Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Haunted By My Failure - Fiction Month

The Story I Heard - Blind Pilot (mp3)
Dial - School of Seven Bells (mp3)

The title of the first story I remember writing was called "100 Leprechauns." I think it was first grade. This group of 100 leprechauns took count of their group before they left the house in the morning, and they took count again before they went home at night. One day, they only counted 99. The group searched and searched only to find out they had counted incorrectly.

I stole from church. The story of the lost sheep. I mixed in a little bit of my love of Lucky Charms, and for my dramatic climax, I took a lesson I'd learned from my dad about checking your work, something I'd continue to struggle with for at least the next 35 years.

Pretty much every bit of the story was cribbed in one way or another, but it was mildly amusing, and for my age it was quite a snappy piece of writing. So it got an A+ and was posted on the wall outside the classroom door, all by itself, for a whole entire week.

That's all it took, really, for me to keep writing the rest of my life. Who knows how our lives might diverge with the slightest of changes? If she had given me an F on that paper, would I have kept writing? Maybe. Probably. Who knows?

I'm a decent writer. Sometimes I'm quite good. Once in a while, I'm downright awesome. Essays, letters, poems, newspaper columns, bulletin board debates.

My whole life, the only genre of creative writing where I feel I have failed, consistently and repeatedly, is in writing fiction. Short fiction ends up lacking bite or confidence. Long fiction never quite gets finished and rarely even gets remotely close to even a halfway point. Part of me panics, as if every day I wake up means one more day of potential kick-ass fiction writing gone.

But y'know what? Raymond Chandler was over 50 when he published The Big Sleep. Richard Adams gave birth to Watership Down when he was 52. Annie Proulx was 57 when Postcards hit the stage. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't even start her damn Little House series until she was over 60. I find just enough comfort in this not to panic.

This blog was, for me, in many ways, borne to maintain and hopefully improve my writing chops while building up my consistency, an ability to write and keep writing week after week, even when the ideas dipped or faded.

We're 42 months in, and the Bottom of the Glass still hasn't quite hit the bottom. You are reading BOTG Entry #886. Not bad.

But lately we haven't had many comments. Some of our once-loyal readers have become too busy and burdened with life to stop by and read as often, and I totally understand. Feelings aren't hurt, but it's always a little sad to go week after week with a mere handful of comments.

So, I'm taking advantage of this commentary dip to flex my emaciated fiction muscles. I'm going to work on the I Don't Know If This Is A Short Story Or A Novella Or Something Even Bigger project I started last year. I'm going to go all Dickens on it and post a chunk of it at a time. I can't promise it will end with any kind of finality at all. It probably won't. But something about this particular project continues to swim around my head and haunt me, so it's time I give it a little of my attention.

Feel free to offer advice, suggestions or even harsh critiques if you feel so moved. Otherwise, I'll return with something goofy or opinionated to say in October.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Billy Versus Studface

Needle Hits E - Sugar (mp3)
Ordinary Average Guy - Joe Walsh (mp3)

I was going to write about Japan. I was going to write about three separate events from this past weekend that reminded me of the best and most positive features of Japanese culture.

I was going to write about my daughter’s new friend who stayed the night on Saturday, and about how her mother is Japanese, and how she went to church with us on Sunday and never once mentioned to my wife or I that she was Buddhist, and never once looked anything but comfortable and normal in the middle of an hour-long church service.

I was going to write about my love of Ninja Warrior marathons when I’m hung over from Brewfest, about how the Japanese culture glorifies strength not as some beefcakey statement, but as one part of many valued physical qualities including endurance and balance. I was going to say I love that game show because it’s a very Eastern notion of competition where all competitors are against the obstacle course rather than one another. Only in Japan could a game show end several seasons without a winner, with the winner being the obstacle course itself, because no one could manage to conquer it.

I was going to write about how moved I was by the Japanese team in the finals of the Little League World Series. About how every time a Japanese player struck out, he bowed before leaving the batter’s box. About how the kids, after losing in the bottom of the last inning, quickly lined up and patiently waited as the American team celebrated. About how the kids bawled and were every bit as emotional as American players would be, and how their coach was so comforting and treated them as kids, not as cogs like we might have been conditioned to think their coach might act. I was going to write about how they were the absolute paragon of sportsmanship and class, and how we could learn so very much from their behavior in this game as well as in the Women’s World Cup.

But I’m not going to write about any of that.

Instead, I’m going to write about Studface.

Last night, I stopped for wings and a beer before a parent-teacher conference, because all responsible parents should buzz themselves a little before meeting his daughter’s teachers. Sitting in the outside section of this restaurant were a group of young adults in their mid-20s. The woman at the end of the table was a punk harlequin. Her hair was a mishmash of blonde and pink. At least three-quarters of her visible flesh was distastefully bathed in tattoos. But the real game changer was her face.

Her face made her look like some first-run experiment by Skynet before they figured out how to perfect the human flesh and metallic interior. Her name could have been Bride of Pinhead.

In addition to one big honkin’ nose stud and some kind of bull ring in her septum, she had no fewer than -- and I’m not exaggerating -- 20 silver studs poking out of all corners of her face. She had so much metal on her facade that, had she been walking down the street on a sunny day, the reflection from her could have caused innumerable wrecks.

Everything we do, as human beings, is about communication. I believe this to my core. You don’t have to speak Sanskrit to know precisely what this woman was communicating to her human environment: F*** Conformity and F*** Normality.

I might not be the president of the conformity club, but I’m a member, and I pay my dues. I have the 2.4 children, the salaried job at an esteemed educational institution, the loyal devoted wife, the dogs, the long driveway, and the 2.9 Bibles on bookshelves throughout my house. Any attempts I make, with blogs and the like, to seem less than conformist are feeble and middling at best.

So, as I walked past her, I sort of squinted with a mix of disbelief and bemusement at her face, the same kind of look I would give any strange statement of postmodern art, living or inanimate. She saw me gawking and immediately shot back the look of “WTF are you looking at, loser?”

I don’t generally stare at people. It’s rude. No matter if it’s a gorgeous woman or a circus freak, I try my best not to be so blatant with my observations, especially when sober. So I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders and held up the “oops! no offense!” hands of defense while quickly heading inside.

As I got inside and sat down, the insta-guilt faded and I got annoyed.

What, exactly, about my reaction surprised this freakish museum piece? Her face, a face that could be robbed and sold at high cost for parts, was for all intents and purposes flipping me off. Her face was built to offend, to disturb, to bother. My indifference would surely be far more insulting than my disgust.

And that’s the disconnect I mull. I gave her precisely the reaction she should have wanted, the kind of response that should have made her smile, her having successfully penetrated the delicate sensibilities of a lemming. But instead she was offended.

I can't figure it. But I bet a Japanese person would have handled it better.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Goodbye, Beef!

Red Robot--"My Last Home" (mp3)

I guess I needed a movie. I guess I had to see it.

For the last ten days I have gone beefless--no hamburgers, no spaghetti sauce, no roast beef sub at Ankars, no reuben sandwich, no Chicago hot dog, no steak or brisket. Last night at the Southern Brewers Festival, as my friend stopped at the "authentic" Philadelphia cheesesteak booth, I kept going and bought a piece of cheese pizza instead. When he cut off a piece of his cheesesteak and put it on my plate, I told him I'd eaten a late lunch and gave it back to him.

People don't like when you give up things that they like to eat or drink, that you have shared together, so I've kept silent. This is my coming out.

And, yes, it took a movie. The movie is called Home. You can watch it on YouTube:

The movie is pretty basic, and both beautiful and terrifying in its simplicity. Using only aerial photography and a usually-understated Glenn Close-voiced narrative, the movie shows the world and man's impact on it. It makes a compelling case for the interconnectedness of all aspects of nature from the beginning of the Earth and then begins to document the ways that our habits and behaviors have disrupted that balance, particularly in the last 50 years or so. If you are not already disgusted by the concept of Dubai, it will make you so.

Much of the film deals with energy and how much energy is now required to accomplish certain accepted practices like raising massive amounts of grain-fed cattle to provide beef for the world. And that's where you see forests, rainforests to be specific, being cleared out so that soybeans and grains can be planted to fatten cows quickly and in ways that are counter to cows' natural diets. When I finally focused on how much energy, how much water, how much fossil fuel, how much space is consumed, I got it.

I guess you never know what will shut you down. The "killing animals for food is wrong" argument hasn't ever touched me all that much, at least not yet. Our species is carnivorous by tradition, and probably by nature. Or at least, like Lewis and Clark, we eat what is available at the time and in the place, so maybe more omnivorous. I also know that my family having four cars for four people is excessive and extravagant, but that's one I expect we will figure out soon. But participating in the overt destruction of the world in order to get a cheap, easily available hamburger, well, that shut me down. When I saw the images, I realized that I just don't need it.

NOTE: the "Out" (there's always an Out) is grass-fed beef. Rainforests are not being compromised to raise these cows.

Most days when I drive around this city, I am hyper-conscious of the dwindling resources we are consuming anyway. Maybe it's because we spent our summer of construction dumping all kinds of waste in a dumpster without really knowing or caring where it went. Maybe it's because I see my neighbors and my school watering grass when I know that water in the world is running out. Maybe it's because sometimes a grocery store feels like the silliest place in the world with its myriad of choice and the incredible amount of waste from spoiled, unpurchased goods that is factored into its existence. Maybe it's because the air conditioning doesn't work in my car, and so I sit in lines of vehicles putting out massive heat while I swelter in my own, and I realize what an incredible luxury cold air is.

We are, of course, part, the main part, of that 20% of the world's population that consumes 80% of the world's resources. And while I'm not the type to be consumed with guilt about this, I have fully begun to expect the reckoning(s) that have to come. So I suppose this small "sacrifice" of giving up beef has been coming. Is it a first step? I don't know. Where it will lead, I'm not sure.

But please understand that I'm not preaching, not yet, and I'm not judging. I'm just telling you about a baby, baby, baby step that I've taken and how it came about in a privileged, wireless access kind of way that most people in the world don't have the opportunity to experience. I'm not glorying in it; in fact, I feel kind of silly even talking about it.

But do watch the movie and see what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Death Star Garbage Compactor

Big Wave - Jenny & Johnny (mp3)
Four Years of Fear - LaSalle (mp3)

Part One: Cars

We just bought a new car. It's a fancier version of the minivan we bought in 2002 for $15,000. This one, used, cost us over $25,000.

In 1985, a Toyota Corolla cost roughly $8,500. By 2011, that cost ballooned to $18,000 for a mostly-loaded Corolla.

I could mention the cost of a Toyota Corolla or a Chevy Traverse in conversations 20 times a day every day for a month, and I guarantee you I couldn’t raise the ire of many people. But I dare you to ask anyone what they think of paying $20k for a private school education without getting a lot of eyebrow-raising and foot-stomping.

“Yes,” you say, “but there’s a free option with schools, and there’s not a free option with cars.”

In Chattanooga, we call the free transportation option "CARTA." It’s not free, but then, public schools aren’t really free, either. There are more surprise fees and add-on costs at our public school than I can count.

But let's come back to that.

Part Two: Ocelots

I am a human ocelot. My children are ocelots. We are an endangered species.

To mix the metaphor, we are Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and we’re stuck in that Death Star Garbage Compactor, and the only question is whether the one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater will get to us before the walls close in and squish us.

Unlike our wise and crafty Star Wars buddies, I worry that we aren’t sharp enough to escape unharmed.

The middle class in America is shrinking faster than Dark Helmet’s Schwartz in cold water. If you have a spare hour, you should read the disturbing but fair-minded and fascinating Atlantic Monthly article, Can the Middle Class Be Saved? It's wicked long and covers "career academies" and tax rates and federal investment in burgeoning enterprise and ways to address poverty and low wages, and it's all mesmerizing.

But at the end of the day, the Middle Class is shrinking, and the shrinkage is gonna stick long-term. And most reasonable minds should find that a disturbing reality of the New Normal.

Part Three: Spoiled

Several Facebook discussions of late have covered the belief by alumni and alumnae of Chattanooga private schools that tuition has jumped the shark, that it’s vastly too expensive and overpriced to buy in 2011 what was much more reasonable and affordable in 1985.

It’s true. But I can’t help but also believe my generation might have been fooled by the magic financial bubble into believing they deserve more than they have, that stuff should be easier and less costly to acquire, that they deserve more stuff.

Between my seventh-grade year and my graduating college, my parents took exactly four vacations. Only one was overseas, and it was also the only one that went longer than five days. In my final 13 years of living under my parents’ roof, they purchased four cars, three of them used. We lived in a 4-bedroom house on ¾ of an acre, and nothing we owned reeked of extravagance. The closest thing to it was the fact that I had a TV, with cable, in my bedroom. We were as shamelessly and clearly Middle Class (or possibly even slightly Upper Middle Class) as it got.

My parents pulled down more annual income in 1990 than my wife and I pull down now -- and I’m not talking comparative; I’m talking actual dollars -- yet they lived with far fewer extravagances and fancy things. But they sent me to the best private school in town. That was their extravagance.

Compared to averages from my generation, my wife and I are damned responsible with money. No debt beyond our house. Few vacations. Modestly impressive savings for our age and overhead. But compared to my parents and previous generations, we’re wild and careless.

The Middle Class is dying because of a complicated list of powerful factors. But I worry the one thing that fails to get mentioned in the Atlantic article’s list of factors is our own Icarus-esque stubbornness. Check out the U.S. Savings Rate over the past 60 years if you don't think we're crazy, culturally speaking, when it comes to our money.

I don’t hear a lot of intense conversations from my generation about how golly dang overpriced cars have become. And I don’t hear complaints about how much Disney World costs. And I don’t hear anyone bark and yell about the cost of a nice diamond necklace. But ask them about school tuition increases, and you’ll get an earful.

Cars have a lot more parts, and a lot more technology, and a lot more computerized junk in them now than they did in 1985. Guess what? So do schools. Schools are many multiples more complex than they were then. We have learning centers, and full-time counselors, and college counselors, and twice the number of sports, and more student organizations, and community service coordinators, and writing counselors. And we have lots more computerized junk, too.

But good luck selling that story.

You know why? Because when parents pay for cars, they get to drive them. When parents pay for soccer, they get to watch games. When parents pay for Disney World, they get to enjoy the trip. When parents pay for school, they have to wait a long, long, long time to get the reward, and they might never know for sure.

And that... is worth griping about.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ONE WAY---------------->

Tom Petty--"Turn This Car Around" (mp3)

We have a car that only goes one way--forward. We have had the car for over 6 years, and in all that time, it has only gone efficiently forward. Most families would have fixed a one-way car. We are not that family. I'm not sure what that says about us.

Okay, the car does go a little bit in reverse, if we park at an angle where the nose of the car is higher than its rear. There's also a chance that if we park on a flat surface that the car might go kind of in reverse.

If we're caught at a downward angle, however, you will hear whichever one of us is driving gunning that engine, trying to get enough power or something to get that damn car to go backwards. Or you will see me in front of the car, feet perched on the parking barrier, trying to gather enough strength to push the car backwards. Actually, you probably won't see me, since we usually try to wait until there is no one around before we try to push the car out of a space. We have never gotten stuck. Close, though.

What it says about us is that we have adapted. Or that we can't get around to fixing anything.

The same way that we are adapting to the car that has only one remaining door handle on the inside. When that one goes, we will have to adapt that car out of our lives. You've got to have a way out of a car if the power fails.

The same way that we adapted to the stove that only had one working burner and we still put on dinner parties with the same frequency. The same way we stuck with a dishwasher whose upper rack only cleaned dishes that we had pretty much already cleaned. It's something about us.

When your car does not go in reverse, you have to plan your life differently. There are parking lots and spaces in parking lots that you cannot park in. Cars traveling down the row behind you will wonder why you passed up a perfectly good spot in favor of one up the next row that's farther away and looks to be slightly uphill. You get very, very good at gauging the uphillness of a potential parking space.

Turning around is not a given. Not if you're driving uphill and want to go in the other direction. Sure you could probably find a driveway with an uphill angle to turn around in, but how are you going to back up that hill? Getting out of a convenience store is not a given. Neither is your work parking lot.

And people are going to look at you funny. One time, my wife did get stuck in her office parking lot. It was on a Saturday, when the lot was being used by attendees of a dance event at the auditorium across the street. When I got there, to push her out, there was a ballet family, or a couple of families, parked next to us. They were clustered around the back of their van, doing what I don't know. But as each second passed, I got more and more irritated at their presence. When you have to gun the engine, you don't want a bunch of people near who might get hurt or scared if the transmission actually catches. Plus, embarassment. You don't feel your best when you're pushing your car out of a parking space. And you such don't want help. So, we waited them out. That was our strategy. We waited until they were gone. I'm sure they wondered what we were doing as much as we wondered about them.

But is it a bad thing to have to strategize? Is it a bad thing to have your entire family weigh in on the feasibility of a parking space? Is it a bad thing to feel enough confidence in your own strength to be able to say, "Go ahead and park there. I'll get you out if I have to?" Or to have to learn subtle tricks with the steering wheel or the angle of the tires or the rocking motion of shifting between forward and reverse to gather enough momentum to get out of a space? Is it such a bad thing to know that the only way that you can park in your driveway is to back in? Only if you approach it from uphill, of course.

Sure, there are simpler ways to do things. We could just fix the transmission and be done with it. We could probably afford it at most times during a given month. Or trade the car in, parking it at an upward angle, of course, and hoping that the adjustor who takes it for a test drive only goes in reverse that one time.

Frankly, it's gone on too long for that. It's a family "secret," a family joke, a family badge of honor every time we conquer a situation with that car. It's just the smallest way that we tell ourselves that, most of the time, we can conquer circumstances, which doesn't feel bad at all. I guess that's what it says. Or else we're stubborn idiots.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Albatross Rule

Birds of a Feather - The Civil Wars (mp3)
One for the Mockingbird - Cutting Crew (mp3)

I can fix NCAA football.

It has a sickness that only seems to make it stronger, like that virus that turns people into lightning-fast zombies with razor-sharp teeth. It probably doesn't want to be healed, but I can fix it.

The problems we’ve read about at Miami, Ohio State, UNC, Tennessee, Southern Cal, and approximately 56 other NCAA FBS teams in the past half-decade, can be all but solved with one teensy new rule (or maybe 1.5).

The Albatross Rule is simple. Any coach of any FBS team cited with even the slightest bit of knowledge or shoulda-oughtta-known ignorance must carry the same penalty as the school to any job for the duration of said penalty.

The Albatross Rule would have serious shark teeth if a coach’s contract could be rendered null and void if the NCAA judged that coach guilty or negligent. Because I’ll never understand why a school should have to buy out a dirty contract, and why future players at a university suffer more than the scuzzbag who got busted in the first place.

I doubt the Albatross Rule is legal. That would be too easy.

A coach should not be able to dodge his culpability by snaking away from a school. Nor should a school dodge culpability by firing a coach. Both school and coach should take their medicine no matter how long said medicine sits on the shelf, waiting to be gulped down.

What kind of “punishment” is it that allows a coach to have several years of his contract bought out for six or seven figures, and the coach takes maybe a season off before getting hired for another absurd sum by some other school?

What kind of “punishment” is it for a school to hire a dirty coach almost specifically because they want the win-loss record that came with the dirt? If you as a school want to stick your hand down the toilet bowl to pull out a dirty coach, then you gotta live with the poop that comes back up the pipeline with him.

If the coach’s contract is bought out (probably for some absurd amount), and the coach flies off to Tahiti for six years, if he’s hired in that seventh year, the team that hires him must still serve the entirety of his punishment.

If there was an Albatross Rule, I suspect you’d have longer tenures for coaches. The coaching carousel would slow down, because the coaches busted for rules violations would become like lepers, leaving the well of available coaches less deep.

I get that policing something as ginormous as a football team is almost impossible. But it’s not like they’re earning min wage. If NBA players can afford an accountant, then an NCAA FBS coach can afford to hire someone to help them babysit, and they would if their ass were on the line. They could think of these folks as bodyguards. Or bank guards.

Nick Saban could hire a small town of assistants on his own dime and still pull down some $4M each year in salary and benefits for himself. Even Derek Dooley could invest a few hundred grand for personal assistants and still pull down a cool 1.5 mil. DEREK FRIGGIN’ DOOLEY! The man hasn’t even DONE anything except get born to some dude named Vince, and he’s pulling down $1.8M a year!

All I know is, those guys would have to be a lot more careful with that cash if their contracts risked going null with an NCAA violation, and if the punishment stayed with them like bacon strips in their underwear.

Don’t fix the children; fix the parents.
Don’t fix the teachers; fix the administration.
Don’t fix the players or the pissant assistants; fix the head coach.

The poop rolls downhill, but the burden is supposed to stay at the top.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rehearsing Retirement, Part 2

Guy Clark--"Desperados Waiting For A Train" (mp3)

But I am old
And you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue. -- Yeats

Retirement, that last phase of life, is something that no one really wants to think about in concrete ways. Retirement, glorious on the front end and difficult at the back, seems best pushed for later years, when you get closer to the time. But it doesn't just happen. You don't just work one day and quit the next. And how do you even plan how long to work?

You have three basic choices in the afterlife of retirement:

1. You settle into your present home, or at least your present city.
2. You move to a retirement community in a warmer place like Florida or Arizona.
3. You split your time between the two.

Any other option is a spin-off of these choices. Maybe you have more than two places to live. Lucky you. Maybe you plan to spend your time and money traveling all over the place. Luckier you. But what do you do on the average days of retirement?

1. The lures of staying at home, in a home you probably own, in your home city are perhaps obvious. This choice is practical, comfortable, viable. You know the city, you know the neighborhood. You have friends here. You have doctors and hospitals you know. Retired living is a continuation of the life you had been living, without the work.

My friend who has chosen this option has plenty of time to pursue his hobbies, but also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time working in his yard. I cannot tell whether he takes joy in that or not. I get to see him fairly often. Because I still work and he doesn't, we work more carefully to schedule our friendship, trying to keep Thursday night each week sacred.

He is able to maintain a greater number of friendships with more depth.

He also does a lot of volunteering; he is asked to a lot of volunteering. Note the difference. The causes he enjoys bring him deep satisfaction, and he regularly devotes both time and money. But it also needs to be said that people take advantage of him, especially during that first year after he quit working. People assume that because you are retired you automatically have plenty of free time which they can freely draw upon. It's kind of like you just won the lottery, but with time instead of money, and everyone was just a little of that time, not much, you will hardly even miss it. This situation is compounded if you stay in the city you worked in. And maybe it's what you want. You still feel vital. Maybe it's right that you are now asked to do for free what you were once paid to do.

2. Each morning, the old men gather outside the Panera at one of the tables with an umbrella that does little to block the early sun. It is a bull session, I can tell as I walk past. Every morning it is a bull session. Whether it carries over from day to day, I can't tell. But what is clear is that, at this coffee and danish outpost situated in a strip mall among the retirement communities of Venice, Florida, is that the same pecking orders of middle school or high school continue once again when a bunch of men of similar age and background gather to debrief on their life of leisure.

There are the same blustering blowhards, the same once-athletes with stories of what once was. There is the same worry, should you choose to join this community: will I fit in? The common denominators are age, of course, plus a geographical background in either the Northeast or the Midwest, and a similar socio-economic status. After all, the condominiums of Venice are moderately priced. You can spend as much as you want, but you can settle quite comfortably for not too much over $100,000.

And, for me, at least, as I ponder my eventual option, there is an existential question: what happens down here if you don't play golf?

The social life is as all-encompassing as you want it to be: poolside chatting, organized events with pot-luck food and music from "back in your day," golf outings, day trips, meals in homes or at restaurants with friends, commisserating with your pal while your wives are at the beauty parlor, Spring Break visits from children and grandchildren, book groups.

And life is simple. In a condo, you aren't burdened with either the maintenance of a yard or a large home. You have a only a few rooms; you are comfortable, but overladen with possessions. The kitchen is small, so meals are simple. The fish and produce are fresh. A meat or fish cooked on the community grill with a salad and some bread just about does it.

There are dark sides to this dream. Not all of the elderly, not by a longshot, in places like Florida live in condos in restricted retirement communities. Many of them have to continue working, and so you see an unusual number of elderly working in Panera, in the grocery stores. Though you may be at the laundromat because your condo is under construction, there are plenty who do their weekly laundry there. Also, even if you live in a condo or town home with all of the organized social life and amenities, you still must grapple with the fact that the social mix changes year to year. Some people never come back, aren't physically able to. Come in as a young retiree and you will be shocked at the community turnover during a 10-year period, after which you won't be a young retiree anymore.

3. Arguably, a blend of Option #1 and #2 seems ideal. But think about the financial situation you'd have to be in, not only to own two homes, but also to have that portion of your retirement tied up in extremely unliquid real estate. If one of the two dwellings were not passed on to you, you'd have to have quite a chunk of change.

And, maybe, at some point, going to two places each year becomes as much of a routine as going to one place.

If you think that I have figured out my own plans, you're wrong. It's something that I've grappled with more and more each year, as I head to Florida for a getaway at a free, mother-in-law-owned condo in a retirement community where I get closer and closer to fitting in quite naturally. Florida is a fun place to go--sea, sun, sand, fish, wonderful produce, casual living, a recurring newness with each visit. But I've never been there for longer than two weeks, and usually during the summer when the town is less crowded because most retirees return north for the summer.

Still, what I do know is this: whatever choices we make about retirement, we need to make them long before we retire, perhaps long before we are ready. The money and the dwellings have to be in place. Or at least the money for the dwellings. And, to some extent, we really can't change our minds year to year. Maybe the best plan is to have one place, as a base of operations, so that from there we can go wherever we want to, or wherever we can or can't afford.

Retirement seems like a dream to many, but nothing could be more dependent on practical considerations. That you don't really want to think about.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Welcome to the Clown Car

The Dark - Ben Kyle (w/Ryan Adams) (mp3)
You Get What You Give - New Radicals (mp3)

You want new ideas? Be ready to create a new job title. You can’t make new things happen without new employees or big promotions. That’s my takeaway from this summer.

Our entire floor of administrators spent the summer visiting select schools to conversate and collect ways to build on and improve what we do. At the same time, committees of faculty and staff members met and set out action plans for the accreditation process our school must undergo this fall, a process that expects schools to evolve and adapt over time.

I’m a hopey changey kind of guy, and this kind of stuff excites the hell out of me.

All those trips, and all those committees, and all those fresh new ideas, and they all had one uniting common bond: A New Position. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout sex.

You want something more done? You want to ramp something up or revamp it? Create a new job description. Or appoint someone with a new title with mo’ money. Otherwise, it will never happen. That’s the universal innuendo of every task force and committee I’ve seen recently.

We’re all busy. Even those of us who aren’t that busy, whose days don’t stretch past 40 hours and whose 40-hour weeks aren’t the stuff of ulcerating stress and misery, whose days are regularly buffered with stops on Facebook or casual emails or a few clips of last night’s “Daily Show,” even those people are firmly convinced they’re busy. They could pass a lie detector test on it, because they truly believe it. Myself included.

When someone has an idea, and that idea points to more responsibility on our plate, our instantaneous reaction is, “Sorry. I’m busy.” We can’t help it. Because we are. Busy. Or we believe we are. At least when it’s our idea, we can sometimes squeeze in time for it... but only when we own the idea. Otherwise, fuhgiddaboutit.

Ironically, as a faculty and staff, we can’t figure out why our salaries aren’t going up. And we can’t figure out how tuition can keep rising, and student numbers can hold steady, yet there’s no income around for us to make mo’ money. (HINT: Maybe it’s because we keep identifying all these things that need to be done and insisting that new people have to be hired to do them. Our raises are going to add people to our ranks!**)

There’s no magic solution here. Few folks want more responsibility without more money or more power. That’s the way we are.

However, for us to implement even half of the ideas we as a school generated this summer, we’d apparently need to hire three to five more full-time people, who would require a budgetary investment of... what, at least $150-200,000, right? After the cost of benefits and other perks, even if the average salary was technically only $35-40,000?

Well, if we have a staff of 150, and we just threw $200k at new employees, not only have we potentially sacrificed $1k+ raises for each of us, but we’ve added three to five more people to the salaried population, which makes the next round of raises spread ever thinner.

Was it always like this?

Did cavemen sit in cavemen conferences and decide someone needed to tackle the velociraptor problem, and the only way to do it was to create a “Velociraptor Czar” job position and post the job on

I don’t think so. I think they took a look at what they were all doing. And if velociraptors deserved more energy, they figured out what deserved less, and they took from that. Cavemen probably had to conclude that some of the jobs they were doing weren’t nearly as important as “Velociraptor Czar.”

We as a society have increasingly lost the ability to give things up.

We’re hoarders. We hold onto things far beyond the point where it’s worth doing or keeping. And this is true with jobs as much as anything. If we as a school were completely honest, there are several positions in our ranks that are outdated concepts from an earlier era. Or jobs that used to take someone 40 hours a week now shouldn’t take more than 20, but that dude or lady ain’t about to admit she’s doing half a job for full-time wage.

And we like the people in those jobs. They probably took that new job description back in 1992 and worked it like gangbusters. And we don’t want to let them go, because we’re a tight-knit family. Kumbaya and shit. I get it.

But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t demand more salary for ourselves, demand new people to fill new perceived needs, and also demand that the family all stay together and no one breaks up the band. But hell, even the Beatles eventually had to cut Stu Sutcliffe.

New positions. Raises. Keeping the family in tact. Tuition that has already out-priced the market. Not even in America can all of these things remain comfortably crammed in the clown car. Something's gotta give.

* -- Well, it’s also going to support pension plans for retirees who have vastly outlived their expected expiration date, to health care plans that shoot up faster than Courtney Love, and to the ever-increasing costs of campus and building maintenance. But those aren’t as central to my point.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rehearsing Retirement, Pt. 1

Townes Van Zandt--"No Place To Fall" (mp3)

Among the many ironies concerning retirement, perhaps the greatest is that even though people will talk about wishing they "could retire right now" all the time, retirement is really something that they don't want to think about.

Count me as being no different. When I ponder retirement, and, at the end of a summer when part of me really doesn't want to go back to work, I'm not really talking about actual retirement, I'm talking about being much younger than retirement age and not having to work. The immediate attractiveness of the concept of retirement is the notion of not having to work while still at an age where you can take full advantage of life and (potentially) the entire world. But I'm talking about a pipe dream.

The reality is that you don't just decide that you are retiring one day and then stop working the next. You have to rehearse it. You have to think it through in your head. Otherwise, it will be nothing at all like you want it to be.

My father retired at age 58. And even at that point, he had left the corporate world a few years before in order to pursue his dream of owning his own business, in his case, a racquetball/fitness club in Pittsburgh with tennis courts and Nautilus machines and a bar and a "healthy" restaurant, with an outdoor pool and snack bar to boost the summer months. He ran the club for a few years, bought out unproductive partners, and then sold the whole thing for a nice profit before the bottom dropped out of the racquetball craze of the lat 70's.

Think about it: my parents retired when Ronald Reagan was President. My father is in his seventh presidential term of retirement. Those are a lot of unencumbered years.

I can't help but to reflect on that as I creep ever closer to that magical age. Retiring then has allowed him, so far, 27 years of retirement, including 17 with my mother before she succumbed to ovarian cancer. It is hard to look at his decision and not to celebrate it, to realize, once and for all, that retirement is a decision about time, not money. Some of us don't see a way to separate the two.

I also realize full well what a luxury that is. But, and here is the point, it is a luxury that he planned for. My father never made a tremendous amount of money, nor did he inherit all that much from his parents, a steelworker and his immigrant wife. But he always had the goal, and when he was able to step away from it all, he didn't hesitate.

I contrast that with friends of mine who won't even look at their 401K balances, who won't take an active role in fine-tuning the maximization of their own money.

Maybe it's teachers and the way our profession seems to shelter us from the real world, but I really think it's America right now. We feel like there are too many things beyond our control or at least there are just enough of those things that lead us to shut down and to give in to the abstract forces that we think have complete control of our lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If we don't take control, it isn't ultimately money that we are giving away--it's time. It's the time that money can buy. Yeah, the Beatles were undoubtedly right that money cannot buy love, but money can buy time in any number of significant ways. Whether you are buying years of freedom or years of health, you have the discretion, if you work at it, and yes, if you sacrifice, to step away on your own terms.

Because retirement is the last stage of life, it isn't something that we want to ponder in realistic ways. It's too easy to see the Hollywood version or to want to jump into the billboards we see on the drive down to Florida. Having made that drive many, many times over the past 26 years, I know what is behind those billboards.

NEXT TIME: What I Learned In Florida And How I Learned It

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Das Verbotene Wort

Sacrifice - Sinead O’Connor (mp3)
What Do You Want Me To Say? - The Dismemberment Plan (mp3)

A plague o' both your houses! -- Mercutio

America has forgotten what it means to sacrifice.

We think sacrifice is having to delay our retirement.
We think sacrifice is having to pay more for our own health insurance,
or to pay higher taxes,
or to get less welfare,
or to have your pension plan reduced,
or to lose a few million in a stock nosedive,
or to avoid maxing out another credit card.

Sacrifice used to mean something.

It used to mean a devoted man placing his young son on an altar and preparing to slaughter him merely because his deity demanded it of him. Or dropping everything -- every single thing -- to follow some wild-eyed long-haired Nazarene.

It used to mean a willingness to put one’s life at death’s finicky door in the support of what our country meant. From the earliest days of our country, men and eventually women willing to lose years of their young lives, possibly body parts, possibly their entire existences, for the noble cause of keeping some weird thing called The American Dream “alive.” Yes, they were willing to die for some dream other people can have. Not even real stuff. Just a dream. Just a silly ideal.

Only 11 years before I was born, an American President actually had the gall, the unmitigated gall, to tell his people they should ask not what their country could do for them, but rather, what they could do for their country. That poor man would never get elected today. He wouldn’t even get past Iowa straw polls.

Sacrifice as a real thing, as something with actual weight and import, is dead in America, and I’m not sure it can be revived.

Not to say all of us have lost it. Latino men who sneak across the border, who work for below-standard wages, who live in ramshackle hotels with three other men so that they can send a large portion of their meager earnings back to wives, children, families. These men know sacrifice. Naturally, we don’t as a society approve of them being here. They piss us off.

Soldiers still know sacrifice, although most of them have little sense of what they’ve offered until they’ve had to offer it, until they realize whatever has been sacrificed is gone forever.

The more politically engaged and opinionated you are, the more likely you’ve forgotten the meaning of sacrifice. Because I haven’t heard one politician talk about it. They can’t. They won’t get elected.

Sure, they might say the word, “sacrifice,” in stump speeches about taxes and entitlement programs and unemployment and crap. But they use “sacrifice” in the same way we use “annihilation” when we talk about football games that are 28-0.

When George Bush had the world’s sympathy and the country’s desperate ear, he could have warned us, begged us to prepare for sacrifice in light of 9/11, but instead he told us to go shopping.

Obama’s first approach to our frightening recession was to ask no one to sacrifice anything, but merely to generate higher spending levels so that everyone, rich and poor, could be numbed, so any chance of having to sacrifice anything substantial might be avoided at all costs.

I don't blame them. These men avoided making us sacrifice anything because we won’t dare allow them4. We would hate them forever. We might even do them harm.

It’s not just Presidents. Our Congressmen and -women, our Senators, they only talk about sacrifice when it’s about the people not voting for them. Democrats demand that the rich step up and make sacrifices good for the country by paying higher taxes. Republicans demand that the poor stop expecting freebies and sacrifice these “entitlements” as notions that we can no longer afford.

No one tells the people in their tents to sacrifice a damn thing. It’s all about what that other guy isn’t sacrificing that holds us all back.

We have become a nation of coddled, spoiled brats.

And I’m one of them. You need only see my reaction when my iPod freezes up a second time in a day, or when my chance to see the Foo Fighters in concert gets waylaid by professional obligations. I’m as pathetic as the rest of you. We suck, and we do it as one big whiny collective.

But here’s the hard truth. We either figure out a way to better grasp what real sacrifice is, and what it means, and what it requires of us, or the world will come and cash that check for us. It will force us to sacrifice things, and we won’t get to choose.

This has already begun, in small ways, during this recession, but it’s only going to get worse. If we can’t right our own ship, we’re going to get annihilated in ways that will make us wish we were still sitting around making fun of the Detroit Lions.

And hey, Ayn Rand, if you’re somewhere reading this, go screw yourself. Preferably not in any way you would remotely enjoy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

This Is Where The Summer Ends

Gillian Welch--"The Way The Whole Thing Ends" (mp3)

This is where the summer ends,

In a cloud of pure destruction,
No one wins.
--Ryan Adams

There is no more confusing time of year than the "end of summer." When is it? Or, better put, when is it for you?

It is a different date for almost everyone. In terms of calendar, summer hangs on until September 21st. On the traditional school calendar, it's Labor Day that marks the end. At the other end, for those involved with football, especially camp, the "summer," such as it is, may end as early as late July/early August. After that date, they're back at it. And in between are all of the different start-up dates for schools, colleges, year-round schools.

For those not involved in education, summer may indeed end after the requisite two-week vacation, whenever that is.

And yet, for those of us in teaching, the date is clear, obvious, perhaps even circled on the calendar. It is not the first day of school. That is for students. They have their own dreaded day. No, for us, it is the date when school duties clearly and officially overwhelm free time, when afternoon departures from work and free evenings are a thing of the past.

For me, that date was last night. A casual dinner for new faculty at the headmaster's home, free drinks, delicious food, good conversation. By all accounts, a nice time. And yet, I dreaded it all day yesterday, not for what it was, but for what it represented. The end of summer.

I know full well that for any number of reasons, pedalogical or otherwise, our current school calendar is "wrong." Originally built around farm work and harvests, it now seems to create a scenario where students forget everything they've learned over the long summer months, and so they return each year as empty vessels that must be refilled again. But it is also a chance for them to do different things--travel, work jobs, engage in different kinds of learning.

I'm also selfish. I love summer. The extended vacation is so much a part of the rhythm of my life that the thought of breaking it up to create a more efficient school year is something that I know I should embrace but that I hope doesn't happen until after I retire. Even though I've been "working" for a good bit of the summer, I still carried that vacation mentality to and from the job each day.

Simply put, the days are longer in the summer and the days are longer in the summer. Not only does the increased sunlight add a special lustre to each day, culminating in a late sunset, but we also work shorter hours, which means more of the day left for other things. Leaving work at 4PM is a joy; a minimum of a 7-8 hour days remains to do whatever we want--tinker in the garden, enjoy a leisurely meal, take a walk just for the heck of it, gather with friends. We're not racing to get food on the table. There are usually no particular obligations in the evenings, except those that aren't obligations, just things we want to do.

Ah, bliss. All of that has ended now.

As if nature somehow knew, the air has been cooler the past two mornings, the daily highs a few degrees lower than what we've struggled with all summer long. Whether due to drought or heat or simply being worn out, the grass has started to slow its growth.

But what about us? Those of us who live the school year circle of life have got to find the inspiration, have got to rev it up, have got to find our focus once again. The cruelest lesson in all of life is that summer is over. The greatest gift is that, like our students, we get to unlearn that lesson each year for nearly three months before we face it anew. Again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ode to Velma

Sunglasses at Night - Corey Hart (mp3)
Chains - Gatekeeper (mp3

Let’s just be clear. “Sunglasses at Night” is a stupid song.

If you want to go following your ex-girlfriend under cover of darkness, you don’t wear sunglasses. That’s a shitty disguise. You know why? Because it makes following your ex-girlfriend harder. Not to mention that, if your ex-girlfriend ever paid any attention to you at all, she is probably capable of recognizing you in a pair of friggin’ sunglasses.

I need to rewrite the song.
I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can so I can
See the people on the TV set

I wear sunglasses at night
So I can so I can
Keep track of stop signs on the street
Well, she looks blurry to me
She taps my insecurity
Is she holding a drink or a key?
I turn to her and say,

“I can’t read a damn thing without these oh no.
It’s real dark but at least I can see, oh no.
I can’t believe that
You think I’d wear these things by choice, oh no.
I lied and said they were broken Transitions oh no.”
Today marks two weeks without glasses. I wore them into the ocean. The ocean punished me, as it should have.

My two options, in the absence of my beloved glasses, have been simple: Velma or Corey Hart. I can either walk around whiny and say shit like “My glasses! My glasses! I can’t see anything without my glasses!” Or I can experience all things after dusk with several degrees less of light information than my fellow sight-enabled humans.

When driving down a dark road after midnight while wearing sunglasses, one can’t help but get philosophical.

Several times I’ve thought of the scene when Obi-Wan Kenobi is training Luke while they’re on the Millennium Falcon, and the wise geezer drops the blast shields down on Luke’s helmet.

“But... with the blast shields down, I can’t even see! How am I supposed to fight (or, in my case, drive).” And I hear Obi-Wan tell me that I shouldn’t trust my eyes because they can deceive me. That I must drive by stretching out my feelings.

And suddenly, I’m in my driveway! I’m safe and home! The Force is strong with this one.

Naturally, it’s a perfect time in my life to realize how much I take for granted. Little lenses in metal frames, capable of altering completely the way I view and interact with the world around me. Yet I’ve also been taking them off and going at it with blurry vision. And I’m constantly thinking of the great artists whose works altered as they went blind, yet often their impaired vision rendered their creations all the more unique and personal.

When you see the Monet’s Water Lillies, you see what his brain processed, how light actually entered and worked in his dying eyes. (Most things I’ve read believe his eyesight was quite healthy when he painted the Rouen Cathedral, which looks just as beautifully smudged and blurry as the water lillies, so I probably give his poor eyesight too much credit and his amazing talents too little.)

Seeing the world blurry is so... analog!!

We live in such a digital, high definition world, and I fetishize that existence as much as most anyone I know. But, once in a while, seeing the world the way nature intended me to see it at this stage in my life... it’s one more reminder of our technological marvels, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes seeing things unclearly creates its own beauty.

Blurred can be beautiful. Briefly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Idealist meets The Realist

Alina Simone--"Make Your Own Beautiful Machine" (mp3)

The idealist supports a political candidate because of the values that candidate preaches during the campaign.

The realist favors the candidate who seems like the best man or woman for the job, or maybe even the least bad, the one that he thinks will do the least damage.

The idealist sees the candidate that he wants to see, often ignoring clues that the candidate may actually not be that person.

The realist shrugs his shoulders in the knowledge that candidates will often adopt positions and say things and make promises in order to get elected.

When their candidate leads in the polls, the idealist sees that as a unifying mandate, a country coming together for a common cause to make their country better. The realist wonders what deals have been made with which constituencies and interest group to build such a base of support.

When their candidate wins the election, the realist becomes the idealist, at least briefly; the idealist becomes the zealot.

The idealist has dreams of amazing, principled people filling his candidate's cabinet or staff.

The realist watches as people important to the campaign are rewarded for their service with cabinet positions.

The idealist swoons at the speeches.

The realist is indifferent to the rhetoric.

The idealist is shaken by the changes in legislation from what he knows his leader values.

The realist acknowledges the art of the compromise.

The idealist turns bitter when the person he helped to elect either does not fulfill a campaign promise or even takes a counter position.

The realist reverts back to his cynical, perhaps jaundiced, view of politics.

The idealist sees his leader getting weaker.

The realist thinks that his leader was never particularly strong.

The idealist starts using labels that portray the leader in a negative light, branding him with the name of the other party, or comparing him to a previous failed leader, or worse.

The realist notes that the pressures of the next election all too soon.

The idealist withdraws his support.

The realist visualizes what will have to happen for the leader to get re-elected.

The idealist visualizes what should have happened, all of the wrong decisions and capitulations. The idealist becomes the realist.

The realist holds onto some, tenuous hope that enough good can still happen to outweigh the bad.

The idealist hears of a new candidate, someone who can really change the way things are. He begins to get excited, sees a new direction for his country, and hope for his children's future.

In a comfortable chair, the realist settles in with his books of Emerson and Thoreau, those idealists, reads until sleepy, then, armed with the reminder that only what is local matters, heads off to bed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Aerosmith's Armageddon

Nobody's Fault - Aerosmith (mp3)
Blame It On the Rain - Milli Vanilli (mp3)

[WARNING: I couldn't help but get a little loosw with the bad words on this one. Read no further if you don't appreciate a few healthy F-words in your eyes.]

In 1987, Aerosmith released Permanent Vacation, the album that would bring the dawn of their second birth. When the band appeared with Run D.M.C. in 1986 for the remake of “Walk This Way,” my friends and I thought they were punchlines to some joke. I wasn’t familiar with Aerosmith, and Steven Tyler looked like some science project where some kid mated an anaconda with a hairless lemur.

My friends and I mocked “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” mercilessly. But... but it was kinda catchy. Then the super-ballad “Angel” came out, and we kept making fun of them. Then “Rag Doll” came out, and we totally mocked that song every time it came on. But we never seemed to turn the channel when the video played. We watched.

By PUMP, we were genuine fans sans irony. "Janie's Got a Gun" was the song that finally convinced me to buy the CD, and video auteur David Fincher deserves some of the credit.

Yet even as I grew to like them, I never quite grasped Aerosmith's place in '70s rock history until they reproduced and released the naughty “Sweet Emotion” video and their Pandora’s Box set in 1991. A classmate made a "Best of Aerosmith" mixtape for me, and it got heavy, healthy rotation.

I remained intensely loyal to their CDs through Nine Lives, an overlong album with a handful of songs I still love. Hell, I’ll even admit to being somewhat fond of the damn Armageddon song until Lauren Alaina drove me to despise it.

“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is the only Number One hit Aerosmith ever had.

Mull on that fact for a minute. Swish it around in your mind.

Aerosmith. Fucking Aerosmith, man! They had one single Number One hit. And it was the cheesy-ass ballad for a cheesy-ass action movie.

What does it mean, that the only way these guys hit the very top was by singing a song written by the same woman who wrote for Laura Branigan and Starship?

Diane Warren wrote hit songs for Toni Braxton, Celine Dion, Leann Rimes, Michael Bolton, Milli Vanilli... and Aerosmith.

Don’tcha think that just has to bug the shit out of a self-respecting band?

A band that was no stranger to top 10 hits, sold-out arenas, and all the fame and trappings of success, yet they get their first chart-topper by falling in line with Celine fucking Dion and Milli fucking Vanilli?!?

Truly, the gods are cruel. For a group who had seen just about every rock soap opera storyline imaginable, would they ever have envisioned a scenario where their band was finally destroyed by a Number One hit?

Yet here we are in 2011, and Aerosmith has only had one legitimate  album of new work in the 21st Century, and it was a full 10 years ago. Their latest has been stuck in suspended animation alongside Chinese Democracy and Duke Nukem, neither of which were one-bajillionth worthy of the wait or the hype surrounding them.

Maybe they just couldn't ever come back from all the drugs of their first peak. They wrote almost all their own songs in the '70s, but by Permanent Vacation, they were using professional songwriters to help them on almost every hit, and this dependence kept getting more extreme until they totally sold their identity to Diane Warren.

How miserable that must have been, to sign on the devil's dotted line, to accept selling out completely, and to be rewarded with that last extra notch of fame and money.

It was, aptly, Aerosmith's Armageddon. With that song, Aerosmith became rock’s Thulsa Doom, and their head’s been rolling down the stairs ever since. Bands just don’t really come back from that kind of beheading very often.

I’m cheering for them, though.

Anyone who saw Steven Tyler perform during American Idol should at least have the temerity to admit that what makes for great rock music has only a smidgen to do with operatic vocal talents and everything to do with charisma and conviction. Steven Tyler, even a wrinkly sold-out version of him, is a bajillion times the performer Lauren or Scotty will ever, ever, ever, ever be. Ever.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder... If that song from Armageddon had never become a hit, if it just muddled past us, mostly ignored, would they have survived? Did a hit they didn’t deserve push them off the cliff? Or were they already headed that way at high speed, having already sold off most of their soul, and I’m just too in love with an easy-come pop hook to accept it?

Some would claim they died after Rocks and never really came back, that it was a ghost-like imitation of the band that enjoyed revived fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Not me, but maybe that’s just because I fell in love with their ghost first, and when I fell for them, I never cared much about who wrote the shit so long as it sounded good.

Regardless, if you have even modest appreciation for ‘70s hard rock and haven’t heard or owned Rocks, you’re missing out. I can’t wait ‘til Joe and Steven sit down and listen to their first five albums and work up the voodoo energy for one more album. I hope they start from scratch. No one needs another Chinese Democracy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Let's Go Get It!

Radiohead--"Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong" (mp3)

It's hard to get to everything you want to get to when you're in New Orleans. The travel, the heat, the night before can all convince you that your time is best spent in a dark, cool room. But, last Saturday, I think we nailed it. We were down there for one of our typical whirlwind trip, Friday to Sunday, were kind of out of sorts on Friday, and, knowing we had to hurry back on Sunday, were determined to make Saturday as full a day as possible.

People, like my father, who know how often we like to go to New Orleans, always wonder what we do while we're there. Here's how we did it on this day:

7:30 AM Out of bed, over protests of older daughter.

8:15 AM Wife's first cup of tea must be from "the most civilized place in the world," the Croissant D'Or, which steams the milk perfectly, so we start the 13 block trek to the lower quarter. Yes, we know the hotel has a free breakfast, but why, in this city?

8:31 AM Older daughter wants to eat before we get to the Croissant D'Or, our typical breakfast location, claiming "I want some real breakfast." We duck into the Camelia Grill's newish outpost in the French Quarter for a "snack." It is here that I learn, or rather remind myself, that there is no greater sandwich than a BLT, perfectly-cooked as the Camelia does it, and now discover as well that it makes for a great breakfast.

9:17 AM Arrive at Croissant D'Or for perfect cafe au lait and Earl Grey tea and a rasberry croissant for my wife. Bliss. The restaurant has changed owners, has a crisp new vibe, and was full of Italian tourists who must have been very pleased with the top-notch European offerings.

9:48 AM It's just a quick walk over to the French Market with its fruits and open-air restaurants and vendors selling everything from jewelry to junk. You never know what you'll end up with here, but as the heat begins to take its toll and my t-shirt sticks to me, the air-conditioned bathroom is the finest offering in the market on this day, along with a few kitschy decorations for the basement.

10:30 AM Walking the many blocks toward Canal Street, stopping in at the Central Grocery to get two muffulettas for two big fans of this sandwich back home. Sure, they're everywhere now, even at chain sandwich restaurants, but they never quite taste like or get the proportions right like the original ones. Especially with a bag of Zapff's Chips.

11:01 AM Stop in a needlepoint and sewing store, where my wife gets a few New Orleans-related patterns

11:35 AM Drop some major cash for my wife's birthday at Lucullus, her favorite French antique kitchen store (are there others?). We come away with a beautiful old bread board and a coffee bowl. And reassurance from the manager that we made the right decision putting in marble countertops. My wife compliments him on having lost weight. He beams. We are regulars.

11:50 AM Five minutes in hotel room to change clothes and try out the button-down cotton shirt theory. Almost immediately, I can tell it will work.

12:00 PM Lunch at Cafe Adelaide, a hotel restaurant owned by the Commander's Palace group. Among the things we order: Shrimp and tasso "corn dogs," a bacon, lettuce, and tomato and egg po-boy, an absinthe burger, a Brandy Milk Punch. Then the manager shows up with a cute drink holder and says, "Because you're first timers and because you made your reservation on, we'd like to give you these complimentary drinks. This is our signature cocktail, the Swizzle Stick." Well, I guess so. I guess we'll take those. And whooee are they good!

1:10 PM We get the car from the restaurant valet, driving away from the Quarter for Magazine Street, the hippest street in New Orleans. As my daughter says, "It's where the local girls shop."

1:17 PM First stop, though, is still on Tchoupatoulis St.: Cochon Butcher. I stop here every time I come to New Orleans. For me, much of my love of New Orleans is what I can bring back home, and here I bring back huge logs of andouille sausage and boudin. "Butcher" is a thriving little hole-in-the-wall next to its parent restaurant, Cochon, namesake of one of my favorite cookbooks. It is packed with hip people enjoying their clever drinks and innovative bar food and sandwiches.

1:32 PM Drop my daughter at Rue De La Course coffee shop, where she met up with a college friend who is doing a two-year stint with Teach For America in New Orleans. Drop my wife at Bremermann Designs, her favorite New Orleans decorator, while I wait in the car. You can tell, by now, that I am like a master conductor, coordinating everyone's desires and themes with great finesse!

1:58 PM Walk into the beautiful Whole Foods outpost on Magazine Street, which reignites my consternation over the miserable quality of Chattanooga grocery stores. Even though we supposedly have a Whole Foods now (the Greenlife), it ain't nuthin' like this. Cherry samples, wine samples, cheese samples, and, out of nowhere, a huge pile of New Mexico green chiles for 99 cents a pound. We buy several pounds and some soap and start the return trip back down Magazine towards the Quarter. I will be charring them and freezing them. Oh, yes, and bathroom. Never turn down the chance to use the bathroom in New Orleans. You never know when you might see another one.

2:22 PM Yep, amazingly, another grocery store, this time Breaux Mart. I'm that weird person who likes to go into local grocery stores in cities I'm visiting to see what they have that's different. While my wife shops at Tomato, across the street, I come away from the Breaux Mart with fresh crab, tasso ham, cane sugar vinegar, a local tomato sauce, four different kinds of Abita beer, and ice to keep it cold for the trip home. It has become outrageously hot; I am relatively cool in my cotton shirt.

2:48 PM Park the car, making sure to pay the parking, since the meter readers on Magazine hid in the bushes. Meet daughter and her college friend, exchange pleasantries, receive casual invite to the night's big party, White Linen, where everyone wears white, buys drinks, and walks in and out of all of the open art galleries in the Warehouse District. Someday, New Orleans, some day.

3:15 PM We're in Funky Monkey, looking at vintage clothing. We get a "Real Housewives of N'awlins" t-shirt for my daughter who stayed home and in honor of the housewives we saw at supper the night before at One restaurant. In case you're wondering, ladies, white pants are in. White pants are what all the real housewives wear out for a casual evening. We hit a number of the other boutiques. My wife is convinced she needs some white pants.

3:52 PM Driving back toward Canal Street, my wife and daughter have one more place they want to shop. I am done. I drop them off, drop the car off with valet, take all of the perishable foods and the cooler with me up to the room

4:30 PM I take the Dixie beers I had meant to take home and ice them down in the room. It is pleasant to sit in the room with a Kindle, playing their latest free word game, while sipping on the Dixies and watching the late afternoon crowds pass by below my window.

6:15 PM They call about supper. They are hungry. We have no plan. I get out my phone and start looking. We know and love a number of neighborhood joints outside the Quarter, but I do not feel like getting the car out again. They return to the room. They commandeer the other Dixies. I don't care. I find us a place. Ah, New Orleans.

7:00 PM Step out into the evening. All around, the heat has tempered only slightly, if at all. You can feel the gathering energy of a Saturday summer evening in the French Quarter, people beginning to mass, cars having to be patient with the crossing crowds on Canal. It's a brief walk over to Dauphine. To get there, you have to cross Bourbon, which is already as full as an airport the day before Thanksgiving. But with drinks.

7:15 PM Walk into Deanie's Seafood, on the far side of Bourbon Street. New place for us, though I think we'd been to their original location in Bucktown. The place is packed, outside of it is packed, across the street is packed, but we decide to wait. They have schooners of beer and there are people to watch, and Marshall Faulk is being inducted into the Hall of Fame and people are camped out everywhere and Deanie's has a casino downstairs for your pleasure while you wait, and, later on, when my women get to hungry, I happily volunteer to stroll back to Bourbon, where I get them a slice of cheese pizza and me a fresh beer and I wander back and the wait feels faster than it should and then the pager buzzes.

8:47 PM Get seated. Upon being seated, the waitress brings a bowl of boiled red-skinned potatoes. That's right. Boiled perfectly and sprinkled with a hot, spicy, salty mix and served with a bowl of butters.

9:22 PM We are served crab-stuffed flounder, a quartet of crawfish dishes, and a piled of fried shrimp. Perfectly fried, I might add. They stay crispy; there is not a drop of grease anywhere. With excellent dill tartar sauce to dip them in. The french fries? Who needs them? And followed by one piece of coconut custard bread pudding and three spoons that finishes off meal.

9:45 PM Just off Bourbon, there is a ruckus across the street from Acme Oyster House. A street musician set up under a balcony has been getting water dumped on him all night by the men who live above, and this time it has caused some damage and officials are headed up to take care of it. We talk to several bystanders to get the story, lament with them, and keep going. Typical foolishness.

9:53 PM We are on Canal Street, walking back to our hotel. A "party bus" roars by, all decked out and leading with its slogan, "Let's Go Get It."

Yes, we know the night is young and that there is more to get, but we are finished. We have to get up at 5AM drive back to Chattanooga. But, we feel like that was our slogan for the day, too. How many days are there, how many perfect days when every member of the family is happy and happily tired, together and all at the same time, for both the same and different reasons?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Hills and Pedal Steel Guitars and Rose Gardens and Forgotten Treadmills

Centro-matic--"Only In My Double Mind" (mp3)

I have a neighbor. He has a hill. The hill, really it's more of an embankment, rises on the back corner of his property, facing the street. It has a stone wall running beneath it. But the hill itself, at times, has been a bit of an eyesore, or probably feels that way if you are the one who owns the hill. It's a sunny spot and weeds take to it, and even if you clear those weeds away and smile at your hill in satisfaction, they will return quickly.

My neighbor has tried planting the hill with various ornamental shrubbery. He has built various small rock gardens on it as a way of helping to tame the space. Most of all, he and his wife can be seen bent over on the hill on many summer evenings, trying to get control of the hill with pairs of gloves and a lot of pulling and piling of weeds into a wheelbarrow. This year, they have installed a wrought iron fence to run behind it, perhaps for contrast, perhaps to try to further contain the hill.

So far, nothing has really worked, at least not as a long-term solution. I watch from my window, and I want to walk out and let them know that they are wasting their time, that no amount of back-breaking labor is going to give them the hill. But I don't. I keep it to myself. When my neighbor points out an area of progress or a bush that is flowering on the hill, I respond with compliments.

I have a friend who wants to learn the pedal steel guitar. He has purchased one. He has been taking lessons. I have been to see his pedal steel guitar. It sits set up in his music room and I have been invited more than once to sit behind it and to have a go at it. I have done so.

But it is an unwieldy thing, with more guitar strings than I'm used to, tuned differently than a normal guitar. It does indeed have a couple of pedals that influence the sound, and, beyond that, a number of levers that you have to control with your knees to bend strings, shift keys, get a vibrato sound.

All in all, it is way too much for me. I know the amount of time that I would have to put into such a thing in order to gain even minimal competence with it is time that I don't have, or at least don't have the inspiration or initiative to take even one note, one step, down that path. I realize fully that my friend will never learn to play the pedal steel. Though learning never ends, by the time you hit your fifties like me, the ways that you can learn, the speed with which you can pick things up, the ability to train your muscle memory--all of those things are diminished. My friend is considerably older than I am.

But I never tell him that he should give up the pedal steel, never tell him that I think that his time would be better spent doing x. And I know that he must look across the street more often than not at the happenings and projects going on at my house and shake his head. He is baffled, I know, at my inability to maintain a lawnmower. He has to notice the overgrown rose garden or the various attempts I've made to sneak in a vegetable garden here or there with a lot of watering and pretty meager results.

If I tell him that I've started running or that we've joined a health club or that we've bought a treadmill, he seems pleased and offers words of encouragement, but when it becomes clear, through lack of discussion, if nothing else, that those endeavors have been shut down or pushed aside, he never says anything.

And that's the thing. To navigate our daily lives, the last thing that we want to do is to point out another's folly. Well, okay, the second to last thing. The last thing that we want to do is to have our folly pointed out to us. This is generally a good thing. It allows us to enjoy comfortable, companionable relationships and to be supportive of each other with issues large or small.

But it does make it very difficult to be straightforward and truthful if the circumstances call for it. As we all know, suddenly telling someone what you really think, finally asking the question you've wanted to ask for years, letting your friend know that you think he's pretty much a conspiracy nut, these are all mines in the minefield of friendship which, if exploded, can do great damage to same.

It make me wonder: which life should we be constantly preparing for? The comfortable daily life with its gentle jabs and easy alliances, the slights healed with a beer or a quick compromise, the shared disappointments of jobs and ambitions? Or, should we be preparing for the difficult times when we have to make hard choices and to say or do things that we never thought that we would have to say or do, put friendships on the line and take risks with a future we previously saw smoothly mapped out?

I would argue that it is impossible to prepare for both simultaneously. The latter requires a daily intensity that makes it tough for other people to be around you. You want to debate moral choices and confront situations while your friends want to talk S.E.C. football. The former will make you popular, but will likely leave you floundering in superficial waters when a real commitment of values is called for. What happens in those times when someone wants to know what you really think, not just what you carefully avoid saying?

All I know is that, the older I get, the more hills and pedal steel guitars and rose gardens and forgotten treadmills are gathering in my mind, those, of course, being only minor examples of what's really important and unspoken and growing. The mind is infinite in many ways, but not in its ability to hold back truth. I realized this from spending time with the elderly in Florida the past two weeks. Sometimes to a fault and sometimes quite humorously, the elderly often say whatever they think, with little editing. They can't help doing so. By that time, there's simply too much there.