Thursday, April 28, 2011

Storm Outing

Dear Loyal Readers,

BOTG's authors, Bob and Billy, both reside in the southeastern corner of Tennessee and were caught up in last night's series of devastating storms. Both them and their families are safe and sound, although Bob's house is without power for the near future. They both know dozens of people who have lost their homes, and the death toll keeps rising throughout Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

We will return to the land of escapist fun blogging as soon as we can, but for now we ask only that you keep the Southeast in your thoughts and prayers, if you have a higher power to which you pray. If you don't, just your thoughts are appreciated.

In the meantime, feel free to focus on more important things like the Royal Wedding, which received as much coverage on the morning shows today as did the aftermath of these storms.

Yours in sarcasm and love,
Billy (and Bob)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Sunshine Lies - Matthew Sweet (mp3)
God's Got It - The Black Crowes (mp3)

A man has a story. The story changes lives. It changes the way entire groups of people deal with situations, with other people, with themselves. It reroutes armies.

But wait.

You begin to realize this story is not entirely true. You begin to realize that the man, the storyteller, knowingly embellished or even fictionalized a portion of this story. And yet, parts of the story remain true, and its telling has unquestionably affected people for good, and its ripple effect of positivity cannot be questioned.

How big must the lies be before they become inexcusable, before the good accomplished is eclipsed by the interwoven acts of deception?

If you think I’m talking about Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea, you’re only partly right. I could also be talking about Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard, or some could even say I’m talking about Jesus Christ himself.

60 Minutes did its expose, complete with damning info from investigative studpuppy Jon Krakauer. It took a few days of follow-up shock in newspapers and blogs, and then the invevitable backlash to the backlash began. If you read the comments section of the 60 Minutes link, a majority of the 376 (and counting) commenters are incensed that the show dared to investigate such a great hero.

That Mortenson has been the central figure in acts that have positively changed the lives of hundreds of people, possibly thousands, is indisputable. But couldn’t the same be said of Scientology? Or Latter Day Saints? Or Christianity?

Sure, we can all talk about how these religions have caused problems or used deceptive practices or whatever, but it's also indisputable that they have positively changed the lives of thousands if not millions. Does all that positivity that make the Original Sin of foundational lies OK?

As a Christian, obviously, I don’t believe Jesus was a liar. As a non-Mormon and non-Scientologist, I believe Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard very much were. Such is the unavoidable dividing line between believers and skeptics. Faith often requires us to believe true that which is difficult to accept as true.

But with Greg Mortenson... at the very least he tells convenient half-truths, and he (er, his organization) mishandles more money in a month than most of us see in a year, and he gets his ego stroked by reporters, military generals, politicians, and untold thousands of Americans and poor foreigners.

Disclosure: This story hits very close to home.

Two years ago, a nearby school, a school my daughters will soon attend, put most of its focus on fundraising to help Mortenson’s organization build a school for girls in Afghanistan. They raised over $60,000. Mortenson even came to the school and spoke to them. Now there’s serious doubt the school was ever built, and even if it was, there’s doubt it’s being used as a school and not sitting empty or being used for storage.

When these students saw or were told about the 60 Minutes report, you can only imagine how devastated they were. Mortenson's defenders may be right in part -- we don’t know the extent of Mortenson’s deceptions and incompetencies -- but even the true believer must accept that he has overstated his accomplishments and understated his own profiteering. The most common defense: surely there are worse people out there for journalists to investigate.

Do the schools Mortenson actually built that have real girls in them excuse that he or his organization mishandled this school's $60,000, money raised for a specific purpose that was never met? If Bernie Madoff started a world-changing charitable foundation with the millions he bilked from unwitting investors, does that make him less of a thief?

I find myself fairly ripped apart by these questions. I don’t like having to ask them, and I don’t like the answers my heart and head offer back. Instead I think of The Watchmen, and about Serenity, and many great works of more traditional literature that suggest that large-scale lies and cover-ups in the name of the Greater Good are never, ever OK.

Times like these, I wish reality were as easy as fiction. Is our sin here in making a hero out of a human, or is the sin that the human insisted on believing too much of his own hype? Can we ever get far enough past our own miserable flaws to do truly heroic things for very long, or if we keep flying, are we destined to eventually find ourselves a little too close to the sun?

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Do You Want Fries With That?"

You know, I really don't. I just think I do.

Out of habit, I say yes. Most places, I don't even know what those fries will be like, and most places it doesn't even matter, since they all get the same frozen fries from the same supplier. And 45 minutes later I am bloated with fries.

I am not alone.

Although the numbers vary a bit from study to study, the most repeated statistic that I came across in a recent Google search is that Americans eat an average of 29 pounds of french fries each year. And yes, if you break that down scientifically, that is nearly 2 1/2 pounds every month, or, to put it even more poignantly, that is the equivalent of you only stealing a couple of fries off of your friend's plate every single day of the year. Even if you just snitch and scam, you still pick up the pommes poundage.

Twenty-nine pounds sounds like a lot to me. Maybe that's because I spent the last three days carrying heavy boxes and furniture up and down the stairs in my house. And that's just the average. To get that number, you have to include non-fry eaters like nursing babies, celebrities on Dancing With The Stars, and the Maltose-intolerant.

But there's more to it than just pounds. You see, french fries, even as ubiquitous as they are, contain a mystery that most other everyday foods do not.

I learned this 45 years ago when my mother took us to our very first Hot Shoppes, Jr., the new fast-food joint in Cherry Hill when I was growing up. A little burger, a small sleeve of fries, an Orange Freeze served on a tray, all as if they had landed from another planet. The burger so different from the behemoth your dad cooked on the grill, the freeze just like those Slushies your parents wouldn't let you buy at the 7-11, and most of all, those fries, pale and salty and all the same size.

Because you can get fries in almost any restaurant in the country, but you aren't going to get them at home! That's the mystery--any crappy dump can fry up a pile of tater sticks for you, but you never eat them in the privacy of your house. Not unless you count those Ore-Ida ones you bake in the oven. I don't. Not unless you count the rare, rare, rare occasion that your parents (or you, now that you are a parent) attempt to make fries with mixed success. I don't. I mean that on any kind of regular basis, you can't get a french fry in your house. And, more likely, not a decent one. That is part of their secret allure.

And if you know someone who knows how to make them regularly and successfully (I do), that man (yeah, it'll be a man) is like a god, like a CIA-trained chef. His will be uniform in size, cooked once at a lower heat, then allowed to rest, and, finally, cooked again to get that perfect crispness and soft interior. Served in big, napkin-lined baskets with plenty of salt. And you will inhale their essence, you will test them with your teeth, you will moan orgasmically as you gorge on them. And his house and you and your clothes will smell like those french fries for a long time.

Which is one reason why the mystery maybe isn't so mysterious. The simple, run-of-the-mill french fry is a complete pain in the ass to prepare at home. And so, you're at a restaurant, and you think, I'm already eating a hamburger/cheesesteak/chicken tenders sub, what difference are a few, nice fries going to make? They're only a couple bucks more.

What's worse are those thin little fries like they give you at Steak N' Shake or J. Alexander's, you know, the ones that seem so light and airy compared to those steak fry planks they give you at some places? Well, those skinny ones are worse for you. Why? Because more of the "potato surface" is exposed to the hot grease, making them fattier. Making me fattier.

But they're crispier, I tell myself. They're "properly cooked." They aren't mealy like the big ones that might as well be potato skins. One of the things I've started to notice among the younger set, when a bunch of us teachers go out for a sandwich somewhere, is that many of them just get a sandwich. At first, I thought that was unAmerican (which if you consider the statistic above, it is), but then I started to think, 'Gee, maybe they still have enough to eat for lunch of they just eat a 10-inch sandwich for lunch and forgo the basket of crispy, salty fat.'

Let's talk about those words for a second. Because "crisp" is important to me. I like something crispy or crunchy with a sandwich--a bag of chips, some carrot sticks, fresh cole slaw, a pickle, something. I don't know where that desire for crispness comes from (especially since I don't necessarily like a crispy sandwich), but it's there.

And, I like the "salty," too. There's something almost sweet about a lot of sandwiches--maybe it's the sugar they put in the bread, or the mayo or other sauce, or the basic sweetness of a tomato or a slice of iceberg lettuce. And a salty something seems to be the perfect accompaniment. I guess the "fat" is just a bonus, and I guess, in a nutshell, I've just described everything that is wrong with American eating. They hand us a bomb, and we want a stick of dynamite to go with it.

Here's what I would do if I were me: instead of ritualistically going with fries every time I order a sandwich, I should only get french fries that are exceptional. You know, the ones that are worthy of being called "pommes frites," browned, never pasty, and crispy on the outside, soft as a pillow in the middle, the ones that don't even need ketchup (in most of the world, as much of a travesty as ketchup on a hot dog). If a place is known for their fries, try them. If the fries are an afterthought, skip them.

It's the same kind of logic I use with onion rings. I don't order them just any-old-where; they have to be state-of-the-art, like Ankar's or Nikki's.

But, yeah, speaking for America, I need to kick the french fry habit, and kick it now. I need french fries to stop being the Tonto to my sandwich. After all, if the masked man called himself "The Lone Ranger," how could he, by definition, even be allowed to have a sidekick?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

BOTG Mailbox Music Bonanza: April (Part II)

Last weekend at Target, I bought a really cool Spin Magazine special 2-CD song sampler for the irresistible price of $4.99. Thirty-two songs by an impressive diversity of artists for dirt cheap.

You know what? Having listened to those CDs a couple of times... the BOTG Music Mailbox is a damn good bargain. It's free, and the music you'll find here is every bit as good as the stuff you'll find on those CDs. The SPIN collection is a little harder on the edges. More screamo and more intensity, but not more musical awesomeness.

That's my take, anyway. Onto the music...

Kill the Killjoy - The DiSCiPLiNES
This is the lead single off their album, Virgins of Menace, a 12-song, 33-minute collection of potent pop. If I'd had the choice of any of their tracks to post, it would have taken me a long time to pick between five really impressive songs, and the rest of the album is plenty impressive as well. Then I went and found out from the promotional materials that the lead singer, Ken Stringfellow, has a past that includes The Posies, REM, and Big Star. Well, duh. Makes perfect sense. Impressive stuff, this. Band "mini-site"

Pharmacist - COYOL
This song sticks out like a sore thumb. Like, a thumb you hit with a hammer. Like, a thumb Mags Bennett hammered into ground beef on “Justified.” The dude’s voice... it’s impossible to ignore and tough to like. I’m not sure how much I could tolerate an entire album of it. But for one song, and when colliding at high speed with these lyrics and Celeigh Chapman's ballsy badass lady voice, it’s worth listening to a few hundred times. This song is art. It’s a collection of less-than-perfect weapons all combined into one big show-stopper. I don't know where these guys are going, but the potential is dizzying. Bandcamp site (with lyrics!)

Puzzle Pieces - Saint Motel
A much lighter piece than some. A little bit of group shouting. A little bit of well-timed falsetto. I dig the piano riff recurring through the song, and all the elements come together to form an impressive and bombastic little pop song that kinda begs your head to loll and bob left and right. Good stuff. Official web site.

One By One - The Trews
Of the many musical genres coming through our mailbox, "good ol' roots rock" seems the least popular, but that's what The Trews deliver. Some aggressive acoustic riffs and a band that appreciates strong harmonizing as much as the occasional single voice rising above it all with a passionate chorus. Hell, it even has a nice little guitar solo moment in there. I didn't even know those were allowed anymore. I was kind of surprised that these guys have four albums, but it makes sense, because this has the sound of experience. Official web site.

Would You Be So Kind - Lotte Mullan
What a great change of pace for this collection! A folksy chanteuse!! Coming off the album Plain Jane. "I just want to take you out and get you drunk so I can have my wicked way with you." These are the lines from another song from this lady. How can you not be intrigued by a woman whose introductory biographical fun fact is that she almost ruined her voice trying to sound like Tom Waits?? Listen to her voice! WTF would she want to sound like Tom Waits?! Clearly she ain't right in the head. Which usually makes for stunning musicianship. She's worth some attention. Soundcloud album sampler

Take Me Home - Germany Germany
Another great song for a commercial. I actually looked this one up, trying to find what commercial it's already been in. It's nothing earth-shaking, just a healthy 3-minute dose of synthesized dreamy bliss. You can get a whole album from him for $5 at Bandcamp sometime in mid-May.

Let's Get Loaded - The Fervor
This Louisville-based band is coming out with a second album, Arise, Great Warrior. Of course I was going to include any song with this title, but it's nice when a catchy title has the benefit of supporting a decent song. Female lead vocals with punch and some nice piano carrying through the song. They'll probably hate me for saying it, but I totally get this feeling I'm listening to a modern sequel to The Waitresses' "I Know What Boys Like" when I hear this. Official web site

Oceans of the Heart - Architects of Grace
Love + Rockets. Psychadelic Furs. This is the general idea. If you like that kind of darker-edged syntho-based semi-goth thing, then this song's worth a listen. Off their newly-debuted album Moments In Time. This isn't generally the music I swim in, but once in a while it's fun to dip a big toe into these waters, and this ain't a bad song to do it. Official web site

So High - Ringo Deathstarr
Sometimes a band comes along that picked such a perfect name it's destined to get a certain level of attention no matter what they do. This particular song and the others I've heard bring one word to mind: "drenched." The reverb and distortion are strong, the vocals all bleed into one another. These are the bastard children of bands like My Bloody Valentine, and they are doing their relatives proud. Their album is called Colour Trip. CNN story on them

This is the New Year - Ian Axel
Sometimes a new kid shows up on the block so polished and squeaky clean that critics are all suspicious and bitter. Like it's his fault he's a nerd whose mom won't let him leave the house without a pocket protector. It seems a little like Ian Axel has met this fate. His music is all Ben Foldy, and this particular song is just about the sunniest and most hopeful thing that will invade your ears this month. And if this song makes you smile and hug yourself, wait 'til you watch the video, a video that's clearly improved the mood of hundreds of thousands of people, because it's been watched over 800,000 times. His album is This is the New Year, and although few songs quite match the level of this tune, I noted at least four that were close to its equal.

My Sea - CALLmeKAT
It's not her fault she's attractive. She emerged from the Denmark music scene, three words that when combined I know absolutely nothing about. All I know is this is a cute catchy little pop song, and she apparently has a very large collection of keyboards and synthesizers. She's also clearly much younger than I, because when referring to her collection of '80s-esque keyboards, she described their sound as "organic." Interview with Spinner

Cold Hands Warm Heart - Pose Victorious
Scottish band. Pop rock. Or rock pop. Catchy. Can't wait to hear more from them. Worth a listen. Their EP Beneath the Lighthouse comes out in June.

Light from a Dying Star - Skypilot
Another damn band from Australia. Something about the climate down there pisses me off, because those folks Down Under still love them some rock music, and I'm jealous. This is another band that deserves being compared to U2, among others. They're still polishing off their soon-to-emerge EP, so I'll be interested to see how their sound develops.

Don't Let Go - The Windupdeads
It's always good to end on a strong note. I really really like this song. It's from their second album, Army of Invisible Men, and it's catchy and heartfelt and cheesy and just about everything I like about music. Official web site

Friday, April 22, 2011

BOTG Mailbox Music Bonanza: April (Part I)

It's been three months since our last BOTG Mailbox Music Bonanza, an infrequent free sampling of the best music sent our way by bands and reps -- or, at least, the best of the stuff we actually hear. We receive several hundred music submissions every month. It's truly impossible to keep up.

So without further adieu, and in the order I received and was impressed by them, here is the best of the last two months' of BOTG Mailbox Music! Sample for free and consider helping out some artists by buying some at iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, or another site of your choice! This is Part One. Part Two will arrive later this week.

Would You Say Stop? - Acid House Kings
Simple question: Are you the kind of person who loves the songs you hear on iPod commercials or Kindle commercials, or do you hate them? You answer that question, and you'll have decided what you think of this Acid House Kings song. If it hasn't showed up in a commercial yet, trust me, it will. It's catchy as hell. I saw the band's name, and I thought it would be some trippy psychadelic nonsense, so I was delighted with what I heard. I want to see women in '60s boof hairdos doing the swim dance when I hear the song. I want people lined up with their arms around one another kicking like the Rockettes. This song makes me very, very happy. Official web site

Throne - Dujeous
This April collection is unusually high on the hip-hop quotient, which is to say three songs. It's not a genre over which I have much knowledge or mastery, so all I can say is I like what I like. The guitar riff on heavy repeat hooks my ear, and the mix between the falsetto singing and the Public Enemy-esque rap coming through a megaphone on the chorus is muy catchy. Official web site

Pop Song - Broken Bricks
A tightly-produced collection of punky pop songs, this particular one gives me an Elvis Costello vibe for some reason. From their EP Little Fugitives. Also worth checking out: "Boy Dressed in Blue" and "Boom." Official web site

Rio - Hey Marseilles
There's at least three songs in this list that introduce themselves with some kind of handclappy percussive number. In this, I am predictable: you begin a song like that, I'm gonna like it. It means you don't take yourself too seriously, and you don't ignore the power of the simplest instruments. A good song, and it's a shame they didn't use it in the movie I just watched with my three kids in the theater. Official web site

Outta Sight - Eclectic Method & Chuck D
You get Chuck D rapping with you, Ima like you. Another kickass funky synth/bass line, and a chorus you can memorize and chant along by the second time. Most especially, it's over before it wears out its welcome!

Jazzonia (Silver Tree) - Adam Taylor
The younger brother to a member of the band LIVE, this guy puts together a good and just-diverse-enough collection of alt-pop on his 7-song EP "No Poet." Only one song goes past the 3:30 mark, and half are under three minutes. He's got some growing and improving to do, but there's scads of potential in them thar hills. Official web site

Running With Insanity - Alcoholic Faith Mission
This band is one of the few who have so completely floored me that they move from my "BOTG Mailbox" collection into my "I truly love this band" collection. While I don't think they sound like Okkervil or Arcade Fire, they bring that same awkward off-kilter mentality to their music. You just don't quite know what they hell they're doing or thinking, instrumentally or vocally, and it's really tough to predict where they're going. But I keep listening, because whatever they're doing fascinates me. Maybe this is the kind of feeling people who watch NASCAR get, except I get it with music. Official web site

You Were Only a Song - Plain Jane Automobile
Muse. U2. If you can't stand either of these bands, then you might as well skip on down to the next song, because this band gives off plenty of both. You remember that scene in The Little Mermaid where octopus lady steals Ariel's voice? Well this dude totally stole Bono. Seriously, I promise I could tell people that Bono had started a new band called Plane Jane Automobile, and 90% of people would believe it. (Then again, 50% think Obama was born in Satan's ass somewhere in Saudi Arabia, so I guess fooling people isn't too difficult.) Point is, I like those bands, and this one shows a boatload of talent and promise on their debut album, Your Tomorrow. Official web site

Holy Saturday, Gloomy Sunday - Tigers That Talked
You thought I was kidding about that handclappy thing, dintcha?? Seriously, how can that introduction NOT rope you in?! As a rabid Frightened Rabbit fan, I was destined to be impressed by these guys. They sound a little bit more commercially ambitious -- which cuts both ways -- but this song is a mighty good start. Can't wait to hear more. Official web site

Atlantic City - Benjamin Francis Leftwich
Back in the '70s, someone would have placed this and Greg Laswell's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" on a 45 and felt like they'd done something great. Both are haunting and stripped-down coffee-house covers. Springsteen lovers probably won't care for this much, but I like that he's taken enough risk to make it his own song rather than trying to sound too much like The Boss, which would be a foolish failure. Official web site

Sing - Sounds Under Radio
First, this is an arena-friendly pop song, and it's no wonder American Idol picked it up for their commercials. Second, any album titled Where My Communist Heart Meets My Capitalist Mind is an album I'm gonna sample. Third, I was somewhat disappointed in the latest My Chemical Romance album, and even though their song "Sing" is pretty catchy, I actually like this song "Sing" better. Good, good stuff this. Official web site

Remains - White Belt Yellow Tag
This song harkens back to some of the bombastic acts of the Brit '80s, and as a child of the '80s, I naturally mean that as a compliment. I daresay it's got an Echo & the Bunnymen vibe. The vocals are unapologetic, and I get the impression of a man who was singing so loudly the glass in the recording booth cracked a little. This music isn't afraid to reach skyward. Official web site

If You're Listening - Eject Pilot Eject
I hear this song, and I think teen movie soundtracks of the John Hughes and Cameron Crowe variety. The under-appreciated Katrina & the Waves come to mind when hearing this song, or maybe a more stripped-down and older school version of The Sounds. Their 3-song Face to Face EP is a great starting point, and I daresay someone will pick these pilots up and try to fly them to the next level. Official web site

Nrob Bmud - Regurgitator
Always - The Optimen
Tennis Party - Mr. Maps
Excuse Me Mister - Jackie Marshall
In early March we were sent a sampler called "Sounds Like Brisbane," a collection of up-and-comers from Australia (unless there's a Brisbane, Iowa, I'm unaware of). The last four songs in Part One are from this intriguing collection. You know how people always make fun of France for being, well, French and stuff? Nobody in the South makes fun of Australia. Most of us have, in our imaginations, deemed Australia this heaven-on-earth kind of destination. Granted, we have to forget all those depressing Midnight Oil songs, but any island that has given us Elle MacPherson, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Isla Fisher, Yvonne Strahovski ("Chuck") and even Hugh Jackman... well, it's understandable if you hate them because they're pretty.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Defending M'Lady

99 Problems - Jay-Z (mp3)
My Baby Loves Malt Liquor - Roger Alan Wade (mp3)

Ashley Judd needs no man defending her for anything she does. In fact, I get the distinct impression that she would probably despise a fella who tried for being the annoying egotistical Knight on a White Horse. She would likely ride him and that horse right into a Giant Sequoya.

But history is replete with tales of women not needing rescue but stupid men swooping in and trying anyway, and I’m precisely that kind of stupid man, so here I go swooping...

CNN includes the following write-up and excerpts from her new memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet:
While speaking about an AIDS awareness program she works with, Judd writes, "Along with other performers, YouthAIDS was supported by rap and hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy to spread the, who? Those names were a red flag.”

Judd continued, “As far as I'm concerned, most rap and hip-hop music - with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as 'ho's' - is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny.”

She concludes, "I believe that the social construction of gender - the cultural beliefs and practices that divide the sexes and institutionalize and normalize the unequal treatment of girls and women, privilege the interests of boys and men, and, most nefariously, incessantly sexualize girls and women - is the root cause of poverty and suffering around the world."
Because Ashley is a white lady from Kentucky, and because she failed to note that several rap and R&B males are much more into pedophilic abusive relationships rather than merely smackin’ up adult bitches and ho’s, her comments apparently raised some sort of ruckus. She’s apparently racked with guilt over this ruckus and is apologizing for her part in it.

Because Ashley’s much more business-savvy than I, maybe it was the right thing to do. She also rightly acknowledged that plenty of unfair stereotypes are laid at the feet of bluegrass and country music. And we all know those stereotypes are foolish, because those musicians hardly drink alcohol, much less sleep around.

But not a single word of what she said is any more incendiary or unfair than the things Aaron McGruder, creator of BOONDOCKS, has been saying for almost a decade. It’s not all that different than what Bill Cosby says, either, except it’s hard to use Bill Cosby as an example since he has his own womanizing issues and could arguably dismissed as an Oreo in the first place.

Some stereotypes exist because they’re true far too often. Country stars sing about drinkin’, screwin’, and drivin’. R&B stars sing about drinkin’, screwin’, and dancin’. The difference? Country stars sing about getting drunk and sleeping around on their wives or husbands (or being the victim of such activity), while R&B stars sing to an audience for whom marriage is a dying concept, so instead of affairs, they just sing about screwing anything and everything that crosses their path.

Don’t expect me to apologize for acknowledging statistics, and I’m not going to apologize for linking to just one of more than a dozen columns and articles that say precisely what I did except perhaps with a little more decor.

The cynic is then forced to ask a tough question, a question no true Ashley Juddite wants to ask himself: Is her apology merely an attempt to drum up publicity for a controversy that hardly exists in the first place? Is she trying to apologize for something no one was really all that upset about in the hopes that it might sell a few more books?

She might be half-crazy, but she’s also much smarter than your average bear. The hundreds of people who added their own comments to the mix, however (scroll to the bottom of the CNN article), are not smarter than your average bear. They are a reminder why the Web 2.0 is often a depressing look at why we are the society we are.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Voice in a Room

Freedom or Death--"This Crowded Room" (mp3)

A small room. A mother and a son. The only place he has ever lived. The only place that she has lived for the past five years since she was abducted and held in this room, repeatedly raped by "Old Nick," who comes in the room at night, until eventually, the son, the five-year-old narrator, "happened in [his mother's] tummy" and, on his fifth birthday, appeared on page to begin to tell us his story.

The book is Room. The author is Emma Donoghue. The narrator is Jack.

Jack is quite the idiosyncratic narrator. He personifies all of the inanimate objects in the room--Bed, Mirror, Wardrobe, etc.--so that they seem almost human (I know that sounds redundant, but when you read the book, you'll get the point). He uses slightly skewed language (death becomes "go back to Heaven") and his perceptions are a bit off(he knows that the people on TV aren't quite real, but he isn't sure why or how, especially with Dora The Explorer who seems more able to interact with him than others). I'm pretty sure that he still breastfeeds and has other closeness with his mother atypical for a boy his age. And, of course, he has never left this room (the stains from his birth are still on the rug).

My issue with Jack is that I am not quite sure that I believe him.

Notice, I did not say say problem; I said issue. Because the creation of a narrator is one of the most difficult challenges a writer of fiction faces, and I think that people who read a lot know this and are consequently willing to give the writer plenty of leeway. And then it becomes a choice that the reader makes. Do I not believe the narrator, or do I not believe him enough? If the first choice, then a reader like me probably adds that to the heaping pile of "suspensions of disbelief" that he stacks next to him, stacks it right on top of "what are the circumstances under which this five year old boy is even able to tell us his story," while he reads and keeps on. If the second choice, then a reader probably says, "Nope. Too much," and puts the book down for good.

With Room and me, that's remains to be decided. And since I'm only 28 pages into a 320+ page book, I don't know the answer myself. I'm pretty excited to find out.

And so, come with me briefly on this intellectual exercise: do I not believe Jack and what he says or do I not believe the creation of him (as a character)? Next door to me lives a 5-year-old girl named Liza. I see her fairly often, I talk with her and her grandmother, I watch them plant flowers or her ride her scooter while I'm cutting the grass, she has played with my cats, now cat, since they were kittens. And while I obviously don't know what she's thinking at any given time, I do get a pretty good sense of her "fiveness."

Jack's is very different. But then, Jack has been "homeschooled." He has been homeschooled like nobody's business, engaged in a constant give-and-take with a very patient mother 24/7, 365 X 5. And so perhaps it is no surprise that he seems older, wiser, more literate than the typical kid his age.

What works in Ms. Donoghue's favor, I think, is that we really have little to compare Jack to. My partner-in-crime, Billy, has cleverly paired Room with The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime for his Summer Reading Group, and, in many way, that autistic narrator is the precursor for Jack.

The real challenge for me, and perhaps the ultimate sticking point, is that I am not sure that a 5-year-old narrator is viable, for two reasons: 1) I'm not sure a 5-year-old knows enough to tell a story (let me rephrase that, a 5-year-old clearly knows enough to tell numerous, fascinating stories, but may not know enough language to get a complex story like this told), and 2) I'm not sure an adult, no matter how creative and accomplished he or she is, can get back to his or her "fiveness" enough to be able to recreate that voice.

Huck Finn, to me, is a no-brainer. Same with Holden Caufield. Or Ellen Foster. Not because they have been established as classic narrators, but because when they are telling their stories, they are old enough that I don't question their ages, their authority.

Finally, though, it may not matter. It may well be that what I connect with is Jack the character, not Jack the 5-year-old, and that's okay, that's fine, that will keep me reading the book. But I suspect that all the way through this book there will be a little something nagging at me, maybe a little too much feeling of the author at work.

Maybe I'll be left with just a simple "I don't believe Jack." But that's okay. Sometimes I don't believe myself.

"This Crowded Room" is a very good example of a modern song. Well done, Freedom or Death!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

It's Always Something - Rick Springfield (mp3)
Lose You - Pete Yorn (mp3)

Last Friday, Tax Day, the FBI shut down the three largest online poker sites in the United States.

Saturday night, I rewatched Chinatown for the first time in over a decade and watched one of the special features that came with the movie, where screenwriter Robert Towne and Jack “Jake Gittes” Nicholson were both interviewed about the experience.

Towne’s script was inspired by a number of very real experiences and conversations, which is how a movie originally titled “Water and Power” -- a great title, by the way -- could end up being named after a location which only shows up for the last three minutes of the film. Towne explained that, in conversation with a friend who had once worked law enforcement in Chinatown, the man had said the best thing for American law enforcement to do in Chinatown was “as little as possible.” Because they were surrounded by a people and a culture they couldn’t translate and couldn’t understand, they were never sure whether they were doing something that would benefit justice... or whether they were being played and manipulated by various nefarious forces.

Or, as SparkNotes puts it: “Chinatown, a place where secret organizations rule, the law is meaningless, and good intentions are brutally suppressed, serves as the symbol for the true nature of every city.”

If you haven't seen this amazing film and don’t feel like reaching back to what a panel of Guardian (UK) critics declared “The greatest film of all time,” then how about a reference to Die Hard?

“You asked for miracles, Theo? I give you the F.B.I.”

These are the words of Severus Snape (he went by "Hans Gruber" in 1988), smiling with maniacal glee as the feds follow their playbook and provide the criminals with exactly the help they need to rob Nakatomi Plaza of its precious store of barabonds (not to be confused with Barry Bonds).

In regards to the shutdown of online poker, the owners and CEOs of casinos all over this great land of ours are smiling maniacally, watching as the FBI follows its playbook and buffs out one of the biggest dents in their Indian Reservation business.

"These defendants, knowing full well that their business with U.S. customers and U.S. banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck," said Janice Fedarcyk, FBI assistant director-in-charge. "They lied to banks about the true nature of their business. Then, some of the defendants found banks willing to flout the law for a fee. The defendants bet the house that they could continue their scheme, and they lost."

I can’t personally recall the last time a high-ranking law enforcement suit, upon making a serious criminal bust, found himself or herself so tickled with puns. “Stack the deck”? “Bet the house”? I somehow doubt that if she had just busted a child pornography ring or captured a serial killer, she would be having fun using words involved with the trade. Strangely, she never chose to utter the phrase "victimless crime."

It’s just online poker. It’s hardly even illegal, really, otherwise we wouldn’t have entire cities and towns built around monstrosities erected merely for such activity, and we wouldn’t have hundreds of hours worth of TV programming dedicated to the “game of chance.”

It’s hardly illegal, but it’s illegal enough, and the FBI has every right to act. Even if Bugsy Malone and Noah Cross and dozens of wealthy shady figures sit in their back rooms, counting their extra money and laughing at how beneficial the FBI can be for their own business. I’m sure those men will kick a little extra here and their to some elected officials. Legally, of course.

As a regular online player who rarely won much and rarely lost much, online poker was merely a cheaper and more convenient way to throw away money than golf. It was cheaper than World of Warcraft or keeping up with the video game universe. It was a modestly-competitive but ultimately harmless game. I will miss playing it, but the system wasn’t getting rich off me, and I wasn’t getting rich off the system. My reaction to all this news was simple:

Forget it, Billy. It’s Chinatown.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Camp Bob

Meat Puppets--"Lost" (mp3)
Meat Puppets--"We're Here" (mp3)
Meat Puppets--"I'm A Mindless Idiot" (mp3)
Meat Puppets--"Plateau" (mp3)

Last night I slept on the living room couch. The night before I slept in the den. I had been sleeping down in the basement, but a few nights ago when I walked down there to go to sleep, I found that the bed had been disassembled and its parts leaning against the wall. My beds have been makeshift conglomerations of couch pillows and smelly comforters sometimes too short to cover my feet.

The wrath of my wife? Nope. She slept on a bed half-filled with the largest pile of clothing imaginable. Welcome to Camp Bob. We have been living at Camp Bob for the past three weeks with its fairly Spartan conditions and odd choices.

It's a place where you wash dishes in the shower, where you run an extension cord between stories of the house so that someone can have a light or watch tv, where you choose between a light in the bathroom and wireless Internet. It's a place where you unplug the refrigerator in order to have power for the microwave for your morning tea or for the iron to try to get the wrinkles out of a shirt that you have worn four times in the last two weeks. It's a place where you hope that you remember to switch that plug back to your refrigerator; otherwise, you will come home to warm eggs, sour milk, and rivulets of melted ice on your floor.

It's a place where when you come home, everything has been moved from where it was when you left, moved to the center of the room so that the guys rewiring the house can get to every outlet they need to get to. It's a place where when the last guy leaves on Friday, he says, "Oh, yeah, you won't have any air conditioning this weekend." It is a place where that Sunday, the temperature hits 88 degrees. And then the choice--fan or light? fan or television?

The basement door does not lock, barely stays on its hinges after all of the demolition. Each night, I lean another door against it so that at least someone breaking in might make enough noise that I'll wake up. I don't have a key to the house myself; I gave both my front door and deck keys to a guy I've met four or five times.

But it's camp, right? I mean, what did you expect? You signed up for life outside of civilization. You wanted to "rough it."

Plus, the activities? Well, we've got 'em! You already know about "Dumpster Toss." That's right, anything you don't want or maybe just don't feel like dealing with, just chuck it in there. Well, how about the "Attic Purge?" It's fun. You go into your stifling attic on the hottest day of the spring and sort through old Christmas ornaments, children's toys you were saving for your children who didn't want them so you were saving them for them to give to their children, and other essentials. My favorite game, though, is called "No Straight Line." It's when you turn your house into a kind of maze where you can never walk straight from point A to point B anywhere, can't even make it halfway across a room without having to sidestep, step over, turn sideways or backtrack.

And the food? Well, here at Camp Bob, we promise to take it a notch above your average camp fair. Tonight I made "Beer-and-Onion Braised Chicken Carbonnade," Zuchinni and Corn Frittata, salad with Ranch dressing, wheat rolls. Even though I've set up my little kitchen outpost on the sun porch, I had to go into six different rooms for the ingredients, the utensils, the dishes, the spices I needed. I have made a coffee cake in the toaster oven, boiled pasta in an electric skillet, corn on the cob in the microwave, chicken pot pie's sauce in a pan heated over a flat griddle, so much heat lost in the transference that it took forever. But it's better than a campfire, and it wouldn't be so bad if there were a way to wash the dishes that didn't involve the shower.

And, by the way, the goal here is not to elicit sympathy. I think we all know that it takes a certain economic level to undertake a significant home improvement of any kind, so no, these minor indignities and relatively-brief inconveniences are not the material for sympathy. Plus, if you know me, you know that, in the weirdest of ways, I enjoy the challenge of it all, especially the cooking challenge of people asking if we're eating out every night and being able to say, "No, we eat at home much of the time. We've got a place set up. We're making do."

Because that's the motto of Camp Bob: "Make do with what you have." If we can do this with so much upheaval, imagine what you can do in normal circumstances. Make a good meal at home tonight and if you have a dishwasher, give thanks to God.

Friday, April 15, 2011

GUEST BLOG: Party of Five

Written by Goofy. He is a former student of both Billy and Bob’s from 10 years ago. He is thankful this won’t be graded.

By: goofytakemyhand 

'Til Death Do Us Part - Bob Livingston (mp3)
Ruby's Shoes - Bob Livingston (mp3)

“This is your line,” said the aging Texas troubadour, “Sing it with me.”

He’d played gigantic venues throughout the country as a sideman for legends such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. For over a decade, he represented the U.S. State Department throughout the world as a music ambassador, traveling to thirty countries.

The artist’s name is Bob Livingston. He played last Saturday night at a local coffeehouse which has hosted weekly shows for 10 years. Artists are scheduled for two 50-minute sets with a meet-and-greet in between. The admission price has never changed: $10.

There were five people in attendance. You do the math.

“When all else fails, music prevails,” is his catchphrase. Music would have to prevail Saturday night, I convinced myself, even though I was surrounded by thirty vacant chairs. Bob entered the room apparently unphased by the turnout. He started out with his recent single “Cowboys and Indians” which was inspired by his state department visits to Asian audiences. The best way I can describe the song is the way he does, “Mahatma Gandhi and Sitting Bull meet Ravi Shankar and Buddy Holly.”

We gave him a round of applause. With five people, it sounded more like a golf clap - fitting because his gig the night before was in Augusta, Georgia following round two of the Masters. Like a prototypical cowboy, he could tell a great story.

I was fascinated to see how these experiences impacted his life and music. He sat in the same high school desk senior year as Buddy Holly did when he was a student. This would come back into play later in the evening he told us. He tried to engage the audience, but it was clear only I even knew who he was, much less any of the notable Texans he’d crossed paths with.

Midway through a song just 40 minutes into his first set I saw something in his eyes. It was the look of regret and resignation. He finished the song, told the concert director he was playing through the break. Crap. Bob’s storytelling ended. He roboticly strummed a couple more songs from his latest album and then wished us good night.

I peered backstage and saw a defeated man hanging his red hair down with a blank expression on his face. He was closing up the suitcase with all his CDs for sale. I gently knocked on the door and awkwardly said, “I enjoyed your show tonight.”

Both of us seemed to doubt the sincerity of the statement. I had hoped he would share a couple more stories with me. However, he was emotionally worn down and exhausted. He recommended a few online Texas music stations to me, but clearly wanted to be left alone. He gave me a promotional copy of his latest album and wished me a good night.

Bob and I pulled out of the parking lot at the same time. We both drove down the same road. He pulled his large green van into the Rodeway Inn as I continued down the strip. I never found out what the second Buddy Holly story was. At that point, I didn’t even care.

When all else fails, music prevails? Not hardly. I slowly watched Bob Livingston the musician become Bob Livingston the person that evening. Bob Livingston the person knew music was not going to prevail on a night like that.

The songs above are from Livingston's latest album, Gypsy Alibi.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Sun Revolves Around Us

Turn It Off - Phantogram (mp3)
Dial - School of Seven Bells (mp3)

The sky is not falling. We are not the worst people in the history of the world. Things are not always getting worse.

As an educator, a father, and a spiritual seeker, I do not look for the worst in people or in situations, nor do I try and approach things naively or with unrealistic expectations. My approach is not unlike millions of others, who feel that experience and measured optimism are invaluable companions for all encounters.

But over the course of five straight hours this week, the petty clueless self-absorption of others became fairly cumbersome.

First it was a coworker.

Another administrator and I have been methodically moving forward and honing a plan to create some energy and idea generation in our departments. Due to budget constraints, we’ve all been fairly landlocked these past four years. No conferences, no school visits, nothing. So we pushed and got approval to plan several “summer field trips” where small groups would visit a series of schools over several days, and at the end of the summer, we’d have a day-long retreat where we compiled the experiences and ideas and pushed forward on our own paths to professional and program improvement.

The director of the other department is set to retire next spring. He has served our school loyally and well, and he is a fine man.

When it was clear that one school we needed to see was located in Massachusetts, he emailed us and suggested he should take this trip, that he should go alone, and that he could report his findings back to the team. Translation: he’d love to go to Massachusetts; he’d love to take his wife; he’d love to see the scenic Northeast, and he’d even visit the school since it would help pay for his fun trip.

I can think of no better way to build camaraderie, motivate a desire to improve, and create energy for an immobilized staff than for the boss to take the travel money, spend it, and come back to tell us all about his trip. Great idea. Can't believe I didn't think of that one.

Next, it was an awards ceremony.

My daughter was one of some 400+ students in the county recognized for her creative writing. Her captivating short story, “Cant Never Could” -- and yes, the apostrophe is intentionally missing because the main character’s name is Cant -- was selected. I don’t think we’ll be making it into a bestselling children’s book anytime soon. Not until BOTG gets one, anyway.

Roughly 1,200-1,500 teachers, parents, grandparents and students packed into a downtown venue for the event, and twice in the early stages, someone at the podium kindly reminded parents to turn off their cell phones and to, ha ha, also help the kids turn off theirs as well. Yet, within 30 minutes of that polite announcement, four cell phones had announced their proud existence to the masses, thanks to their impossible-to-ignore “unique” ringtones.

We hardly heard the keynote speaker, a rich woman who had recently self-published a children’s book, because three babies spent the entire time screaming. One woman actually carried her screaming baby all the way across the bottom of the stage as her other daughter walked across to get the award. Apparently her 2nd-grade child was incapable of walking across a stage without her guiding directions. Or maybe she was modeling her screamy child’s pink dress since we were all distracted by her anyway.

At churches, in restaurants, at events like this, I’ll never really understand why screaming babies are tolerated. Never -- and please note how rarely I use absolutes in my writing; I’m one of the most relativistic wimps on the planet -- have I allowed the screaming and crying of my children to penetrate the peaceful existence of an environment for more than 10-15 seconds before removing my child from said environment, at least temporarily.

My child is not their problem. My child’s screams are permitted to interfere with or even ruin my night, because it’s my child. That’s the devil’s deal of parenting: screamy demons who frequently provide us heavenly joys.

But these screamy demons BELONG to someone specific. The rest of us didn’t ask for that child. Yet there we all are, having our dinners ruined, or unable to hear the speaker or preacher or performance, because your sweet precious snowflake in diapers is more important than the rest of us.

When I express intolerance about these issues and the levels of self-absorption and inconsiderateness required, it sends me through the roof. Not because I’m self-righteous, but rather because I know damn well just how self-absorbed I can be. I’m the Lightning McQueen of self-absorption, and if on the highway of selfishness I see other cars zooming past me at twice my speed when I’m already well past the speed limit, it’s bound to horrify me.

It’s worth noting that in all these examples -- the trip planning, the cell phones, the screaming demons -- for every self-absorbed poop face at the center of my focus, there were any number of people who weren’t in it merely for themselves, people capable of sympathizing with and caring about how the shoe might feel on the other foot.

And to those people, I salute you. The ability to share looks of indignation and impatience and mockery with you when we are pulled into these aggravating moments of someone else’s self-absorption is often the only thing that keeps me from going postal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I'm trying to figure out gas.

But first, a simple math problem:

Gerald has a 1995 Toyota Camry. It has a 16 gallon gas tank. If, ever since gas prices started rising, Gerald has been putting 10 dollars or less of gas in his tank at any given time in a misguided attempt to spend less on gas, causing him much of the time to drive around with his gas light on and the gas level to get so low that when he pulls into a gas station he has nothing but fumes igniting in there, how much will it cost for him to fill up his tank? Gas currently costs $3.65/gallon. Tomorrow it is likely to be $3.89/gallon, which is why he is filling up his tank today.

First, cross out the information that is not necessary to solve the problem. It does not matter what kind of car he drives. His gas-filling habits do not matter. Nor does the potential cost of gas tomorrow. All that matters is how many gallons Gerald has to put in his tank and how much each of those gallons costs. So,

16 gallons of gas X $3.65 = $58.40

Thus endeth the lesson. But I'm still confused, because what I'm trying to understand is gas.

See, here's my problem: crude oil prices went up yesterday, gas prices went up today. But far more than just gasoline comes from crude oil. For example, motor oil, kerosene, butane, asphalt, tar, grease, propane, and plastics all come from crude oil. Does anyone think that the cost of any of those items went up today? I'm not contesting that the cost of these items might go up in the future as the result of rising crude oil prices. My question is, did the existing, already-produced, in-stock supplies of Quaker State Motor Oil or PVC piping at Home Depot or the throwaway cigarette lighter at the 7-11 increase in price today? And we all know that the answer is no.

But gasoline did. Why?

I took Economics. I understand about supply and demand. And scarcity. I know that because we all (used to) want to drive all over the place in the summer, the increased need for gasoline is going to drive the prices up. I know that if there was a shortage, we’d expect to pay more for what little is available. But we’d also be waiting in gas lines and stockpiling and sweating about the rationing.

No, this is something different. This kind of volatility and immediate response to the market is unlike anything else, as far as I know, including, as I’ve mentioned the other products that come from that same barrel of crude. Did the company spreading asphalt on the highway while I’m stuck in traffic down to one lane call up the state and say, “You know that contract bid we made for this job and you accepted? Well, the price has gone up. Sorry.”

I am also well aware that situation in Libya and other global concerns are driving the price up, but isn’t that kind of like the price of Florida tomatoes or oranges going up, not because of a freeze, but because of the possibility of a freeze! So what is going on? And let’s remind ourselves that sometimes (admittedly, more often in the past than right now) the price of oil drops, sometimes significantly. Even when that happens, the cost of gasoline does not drop with the same alacrity or by the same percentage. I can guarantee you that if the price of oil dropped today to what it cost in 1974, the price at the pump would be nowhere near as low as it was back then.

No, what we’re really talking about is speculation. We are talking about self-fulfilling prophecy. The expectation that the price of oil is going to go up is making the price of oil go up. And you know what that means? It means that while you and I are trying to decide between a tank of gas and a pizza, between a car trip to Atlanta and a pair of pants, between a rock and a hard place, somebody is making a lot of money off our misery at the pump. It certainly doesn’t cost anymore to drill for and to refine this crude oil that continues to rise in price.

So, there is a different kind of math problem at play here. You can do that math, but you do it at your own risk, the risk of blinders coming off.

If you’re looking for a solution, and who isn’t, I can only recommend the plan of my friend John. He’s decided simply to drive less. And it’s working for him. Quite well, actually. Want to know how I know? I drove him to the concert last night.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Harry Burns Moment

You Say Jump - Cheap Trick (mp3)
Salt in My Tears - Martin Briley (mp3)

“Sid Bream.”

If you are of a certain age, those two words, mentioned at any point in time, in any circumstance, conjure one and only one highly-specific and eternal moment in time. Back to that in a minute.

Last night, I attended a send-off party for a friend and coworker at a Chattanooga Lookouts baseball game. We sat in a special section in right field, the only section in the ballpark where wine and liquor can be downed. Which makes it both special and priceless.

In addition to serving as one of our trusty IT guys, he has spent years moonlighting as a photographer, and one of his areas of interest is on women in various states of undress. I don’t judge. For professional reasons, I’ve done my best not to oogle or in any way look at his shots in this area, because it just ain’t appropriate in my line of work.

While much of the crowd were coworkers and friends, we expected a few of his models to also show up for the festivities. One other guy and I actually had fun with this expectation, stopping everytime some female walked up the ramp to our section to look at one another and either shake our head or nod. To be honest, we always nodded, because it was funnier to think that all the women of varying levels of attractiveness coming up the ramp were models.

At one point, a semi-attractive woman walked past us, and we nodded that she was probably a model (or, that is, wished she was a model and paid for a “professional” photo shoot). When she walked past us, she looked at me and said, “Excuse me, is there a door?” The entrance to the inside area was a sliding glass door. She didn’t see the handle. Yup, a model.

Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, in the fourth inning, two particularly eyebrow-raising blondes walked up and past us. They required that I actually walk over and confer verbally with my coworker.

“You think they’re models?” he asked.
“No way,” I said. “Baseball wives.”
“Gotta be. Only one way to find out.” I promised him I would find out before we left. Because I had been drinking beer, and beer makes one stupid and confident.

The bottom of the fifth hit, and rain began to fall, and we all filed into the party room area for shelter. I swallowed the rest of my present beer and with it the courage and stupidity to introduce myself to the two blondes. Because I was unavailable -- and believe me, they were clearly disappointed that my scooter-loving booty could not be theirs for the taking -- I only offered a few friendly lines before I got to the point.

“Home or away?” I asked. I figured if they were models, they would look dumbstruck or offended by my question, but if they were baseball wives...

“Home, actually,” one said quickly.
“Yeah?” I said. “Who are the lucky guys?”
The slightly older (and more attractive) one responded quickly, “He’s not playing tonight. Night off.”
“Yeah? Where’s he play?”
“He’s right field. Scott Van Slyke.”

My response was instantaneous, which is saying something considering I’m neither a baseball fanatic nor a Schwab wannabe: “Andy’s son?!?”

“Yes, actually,” she said, smiling. She was impressed by my connecting two simple dots. I wonder how often she had to act impressed at slightly-inebriated men connecting simple dots. Probably a lot if she’s a baseball wife.

I wasn’t that much of a baseball fan in 1992, but I had grown up knowing just enough about the Atlanta Braves to know they had a history of sucking. On a trip to Atlanta in elementary school, my parents bought me a book that included a history of the team and bios on all the players, and being bookish, I actually read it. Having watched only a few games, I knew details about Bob Horner, Bruce Benedict, Phil “Knucksie” Niekro, several other players and, above all, the inimitable Dale friggin’ Murphy, a.k.a. The Greatest Mormon Centerfielder Ever.

Watching them on TBS as a kid was not so much a habit as proof of desperation and boredom. Yet, knowing that they would always be on TBS, and that the Cubs would always be on WGN, somehow offered this strange comfort to me. Worst-case, I could watch baseball.

The name “Andy Van Slyke” SHOULD mean awesomeness. Big white stud of a baseball player who spent his prime with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Three-time All-Star. Five-time Golden Glover. Two-time “Silver Slugger.” All of these honors earned during his years in the ‘Burgh.

But that’s not why I know him. I had to look that crap up. No, I know him because I know Sid Bream.

More specifically, I know the 1992 National League Championship Series. Also Known As “The Greatest Series In The History of Baseball” for 80 percent of humans born south of the Mason-Dixon line.

This is glued into my mind because my girlfriend at the time, a freshman cutie named Meredith, the only girl who ever broke up with me -- I’m hardly bragging considering the teensy tiny number of females who dared even date me in the first place -- was a huuuuuge Braves fan. We spent most of our dates with Braves games on a TV in the background. (Oh come on. That’s kind of a funny joke even if it’s not at all true.)

To say I adored Meredith to the point of rational blindness is understated. I was drunk with smitten-ness even when I wasn’t literally drunk. It was very much the You Say Jump, I Say How High kind of relationship. Which is to say it was doomed from the start. But it was heavenly while I was privileged enough to be in it.

Our breakup took a month, because she wouldn’t do it. I was too nice a guy. I had to pull it out of her like an impacted wisdom tooth, and it hurt me worse than it hurt her.

My encounter at the Lookouts was a perfect Harry Burns moment:
Harry: Yeah, nothing from her not even a smile. So I down shift into small talk, and I asked her where she went to school and she said. "Michigan State", and this reminds me of Helen. All of a sudden I'm in the middle of this mess of an anxiety attack, my heart is beating like a wild man and I start sweating like a pig.
Sally: Helen went to Michigan State?
Harry: No she went to Northwestern, but they're both Big-Ten schools. I got so upset I had to leave the restaurant.
Sally: Harry I think this takes a long time. It might be months before we're actually able to enjoy going out with someone new.
Harry: Yah...
Sally: And maybe longer, before we're actually able to go to bed with someone new.
Harry: Oh I went to bed with her.
Sally: You went to bed with her?
Harry: Sure.
Sally: Oh.
“Scott Van Slyke” → Andy Van Slyke → Pittsburgh Pirates → Atlanta Braves → Sid Bream’s series-winning, series-ending tag-at-the-plate run in the 1992 NLCS → Meredith → heartbreak.

This chain of thought was instantaneous. Faster than the speed of night. This is how the minds of men work.

Plus, it’s a lot more fun to recall it all when I know the story has a happy ending.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Work Work-Out

Gary U.S. Bonds--"Out Of Work" (mp3)

I am not in tip-top shape. I am not a doctor, nor have I ever played one on TV. Nevertheless, as someone looking to cash in, I am throwing my lot in with the variety of ways that one can lose weight, get in shape, feel better about oneself, and generally live a more fulfilling life.

I wanted to call it The Poor Man's Workout or The Blue Collar Workout, but my agent says that those titles limit my potential demographic. Plus, he says, those are kind of depressing. Nobody wants to know that those classes of people exist. So, I'm calling it The Work Work-Out.

What do you think? Too redundant? Unfortunately, it's kind of complicated as well, so stay with me. Here's the plan: instead of going to a gym, a health club, or a spa, instead of working with a personal trainer or an exercise video, you stay home and work.

That's right, instead of driving across town or out to the levee or to The Sports Barn, you do the whole routine at your house. I know what you're thinking: that sports equipment you buy on TV in three, easy installments is getting moldy in the basement. Well, rest assured, you don't need any of that stuff.

Here's what you will need: a house (preferably at least two stories), a yard, a garden or some bedding plants, and a regular influx of entropy from Sir Isaac Newton and the Universe. Easy, right? Now, here's where it gets kind of novel and frankly kind of weird: within the boundaries of that yard, the walls of that home, the rows of that garden, you work.

That's right. You work.

Instead walking around a track, you get behind that lawnmower and push, step after step all around the yard with resistance from the weight of the mower. You carry the full bags of grass and empty them, probably into a budding mulch pile. You weedeat and pressure wash. You work a handsaw and trim the branches above and haul those to the curb. You bend over and pull weeds, you shovel, you push a wheelbarrow filled with bags of dirt and mulch. When the seasons change, you prune and rake and bag and haul some more.

Inside, instead of a Stair Master, you walk up and down the stairs with baskets of laundry and garbage bags filled with clothing for the Goodwill, books for the used book store, things your husband or wife wants moved as part of the endless repurposing of the house.

Instead of those little weights you use for endless repetitions of motion, you buy groceries at the store--not processed foods, but actual natural items that you can cook with--and stock them on shelves low and high, you peel them, chop and dice them, stir them, mix them, toss them, cook them and carry them to the table. You load and unload the dishwasher meal after meal, scraping first and then lifting into the cupboards. You carry the trash out. You improve your house with paint brushes and hammers and scrubbers and other tools.

You will not get "cut." You will not develop amazing abs or a "six pack." But you will gain honest leg strengh and surprising upper body strength. And purpose. Were our muscles meant to become as developed as they can be or were they meant to serve us as tools for work? What? No, I didn't mean that. I'm sure you can get cut with The Work Workout. The latest studies show that hedge clippers are a mini-Bow Flex...

Hey, somebody grab me a bottled water! I'm doing all of the talking here. Why are you getting up? You've got to get to a Spin Class? Okay, okay, I'll hurry up. Wait. Wait. I know you've got to go pay the landscaper. I'm almost finished. I just want to talk about to you about pushing and pulling on abstract machines built for no purpose but...

What do you mean my workout plan will never catch on? Crap, that's what my agent says, too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Sins of the Son

Strange Days - Matthew Good Band (mp3)

The Philadelphia Enquirer recently wrote a powerful 7-part series about violence and schools called “Assault on Learning.” Part Five was titled “Young and Violent, Even Kindergarteners.” Here’s the introduction:
Tabitha Allen blames herself for her 10-year-old son's violent behavior.

Growing up and living in a drug-infested, hooker-inhabited neighborhood, the 33-year-old mother of five is angry about life.

"My anger reflects off my children," Allen explained one morning in the North Philadelphia rowhouse she inherited from her grandmother. Her son - a thin, almost gaunt, boy with long eyelashes - punched a teacher last June at Kenderton Elementary School, a K-8 in Tioga. He knocked the glasses off her face and blackened her eye with a blow that packed unexpected power.

As a 10-year-old, he had reached the minimum age to be arrested, and ended up with a simple assault charge in Family Court, where he was put on probation. He was removed from Kenderton and transferred to a classroom for disruptive elementary school students in Logan.
Meanwhile, in Chattanooga, Jesse Mathews shot and killed -- shot in the head at close range -- a police officer who had the unmitigated gall to attempt to taze Jesse after a foiled armed robbery attempt. Jesse emerged yesterday from a medically-induced coma. We revived him just so we can spend millions of dollars to kill him later.

In the meantime, Mathews was a parole jumper from Colorado with a nice string of recent robberies under his belt. The FBI has since arrested both of his parents, his sister, and his sister’s boyfriend, all of whom helped Jesse procure weapons and harbored him and paid to keep him away from the arm of the law.

Go read that story. It’s quite the Addams Family they have going, these Mathews people.

All over this great country of ours, teachers are having to fight for every ounce of respect they can get. Unions are being busted, pay ain’t increasing, benefits are being cut, and experts and politicians are demanding “accountability” for those who earn money through educating kids.

“Fixing” teachers is the cornerstone of fixing the problem of education in this country, they say.

I dare you, absolutely dare you, to go read that Philadelphia Enquirer series and that article and have the unmitigated gall to continue insisting that teachers are the cornerstone of a child’s education. You don’t have to be a Tiger Mother to know that parents -- often a Single Mother -- is the single biggest obstacle to improving education across this country.

Parenting, when done right, is one of the hardest, most agonizing, most stressful professions in the world. But it ain’t rocket science. It requires time and devotion, but it doesn’t require a doctorate or scads of intelligence. Just commitment and conviction.

When I look around at these stories in the news about kids and young adults wrapped up in criminal activity, what I see are stories about kids with sh*tty, neglectful, abusive parents.

And usually it’s just one parent, because the man usually drops his seed, earns some kid with his name, and then disappears into the ether of some other woman’s bedroom to repeat the process a few more times. The man is sh*tty, neglectful and abusive by disappearing and taking no responsibility. The woman is left alone to clean up, except she’s often too young, too stupid, or too overwhelmed to do it, and the consequence is that she often becomes sh*tty, neglectful and abusive.

You want to fix education? Go after sh*tty parents with every ounce and every dollar of reform you can. You want to reform prison? Punish parents for the criminal transgressions of their children.

Am I being Draconian and unsympathetic? Hell no. Not to the kids I’m not. Not to the young adults who are raised in households like Jesse Mathews must have been, with parents who kill people in botched robberies, who buy their felon relatives guns and bullet-proof vests, who make a living by dodging the law as one big happy family.

You want to prevent Jesse Mathews? Prevent his parents. Prevent them, or if you can’t prevent them, bring an unholy hammer of Thor down on their f**king skulls when their child proves them incompetent.

Let me get this right. A 25-year-old could go into a bar, drink 20 shots, drive into a family on the highway, and that bar can be held responsible in part for the tragedy, but a 25-year-old f**knut raised in an incompetent or abusive household shoots a family, and the parents aren’t the least bit at fault?? Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Blame a bar for 30 minutes of neglect, but hold parents blameless for 20 years of neglect.

Are there good and committed parents whose children fall and stray and end up criminals despite their best intents? Abso-friggin’-lutely. But these theoretical parents are vastly, VASTLY, less significant in their percentages than committed and good teachers whose students can’t pass a state-issued bubble sheet, and we sure don’t seem hesitant to want to bring down the hammer on those people, much less pay them anything for their troubles.

You want justice? You want fairness? You want a better future? It’s time we started talking about enforcing a new level of justice and scrutiny on parents. Too many have gotten away with too little for too long.