Sunday, January 31, 2010

He's No Hack

Cure for Sale - Loomis + the Lust (mp3)
Written All Over - The Jayways (mp3)

Ever seen Hoosiers? God I love that movie. For a stretch of about 10 years, I would watch that movie the week before the NCAA basketball tournament began, back during the time when I was under the illusion that cheering for UNC was anything at all like rooting for the little engine that could.

Anyway, there was always one scene in Hoosiers that left me feeling really icky. Cold shivers up my spine. Hair on the back of my neck raised. A pinch of nausea.

Barbara Hershey’s character finds Gene Hackman’s coach walking out in a field. (There’s a lot of those in Indiana.) They talk. He tries to explain his sketchy past. She, 18 years younger, caves in to his sad song, and they kiss.

You remember back when Al Gore kissed Tipper at the DNC, and the entire viewing universe offered up a collective groan of uncomfortable disgust? Well, Al stole that move from Gene Hackman from Hoosiers. It was disgusting enough the first time around. Al Gore’s version was like the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho.

That scene is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time I can ever recall watching Gene Hackman and thinking, “That’s Gene Hackman, and that’s just wrong.”

The rest of Hoosiers, and the rest of his career, Gene Hackman never really did anything to make me think much about him. And I mean that to be just about the best compliment I can offer an actor.

A recent issue of Newsweek offers a brief but great send-up of this man’s career, a career that is apparently over.

Did you know Hackman hasn’t been in a movie since 2004?! Neither did I. Combine his remarkable acting with his unremarkable looks and his uninteresting personal life, and you have someone who, when their name isn’t on the marquis, can be out of mind when out of sight.

But when he’s in sight? When he’s on that screen? Hackman is like BASF. He doesn’t make the movie you watch; he makes the movie you watch better.

I just looked through his list of 70+ movies, and I can’t see a single one where any actor could have taken his role and made the movie better. Did some of his films suck? Sure. Was he the sole reason Unforgiven was amazing? Of course not. But even Michael Jordan didn’t win every year. He was on some shitty Bulls teams. And the Wizards. And the Barons, fer Chrissakes. It’s not like he won a World Championship every year. And Jordan won titles thanks to some pretty vital supporting actors.

Hackman's critically-acclaimed work – The French Connection, The Conversation, Mississippi Burning – certainly deserves respect, but it’s the collection of films down the rung that endear me to him and his talents. In almost all of the Hackman films I love, he manages to create characters both despicable and deeply sympathetic, people designed to be the villain yet frustrating us with their moments of endearing humanity, as if those moments were an unavoidable weakness.

Crimson Tide, The Firm, The Quick and the Dead, No Way Out. Even stuff as unimpressive as Extreme Measures and Absolute Power. His CV is filled with roles of unlikeable, cranky men. But damn he’s good at it. And not many people are so good at it that they can keep tweaking it and riding it into one film after another without most people getting sick of it.

I can’t think a single actor who has been in so many films that I happily and greedily digest over and over. Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman might come close. Tom Cruise has more than I’d like to admit. Jack Nicholson almost competes, but he’s soooo busy being soooo Jack Nicholsony in his movies that it’s hard to say he’s fighting fair.

And Hackman gets but a fraction of their glory. ‘Cuz he’s fugly.

But if you had to limit yourself to a single actor’s or actress’ works, to never again watch a movie that didn’t include that person, you’d be hard pressed to find a better collection and a wider array of genres and vibes than Hackman’s. Sorry Meryl, but there just ain't enough testosterone in your collection.

I hope to never be limited in such a way, but if I had to, Gene ol' buddy, you'd be my man.

"Cure for Sale" is off their EP Nagasha. "Written All Over" is from The Jayway's EP Light. Both are up and coming bands. Give 'em a whirl and see what you think!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Better Raise

Birth School Work Death (live) The Godfathers (mp3)
Everyday I Think of Money - Stereophonics (mp3)

Due to our healthcare costs going through the roof and into the stratosphere as of January 1, and because we went without raises at all last year, the school was gracious enough to give every single employee a salary bump to cover all or most of that insurance increase. Everyone got the exact same amount, regardless of salary.

Damn Communists, right?

For our youngest teachers, our secretaries, and others on the first or second rung, this pay increase constituted an actual raise. Like, upwards of 2 percent. For those near the top of the heap, it was less than a 1-percent raise, a metaphorical drop in their keg cooler by comparison.

I loved this raise. I think more of our corporations and non-profits should use exactly this kind of raise more often.

Health care costs are the same for our secretaries as it is for our headmaster. Insurance doesn't give a shit what you earn, only how many people you need insured. While the increase might nick the paint on an administrator's salary, it's closer to a head-on collision for the lower folks on our payroll.

For all of Bob's and my -- well, mostly Bob's -- complaining about salary discrepancies and injustice in the pay scale, the cold hard truth is that our headmaster makes under 10 times that of the average employee, and no more than 20 times what our lowest-paid employee would make. By comparison with even such wacky countries as Sweden, this is pretty phenomenal. Meanwhile, the more successful American for-profit companies currently pay a CEO upwards of 300-400 times what their average employee earns. (Don't just click my reference. Google away and find out just how strong this discrepancy is. Not even conservatives refute this fact, only its relevance.)

In 1970, the average CEO earned only 27 times what his average worker earned. By 1988 it crept past 100 for the first time. In 2000, it peaked at a disappointing 548 and dropped back to the low 400s by 2005, the last year the data was tracked.

A big part of this exponential change in salary discrepancy over the last 40 years can be laid at the feet of how we give raises in this country. Just take a gander at my pretty little chart at the right.

If you gave two dudes -- Lowlife and Top Dog (or Dawg) -- starting salaries of $20,000 and $400,000 in 1980, the Boss Man would be earning an impressive 20 times what the Lowlife earned. If you gave each one a 3% raise every year for 30 years, here's where they'd end up today:
  • Lowlife employee in 2010: $47,131
  • Top Dog in 2010: $942,626
In theory, that means the lowlife still makes the same 1/20 as the Top Dog, so what's the problem, right?

But that's not really how the system works, as anyone who loves The Who can attest. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, right? Because if one Boss Man leaves and is replaced by Boss Man #2, then Boss Man #2 begins his compensation at roughly the same level as his predecessor left it, if not higher.

When Lowlife #1 leaves, he's replaced by Lowlife #2 who goes almost back to square one, or certainly doesn't make nearly what Lowlife #1 was making when he left the job.

The ceiling gets higher; the floor stays pretty much right where it is. That my scenario isn't even close to what is really happening -- that the reality is astronomically more ridiculous -- should tell you just how this has played out in companies across our country in the last 30-40 years: Lowlife level employees see jack and shit; bigwigs keep ratcheting their benefits to the moon, Alice!

A lot of people are OK with this, but I'm not. I think a portion of every year's raises should be a flat amount across the board. When a company's healthcare rates go up, every salary level from low to high should get a flat amount aimed at covering that cost increase plus a little extra if possible. Then, with whatever is left of the pool of "raise money," everyone can get an equal percentage of the money. An extra couple tanks of gas for the little people won't scrape too much off the fine china from the top earners. Their poodles and Shi-Tsu's will still eat fancy scraps.

Sure, there should always be a way to reward the best workers with more of an increase, and a way to neglect those who aren't particularly useful. So I'm not saying this should be a hard and fast rule for every employee.

But if -- and that's a big factor here -- if you believe there's no excuse for a Top Dog to make 300, 400, even 500 times as much as their average (mean or median, I don't care) employee, then the only way to stop it is to either reward the lowest-waged workers faster or in more meaningful amounts and to slow the rate at which the top dogs get their rewards.

Those who aren't bothered by the increasing discrepancy... I guess I'm just kinda wondering how far it has to go before you are. We all end up in the same place, y'know.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So We're Reading Candide...

Pavement--"Shady Lane (live)" (mp3)

So we're reading Candide and there's a part in the middle where they end up in a place that the Europeans call "El Dorado," a place that's about as close to a perfect society as you're going to find, though admittedly the vision of it is somewhat limited by Voltaire's imagination (for example, even though there is no class structure and no purpose to having a king, he still envisions it as a monarchy because that's all he knows), but he develops something pretty interesting when the question of religion comes up--Candide wants to know if they worship a god (they do), which god it is (they are suprised by this question since there is only one God), do they pray (yes, but their prayers are only focused on thanks and praised, not wants and supplication), where are their priests (they don't have any because there is no need for any)--all of which is to establish an idea that gives the students a lot of trouble, the idea that there really is only one God and because there is only one, there is no need for any of the religious conflicts that have plagued mankind from the beginning, and though the students kind of get it, they don't like it, so I say, "Look, here's how you see it: imagine there is, to simplify things, a Christian god, a Jewish god, a Muslin god, and you all, in your minds, circle one of these three and draw an 'x' through the other two, but the El Doradans, they see it as one God and that the three religions are just different ways of getting at that one God," and when I demonstrate this on the board, I can see the unease, and the arguments begin, most interestingly articulated by a boy who says, "Well, maybe a lukewarm Christian or a lukewarm Jew would see it this way, but if you were really well-versed in the Scriptures and texts then you would know that this can't possibly be so because the three gods are so different," and I, feeling tepid, say, "The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different, too," and feeling my oats, add that "Maybe it isn't the gods that are different, maybe it's the human perceptions that are different," and I compare God to the Internet--there are different web servers that can get you there, but they all get you to the same Internet, but this probably doesn't make anyone too happy, either, so I retreat a little to a safer Voltarian stance, because regardless of what he may have believed, he is clearly reacting to religious strife, to the sectarian violence, to the Protestant vs. Catholic wars that were plaguing Europe in his day; there are a few kids who get it, not that they have to, since we're just messing with the ideas, and one boy grasps it, saying to his classmates , "What Voltaire means is that the people of Eldorado believe there is only one God, while you believe there is only your God," and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, therein lies the difference' and I look at my drawing of the one god circled and the two next to it with the "x"s drawn through them and, aloud, remind my students that that's the way it was in Voltaire's time and that's the way it still is now and when you see it in those simple terms, it sure looks silly, the implicit and explicit ways that one portion of humanity tells other large portions of humanity that they are wrong, which sure hasn't gotten us very far. Whew.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Attention Span of the Sports Fan

A Line in the Dirt - Eels (mp3)

fanatic
- marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion


That's what "fan" means. If you're a True Fan of Bruce Springsteen, your enthusiasm for The Boss is excessive and often lacks proper perception. And, in fact, if you're a fan of his, you know this and are even quite proud of it (see: troutking). True fans take pride in their semi-osmotic and impermeable devotion.

College sports fans, however, are slightly mutated breed. Their devotion to the general notion of a school and/or a specific athletic team is strong, but this love does not prevent you from bad-mouthing any and all cogs in the machine that makes up said school or said team. It's very much like being devoted to Jesus yet comfortable talking complete shit about church and all those pesky Christians.

"We are an embarrassment."

A friend and former UNC classmate of mine texted these words to me as our beloved Tar Heels fell in a blowout to the University of Texas in December. The loss put UNC at 8-3 for the year, with all three losses going to what are all currently Top 5 teams. The Tar Heels' fate has since dipped lower, having lost four of their last five games, including an eyebrow-raising overtime loss to the College of Charleston. Needless to say, the end of the world is near.

The unbiased and passionless observer would point out that UNC has been named by ESPN and others as the "Basketball Team of the Decade," that we just came off our second National Championship in four years, and that we lost our top four scorers -- three of them with a year of eligibility remaining -- to the first round of the NBA draft.

And oh yeah, did I mention that only just last April we won the whole damn National Championship by dominating every team we played, winning every game by double-digits, something that's only happened two or three times since the field went to 64 teams?

So I'm at a bar with two particularly possessed Tar Heels fans in late December, and they're lamenting how awful and sucky and pathetic we are, and I casually try to make these very observations. Particularly that whole "National Championship last year" part.

Both of these guys, men whose opinions I respect, looked at me like I'd just suggested they wear chaps and knee-high Go-Go boots to a gay bar.

"That was last year."
"That's the past."
"We're in the now."
"The motto is 'What have you done for me lately!'"
("Oooh oo-ooh yeah!")

And they're kinda kidding? But really they're kinda not.

The endangered species known as the Reasonable Fan can be sated with a National Championship for quite a while. Some NC State fans I know would happily trade two years' of watching sports altogether if either their basketball or football team made a BCS game or a Final Four (although that makes them Desperate Fans, not Reasonable Fans).

But I guess what I'm wondering is: how much patience and understanding is appropriate for a true fan?

Urban Meyer, in the span of a month, went from leaving football completely, to cutting back his involvement, to a full return in the summer, to participating in spring practices. A month ago, he was on the verge of death and had to leave the sport in order to keep himself alive and available to his family, and his kid was excited to get her daddy back. Now? He's either happier chopping years off his life to coach, or he's determined he's healthy enough to continue neglecting his family.

He and Brett Favre, a.k.a. The Man Who Retired More Times Than He Took Painkillers, are the living embodiment of what every Insane Fan wants to be, which is so obsessed and driven to root for their teams that they would risk limb and life to get back out there just one more time. Except for the whole "get back out there" part. The Insane Fan is pretty much OK with their view from the stands. Or their favorite lucky living room love seat.

I guess I understand these people, but I'm not sure why we applaud them, or glorify them.

I don't want Roy Williams to be satisfied with last year's National Championship. I want him and Urban and successful coaches everywhere to want the next ring and never be satisfied until they retire. But fans? They're supposed to appreciate history. They're supposed to know just how damn hard it is to get to the top in sports. And when they get that rare chance to share in the glory of their school's success, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask them to be happy, and content, for a little while longer than it takes Bret Favre to unretire.

Eels are creators of an odd, post-pop Peter Gabriel-esque sonic experience. End Times is their newest release. It ain't gonna top the pop charts, and you won't see any duets between E (the creative force and lead vocalist) and Taylor Swift, but if you like carefully-crafted albums drenched in melancholy and loneliness, turn on the blacklight and emerge from your drug-induced stupor long enough to order this album!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Groups

Frente--"The Book Song" (mp3)
Spoon--"This Book Is A Movie" (mp3)


I'm looking forward to attending a book group tomorrow, hosted by my blogging partner, Billy. I'm looking forward to it because I like Billy, and I like the book that he has chosen. I plan to happily sit there and listen to whatever is said. We're discussing Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, a wonderful collection of essays about all things father, male, childhood, etc.

Chabon seems to be reasonably close to me in age, and we share a similar Northeast childhood, so I can, if I want to, simply read the book while wallowing in the nostalgia it creates--for Legos, for baseball cards, for Pittsburgh references. As one of the older readers in the group, no doubt, I can also read the book from a perspective of another nostalga--for my own children's younger years. They are in different stages now than the places where the author is with his children in the book.

But, I also must admit that in the grand scheme of things, I don't really understand either book groups or their purpose.

Book groups as a cultural phenomenon must be at least 20 years old by now. They're probably 40 years old in California and arrived here in Tennessee about the same time as guacamole. Since part of my personal confusion about book groups stems from their purpose, I state that purpose here as I understand it: a group of people get together to discuss a mutually-agreed upon book.

It is not accidental that I did not say 'a group of people get together to discuss a mutually-agreed upon book that they have all read.'

As any leader of a book group will tell you, the hardest part about running one is getting people to actually read the book. See, there's a social component to a book group that almost overwhelms any higher purpose, that exists to such an extent that I know of many book groups where there is no higher purpose, where by the end of the night, more wine labels than books have been read by the collected group. I don't have a problem with that, I really don't, except that I guess I'm social enough that it doesn't take a supposed literary discussion to get me over to someone's house relaxing in a comfortable chair. You had me at "Hey, wanna come over for a beer?"

At the same time, I've never been to a book (or essay) group where anyone wanted to engage in a super-intense discussion. Those tend to bring out the worst in everyone--the teacher who thinks he's still running a class, the college educated people who nevertheless have chips on their shoulders for whatever reason who must apologize for and qualify every comment they make, the pontificator who has found yet another venue in which to pontificate.

And so the group discussion tends to move toward a kind of middle ground where people seek out passages that will guarantee some kind of mutual affirmation of the ideas or the quality of the writing, or toward a kind of scattershot, disjointed discussion where everybody feels like he or she has to find and make one point to get his or her money's worth and justify his or her existence.

I'm guessing that there must be a post about book groups on Stuff White People Like.

What I haven't seen in a book group that I've been in is a knock down, drag out fight of intellectual proportions, a challenge to anyone's thinking that goes beyond the polite. The closest we came to that was earlier this year in a discussion group about an essay, not a book, where my department head managed to insult the entire Math and Science departments of our school in one sentence.

I'll admit, I don't really know what I want from a book group, because I don't know what I'm supposed to want. I don't understand the genre. I know what to expect from a class; I know what to expect from a party or a dinner. And, this may be the crux of the matter, I know what to expect from a book when I read it by myself. So I never feel too bad if I join a group, read the book, but, for whatever reason, can't make it to the actual discussion. That will sound anti-social to some of you, but perhaps the reading of books is meant to be a solitary activity.

My thanks to hypem.com. When I searched for songs about "books" there were a number of terrific options. Including the ones above.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Popular Goes the Weasel

Popular - Nada Surf (mp3)

When I was a sophomore and junior in high school, I studied the movie Heathers like the Zapruder film.

Although it didn't quite tug my teen heartstrings like The Breakfast Club, watching it helped me hold my head a little bit higher and told me maybe the Unpopular Life wasn't so bad after all. Some Kind of Wonderful and Revenge of the Nerds provided similar comfort for the outcast, but in Heathers the statement had more of a "f*#k you" attitude. The unpopular anti-hero in Heathers didn't want your pity or your love. He wanted your blood, like Johnny Ringo in Tombstone.

Somehow, it was possible to enjoy watching Christian Slater's character finally bite it by blowing himself up on his school's front steps, yet also find comfort in his nihilistic separatist extremism. Goobers like me, aching so much to be accepted that it sometimes seemed to cause stigmata, found that life on either side of the popular extreme seemed to be just as miserable and painful as being trapped in the middle.

Unfortunately, all these movies wrestled with a noir version of teen reality. Popular was evil, plain and simple. The queen or king bee was the Emperor, and the unpopular dork was Luke Skywalker. While this simplicity feels good for a while, it inevitably loses its grip. Which is why, as I get older, I find The Breakfast Club, where there are no purely good or purely bad people, a much more powerful and vital experience.

Recently, thanks to GLEE and the authors of NurtureShock, a more balanced version of the "Popular" tale is told, and for someone like me who longed to be more popular but hated himself for wanting it, their explanation provides tremendous comfort:

...if Mean Girls were as unrelentingly vicious as they are cracked up to be, then the Mean Girls would not be popular. Instead, they would be the hated social outcasts. The reality—which Glee captures so well—is that Mean Girls aren't just mean, after all.

Patricia Hawley, a researcher at the University of Kansas, has studied popular kids, and she's found that for each mean thing a Mean Girl does, the girl also does two really nice things.

In other words, those so-called Mean Girls are actually twice as nice as they are mean.

And while the geeks aren't as mean as the popular kids, they usually aren't as nice, either. (In Glee, Rachel may be a talented singer—but everyone agrees that she's just insufferable; there's very little pity for her outcast status, even from the other Losers.)

But what really makes teens popular isn't just a pure ratio of nicety to meanness.

Instead, Hawley has discovered that the really popular kids are what she describes as "bistrategic controllers." Popular kids intuitively understand that both kindness and cruelty can be equally effective strategies for social manipulation. And they also come to believe that the key to social dominance is in knowing when to be nice and when to be cruel.

If you, like me, were not popular but studied the popular kids in the hopes of stealing their moves and learning their mysterious ways, then you will most certainly know how very true those statements are.

The popular guys in my school were rarely out-and-out cruel. Their ratio of kind or nice moments to mean ones might even have been higher than 2:1. But they could be cruel. And when they were, it was vicious, like a saw-toothed shiv. The act left its viewing audience both starstruck and scared shitless. And their cruel moments always had an audience. Cruelty in private was pointless.

We sideline losers were just grateful to be mere witnesses and not the victim, as if life were a game of Duck Duck Goose. When you have many more moments of feeling spared than you do of feeling victimized, you feel this perverse obligation to help feed that popularity. Like, because you know just how much worse they could have made it for you. Maybe it's the same thing that happens to hostage victims when the abductors treat all but one or two of them very, very nicely.

Although high school was in many ways miserable for me, I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in this environment as an adult for more than 13 years. Contrary to pop culture's depiction, teens judge most adults -- especially those to whom they're not related -- on much kinder terms than they do one another. I'm cool and/or acceptable to most of them solely because I seem to be comfortable in my own awkward skin and, more importantly, call them out for their flaws without seeming to judge them as human beings.

The only harsh judgment teens render on adults is this: that we simply can't connect all the way to the world in which they live. And I kinda think they're right.

I just sure as hell know I wouldn't do it all over again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cheating

Glasvegas--"It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry" (mp3)
George Harrison--"My Sweet Lord" (mp3)

I met the brother of a cheater the other night. It was very awkward. He had gone through his entire school career and had never had any contact with me whatsoever. I had seen him all night at a social function, hanging out with a bunch of guys I knew, and I had no idea who he was, so when I went up to say goodby to all of them, I was introduced to him.

"Oh,"I said, suddenly understanding, and I looked at all of the other guys and said, "I've never met _____, but _____ and I have a history." He nodded. He knew. His parents, with whom I had several conversations while I was teaching his brother and had gotten to know and to like, had never spoken to me again. All because I had caught his brother cheating, and his brother had been kicked out of school as a result.

His brother had stolen an essay off of the Internet. That's the cheating part. Now, here's the stupid part: the essay he had stolen did not even begin to fit the assignment I had given to my students. It was on the same book; it was on the wrong topic.

Today's teacher, or even a teacher from eight years ago when the infraction occured, is pretty savvy. We all know that basic essay topics on popular school novels are fairly easy to locate and purchase, and so we try to change up the topics, to create some new approach to a novel that can't be easily borrowed from an essay-selling website. The book in question? Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston.

The student I caused to get kicked out went to Sewanee. He is now in law school. He seems to have gotten past it, weathered the storm, overcome his mistake, learned his lesson, etc.

But cheating is not a victimless crime. In the wonderful world of cheating, the person who catches the cheater is, arguably, the one who suffers the most, especially if you are of my generation, when there is little that is more reprehensible than being a "narc." And even if your school has an Honor Code, as ours does, when it comes down to a student actually getting kicked out, when all of the dust settles, even though the entire administration and faculty support you, you are the one who caused the student to get kicked out. Because you turned him in.

It's pretty clear to you, I suppose, that just seeing the brother of the boy who got kicked out has stirred up all kinds of guilt and pain, even though I did the right thing. It is not easy to act in such a way that causes a student to no longer attend the school where you teach and where he attends (or attended).

What we're really talking about here, of course, is a very specific kind of cheating--plagiarism. It is the stealing of someone else's ideas. Vice-president Joe Biden has apparently done it. So have respected historians like Stephen Ambrose and Barbara Tuchman. But those have been passed off as a careless handling of sources, a rush to get a book to press.

But then countless numbers of other students since the Internet have also made such an act a relatively easy matter of cutting and pasting. Which is certainly not to blame the Internet. Ease of accessibility cannot be considered the primary cause of crime, I hope. More likely, it is simply human nature being human nature, in this case, a boy who didn't read the book or who didn't think he had time to write the paper taking the easiest way out.

And it must be said that most teachers do not go looking for cheaters. The student practically has to hoist the large fish of his infraction and slap us in the face with it in order to get us to act. His mistake must be egregious. He must do something that is so out of character that it sends us looking. In the case of this school, it must be his 2nd, or even 3rd, offense, depending on the timing.

But when you were the teacher, none of that is any consolation. You are doomed to face an eternal awkwardness anytime the situation comes up. Should the student in question come back to visit, every other teacher is free to welcome him and to ask how he is doing and to help him reconnect with his old school, but you, you must hang back, perhaps get nothing more than a nod, or perhaps less, just a look of recogntion, because you're the one who pulled the trigger.

Every teacher, perhaps every employer, if he or she works long enough, carries this scar.

George Harrison, of course, was mightily sued when his "My Sweet Lord" was prosecuted as an obvious rip-off of the Shirelles' "He's So Fine."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Car Tattoos

Hummer - Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)

You know the new fad of putting stick figures representing everyone in your family on the back of the family vehicle? I kinda hate it.

I'm going to buy three or four groupings of these stickers and basically fill up my entire back window with them. Me, the husband. Four wives. And 18 children. Maybe a few dogs and cats thrown in for good measure. And I can a bumper sticker that says "If the YFZ Ranch is rockin', don't come a'knockin'!" How awesome would it be to get those looks of judgment and confusion from people driving past you?!

Car tats and bumper stickers are basically the wuss version of flesh ink. The worst ones are pathetic attempts at telling people you don't even give a shit about (a) information they don't need, or (b) things designed to piss off half your audience. At best, bumper stickers are telling a small percentage of people something to make you feel more connected or offer a 1-liner reminiscent of Henny Youngman jokes. That makes the "at best" option pretty God-awful.

These family stickers make Baby On Board seem old fashioned and quaint, pot from the early '70s compared to the more potent booty-kickin' stuff of today. No longer is a simple proclamation of a small infant inside the car enough for you people. We now need to meet every fucking member of your brood and, if we're lucky, learn their names? What an honor, letting us in on this. People shred their mail and won't let their children out of their sight in a mall, but we don't hesitate to reveal juicy child details - name, relative height, relative age - on the back of our car. Apparently child molesters aren't a threat in the express lane.

Don'tcha just know the Octomom (a.k.a. Nadya Suleman) has these damn things on her car? A sticker of her, her 14 children, three cameramen, a producer, an art director and a key grip. Or does she also pepper the outline of the window with little sperm stickers or frozen embryo stickers?

(My favorite responses when I put this observation about Octomom as my status update:

  • "The 10 live-in nannies would have to go on the bumper."
  • "Her uterus is like a clown car."
  • "Her va-jay-jay is a Greyhound!")
Why do we do this? And I'm not talking about making fun of Octomom. I know why we do that.

I've never been big fans of those "My son is an Honor Student..." stickers, or the big softballs with the kid's name and number on them, but at least I get that. They're hardly any more ridiculous than the UNC propaganda I paste on anything I drive. Little trinkets of personal flair, like the buttons on those TGIFriday's overalls. But these family stickers? Is it just 'cuz they're "cute"? 'Cuz they're not. And this isn't just an opinion. It's fact. Go ask God, and He'll quickly tell you that those stick figure families are stupid as hell.

Speaking of God, why is it that so many of the people who have those Christian fish symbols also have those bumper stickers that joke about killing people who drive too closely or offering to give up their guns once their hands are cold and dead? And why has this damn thing turned into a bad Andy Rooney column?

To be fair, my scooter is littered with Tar Heel propaganda, and it also has several other stickers, one promoting a microbrewery and two others promoting The Rescues and Cheap Trick, 'cuz I think I'm gonna put any stickers I get at concerts on the scooter. But with a scooter, the rules change. Everyone laughs at a scooter. You notice them, and you chuckle. So at that point, what dignity do I have left anyway? Might as well decorate the thing with amusing little details.

But that Honda Odyssey? That Land Cruiser? Those are just two more large vehicles puttering down the runway. No one cares, and no one wants to care. So your little family stickers start looking a sadly desperate, like a 49-year-old cougar who wears too much makeup and no panties.

Now, if a dude or dudette drove a Ferrari and had family stickers on the back of that bad boy? Totally acceptable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

But Not Quite

Pink Floyd--"Money" (mp3)
Shawn Colvin--"New Thing Now" (mp3)

"But it was only fantasy
The wall was too high, as you can see"

--Pink Floyd, "Hey You"


There's something in this post about art, the connection between the artist and art, the question of whether or not the art can be separated from the artist. I'm not smart enough to figure it all out.

But I do know this: I went to see the first cover band concert of my life this weekend. I saw The Machine, a veteran Pink Floyd cover band who decided over 20 years ago that the crux of their career would be to play Pink Floyd songs exclusively. Having never seen a cover band before and, because of the nature of this one, having long stretches of music during which to ponder ideas which seemed deeper while drinking beer, I became fascinated by the concept of the cover band, and, in particular, this one.

Here are the constraints they face. First, they've got to play what we want to hear; otherwise, why in the world would we pay good money to see them? I wanted to hear a bunch of stuff from Animals (I got "Dogs"), "Wish You Were Here," maybe even "One Of These Days." Other than that, I didn't really care. Of course, I got "Wish You Were Here." I figured beyond that they would work through the basic hits (No, they did not play "Money") and keep the show going. That pretty much happened.

The second restriction is that, musically, they have to be Pink Floyd. That seems obvious, but think about it for a minute. My focus is always on the guitarist, and this guy was totally on. He could play David Gilmour's parts note for note.

Gilmour is a guitar god not because he is flashy, but because he plays melodic parts that complement and extend songs as well as anyone in rock. This guy would have to do the same. And not just hitting the notes. He had to be able to play those beautiful solos with the same kind of passion. He was.

But therein lies the problem: he cannot deviate even one note from what Gilmour played on the records. If he does, we will look at each other and shake our heads and say, 'That's not what it sounded like.'

The third, I guess, is that they've got to look kind of like Pink Floyd, or at least representative rockers from the time period. Which period, you ask? Good question. The lead guitarist looked like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio; the drummer had a poodle-ish, permed haircut that would not have been out of place in Loverboy. Perhaps, though, nobody really remembers or cares what Pink Floyd looked like.

That being said, the show rocked purty good. The power of the coda in "Dogs." The audience participation of "Another Brick In The Wall, Part II." And the show closer, "Have A Cigar," was transcendent, probably a peppier rocker than any way Pink Floyd ever played it and the better for it.

But there was an interesting twist as well. The band, perhaps over time, has morphed itself into not just coverers of Floyd, but aficionados as well. They felt the need not only to feed the audience the hits they wanted, but also to display their ability to recreate some of the more obscure parts of the Floyd catalog. So they played "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn," which they announced, and several longer, trippy, less accessible number which I didn't recognize.

I don't think you can have it both ways, cover bands of the world. Either you travel the country making a decent living giving fans of a band they can't see the songs they want to hear or you establish yourself as a band who probably plays their own stuff, but extends their cred by adding lesser-known songs by a well-known band to your set. In the case of The Machine, yes, I enjoyed the show, but there were far too many great Floyd songs they could have played instead of some of the meandering ones.

When you're standing at a cover band show, you do ask yourself, at varying points during the show, what you're doing there. And you come up with varying answers. At one point, I said to to the person next to me, "They sound more like Pink Floyd the more beer I drink!" There was something to that. Then there was Ramsey, who was with us, who was there because he "loves Pink Floyd." He was living off of the next best thing. And that's a bittersweet feeling. After all, during one of the long, droning, synthesizer explorations, the guy next to me leaned over and shouted in my ear, "They don't need to be playing this. I mean, if it was Pink Floyd, they could play whatever they wanted to, but since it isn't, they need to play stuff we want to hear."

That's what I ultimately realized, too. I thought I was going to see something close to Pink Floyd, but I was really going just to hear the songs. I didn't care about the look of the band or the lasers or anything else but the music. It wasn't about the artists; it was only about the art, the reproduction of the masters.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

There, I Said It

The Wind Cries Mary - The Jimi Hendrix Experience (mp3)
Requiem Mass in D Minor, K.626 - Amor Artis Orchestra (mp3)

Haiti no more needs our love and attention and money now than they did two weeks ago.

There, I said it.

A former co-worker and dear friend, a very religious woman wrapping up her seminary work to be ordained in the Episcopal faith, spent two months in Haiti a year or so ago. A young alumnus spent two weeks there in December. The experience was emotionally draining for both of them. Their stories are jaw-dropping. You simply can't witness that kind of across-the-board abject poverty for a prolonged amount of time, knowing full well what life is like on our side of the Gulf, without looking toward the heavens and hoping that a wise and guiding hand might one day explain it all to you.



It's the poorest and saddest country in this hemisphere and one of the poorest on the globe. It was a natural disaster before the natural disaster. Yet here we are, getting ourselves worked up and full of pity for Haiti because of an earthquake.

All these organizations are taking in donations, and all these donations are piling in, and we don't even know what this money will do, exactly. Maybe we don't even care.

It won't get heavy equipment into Port-au-Prince quickly enough to lift the rubble away from survivors. I doubt it will save many lives. Hell, the good ol' US of A can't even be efficient and appropriate in how it deals with post-Katrina New Orleans et al, yet I'm supposed to have faith that my money will carry the day in Haiti?? As if to rub my doubt in shit, I have to read stories that Haitians complain that the help isn't coming quickly enough when, by every report I can see, help is coming faster than it did to victims on the Gulf Coast.

Sorry if this makes me an ass, but anyone who's witnessed first-hand the continued pathetic state of the Bayou should be thinking the same thing, that we're sending money to Haiti and blindly offering our sympathies in that direction when we can't even clean up our own back yard and take care of our own people

We only rally in large numbers for earthquakes and tsunamis. Simple starvation, abject poverty at levels unimaginable, significant portions of the population suffering from syphillis and AIDS. None of that really seems to get to us, probably because it never looks as striking on the news. A tiny financial and political earthquake has hit Haiti every day for the last 20 or 30 years, but only when Anderson Cooper and Michelle Koszinski fly in with their camera crews and their tender-hearted feature stories do we think, "Hey! Let's feel sorry for Haiti! Maybe if I send them $20 I'll feel better!"

I don't want to sound all right-wing and callous here, but our last decade has more than a few prime examples of the best charitable intentions leading straight into the toilet.

The funds raised and meted out for 9/11 families and survivors. The tsunami relief funds to Asia. Katrina and The Land of The 10,000 Trailers. In each case, an unknown but certainly disturbing percentage of funds fall in greedy shyster back pockets or move in wrong directions or sink into red tape and "administrative costs" or mysteriously vanish from the process altogether.

We hesitate to hand a homeless man a $5 bill, because we're just sure he's going to use that money to buy booze or drugs. But we'll mail off a check to a church (or other) organization promising to help Haiti even though the harsh reality is that, by the time that money can be realistically utilized, the very purpose for which you gave it has long changed.

The doctors who have been hopping on planes to offer their assistance? The pilots flying those doctors and other relief workers for free? I'm all about that. Mega-kudos to those great and generous souls. And I know it costs money, so it's not like I'm violently opposed to all attempts to offer fiscal relief.

Hell, I'd love to see every penny and every ounce of good will to Haiti mean something amazing. Haiti can use all the love and hugs and financial assistance it can grab, and if it needs a few earthquakes to get it, maybe in the end that's just proof that really bad things have to happen for people to take notice. Perhaps actual rubble is required before our contemporary society is willing to acknowledge a need to rebuild, even if things were broken and demolished long before a single building collapsed from shockwaves.

As for me, I think I'll keep focusing my charitable giving towards programs aimed at helping local homeless families and battered women. And I'll feel better about my spare change going where it's intended when I hand it to a man outside a downtown bar than I will shipping it to some hastily-organized group suddenly working up pity for a long-neglected neighbor country that apparently only deserved a fraction of it before this.

Maybe when my trips to New Orleans no longer involve long stretches of road that look like they are from the outskirts of Nairobi, I'll text the Red Cross so they can charge $10 to my cell phone bill.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Joe

Come Sail Away (Live, 1996) - Styx (mp3)

Joe turned 20 in December. He will never turn 21. His four-year fight with cancer included momentary victories and at one point or another impacted half of his body. Scars on his chest, on his back, on his knee. Poison also known as chemotherapy surged through every vein and artery in his body. Below are the words I spoke at his funeral service, held at our school on Thursday, January 14, 2010.

At one point in his journey, Joe dreamt of getting into a boat and sailing into the wide blue yonder. Mostly he dreamt of going alone. Once in a while, he might find a port and allow his beloved younger brothers to hop aboard for a few days. Maybe the occasional visit from his parents. And, less frequently, he would even consider allowing one of his great friends to experience the open water with him, but it wouldn't be a regular thing.

He went so far as to spend time searching for the right boat, reading books and arranging for lessons to learn how to sail properly, hoping to make this dream come true. Eventually Joe acknowledged that this dream was beyond his grasp, and instead he "settled" for an amazing trip through Europe. He was so very grateful to his parents for giving him that trip. He even liked France except for all the French people. Although it wasn't sailing on the ocean, it was time away from everything and everyone familiar. Time alone to explore and contemplate and just be.

We are all, as humans, entangled in difficult-to-explain contradictions. Alongside this intense desire for separation and solitude existed Joe's intense love for his family and friends. He saw the kind of loyalty and love his trevails had inspired. But I think being at the center of that, and seeing it from his perspective, put a lot of strain on Joe, pressure to be or do or symbolize something big when his dreams and hopes were so very different before this all started.

O Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.

Joe didn't want this role. He despised it, in fact. I can't even recall how many times he spoke to me, often in the midnight hours in my kitchen, openly angry about his lot in life, an anger he earned but held in check more often than not. In our last conversation before he started UPenn, the single thing that excited him most was getting away from his cancer, making new friends who could like him for him. Not for osteosarcoma, not for the tragedy of his situation. Just because he was clever or cute or a sharp dresser any of those little things that draws one typical freshman to another typical freshman.

Part of what I think Joe hated about his illness was that it felt like he was cheating. I think he worried that his illness gave him an unfair advantage on the loyalty and love and support of friends and strangers, and Joe was most decidedly someone who felt like things had to be earned and deserved. Of course, Joe wasn't cheating at all. Joe drew people to him in ways that none of us, in a similar circumstance, quite could have. Seeing the rows of blue blazers, more than two dozen of his loyal and loving classmates and friends, sitting in that Charlotte church on Tuesday both broke my heart and lifted me in ways I can't express. I think it did the same for almost every grieving person in that sanctuary.

O Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.

I don't mean to give anyone here the impression that Joe was a Christ figure -- Joe would certainly haunt me with expletive-ridden screams if I did -- but anyone trapped into knowing their days are numbered must have a similar experience.

Jesus found himself incredibly impatient with his friends. He felt lonely a lot, because all these people who loved him simply couldn't appreciate what was going on. All they could do was try to sympathize, and even that sympathy stilted the way a more natural relationship should have worked. In this way, Joe's frustrations and challenges with relationships were quite similar. Conversations sometimes felt more stilted, because people just didn't know quite what to say to him. Not all the time, but enough that everyone knew that the cancer thing was in the room with them.

Joe had no choice but to carry the burden of his illness, to bear the weight of altered friendship dynamics, to be Joe Cancer. As much as he hoped UPenn would be a place where he could begin life on his own merits, fair and square, eventually even his friends there discovered the truth he hoped to hide.

The Road wasn't Joe's favorite Cormac McCarthy novel. He preferred All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. But in The Road, a boy and his father -- another man who must wrestle with his own imminent demise -- walk a desolate and dying world where few if any can be trusted. Theirs is a horrific odyssey.
We're going to be okay, arent we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That's right.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.
The father, struggling with his health, convinces the boy that they are keep the fire -- the best parts of humanity -- alight, and they cannot die, because they cannot allow the fire to die.

Whether Joe wanted this burden, whether he enjoyed it, is actually irrelevant. What all of us sitting in this Chapel know is that Joe carried that fire. He carried it in his quiet, understated, sarcastic, critical, pensive, brilliant way. He carried the fire in a way that somehow managed to inspire all of us to want to or need to carry it with him.

And carry it you have. And will. Dozens of guys and parents returning for last year's Bone Cancer Awareness Walk. Those who returned to this Chapel for Joe's talk just a few months ago. Going in carefully-measured droves to Charlotte and invading his family's household to show your love and support for him. And a family, wrapped around Joe almost like a blanket these last few months, offering every ounce of themselves day and night to him.

We carry Joe's fire. This is his final gift to us, a gift that's both a blessing and a vital responsibility. He gave us a kind of fire we never had before we became witnesses to his journey. It continues to burn brightly in our hearts.

Joe, meanwhile, finally gets his dream. He captains his sailboat into a vast ocean of beauty and wonder and mystery, free of his illness and pain, free from the restraints of time or responsibility. On occasion, he will stop at a port in our hearts and minds, and he will let us visit him for a while. And then he will insist on continuing his journey but will promise to keep in touch, as he always did. As he always will.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

We Do The Gray Work

Jesse Colin Young--"Grey Day" (mp3)


Something happened some time ago. No one quite remembers what it was, but we think that it happened. I remember that we huddled together. I remember that we prayed. I remember that it was just a mistake, no one's fault. What was?

"Something happened," I have said to others many times since.

"Something happened," each one replies, and we nod in agreement over this shared knowledge. (You laugh to discover that only this vaguest of bonds connects us. Are yours less so?)

I remember that we were told by the Old Boy to work, that work is life.

Only work eats the days. So we do the gray work.

Others gather around the Old Boy and say, "Well done." He has set the proper tone for us to go on.

You've really been through it, they say to the Old Boy. He sends the letter to say that we have all been through it.

"I've really been through it," I have said to others many times since.

"I've really been through it, too," each one replies, and we nod.

One nods and says, "He really put us through it."

I stop, turn, and look.

He? "You mean the Old Boy?" I ask, frightened.

"No, I mean the one who put us through it. The one that it happened to."

"Something did happen," I say.

"Yes, something happened," he replies, and we nod.

And while we do the gray work, words collect. Something happened. Well done or not? He really put us through it. I've really been through it, too. Yes, something did happen.

At roll call, there is one less of us, and we know that something happened.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Loyalty

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Be True (live)" (mp3)

This is, without apology, a rant driven by a coach leaving and his new school and a feeling of betrayal and all of that that happened tonight.

And, it is written by someone who has worked at the same place for 26+ years, which, I realize, in 2010, is ungodly weird.

Is there no loyalty in the world anymore?

Believe me, I'm not naive. I know all about opportunity and advancement and wanting to climb the ladder or to be the best or to maximize one's potential. I know that these are All-American values preached all the way from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

But, seriously, is loyalty a dead concept?

Perhaps I should go back and find a definition. After all, what is loyalty? Merriam-Webster defines "Loyalty" as "the quality or state or an instance of being loyal." Which is completely un-fucking-helpful. So, on we go, following the link to "Fidelity," which the same site defines as "faithfulness to something to which one is bound by pledge or duty."

And, yeah, that will do the job for us, won't it?

My first problem is this: half of me believes that an institution that treats one well deserves loyalty, and half of me believe that it doesn't. Because, after all, it is an institution, and, as such, is an unfeeling, somewhat intangible entity whose name is invoked mainly in an attempt to inspire loyalty.

My second problem is this: when we throw out the concept of an institution, we are left with people--players or students or colleagues or whomever is impacted by an early departure. Because that's what disloyalty is about, isn't it? It isn't that someone leaves; it's that that person leaves before his or her time.

Once upon a time, there was a Spanish teacher at this school who left at mid-year to bicycle his way through South America. He was a likeable enough guy, I guess, and people would want to give me updates about him. "Not interested," I would say, "He is dead to me." Those people would look at me surprised. "He left his students hanging in the middle of the year to go biking in South America," I would say, "I have no respect for that at all." And I didn't. And I don't. There is an unspoken agreement that a teacher will hang with his or her students for a year, come Hell or high water.

What goes through your head when you screw other people in order to do what is best for you? Does the money make it okay? Do you tell yourself it was the chance of a lifetime and that you had to take it? Do you tell yourself that it was God's will? What other lies can the mind conjure up?

I fear that, in America, unspoken agreements aren't effective anymore, because if they are unspoken, if they are not on paper, perhaps notarized, able to be upheld in a court of law, then they don't mean anything at all. If so, that is very, very sad. That means that unless you hold me to it, unless it was written into my contract, then I am in no way bound to honor it.

I believe that when you take on a team, a class, a job, you see it through until it is completed, at least until you meet some open-to-interpretation definition of completed. You don't have to win the title or anything, but you do have to make the things right that weren't right when you took whatever it was on. If you were hired to do a specific job, then you stay with that job until the person that hired you is reasonably satisfied. Not everything in this life is immediate. Not every opportunity comes at us in such a way that we have act now or forever regret it. No, there are plenty of opportunities that arise exactly because we stuck with something that maybe people didn't think we would stick with. Yeah, we came back for our senior year or, yeah, we helped return a program to its winning ways, or, yeah, we finished out the school year, or, yeah, someone simply asked us to do something for x amount of time and we were true to our word.

That's loyalty. And that's right.

I stumbled across the live Bruce at Addicted To Vinyl.com. Great site.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Modern Lepers & Transcendent Tunes

Every year I'm lucky to find one or two songs that move me well beyond that of the usual ear candy. Songs that feel like they've pulled me into a different place emotionally, or located me in the distant and removed corner of my emotional being. Sometimes it feels like I found the song, but sometimes it feels like the song found me.

In 2008, that song was "The '59 Sound" by The Gaslight Anthem, a song that continues to tug on my emotions when I hear it. If I had to name a list of the most emotionally powerful songs of my decade, this might well earn the top spot. To be young, to know someone young who dies, to be connected to them when they go and to feel that surge of life's limited and vital electricity surging through you in a kind of overload at the same time your knees buckle from grief. All of those emotions get wrapped in this gift of a song, a gift that manages to feel wrapped up and shiny every time I go to open it.

I'll prolly never write a single song. But if I do, if I could write a song, and it had the kind of power to run through someone's mind like "The '59 Sound" runs through mine, like Prefontaine on speed, then maybe that one song would be enough.

Besides, if it's good enough for Bruce, it's gotta be good enough for all of us, right?



At the end of 2009, I discovered a new song to add to that list. "The Modern Leper" by the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit also came out in 2008, and it explores my own little topic of fascination for the 21st Century: the painfully fallible human who knows he's got more than he deserves and can't quite seem to figure out why or how.

While it can't compete with The Gaslight Anthem's raw verve, Frightened Rabbit's song manages the similar task of straddling two emotional worlds: despair and giddiness. It's almost as if the singer is certain he's getting away with something and learning to accept that fate isn't going to punish him like he deserves. It's a song about having your hand in the cookie jar, waiting and waiting for some evil monster inside that jar to bite it off, and then staring in disbelief as your hand emerges, unscathed, with that precious cookie in tow.

The Modern Leper - Frightened Rabbit (mp3)

A cripple walks amongst you
All you tired human beings
He's got all the things a cripple has not
Working arms and legs
And vital parts fall from his system
And dissolve in Scottish rain
Vitally he doesn't miss them
He's too fucked up to care
Is that you in front of me?
Coming back for even more of exactly the same
You must be a masochist to love a modern leper
On his last leg
On his last leg
Well, I crippled your heart a hundred times
And still can't work out why
You see, I've got this disease I can't shake
And I'm just rattling through life
Well, this is how we do things now
Yeah, this is how the modern stay scared
So I cut out all the good stuff
Yeah, I cut off my foot to spite my leg
Is that you in front of me?
Coming back for even more of exactly the same
You must be a masochist to love a modern leper
On his last leg
I am ill
But I'm not dead
And I don't know which of those I prefer
Because that limb which I have lost
It was the only thing holding me up
Holding me up
Well, I'm lying on the ground now
Walking through the only door
Well, I have lost my eyesight
Like I said I would
But I still know
That that is you in front of me
And you are back for even more of exactly the same
Well, are you a masochist to love a modern leper
On his last leg?
And you are not ill
And I'm not dead
Doesn't that make us the perfect pair?
Just you and me
We'll start again
And you can tell me all about what you did today
What you did today


Some people call this song an "indie rock anthem." I don't really know what that means. Maybe it means the singer couldn't get past the first stage of American Idol. Maybe it means they couldn't crack the Billboard Top 10. All I know is it feels mighty damn anthemic to me. I bought "The Modern Leper" on December 28 and have since listened to it on my home computer 17 times. No telling how many times it's played on my iPod, but I've savored it so much that I bought the whole album on January 1 and keep playing it. "Head Rolls Off" and "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" and "Keep Yourself Warm" are particularly scrumptious.

In "Keep Yourself Warm," he proclaims It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. HA! People, when you can write those words and mix it with music that makes people listening want to sing those words to the sky and feel some kind of sweet release from the gravitational pull of the planet, then you've done something. Especially if it's not even the most amazing song on the album.

Monday, January 11, 2010

P-rivate O-bservations of R-eproductive N-uances

The Who--"Pictures Of Lily" (mp3)


I've been thinking about porn lately. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking, but not like that. I've never been much of a porn guy, really. Maybe a few glances back before the school had a firewall and all that. But, no, I've been thinking about porn more as a sociologist than as a practicioner. And not pornography. Porn.

Just think about the term for a second. "Pornography" calls to mind the Supreme Court ("I can't define it, but I know what it is when I see it"), guys with mustaches peering through peepholes, federal agents raiding warehouses, Larry Flynt instead of Hugh Hefner, Ted Bundy. Yep, pornography= serial killers. Remember? Ted Bundy telling James Dobson that pornography was the reason he became a serial killer? Bullshit, I say. But the Conservative Christians bought Bundy's pre-execution joke hook, line, and sinker.

But back to "porn." You shorten the term and render it almost harmless. Imagine saying "Honey, I'll be right back. I'm just going to run out for some pornography." It sounds sordid. It would be a tough sell. But when my wife comes home and says, "There's a guy in my office who looks at porn all the time," well, I might think he's a creeper, but somehow it falls within the boundaries. I'm guessing we all know someone where we work who looks at porn all the time. But we don't think of him as looking at "pornographic materials."

In its own strange way, porn has become acceptable. I found this out when talking with a teacher friend who was relaying a conversation he'd had with students about porn. "Porn," they said, "is a social activity in the dorm. A bunch of us will get together and watch porn on somebody's computer. I mean, Mr. ________ , we don't get erections or anything."

Like it was no big deal.

And maybe it isn't to our younger generations. They have such easy accessibility to porn through the Internet, sites that are free (though that doesn't seem to be a factor), movies that are easy to download. Some of them have portable hard drives that are full of it. There aren't many guys in a high school dorm who don't know who Ron Jeremy is; there aren't many courses I teaches where a movie called Pirates doesn't come up. And the boys are unembarassed, unapologetic, unfazed.

There's a funny scene in the old Woody Allen movie, Bananas, made back in the 70's, where Woody's character wants to buy a pornographic magazine, so in order to do so, at the store he also grabs six or seven other legitimate, intellectual magazines to cover his sordid purchase. He hides the mag in the middle of the others. But the checkout clerk, unable to find a price, yells across the store as Woody stands at the register with an old woman customer next to him, "Hey, Joe! How much for a copy of Orgasm?"

I'm not sure that scene would even be funny today. I was watching a TV series about a couple of detectives the other night, and one of the characters discovers a major secret about another character simply because he entered his room looking for porn. No big deal.

My own thoughts of porn take me back to college, when some fraternity had a bunch of us over during rush for hot dogs, beer, and two movies called Pig Love and Woman's Best Friend. And, yes, the titles do give away the plot in both cases: woman with pig and woman with German Shepherd.

I'm hoping that movies like this would still be considered objectionable today, but I'm pretty confident that the general concept of porn is not. While we might like to make some enlightened argument about the objectification of women or to demonstrate an awareness that many, if not all women, appearing in porn films have likely been sexually abused, my guess is that today's young (or old) viewers don't put a whole lot of stock in that. It isn't that they would argue that it isn't true; it's just that they don't care. Porn in name and concept is no longer to be taken that seriously, and if you try to push for that, you'll get a lot of rolled eyes or blank stares.

It may be that in today's world, porn takes the place of that talk that your father was supposed to have with you about the birds and the bees. That would certainly be a whole lot easier for him, wouldn't it? But there is at least one drawback to that approach: he has no control over what is said or learned.

When I was getting to know my new class last week, one of my students said that his favorite actor was Ron Jeremy. I teased him about that, suggesting (in a homophobic boys' school) that most guys would identify their favorite actress, not actor. But, that's part of what porn is about--the super appendages or mammaries of those in the films and an amazement at what they can do.

Like it or not, porn has become something of a mainstay in our society. I'm not one to be too critical of our society and the way things are going because even if I see a rut I think we'll find a way out of it, and so I'm not willing to point at the accessibility of porn as a negative benchmark. But I do wonder about what porn does to one's understanding of sexuality. I mean, it does come from Hollywood, after all, just a different kind of Hollywood, maybe not even located there in Burbank, but still an outlook that advocates a kind of behavior and performance that many mere mortals can only aspire to, even though they probably shouldn't. And it separates that sexual performance from all the other aspects of a relationship.

Porn, like so many things in modern America, is simply too easy, too immediate, too superficial to be taken very seriously. But that is probably its greatest danger as well. It just sits out there, waiting for us, and we no longer have the inclination to evaluate it. We just take it in.

The Who's Thirty Years of Maximum R&B is available at Itunes.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The C 'n' S Club

Free - Marie Wilson (mp3)
Running Up That Hill - Kate Bush (mp3)

My two daughters each got to have a friend sleep over the other night. Nary 20 minutes of the gathering had transpired before my eldest and her pal had written a sign: NO ONE UNDER 9 ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT. My other daughter Arden and her friend are, of course, 8.

Not to be outdone, Arden retaliated with a sign of her own: NO ONE OVER 8 OR MEAN ALLOWED IN MY ROOM. I guess she was hoping to strike at Avery twice as hard just in case she found a loophole for the age barrier.

Although this kind of divisive activity troubles the "Why can't we all just get along?" meddling parent in me, I managed to keep my nose out of it for once. I'm increasingly convinced that I over-meddle, that American Parents Circa 2010 do far too much meddling in their kids' lives.

This realization is by no means my attempt at excusing myself from parental responsibility. In fact, making the conscious choice not to meddle requires -- at least of a dedicated parent -- even more time and thought than does meddling, because meddling is a constant and easy reaction: see a problem and jump in to fix it. Not meddling, on the other hand, requires that we still see the problems but allow them to slide by us. Catch and release, if you will.

In an episode of The Wire I watched recently, a police captain praised the invention of brown-bagging because it allowed cops to ignore having to police disobedience to open container laws and focus on "real police work." Likewise, I think meddling in our kids' minutiae allows us to feel like we're being parents when what we end up doing is catching a lot of petty misdemeanors while ignoring and neglecting the deeper issues, the bigger laws.

Here are some of my most excited moments as a parent: when my daughters tell me they're going outside to play.

Often, I don't know what they're going to do, because they don't know what they're going to do. They might ride bikes around our dream of a back yard, a.k.a. the 100-acre school campus where we live. They might scale one of the two climbing trees above our house. They might head up the hill to the "rock quarry" and the unintentional reservoir that's filled the hole there, a place they declared to be the home base for The C 'n' S Club, a club they named after the first letters in each of their names.

Amidst just those three choices, three amongst many, lie infinite possibility for two girls. And therein lies our modern angst.

Allowing your precious, delicate young children to do something without known boundaries and with risks both known and unknown is like licking the tip of a 9-volt battery. They could fall out of a very, very tall tree. They could slip on the rocks and fall unconsicous into cold, muddy water. They could ride their bike unawares in front of a speeding and reckless teenage driver. All of this could happen beyond my eyesight, beyond earshot, leaving me helpless to fulfill my most vital and basic parental duty: to serve and protect.

One of Michael Chabon's early essays in his new book, Manhood for Amateurs, is called "The Wilderness of Childhood." Reading it had the time warp power of yanking me back to my own childhood, a time when at least 3/4 of my memories involve absolutely no adults.

Bottle rocket fights. Kickball. Bike rides miles away from home to the local theater or a huge construction site. Ghost in the Graveyard at 11 p.m. behind my friend's house, with one of those large inner tubes used as a primitive trampoline for home base. Swimming unsupervised at a friend's house, pretending to be Sub-Mariner and Aquaman and twisting and turning underwater as we wrestled with the tentacles of his pool's mechanized cleaning system. Hour after hour of role-playing games in a pal's basement, or sitting in one of our bedrooms and reading comic books while Elvis Costello's Get Happy! or the Best of the Doobies played on the turntable until someone got called home for dinner.

On our way to a concert in December, my friend Andy and I were reminiscing about our childhood. "I can't tell you how many times I'd go home from staying the night at your house, and my mom would be, like, 'Did you sleep over at Billy's last night?' and I'd be, like, 'Yeah.' Can you imagine? She went to sleep not really sure where I was, but she was totally OK with it. Slept just fine."

The adults in my childhood memories are certainly more pronounced and comprehensible than the ones in Peanuts cartoons, and their roles were neither minor nor insignificant. But their errors rarely involved neglect. Perhaps that was due solely to my incredible fortune to never get hit by a car, kidnapped by a pervert, or attacked by a rabid bully. Perhaps that was because nothing horrifying and worthy of Katie Couric ever happened to a kid in my neighborhood.

But as a parent, looking out one of the kitchen windows, watching my daughters hop on their bikes or trudge up that hill, the feeling I embrace is not knowing what they're up to, wondering what fun they might have that I can't begin to imagine. Looking out those windows is practice for the very thing all parents most anticipate and most fear, practice for the day we must acknowledge their increasing independence and accept that all we can do for them is hope, and cheer, and wait for them to visit our little universe on occasion.