Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Ain't Gettin' Ahead. Sorry.

Neil Young--"The Last Dance (live)" (mp3)
Drive-By Trucker--"This Fucking Job" (mp3)

What we want and what we need has been confused. ---Michael Stipe

Let's get several things out of the way first. For starters, I want to be clear that I'm not talking here about climbing the ladder, about casting others aside on the way to the top. Also, I'm not feeling especially "anti-job" right now, it being Spring Break and all, and so, in spite of the song above, this isn't about that either. I just like the song.

But this is about the ratrace.

I paid my bills the other day; it was the first day of the month, the day I got paid. That isn't a day that puts me in a bad mood or anything. I take some weird pleasure in getting all of the spent money out of the way so that I know how much I actually have left to spend. That's when I really start living. Which is kind of strange, when you think about it.

But, at the same time, I have a competing mentality that I've had ever since I started working and that I've never been able to shake. It's that living month-to-month feeling. It does not matter one bit how much I am or am not making, I still have a certain euphoria when the check comes and a certain desparation during the last few days when I am waiting to be paid again. And, usually, that translates into spendthrift behavior, a few days of buying whatever I want, eating out, etc. I mean, we've got to get some joy out of a paycheck, don't we?

See, what they don't tell you is that however much your salary or wages might increase from year to year, everything that you need to spend your money on is going to increase right along with it. And, in that regard, try as much as you might, you're never going to get ahead. Sorry.

(Quick factoid: whatever your raise may or may not have been this year, the cost of good and services increased over the last 12 months 2.6 per cent. And that number does not include gas or food. I think we both know that if it did, you'd realize that you are even deeper in the hole.)

See, what they've figured out are ways to make life increasingly expensive that will keep up with or exceed whatever advances in earnings you might make. That keeps you exactly where you have always been. Who are they? No idea. Why would they want to do that? I don't know, but it certainly preserves the status quo.

But I'm being obtuse. We all know that our own increasingly-technological lifestyle has a lot to do with this. I manage a phone account with Verizon that costs me $260, give or take, per month. That includes 5 phones, only one of which, a Blackberry, requires the additionaly data charges necessary for a phone that is getting and sending email, reading The New York Times in the middle of the night, etc. But, of course, all of the rest of us, after the constant cultural barrage of advertising and the "phone envy" that comes when we see what our friends' phones can do, want an iPhone or the equivalent now as well. If I did that, my monthly phone charges would be well over $400 a month. Want to spend more money on apps? There's an app for that.

A couple of Christmases ago, my father bought us a plasma flat-screen tv. It was a considerable upgrade from what we had, especially considering that we still have a tv he bought us 25 years ago, as well as a couple of used tv's we bought from a friend. My father's gift, much as we have enjoyed it, have added a Wii, occasionally watch television on it, is the gift that keeps on taking. Before that, we didn't have cable. Or, better put, we had had cable intermittently on and off, when we felt like we needed it. Now, we have an expensive monthly cable fee. There's no point in having a plasma tv without cable. And we have a fee that's been jacked up from what was advertised. There's no point in having a HD tv without the necessary cable boxes that will allow you to see HD.

There might be a temptation here to blame ourselves. I don't see it that way. Sure, as members of a capitalistic society, we want better things than what we have. That's a given. But what we're not paying attention to, in this technological frenzy, is how quickly the bridges are burning behind us. Having an elderly father who is not interested in the latest, hottest cell phone, for example, I have become increasingly conscious of how the choices for a simple cell phone that only makes phone calles are rapidly shrinking. Among the latest Verizon options almost all of the phones will now require an additional fee for data transfer. If you just wanted a normal tv, one was that wasn't flat screen or plasma or digital? Well, good luck.

A small example, perhaps. But I am concerned that we are not paying attention as life costs skyrocket around us. Maybe there isn't anything to be done about it. Maybe we are acquiescent victims to a country where cars and colleges, houses and hot coffee all continue to rise to premium prices. Maybe refusing to pay is a futile, unpatriotic gesture.

Some say that the economy will not recover until we buy and amass debt at the levels at which we used to do both. When we do, tell me how that is going to help us to get ahead? Especially on salaries and wages that, historically, continue to lose buying power. Somebody will, but I don't think it will be us.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Better Love I See

Better Love - Drew Holcomb + the Neighbors (mp3)

Live music exists for the moment that superglues itself into your memory.

Nine times out of 10, I'd rather spend $50 buying music on iTunes or eMusic than buying a concert ticket, because the ability to listen to any and every song I want when I want and when I need it is more important to me than the chance of catching musical lightning in a live concert bottle. Bob, on the other hand, is the Bill Paxton character in Twister: only truly happy when chasing musical tornadoes with his merry band of climatologists.

But certain concert moments, even if they're just a part of the nightly act... well, those memories don't leave.

Michael Stipe's introduction to "World Leader Pretend" on the Green Tour in 1989. Him, with his funky mascara, alone with a snare drum.

I've got dozens of these little snippets, but I guess they probably don't mean much to anyone else. Concert memories are, like miracle golf shots and SNL jokes, very much "guess you had to be there" stories.

But my most recent one is worth sharing.

A senior at our school was able to arrange a special seniors-only mini-concert during the school day before Spring Break. The duo of Drew Holcomb and his wife Ellie played a stripped-down 40-minute set. Attendance was voluntary, but virtually every senior showed up. [NOTE: The rise of the married couple turned singing partnership has to be at its zenith in 2010. The Weepies, Mates of State, Drew and Ellie Holcomb, Arcade Fire... I know I'm forgetting plenty, so go ahead and add yours to the comments!]

Because I got there late, I don't know quite how the chemistry formed, but I have a few clues. First off, we're an all-boys school, and Ellie Holcomb is just about 120% adorable. Adorable singing adult women can hold 120 boys at attention with little difficulty. Second, Drew Holcomb is a pretty laid back and cool dude. The kind of singer-songwriter that adorable singing adult women like Ellie undoubtedly find irresistible. The two of them had the perfect amount of relaxed sincerity, a delicate quality teenage boys respect.

Then Ellie kicked it up a notch with a verbal gaffe. Between songs, she commented, "I've never been with this many guys before."

And with that, and her ability to live with the teen testosterone guffaws, Ellie was made an unofficial member of the class.

To close out the performance, they sang a song I'd never heard before. Neither had, I suspect, 95% of the seniors in that room. "Better Love" is by no means the greatest song ever. In my experience, the best songs are rarely made that much better in concert. Rather, it's the decent ones that have plenty of room to grow and improve that can take flight in a concert.

The chorus to "Better Love" is all too simple. And repetitive. "Better love, Better love I see." On the third chorus, Drew and Ellie kinda asked the crowd to sing along.

Um, hello? Drew? Ellie? Maybe y'all don't understand groupthink. Maybe y'all don't understand teenage boys. But, um, they don't do sing-alongs. A room of 120 17- and 18-year-olds don't start singing along with a chorus with the word "love" in it, not unless it's in some shredding hard rock or punk or screamo anthem for the age. Certainly not in the quiet hush of a single acoustic guitar and two voices.

But sing they did. At first maybe a dozen or so guys added their voices to the mix. But the numbers were enough to build on, like that first attempt at The Wave at a sporting event. By the third time around, a room adolescent males were singing a heartbreaking chorus about hope and dissatisfaction, and I was wiping tears from my eyes.

In all of our stereotypes about boys and males, it's important to remember that the forest doesn't always speak for the trees.

A moment like this one, hearing a hundred untrained and unexpected male voices join the intimate chorus, is why educators will never disappear.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Be a Hero, Not a Nero

Waiting for the Rapture - Oasis (mp3)
Pray Your Gods - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)

Fear is getting on my nerves.

It's everywhere, fear is. And, while I'm sure it's always been around, fear seems to be particularly enjoying this  epoch in American history.

First, the personal.

Mom was a single mother until I turned five. She married, and I got a dad. Point is, she was pretty busy, what with trying to provide for us and look for romance and raise a nightmarish baby boy. In times like those, who has time to worry about stuff like seatbelts, or choking hazards, or bicycle helmets, or jungle gyms, or cholesterol?

Not my mom. I frequently rode without a seat belt (and certainly without a car seat) and spent half my traveling childhood crouched into the floorboard of the backseat, my Star Wars figures or other playthings scouring the barren backseat landscape on some random imagined adventure. She didn't force me to eat whatever she fixed, so on days and nights when I didn't want chicken livers or collards, I was free to microwave a pizza or a frozen egg roll or even just a few bowls of cereal. I rode my bike all over creation and back even though I couldn't even do a bunny hop. When I was four I almost OD'd on an entire bottle of Geritol because I was alone in the house while she was down the street borrowing milk or something from a neighbor.

My wife and her siblings grew up in similar fashion with a divorced mom. They took care of themselves; they had little choice with a working mother.

Yet in 2010, if you were to see the way our parents behave as grandparents, you would have thought they had been Chief Warden at Alcatraz during our youth. Everything is dangerous. Everything is unsafe. Cars go too fast. Children run too fast. Dogs' teeth are too sharp. Sunlight is too cancerous. Food is too preserved. Television is corrosive. Music is making us deaf. Yada yada.

Now, I'm not saying they're completely wrong with their 2010 opinions. Rather, I'm saying the 1978 versions of themselves would have openly mocked these 2010 versions. Their 1978 versions -- the ones who bore actual, real responsibility for children -- didn't give a shit about all this shit.

Somewhere between then and now, everything got scarier. And our culture encouraged it, apparently, because most parents are a bajillion times more fearful than they were 30 years ago.

Second, the political.

Save for a few beautiful hours in November 2008, politics just more and more mired in fearmongering. Both sides. The right fearmongers about government wanting to take over your lives and take over all businesses, about killing babies, about killing Jesus, about taking your guns, about homosexuals raping your children. The left fearmongers about sending America into endless wars with everyone who won't cower to us, about evil uncaring corporations, about

Now, I'm not saying they're completely wrong with their political opinions. Rather, I don't quite see how our political evolution is making us better as a society, as a culture. We know we're taking ourselves into the toilet, but we just keep playing our instruments on the deck of the Titanic like there's no choice but to go down with the ship.

Third, the educational.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the industrialized notion of school as factory is failing. We churn out the proletariat (and the occasional CEO) and keep the rowdy teens in line until they're old enough to wipe their own butts, and we call this not leaving a child behind... that is, if we could even manage to do all of this right.

Now, I'm not saying schools are unequivocal failures. Rather, it's exactly like health care. We know it should be and could be so much damn better and more effective than it is, but nobody can get the momentum and support -- or whatever it's gonna take -- to really do something earth-shattering and convincing about it. We just keep playing our instruments on the deck of the Titanic like there's no choice but to go down with the ship.

Fear has paralyzed us, and I don't know what the hell I can do about it, but accepting it only guarantees me a spot in the orchestra that drowns in the freezing water. I used to think it might be enough if I could teach my children to break through the fear and the trepidation, but I'm starting to understand that I can't possibly teach such things without proving myself capable of those things, anymore than I could teach them algebra without being able to add.

I never liked that Jack Dawson fella much, but at least he froze and died doing something useful. I've got some time. The ship won't sink tomorrow or the next day. But it's time to drop the damn instrument, dry off the wet spot on my pants and start looking for a way off.

Who's with me?!? We're going streaking!!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Awaiting On You All

George Harrison--"Awaiting On You All (live)" (mp3)
George Harrison (featuring Leon Russell)--"Beware Of Darkness (live)" (mp3)
Bob Dylan--"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (live)" (mp3)


Before the Haiti t-shirt, before the Susan B. Komen Run, before Sun City, "We Are The World," Live Aid, before almost everything except the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, there was the Concert For Bangladesh.

Imagine this scenario: You hear about a benefit concert, an all-star show hosted by a famous rock star. The goal is to raise a lot of money to help out a tragic situation in a Third World country, a place where people are dying in droves because of starvation and civil war--over three million people. Candidly speaking, you may not be that caught up in the cause, but you are, as a music lover, extremely excited by the afternoon's or evening's lineup. After all, you are about to see George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Badfinger and........for the first time in a long time, Bob Dylan. This would, of course, be one of the very first benefit concerts, certainly the first one to tackle a world problem, the Concert for Bangledesh put on by George Harrison back in the very early 70's.

To this day, I'm not sure your average music fan (including me) understands too much of the backstory much more than this. Bad situation. Ravi Shankar goes to George Harrison and asks for assistance. Wants to raise $25,000. George thinks they can raise much more. Recruits a group of friends and within 5 weeks is putting on 2 shows in Madison Square Garden for a total of 40,000 people and raising close to $250,000 for Unicef.

(Think about that for a moment: what, six, seven, eight bucks a piece to see that lineup? Even adjusted for today's prices, that's about $38/ticket. Hmmmm......concert inflation, anyone?)

George Harrison is the President Jimmy Carter of the Beatles. While Carter wasn't much of a president, as an ex-president he has set a standard for community and international involvement, diplomatic assistance, even authorship. Harrison had enough star power and more than enough friendship power to pull together a small, but amazing line-up. If you've read Clapton's biography, then you know that at this point, he was strung out on heroin post-Derek and the Dominos and that he kept saying that he was flying over for rehearsals but never showed up until the day before and played without practicing. Dylan, of course, hadn't been playing anywhere, was in a self-imposed exile from music, so to get him on the big stage was an unprecedented coup.

The only thing he couldn't quite pull off was....the Beatles. Ringo was easy. Paul was still mired in bitterness and figured, so he says, we just broke up, what's the point in getting back together? John was totally on board, but George, God bless him, wanted John on the condition that Yoko would not play with him. It seemed like it was going to work for awhile, until Yoko raised hell. End of John.

With the CD now out of print, I just got a used copy from Amazon in the mail yesterday. I hadn't heard it for decades. Who even knows where that album went? Back in '71, it was an extremely expensive 3-album box set that we got for Christmas. As neophytes, my brother and I quickly trimmed that down to 4 sides of music. We didn't care much for the Ravi Shankar side, except to enjoy the joke where the crowd thinks that the tuning up of the sitar is the actual song. And the last side only had one or two songs on it, which, back in the day of playing album sides, was hardly worth your time. Now, of course, I'm older, a bit more aware, and, since it's on cd, I listen to all of it.

Great stuff here. As I've mentioned before on these pages, George's words, "Coupla numbers from Leon" kick off one the great moments in rock music, Russell's rave-up of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Youngblood." Dylan has made so many great entrances in his career, from his first plugged-in, second set show to the Band's Last Waltz to what Neil Young termed "Bobfest," but the buzz when he walked out here at Madison Square Garden may be the greatest of those entrances. Once again, back to just a man, a guitar, and a harmonica, he fulfills George's introduction of "a good friend to us all" with a brief, audience-friendly acoustic set (mostly--there are flourishes from a couple of backup musicians), the likes of which were not ever seen again. It would be three more years before he even returned to touring, and then, once again, electric and backed by the Band.

But, make no mistake, this is George's show. He covers for lack of full Beatles nicely, bringing his own "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes The Sun," and "Something" to the mix for those looking for a little of that old magic. And the versions are good. But really, it's George's solo stuff from All Things Must Pass that drives the show. Topical, spiritual, musical, lyrically adventurous, songs like "Wah-Wah," "My Sweet Lord," "Beware of Darkness," and "Awaiting On You All" take off in concert. The pent-up energy from being the third wheel as songwriter for all those years fuels these upbeat songs, and, one must assume, the chance to play them live is a joy as well. This is George at the peak of his powers, with social consciousness and spiritual energy to boot.

I know that all things must pass, but this moment is certainly worth revisiting, first for the music, and then for the precedent it set.

The Concert For Bangladesh cd set is out of print, but available used at amazon.com.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Hall of Fame Singleton

So Fresh, So Clean - Outkast (mp3)
Love Me or Hate Me - Lady Sovereign (mp3)

I admired Barry Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back for the Detroit Lions. I admired that every single offensive play from scrimmage had the potential to become a highlight reel run into the end zone no matter where the Lions were on the field. Same holds for dozens if not hundreds of athletes, people who perform at or near the peak of their sport whilst I drool in awe. Hell, same holds for those kids who win the National Spelling Bee.

Confusing admiration with envy is dangerous.

With that in mind, I watched a Hall of Fame singleton in action this weekend, and it was the kind of amazing, jaw-dropping display of talent and skill that would have Dickie Vitale calling him "a PTPer" and "super scintillating sensational, bayyybeee!"

I spent last weekend in New Orleans celebrating the pending first-time nuptials of a 37-year-old college pal lovingly nicknamed The Aardvark. For the sake of relative anonymity, let's say his Hall of Fame singleton pal was named Clooney.

Even as an undergraduate at UNC, Clooney was a budding star on the bachelor scene. He looked like Matt Dillon in Singles, with brown hair half-way down his back and a fashion sense that would have given Kurt Cobain an erection, but even then girls went out of their way to land on his radar screen. Twenty years later, I honestly can't recall witnessing a single instance where the woman he targeted turned him away on first glance. Every last woman -- easily more than 30 in about 36 hours -- let him continue negotiating beyond the introduction. At most, five eventually turned him away. None in less than 10 minutes.

At lunch on Saturday, our boisterous almost-dozen gets seated next to a group of three women. He takes a seat adjacent to them. By the time his meal has arrived, they have exchanged numbers with the most attractive one, and he's taken a phone cam picture of her (so he can remember what she looks like when he's scrolling through his numbers). He convinces her to meet him later that night.

While everyone is showering and dressing for the evening's fun, he calls a 23-year-old from New Orleans. He met her when she was visiting Los Angeles about a year ago trying to get a modeling contract while on Spring Break from Tulane. He arranges a date with her on Sunday.

On Friday night, Clooney, myself and another married dude skipped the strip clubs to check out a supposedly hip "Vegas-style club" outside the French Quarter. We arrived, paid the hefty cover, got patted down more thoroughly than any airport screening I've endured, and entered to discover that we have immediately doubled the Caucasian population in the club of some 150 people.

While I struggled to find ways to stop from glowing, blinding the innocents with my milk-and-cookie Hanson-loving white boy aura, Clooney immediately turned on his radar and located two stunning and alluringly-clad ladies. I could literally hear the beeping of his radar lock as he asked his mental commander for clearance to fire. While I was out of the bar before I could finish half of my mixed drink -- not from fear, mind you, but because, as the third guy said, "You're more out of place in here than Carlton Banks" -- Clooney and my other brave friend entered the dance floor and got jiggy wid it.

Name an big global party or event, and the odds are pretty good he's attended, and he has the pictures to prove it. (He claims Carnival in Brazil is the world's biggest and best party bar none.) He also can name the women he met at each stop and show pictures of each. Some HoF'ers perfect their chip shots; some perfect their 40-yard post patterns; some perfect the ability to remember every necessary detail of the women they've seduced and can recall every detail of interactions to note what worked and what... well, just didn't work as quickly.

On Saturday night, we thought Clooney had finally been shot down. The 24-year-old from dinner said she was running late and couldn't meet him at our hotel bar, so we went to watch a live band down the street as they played music more suitable to my Carlton Banks persona: Journey, AC/DC, and the other standard Bourbon Street fare goober tourists learn to expect. But by 11 p.m., I look around, and there she is. And 20 minutes later, they're making out on the dance floor.

This being our last night in the city, however, Clooney must have felt he needed more of a challenge. So he goes to the bar for a drink and leaves this gal and her friends to dance with our group of lovable married losers. Less than an hour later, I turn around, and Clooney is locking face with a blonde in a funky fashion hat and high-class straight bob, a lady many of us had been dancing near in the hopes that maybe she would find our dancing so comely and irresistible that she would beg us to dance with her.

The look of disappointment and... was it shame?... on the face of that girl was tough to witness. Such, it seems, is the game they play.

Forty-five minutes later, Clooney's making out with the woman she came with, a poofier-haired blonde with only spaghetti straps on her back so as not to obscure the monochrome tattoo that covered 75% of her backside. Another half-hour, and he'd moved on past her as well. It's possible one or both at some point told him enough was enough. Never once did I see him place hands in any place that was out-and-out hyper-aggressive, but I'm sure he made some pretty pornographic suggestions.

[By contrast, I witnessed at least seven or eight guys who charmed or seduced females with much more offensive, bona fide harrassing tactics. And upon witnessing all of these, I continue to ask myself why there seem to be so many women who find such things so irresistible. The girl who had come to the bar to meet Clooney? Some dude breaks into our group, lunges into her, and kisses her full on the lips while reaching around and grabbing her ass. They didn't know each other. She shoves him away and keeps dancing. An hour later, they're making out in the crowd. This is not nearly as unusual as you would like to think. Such, it seems, is the game they play.]

If I could arrange some kind of Freaky Friday moment and switch lives with Clooney, I wouldn't.* Nor do I say I admire him in a way that differentiates his morally-questionable talents from my admiration for a woman who brings equal talents to the table. In fact, in some ways, nothing is more fun to watch than an A++ woman walking into a bar and dancing through a French Quarter crowd. As she passes, all the men in her vicinity must decide whether they wish to hold with their soft 16 or ask the dealer for a hit in the hopes they can land a 21. And all those soft 16s and solid 19s sneer and snort at her magnetism and at their men's predictability. Dance partners get traded off more easily than tech stocks in the late '90s. Horny men in the Quarter are, ultimately, the most frequently duped, dumped, teased and left holding their own privates. We men pay the biggest price in the largest numbers, and we very much deserve to.

For many, the French Quarter is essentially a fishing expedition. Many (but certainly not all) men and women, married and single, go fishing. Some fish for dinner. Some just fish to catch and release. Some catch more than they wanted, and some go days with their worm withering on the hook. And if you go to New Orleans, you might not like to fish, but you damn sure better be OK with all the fishing poles and hooks swinging constantly around you on Bourbon Street.

And hell, if there's people who love to sit back and watch bass fishing on ESPN2, then there's certainly legions like me, who enjoy just watching, blurry-eyed and slurry-tongued, as the fishing competition rages in the waters around us. And if you like watching it, then to watch someone who has mastered the art can't help but get a little admiration.

* -- Certainly not for more than, like, a week or three.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

That High, Lonesome Sound

The Country Gentlemen--"Fox On The Run" (mp3)
Old And In The Way--"Panama Red" (mp3)
Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band--"Long, Lonesome Highway Blues" (mp3)
Yonder Mountain String Band--"Crazy Train (live)" (mp3)


There is probably no genre of music that is praised and disparaged with equal fervor like bluegrass.

To the non-initiated, it "all sounds the same"--whiny songs from the mountains with a sound and sensibility better suited to the Great Depression than to the 21st century.

To the devotee, it has roots and authenticity that its in-bred cousin, country music, can only (but doesn't) aspire to. The charm of those high, nasal harmonies matched with fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and, especially banjo breaks offers musical pleasure with a depth and soul of generations of musicians who have crossed oceans and cultures, who found a way to capture the pain of living not through the slow blues of their African-American counterparts, but with songs that brought instruments and melodies from Ireland and Scotland, along with themes of love, murder, and mayhem that would mutate in the New World, adding trains and travel and the great expanse of land that went with it.

I have my own, fairly-lengthy history with the genre, spanning some 35 years. With the influence of a high school friend who became pretty good at guitar and who studied tradtional, old-time, fingerpicking, and bluegrass styles, a number of us were initiated during those crucial teenage years into a love affair with the "high, lonesome sound."

When I got my first guitar at 18 and my friend started to teach me songs, he would challenge me with fiddle tunes like "Billy in the Lowground" or "Arkansas Traveler," songs where I learned both the flatpicked lead parts and the rhythm parts with their C or G runs, with the picked bass and strum patterns.

When we all turned 21 in Pittsburgh and went out to a bar to have a beer, we invariably chose a place called the Press Room (I think) up in Oakland, where they had a bluegrass band on Saturday nights. By then we were fledgling aficionados and would call out for "Fox On The Run" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" while we drank pitchers and ate beer nuts. Despite being located in an industrial Northern city, the place was packed every weekend.

There were several events that led to the acceptance of bluegrass among the rockers of my generation--when Clarence White left the world of bluegrass as a member of The Kentucky Colonels and joined the Byrds, when Jerry Garcia's side project with David Grisman, called Old and in the Way, became yet another way to bring "roots" music to Deadheads, and, probably as much as anything, when the co-mingling of rock and bluegrass in bands from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Eagles led to the inevitable trading of guitar licks and the mutual admiration society that resulted exposed the country's hot flatpickers--the above-mentioned Clarence White, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake--to the rock audience.

Much of my disdain for modern country music comes from the simple fact that I had listened to so much bluegrass that I couldn't stomach the packaged sentiments of a genre that pretended to reflect places in America that had never existed in the first place.

Consider the following lyrics from the bluegrass classic "Fox On The Run:"

She walks through the corn leading down to the river,
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun.
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her,
And left me to die like a fox on the run.

Like Bill Monroe's "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" or Old and In The Way's cover of "Pig in a Pen," the simple language, the organic mention of place, the natural imagery establish universal truths in the songs. In Monroe's song, the narrator is going "lay around the shack/till the mail train comes back" and roll in his lover's arms. You wouldn't expect a song called "Pig in a Pen" to be a lament for lost love, but the protagonist has a pig, a pen, and corn to feed him, and all he "needs is a pretty little girl/To feed him when I'm gone." Simple. Real.

While I might have expected my move south 27 years ago to lead me to a great bluegrass city, I was mostly wrong (yes, I know about the Mtn. Opry, but I hoped for something more mainstream).

Years ago, decades ago now, there was a place called J.B. and Friends (which became Durty Nelly's, which is now Taco Mamasita) that featured bluegrass on the weekends. I took my wife there a few times when we were newly-married, attempting to create the feeling I had back in Pittsburgh when drinking beer and listening to bluegrass felt like the center of the universe.

No such luck at J.B.'s. On a variety of cocktail napkins, I sent up song requests. I was on a train kick that night, trains being central to so many bluegrass songs, and I requested "Old Train" by the Seldom Scene, "The Wabash Cannonball"(my dad's favorite), "New River Train" by the Kentucky Colonels, all without success. They didn't know the songs. Feeling both exasperated and arrogant, I finally sent up the request which must tell a bluegrass band that there's an asshole in the house. "Any train song," it read.

Now, there is a fair amount of music that passes as bluegrass, everything from the Avett Brothers and Allison Kraus to the experimentations of Bela Fleck and the hipster use of bluegrass settings in bands like Yonder Mountain String Band. And everyone has discovered what special touches its instruments can give to their songs, especially the surprising banjo, like on R.E.M.'s "Wendell Gee" or the mandolin that seems to be everywhere. Certainly, I'm no purist. I like most of the permutations and combinations, and even what I think is classic is far too rock-influenced for a purist. But if you can hear some of the old stuff, or some of legitimate updating, like Steve Earle's work with Del McCoury before they parted ways because Steve swears too much for bluegrass, maybe you'll agree that the sound is lonesome because it is so real. There isn't much company for that.

Though not featured above, the one bluegrass cd I would own if I could only own one would be The Seldom Scene Live At The Cellar Door. Amazingly, one of the members of the band is an alum of this school. I just learned that last year.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Aardvark

Good Things - BoDeans (mp3)
You're Supposed to Be My Friend - 1990s (mp3)

On this, the day of our 500th post for Bottom of the Glass, I hit the road to the place where this blog started. I am bound for a bachelor party in New Orleans. The man at the center of the event is the subject of my musings today.

"Do you know where I can get a sweeper?"
A what?
"A sweeper. Know where I can get one?"
Oh, you mean like a broom? Yeah, here. Borrow ours.
"No. No. Not a broom. A sweeper."
What the... I have no idea what you're talking about.
"A... a sweeper. A fucking sweeper. Fuck." (walks away, scratching head)

Don was from Toledo, Ohio. He called vacuum cleaners "sweepers," and he called cokes "pop," and he loved music bordering on death metal and magazines that focused on high-end cars and high-end stereos.

He was a year younger than my roommate and I. For a while it seemed like the only things we had in common were our strong desire to get better at drinking vast amounts of alcohol and our unwavering fan support of UNC's sports teams. But in a dorm removed from the main section of campus, where every opportunity for friendship was cherished, we all got along well enough to know not to throw it away.

Don earned the name "Aardvark" because one night, after far too much to drink, he arose like a zombie from being totally passed out at almost 4 a.m., took a fire extinguisher from our floor's lobby, and emptied it up and down the entire dorm. Ten floors in our dorm. Aardvarks are nocturnal, solitary, and capable of doing serious destructive damage to ant hills and college dormitories. Seemed like the perfect nickname.

That year, many a weeknight found Don and one other friend, Long Island Erin, hanging out in our room watching movies. We'd sit, books opened in front of us, Top Gun or Days of Thunder playing on the screen in the background. Movies like those were perfect, because we all knew them and could just look up to watch our favorite parts, but could also ignore it and get stuff done.

Among many of the drunken debates in which my group of friends would engage, none was as frequent as the debate about Girls, Friendship and Loyalty.

At its crux was this question: Is it acceptable for a friend to hit on your girlfriend?

From that one question stemmed many secondary questions. All of them kick-started multiple-hour Hardball-esque sessions with lines drawn and psychological philosophical bullshit being slung all over the place. Usually with some Dylan or Zeppelin quotes thrown in for extra heft.

On one end of the opinion were Jason and Teflon. No girl was worth the sacrifice of a friendship. No girl was off limits. If you liked her, or lusted her, you went after her, even if it was your best friend's girlfriend. If she left her best friend for you, then she wasn't really all that good for your best friend anyway. Hell, you were practically doing your friend a favor if you could take his girlfriend from him.

I, of course, was the polar opposite. If a friend of yours even expressed sincere interest in a girl, you pulled back. If you were zeroing in on a girl, your friends helped you out when they could and got out of the way when they couldn't help. If you stole your best friend's girl, you weren't really a best friend. You were a disloyal piece of donkey crap that should be flushed away.

This debate was frequently put to the test in the social experiment that is a small-town college campus.

To be fair, I was also something of a serial crushmonger in my younger days. If a girl was cute, or smart, or clever, or sassy, or athletic, the odds were pretty darn good I would officially claim my interest in her to my friends. Were my friends to have to avoid every girl I claimed to like, they would be left with roughly 100 available females on a campus of 20,000+ students.

But then there was Erin. Not Long Island Erin who came to our room and watched Top Gun all the time, but a different Erin. Artist Erin. I'd met Artist Erin in the fall and had slowly cultivated a friendship with her. I would stop by her room in the early afternoons and watch "Guiding Light" with her and her roommate Alicia. It was their guilty pleasure. I merely sat and watched them watch the show.

Artist Erin was beautiful and soft-spoken and gentle. She seemed very Snow White to me. Everything that was kind and sweet about the world. Chipmunks and deer and skunks would walk into the open meadows and sing to her when she was around.

One night in late January or early February, the regular four of us were sitting in my room watching a movie and doing homework. Our group of friends were hosting a dorm party (no easy feat on a dry campus), and I confessed my secret plot to woo Artist Erin. I was going to wait until we were both a few beers into the experience and then invite her to see a poem I'd written for class down the hall in my room. (Please stop laughing. Thanks. -- b) While she was reading, I was going to play the song "Good Things" by the BoDeans, which at the time was just about the most heartwrenching kick-ass song I'd ever heard. Between the poem and the song, she was going to realize she was madly and deeply attracted to me. We would eventually get married and celebrate our two very artsy careers as a loving couple.

Party comes. Artist Erin shows. Plan in motion.

Except for Don. Don and Erin hit it off at the party. Two hours in, they're nowhere to be found. I find out the next day that Don and Erin went down to our room. He played "Good Things" for her and showed her the poem I'd written. She liked the song and poem so much they made out until the sun rose, although they were polite enough to move to his room after they'd listened to the song a few dozen times. (To this day, I insist that my devious plots to impress females work much better in the hands of others. I'm Cyrano deBarge. Or something like that.)

The Aardvark was one of my groomsmen in 1996. In May, I will be one of his. We shared a room in a 2-bedroom apartment the last two years I was in Chapel Hill. The level of trust I have in that solitary nocturnal mammal is rarefied.

Jason and Teflon might have been a-holes for taking their stance on friendship and females. But of the five friends in my wedding party five years later, Don stole Erin, another stole my prom date, and a third nailed my ex-girlfriend. The other two groomsmen... I either made out with a girls they were crushing on or died tryin'.

None of those friendships hardly even skipped a beat.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why People Don't Have Dinner Parties

Velvet Underground and Nico--"All Tomorrow's Parties" (mp3)

Kathy doesn't eat red meat anymore. She's heard it's bad for you. She dropped it cold turkey. Or, better put, she's dropped it for cold turkey.

Steve pretty much only eats red meat. He heard the same things, but figures that with all of the exercising and working out he does, it won't affect him. There's nothing, he says, better than a good cheeseburger.

Geoff no longer thinks of specific foods, only food types. He is totally into protein--meat, chicken, fish, nuts, tofu, cheese, you name it. He tries to avoid carbs to help him get/keep his weight down. Piles of bacon, bowls of peanuts feel like shrines to him. Personal shrines.

Sandy is a diabetic. Can't have anything with sugar and can't have anything with a lot of simple carbohydrates because those will quickly convert to sugar. Suspicious of barbecue sauces and salad dressings and runs for cover when the dessert comes out.

Joe is a picky eater--he only likes chicken fingers and other chicken dishes and chips of all kinds, especially tortilla chips. But probably not with salsa. At least not any kind of funky salsa. Like hot. Or peach. Or with beans or corn in it. Or that green stuff.

Yolanda has an averse reaction to cilantro. A certain percentage of the population does.

Linda is suffering from Crohn's disease and can't really eat salad or anything with a lot of fiber in it. Garlic is rough on her. And onions. And anything spicy.

Bill's dad is still mad at the Japanese from World War II and won't eat anything Asian. Of course, despite having no particular baggage from these other cultures, he won't eat anything Mexican or Spanish either.

Carl doesn't like to eat much when he's drinking.

Susan is on a diet. A new diet. A diet she doesn't like to talk about because she doesn't like for anyone to know that she is dieting, though they all do. They just don't know which one this time.

Tommy hasn't gotten out of the South much, and has no interest in developing a "world palate."

Margot is a suspicious eater. She does not trust her eyes. She will lean in close, examine, and ask, "What's this?" before moving on to the next platter. Tell her what it is, and she will respond, "What's in it?"

Brad is lactose-intolerant. Roy is allergic to shellfish. Kevin can't be around nuts or his throat might swell.

Kara has been reading about ground beef. She does not like what she reads--different sources from different countries, chemicals, diseases. A bowl of chili? No thanks.

Stewart has gone organic. Ellie is still in her vegan phase. Chas calls himself "vegetarian," though he isn't particularly fond of vegetables.

Mary gets irritable if her blood sugar gets too low, so she either has to eat as soon as she arrives, or else pre-eat. Once, when the food wasn't ready fast enough, she and her husband left and went to a restaurant to eat and then came back for dessert.

As someone who likes to cook, I find these circumstances of the modern world to be amusing, not frustrating, challenges, not deal-breakers. But I could also see how they might just shut you down. If you were thinking of having a party.

Names have been changed to protect the hypothetical.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The ChatRoulette Rabbit Hole

The Strangest Party (These Are the Times) - INXS (mp3)
Clothes Off! - Gym Class Heroes (mp3)

I heard the word(s) "ChatRoulette" several times on my weekend in New York City, and when a connection up there sent me a link to this "explanation to the uninitiated" post, I read it and decided to link it for our parents... on the off chance they look at our page and read those links.

ChatRoulette allows people to connect, randomly and anonymously, to other people via webcam. Ms. Yardi describes the site very well, and she also lays out the pitfalls and concerns of the way the system works. Yet, very much like my experiences with Internet-broadcast terrorist beheadings and "the video that shall not be named," something about the ease with which one's curiosity can be ferreted and soothed drew me to pay the site a visit last Thursday evening.

Clad in my blue jeans and T-shirt, I hopped on. Two of the first five cams I encountered were singularly focused on exposed manhoods being fondled in an onanistic manner.

At that point, I hopped off and contemplated my own ground rules:
  1. Upon exposure to genitalia of either gender, I would immediately click "New Game." (Yes, the mere phrase "new game" as a way to switch "partners" is a little discomforting.
  2. I would attempt to type to anyone, male or female, not exposing themselves and not clearly prepared to do so. Any communication leaning in that direction would be cut off.
  3. I would chat with no one longer than 5 minutes.
With that in mind, I reentered.

When I was in eighth grade, I went on a school trip to Louisiana. Six classmates and our English teacher, a Louisiana native, spent a day and night in the French Quarter. Although I had by that point been exposed to dirty magazines and the like, it wasn't until walking down Bourbon Street, seeing pictures of strippers, their breasts exposed right there outside the strip club, that I realized that what I'd seen in print actually found ways to translate itself into real life.

Until then, Penthouse was a sexualized fiction. Instead of orcs and hobbits, there were breasts and penises, engaged in epic battles and exposed in ways that just didn't really happen. The letters section of that magazine were, to our minds, clearly made up. Stories of fast food workers having sex in the drive-thru window or at wild parties. That stuff was no more believable to me than tales of dragon-slaying or the Balrog.

Bourbon Street wasn't merely sexualized. It was an exposure to several new dimensions. The street performer as pseudo-art, high-end panhandling. The restaurant as cathedral. The gutter as acceptable receptacle for vomit. All of this was powerful and revelatory to me.

ChatRoulette is Bourbon Street on techno-steroids. The kind of Bourbon Street that might interest Congressman Massa more than, say, the average guy.

Over the course of about an hour, I encountered at least 200 web cams.

Only twice did another male even say "hi" to me. And both times the chats lasted only long enough for me to say no, I'm not interested in jerking off with you, but thanks for the invitation.

Only eight times did I encounter a cam with females. Four times, they instantly clicked "New Game" and ejected me. Twice I had 5-minute chats. One was a 25-year-old Brazilian woman who shared with me some of her favorite Brazilian musicians. We also talked about the World Cup. I asked her for the names of their best players.

The other longer conversation I had was with a pair of young college, or possibly high school, girls. The conversation was amusing and lasted about three minutes before it seemed to cross the line and inched into the inappropriate. (It's tough to know where that line is when their first words to me was, "OMG, it's a fully-clothed man!")

The other two times, the chats lasted maybe a minute. Long enough for them to be certain I wasn't whatever they were interested in seeing or talking to, I guess.

No fewer than 40 times did I encounter a penis.

Another 20-25 times, the cam was focused in such a way that masturbation was clearly the end goal. Cam trained on bulging underwear, or in downward-facing angle where crotch could be seen in a moment's notice.

Another 10 or so times, I encountered drawings of penises, as if that kid from Superbad had taken over a percentage of the ChatRoulette computers. (One funny one had, written beside the penis: "This is a drawing of a tree! I swear!")

Nothing about me should suggest I'm a prude. Even the best parts of our great civilization requires cesspools and garbage dumps. All part of the Yin/Yang thing. So I get it. ChatRoulette is 95% Yang. (ha.)

Thanks, but I'd just as soon go find my Yang somewhere else.

Oh yeah, and three times I encountered a group of kids. Like, middle school age. Two groups of three, and one single boy. And that's where the whole Yin/Yang, ChatRoulette, let's-make-fun-of-the-penises thing gets a little bit weightier than I can handle.

It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?

Monday, March 15, 2010

How To Ruin A Movie

Neil Young--"Motion Pictures" (mp3)


Spoiler Alert: I am going to try my best to talk generally enough about plot and film so as not to ruin movies that you might not have seen, but you should know that the two movies that inspired this discussion are either still in theaters or have only very recently been released on DVD.

Movies have no obligation to depict the real world. They are, after all, fantasies and entertainments, even the most topical and realistic of them. If you are using movies to teach yourself about life or history, you are probably deluding yourself.

That being said, there are still "laws" that movies (and the books that they are sometimes based on) must follow. "Must" may be too strong a word, and it may not really apply. If you are making a movie, you don't have to do anything, except what you think will sell. But, I would argue that there are things that you should do, if your goal is to create a satisfying movie experience for your viewers.

I watched two movies this weekend--one at the Rave, one in my kitchen. Both depicted the lives of solitary men who live in the unique worlds that they have created for themselves. Both of those lives are lives that no one I know knows. Both are ultimately sad worlds. Both depend on surprise endings to create a fuller understanding of their characters. But one movie was ultimately quite satisfying and the other felt like a cheap trick. Here are the broad reasons why:

1. Surprise must have purpose. Put simply, a good surprise should make you exclaim "Oh!" not "Oh, no." The former utterance reflects a stunning discovery; the latter, of course, is an expression of disgust. Most surprise endings depend on a "red herring." A red herring should be a masterful plot device, something so organic to the story that even as you are awe-struck, you also realize that you shouldn't be surprised at all. A good surprise ending for a movie about fishing is not the discovery that no one was ever even on the water.

2. Some things only work once. Make your own list. Mine would certainly include The Sixth Sense and the first book or movie I ever encountered where it all turned out to be just a dream. I think it was back in grade school when they used to show us Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge," the Twilight Zone version, every year, it seemed. Poor Confederate traitor, just as he's about to reach his wife back at his plantation, we discover that the noose didn't break the first time after all and that he really is just swinging away at the end of a rope. What a joy it was to see Sleuth the first time (on stage, I think), but could that trick work again? (I won't name it, just in case). Just don't try to throw me a souped-up version of The Others meets Identity.

And don't try to give your movie extra weight by casually tossing in the Holocaust or 9/11.

3. The easier of the two ways out is the less-satisfying. So for the sake of intensity, you put your character into a situation that he or she can't possibly get out of, but through some kind of supreme, even unbelieveable effort, they do or die trying. I love that kind of stuff. I love to see someone take on overwhelming odds and even if, like in 300, I know that they can't possibly succeed, I appreciate seeing the scope of their efforts.

But to put characters in that kind of situation, or that kind of apparent situation, and then switch to a different storyline where they aren't really in the circumstances I thought they were, are, in fact, in a situation where less is at stake or more has already been determined, that just stinks. If you're going to call your movie Conspiracy Theory, it better be a damn good conspiracy. It's why thrillers like No Way Out or Enemy of the State are so satisfying. You're not just paranoid; they really are out to get you.

4. Movies must be true to their own realities. Each movie creates its own universe. It doesn't have to be a fantastic place like Middle Earth or "a galaxy far, far away." It just has to establish rules and follow them. The beauty of The Sixth Sense, whether you liked it or not, whether you figured it out or not, was that it was consistently true to its own reality. The kid sees dead people, you accept that as a given in that world, and off you go. Even a "normal" movie like Adventureland creates a universe where Lou Reed is incredibly popular, and your having met him makes girls find you more desirable, going into a working-class tavern guarantees you that his music will be available on the jukebox. That's a good world, but it's not one that any of us ever lived in. But we accept it and move on.

It is the movies that attempt to challenge their own reality that often find themselves in trouble. If nothing is as you thought it was, can you accept what it ultimately is? If the character hasn't been seeing things the right way, has he not been seeing them the right way consistently? Is he always delusional? Does he misread the situation or does the filmmaker trick us so that we have to misread it? If we thought the movie was headed one way, and now we find the "truth" to be ridiculous or even less believable than the previous reality, that human beings would have had to act in elaborately unusual ways for the new reality to fit, then we're likely to walk out frustrated and feeling cheated.

At least that's what I think. You?

Neil Young's classic On The Beach contains "Motion Pictures." Available at eMusic.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Steven Van Zandt: an homage

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul--"Save Me" (mp3)
Little Steven--"Voice Of America" (mp3)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"Without Love" (mp3)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"This Time Baby's Gone For Good" (mp3)
Little Steve and various artists--"Sun City" (mp3)


Before there was Lil' Wayne or Lil' Bow Wow, there was Lil' Steven. Okay, well, actually, Little Steven aka Miami Steve aka Silvio Dante (on The Sopranos) aka second banana and onstage foil to Bruce Springsteen (especially as Clarence Clemons has gotten older and less mobile and more especially when wife Patti doesn't show up to the concert) aka the most famous bandana-wearing rocker this side of Axl Rose.

Most people would be thrilled to have just one nickname. When Van Zandt puts out a record, the performer is Little Steven and the producer is Miami Steve. From here on out, I'll refer to him as Miami Steve to avoid confusion.

If you read these pages regularly, you know of my fondness for guitarists who by all rights should have their own careers but play in someone else's band.

Miami Steve (as I will refer to him from here on out) is my favorite of the bunch. A gifted songwriter and producer, he possesses an infectious rock 'n roll spirit that seems to make anything that he is involved in better. Though Springsteen gets the credit for advancing Southside Johnny's career because he gave him "The Fever," if you check those great early records, most of the songs, including most of the title tracks, are songs written by Miami Steve. He also produces those records. Check, too, his production credits on Springsteen albums like The River. Plus, he plays the mandolin in the "Glory Days" video.

But there were brief, shining moments, before and after Miami Steve left the E-Street band in the mid-80's and ventured off into a career fronting his own band when he put out fiery, defiant rock 'n roll with an intensity that I'm not sure even Springsteen has ever matched. This move resulted in two classic records--Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul's Men Without Women and Little Steven's Voice of America-- plus that major, multi-artist, post-"We Are The World" political statement, "Sun City."

The guy oozes street cred, which is probably how he got The Sopranos part, and how he got guys like Lou Reed and Miles Davis for the Sun City sessions.

Like E-Street bandmate Nils Lofgren, Keith Richards is clearly an inspiration for Van Zandt. As a guitarist, Miami Steve can churn out Stones-like riffs with the best of them, but with a different purpose and with other gifts which allow him to front a band and forge a sound in ways that the legend can't.

Though not a great singer, Miami Steve is a great rock 'n roll singer, by which I mean that he can sell the words and the song with pure honesty and emotion. When you listen to him, you never feel like he is going through the motions--he believes what he says, even if it's simplistic, jingoistic, or naively idealistic. And, though his voice is somewhat thin, he is lucky enough to sound quite a bit like Keith Richards, though on-key and without the jaded ennui. His lines like "It never died inside of me" or "Undefeated, everybody goes home" or "As the things we want come closer, I feel the things we need slipping away" would not fit in a Stones song.

He can also play distinctive, idiosyncratic, searing lead guitar in a way that doesn't fit into Springsteen's sound, so when you hear his solo work, it is indeed a revelation. His high, melodic leads support the r + b based songs on Men Without Women as ably as they do the more 80's sounding, synthesizer poltical rock of Voice of America.

And he understands horns. This is no small gift. Miami Steve is, arguably, one of a handful of rock producers who know how to use horns in a song, who can write a horn chart to serve as a memorable main riff or a transition or a bridge. Horns are not window dressing to him, nor are they an experiment to try to alter a sound. The horns he heard on the Jersey shore all his life are indigenous to many of his compositions, and, coupled with his percussive rhythm guitar, the horns and guitar play off each other to push the songs to new heights. As a producer, I'm not sure he has an equal in maximizing the potential of horns and guitar interplay.

But perhaps most of all, his songwriting skills set him apart. When it comes to rock 'n roll, I have an unapologetic preference for a positive, life-affirming, defiant-in-the-face-off-all-odds stance. The common strand throughout Miami Steve's beach rhythm and blues for Southside Johnny, his own solo work, and even the song, "Sun City," is a never-quit, never-give-in attitude that pervades the music as much as the lyrics. The songs are a celebration of life, of country, of the power of music, even if everything doesn't work out. If you've seen him onstage with Bruce, then you know that fire hasn't gone out and he's still living that same dream.

All songs above written, arranged, and produced by Steven Van Zandt. Check out his wild, neo-Yardbirdsian solo on "Voice of America." Though the songs above have either been reformatted from LP or uploaded from old CD's, it would seem that amazon.com is the best source for Little Steven tunes these days. Photos #2 and #4 are courtesy of the Troutking.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maybe She's Born With It... Maybe It's Maybelline!

Born Secular - Jenny Lewis + the Watson Twins (mp3)
When Your Mind's Made Up - Glen Hansard + Marketa Irglova (mp3)

At a school I know, the following occurred.

Two administrators stood backstage as the school recognized the top 25% of the graduating GPAs. These nerds were being inducted into a Phi Beta Kappa/Cum Laude kind of organization, a group that does nothing, that exists solely to recognize good GPAs. Sadly, it's the one way some of these kids get recognized for what they do well and what they contribute to the school culture. Kind of like earning a letter just for sitting the bench and keeping stats for varsity baseball.

One administrator, arguably the second most-influential person at this particular school, leaned over to my friend and said, "I don't applaud for something a kid's born with."

Then, as the nerds were walking off the stage with their pieces of paper, acknowledging their good grades, this administrator said the following to them: "Congratulations on your genes, ladies and gentlemen!"

This story was relayed to me because, obviously, I was one of those nerds in high school who made Cum Laude and was never even good enough to sit the bench for an athletic team.

Apparently, how much work and time and effort I put into becoming academically successful was irrelevant, because I was born with my intelligence. Apparently, neither Shaquille O'Neal nor Adrian Peterson were born with athletic gifts or, as they say, "natural talent."

Any nerd would be understandably haunted by this story. The jock administrator just gave our entire geeky way of life a philosophical wedgie (or if you prefer, a swirlie), proclaiming that good grades don't deserve recognition like good tackles or good dunks or good golf shots. And this man, this fan of "genetic" intelligence, is the man who hires teachers and shapes the culture of the school where he works in vast ways.

Then I read the following excerpt from a NYT Book Blog about DRiVE by Daniel H. Pink:

For example, in the chapter titled “Mastery,” Pink presents the research conducted by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford. One of her theories is that there are (once again) two kinds of people when it comes to intelligence. There are those with an “entity theory” of human intelligence, viewing it as “a finite supply that we cannot increase.” Then there are those who subscribe to an “incremental theory,” believing that intelligence is something you continuously build and shape over time. Pink breaks it down nicely: “In one view, intelligence is something you demonstrate; in the other, it’s something you develop.” It’s a useful frame. Is life a stage on which you constantly must perform, or prove, your intelligence to others? Or is it a library, where you gain knowledge and skills from what surrounds you. How you answer such questions, Pink argues, determines how you will react to setbacks, and how serious you are at mastering a set of skills. It might also influence how you react to books like “Drive.” Do you consider the arguments dispassionately, looking for ideas you can use? Or do you bristle at the suggestion that you need to make some changes? (I've been bristling. Now I feel bad about that bristling, and so am bristling about that.)

Reading this didn't cool my anger, but it's given me a way to diagnose his myopia, to see intelligence the way this administrator sees it. To this guy, intelligence is demonstrated, not developed.

You'll have to forgive the snootery here, but this was clearly a guy who attended a shitty high school, the kind of guy whose workload in high school consisted of work that could be done on a school bus or while Mom was getting dinner ready. I know this because intelligence never felt remotely inherited for me. I worked my ass off for it. I obsessed for it. I fought like hell and competed with gritted or grinding teeth to push my way into the top 20% of my graduating class even though I'd been told in seventh grade that I'd done so poorly on the entrance exam that I was one of the last two boys admitted to the school.

I'm not asking for you to be impressed; I'm only asking that you don't tell me I was innately born with it. My ability to see through brick walls? My prehensile tail? My 14" penis? Yes, I was born with all those. But my intelligence? No, motherf*#ker, I P90X'd the hell out of my feeble brains as a lad, and I just can't think of many things more personally insulting to me than to suggest otherwise.

My oldest daughter is friends with a brilliant Indian girl at her school. Twice now Avery has said to me, "She's so smart. Everything's easy for her," and both times I stopped everything to lovingly correct her. Her Indian friend is smart because her parents expect her to master academics like Southern parents expect their kids to master a sport. She trains. She works. She reads. For every hour that my studious and modestly intellectually curious daughter puts into her school work, her Indian friend puts in two, three, four hours. It doesn't come easy. Nothing comes easy. Allowing Avery to say or believe it does insults the Indian girl and insults my daughter.

If someone believed intelligence cannot be nurtured, cared for, built up, why would that person work in education?

I'm just grateful it didn't happen to me, at my school.

Whew.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A T-Shirt Economy

Slaid Cleaves--"Black T-Shirt" (mp3)
Captain Soul--"T-Shirt 69" (mp3)

Want to jumpstart the economy? The answer may lie in t-shirts. Who doesn't have dozens of them already, more than they could ever possibly wear, and yet, we think nothing of picking up another one, two, or three every time we take a trip somewhere?

Inundated as I am today, sitting here surrounded by the boxes of t-shirts that we are selling to raise money for a Haiti charity, and bored out of my skull while waiting for students to show up and get them while I miss lunch, my thoughts have turned to a deeper inspection of the damn things that I own far too many of.

If you work where I work, or if you live pretty much anywhere in the world, t-shirts are the dominant fashion statement.

And not just t-shirts, but American t-shirts or knock off of American t-shirts or imitations of them. Asian countries have an entire subculture of shirts designed to look like American shirts in English but that either mean absolutely nothing or are poorly translated or are intentionally ridiculous. When I was in Korea, I never could figure that out. But I did buy my daughter one. "I'm Very Pleased With This Happy" it read.

Here's perhaps a little more history than you want to know. T-shirts in America first became popular with our troops who were overseas during the First World War. The soldiers saw their British and French counterparts relaxing comfortably in the lightweight white shirts while they sweltered in their wool uniforms. (Hey, I told you I was bored.) The t-shirts made their way back home with the returning soldiers and became regular for workers in hot factories.

It wasn't until the 1960's that companies started printing logos and slogans and names of favorite bands and everything else screened or tie-dyed onto t-shirts that we take for granted today. The decade that is sometimes reduced to "sex, drugs, rock 'n roll" certainly conveyed those values on the t-shirts of the day, along with messages of peace, freedom, and distrust of the man.

And sometime before or after that, somebody figured out that t-shirts could turn us all into walking billboards. Back then, I remember a promotion where if you bought a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes, you got a Lucky Strike t-shirt "for free." Think about that for a second. Why would anyone feel the need to brag to the world what kind of tobacco they stuck in their mouths? But it was cool. And beer followed. And tractors. And there you have it.

Now, t-shirts=branding.

And us folks these days like to brand everything. We like people to know what we stand for, or at least where we once stood, what we pay for or the price we paid. You could almost get ahold of somebody's t-shirts from, say, the last 5 years, and use those to make a pretty good guess at that person's life story, especially his or her social class, likes and dislikes, schooling, geographical location, politics, degree of gregariousness.

At our school, our entire "economy" is based on t-shirts. You want to commemorate a school event? Sell a t-shirt. You want to create team or group unity? Make a t-shirt. You want to collect clothes to send to a Third World country? Collect t-shirts.

Most of all, you want to raise money, a lot of money? Sell a t-shirt. There's no better way, at least here. Why? A t-shirt, even with a fancy, multi-colored design on it, is going to cost you less than 5 bucks if you order them in bulk. Order 500 of them and sell them for $15 and all of a sudden you've got $5000. And nobody blinks at paying $15 for a shirt. Think about how much they cost at a concert now. Sell them for $10 and people think that they are getting a bargain.

My friend runs an organization that regularly sells 2500 shirts at $15 each for the biggest football game of the year. In two designs. Genius. Though no one might be inclined to think about it in these terms, he has been, for at least the past 10 years, the top, most pervasive clothing designer in this city (except for the Vol empire, of course).

T-shirts are so pervasive that it seems that as long as you've got a cool design, you almost can't glut the market. They are that product that makes us behave like gluttons, forcing more and more upon ourselves, even though our brain knows that we've already consumed more than we possibly need. They are that product that can leave us standing before a closet or a chest of drawers before a social outing, evaluating all of the choices until we think that we have found just that perfect statement of who we are to wear on our chests. We flip through the various brands of slogans and colors and places and teams, and with a careful process of elimination, find a way to use the brands to brand ourselves.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Can I Get Me A Yawp?

Gold Into Straw - Brendan Benson (mp3)
Heart of Stone - Erasure (mp3)

"This is bullshit."

I travelled more than 1,000 miles last weekend so I could hear a highly respected man, Jeff Jarvis, stand up on a high school stage and introduce his talk with those very words. Some 200 souls somehow connected to the world of education were fortunate enough to sit in a small auditorium and witness more than a dozen respected thinkers, leaders, and innovators stand up and offer their unique insights into technology and education, and attempt to address the challenges of both, or either.

The event was called TEDxNYED. It's an independent event formatted like and inspired by TED, one of the coolest, geekiest, most intellectually inspiring sites on the entire web, as far as I'm concerned. Several of those videos have even found their way to the BOTG site. Which could only happen were they ingenious. We don't suffer fools lightly here at BOTG. Except for one another.

Jarvis' point, if you didn't go read his talk, is that the entire TED modus operandi is based precisely on the educational philosophy that most modern thinkers have determined sucks shit. Authority figure stands before an audience of 7-300 students whose sole purpose is to stare, listen, and maybe take note. Authority figure spews knowledge and wisdom. Students merely hope to catch enough of it to achieve a particular grade... although it would be cool to learn a little, too.


Here are, in brief and with a second degree of separation, just a sampling of some key ideas passed along during this one glorious Saturday in New York City:
  • Volunteerism should not be limited in our minds to just time and money. In 2010 we can now contribute information. Not necessarily information that is ours exclusively, but information that can merely be added to a collective in order to give that collective a little bit more information than existed before. (Andy Garvin's example: OpenStreetMap)
  • A teacher should know how well s/he is doing as a teacher based on the questions students ask in that class, says the man responsible for this really popular YouTube video.
  • Popular culture can and should be used as an educational tool, and we chronically underestimate its power for good, says professor Henry Jenkins.
  • Any true educator should support and endorse open source information. Any great idea or method that educates should be made available to educate as many as it can reach and put into the hands of others if it can make those others better teachers. Or, as David Wiley put it so well, "The successful educator shares the most information with the most students."
  • Open = Sharing = Generous = Kind
  • The best textbooks would be malleable, and that's best done through the power of Internet technologies like the fascinating and bold CK-12 project.
  • Human beings are at their best and most powerful when they share; but the creator of great and powerful concepts and ideas must be given due respect. Lawrence Lessig helped mastermind Creative Commons as an answer.
  • Jay Rosen has studied "crowd sourcing" and confidently argues that in the battle between 100 citizens v. 1 journalist, the citizens will win. And, in the 21st Century, it's more like 1,000 or 2,000 citizens v. 1 journalist. The only way the journalist wins is by no longer doing things alone. Educational institutions have the potential to learn from this. (I was surprised no one mentioned the potential for home schooling.)
  • "Educators should be curators, not creators." -- Jeff Jarvis
  • "Do what you do best and link to the rest." -- Jeff Jarvis
  • The best class would ask the students what they must know. The best teachers would let students ask the big questions and attempt to help them find the answers.
  • School should be considered an incubator, not a factory.
  • Much like the article "Dehumanized" argues, the goal of education should be to create better citizens, not simply better workers.
This is roughly 1/4 of my notes from just the first 2/3 or so of that single day of talks. Most of what I wrote are oversimplified platitudes compared to what got expressed and how.

Even more important, the conference forced us little people, the students, out of the auditorium regularly, our heads full of all these explosive ideas and all this wild intellectual energy, and thrust us into a single large room. How could we not but search out another soul or two with whom we could speak and work through what we'd witnessed, what had been injected into us?

In my 14 years of working in education, which must include at least 9-10 conferences, my attempts at networking have never felt as valuable or vital to my experience as it did last week at TEDxNYED.

Now, the challenge, much like the church camps of my youth, are two-fold:

(1) How do I -- neither a teacher nor an administrator with Decider powers -- return into a den of uninspired agnostics and convince them that they're hungry for change in a system in which my school has proven quite adept? How do you convince an A-/B+ student to radically change her study habits because there's a chance she could do better? How do you convince Phil Mickelson to totally change his golf swing? Is it easier if they know the system is broken and we just happen to be better in a broken system? How did the NBA convince all those short white pros that they should allow Wilt Chamberlain to dunk the ball?

(2) Can I, at the very least, maintain some ties to those equally-inspired people at other schools who could, in theory, keep my enthusiasm charged much longer than I could were I to lose that connection?

This is my challenge. The fate of the entire universe rests in my hands. Kinda sorta.