Sunday, February 28, 2010

The "Pleasures" of Anonymity

Camera Obscura--"Let's Get Out Of This Country" (mp3)
And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead--"Source Tags and Codes" (mp3)


While goofing around the Internet this afternoon, I came upon a "best of" list of songs, the one that is referenced at the end of this post. I was excited because I didn't know most of the songs. And the people who commented on the post were mostly complimentary as well. All except one. Anonymous wrote the following: "This is the worst Top 50 list I have ever seen."

Cowardly? Shitty? Perhaps. If he was going to be so critical, why couldn't he be man enough to reveal his identity? Or hers. Maybe there were reasons. Maybe there were reasons I also used anonymity to respond positively to one of Billy's posts last week.

If it isn't already gone, anonymity may soon become a thing of the past. Cameras, PIN #s, tracking codes, hidden GPS's in our cell phones, just about every aspect of life makes it no longer possible to fly under the radar, or, better put, under the satellites' all-seeing eyes. Think about it. What can you still do that you can do without anyone knowing that you are doing it or knowing who you are? That may not be a big deal to you; to me, it is the essence of freedom.

And please be clear about one thing: there isn't anything secretive that I want to do. At least, nothing comes immediately to mind.

But I am enough of a child of the early 70's, though, to think that this abolition of anonymity is not a good thing. And, enough of a historian to know that from the Federalist Papers in the early days of the republic to "Deep Throat" at the height of the Watergate cover-up, a person's ability to remain anonymous was crucial to moving our country forward.

This year, all kinds of people are calling for reform concerning the use of traffic cameras here in Tennessee. I have always been opposed to them. I know that they can and do save lies--that is not the controlling issue for me. Instead, I embrace the idea that what a person does inside of his or her car that he or she can get away with is okay. Our school also has cameras all over the place. They help to solve crimes, especially theft, when crimes are committed. Someone, probably a friend of mine, pours over hours of tapes trying to identify the most likely student to have committed the crime. Often, he solves them. I am still opposed to the cameras.

The idea that cameras are everywhere, watching and recording us, is disturbing. The idea that every place we go on a computer is recorded is intrusive. The idea that every word we speak into a telephone can be reviewed somewhere is disconcerting. And wrong. As is the recently-revealed fact that our phone companies can track us using our cell phones any time they want to.

Safety is important to me; privacy is more important. Must one be sacrificed in favor of the other? I don't think so. There is no doubt that things changed after 9/11, but we have never, as a country, had the philosophical discussion we needed to have, instead arguing in our own minds that things had to change and that there was nothing that we could/should do about it. I have argued this point more than once, usually with people who adopt a stance of "I don't care about this; I don't have anything to hide."

Well, I don't have anything to hide either. At least, not now. But I might someday and it might be something worth hiding.

I am one of those people who ponders anonymous acts, but then never does them, out of fear that they really won't be anonymous. You know, would like to put posters around that say what I really think or write on bathroom stall walls to clarify what really happened in a given situation. But I don't.

There is a competing school of thought which argues that if you have something to say, you need to have the balls to say it directly, openly, publicly. But that isn't always prudent or safe. Depending on the situational or historical context, doing so would get you fired, imprisoned, or even shot. And that implies a world where a range of opinions are welcome. But are they? Even in this most open of societies, what we have to say can get us into all kinds of trouble. Personally, I have yet to know a person in charge of something who, though he or she claims to want honest feedback, doesn't get angry when it comes. Nationally, I have yet to see us embrace with open arms the person who challenges the status quo.

There is also a pragmatic perspective which argues that we should use every bit of technology at our disposal to intervene on potential crimes and acts of terrorism before they occur, but the power this puts in the hands of the watchers is terrifying to me; it invites scenarios like the ones in the movie, Minority Report.

There should be anonymous outlets for expression. One of the great ironies of the open society people like me crave is that we want sometimes to be able to hide behind that cloak or anonymity. Instead, there are apparently-anonymous outlets. But if someone wants to know who you are, there are ways of finding out.

I remember when a teacher was fired during my first year of teaching, I pondered many nights when I was over making copies leaving a note which addressed the situation. I wanted to ask the faculty as a whole why no one had made any comment about the firing of a colleague. It was a very confusing and troubling time for a new teacher. Surely, I thought, someone was upset about it, someone would protest. But they didn't. And I never left my note. I thought that my note would somehow identify me as that lone person who would dare to stir up trouble regarding the firing.

On a lighter note, these days, an entire portion of my childhood is no longer possible. I remember those 6th and 7th grade years when, during a sleepover at someone's house, we would call up the all-night radio shows and pretend to be someone that we weren't. I remember taking on a British accent for the Jack somebody show and us calling about 1 AM, trying to stifle our giggles, and me saying, in poor Brit-speak, "I'm an avid bird watcher, and I'd like to talk to Jack about birds." Of course, the producer or whomever answered the phone knew that we were kids, and dealt with us accordingly, but the fact that he couldn't quite know who or what we were gave us confidence to keep trying.

Nowadays, when a student uses an Internet service for deaf people to send a message to a faculty member that he would "like to put his beef in [her] taco," the tech staff quickly zeroes in on the exact computer that the message was sent from and he finds himself suspended. Maybe he should be. Maybe that's a heinous crime; it certainly tends towards sexual harassment. Or maybe it's just the modern variation of the prank phone calls that everyone from my generation used to make.

I know we've got to track down the creepos who hide behind secret identities, but if your refrigerator is running, I guess I'd still like to be able to call you up and tell you that you'd better go catch it. Do we really live in a society where there are so many people that need watching that we need to watch everyone all the time?

Both songs come from a terrific "Best Songs Of The Decade" list over at Heart Ache With Hard Work.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Open Letter to Richard Russo

Great Big Mind - Josh Ritter (mp3)
Mercy Now - Lori McKenna (mp3)

Dear Richard Russo,

"You should write him."

My mother, looking every bit of her 67 years of age, lay on a hospital bed in the emergency room as we awaited results of several tests, any of which could come back startlingly negative. Her skin contrasted just enough with the sheets to keep her from disappearing, her lips almost devoid of color. She hates not being "put together."

Conversations in hospitals have a surreal quality. At times the patient speaks like a shaman, connected to dimensions and spirits the rest of us can neither see nor comprehend, sallying forth with wisdom and insight beyond their normal capability. At others, it's just incoherent babbling. Not even the patient seems certain of which is which.

My step-father, the man who adopted me and helped raise me since I was five, had died the previous October. Mom wasn't loyally following him to the grave or anything, but from my selfish perspective, it just seemed natural that she'd go ahead and die on me, too.

It had taken a full year to feel the impact of Dad's death, like I was one of those crash test dummies who surge in super-slo-mo towards the hungry and eager windshield. The action moves at such a slow, frame-by-frame pace you almost believe you could change things, avoid hitting that glass and cracking your skull, but you can't. You're just a dummy.

From my dad's death to that stay in the ER with my mom, I'd been inching, one frame at a time, towards some windshield. No seatbelt. No pause button. No alternative Choose Your Own Adventure outcome. And just as my head began to connect with the glass of Dad's death, I found myself sitting in an emergency room with my mother. Dad and I weren't even all that close. I'd originally, naively -- because why do we think we know what the death of a parent will or won't do to us? -- thought I'd be fine. I knew Dad was dying for years. I'd accepted its inevitability and taken numerous opportunities to say the things that might haunt me had I kept them in. Closure was not going to be a problem. Besides, I had a third child born the next month, a son we named after both my step-father and my biological one, who died shortly after I was born. My hands were full with real-life shit, and I had paid them both their due respects by naming my first son in their honor, so they should be able to rest and leave me the fuck alone.

Except that having parents go and die on you is very much like parenthood itself. People can warn you about how grueling it can be, the emotional nitroglycerin that injects itself at random intervals in the aftermath, but until you actually experience it, you just can't appreciate those warnings in a genuine way.

At the time I was close to finishing Bridge of Sighs and had pulled it out to read a quote I'd marked. It's where Lou says life is a series of doors, that going through them one at a time like we do, it feels like we're making free will choices, but when we get closer to our final doors, and we look back at our path through all those doors we walk through, it starts seeming inevitable that we could have chosen any other path, that maybe we weren't really making free will decisions after all.

I asked Mom if that made sense to her.

"I don't think your father ever had an affair," she responded. "But I couldn't know for sure."

Her eyes were fixed on some point miles above the ceiling. I gave the "Huh?" response. She searched for moisture in her mouth and continued. "A few women, I wondered. Never worth worrying about, I guess. What we don't know." Then she said something about his Bloody Marys.

What I remember about Dad making a Bloody Mary was how he crushed the ice, and the ice machine stood on the bar and roared and crackled louder than our lawnmower with every cube he'd drop in. I was watching The Karate Kid on HBO and my Dad crushed the ice and conversation between he and Mom and a friend of theirs took on this staccato strobe light feel of pausing with every cube.

"I loved your father so much."

I told her that your books gave me a level of comfort and hope and sadness that I hadn't felt with anyone else. You convince me that humanity is so deeply and pathetically flawed that only some kind of powerful force could have such a sense of humor and love us enough to pull it all off.

"You should write him," Mom said.

"Write who?" I asked. "Dad?" That would be kinda weird. I mean, I'd written him in my journal, but not like an actual letter or anything.

"That author. You talk about him a lot. He seems really important to you."

"He is. But he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author. I think he kinda knows that he's important to lots of people."

"But he doesn't know it about you. And maybe he'd like to know. Maybe all of us like to know those things."

I shrugged and half-nodded. Sure, yeah, but come on.

"Wouldn't you want to know if you gave some stranger hope? I bet you sure would appreciate knowing that. Why is that man any different? I bet that's half the reason he writes."

"What's the other half?" I asked, but in that two-second gap, she had somehow drifted, and she was silent for a long pause. I stood up to look into her face and make sure she was OK.

"I loved his Bloody Marys."

Mr. Russo, you know people. Or, maybe better put, you know people the way I think I know people, or the way I want to know people. You see in them such beauty and such pain, and it's never simple, although their actions may be occasionally predictable or inevitable. More importantly, you love people. You don't love them for the Wizard of Oz facades we all manage to create for others and ourselves. You love them because they all do stupid or inexplicable or random things that are out of character or out of bounds.

The worlds you create, where you are the God of sorts, are places where there's a God who cares for them, who shows grace and understanding and maybe even sympathizes with their plights. I know you love your creations, and you want the best from them, and even as you open that next door for a character, a door you've fated him to open, I know it pains you to do so. Your love of those people passes understanding.

And I just need to thank you personally for that. Every book is a gift, and I'm lucky to receive them.

OK OK, I'm also intensely jealous, but mostly lucky.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ich Bin Ganz Vertrunken

Seven Drunken Nights - The Dubliners (mp3)

I went out after work tonight and met up with some peeps. Then at 7 p.m. I left those peeps and met up with some other peeps. I hung out with one of those dudes until almost 1 a.m. and was quite wasted when I got home.

So I didn't ever have quite the necessary window of opportunity to write a post for Thursday morning.

I'll finish what I'd planned to write for Thursday and post it on Friday. If my head stops throbbing.

Until then, I hope you enjoy the song I posted.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Short List

BOB'S PICKS FOR THE WEEK (with apologies to Time magazine's "Short List")

















1 ALBUM Heart of My Own by Basia Bulat

I didn't even know who Bulat was. I had to look her up to find her picture for this post. But some search on eMusic led me to her, and for the past three weeks, I've been pretty much a non-stop fan of Heart of My Own, her second CD. So far, it has been impossible for me to determine favorites, each song sounding so different and having its own charms. I love the way the marching drums kick in on "Go On," the melody of the chorus on "I'm Forgetting Everyone," the way you hear a fiddle here, an autoharp or hammered dulcimer there. Tempted to call this "Americana," I can't, because she's Canadian. But you can hear something of those prairies, the wind, the less-populated landscape in these intimate, folky, but agressive, tunes. Something has gone wrong in these songs, but you can't quite tell what it is.

Basia Bulat--"Go On" (mp3)
2 BOOK Real Cajun by Donald Link

Donald Link, more than any other chef, has transformed my understanding of Louisiana cooking. There is nothing formal about the dishes and meals that you can make from Real Cajun; there are no shortcuts either. People who eat New Orleans food recognize instantly that it is some of the most flavorful food they've ever tasted, but they may not realize until they look into this book that there are very specific, manageable steps necessary to create those layers. A good cookbook shouldn't be intimidating, but it should help to make you a better cook than you were before you opened it. Real Cajun has led me to the best versions of dishes like gumbo and jambalaya that I've made.

3 FILM Beyond All Boundaries

Touted as a 4-D film experience, Beyond All Boundaries, the new 45-minute film made for the National World War II in New Orleans, actually lives up to the hype. At times bombastic, at times jingoistic, it does an incredible job of capturing the flow of the war, using a mixture of broad strokes and personal voices, newsreel footage and digital effects, ground-shaking sound and real-world props like the nose of an airplane jutting out from the screen or snow falling on the audience during the Battle of the Bulge. While waiting for the film to start, you sit outside the theater watching six adjacent video panels of black and white photographs from the time period. Very affecting.

4 OUTDOORS The Winter Garden

For years, during the colder months, the soil on my property has just been sitting there growing sickly weeds and green onions that I didn't pick the first time around. Why didn't I plant garlic cloves back in the fall that would be harvestable months later? Now is the time to put in crops that will be ready in some 60 or so days--lettuces, beans, peas, and anything else that profits from the chance to grow in cooler weather. It's also the time to put those seeds you may have saved into moist seed cups under plastic wrap, so that they can sprout and be ready for the warmer planting season.

5 DVD Intelligence

This Canadian crime series should hold strong appeal for fans of The Wire or The Shield. Vancouver crime boss Jimmy Reardon has a complicated life of family and business entanglements worthy of Tony Soprano, including serving as a police informant for Mary Spalding, director of the Vancouver Organized Crime Unit. While Spalding is not amoral like Vic Mackey, she manages a professional and private life at least as complicated as his or Reardon's. And while she doesn't rely on a "wire," she gets her intelligence by riding herd over an ever-growing stable of compromised, questionably-motivated informants. Her second-in-command, Ted Altman, is one of the great two-timing characters on television, with a smile like a jackal. One caution: the ever-twisting plot is far too complicated for the casual viewer. You can't plan to sip a glass of wine and fall asleep to this one.

Basia Bulat is available at eMusic.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oh Wait, Was She a Great Big Fat Person?

Fat - The Violent Femmes (mp3)
Wait - White Lion (mp3)

Sometimes honesty is nothing but a dangerous weapon. Maybe we don't mean to hurt people with it, but sometimes we do damage with our honesty that can't be easily mended.

One of the most personally agonizing moments in The Breakfast Club occurs when rich girl Claire (Molly Ringwald) spouts too much honesty for anyone. My alter-ego, the nerdy Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), suddenly realizes he potentially has four new friends from all walks of school life, and the ramifications of that possibility excites him.

BRIAN
So, so on Monday...what happens?

CLAIRE
Are we still friends, you mean? If we're friends now, that is?

BRIAN
Yeah...

CLAIRE
Do you want the truth?

BRIAN
Yeah, I want the truth...

CLAIRE
I don't think so...

ALLISON
Well, do you mean all of us or just John?

CLAIRE
With all of you...

ANDREW
That's a real nice attitude, Claire!

CLAIRE
Oh, be honest, Andy...if Brian came walking up to you in the hall on Monday, what would you do? I mean picture this, you're there with all the sports. I know exactly what you'd do, you'd say hi to him and when he left you'd cut him all up so your friends wouldn't think you really liked him!

ANDREW
No way!

ALLISON
'Kay, what if I came up to you?

CLAIRE
Same exact thing!

BENDER
(furious and screaming at Claire)
You are a bitch!

CLAIRE
Why? 'Cause I'm telling the truth, that makes me a bitch?

BENDER
No! 'Cause you know how shitty that is to do to someone! And you don't got the balls to stand up to your friends and tell 'em that you're gonna like who you wanna like!

CLAIRE
Okay, what about you, you hypocrite! Why don't you take Allison to one of your heavy metal vomit parties? Or take Brian out to the parking lot at lunch to get high? What about Andy for that matter, what about me? What would your friends say if we were walking down the hall together. They'd laugh their asses off and you'd probably tell them you were doing it with me so they'd forgive you for being seen with me.

BENDER
(furious once again)
Don't you ever talk about my friends! You don't know any of my friends, you don't look at any of my friends and you certainly wouldn't condescend to speak to any of my friends so you just stick to the things you know, shopping, nail polish, your father's BMW and your poor--rich--drunk mother in the Carribean!

Because I've always identified (begrudgingly) with Brian, Claire's words wound me every time I hear them. They are painful because they are true and honest, and Claire says them with a begrudging regret for and resignation to the way the world works.

Rebel flunkie John Bender (Judd Nelson) goes all great vengeance and furious anger on her, and his rhetorical skills overwhelm the argument, but they never can take away from the scathing truth of her honesty. Bender only wins because he plays dirty and can redirect the subject. When Brian returns to prodding Claire about her response, she again gives a painfully honest answer, making everyone angrier at her still.

Their anger does not change the validity of her claim. Sometimes it's easier to pass judgment on the one cruel enough to say it than it is to acknowledge that we'd be equally guilty... but denying it the whole time.

The only one who stood firm that her friends would accept Brian into the fold was Allison (Ally Sheedy), and that was only because Allison was friendless and could thus offer a lame "the kind of friends I'd have wouldn't mind" response. Which is much like me claiming that none of my pit bulls would ever bite anyone... if I ever bought any pit bulls.

At one point, Bender tells Claire that her name is "a fat girl's name." Which is the best way I can lead into my point...

What makes a fat person fat?

I know I'm burying the lead here, but when having to answer this question, I find myself in a horrible place. Rather than being Brian, the Club's naive victim, I'm suddenly Claire, the honest asshole who says stuff even though it's cruel to say. Obviously, I try keeping these thoughts to myself unless I'm writing a blog or dragged into a friendly debate.

Do fat people eat too much? Is it the curse of genetic inheritance? Do their grandparents spoil them? Are they a lazy at a different level? Can we blame it all on William Howard Taft or the gravitational pull of the moon or cauliflower? Our beliefs here sway us in stories about Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines, or about health insurance costs, or about the decade of network television sitcoms ruined by the glut of snarky and annoying fat guys with hot wives.

A series of Slate articles wrestles with the science debate on weight and how much is linked to the curse of genetics. Although I can't rightly read these articles without acknowledging that I hit some version of the genetic lotto in being skinny, I also can't get past my own anecdotal experiences that most overweight people I know got that way because they eat too much, eat too unhealthily, and are far too inactive.

Overweight people should have to buy two plane tickets when necessary. I wince thinking that my insurance rates are governed by smokers and unhealthy eaters rather than my own moderately irresponsible lifestyle. That Leah Remini would fall in love with Kevin James makes me throw up in my mouth.

Maybe I'm an awful person for admitting this. Maybe it's such an aggravating topic because the whole truth is much more complicated than mere DNA structure or the number of Whoppers consumed. But I doubt I'll ever be capable of viewing one's weight on the same scale of "just born with it" as one's skin color, height, or even sexual preference. One day, if science can prove me wrong, I will do my best to change, but I will mostly pray that I won't pass along my own prejudices to my children.

To those loyal readers who are overweight or agitated by my stance, I shrug a Molly Ringwald shrug and regret to inform you that I can't even play "Heart + Soul" with my toes or apply lipstick using my cleavage instead of my hands.

I've loved the Violent Femmes song since I bought that album back in the '80s. I just added the White Lion song for the pun fun of it. And because it's probably White Lion's best or second-best song.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Partial Life

Lloyd Cole and the Negatives--"Too Much" (mp3)
Pavement--"Here (live)" (mp3)

It was during the early minutes after intermission at a performance of Our Town that I realized how partial my life has become. We had gone to see a friend's performance, out of a combined desire to support him and a feeling of obligation, but we were very clear among ourselves that we were not going to stay for the entire play. No, we had a game plan. The play had started at 8 o'clock; we were going to be out of there by 9:45. That felt like enough. We wanted to get out, have a beer, get something to eat, reclaim the rest of the evening.

Welcome to the world of partial living. We're all doing it, aren't we?

You know how it goes: you get invited to a party, but you don't go for all of it like your parents would have done. No, you arrive late after having done something else, or you get there early and put your time in before heading off into the night. Or just you go. Or just your spouse. Or you drive separately, because one of you likes being there more than the other does.

Last night, we went out to dinner after a social event, but we didn't order dinner. She ordered a salad; I ordered an upscale pizza. We didn't want to commit to three courses.

We left the Bruce Springsteen concert last November early, missing the last 45 minutes of encores. It was a long drive back to Chattanooga.

I don't buy entire CD's anymore; I purchase only those songs that I think I will listen to based on an excerpt of 30 seconds or less.

For my many school obligations, I drop in for a half of basketball, the dress rehearsal of the musical, the start of a school dance, an alumni gathering until I'm seen by whomever I think needs to see me.

I don't finish television seasons if anything at all happens to disrupt the pattern, I leave books half read, when I go to church, I'm ready to leave after communion because the rest then seems unnecessary.

I used to try to time piano recitals so that I would arrive just before my children were about to play.

When we went to Pittsburgh a few years ago, we skipped the Warhol museum and only went to the gift shop.

There's a weird symbiotic relationship going on that I haven't fully figured out. Either I'm trying to do so many things that my free time has achieved a kind of hyper-value or else I am placing such a premium on time as I'm getting older that I want to be able to accomplish all of my obligations in such a way that I can still look at a day or an evening and see the potential for free, unstructured, unfettered time. Either way, the one keeps ratcheting up the other to where I'm planning out how large blocks of time in my head can be broken down into manageable engagements and when something, anything happens that disrupts my plan, I dissolve into either anxiety or anger (or both).

Anything that has no business taking longer than it should is a continuing source of irritation for me--the checkout line at a Wal-Mart, a slow driver, a confused food order in a restaurant, a load of laundry that became unbalanced and isn't ready to go in the dryer, a person who asks too many questions.

I have been looking beyond entire weeks or even months to the potential freedom that lies beyond, doing just enough of everything to get by. What havoc does this wreak on relationships, friendships, outlooks? When you're in the middle of it, it's hard to know, isn't it?

In the meantime, I guess I'll read student papers just enough to get the "gist," pick up the guitar from time to time to play only a few chords or a riff, watch 24 in pieces of episodes in different places on different computers, text instead of talk, walk the dog only until he pees three times and poops once instead of circling the block, cut only the front yard because no one can see the back.

Yes, I'll get it all in, get it all done, hit all of the check boxes on the mental list. And, yeah, I'll get to do some or all of whatever it is that I want so desperately to do. But there is little joy to be had in such a partial way of living, and when I get to that time and place where I think I am free of whatever feels like a duty, I know full well that I will either be too exhausted to enjoy it or too frozen by the empty openness of the options.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

Informer - Snow (mp3)
By-Tor and the Snow Dog - Rush (mp3)
[NOTE: Songs removed under threat of blog death by the DMCA.]

Here are some questions about the Winter Olympics about which I could give less than a dingleberry:
  • Are the Winter Olympics one of the last desperate gasps for white supremacy and segregation?
  • Do the male ice skating fashion statements make Kyle from Glee seem humble?
  • Is Lindsay Vonn attractive? Is she as attractive as she thinks she is?
  • Is that a hairpiece, Mr. Costas? And what did you do with Melissa Stark?
But after watching at least half of what's been on so far in these games, I've decided to agree that a lot of that stuff isn't really a sport.

There are sports, and then there are athletes. Sometimes athletes play sports. Other times, athletes participate in competitive activities that aren't sport but require talent. Sometimes sports require almost no athletic ability and merely a ton of talent or technical skill. Many of these are lovingly called "leisure sports."

The Winter Olympics is full of athletes. Even Shaun White, that lanky, well-maned snowboarding lad, is a serious and amazing athlete. But anytime a "sport" relies on the judgment of others to determine how well or poorly you did, it's not a sport. It's just a competition.

The half-pipe. Moguls. Ice skating. Ski jumping. These aren't sports. They're competitions, much like the Oscars or Miss America. The only difference is that I'd watch Miss America if they all had to do the half-pipe or ski jumping, especially if they had to wear bikinis or evening gowns.

NASCAR, unfortunately, is a sport; it's just not a very good one. Golf, darts, pool, table tennis are all leisure sports. (Well, table tennis is a full-on balls to the wall sport, dammit.)

A sport requires a winner and a loser, or sometimes many losers. At its best, the winner is clearly determined the instant the action stops, or the buzzer goes off, or the bell rings, or whatever. When someone does their "sport" but then must sit and wait to find out whether they were better or worse than everyone else, it can't be a real sport.

Polo? Yes. Cliff diving? No. Boxing? Ooh. Tough one. Because a winner can potentially be determined without judges, I'll give it a pass. Same goes with mixed martial arts.

At the core of this is my intense dislike for the naming of three particular things as a sport: ice skating, gymnastics, and cheerleading.

Almost all participants in these competitions are amazing athletes, very talented, and could undoubtedly kick my ass from here to Timbuktu with one hand tied behind their back. But all of these sports can be gigged and gamed so powerfully by people who have absolutely no direct involvement in the action -- the Supreme Court of Deciders, if you will -- and that potential for corruption necessitates, for me, calling them something other than a sport. (Not to mention that gymnastics begat "rhythmic gymnastics" and ice skating begat "ice dancing" and cheerleading begat "synchronized swimming," which are all even shittier competitions that are even less sport-like.)

Sure, refs can be bought, and umps can be manipulated, and many an outcome has been screwed up thanks to the imperfect nature of a missed call or an official's error. Still, it is much more difficult for a ref to get away with so strongly controlling the outcome of a game -- especially on the big stages of the World Cup or the Olympics or the Super Bowl -- than it is for judges in these other competitions. You need only listen to the commentators during a gymnastics or ice skating or diving event to know that even people who spent their lives in a sport tend to think the judges can be blind idiots. Some of the scores from the couples' ice skating last week left the commentators wondering if they had watched the same routines. Yet no talk of instant replay or booth review is possible, because the fate of these competitors rests completely in the fallibility of a group's judgment.

That's why short track speed skating and those four-person ski/snowboard races are, for me, the coolest and most entertaining sports at this year's games.

(This isn't my idea at all. I've heard many people make a similar deliniation over the years. This is just my way of completely caving and agreeing with them.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NOH8'n on Meghan

The Righteous and the Wicked - Red Hot Chili Peppers (mp3)
Left of Center - Suzanne Vega (mp3)

I like Meghan McCain.

Since the "are you saying she's hot" thing feels inevitable, I'll say OK, I think she's slightly hot.

Maybe she has a few extra pounds on her and will never fit down a drain like some supermodels. In that sense, she reminds me of a blonde Sara Rue back when Sara Rue was adorable and plus-sized and before she went all Christina Ricci with the I wanna be skinny like the other Stepford Actresses stuff.

She might lean a little too far right for my tastes, but she's a far more impressive speaker and voice for a younger generation than most anyone else getting their name out there and earning attention for it. If Meghan and Sarah Palin were on The Golden Girls together, Sarah would be the ditzy Betty White character to Meghan's Rue McClanahan, the slut who has flashes of wit and intelligence. (Barbara Bush would be Bea Arthur, and Ann Coulter would be the Estelle Getty old grandma.)

The young Ms. McCain will always have to fight the Ditzy Blonde stereotype, being that her life at times resembles that of Blair from The Facts of Life, but when you're rich and connected like Meghan, then you've got a better chance of fighting your stereotype than some poor black gal in South Dakota has of fighting hers, so I struggle to feel much pity.

I like Meghan McCain's writing. I enjoy that she's young enough to be honest, smart enough not to spout off about every little possible thing, and savvy enough to avoid being a mere mouthpiece or pawn for some portion of the Greater Political War. She can be shallow or quite insightful. In this country that feels increasingly Red v. Blue and decreasingly Purple, I find myself attracted to any and all signs of reasonable middle ground, which is to say I've given up on actual politicians, since they all seem to cater to their narrow "voting base" rather than real honest-to-God people.

This desire for purple ground found reward in the story of Meghan and her mom Cindy participating in NOH8, the campaign to lobby for same-sex marriage.

I'm sincerely excited that the discussion on homosexuality is slowly -- perhaps at glacier speed -- moving beyond a Red v. Blue issue. It's breaking down political barriers and increasingly being discussed as a civil rights issue, about freedom and equality rather than just Jesus and morality.

My cluelessness and insensitivity on matters of minority culture have been pointed out to me many times by friends and enemies, and I profess to be amazingly clueless about The Gay World, but it doesn't seem I need to know that much about the issue to believe, without reservation, that our country is better off giving them the same chances to screw up marriage that heteros have enjoyed since Adam and Eve. God knows gays can't possibly screw it up worse.

Part of me thinks we're scared of giving them this right because all of a sudden more gays might pull away from precisely the kinds of wilder lifestyle decisions that allow moralists and conservative Christians to trumpet the evil of their ways. The bathhouse and group sex stereotyping might be less popular if our society showed a willingness to view their relationships in the same light as those of opposite sex couples. If it's true that Paris Hilton only makes the Dumb Blonde stereotype harder to escape, maybe it's equally true that letting gays marry might help pull us back from the stereotype of all gay men being horny sex hounds and all gay women sneaking into smoky dyke dives for nooky.

The McCain women showing up in NOH8 propaganda is one more reminder of why -- before he sank into the game of politics and less "mavericky" -- I found John McCain so compelling and appealing as a political figure. A man whose wife and daughter can come out on the opposite side of a political issue from him is a man I respect, because it means they're allowed to have differing opinions under one roof and still get along.

This, obviously, is quite different from the Palin household, where Bristol accidentally reveals her understandably crappy opinion of abstinence as an effective method of birth control and is effectively hung from the rafters. She reemerges as some kind of national spokesmodel for Abstinence Only. In the Palin home, everyone eats the same amount of food at the same time and with the same utensils, or else Todd takes them out back and skins them alive.

The story of Levi and Bristol is a stark reminder that much of the Palin Family image is no more sincere than that of Lady GaGa. Were they allowed to live their isolationist dream in the far reaches of Alaska, perhaps they would have become more nuanced people. Slightly. But instead we pull them into the vortex and they become cartoon characters.

For now, at least, Meghan McCain has avoided becoming a simple caricature. Who knows whether it can last, since predictability and simple sloganeering seems to be the only real means to popularity in politics or culture, but I'm cheering for her even if I only agree with her 1/4 of the time. If she's the future of the Republican Party, at least I won't have to loathe it and can just respectfully disagree with it.

You go girl.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What Happens To My Pee When I Eat Asparagus and other stories you'll never hear

Luther Kent--"Who Dat At The Mardi Gras" (mp3)
Bayou Renegades--"Mardi Gras Time, Pt. II" (mp3)


The well-worn adage, "What happens in the French Quarter stays in the French Quarter," may have a superficial usefulness for someone trying to cover one's tracks for indiscretions great and small committed during a trip to New Orleans, but few people take the concept seriously. It is far more likely that you will hear about everything that anyone did in the French Quarter (or Key West or Spring Break or any other "decadent" experience) before it's all said and done.

We'd rather kiss and tell or tell on someone else. That's much more fun.

But, what happens in New Orleans probably should stay there. The problem is that whatever happens in the French Quarter has little relevance to anyone who wasn't there or hasn't been there.

Vacation exploits are actually kind of inside jokes. Case in point: we're in a bar that has cheap drinks and a good jukebox, is stuffed to the gills, and has a happening party vibe going on. A non-stop regimen of "Who Dats" and songs like "When The Saints Go Marching In" fill the air. When they run out, my friend decides to put some songs on the jukebox, but he makes a crucial mistake--he puts on songs that he likes, not songs that fit the mood, culminating in Neil Young's "After The Goldrush," a slow, high-pitched classic that dumps on the bar like a bucket of cold water. When it's over, the bartender shouts, "Hey, man, I love Neil Young and all, but how about playing something a little faster? I mean, it's Mardi Gras." Well, my friend is quite competitive. He plays a Stevie Ray Vaughn first, but then some other kind of British, mid-tempo stuff I didn't recognize, and now the bartender is really on him and they exchange words about if the bartender wants to hear certain stuff why doesn't he put money in the juke and him saying that's exactly what he was planning to do until my friend jumped in. We're not innocent. We're egging this on. There's a woman named Brenda Mac whose husband owns the bar and who once fashioned herself something of a torch singer, and so her album has a requisite spot (the last spot) in the jukebox lineup. "Put on three straight Brenda Mac songs," my friend says. And my other friend takes the bait. And we leave, quite amused with ourselves.

See what I mean?

Now, when you're in it, it gets your adrenaline pumping, is the topic of conversation off and on for several hours, etc. Especially since we went back to that bar later in the evening and had additional confrontations of various sorts. But when you're not in it, it's just a stupid bar story. People with alcohol getting more worked up about something than they should.

And that's the point: New Orleans during Mardi Gras is its own unique world with values that don't apply anywhere else. The string of beads that you stood out in the freezing-ass cold for, that you jostled for, that you leapt for, that you spilled your beer for, that hit so hard they made your fingertips numb, that you shared with a stranger, or, God forbid (not me!), you paid good money for in a store, are nothing but cheap trinkets made in China when you take them out of your suitcase while unpacking at home.

The thrill you felt when the next parade float turned the corner from St. Charles onto Canal may still be salvageable in your mind, but try explaining that feeling to someone who hasn't been. You did what? they are thinking. You spent your evenings waiting for and watching parades?

Whenever I report back to my father even after a family trip to New Orleans, I always feel the air go out of the balloon. The things we did seem so mundane--we ate, we drank, we walked around, we shopped, we took pictures, we went to favorite places we've gone to many times before, we barely stepped into our hotel room. He seems unimpressed. It's like he's waiting for the revelation of some great mystery.

You know, one of the greatest gifts from God involves children, and it is this: children, seen from the outside, seem like whiny, messy, time-consuming little brats who won't do what they're told and who ruin what they demand to be a part of. A blessing, you say? Well, of course, because the blessing is that those who don't have and/or can't have children are usually shielded from the multitude of joys that children bring. It saves the childless from becoming disconsolate. It allows them to develop in other ways.

In some small way, a trip to New Orleans reminds me of that dichotomy. You can't really explain the pleasures of the experience to someone who hasn't been there. You can't effectively claim it is a city that is more alive than wherever that person happens to be living. That causes immediate defensiveness. You can't prove that in New Orleans, food is more than food, parades are more than parades, walking the street is different than taking your dog around the block. What happens in the French Quarter mostly stays in the French Quarter because it doesn't translate easily back in the gray world.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Kind of Morning

Some Jingle Jangle Morning - Mary Lou Lord (mp3)
You Talk - Babyshambles (mp3)

If it hasn't been stated enough on here, I despise the Today show. The level of unstable explosive emotion I reserve for that show is well beyond any reasonable amount, to the point that it kinda feels Hinkley-esque. (Don't worry, Matt. You're safe. I don't do weapons.)

Conservatives can shout all day long about Today being a bastion of left-wing ideology because all great political (and religious) movements need clearly-defined and two-dimensional bad guys. We need our enemies to be simple and consistent. Liberals like me demonize the super-wealthy CEO and the mind-controlling megapreacher in much the same way the right paints "The Media" and government oversight.

What angers me is that Today is no more a flagship for liberal politics than my johnson is a flagship for women's liberation. In the past decade, the show has gradually shifted from an entertaining and very superficial look at news mixed in with massive doses of pop culture, to a show completely centered in the Wow Moment. Matt and Meredith cover one and only one thing: The Rubberneck Du Jour.

Whatever topic is most likely to catch your eye, arouse your prurient interests, keep you from touching that damn dial, then that's the topic they cover. And, to no one's surprise, actual news and actual politics don't keep enough people giving a shit. The Olympics. Snow. Ways to pinch a penny at the mall. The latest big-name adulterous male. This is as close to news as you're gonna get for more than a minute per hour.

The only kind of actual news Today covers is the kind they can't escape. When the World Trade Center collapses, for example. Or when a former beauty queen becomes the face of the Republican Party.

I don't remember who finally had enough of my complaining to push me into giving Morning Joe on MSNBC a chance. For certain I had stumbled across several positive articles about the show, but someone told me to give it a try.

A year later, it is undoubtedly one of only three programs permitted the enter my universe of attention in the morning (the other two are NPR and SportsCenter). If you need to know why, it comes down to Mika Brezezinski's Three No's: “No cooking, no lingerie, no missing girls.”

The show involves a large table where former Rep. Joe Scarborough, the slightly right-leaning friendly blowhard, and Mika, the demure brainy slightly left-leaning librarian MILF, play symbolic parents to the breakfast nook. Their "children" change every day, but it's always a bevy of media types, politicians and talking heads. The show is fresh and modestly paced and mixes heavy talk with an often light heart, reminding us that we can all really get along, and none of these issues are worth walking away from the table over.

Don't worry. I get it. I know why one show is on a major network and the other is stuck on a meaningless cable channel. I realize our country is made up more of people who don't give a shit about what's happening to anything beyond their own water cooler and paycheck than it is of people who want to feel connected, involved and informed. Truth hurts, but I get it.

I'm just saying that, without Morning Joe, I would be incapable of holding onto my hope that important people of differing political persuasions can sit down together and talk calmly about things that matter. And what's especially refreshing is how free from dogma most of the guests seem to be. Even Pat Buchanan, who's plenty dogmatic, seems to be capable of enjoying a friendly debate without the yelling and finger-pointing that happens on other similar shows.

And that's all I really want out of my morning. Non-explosive, mentally stimulating talk about actual honest-to-God news. A brief look at the state of our union with commentary from people with whom I don't always have to agree. With no cooking, lingerie, or missing girls.

Well, and coffee.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This is the Parable of Marriage

Bill Morrissey--"Birches" (mp3)

Whether you know me personally or not, here's a bit of a revelation: this is the song that can make me tear up, sometimes weep, when I am alone at night writing a blog post like this one.

The history of popular songs is a long and varied one, but I will argue confidently that throughout those grand centuries, there are no lyrics greater than the ones that follow. Some as good, none greater. Bill Morrissey, relatively-unknown folksinger from somewhere in New England, has captured the nature of marriage in miniature in this song.

It is not a happy song, but perhaps not a sad one, either. Perhaps more a song of awareness and resignation. It does not make me weep for my marriage; it makes me weep for all marriages, for the state of marriage, for the inevitable ebb and flow of two people trying to move forward in the same place, at the same speed, with matched needs and similar goals, and the difficulty of pulling that off.

Birches by Bill Morrissey

They sat at each end of the couch, watched as the fire burned down,
So quiet on this winter's night, not a house light on for miles around.
Then he said, "I think I'll fill the stove. It's getting time for bed."
She looked up, "I think I'll have some wine. How 'bout you?" she asked, and he declined.

"Warren," she said, "maybe just for tonight,
Let's fill the stove with birches and watch as the fire burns bright.
How long has it been? I know it's quite a while.
Pour yourself half a glass. Stay with me a little while."

And Warren, he shook his head, as if she'd made some kind of joke.
"Birches on a winter night? No, we'll fill the stove with oak.
Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,
And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon."

And you hate a cold house, same as me. Am I right or not?"
"All right, all right, that's true," she said. "It was just a thought,
'Cause," she said, "Warren, you do look tired. Maybe you should go up to bed.
I'll look after the fire tonight." "Oak," he told her. "Oak," she said.

She listened to his footsteps as he climbed up the stairs,
And she pulled a sweater on her, set her wineglass on a chair.
She walked down cellar to the wood box -- it was as cold as an ice chest --
And climbed back up with four logs, each as white as a wedding dress.

And she filled the stove and poured the wine and then she sat down on the floor.
She curled her legs beneath her as the fire sprang to life once more.
And it filled the room with a hungry light and it cracked as it drew air,
And the shadows danced a jittery waltz like no one else was there.

And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.
And the shadows, they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.
And she knew the time it would be short; soon the fire would start to fade.
She thought of heat. She thought of time. She called it an even trade.

The craft of the song is stunning. It flows as effortlessly in its telling as a story, yet with the imagery and understatement of a poem, all the while being lyrics first, meant to be sung to a comfortable melody and a circular guitar pattern.

And nowhere does the song ever have to state its meaning. It is such a carefully-observed scene from a marriage that it tells us much more than we think we know.

Listeners to this song, we all of us want to believe that we are like the wife, that we are the one who choses passion over pragmatism, spontaneity over frugality, romance over common sense. But, of course, we do not. Not always. That ebb and flow of marriage depends on roles that vary and reverse. And if one partner locks in to a narrow.....

Bill Morrissey's Night Train is available, I hope. It has an undefinable "winter" feel to it, and is perfect for this time of year.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

TMI

Stay Over - The Rescues (mp3)
The World is Our ____ - This Will Destroy You (mp3)

Alison was almost three years older. She was the middle daughter of one of my mother's best friends, and we spent a ton of time together growing up. I always gravitated to older kids, and Alison was no exception.

One night when I was in fifth grade and Alison spent the night, she and I were in my room playing before bedtime, and I dropped my pants and showed her my property. I don't remember what instigated this decision, but it wasn't a dare, and it wasn't a request. It might have been when I was changing into pajamas. Anyway, as best I can recall, her reaction was a mix of fear and utter shock. She was in seventh grade. I was 10 and she was 13, and she was far more than 3 years' my superior in maturity, having been raised in a turbulent family household I suspect had many of the soap opera problems stereotypical of the 1970s.

This confession isn't something I'm proud of. In fact, flashing Alison qualifies as one of the three or four most shameful memories of my life.

Part of this shame stems from having no understanding of why I did what I did. Maybe I was testing her friendship or trust. It couldn't have been particularly sexual -- I don't even think I had yet stumbled on my first Playboy hidden in the bottom of my dad's closet. But she had definitely blossomed physically, and I knew she was seen as attractive, so maybe there was something cluelessly sexual about it.

Not knowing why, but also knowing I did it with the awareness that the action was wrong, makes the memory harder to live with, thus the greater shame. It's when we do bad things that we just can't quite explain, that make no sense to anyone including ourselves, that moving past the shame feels the most difficult.

Working in a school with teenagers, those of us who earn trust are inevitably and regularly exposed to the underbelly that damns them. Yet we must also cling to our love of that age group and our desire to do what we can to see them through it.

I don't want to steal Bob's thunder, but he recently ran an anonymous experiment with his class in honor of A Clockwork Orange in which he asked each of them to submit a note describing the worst thing they've done but never got caught doing. Bob said the responses included "most everything you'd worry about, this side of murder. You name it, and it was probably in there."

Maybe some of them were exaggerating or making stuff up. But most were probably being honest.

Boys who graduated have returned and told me stories of "bad decisions" involving alcohol, drugs, drag racing, disturbing pranks. They don't talk as openly about sex -- maybe I seem too prudish, or maybe they know that's dangerous ground -- but I've overheard many tales of group sex, drunk sex, computer sex, cell phone sex. One boy a few years back was sharing a video he recorded on his cell phone of his girlfriend giving him oral pleasure. One boy in our middle school got caught in his math class looking at a cell phone picture of a naked girl. She was out of school that day and had sent it from her bathroom. Home alone and bored in eighth grade in 2008 ain't what it was 20 years ago.

And these are, as people like me enjoy saying, the good kids.

Limiting myself solely to the teens and parents in my own circle of acquaintances, I know of at least two dozen teenagers who have engaged in something sexually scandalous: having sex with an adult, or sexting personal pictures or videos, or impregnating/getting pregnant, or multiple partners in a single night.

With modern teens spending more than half their awake time hooked into something electronic, it shouldn't surprise that an increasing number of these scandalously bad decisions center around computers and cell phones. It's also no surprise that this is leading to more suicide attempts related to sexting and the like. The morality play of the Paris Hilton sex tape plays out in shrunk-down versions in high school hallways and small towns all over this great country.

Bob says -- and I'm kinda paraphrasing -- that the lesson of A Clockwork Orange is that successful adults survive their teenage years without getting caught.

If I were in fifth grade today, and I had exposed myself to a 13-year-old female friend while alone with her in my bedroom, and if she had told her mother, and if her mother had told authorities... well, I feel absolutely certain that my life would be drastically different than it is today. I highly doubt I would be allowed to work a job around kids.

There's a super-awesome article in Slate called "No Brakes!" about how a parent can help minimize the risks for their children. Any parent should read it, probably four or five times.

I'm left with two thoughts about all of this:
  1. I used to get pissed off when people talked about how much tougher kids had it today with drugs and temptations. I can no longer deny that they suffer from TMI. Literally, they have too much information coming at them too fast; they are exposed to often out-of-control and out-of-context (and usually unsupervised) information, while also given more power and methods to communicate. That's an incendiary combination.
  2. My writing suggests that this challenge is restricted to teenagers, but adults are caught in it, and teens are just taking their cues from us. Watching a sobering and electric show like Breaking Bad only serves to remind that we adults are world leaders in "bad decisions." Walter White is quite possibly the most horrific reflection of the American everyman I've ever seen. Maybe we don't all deal with terminal cancer by manufacturing crystal meth, but the metaphorical connection between him and most of us is clear and undeniable.
Teenagers are just us, except with the valid excuse of inexperience and ignorance. Adults know far better and do far worse.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Church Insurgency

Bill Morrissey--"Sandy" (mp3)

Damn you, churches of America! Curse you for your continual insinuation into our sacred secular events!

First it was Halloween. Oooooooo, it's a scary world out there! It's not safe for our children to walk the streets of this great land and ask people who aren't of the same faith or race for candy. Solution? Why don't churches have their own little "trick or treat" parties right at the church where they can control everything and give thanks to Jesus for the candy they are about to receive.

It's a dang sucrose and corn syrup communion, using Hawaiian Punch and Kit-Kat chocolate covered wafers! Well, guess what, churches? Halloween is a safe holiday, whether parents go around with younger children or older children are allowed to walkabout on their own. Urban legends aside, kids aren't getting bags full of poisoned Smarties and apples with razor blades in them.

And don't even get me started on Conservative Christian "haunted houses."

The latest incursion is the Super Bowl. Oh, I know churches have been co-opting the Super Bowl for decades, but it is only recently that it's started to affect people I know. This year, I have two friends, make that three friends, whose Super Bowls have been partly or completely compromised by church obligations. I realize that they may not see it that way.

But it's small steps that add up--the Sunday School class that has a meeting and then suggests that the meeting morph into a watching of the Super Bowl, the invite by a church couple that supercedes hanging out with real friends, the need to host a church Super Bowl party when all of your friends are at a traditional party down the street. All of a sudden, one of the great, simple pleasures of life, the joy of watching a game with friends, is full of complications and compromises.

Here is the problem. Church events operate, nay, thrive, on a "have to go" mentality. The sense of obligation that they impose, using a toxic combination of guilt and higher purpose, can cause a person to overlook everything from the most basic manners to the bonds of friendship. What a person thinks he or she should do is likely to triumph over what he or she wants to do, at least when religion is stirred into the pot.

I suppose the logic is that Sunday belongs to the churches anyway, so why not try to reel in parishoners for that holiest of events--the Super Bowl. But let's face it, like Halloween, it's an uneasy fit. The holiday of goblins, ghosts, and vampires doesn't translate easily into church parlor games and safe, youth pastor-led activities.

The Super Bowl, arguably, is more problematic.

Pro football is its own religion. I don't mean that in any kind of sacreligious way; I don't mean to argue that Peyton Manning has somehow supplanted the Christ. But the fact remains that pro football has its own Sunday regimen week after week, its own cadre of like-minded believers who share a common love for the sport. So to try to commandeer the climactic event of the football season by pulling football parishoners in and making them return to being church parishoners is nothing less than an affront.

Why don't you churches get together and form a coalition to take turns taking in families that are homeless or something? Oh. That's right. You do that. Sorry. My bad.

To me, churches are like bars. Like bars, churches have a very specific function, a very specific approach to how one should deal with the troubles of life. And that's fine. But when churches or bars overstep their bounds, start reaching for teams, clubs, social events, commitments that extend beyond the traditional times and purposes allotted to them, then they have stepped way beyond their function. And if you give in to them, they will continue to keep reaching, reaching, and reaching.

Forgive my vitriol. I wanted to watch the Super Bowl with some friends who weren't there. They were taken by the church, either willingly or by implied force. In miniature, this is the story of humanity.

Bill Morrissey's Night Train is available, I hope.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sho'Nuff!

The Last Dragon - Dwight David (mp3)
Burn Hollywood Burn - Public Enemy (mp3)

Last week, our school held a day where, among other events, seniors organized and led sessions addressing issues of cultural diversity. One of the sessions my students and I attended was entitled "African-Americans in Film: A Retrospective" or something like that. It was organized and presented by two African-American seniors.

They began their session by introducing us to the notion of minstrels and blackface, showing YouTube clips of moments from movies where this embarrassing part of our legacy took place. Very uncomfortable. A reality beyond what these guys understood. Good place to start.

They next moved to Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning turn as Scarlet O'Hara's slave Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The presenters said very little other than explaining the general ingredients of blackface and explaining that McDaniel went on to focus her career on roles that were less stereotypical and more empowering. (I don't know if that's true, as her IMDB shows a bunch of "Maid" and "Aunt ___" roles, so I'm not quite sure she experienced some sea change in roles offered to her.)

From there, they went straight to Driving Miss Daisy. I know they only had an hour, but they skipped half a century of film history.

They cited Morgan Freeman as one of the first essential black actors to play major roles in motion pictures, citing his role as Hoke Colburn as a critical moment in the advancement of roles for African-Americans. At which point I swear I heard Chuck D, somewhere in New York City, throw up a little in his mouth.

Driving Miss Daisy and Freeman's role in it, they said, opened up leading roles for African-Americans in film. They then cited The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, Shaft, Remember the Titans and American Gangster. I think they meant the version of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson, but I didn't ask. They probably wouldn't know Richard Roundtree if he walked up and kicked their young butts like the bad mother (shut yo' mouth) he is.

"And now we would like to show you scenes from one of the first movies to use an African-American as the main actor," they said. Naturally, I'm thinking they might show scenes from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night or A Raisin in the Sun. You know, good old school Sidney Poitier shit.

The credits began to roll, and I heard the music, and I chuckled.

Yes, according to these two well-educated, relatively intelligent young black men, the actor known only as Taimak and making his film debut, who didn't even have another acting part for four years, was the first African-American to take the leading role in a film. In 1985.

If there are indeed 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, then surely there are a few ways to look at "The Last Dragon."

Here's the first way: It's shameful that two boys on the verge of college know so damn little about a subject that did seem of some importance to them.

Here's the second: for boys born in 1991, there's just not that much difference between 1939 and 1989. It's all just history. I remember when I was in high school, I didn't really give much of a crap about the timeline and where Lawrence Welk, Patti Page, Frankie and Annette, and Elvis fit. It was all just old music for old people, so turn that shit off and let me listen to Modern English already!! They're tubular!

Here's the third: Maybe their lack of knowledge is, in an oddball sort of way, a sign of just how far we've come. Perhaps it's accidentally a very encouraging statement for race and progress in America when young and educated African-American boys know so little about the history of African-Americans in film. It's a sign that, for as long as they've been alive and paying attention, inequality in film is a matter of degrees rather than a matter of extremity. They might not even know about Cooley High or Foxy Brown or "Blaxploitation" or, hell, even Richard Pryor. Or maybe they know about all that but don't really know where it plays in the timeline, why those names and words are kind of important when it comes to African-Americans in film.

According to their presentation, America went from blackface to blacks portraying slaves to Driving Miss Daisy to a land where Will Smith and Denzel Washington are two of the most bankable names in the business.

And that's the fourth way to look at it: maybe it's more or less that simple. Blackface to slave portrayal to Freeman's Hoke to I Am Legend, and the rest is just annoying details like Superfly or Lady Sings the Blues or -- one of my all-time favorite movies -- Do the Right Thing. Just details, those.

Except for this little gem of a movie, produced by Barry Gordy and Motown waaaaay back in 1985, in glorious Technicolor (TM), centered around a young black kung-fu stud named "Bruce" Leroy Green, who journeyed inward to his soul, and throughout Harlem, to discover the way to a sublime golden glow and proof that he was The Master.

Although I've hardly achieved a sublime glow when it comes to my level of racial understanding, the Public Enemy song "Burn Hollywood Burn" and Robert Townshend's movie "Hollywood Shuffle" were crucial eye-opening experiences for me as a teenager, slaps in the face about how clueless I was about the issue of black representation in film.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Leftover Vignettes from an Abandoned Short Story Collection

Elvis Costello--"Everyday I Write The Book" (mp3)

So, I’m driving down this hill, late to pick up my daughter from ballet or something, and there’s this guy walking up the hill. It must have been trash pickup day, because he was just finishing up looking through one pile of boxes and stuff and was heading to the next. And, are you ready?, he’s talking on a cell phone. He’s hiking from house to house, looking through the trash, while talking on his cell phone.

So what, you say? I know it’s the kind of story you want to turn on me and say, what’s your problem? Would I be happier if same guy is looking through trash without a cell phone? Do I think he shouldn’t have a cell phone? Do I think if he can afford a cell phone, then he shouldn’t be looking through trash? How do I know he’s going from house to house looking through trash? What if something just caught his eye?

Okay, so here’s my answer: this morning, when I took my daughter swimming (we’re down in Florida), the only other person at the pool because it’s kind of cloudy and cool but kids don’t care about that is this white guy wearing a wifebeater, friendly, says hi, in pretty good shape, not one of the retirees living down here full time, obviously on vacation too, and he’s sitting there by the pool, smoking and looking at his cell phone. He doesn’t look at us while we swim, though we’re splashing and slapping water noodles on the water; no, he’s looking at his cell phone, kind of pushing numbers experimentally, occasionally putting it up to his ear, once in a while seems to be talking to someone.

Eventually, he leaves.

Like I said, this is a retirement community, abandoned in the summer when they head back to Michigan and Canada, and the only people down here are in-laws like me who need a place to take their kids and can’t afford condos of their own. Very peaceful, too peaceful. I know I’m wandering, but we come back that night to swim. He’s there again, sitting in the same place, doing the same thing, not really talking but just pushing various buttons and sometimes listening while the cigarette burns.

****

There were big, sausage women on the golf course, women who had, through the lost negotiations with the years, swelled to meet the size of their husbands, and who had taken on the dispositions of meat-packers. To each other, of course, they were deferential. “When are you going to bring me that pie recipe, Shirley? The Fikas are flying in from Conshohocken next week and I want them to taste your divine pie. Oops, looks like one more putt for you, dear.”

You saw them by the pools in the retirement communities, swim cops reciting the rules to the anonymous grandchildren who arrived inconveniently. Their husbands, whose sacred laps must be swum before dinner and in time to make the Early Bird Special, conducted their own quieter discussions in the water, of stocks, the day’s golf, and the new, trim widow who had come down alone this year after the funeral and had started attending the Saturday Socials.

The sun, having feasted, settled low in the sky.

****

To get to work, to take my kids to school, everything, I have to drive up over the ridge and back down. On Shallowford Road. The ridge is where the Civil War battle took place. When the Confederates retreated off the ridge, they took the Shallow Ford. Same road. It’s a funny road, one of the most dangerous road in the city with its twists and turns. They’ve renamed part of it now after a hip-hop singer who’s from here. Most every time it rains, you’ll find some part of it blocked off by police cars turned sideways, lights flashing, while they help out with some accident. People try to take it too fast.

I only mention it because I had a weird run-in on it. There are parts of it that don’t really have a guard rail. Some places that need one. This one time I was coming down a part with a sharp curve left. It’s a place where I used to tease my girls that I didn’t have any brakes. Anyway, I’m going down pretty fast and this guy’s coming up and right as he’s about to drive past me, he jerks the wheel and his car toward me, then back, fast, and, by instinct, I swing away from him, on the shoulder, almost to the edge before I realize he isn’t coming at me. And he’s past me, gunning it up the hill, and I’m back in control, braking too much going down, heart racing, trying to understand what happened. It didn’t feel like he slipped or anything, or even like it was some kind of joke.

I think with just the two of us there, no one else to see, he wanted to see if I would go off the side.