or tv show, use words that you've never heard of, toss around nicknames with no context, utter pet phrases, it would be hard to know what's going on.

Within the family, it becomes so natural to use this language that sometimes they forget to filter it outside of their home or when others are around.

I've been thinking of this because my younger daughter's chapel talk was Monday. She has a special gift with language, that ability to create new words and concepts that may not seem to make sense until you think about them. She has, more than any of us, been responsible for developing our family language with her witticisms, retorts, misheard words and counterintuitive logic.

So when she says, "Mom, you're overtalking," we all know that means that my wife can get revved up on a topic at a time when the rest of us are shut or shutting down at the end of or the beginning of a long day.

Here are a few other examples of the family vocab. If we refer to someone as an NTAC, we know that this is an acronym for the phrase "No-Talent Ass Clown" from the movie Office Space, which we use mostly in its shortened form, courtesy of former teacher Dan Hatfield. If, when my daughter walks out of Little Caesar's, I demand a car slice, everyone knows that I believe that the best piece of carryout pizza is the one you eat in the car on the way home before it cools off too much. If my daughter at college refers to someone as having been shwasty, we all picture someone who's kind of drunk but not flat-out wasted. If one of us says "Alex is sleeping now," we all recall a goddaughter who used this statemet with her own father in order to avoided being confronted about something she had done wrong. When we say it, it means, gently, don't bother me.

We used to talk about having a danger word or phrase, something that a family member would say if he or she was in some kind of trouble. Also, in less serious circumstances, we talked about a phrase that would indicate that we wanted help getting out of a social situation. But neither of those happened, and the concept fell by the wayside.

Social critics want to claim that our language is being destroyed by the shortcuts that we take when we communicate through texts, tweets, and email, but the fact is that the family unit has been using communication shortcuts forever. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure that there is anything more intimate than shared communication, and all of the ways that a family strenghtens its bonds through the use of its own code add layer upon layer of connection and attachment.

What would be scary, and I know they must be out there, are the families that are so fractured and dysfunctional that they don't have a family language, the familes that don't have family jokes because they weren't allowed to laugh, that don't have special words because they weren't allowed to compare notes. At the core of any family language is its members' ability to laugh at and, yes, commemorate each other's weaknesses, flaws, slip-ups, and contradictions. And when you can do that with each other, you know you're close.

NOTE: As an aside, an interesting subset of this phenomenon develops when a group of friends are together for a long time. And I'm not talking about when they talk about things where "you had to be there" or "remember when," I'm talking about me and my friends, who turn other friends into specific action verbs and nicknames, as in "Okay, Miles" or "Man, you totally Chetted me." This becomes especially fun when a person-become-verb has a number of traits associated with him and we have to figure out which one was intended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tinny & Squealy

We can’t always defend our preferences. Sometimes our best response is “I just do.”

That’s the way I feel about Tegan & Sara, Canadian altnerno-indie twins whose music can be a little challenging to describe.

The lazy way out is to call them the Bizarro Indigo Girls. Both duos harmonize and share songwriting responsibilities. Both are kinda gay but not, like, with their musical partners.

The Indigo Girls have a sound that feels warm and comfortable, an afghan someone’s grandmother made that you wrap around your legs while reading a book on a rocker on the back porch of a lake house. Tegan & Sara, on the other hand, are all dissonance and flats, the tension of two girls staring nose to nose on the playground after school.

When the Indigo Girls are heartbroken, theirs is a resignation to the cruel waves of fate. It’s a sadness on the bottom of the ocean. If you break Tegan & Sara’s heart, you’re a little worried that they might show up to work with a firearm or poison for your next cup of coffee. If the Indigo Girls are cuddling and talking after sex, Tegan & Sara are scratches on the back and bites on the neck.

Indigo Girls are Erika Berger. T&S are Lisbeth Salander.

Here are descriptors I would rarely use for any song by T&S:
  • pretty
  • country
  • sweet
  • beatific vocals
  • folk
The first time I ever heard a T&S song, comparisons to fingernails and chalkboards seemed far too easy yet deservingly accurate. Maybe by the fourth or fifth time I’d stumbled over them did I actually find myself intrigued enough to pay attention. The awesome truth about rock music is that it requires neither angelic voices nor orchestral arrangements. Tinny shrill voices layered over a catchy riff is enough if the words have punch and the right emotions receive a tug.

In Tegan & Sara’s case, they accomplish their mission more often than not. Their goal is not beauty so much as truth, the bald Captain Picard kind.

At the heart of both groups, however, is that rock staple of people who just want to be loved, who hate heartbreak, who sometimes hate themselves. Tags like “lesbians” or “women” or “alternative” or “folk” are just distractions from songwriters who ultimately journey over the same lyrical zip codes as a Daughtry or Journey.

I wrote about my favorite song of theirs recently, but here’s a sampling of others you might consider. Truth is, randomly pick just one of these songs, but listen to it at least five or six times. If, on that fifth listen, you still can’t get past those voices and those flat notes, don’t sweat it. No band is worth that much effort. Plenty of fish in the sea for all of us, right? Moreso in music than anywhere.

But if something clicks, if you feel them working their way into your veins... well, they’ll be in there for a long, long time.

Top 9 T&S Songs (in no particular order and excluding “Dark Come Soon”):
If you want a single album, the best choice is So Jealous, although The Con is so very close to it that either choice would be worthy. Or just hop over to eMusic and spend use a few credits to pile up a decent collection. Then pop open a bitter IPA and crank the volume. Tegan & Sara go great with an IPA. Both are strong and bitter. And both, in the right moment, hit the spot like nothing else.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Open Letter to the Times Free Press Managing Editor

Lesson Learned - Brendan Benson (mp3)

J. Todd Foster
Managing Editor
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Chattanooga, TN

September 16, 2010

Dear Mr. Foster,

Welcome back to Chattanooga. Sorry I have to introduce myself under such negative circumstances.

The purpose of this email is to express my frustration with yesterday's story on National Merit Semifinalists. The story mentions 31 students who rank in the top 1 percent of the country -- the whole country! -- on a highly-respected test. These are the NBA lottery picks of the high school academic world. Yet they don't get their names in the paper. They hardly merit much space at all, really.

Almost every school in this city benefits greatly from an entire section dedicated to sports, and I do not mean to be ungrateful for the recognition you give students for accomplishments in that area. However, were a Martian to land in Chattanooga and read your newspaper (I figure if they have spaceships they can probably figure out English), they would have a very difficult time learning what exactly students do in school other than play sports. You occasionally run stories on community service or, once in a while, something like mock trial, but when it comes to the academic experience, and particularly when it comes to the academic "all-stars" of our city, those stories are the proverbial needles in a very large haystack.

If the city of Chattanooga wonders why so many of its best and brightest leave and don't return, it might be wise to start with the very clear indication that the paper offers: we simply don't, as a community, value them. If they can throw, hit, catch, dribble, or chip, they might earn our recognition and adulation. But if they're just smart? If they study hard and prepare for college exceptionally well? That's just not newsworthy to us.

Every varsity sport in this city ends its season with a series of features dominating the back page of your sports section. Full color. Lots of names and pictures. You even do two. One for the citywide kids and another for the kids in the perimeter counties. Every middle school sports team that wins anything gets a picture on the inside pages.

But if you score in the top 1 percent IN THE NATION on what might be one of the most important tests for anyone with ambitions for college? You don't even merit getting your name in the paper.

Sir, if you don't find something disturbing and misguided in this editorial decision, then I suggest you plug up your ears with some golf balls and put a helmet on backwards and just start running into a wall. Geeks don't have to deal with concussion disorders or repeated rehab stints on knees or dislocated joints. They might risk frying their brains, but I'm pretty sure that particular injury rate is minuscule at best. Apparently that makes them less newsworthy.

Perhaps you say, "We give people what they want to read, and our readers don't want to read about nerds. They want to read about sports." If that's your excuse, I recommend that you announce just that in some editorials. Take a stand. Be proud of your decision. In fact, you could start having reporters talk in schools to encourage kids to play more sports and get their stinkin' noses out of books, because what kind of pathetic nerd would study and learn when there's a hoop to aim for, a net to hit over? Stand up and be counted as Anti-Nerd. Most of the Tea Party would vote for you.

You know what would be nicer, though? If anyone with any real influence would get a grip on what's actually important about school and start finding ways to celebrate it. It might take a little bit of extra work. Actual reporting and such. But I bet you could find some smart kids out there and celebrate them in interesting ways.

What is undeniable about school is this: nothing guarantees a better chance of almost anything we define as "success" than a highly-motivated and hard-working STUDENT. Robert J. Samuelson says so and that dude's never wrong! Parents and teachers are powerful influences, but at the heart of academic success is a motivated kid. This isn't rocket science. Yet your paper does almost nothing to address this problem; it merely exacerbates it.

You are the media equivalent of Coke machines and candy bars in a school hallway. Worse, I think you know it but would hate to risk losing a revenue stream.

If I am unfairly crapping on the athlete, you can take the blame for that as well. Your newspaper assists in promoting that inequality, in promoting the superiority and greater value of an athlete over that of mere booksmarts. And when I say "you," I don't mean you, Mr. Foster. I don't even mean The Times Free Press. I mean 95% of newspapers in this entire pathetic country. You're all doing one disservice after another, and it makes it damn hard to mourn you as your ship sinks into the icy waters of financial ruin, because you could've damn well avoided all these icebergs if only you'd been paying attention.

Mr. Foster, you're new to your position as Managing Editor. You don't have to accept this status quo. You can change things. You can address this problem. You probably won't. But I'll hold out a sliver of hope.

Or, in sports terminology, the geeks will need a Hail Mary. Are you Doug Flutie? Or are you Ryan Leaf?

Hope you like our blog! Best to you and yours! Hugs and Kisses!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Men Will Be Boys

Maurice Jones-Drew, star running back of the Jacksonville Jaguars, also has a team in a Fantasy Football League. He had first pick in his league's draft. He chose himself.

Hubris, you say? I don't think so. Any self-respecting fantasy league owner with the first pick is going to choose the player that gives him the best chance to win. The fact that Jones-Drew chose himself may be a bit of a longshot, but you've got to take those kinds of chances if you're going to win, and a veteran owner like Jones-Drew knows that. Besides, he knows what condition his knee is in better than anyone else. He must like his chances and his team's schedule.

You may remember that Jones-Drew wisely took a knee instead of scoring a touchdown last year in order to run out the clock and beat the Jets; then he apologized to Fantasy owners. So, yes, the two worlds are forever inextricably linked.

Let's review. A professional football player, certainly one of the top players in the world at his position, not only plays a game for a living, but is completely caught up in a game based on that game. That's fantasy, baby! Even someone who is living the reality is indulging in the fantasy.

If you think all of this is pretty silly, I'm not going to argue with you. I'm just going to embrace that silliness. Call it immaturity, if you like. But also call it big business, a factor in the GDP, and relatively-harmless fun.

"It gives you something to talk about on Mondays," said a Fantasy owner yesterday. As if that were all of it.

What male, given the chance to call the shots, be the big dog, get in the game, live vicariously through the actions of superstar athletes, wouldn't do so? I mean, why is Madden Football so popular year after year after year?

Fantasy Football's continuing growth in popularity should not be a surprise to anyone.

What does surprise me, however, is that Fantasy Football has been allowed, by the women in our lives, to assume a kind of legitimate quasi-importance. Certainly, we never expected that. Yes, Women In Our Lives, we are pinching ourselves all the time to make sure that we are awake! Amazingly, statements like "I can't, I've got the Fantasy Draft tonight" or "I'm one of the commissioners of the league, so I've got to be there," have credibility in a relationship. We are constantly stunned that those excuses don't simply receive looks of blank incredulousness.

And we know we are boys. What pleasantly shocks us is that we aren't told what boys we are more often.

My wife chewed me out on Sunday because she thought I was in a bad mood over our high school team's loss on Friday, the Vols' loss on Saturday, the Mocs' loss on Saturday, and the close Steeler game I was watching at the time, or some combination thereof. Wrong, honey. I had already weathered most of those storms. I was just worrying about my Fantasy team.

It's funny how often we men feel like boys or realize we're headed that way. With our music and our beer and our toys and games, we cling, not even desperately, but societally, to our youth.

But do we ever tell a woman that she's being a girl? Not really. Not too often that I'm aware of. It doesn't even make sense, does it? Men tell each other that they are being girls, but tell that to a woman? No. It doesn't fit.

Because women, whether they have children or not, become moms, and I mean moms in the sense of caretakers, moms in the sense of "what kind of crazy shennanigans have our boys gotten into now?" Women have allowed themselves to be willingly co-opted into supporting our games. If they don't, I guess, they run the risk of their men running around in bars with a million televisions and waitresses in tight referee's outfits and piles of unhealthy foods and other, looser women and all of that. "I've got to go, honey, it's Fantasy Football," we say. So they figure they'd better become a part of it. Men are so easily distracted.

NOTE: My team, Po-Boy, faces off against John's team, My Nascar Ex, in a Billy Division showdown this weekend. My opponent is favored by three, but I'm working feverishly on tooling and readjusting my line-up to try to get the edge.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shart! (Shut Yo Mouth!)

Why Does it Always Rain On Me? - Travis (mp3)
Transformers (Theme) - Lion (mp3)

I recently sharted.

Yes, this confession breaks the first rule of Shart Club, but I had to get it off my chest.

Returning from an off-campus lunch and walking from my car's lovely shaded parking space to my office, I let out what is not an altogether out-of-routine post-lunch fart. It wasn't a big fart, In fact, it was one of those little baby farts so inconsequential in its build-up that you don't even slow down or stop walking. You just fart in-step. It's the fart equivalent of a speed bump that's been worn down so drastically that no one even lets off the gas. (Ha. I amuse myself.)

Except this was no mere fart.

The latest studies from the University of Alabama* suggest that some 98.4% of Americans have, at some point in their lives, sharted. This number excludes acts of "poopy pants" where infants and younger children crap in their pants either because they're too distracted by life to think about the toilet, and it also excludes "incontinence" where elderly people crap in their pants because dammit the egg timer moves a lot faster than it used to, and the bathroom's a long damn way from the living room.

Don't worry. Just because I know you've all sharted doesn't mean I'm going to expose your embarrassing secret to the world. In fact, it's perfectly OK with me if you vehemently deny ever having sharted. (But if you try and deny it too strongly, well, that's just annoying.)

In college, me and my male friends would sit around into the early morning hours sharing shart stories. But college males have little shame and find ways to make the most embarrassing and horrible moments into jokes. As I've mentioned before, I know a frat boy who took a dump on a brother's head, and it was a dude he actually liked. So all bets are off in college, because boundaries are symbolic at best for those of us in the phase of life known as "emerging adulthood."

Besides, sharting in college is hardly a problem because your dorm room or apartment is almost always within spitting distance of wherever you sharted. You scurry back, wash off, change undies, and no one other than maybe your roommate ever even has to know.

But once you hit your late 20s and until you start getting mail from AARP, sharting is an unspeakable act. You don't talk about it. You don't sit and discuss the shart you had at church or at that board meeting over beers with a close friend at a downtown bar or in his living room during the game. You sure as shit don't tell your significant other.

My uncle swears he has never in his life farted in the presence or even remote vicinity of another human being. Not once. And I know there are people like that, who can somehow deny what is a natural urge to expel noxious air from one's body, who can contain it all until that time passes. And I've got to think, if you can somehow avoid farts altogether, then sharts are never going to be a problem for you. Yeah, you might have other issues, but you'll avoid sharts.

I'm sorry to do this to all of you. I know you didn't come here to read about my shit.

I needed to let my guard down for a few minutes and be honest and admit what I've done. And not just this one time, either. I've sharted a few times. In a sense, I've been lucky, because my sharts have come at times when the damage to pride and the opinions of others was kept to a minimum. I've never needed assistance to cover it up, never had to pull someone into my conspiracy of smell and stain. I've done the deed, but I've cleaned it up all by myself.

Whew. I feel like this tremendous burden has been lifted. I feel so much.... ohhhh who am I kidding? Confessing hasn't done anything. I feel awkward as ever. More, really. And not only do I feel weirder, but now all these people who apparently read this damn blog are taking a few extra steps back from me every time I walk by. There I was thinking I was being honest and forthright by coming clean.

Maybe the reason we don't talk about sharts when we get older is because it just doesn't do anyone any good. Just because they're a nigh-unavoidable part of life doesn't mean we all need to go on Oprah for it. Maybe some shit is better left to ourselves.

Shart Club has its rules for a reason. That first rule is there for a purpose. Shame on me for daring to break it.

* -- The University of Alabama has never, that I know of, done any medical studies on sharting. But considering how many people have shown up out of thin air in the last few years wearing Crimson Tide gear and toting around toilet paper on a stick with "Roll Tide" on it, I just assumed some seriously big maroon elephant must have sharted them all out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Soon To Be A Minor Motion Picture!

Sufjan Stevens--"Heirloom" (mp3)

We're reading The Diving Bell and The Butterfly in class, the French memoir of a man who suffers a major stroke in his mid-40's and is, as a result, trapped inside his own body, with a mind fully-capable and only a left eye that works. Works so well, in fact, that he dictated the entire memoir we are reading with that left eye.

Anyway, stuck to the front of our book is a sticker the likes of which all of us have seen. It reads "Now A Major Motion Picture."

Well, maybe in France.

But I got to thinking, 'Why does every motion picture have to be a major motion picture?' I mean, I get that it can't say, 'Now A Straight-To-DVD Video.' But what's wrong with just a motion picture or even a minor motion picture? What's wrong with keeping little discoveries and pleasures and minor tragedies and triumphs small?

The text, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, is certainly not a major literary work. It's small, it's quiet, its scope, by necessity, is limited. It's observations are often mundane, because when you are completely at the mercy of others for your total care, what happens when a bandaid or a catheter comes loose is of supreme importance. And when your senses are nearly dormant due to a stroke, the memory of a bite of peasant sausage that "melts a little on your tongue before you start chewing to extract all its flavor" is worth both recalling and savoring. When you make enough progress with your speech therapist that you move your tongue the slightest bit, all possibilities open up, however briefly.

These small observations about life and its pleasures have an impact.

I think, without trying too hard, about minor motion pictures, and the one that comes to mind is The Cooler, starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and Alec Baldwin. Maybe you've seen it. In The Cooler, a down-on-his-luck guy is used by casinos to bring bad luck to other people. Then he falls in love, and his luck changes. And trouble ensues.

It's not a great movie, but it's a very solid one. It's certainly not a big movie, but the acting is far more accomplished than it is in big movies with big stars.

In a major motion picture, Mario Bello could never end up with William H. Macy. Romantically or otherwise, she would have to paired with the likes of Viggio Mortenson or Bruce Willis or some other major A-list actor who has the looks or the machismo to go with her own beauty. In a small movie, a minor motion picture, though, it makes perfect sense. In the seedy, unspectular world of The Cooler, you are not pairing up Maria Bello and William H. Macy as stars of equal weight, you are pairing up a cocktail waitress who may be good-looking, but who has had her own difficult life and who therefore finds the characteristics of a good, decent man far more important than his looks or his muscles, with that decent man who seems to offer her a way out of a dead-end life. In other words, it captures the things that can happen in real life, instead of in the movies.

One of the great small joys of this early fall is the EP All Delighted People that Sufjan Stevens snuck out a couple of weeks ago. No, it isn't all focused on one of the 50 states. No, it doesn't seem to focus on one particularly theme at all, except perhaps love, closeness, introspection, something like that. And, it is only a warm-up for a full CD to be released October 12th. But, still, this being Sufjan, this "EP" clocks in at nearly an hour and most be one of the longer EPs in the history of modern music.

The instrumentation, indeed the songs, are not all that different from previous Sufjan offerings, except that he's recorded his voice differently, played up the acoustic guitars, and offered several, sometimes long, stretches of idiosyncratic electric guitar which is more choppy Neil Young than fluid Eric Clapton. A kind of deconstruction of Simon and Garfunkel, the songs, especially the title track (I prefer the classic rock version) insinuate themselves into your consciousness until you start to want them again without realizing it.

Little songs (though sometimes stretched out), forgotten movies, small statements--big results.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years On

I'm not really sure what 9/11 means nine years later. Are you?

Today, we claim, through a mixture of increased surveillance, government overstatement, civilian action, and sheer luck that we have not had an attack on our soil since. Not had a successful attack, anyway. While I don't think we are quaking in fear as we anticipate the next one. And if and when we do have another one, the vultures from either side of the aisle (depending on who is in power at the time) are waiting to descend with their charges of the government's inability to keep us safe.

Today, the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission remain largely ignored. Most prominently, government agencies like the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. do not work with any more sense of collaboration or information-sharing than they ever did. If anything, it's worse.

Today, Afghanistan is a place of no resolution. Our incursion there was supposed to neutralize the enemies who flew planes into our buildings, to crush their terror network. And all but one of the accused terrorists who allegedly committed the attacks, plus bin Laden himself, came from Saudi Arabia, which remains our ally, if not our friend.

Today, those workers and civil servants who responded to the physical tragedy and its aftermath in New York City are in the fight of their lives (literally) to get acknowledgement and support for the illnesses caused by the dust of 9/11. While we might think without thinking that our government and our country would embrace and respond to their sitation positively, that has not been the case.

Today, our president's announcement that we have finished all ground operations in Iraq is met with indifference. Many people shrug their shoulders and mutter, "We never should have been there in the first place." As if that was just so obvious to everyone and not the hard-fought reality that is responsible for much of the political divisiveness in America right now. The hatred for protesters, the lies about weapons of mass destruction, the charges of unpatriotic behavior aimed toward anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq or challenged its priorities all seem forgotten.

Today, we feel relief that a church in Florida has decided not to use the fires of burning Korans to stoke the larger flames of religious hatred all over the world. But that is a mixed relief. The sentiments that prompted the initial idea, whether they came from God or not, are still there, if not in that church, then elsewhere. At the same time, the protests against the burning of that book come from countries, some of whom do not allow the Bible to enter their borders. Here, while perhaps a bad idea, burning the Koran is an expression of freedom of speech. There, possession of a Bible is a crime.

So, I really don't know what to think 9 years down the road. I'd like this day to mean something. Unfortunately, because we're enough years away from it now, the scars of 9 years ago aren't so noticeable on the surface. That does not mean that they are not there. For most of us, though, we'll probably be reminded of the events of 9/11 because of some tribute that is paid to them at the start of a football game.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stuck Inside the Clogged Drainpipe of Creativity

The Story - Brandi Carlile (mp3)

My latest work of fiction stuck in writing limbo is haunting me.

It's not alone. My writing limbo is quite roomy and crowded. In fact, since back in college when I completed what might well be the worst piece of shit I ever wrote, I'm not sure I've finished anything fictional that was longer than a sestina.

When I say this 1993 short story was a piece of shit, it's not humility. Inspired by a friend's descent into drug use, I attempted to write a short story from the first-person perspective of someone on 'shrooms. The fatal flaw -- and it's not a minor one -- came from my clearly having never touched a hallucinogen in my life. The closest I'd ever been to a 'shroom was watching the guys on Young Guns take peyote. Even the damn friend who inspired my writing had never done 'shrooms. He was an LSD man.

So not only did I lack some crucially vital experience, but I didn't even have proper connection to anyone who had. Unless watching a few Lou Diamond Phillips movie counts. Quoting Dirty Steve and his obsession with the size of chickens as a crucial hallucinatory moment of inspiration is simply insufficient.

What my experience in writing a piece of shit taught me was that, if I were ever to succeed in writing anything fictional, it would need at some level to cast a harsh and critical eye on some aspect of myself. Almost 20 years later, and I still ain't finished anything.

I'm about to insult poets, so if you are one... well, first, I'm just sorry in general. But more importantly, you might not want to read what comes next.

Some 25 years after realizing I would spend the rest of my life writing, scribbling and typing words, pushing them out of my heart or mind or soul, down through the muscle fibers in my arms, and out of my frail knobby arthritisy-doomed fingers, I at last realize why poetry was so much easier for me than fiction writing.

Most poets know where the end is before they begin. If they don't, they find it pretty quickly, like a tourist who knows the keys are in her purse but has to dig around a little to find them. Poems are Bonsai Trees. They reveal detail and inspire awe in a way regular-sized trees rarely can. But when Mr. Miyagi starts clipping away, he already knows most everything about his tree, and the work is in snipping and binding, in pulling out and attending to the tiniest of details.

I'm part of the human condition that, even if I'm better suited to Bonsai trees, I can't help but stare out the window and long to be amongst the giant redwoods and towering pines. Look! There's Paul Bunyan! He's soooo much cooler than Mr. Miyagi! Unfortunately, although too many salespeople and educators tell us differently, it's not always true that we can be anything we want to be. You can't just wake up, work hard at it, and be the next Shaquille O'Neal or Jonathan Franzen.

Having left three lengthy writing projects in Fiction Limbo, most for decent enough reasons, a fourth now sits on the precipice, and I'm hoping I can find a way to keep it from falling in.

The story is inspired by a single autobiographical event and lets me have fun exploring some topics that reveal my own hangups while embracing a character on paper inspired by the woman who cut my hair recently. The opening scenario is so specifically out of date and pointless now -- a teenage boy's pathetically desperate midnight search for his first naughty magazine -- that I find myself laughing a little when I'm writing it. My generation never appreciated the "walking uphill both ways" stuff, and the current testosterone-addled teen will never appreciate needing to walk into a convenience store and pay a clerk in order to see naughty bits.

But, dammit, what began as a short story, in the hopes of me avoiding the rut of never-finished novels, has stretched. It's about to hit 4,000 words, and the end is nowhere in sight, even though I'm fairly convinced that there's not quite enough meat on this literary bone about boners to comfortably fill out a novel.

Thus, my current state of limbo. Which probably makes no sense to real writers. I doubt real writers ever get stuck just because they don't know whether something will end up a short story or a novel. If they do get stuck, it's probably less a seasional hibernation than those dudes whose head lolls over momentarily during a boring meeting.

But for now, I remain stubbornly willing to believe I might be, one day, somewhere in the future, a real writer. With the same kind of tense, awkward, nervous hope that the teenage boy in my story carries with him as he searches from convenience store to convenience store for the one night clerk willing to sell him a dirty mag.

Yeah, I might actually finish this one...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What's The Point?

Ghost Party--"Change Your Mind" (mp3)

Do two people who disagree about something ever really change their minds after they've heard each other's arguments? Is there anyone who believes that can still happen? Did it ever happen?
If I spent tonight flipping through an old JFK-conspiracy book and thought in the back of my mind that I'd like a friend to read it, would there be any value in passing that book along? Would my friend make even the slightest shift away from his lone gunman views? If the book exposed a lot of chinks in that armor, wouldn't he, in fact, be inclined to be even more determined to believe what he already believes about the JFK assassination?

Would it matter that there is video on YouTube of the top Secret Service agent in charge of Kennedy's security detail ordering the two agents who were assigned to be Kennedy's "human shields" off of his car? Would the confusion of those agents give my friend pause? Would it matter that in 1969 in an interview with Walter Cronkite, LBJ confessed that he still had significant doubts that there was not an international conspiracy? Or that that part of the interview was not shown until 1975 in the interests of "national security?" Is it irrelevant that Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, worked for both Al Capone and Richard Nixon at different times in his life? Do you really believe that he murdered Oswald to spare Mrs. Kennedy the pain and anguish of a trial?

If there ever emerged compelling evidence to the contrary, would I change my mind? Do you really think that's likely? Is there such a thing as overwhelming evidence of anything?

If we were talking in class today about writing a book review and we came across one reviewer's admission that he didn't think that anyone choses to read or not to read a book based on a couple of reviews, wouldn't we have to ask ourselves why anyone would write a review in the first place? Why offer your feelings on a book if you know it will not cause anyone to read it? Why trash a movie in print if flocks of teenagers are going to go see it anyway against all reason?

Don't they say that the human brain's thinking can fall into patterns and ruts, especially as one grows older? Wouldn't these repetitions make it almost impossible for someone to think about something in a new way, especially if he or she had been thinking in a particular way for a very long time?

Do we have a greater need than changing someone's mind? Isn't it, perhaps, more important for us just to get heard, just to cause some kind of reaction, even if we suspect that it is going to be negative? Do we even try to seek agreement? Or does the person with the most power eventually get his or he way?

Isn't this our frustration with modern television, particularly with shows run by talking heads? Do they ever make a concession of any significance to the other side? Don't they instead just talk in parallel paths, barely acknowledging the other side, except to try to show how wrong that side is? Did you ever notice that sometimes they already know what they want to say and start to say it as if they didn't even listen?

Can anyone even admit that he or she is wrong anymore? Why must everyone's first instinct be to deny everything? Is Shaggy's illicit sex romp of a song called "It Wasn't Me" actually the wisest social commentary of the 21st Century?

What can we do about this? Is all human discourse undermined by our inability to change the way we think? Is there any point in trying to offer a different perspective? And, most of all, why am I only speaking in questions?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Birthing a Blog

This Woman's Work - Kate Bush (mp3)
Where Do the Children Go? - Hooters (with Patty Smyth) (mp3)

I just gave birth to a second blog.

My job and I had been talking about having a blog together for a couple of years now, ever since a consultant suggested it might make us a better place. We discussed the idea together, but our parents thought we were too young and weren't quite sure enough how to raise a blog in the kind of nurturing and confident way that blogs need to grow up and be big blogs.

A few years later, as the economy sank into the tank and budgets got tighter than the sphincter of a BP vice president walking through the Ninth Ward, the idea of birthing a blog -- no cost! lots of fun stats to track! -- suddenly appealed more to the parents. In tough economic times, everyone loves a new baby. Especially one that doesn't cost much to feed. "If it can live off your two boobs," they told me, "then it's a great idea!"

So working hard with an in-house fertilization expert, I implanted my egg in a WordPress womb and began a summer-long gestation period. As the time passed, and as more teachers agreed to help raise this blog in a nurturing and supportive environment, my hopes grew. I began to envision this blog actually growing up, maybe even going to college and getting a degree.

You see, Bottom of the Glass is more like a crack baby. Bob and I were tipsy and bored and, on something of a lark, wondered if we could actually raise a blog together. We weren't in a committed relationship, but we knew we had a lot of the same hopes and goals for a blog, and we also shared a similar level of minimal ambitions. The desire to write was the crack. We just wanted a place that might push us to write a little more frequently. And we'd post some music to draw in a few strangers. And we'd guilt a lot of our friends into reading it and commenting. But we were in bed together because of that love of writing. And I can't speak for my blog baby-daddy, but the goal of forcing me to write more could not have been more successfully met. BOTG is the perfect hippie lovechild.

BOTG had little chance of failure in our eyes. As parents, we would have been satisfied with an elementary school dropout. So long as our little blog didn't hurt anyone and stayed out of jail, we'd love it and support it. And BOTG, much like most children, has lived down to our low expectations. It hasn't been optioned into a book deal or garnered its parents any magazine writing gigs, but then, we never really begged for such things. We love it (almost) unconditionally.

The blog I've birthed with my job is under greater pressure. Its grandparents expect this little newborn to improve search engine results, to attract more students to the school, to increase our school's imprint on the world. They half expect the blog to grow up and become President. Except I'm not quite sure yet how interested these grandparents are in spoiling this infant. I'm pretty sure they're the kind of grandparents who are far more interested in receiving than in giving. As a protective and exhausted single dad, that makes me very nervous.

Some of the blog's uncles and aunts seem more excited about my baby blog than my parents. My parents want the blog to just hurry the f*#k up and become an adult; these other relatives don't mind cooing and coddling the infant. I've already had several relatives pitch in and write something. And a decent number of students -- its cousins, I reckon -- will even pitch in over the coming weeks. Lots of support, at least in the early going.

And I love my new baby. I'm an optimistic parent. I can see all these potential avenues to the future, and many of those possibilities are quite exciting. If it falls shy, its failure will be the sins of its father. Youth, or ignorance, or a failure to put this mewling thing in the right places at the right times.

Babies are about the promise of tomorrow. They're about investing energy, losing sleep, and lots and lots of breastfeeding. My nipples are sore as hell, and I worry if my baby can make it in this cold cruel world, but my heart is swollen with a strange and invigorating pride, and I feel like we can find a better place in the world together.

Ain't that what parenthood is all about?

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Teaching Quandry

Sufjan Stevens--"I Walked" (mp3)

A teaching friend of mine is strongly supporting a former student of his who is running for office. He is quite gung-ho about it, pushing the candidacy, wearing the buttons, trying to find the younger man speaking engagements. The problem is that my teaching friend has political positions that are diametrically opposed to the former student he is supporting. At least, that's a problem for me. I don't think my friend sees it that way.

So let's bring the specifics of the situation in quickly and then take them out again: my friend was a rabid Obama supporter two years ago. That is still the way he leans, I'm quite sure. His former student is running in defense of the Constitution, against assaults on the Constitution. "Assaults from whom?" I ask. "Well," he responds, "that is never overtly identified," but he says it with the kind of grin that allows me, who knows him well, to verify that we are talking about Obama. Okay, enough.

This is more universal than that, anyway. This is Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away and every place and time in between.

How does a teacher support a student whose values are counter to his own? How does a teacher who realizes that a student's values are counter to his own not see his student as unethical or immoral?

It is quite a quandry.

Most of the time, those of us who teach don't have to deal with it. But, then, when you expand the discussion, almost all of us teach--our children, our Sunday School classes, the kid next door, an inner-city child we mentor through a Big Brother-type program, the younger employee to whom we try to share advice or wisdom. And that means that all of us have probably been in this situation.

The choices are fairly perplexing. Either you start to discover or you've always know that the person that you are working with has some unsavory beliefs (unless it's yours that are unsavory, which isn't really a circumstance I'm dealing with here) and you are in a situation or a profession where your support is expected, so you have to decide what to do. Do you tell the student he's wrong? Do you try to change his mind? Do you give him a poor grade for what you consider to be an unethical stance? And what do you do if he ever becomes an adult who is on the "other side," whatever that may be? Do you cut him off? Do you keep challenging him? Do you help him based on some professional principle?

As a young teacher, I took on every student I disagreed with. I had parents calling the Academic Dean because I had hammered their son on a weak (I thought) anti-abortion argument. As an older teacher, I give those positions, when articulated, a nod, and then I try to find another student who will argue a counter position closer to mine so that I can be more the clearinghouse than the opinionator. I'll hear positions that I know are being reiterated from parents and I'll still keep my mouth shut.

I'm not sure my younger self was wrong, but he did run a more divided classroom on a lot of days. And my older self, while not avoiding controversy, has decided to love the student first and to hope that he will come around to different perspectives. Based on what, I don't know. Maybe on the one student I knew who was incredibly conservative but who has moved to the center, at least, as he has gotten older.

Because, eventually, the "student" moves beyond our care with his own opinions. And, at that point, it's probably harder to tell ourselves that he might become something different when he has already become something.

But I don't think that we can endorse something that we don't believe in. At least, I don't think I could. Maybe I could congratulate my former student on his latest endeavor, offer to talk through his positions with him and be a sounding board, maybe challenge his positions or let him know that I don't agree with what he's doing, maybe even go so far as to make a nominal contribution.

Ultimately, I think that, in that position, we do our best with love and support, and that he knows that we offer love and support without agreement, not that we wholeheartedly jump onto a bandwagon when we don't want to take the ride. After all, Obi-Wan reminds us, through his actions, that we only enter into battle with a former student reluctantly, when there is no other option. But we have to confront him, don't we?

Sufjan's latest has nothing to do with my post. He's just so damn good.