Monday, November 29, 2010

Mother Knows Best?

Your Psychopathic Mother - Rick Springfield (mp3)

We took the girls to Disney’s newest flick, TANGLED, over the holiday, and it was massively entertaining. It’s the first Disney flick since the Dawn of Pixar that actually held its own.

As someone who spent his late teens and college years fawning over Disney’s animated rebirth, starting with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 and soaring thorough “The Lion King” five years later, TANGLED is the logical continuation of that production line. But it at long last corrects a serious error from Disney’s past.

Those great Disney rebirth movies had young characters with a slightly bigger degree of nuance that reflected our less idealistic age. Aladdin is a thief. The Beast is a snotty rich boy. Simba’s disobedience leads to his father’s death. None of them have the kind of simplistic goodness and innocence of Snow White or Mowgli or Bambi, characters whose misfortunes were unfairly (and somewhat randomly) thrust upon them by cruel fate.

While I loved “The Little Mermaid” -- its soundtrack was the first CD I ever purchased -- I couldn’t help but object heavily to the message of the movie: that a 15-year-old girl knows better than her parent(s). Because we’re not talking about lip gloss choices here. The movie is about a girl getting her panties all warmed up over some dude, wanting to become an entirely different form of human to chase him, and the father being overbearing and out of touch by daring to suggest this might not be a wise decision.

I didn’t like that storyline as a teenager, and I sure as hell don’t like it now. Thankfully, the message of TANGLED corrects everything “The Little Mermaid” screwed up while keeping the parts that were most important.

The parts that are important:
  1. independence and freedom are two vital aims of growing up;
  2. parents often lose track of what’s important, and controlling parents are almost certain to lose their children.
The improvements:
  1. the protagonist is a girl on the verge of turning 18. A big diff, those three years. She’s not necessarily a full-blown woman, but she can sure as shit legally drive, and our current culture has deemed this to be an age deserving of most independence.
  2. the motives of the parent deserve scrutiny. Her “mom” is in the business of parenting for herself, not for her child. Her parenting decisions are about self-interest and have nothing to do with the daughter’s well-being. But, like millions of abused and neglected children, Rapunzel has no clue about her mom, because it’s the only parent relationship she’s ever known or seen. It’s normal for her, even while it’s maniacally disturbing to the viewer.
But the TANGLED slam goes well beyond abusive parents and into the world of “Helicopter Parents,” those lovely folks who hover over every aspect of their child’s existence, who even want to micromanage their college and professional lives after the nest they left has grown cobwebs. The movie is a reminder that good parents are obliged to gradually loosen, and eventually remove, the leash, from our children.

The more teenagers are constricted and bound, the more violently they will fight to escape. The more parents insist on making any and all decisions and dictating the teen’s life, the less capable teens will be of making them when no one else is around. That’s why they keep texting you about their boss, as if it was a lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

One of the best lines in the movie is when Gothel, Rapunzel’s kidnapper mother, says, “Great, now I’m the bad guy.” The dramatic irony, the self-awareness... and the fact that parents all over the world (including me) say that crap all the time. Being a devoted and good parent requires that, once in a while, we be the bad guy to our kids.

The essential question is: For whose good, and why, are we being the bad guy? For us? Or for them? Are we trying to hold onto our youth? Trying to recapture a missing experience or fix a regret of our younger days through the life of our child? Or are we trying to raise an independent and capable human whose dreams are her own, whose life has no preordained direction other than what she chooses for herself?

And are we willing to ask ourselves these tough questions? Because the motive is pretty damn crucial, as is the method.

That... is the story of TANGLED.*

* -- Well, according to my daughters, the story of TANGLED is that her long hair should have caused her a lot more trouble, that not all mean scary men are helpful, and that horses and chameleons make for hilarious sidekicks.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Have And To Have Not

Billy Bragg--"To Have and To Have Not" (mp3)

Story #1: A knock at my door, late at night. I walk to the door and look out, see a black man at my door. Even as I reach it, he is already retreating, until, by the time I open the door, he is a good 30-40 feet from my front door. Then begins the whole "Excuse me, sir" rigamarole which no one believes, including both of us, about how and why he needs money. I go inside and close the door because it hasn't been that long since two black men broke into my home and only ran out because I caught them by surprise. They shouldn't have been scared. I had nothing. And the man at my door suffers for that incident. But, I do have money, and so, behind closed doors I try to figure out how to give it to him. I open the door. By then, he has given up on me; he is moving up the street. "Yessir," he says, "I'm here." "I'm going to put it on the front porch," I say, which I do. And then I close the front door and lock it. I'm pretty sure I hear him say, "Thank you." But I don't open the door again and he doesn't try to engage us again. He takes the money and goes.


Story #2: Broad daylight. Several days later. There is a knock on my door. When I approach the door and look out, there is a black man again who sees me and begins backing away from the door. Again, he wants money. This time, I take my little chihuahua outside with me. The dog barks incessantly, and I can barely hear what the man is saying. So I put the dog inside. The man asks me how my Thanksgiving was. I ask him what I can do for him. Again, it is about money. I search my pockets, but I have none. I suggest a neighbor who might give him some. He heads in that direction. After I close the door and go back inside, I confer with my daughters and we realize that one of them has some money. I decide that I will go track him down and give it to him. She hands me the money and off I go in her car. When I find him deeper in the neighborhood, he is in conversation with two of my very conservative neighbors, a husband and wife who don't even want our out-of-neighborhood trick or treaters coming in. I stop the car next to him in the street, hand him the money, shake his hand, and drive on. I know there will be repercussions for this.

**********

I have spoken before on these pages about the poor and money. This time, I am even more conflicted on the subject, having just come from an exhibit in a museum in Cleveland about the hobos during the Great Depression and their various universal symbols that they would leave for each other. I would hope that, had I lived then, I would have been one of those homes that had a secret marking on it indicating to passers through that our home was a place where someone could stop and ask for a meal and get one.

But times are different. And "hobos" are of a different color. This time, I got a phone call from my neighbor who saw me drive up and give the man the money, telling me that he had some story about a car being out of gas and how they offered to give him gas, but he also asked for a cold drink, and when they came back with the drink and the gas, he was gone. So they drove down to where he said his car was and the car was gone. All of this related on my phone machine very smugly, to let me know that a) he was lying and b) I was a fool.

Now, I don't argue the second point. I can be incredibly naive and most certainly was in this case, but then, I never asked him why he needed the money. I accepted the fact that he didn't have any and that he wanted some. I guess I don't remember the Bible verse which says, "Before thou dispenseth thy money to the poor, thou shouldst ascertain the purpose of that money."

If I wanted money to buy beer, I reckon that most of you would give it to me and probably not even ask for it back.

There are currently about 14.8 million Americans who are "officially" unemployed, with reasons to believe that the true number is actually much higher. (For example, if you haven't worked for years, you aren't being counted at all).

That means that 1 in every 20 adults that each of us encounters does not have a job. Given how many of those people also represents families, the number of people who do not enjoy the benefits of a wage or salary is substantially higher. And each of those persons has needs (or wants) large and small that a church or charity can't possibly meet.

Yeah, I know I'm a sucker, and, at this point, often a pretty willing one. If I've got a few bucks in my pocket with no designated purpose, I often don't mind giving it away. And, I know that you may not want me as your neighbor, since I'll probably try to find a way to help out the person comes knocking, and then you'll want to accuse me enabling them. You think I should have turned him away. So be it. You were probably one of my neighbors who didn't want the trick or treaters in here either because you thought they were casing our houses. But where do you think he was going to go after my house? And what do you think your call to the police was going to accomplish? There have been others before this man. There will be others to follow, regardless of what you or I do.

It was Michael Stipe who once sang, "What we want and what we need has been confused." I think he's right, and it's a pointed commentary on consumerism and greed. But it touches all levels of our society, even those who have little or nothing. I don't see any of us becoming discerning, daily judges able to sort out the confusion between the two. Especially now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Promise Has Not Been Broken

Bruce Springsteen--"Cindy" (mp3)

Forget the bleakness of the photos that go with the CD; those are better suited to Darkness On The Edge of Town.

As I told a friend, when I first listened to The Promise, Springsteen's release of leftover material from Darkness, I felt like I had stepped into a parallel universe. I felt the same way when Tracks was released, only moreso. It was kind of like being sucked into the world of the great show Fringe, where there's another world that coexists with ours, only everything is slightly different. It was a good place to be.

I've been through The Promise several times. Here's what I think I've learned: there could have been a different Springsteen than the one we got.

Actually, I first got an inkling of that when we watched the making of Darkness movie at Troutking's house a few weeks ago. It was during that film that Steve Van Zandt declared that Springsteen could have been one of the great pop songwriters. When he first says it, you kind of go, yeah, maybe. Not sold on that claim.

But then you think about it and you realize that bands as diverse Mannfred Man, The Pointer Sisters, Greg Kihn, Aretha Franklin, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Hollies, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes all had hits from remakes and castoff songs of Bruce's.

And it's that last band, Southside Johnny and the boys, that actually gives us the best context for The Promise. Once Springsteen decided he wanted Darkness to be working class social commentary, he chucked the party songs. So many of the songs have horn arrangements and sentiments that I, an avowed Southside fan, can hear Johnny singing instead of Bruce. And, in one case, "Talk To Me," Johnny did sing the song and sang it better than Springsteen does here. I'm surprised he didn't also record "The Little Things My Baby Does" or "Wrong Side Of The Street."

For the best of The Promise could be a terrific party album. There are plenty of uptempo songs about love lost and found, a wealth of great sax, memorable guitar signatures, and wonderful singing. Most of The Promise is the Springsteen album where you can dance to both the words and the music.

Back in college, during senior year, there were many a night when we would drink a few beers and smoke a little something and then pull out the Springsteen bootlegs from the '78 Darkness tour and shout the lyrics out the window. What surprises me, as I look back on it, is how we missed out on the sex. Springsteen is nothing, if not highly-sexual music, but back then, we got caught up in the songs' anthemic qualities. And nobody wants to screw to an anthem--they want to screw to Marvin Gaye or Frank Sinatra. When you get caught up in the anthem, you get caught up in the plight, you think, hey, he's singing about me, you relate more to "Sometimes I feel so weak that I wanna explode" than you to do "I go drivin' deep into the light in Candy's eyes." But that was Darkness. With few exceptions, The Promise is about women.

And once you get familiar with it, The Promise is pretty spectacular. It has to have that qualifier because it has songs we are already familiar with, sometimes in lesser versions, and lyrics we already know, ultimately put to better use. But it's a fascinating look at a songwriter in transition. Some of the songs sound pre-Born To Run, some, like "Save My Love," could fit comfortably on Magic. And like Tracks, the takeaway here is that Springsteen is an even more expansive songwriter than we knew--more playful, more fun, and with a greater vocal range. Songs like "Outside Looking In," with its Buddy Holly influence, and the intimate "City of Night" show us the rocker who hadn't yet decided that he needed to be an icon.

To me, the great irony of the set is the title track itself. I heard Springsteen play "The Promise" in Philadelphia during his '76 tour. He played it pretty much alone at the piano. That is the way it is presented on Tracks. That is the way it sounds best. The version here, a mid-tempo full band rocker, loses the personal betrayal that inspired the song when first written. It's a great transitional song, because it starts out with Springsteen cycling through the situations of various characters, but it quickly settles on the narrator. And that's where the song should center.

Much as I love Neil Young, his "archives," at least so far, have not delivered the kind of powerful body of work that Springsteen has now unleashed twice. They say you can't go home again, but Bruce Springsteen continues to allow his fans to travel back in time and not repeat the past, but understand it more fully.

Note: "Cindy" is not off of The Promise; instead it is an outtake from The River and, perhaps, suggests the promise of another set of songs from Springsteen that we haven't heard.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Pleasures of Squash Soup

Broke Strang Band--"Turkey In The Straw" (mp3)

I never get to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You may consider this a good thing, a blessing, even a "careful what you wish for." But, the fact is, I never get to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

You may think, "What a lucky guy" or "So what?" You may think, "What's the big deal? Thanksgiving can't be that hard--make a bunch of casseroles and throw a turkey in the oven. Or, better yet, order your whole meal from one of the increasing plethora of restaurants who are offering to do so for you."

But if you like to cook, this is THE MEAL.

Circumstances have dictacted for most of the past 27 years that we travel for Thanksgiving--to parents, to my brother's in Chicago, even, last year, to Rome--and so I, the chief family cook and bottlewasher, don't get to cook the ultimate family meal. So it is with a bit of excitement that I embark on bringing most of the meal up to Kentucky, where my mother-in-law no longer has the energy to do it all, and where, at the last minute, my wife's niece the chef, has found out that she has to work. She was planning to cook the meal. Now most of it is my responsibility.

It isn't the most complicated or the most sophisticated. The challenge is in the bounty. I was reading about an Asian chef who commented that what he liked about Russian restaurants is that when you walk in, there are about 20 dishes already on the table waiting for you to eat. He liked that vibe. I like that vibe. And that is Thanksgiving. You got to offer enough different things for everyone to either have a little bit of everything or to pick and choose among their favorites.

Save for two years ago, the last time I really cooked it was 22 years ago. My wife was in her first year of law school, right before her first set of exams. She had called me from Knoxville the night before to tell me that she was pregnant. She was in distress, being in law school and all. I told her it would be all right. I was very excited. Because of law school, because of studying, we didn't go anywhere, so Thanksgiving was to be a mish-mash of family and friends and stragglers. We held it at John's house. He made the turkey and some side. I made the mashed potatoes and the bread and probably some other stuff. We started drinking fairly early, and moving back and forth from one dorm to the other, preparing the dishes. I told John that my wife was pregnant, and he shared my excitement. My wife was not happy when she found out, because she had asked that it be a secret. But she wasn't really unhappy, just that first pregnancy, circle-the-wagons unhappy that something private had been shared. Also, that in my drunken excitement, the mashed potatoes had apparently gone as high the ceiling.

So today, on a gloomy, unseasonably warm Tuesday, while waiting for it to rain, I was making squash soup with great joy. There isn't much to it, roasting the squash, sauteeing the vegetables, simmering in wine and then broth and then pureeing the whole thing. But it sure feels good.

And it is only the beginning. There is a different squash casserole to make, the pickling of shrimp, the making of the cornbread for the andouille sausage dressing and the chopping of the vegetables. It took up a good bit of the day, with trips to Costco and other grocery stores and looking around for recipes and the planning, planning, planning of how to get it all up there to Kentucky.

It's a lot of work. But work on my own time. At my own pace. With the loosest of plans in my mind and the constant remembering of that one more thing I forgot to consider.

I couldn't be happier.

By the way, you might not expect there to be a great Thanksgiving mix out there, but there is. It's over at canyouseethesunset.com. That's where I got the track above.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Quick Hits for a Holiday Week

Steady Shock - Girl Talk (mp3)

Bob and I are both somewhat distracted and occupied this week, so I’m just throwing out a collection of quick hits.

Girl Talk On Long Play

Those of you in your mid-30s or older likely have this instant and unavoidable nausea that gurgles inside you when you hear the words “Stars On Long Play.” For younger folks, this was a creation that mashed together about 100 songs -- many of them Beatles’ songs, but some disco faves thrown in -- to a single disco beat, thus allowing the bell-bottomed, feathered-back masses dance dance til the boogie night turned to downer day. (YouTube clip of SOLP for the sadomasochistic)

The strange musician/technician known as Girl Talk (his real name is Gregg, but who cares?) released his latest mishmash of law-breaking music last week. His musical creations are Stars On Long Play on steroids, with more powerful technology at his fingertips.

To be sure, better technology doesn’t always make something better. One need only view the evolution of six Star Wars movies to know this. With Girl Talk, however, the improvement is undeniable and significant. When his second “official” album, Feed the Animals, made #4 on my 2008 best of list, I noted the meaninglessness of the mash as the one detraction. But in all of his music, the meaning is this: only someone who really really loves music, lots of music and lots of genres, could do what he does as well as he does it. The meaning of Girl Talk is the ultimate musical expression of vague and widespread fandom.

Even juicier, Girl Talk mostly gives away his music. It could be because he breaks more copyright laws and is guilty of more DMCA violations in a single song than a music blog could commit in a year. Or it could be because he makes enough money on residual rewards than he does for his central product. He’s somehow managed to avoid the wrath of lawyers and CEOs, so bully for him.

Check out his album for free here. If you want my best breakdown between the two most recent collections, the latest delves much deeper into the ‘80s and ‘70s for its background pop and rock, where Feed is much more heavily focused on the ‘90s and ‘00s.

Discovery of the Year

By April it was clear that 2010 would be the best year in music since the birth of BOTG in 2008. As we close out November, it’s possible this is the best music year of this nascent 21st Century. I’m so blown away by the number of great albums released this year that the idea of compiling a Top Ten list saddens me a little. Can’t make a list like that without leaving off someone who, a month or two later, I regretted overlooking.

But one award is in the bag: Discovery of the Year -- The New Pornographers.

It started with my purchase of their newest album, Together, and continued with eMusic purchases of both their debut 2000 album (Mass Romantic) and 2004’s Twin Cinema. By the end of 2011 I’ll own their whole collection. A new one every three or four months is a good pace.

Oddly, I bought A.C. Newman’s first post-New Pornographers solo work, “The Slow Wonder,” in CD format on sale right after it was released. But that was back before the total demise of Tower Records and test driving CDs in the store before purchase. How I could totally miss the news on a band whose style and attitude is almost perfectly designed to give me giddy musical moments is a mystery, but a good one. Finding bands you didn’t previously know and catching up to others who love them is what makes this hobby so splendid.

Beatles on iTunes

The main home page at iTunes is currently awash in Beatle shit. There’s Beatle shit on my football commercials. There’s Beatle shit on NPR and all over the news.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out why any of this is a big deal.

Nothing here is new. Nothing has been re-re-remastered especially for these versions that somehow allow the listener to actually hear John Lennon speak from the grave during these songs. It’s like marketing coffee as being “Now With CAFFEINE!” Or like Volkswagen, instead of redesigning the VW Bug (or, ahem, Beatle), just re-releasing the same damn car they originated 80 years ago.

I mean no respect to the Beatles. But dudes, it’s really time to step aside and let some other folks play the damn game, mmkay?

As for Apple, they could market iTurds and the damn things would sell.

Girl Talk's Steady Shock is included to either impress or horrify the Bruce Springsteen fans amongst our readers.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Junk, My Junk, My Lovely Gentleman Junk

Untouched - The Veronicas (mp3)

Today's post is about my junk, in two parts. My junk isn't in two parts. That's a possum. But the post is in two parts.

The TSA Can Blow Me... Metaphorically Speaking

For every bit of undeserved attention "Don't Tase Me Bro" received, John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner deserves triple. The first loser was a nuisance and a punk whose entitled attitude deserved precisely the voltage it received. The latter took a stand about something that potentially affects all of us and our legal rights. There is no comparison on the coolness or relevance scale.

If you want a very amusing yet spot-on take of the new TSA rules -- and the column that in my opinion started the avalanche of deserved attention this has received -- read Jeffrey Goldberg's "The TSA Meets Resistance." It's time well spent.

Make no mistake about it: The TSA's new body scanners and increasingly intimate pat-down measures are the opiate of the flying masses. They will not prevent a terrorist attack, and everyone knows this. The sole purpose of these new measures is marketing, to sell you, the stupid American, on the notion that you're safe.

Not only have some preliminary studies suggested that the odds of getting cancer from the radiation are right on par with the odds of you dying on an airplane from a terrorist attack. (Both of which, by the way, are "slim as shit." It's an industry term.) Read more about "the hidden costs of extra security" here!

In short, not only are they feeling you up in a very non-exciting way and making people feel more and more like cattle, but all of it serves no substantial purpose.

Junk Through Your Wires

A female friend recently attended a party where she and her drunk female pals sat around sharing all of the junk pictures they'd been sent by their male friends and lovers. A female co-worker said she has received numerous pictures of male junk by friends who just wanted her opinion. (On what? The photo quality? The framing? The fleshtones?)

Clearly, sexting isn't just a teen problem, nor is its use limited to rich idiots in professional sports. No, we Americans -- particularly the ones of us with penises -- are constantly fighting and looking for new ways to expose ourselves to as many people as possible. Chatroulette may be dead, but the key motive behind most people being on there is still very much alive and kicking.

I can't help but ask myself, were men in King Arthur's time constantly looking for ways to expose their privates to unsuspecting or innocent ladies? Were the men in Braveheart, who lifted their kilts to insult the Brits on the battlefield, merely repeating a show they constantly offered the women of their clans on a regular basis? If Jesus' disciples had access to a Droid, would they be taking "up-robe" pictures of Jesus' junk and sharing it with their neighborhood pals back home?

When Junk Collides... On An Airplane

Clearly we Americans -- particularly men, who comprise almost 60% of airline travelers -- can't be too troubled by the notion of having our junk exposed in a computer picture. In fact, I daresay American men will be most bothered that they can't purchase a copy for themselves or post it to some kind of IsMyScannedJunkHotOrNot.com site. Men love nothing more than the opportunity to, under the safe distance of semi-anonymity, dangle their junk and compare it to other men.

So we shouldn't be bothered by the prurient issues surrounding these scanners. The problem lies squarely in how easily and lackadaisically we give up our privacy and our reasonable rights to it.

As a friend said at lunch on Friday, "We're all like frogs in boiling water. We know the temperature has gone up five degrees, but we keep waiting for something more extreme before we act. By then, won't it be too late?"

In the meantime, put it back in your pants, John Holmes, and remember the sagely immortal advice of Tom Jones: It's not the lead, it's how you swing it.

They call it "your privates" for a reason.

Meanwhile, the TSA can rename itself the TnA. It'll make Chertoff more money and more accurately reflect the group's new core mission.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Music To Make Happy By

It has been a bad few weeks around here. Economic problems have finally hit home. Employment's down. My health care costs are way up. Daylight is down. Obama's down. The nearby Cici's has just gone out of business. America's standing in the world is down. There's a serial killer in the town next to where my daughter goes to college. Stocks are down. Disposable income is down. Blogpost comments are down. I'm down. Maybe you're down.

But I realized, for about the one billionth time, driving into work this morning and listening to Paul Westerberg's "Dyslexic Heart," that, yeah, listening to music makes me happy even when most of everything else doesn't.

As we head into the darkest days of the year, here's a little counterprogramming, a little bit of something to perk us up. Make you some happy. Now.

The stuff that follows is fresh, mostly new, most of it bands I don't normally listen to that I encountered while cruising around the web. Hope it picks up your day.

Atmosphere--"The Best Day" (mp3) My daughter sent me this one. I don't listen to a whole lot of hip-hop, but this one is catchy and positive and catches me where I am right now.

Scott H. Biram--"Lost Case Of Being Found" (mp3) I hear echoes of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" in this creaky little folker.

Lelia Broussard--"Dancing In The Dark" (mp3) Splendid cover of the Springsteen song. It's cool how she's able to maintain the intensity with just some sparse piano. And, wow, the song itself really works from the female perspective. Who knew?

Oh Land--"Sun Of A Gun" (mp3) She catches your attention because she's beautiful, and then you stay for the music.

The Decemberists--"Down By The Water" (mp3) You don't expect to find the Decemberists on a "happy" mix, but there's something about this one, a little REMish because Peter Buck is on it, a little sweeter because Gillian Welch is singing backup, that just makes it a bit friendlier than the typical Colin Meloy. Maybe it's the trashcan drums that kick the whole thing off.

The Sadies--"Another Year Again" (mp3) One of those resignation rockers that somehow triumphs over regret and inevitability.

LoveLikeFire--"From A Tower" (mp3) "Close your eyes/Rest tonight/You can try again tomorrow." 'Nuff said.

Oh Land--"Wolf & I" (mp3) See "Sun of a Gun."

Lloyd Cole--"Double Happiness" (mp3) From Lloyd's latest, Broken Record. It kind of rocks a little more than the other songs on there, has a little more of slightly-out-of-control lead guitar and is kind of catchy even though it's a minor-key happiness both in melody and content.

Sheryl Crow--"Mother Nature's Son" (mp3) One of McCartney's prettiest melodies, and she does a solid version.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Almost Almost Famous

Variety Playhouse. Little Five Points. Atlanta, Georgia.
November 15, 2010.
Brooke Fraser Concert.

Who Are We Fooling - Brooke Fraser (feat. Aqualung) (mp3)

You want to be a true friend to them? Be honest. And unmerciful. -- Lester Bangs, Almost Famous

My first experience with Variety Playhouse was chaperoning seven students to a moe. concert in 1997. Jam bands don’t work for me. Worse yet, being responsible for seven adolescents in an environment where drug use is almost an entry requirement, made me like this particular situation less. I was new to the world of chaperoning and school, and I was uptight.

Everytime I return, that goddamn moe. concert comes to mind, which is a damn shame for the Variety Playhouse, ‘cuz it’s a decent venue.

I returned earlier this week for a very unique opportunity: to attend a concert for a performer about whom I knew almost nothing, about whose music I was fond but not a “fan,” and without anyone I knew accompanying me. The Brooke Fraser concert was a chance to experience the musical version of a stranger in a strange land.

Here’s my observations.

(1) The music business is meaner than Everest.
Brooke’s opening act was a Brit singer-songwriter named Sam Bradley. It was just him and another dude on a two-acoustic set. His pal was plenty talented with an acoustic. The set was a nice warm-up and had some strong moments. But here’s what I was really thinking about the back-up guitarist: The back-up guitarist for the opening act for a Kiwi pop artist most Americans have never ever heard of is a more-than-competent, talented guitarist. And he’s still just the back-up guitarist for the opening act for a headliner who’s virtually unknown in America.

Shark cages are more loving than the music business. If you’re in music to get laid, or to ride on Concordes, or to say words like “double platinum,” then there’s a 99.3% chance you’re in for the most depressing rude awakening of your life.

(2) “I write a music blog.”
These words are not meaningless in most situations, they’re downright toxically amusing. If I ever say this to people, the response their facial expressions can’t help but reply is, Why are you telling me this, and why should I give a shit? And this is precisely the reaction such a comment deserves in most situations.

But attend a sold-out concert, wear a cool wristband that embodies you with special privileges, and carry a sweet digital SLR with two lenses. Then, when you say these words, people look at you differently. Suddenly you have this weird level of clout in the only place where music blogs matter.

“You’re gonna write about Brooke on your blog?” they asked.
“Yup. That’s the plan.”
“That’s so cool. She’s so awesome. Are you a fan?”
“Not in the traditional sense. Just here to cover the experience.”
“Cool man. Cool.” (They had no idea what “cover the experience” meant, nor did they really care.)

Some variant of that conversation occurred at least four times. I won’t lie. It felt kinda cool. Perhaps because my bar of feeling cool is very, very low.

(3) Brooke is the cool big sister without the fights.
It seems like almost all fans follow a musician for one of a handful of reasons: their musical talent is worthy of awe (think: Rush), you lust after them or envy the lust they engender (think: Bon Jovi or Britney), you sense of a kindred spirit (think: Patty Griffin), or you dig the character and theatricality of it all (think: Lady GaGa).

For the fans with whom I spoke or overheard, Brooke is of the kindred spirit variety. This kicked up a notch knowing that Brooke is a Christian singer. While her latest album wouldn’t fall under “Contemporary Christian,” enough of her lyrics dance around that burning bush that it didn’t surprise me to see so many clean-cut doe-eyed Christian kids in the crowd.

Two large groups of college-age girls crammed in on either side of me during her show, and I overheard conversations in both groups suggesting that Brooke is that friend who never does you wrong. She always has the right advice and is completely trustworthy, and you never get in a fight with her.

A rough guesstimate had the crowd at 60-70% female. At least five or six dudes yelled out “I love you Brooke!” She’s married.

(4) Brooke Fraser puts on a good, chill show.
At one point early in, Brooke announced that she didn’t show up in Atlanta to put on some boring, listless show. In a sense, she was being honest. But in another sense, Brooke isn’t exactly gonna rock out. I mean, she’s not gonna rip down the glass with shrieking and guitar shredding. Her music might have moments of energy and exuberance, but it’s mostly a chill set of ethereal pop songs. And she and her band did a damn fine job of performing her set, keeping the crowd engaged, and most decidedly not just dialing it in.

She talked a lot, too. Some people don’t like that. They think it takes away from the number of songs you get to hear. But I tend to think talk is the one thing most musicians can’t help but mix around from one concert to the next. Monologuing is the truly unique snowflake of each concert. So I like it when they talk. It showed she was having fun and approached her job and her success with the right mindset. It was adorable.

And it sure beats the ever-loving hell out of a jam band stretching three songs and calling it a concert.

Visit her web site.
Get her music at eMusic.
Here's her cool video for "Shadowfeet" from a previous album:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Problem With Previews

Iris Dement--"Let The Mystery Be" (mp3)

I like to tease. I like to be teased. It's one of my favorite forms of social interactions, and maybe even the one I'm best at. Teasing, in any or all of its contexts, is an art form built around the idea that less can become more. Teasing says, I'll give you just enough to catch your interest; it will be up to you to decide whether or not you want to follow through.

And so, there was a time when I lived for previews. One of the real pleasures of getting to go to the movies in the theater came before the feature ever started--an endless string of teasers for new films that would cause us to look at each other or learn over and say, "I'm definitely seeing that one!" Back then, the perfect movie trailers gave us glimpses, but only glimpses. They set up the mystery, but they gave no indication of how it might be solved. They showed the crisis, but nothing of the resolution.

Then previews stopped teasing.

When did it happen? I don't really know. At first, there was that occasional movie where I kind of recoiled, wanting to cover my eyes and ears and scream, "No more! Don't tell me anymore." But then they all started doing it. If it was a prison escape movie, you found out from the previews that the escape occurred. If it was a romantic comedy about two families feuding over a wedding, you knew darn well that the marriage would indeed take place. You knew that the Kraken would be released. You knew that the "Perfect Storm" would capsize the boat. You knew, heck, these days, the trailer for The Usual Suspects would probably tell you who Kaiser Soze is!

It must work. That's the only thing that I can conclude. It must bring in millions and millions of extra dollars if you play out 80% of a film during its preview. Today's viewer must like knowing a pretty good bit of the plot. Because otherwise, why would trailer after trailer give away most of the movie?

I don't like it.

I don't care for the trend at all. Call me that old-fashioned person who enjoys a surprise, who likes walking into a movie without a full idea of what it's about, who doesn't necessarily get online to read a restaurant menu so that I can walk in the door already knowing what I'm going to order.

The last manifestation of this pattern involves music--new music, anticipated music, big name music, NPR music. Several of the most anticipated releases this fall have been available for pre-listening on public radio websites, where you very carefully cannot pre-own the imminent CD, but you can pre-hear it. Neil Young's Le Noise was on there, as were Dylan's earlydemos, and now Springsteen's outtakes from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, known as The Promise.

The latter comes out today. I will be going to a listening party tonight. I will not have heard a single note of the "new" songs, but for a 30-second preview of one that I heard on Itunes several weeks ago. I liked it.

Fully realizing how this goes against other descriptions I've offered of my modern music buying habits, I do take great pleasure in sitting down with a brand-new, unheard CD that I can listen to in its entirety on my own terms for the first time. And maybe the second, third, and fourth. Even if the whole thing doesn't live up to expectations, I like the ability to hear each song, not knowing what the one that follows will be, not knowing if it will be better, worse, or just different from what preceded it. In short, I like to familiarize myself with new music at my own pace.

And, perversely, I don't even mind getting burned once in awhile. Much as I like Neil Young's Le Noise, that Fork In The Road that he put out a year or so ago was something that I listened to (parts of) once and said, "Sorry, Neil, that one didn't click for me. Next time, buddy." Same for Bruce's Working On A Dream. But there are no hard feelings. It all goes with hanging with an artist. Not every song is a work of genius. Any longtime fan of Tom Petty's knows that, right?

In fact, I got the new Lloyd Cole CD, Broken Record, in the mail last weekend (the only way to get it) and built a night around eventually sitting down with a beer in the kitchen and letting it play. The first time, I thought, decent. The second time I played a couple of songs in the car on the way to meet my dad at Panera. Last night, I heard more of it, driving around in the rain, and I thought, this is a strong, mature CD from someone I've been listening to for 25 years, and its songs insinuate themselves slowly, but deeply. Each listen is more rewarding, at least at my pace.

So, no, I'm really not interested in a test drive, at least not in a CD from an artist I've listened to for a long time. I'm not interested in the website's efforts to be a part of the event. I'm not interested in it being there before I'm ready for it to be there. I'd rather just let the mystery be, and solve it on my own time when I'm good and ready. That's the way life usually works, isn't it?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Guy Walks Into a Bar

I'm an Asshole - Denis Leary (mp3)

Last week my daughter had soccer practice at an indoor gym downtown, and I took advantage of the opportunity to drift over a few blocks to Champy’s, home of ungodly-good fried chicken and a mighty fine place to chill out and knock back a few.

I sit at the bar, exchange my normal charming witty banter with my favorite waitress, place my order, and crack open to page 60 of The Passage, a guilty little King-meets-Crichton 700+pager that makes me want a Kindle something fierce.

Perhaps four paragraphs in, some dude plops down in the stool right next to me. Much like the rules of public male restrooms, the rules of a non-crowded bar are fairly simple. That is, if there are other options for seating available, a dude should never sit on a barstool directly adjacent to another dude. If the seated dude has a gal, it’s more acceptable. If the bar is crowded, then all bets are off. But Champy’s at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night is neither.

“Whatcha reading?” is his introductory remark.

I wince a little and look up. He’s somewhere in the range of 30, probably a few years younger. His brown hair is short-cropped and mussy, and he has the kind of beard people in their 20s wear but have no business wearing, with noticeable missing patches in it. I am probably several inches taller and a good 20 pounds heavier, which means the dude is a truly pathetic physical specimen. But at least that makes him mostly harmless.

I tell him. “Yeah? What’s it about?”

“I don’t really know yet,” I sorta lie. “I’m only barely into it yet. But it got lots of good reviews.”

“Hmm,” he nods. He orders a beer while I bury my head back into the book, giving me just enough time to read another paragraph before forcing me back into the conversation. “So what do you do?”

Perhaps this all makes me an asshole. In 85% of life situations, I’m completely open to pointless conversation with total strangers. Granted, when you’re talking about strange men, the number dips to about 70%, but still, my point is that I’m neither antisocial nor introverted amongst strangers. With this guy, though, anyone’s radar would’ve blipped. He was a little off.

“I teach at _______,” I say.

“Oh yeah? I work at UTC. Just wrapped up my graduate degree. Arkansas Tech. Just moved here this summer.” He likes Chattanooga alright. Better than middle of fucking nowhere Arkansas. But his words all have a bitter aftertaste, like India Pale Ale.

“What do you teach?” English, I tell him. It’s a lie, but it’s a lot easier as the basis of a meaningless conversation. Besides, any inbred moron can teach English.

“Boy. You should be proud,” he says. The condescension and sarcasm was unexpected. I just ignore it and tell him I’m in fact quite proud. Of a job I don’t actually do.

Why is it that so many people we all know are incapable of reading very obvious social clues? When, immediately following a terse response to a rude comment, a dude shifts away from you and buries his head in an inanimate object, that means he’s done with the convo.

“So what do you do?” he asks. I look at him. He’s totally serious. Best I can tell, he has no idea that he’s already asked me this question. So now I’m doubly bothered by him and also feeling a little guilty because maybe he’s schizophrenic or otherwise fucked in the head. But c’mon, all I wanted to do was sit and drink a draft beer and eat a tasty dinner and read until soccer practice was over. I didn’t ask for this shit.

“I teach. English. At _______.” And just as if we were both in The Matrix, he says, “Boy, you should be proud.”

Back to the book. Work harder to ignore him.

Ginger My Favorite Waitress comes over and hands me a second beer and asks me why I’m there at an unusual time for me (read: not lunch). I explain the soccer thing and joke that my familial obligations were keeping me from the Hanson concert in Atlanta. Which was also kinda true.

First the dude insults Hanson, which isn’t an unreasonable thing for most people to do. But then he insults the family thing. “Why would you do that?”

“Go to a Hanson concert?”

“No. Have a wife and kids.”

“Um. Since you clearly don’t think much of it, what kind of explanation do you want?”

“Hey, it’s your life. Whatever. Just don't know why anyone would do that shit.”

As I have aged, my restrictor plate has weakened. A decade ago I would have chuckled and moved on. But enough stressors surround my existence, and my willingness to call out assholes has increased enough that I was yea close to breaking down his life in a John Bender kind of way. It would have been petty and proof of my own issues, but I almost did it.

Right at that moment, he gets up to go pee and falls off his stool. While he’s in the pisser, probably puking, Ginger comes over. “He’s fired drunk.”

Huh?

“Fired drunk. As in just lost his job. Either that or break-up drunk.”

“No,” I say. “It can’t be break-up drunk, because he would’ve insisted on telling me every last nauseating detail. Or at least said her name.”

“Yeah,” she nods. “Fired drunk then.”

Probably.

“Or he’s just an asshole,” another waiter shrugs while grabbing a 40-ounce from the fridge next to me.

I smile and enjoy that tasty second and final beer. Sharing an asshole with others around you is sometimes the best you can do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Accidental Embrace

One Moment More - Mindy Smith (mp3)
Leviathan Bound - Shearwater (mp3)

On Tuesdays, it is my parental duty to pick up one of my three chillens from her piano lessons and schlep her to soccer practice. Last Tuesday, I got delayed by a massive traffic pile-up on the Interstate mere miles from reaching my daughter.

Because my default mode is to push punctuality to its limit, any unexpected delay is certain to send me into an ulcerated hissy-fit, and this was no different. I hit the wheel, I murmur expletives about people who can’t drive or must not be in any friggin’ hurry or don’t believe in God, whatever might offer me some kind of balm for my own tension and misery.

As I approach an off-ramp and the salvation of a short-cut, I see it ahead of me. A dark blue Pontiac or an Oldsmobile in the second lane, its entire front end crushed like a Blutarsky Coke can, the hood taking the shape of a narrow A-frame roof, oil and other car fluids pooled up, as if the car were a gunshot victim slowly bleeding out on the asphalt.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the second car was missing. What about the car the driver rear-ended? Where did it go? As I’m looking around for it, my eyes catch a human form on the edge of the interstate. The form was actually two people, embracing one another so tightly it was as if they were forcing their bodies to become a single form. The woman was facing away from me, but you could see by the movement of her black track suit that her body was heaving and convulsing as she cried into this man’s chest. The man wore a white windbreaker, and his ballcap was backwards, and they embraced in front of an undamaged maroon truck some 15 yards from the destroyed automobile.

Logic and the scene suggested this was her boyfriend, husband, brother, a close loved one. Yet when I first saw them, and even now, I imagine them as strangers. I imagine that this man, having witnessed this terrible wreck, pulled over to help. He went to the car and patiently helped her out and over to the side of the road. Her legs wobbly, her brain in a jelly-fied shock, he held her strange arm and her strange hand and led her to safety.

Then, several minutes later -- long enough for me and my traffic to arrive on the scene, but before the police could make it -- I imagined that she begins to pull out of the fog of shock, realizing she had almost lost her life, possibly leaving behind children or family not to mention friends and an entire collection of the connections and accomplishments that make up one’s existence, and she began to weep uncontrollably. And this man takes her into his arms, not out of any remote selfishness, but rather because to have stopped to help and not have offered his chest and the comfort of his embrace would have meant failing her somehow.

A car behind me had to honk at me. I can’t remember a time I’d been so entranced by what amounted to rubbernecking.

After creeping past the scene and reaching my destination minutes later, I found myself so very grateful to have arrived that I gave both of my children the kind of overlong hugs that raise child eyebrows with that What’s up with Dad today? look, hugs with origins and motives you keep to yourself and hope one day your children will understand.

As my younger daughter pulled back to look up at me, I imagined the accident victim, looking up after several minutes of the kind of crying that exhausts every last calorie from the body, to thank this man. She wouldn’t even be ashamed of how things might look or care how uncomfortably close her body was to some strange man’s.

And, for just that one minute, she would fall in love with him. Not in any kind of shameful way, not in a way where she couldn’t go home to her significant other and hold him while grateful that the blood continued to pump through her body. She would love him the way humans are capable of truly loving one another, sans sex or romance or even gender. A love borne because we see a deep and powerful tenderness in one another, and because we can know in moments like these that life is precious and connections are precious and people, for all we do to fuck each other up, are amazing creatures full of inexplicable and sometimes unfathomable compassion.

This encounter occupied perhaps 120 seconds of my life. It could populate decades’ worth of Thanksgiving prayers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Most Irrational Decision

The Sunny Street--"College" (mp3)

Is there any decision that is more fraught with instincts, neuroses, gut feelings, family pressures, and sheer arbitrariness than deciding where to go to college?

I mean, think about it for a second. How do you even get started? Someone who knows you based on a series of superficial numbers and statistics makes some recommendations to you based on what you think you would like to study and where/how you would like to study it even though you've never done it. From that person, you get a list of schools that are "good fits" academically and in terms of a few tangible criteria like size and location.

If that. That's if you're lucky. In my day, in a public school, you walked into the all-purpose guidance counselor who said, "Ok, where do you want to go to college?" And someone like me said, "I don't know, I guess where my brother went."

And that's only one of the many family connections that might influence a college decision. I sat with a mother at a Boarding Visitors Day just last week whose older son was forced to go to Washington and Lee because his father had gone there. Even though he wanted to go to UVA.

My daughter, who attends a private school and is currently in the hunt for a college, has a skilled, knowledgeable college-only counselor, but I am not convinced that the search is any less capricious, despite her counselor's best efforts.

These are among the issues my daughter is weighing. A city or out in the middle of nowhere? Good weather? Does it have the major that she may or may not be interested in, depending on the day of the week? Should it be a school with a fun football environment? Close to home? Too close? Greek life is important or not? How is the shopping? Are any of her friends applying there, too? Is she applying because they are applying or vice-versa? Does her mother like the school or not? Is her mother pushing the school or not? How was the tour? How was the tour guide? Are the facilities state-0f-the-art or Mickey Mouse? Can she get in? What do her parents' four college-counseling friends think of the school? How would it compare to where her sister goes? How do the current students look? How do they dress? Does the dining hall have Chik-Fil-A? Are there good local places to eat as well? Does everyone stay on campus on the weekends or go home? Who else do we know who went there? What did they think of it? How much weight does the story of the girl who went last year but came home unhappy carry? What kind of traditions does the school have? Is there a coherent architectural plan? Are there Amish?

It may be one of the great mysterious miracles of life that so many people end up at a college that actually suits them. My theory, though, is that personal choice, a person working through the idiosyncratic factors that are most important to him or her, often have little impact on the success of a college experience.

Instead, once you get there, a whole new set of arbitrary factors kick in--how's your roommate, do you meet a girl or guy, what kind of bands come play on campus or nearby, are the keystone experiences of your freshman year positive or negative, are you the kind of person who sticks out a situation through tough times or who knows enough to get out of a bad situation, do you meet a girl or guy, is there a professor or a field of study you really connect with, is there a study abroad program that shapes who you will become, does your school carry a lot of "street cred," do you meet a girl or guy--that determine how you view your college years.

Me, wasn't that crazy about my college years. Didn't meet a girl. Wasn't studying something that I really wanted to. Followed the path that my father guided me onto.

Me, loved graduate school. Got a degree in what I was really interested in. Met a girl. Married her.

And while it would be easy to say that that is all it came down to, there were other factors. Primarily, I didn't really know what I wanted until I was twenty-two, or, really, when I was twenty-four.

But there is no way to know that when you are 17 and scanning lists that your counselor has handed you or looking through books or talking to friends or trying to decide based on the one hour you spend on a college campus during a trip that you take with your parents along, both of whom have their own college issues that have never been resolved, so that, as you look at a possible home for the next four years, your parents are thinking, "Man, if I could do it all over again, I would...."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Partly Cloudy with a 20% Chance of Nooky

Penny on the Train Track - Ben Kweller (mp3)
London Rain - Heather Nova (mp3)

Would life be better or worse if you could get forecasts of your sex life like we currently do with the weather?

The other day at lunch, a group of us were discussing another coworker. This is not an unusual event, but we pretend it is.

Anyway, the coworker in question has been going through tough times. She’s always been awkward and anti-social, and everyone knows her home life is dysfunctional on a Roseanne Barr kind of level.

One of my coworkers, as we were picking up our plates, said, “Two things would make that woman’s life so much easier: more tears, and more orgasms.” She seemed to think that this woman wasn’t getting enough of either. By a long shot.

For some reason this comment sent me into one of those Simon daydreams with his magic chalk. Tears and orgasms made me think of rain. Which made me think about the notion of a Sex Forecaster.

Think of it. You get up in the morning, turn on the TV, and check into The Sex Weather Channel...
CANDACE (in the studio): And now, for the men’s sex forecast for the week, here’s Tom in Palm Springs.

TOM (standing on windy shore with raincoat hood pulled over head): Thanks, Candace. This week could be all over the place, heh heh, and I’m not talking about how Nuke LaLouche pitches! Heh heh... heh heh... oh nevermind.

Anyway, today and tomorrow are mostly cloudy with a 20-percent chance of sex with winds up to 5-10 mph. Not enough of a gust to get to full BJ strength, but perhaps some light kissing and even a hand rubbing on the thigh while you continue ignoring her and staring at Monday Night Football. Tuesday is looking much calmer, with clear skies and mild temperatures. No fighting, but also minimal cuddling.

The second half of the week will see a cold front come into the relationship, with some fighting about what the children are eating at school for lunch and whether they’re doing enough around the house for their age, and also because you’ll make a snide remark about the lack of sex that comes off much harsher than you intended, and even though you aplogize for being an asshole, it won’t help. Temperatures could get below freezing in the evening hours several nights running.

By the weekend, things should warm back up. You’ll eat some crow and offer to let her go out to a movie with her pals on Friday night while you watch the children, which will result in an unusually balmy temperature headed into the early hours on Saturday morning. Chances of sex hits 80-percent, but it’s possible the sex will hold off until morning rather than sex upon her return from the movie, as her night also has a 40 percent chance of intoxication.

By Saturday afternoon, the sex will have come and gone, and the skies will clear back out for the remainder of the weekend. Very little chance of a second sex front pushing through on Saturday or Sunday, although enough wind could build up in the evening hours for a decent BJ. Don’t go expecting it, though, especially if you’ve been married for more than a couple of years.

That’s this week’s sex forecast for men, Candace. Are you crying and orgasming enough to be sufficiently happy of late?

CANDACE: Awww, thanks for asking Tom. In fact, I’ve cried twice today and had a small self-stimulated orgasm while you were talking, so yes, I’m managing just fine. My husband gets back home tomorrow night, so my Tuesday is looking very, very hot. Heatwave hot, Tom. Heat the likes of which you’ve never dreamed.

We’ll be right back to the studio after “Sex on the 9s.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Black Like Me (or my car)

Bob Dylan--"Hurricane (live)" (mp3)

Last Thursday night, little old white suburban me was racially-profiled.

Or at least my car was. Previous adventures with my 1995 dark green Toyota Camry have been related on this site, but I guess I've never really described the car. Even though my father-in-law bought it for driving around a retirement community in Florida, we have always thought that it was "pimped." In addition to its dark color, he had some kind of extra-dark tint put on the windows, I'm sure because of his cataracts and the hot Florida sun.

I have since tried to remove said tint, but only with partial success. It was put on very, very well, and while portions of it have peeled off, much of it remains, impossible for the amateur to remove and with the resultant outcome that the car, or at least the windows, look like they have one of those skin conditions where there are two different blotchy shades of pigment.

The car also looks just plain dark, and in addition to a front right side scrape that my wife had driving a child to school, it also has a pretty good dent on the passenger side where a woman without insurance hit me in a Bi-Lo parking lot and I just said to her, "It's an old car. Don't worry about it."

And bumper stickers. One reads "I (heart) New Orleans," one reads "Dino Jr.," and one reads "Grateful Dead," but if you just saw the stickers and didn't bother to examine them, coupled with the various dents, scrapes, and peeling, darkened windows, you might be inclined to think a poor person, probably a poor black person was driving the car (instead of a white person drowning in college tuition).
At least if you are a cop.

Here's what happened: my friend Steve and I were driving down a major road headed to our usual Thursday night sports bar destination. It's about a three mile drive, and I noticed after about a mile a police car sitting in a parking lot to our right as we drove past. I checked my speed; I was under the 40 mph limit.

I thought as we went down the road that maybe he had pulled out after us, but, completely within the limits of the law, I thought little of it. At a stoplight at a major intersection, all of a sudden he was right behind us. He didn't do anything, but as soon as the light turned green and we went through it, his blue lights came on and we pulled over on the left side of the road. We had not done anything wrong during the entire drive to that point.

(Let me backtrack: the day before, I had had my car inspected since the tags expired on Oct. 31, and, at the last second, before I drove to Steve's house, I went back inside mine to see if, by some chance, my new sticker had arrived in the mail. It had. I put it on the license plate, picked him up, and we went on our way.)

When he walked up to my window, he said, "Did you just put that sticker on your license plate recently?" "Yes," I said, "Just tonight." "Well," he said, "It isn't in our system. I'll need your driver's license and insurance card." Which I provided.

Now, if you're following this confusing narrative, here's what you know: he can't have known that my updated license plate wasn't in the system until after I drove by him and until after he pulled out and followed me and until after he ran my tags at the stop light. All with my having done nothing wrong.

So, he came back and handed me my papers and said, "You're good to go. Your new registration just wasn't in our system yet." As if the pattern of his actions was normal and made sense. Um, officer, I'm thinking, and you ran my tags why?

Now, I ask you, who gets pulled over for doing absolutely nothing? Hint: it isn't a white, moderately-affluent school teacher at a private school.

Or, shall I ask you this: when you see a car pulled over by the side of the road with blue lights flashing behind it, what kind of car is it, typically? If you said, an older, worn-out looking, seen some hard times kind of vehicle, well, at least in Chattanooga, you'd win a prize!

There were a number of police cars on Brainerd Road that night, and they were all interacting with cars like mine, it being the end of the month and a good chance to generate some extra income with fines for expired tags.

Maybe I should have taken him on, told him that I knew exactly what was going on, that I knew he thought I was black and that's why he pulled out after my car and decided to run my tags through the computer. But you know what? I don't mess with police. Not in any way, shape, or form. I appreciate their help when I need it, but when I don't, I don't trust them to behave with liberty and justice for all. Especially not with someone who can expose what they are doing wrong. I'm chickenshit that way.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Daphne the Gay Ninja

One of the Boys - Mott the Hoople (mp3)
Divine Thing - Soup Dragons (mp3)

Massive positive buzz abounds for a blog entry from a mother whose 5-year-old preschool son dressed up as Daphne for a Halloween party at his school. Here’s the intro, but I highly encourage you to read the entire piece:
My son is gay. Or he’s not. I don’t care. He is still my son. And he is 5. And I am his mother. And if you have a problem with anything mentioned above, I don’t want to know you. I have gone back and forth on whether I wanted to post something more in-depth about my sweet boy and his choice of Halloween costume. Or more specifically, the reactions to it. I figure if I’m still irked by it a few days later, I may as well go ahead and post my thoughts...
I find myself uncomfortably conflicted by her post. Perhaps my reaction speaks poorly of me, but the devil's advocate can't stand the absolute onslaught of warm fuzzies she's receiving. A bajillion people have commented how much they adore this woman’s post, and my reaction wasn’t nearly that simple.

Foremost, some of her zingers are absolutely awesome and righteous, particularly this line:
If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.
Good stuff, that. She makes some great points, and most of them have Ka-Chow!

Admittedly, however, I have problems with her overall spiel. First, I don’t really believe someone capable of writing this well can be as clueless as she purports. If she didn’t see these reactions coming -- which officially makes her more socially naive than her 5-year-old -- then she doesn’t get out much. Besides, if she didn't see the negativity coming, then why were all her pals high-fiving her down the hallway?

Therefore, I question her motives. Was she really out to make her sweet precious Boo happy, or was she willing to use her son for her own combative lust? (And, if the answer is a little of both, is that OK?)

Third is my reaction to her conclusion:
And all I hope for my kids, and yours, and those of Moms ABC, are that they are happy. If a set of purple sparkly tights and a velvety dress is what makes my baby happy one night, then so be it. If he wants to carry a purse, or marry a man, or paint fingernails with his best girlfriend, then ok. My job as his mother is not to stifle that man that he will be, but to help him along his way. Mine is not to dictate what is ‘normal’ and what is not, but to help him become a good person.
I’ve got bad news for you, honey. Instant happiness and long term happiness are almost entirely unrelated. One of today's biggest cultural problems is that making your child happy has superseded making them good people, and you are clearly and admittedly in that Insta-Happy Camp. (Happy: first sentence. Good person: last sentence.)

Your son might be "happy one night" taking a dump in his pants. He might be "happy one night" biting dogs. He might find "joy one day" eating maggots off the couch and without utensils or his hands. He might be happy doing lots of things that aren’t “right.” I’m not saying purple tights and purses are wrong, but I’m saying that we as parents are charged with raising and educating our children about that very cruel world this mom seems to have magically discovered on Halloween 2010, several decades into her life.

Five-year-olds aren't soldiers. They shouldn't be used to fight our battles. If she'd encouraged her son to dress as Papa Smurf rather than Daphne, she didn't somehow kill his soul. He's FIVE.

Being a parent isn’t always about making our children happy in the now. Happiness is not a goal you can reach by aiming for it. Happiness is the desired by-product of other meaningful pursuits.

Let me be crystal clear here, because this is important: When your first goal as a parent is your child's constant and immediate happiness, you are at best a naive parent, and at worst a horrible one.

Cross-dressing, marrying someone of a different race or religion, moving to Pakistan to become a Christian missionary, opening a medicinal marijuana farm. These are not the same kinds of decisions as whether to brush your teeth at night. I’m not saying any of these life choices are Wrong, because I'm a lib'ral relativist. But in our time and in our culture, to suggest that parents don’t have a responsibility to educate and prepare our children for the world that might not approve of everything they do or want to do... to let your children ride their bikes into traffic without at least informing them of the risks and dangers... well, that’s shitty parenting.

Evangelize to cannibals in the Amazon. Cross-dress. Marry a lovely Hindu man. Whatever. As your parent, I’ll love you regardless, but I do have the responsibility to make sure you are aware what you might be getting yourself into.

Again, I admire at least 80% of what this mom says. And I admire the ferocity with which she defends and loves her son. But to say the moms are bullies? Get over yourself. Snotty? Callous? Condescending? Insensitive? Sure, to all of ‘em. But when we start labeling their behavior as bullying, we have watered down the term so much it’s meaningless. It’s like calling a kitchen knife a WMD.

Her claims of social cluelessness and her prioritization of quick happiness, however, are worth questioning. If she didn’t know it might be controversial, why were all her pre-warned pals giving her high-fives down the hallway like she was about to enter a WWE wrestling ring? Don’t couch it like your toddler has more social awareness than his mother.

And here's the last part for this mom and all her cyber-huggers. Kids are more resilient than any of you seem to realize. Her precious Boo won't remember a thing about his Halloween party in two weeks, because nobody ever said anything to him or did anything to him.

Her blog isn't about her precious Boo. It's about her.

It takes a self-absorbed blogger to know one.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Humiliation Sells

Guided By Voices--"How's My Drinking" (mp3)

Man is spending Saturday or Sunday afternoon watching football, enjoying self, relaxing in the den, and there is a break in the action. Then man watches television beer commercial and thinks to self, "Well, I certainly don't want to be like that dork. I'd better start drinking the right beer."

This is the mind set of today's male that advertising is trying to develop. Make the wrong purchase choice, and there is some good-looking woman out there waiting to make fun of us. There's also a pretty good chance that some other hotties are hanging out waiting to chip in, too.

Or maybe even one of our own pals.

Really, though, it's even more complicated than that. Because it quickly emerges that there is a kind of cosmic cause-and-effect at play here. The beer humiliation is merely the icing on the cake, if you will, or, perhaps better said, a fait accompli, because the victim has already take a number of wrong turns in his life that guarantee he will make the wrong choice in the first place--he's a "Momma's Boy," he wears a European swimsuit, he carries a man purse.

So it won't just be the beer choice that will bring on the humiliation. That's just the beginning. The sheer matter of who you happen to be outside the norm will cause everyone to heap it on.

It's enough to make a guy wish he could order a Schmidt's Gay and hang out with some people who will actually treat him well.

Of course, this doesn't come as that much of a surprise. The humiliation of the American male has been the main source of humor in television sitcoms at least as far back as Married...With Children and probably as far back The Jackie Gleason Show. Emasculation is apparently funny. And life inside of beer commercials has portrayed various utopian visions for decades--racial harmony, the twins, skiing, lobsters and Lowenbrau, impossibly beautiful bartenders.

By contrast, the female bartender that waits on us on Monday nights could easily find work as a zombie extra on The Walking Dead. Only my blogmate Billy can get her to crack the slightest smile.

Often have I longed to live inside of a beer commercial, at least for a little while. All of the guys would be cooler and buffer than my real friends; all of the women that intangible notch below supermodels. We'd just hang out at the beach, the slopes, the game, the perfect urban setting or suburb. Until now. Because now, the beer commercial life has turned downright mean. Maybe it started with that "Real Men Of Genius" series, which seemed kind of funny at the time, but is just a different kind of mockery.

And let's face it: all light beers kinda blow. Just like light cheeses and skimmed milk and Baked Lays. Some blow less than others because they have a little more taste. If you're drinking one, you're choosing it for different reasons than taste. If you choose one with too many calories, the people in the light beer commercial with the fewest calories will make fun of you.

But it isn't only beer. The one that gets me, because I cook, is the "Guys Don't Bake" commercial where the male host brings out a tray of fresh, hot biscuits for his friends watching the game and everyone acts like he's a member of the castrati or something.

Advertisers got ahold of women a long time ago by convincing them that a) they could never be pretty enough and the only hope was to keep trying by buying, and b) that their favorite clothing was always just days away from going out of style. So Madison Avenue needed a degrading counterpart to reel the males in. The solution? Intimate that something that you do or are will make women not want to be with you--you stink, your beard is too rough, you can't get it up, you drink the wrong beer, you wear man thongs, you do women things.

But they also took it a step further. Stray outside the norm, and even your own friends won't want to hang out with you. And that's the cruelest cut of all, because then you don't even have anyone to commiserate with about all of your other failures. I'm sorry, my friend, it could have gone so much better for you, had you simply chosen the proper light beer. Heck, you even had a shot at being the world's most interesting man, but, just like that, wrong beer, buddy, and you blew it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blood-Stained Badges In The Dirt

Michelle Rhee is a hated woman. She went into a system almost paralyzed under the weight of politics and pressures and stirred the genesis of a revolution.

I have no doubt that she made a lot of mistakes. Outwardly, she has all the warmth and compassion of a Transformer. In her and Adrian Fenty's amazing Wall Street Journal "Education Manifesto," Rhee admits she should have done a better job at communicating her goals, her hopes, her intentions, to the parties most invested and at risk under her fiefdom. Rhee might have failed to win them over no matter what, but she should have tried harder regardless.

What is already clear, however, and what cannot be reasonably denied, is that Michelle Rhee has forever changed the educational landscape in what has long been the worst educational district in this country. She is a modern-day Pale Rider or the Wyatt Earp of Tombstone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ Clint one day directs a movie about her.

Rhee (1) is brilliant; (2) was convicted about her responsibilities; and (3) was willing to put her career on the line. She walked into the saloon, a big ol’ 10-gallon hat shading her face, a steady hand on the butt of her trusty six-shooter, and politely told the drunkards she was the new sheriff in town.

Before she showed up, the numbers were in all ways horrifying. The numbers indicated the educational equivalent of a post-apocalyptic landscape of bandits, marauders, and hopeless helpless innocents hiding in their homes and eating scraps the mice left behind.

Today, the numbers are still horrifying. But noticeably and indubitably less horrifying than they used to be. It went from the Black Knight without arms and legs and bleeding to death to a Black Knight with one arm, more confidently asserting that “I’m getting bettah.” And Rhee is the catalyst for those improvements.

Michelle Rhee is an old school classic hero of the sort the 21st Century doesn’t accept and might not even want. She chose a thankless career.

Three years later, she is (temporarily) unemployed. Go to any story about Rhee on educationweek.com, and you will most certainly find dozens of teachers across the country – good, dedicated, intelligent people – writing about her as if she might well be the Antichrist. They question her motives. They question her “success.”

And good for them. She deserves scrutiny and skepticism. But in a decade, the educational history books will point to this moment and her role in it and say, “Rhee’s tenure in D.C. was the tipping point of what would become largest educational reform movement in over a century.”

Part II:

Take everything I just wrote about Michelle Rhee and education, and you can replace her with Barack Obama, and you can replace education with health care.

Thirty years from now, the way our government and our corporations handle health care will be drastically different from what it is today. It will be almost nothing like the plans Obama’s legislation intends for it to become.

Barack Obama was elected captain of the Titanic. When it comes to health care in this country, we’ve been aiming straight at an iceberg for 50 years. Almost every sane person in this idiotic country admits that the system is powerfully flawed and getting worse. A dude finally comes along and turns the steering wheel, and everyone screams at him.

They say the plan is flawed. Fine, and true.

But what they hate about Obama is that his solution isn’t their solution. Nevermind that they never had a solution until he forced them to make some shit up on the fly.

Thirty years from now, when health care in this country is drastically and measurably better than it is today – more affordable, no longer the responsibility of employers, and probably less tolerant of high-cost end-of-life treatments – we will look back at Obama’s health care law as the catalyst. They will say, “He got a lot of things wrong, but damn if he didn’t force the evolution to begin when no one else had the guts. And if he didn’t take that first step, we never get to where we are today.”

In reality, heroes don’t get everything right. In reality, heroes rarely get medals or adulation until after they’ve been martyred or marginalized. Real heroes are willing to risk more than the rest of us to achieve what everyone says they want but no one has the balls to do. Neither of these people did it alone, but they were the cornerstones of the effort, and their sense of conviction is what pulled many to their cause.

I don’t have to admire every detail of Rhee’s education reform to exalt her courage to spearhead it in the first place. I don’t like half of Obama’s health care legislation, but I absolutely glorify his risking a career’s worth of political capital to force change.

Rhee and Obama are currently facing the fate of heroes. They are being castigated, stoned, and despised by the very people they aim to help.

Such is the cost of heroism in the real world.